MAHA DEV QUINTESSENCE Q&A
Quintessence rhythmn guitarist Maha Dev was an integral part of the band’s sound and composer of one of the Band’s best tunes – “Vishnu Narayan” on Dive Deep – as well as being a talented fine artist. The leap from being art lecturer to fully blown rock musician might seem an unusual,but hey this was the sixties. Besides, Stingdid pretty much the same thing a few years later. Ousted from the Band along with Shiva in 1972, Maha Dev, now back to being Dave Codling, looks back on those heady days with fondness and good humour. Last year, he survived a serious heart problem and now proudly boasts he has a replacement teflon aorta (good name for a band if ever there is one). Speaking to the Prof, Dave related his musical journey.. Edited highlights follow:
JOINING THE BAND
So why did you join Quintessence?
Richard, my brother-in-law of the time lived next door to me at Blenheim Crescent, Ladbroke Grove (Richard became Gopala, the artist who painted the excellent album covers for Quintessence), and I noticed that some Australian hippies had moved in to one of the flats. I was commuting at the time to St Albans to work as an art teacher but I was fed up with the travel. But I had a wife and two kids, so I needed the job. Anyway, Richard one day rang me up and told that I’d better bring my guitar over as the Australians were forming a band and they were looking for members.
So you did not know Shiva before?
No, I did not know him from Adam. So I went along and was really impressed by what I saw and heard. They were looking for maybe another vocalist and a rhythmn guitarist. But they could all play! I’d been playing guitar for 15 years in all sorts of styles, but I was certainly no Eric Clapton. But, anyway, they offered me the job of rhythmn guitarist. And I took it, and my wife said “what?!”.
But success then came pretty quickly..
Yes it did, around 6 weeks later we were rehearsing in a fish and chip shop when Chris Blackwell, (Island records supremo) and Muff Winwood (soon-to-be legendary producer working with, among others, Shania Twain) came to listen and they offered us a recording contract.
Just like that?
Well, we already had a lot of interest, there was a buzz going around that we were the new underground band and Raja Ram had already had his face in Time Out (then a counter-culture listings magazine). Plus we had also been gigging.
So the first gigs were good?
We had a fantastic reaction right from the first time we played. We played at the Roundhouse twice and brought the place down. So even before we signed for Island, we had quite a few record companies hanging around trying to sign us. We had Ian Samwell from Warner Reprise, for example (then the label of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention) who would take us out to veggie restaurants for dinner and generally hung out with us. But we were firm about what we wanted.
The Roundhouse gigs were the first?
We played the Camden Arts Lab before that – where the hippies hung out. This was in an old lecture hall, and the first time we played there the place was full, and then we were invited for the ext week, and word had got out. The place was packed!
Back to the Roundhouse. Why were the gigs so memorable? What happened?
I remember particularly Allan opening out on lead guitar