Back in the tumultuous days of 1975 the progressive rock movement was in full flight. At that time, considering the amazing array of artwork that graced record album covers, it was often the case that one might explore a new band based on the strength of the package. Such was the case for me with the band Gryphon, and their third album Red Queen to Gryphon Three. The music was as fantastic as implied by the sumptuous cover painting by Dan Pearce – an older man contemplating his chessboard in a pastoral scene recalling the Renaissance era.
Gryphon recorded 5 albums from 1971-1977, each with a slightly different contemporary take on traditional English folk music including medieval and Renaissance sounds, and original compositions, which blended traditional instruments like bassoon, crumhorn, recorders and mandolin, with modern electric bass, guitar, and keyboards. This album was my introduction to the band.
Being from California, I never had the chance to see the group ply their trade live, though I was well aware they opened for Yes in Britain and on the east coast in 1975. Recently, to our great excitement, we booked tickets to see Gryphon this May in England, as they have reformed and are staging a short tour for the first time in 39 years.
I had the chance to talk with David Oberle, drummer, percussionist, and vocalist for Gryphon about their history including their rare live performances:
Gryphon had 5 incarnations effectively – every album was so different. I’ve played albums to people who thought there were different bands! There was a natural progression, as we developed the band. The first album Gryphon (1973) established us. The music we wrote for a Tempest performance was to form the basis of Midnight Mushrumps (1974). That second album maybe appeared inaccessible to a lot of people who had liked our first one – not only do you need to have an appreciation of more classically based music you might need to be a musician to really understand it!
The title track, Midnight Mushrumps, was performed at the Old Vic in July 1974 – the only rock concert ever held at Britain’s National Theatre – is there a recording of that show?
This was a wonderful opportunity. Our publicist at the time Martin Lewis does have the master, recorded on four track, though over a period of time tapes disintegrate – he plans to see if we can get it digitized – we probably have only one run at it before the tape falls apart! There is an old cassette of it, but only good enough for a reference. It is of historic interest as it’s true – we were the only band to ever play at the Old Vic. When we did the Queen Elizabeth Hall show in 2009, Sir Peter Hall, who had directed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “The Tempest” at the Old Vic, attended, which was a huge honor.
After this, you released Red Queen to Gryphon Three, which seems your most progressive album, complete with Moog synth leads and electric bass, and you toured with Yes
The tour in support of Yes began back when Red Queen to Gryphon Three just came out. We were a good balance for them because we were very English but very different from them. They had been great heroes of ours for a long time. The connection there was that Richard and Brian were at The Royal College of Music at the same time as Rick Wakeman and he introduced us to the Yes management and that’s how we got the gigs. The tour we opened for them was in support of their Relayer record, with Patrick Moraz on keyboards. We played for about 45 minutes a set list typical of the time – tracks from the first three albums. In the states, we made it to the east coast but not the west.
Red Queen to Gryphon Three, our third, was probably the most accessible of our albums, and most of the time the one people mention. The prog rock scene here and in America was beginning to open up, and audiences were growing. We were friends with the Yes guys and were influenced by what they were doing – but we also wanted to keep the instrumentation different. When we originally toured America I think there was an interest in what we were doing with the more traditional instruments. Richard and Brian were classically trained. As the band went on, what Graeme and I were doing came more to the fore. When we got Phil Nestor on bass the thing began to shift. Before then we had effectively no bottom end – Brian was playing bassoon and that with the bass drum was the low end. All of the sudden we introduced electric bass and the whole sound just exploded and took it to something completely different.
A reader survey here in the UK a couple years ago in classic rock magazine put Red Queen at number 5 in the top 100 prog albums of all time – it’s a shame the sales did not reflect that but its nice when something like that happens because it means its not just the older people who are interested – Classic Rock magazine has a reasonable spread of ages in the readership – so its nice to see it come to the attention of new listeners. I hope we can perpetuate that.
Your final release, Treason, in 1977 took even more of a rock direction, but marked the end of the band at that time.
The story behind Treason was that Brian Lane, who was Yes’s manager at the time got us signed by Clive Davies to Aritsta Records in the States. Raindance (1975) our fourth was a bit of a mish-mash and really went nowhere. We got out of the contract with Transatlantic and signed with EMI Harvest in the U.K. Treason was produced by Mike Thorn – he was responsible for getting the Sex Pistols signed to EMI, so enough said! That was when the whole punk thing came in and ran over so many bands here and in the states. Suddenly there was this new music – it was a different approach, a different way. People didn’t want to go to stadiums and see bands with dry ice and everybody dressed in up in costumes and things flying around stage. It was just four guys and a light bulb and that was it. It flattened a lot of bands. We hadn’t ticked up to the size of audience where we could survive it. Bands like Yes, King Crimson and Genesis – they were already there – they were established and kept their following. Maybe if we started a year earlier, we might have made it. Also, all 5 of our albums were different and some fans did not follow us through all of them. Someone who liked our debut album might not like Treason. In the 70’s we literally had nuns sitting next to Hell’s Angels in the audience – it was seriously diverse!
Tell us about the new tour and what we might expect from the current lineup.
We are spreading the word now for the new tour – the last proper tour was 39 years ago. Some of the people who will come to this concert weren’t even born when we started. What you will see with this version of Gryphon is us going back to our roots. We will have the prog influences but we will steer away a bit from the electric side of our work and focus on the acoustic.
We know a lot of the audience are “silver surfers” that are our age, but if you look at the web stats, there are guys 15-24 years olds telling us they found our records in their dad’s collection and are looking forward to seeing us. It’s medieval meets the 20th century!
There are a couple of video clips of the 2009 show – any plans to record a concert?
The reason we did not film the show last time was the steep fees we would have faced from the venue. Now we are thinking of recording the Union Chapel gig. There a lot of comments on our site from the states and other locations –people who can’t come – and if we can manage it, a film would be a way to get the show to them. The editing and production can be very costly, so we will see. We are going out and playing 200-300 seat theaters – I don’t know if it’s the same in America but these days its getting really difficult to get people out to see bands. We have to reinvent ourselves.
The other situation is that Richard spends a lot of his time writing, and is doing very well – he does not need to play with Gryphon for the pay – he is in LA for 5 weeks recording for Disney, and he lives 6 months of the year in Thailand. Consequently we get a limited window. Gryphon was really his band – his idea from the start. This has made it difficult to put together new material and perform live. The change in concert really came when we invited multi-instrumentalist Graham Preskett to play with us. He is a long-standing friend of the band and he’s added a huge amount to the new lineup. With him there we can almost recreate Midnight Mushrumps perfectly. After 40 years we’ve all gone off and done stuff and come back again – the musical core of knowledge we have now has increased tremendously. All of us are dragging along a history behind us that we did not have when Gryphon first kicked off. Back in the 70’s when we were creating it we were really just a bunch of hoodlums (laughs) so with 40 years of experience you start to learn a few new tricks.
Gryphon will be playing the following dates on this tour:
12th May – Wolverhampton Robin 2
– Website: http://www.therobin.co.uk/whats_on/?m=201505
– Tel: 01902 401211
13th May – Milton Keynes Stables
– Website: http://www.stables.org/Whats_on/Event/Gryphon
15th May – Haslemere Hall, Bridge Road, Haslemere, Surrey. GU27 2AS
– Website: http://tickets.haslemerehall.co.uk
– Tel: 01428 642161
17th May – Hertford Corn Exchange
(Gryphon special guests to Fairport Convention)
– Website: http://www.reallylivemusic.com
– Tel: 07904 333923 (Enquiries:10am-6pm, Mon-Sat)
20th May – Southampton Talking Heads
– Tel: 02380 678 446
29th May – London Union Chapel
– Website: http://store.unionchapel.org.uk/events/29-may-15-gryphon-union-chapel
In total there are six gigs. There are complaints we are not going north past Birmingham, but we would have liked to. We will try these dates and if it works, the agent will have the ammunition he needs to go north, based on the reviews and attendance.
We’ve decided to do this tour because there’s something going on – our web traffic says there is real interest (210,000 hits to date) and traffic to the Facebook page is increasing. We just did an interview for Record Collector, so even the press is picking up on the story. We will present Gryphon to fans and hopefully gain some new friends along the way.
After a very long wait we will be coming over from San Francisco to see the first night of the tour in Wolverhampton. It promises to be a special night – if you are not aware of Gryphon, check them out, then climb out of that comfy chair, and make it to one of these gigs!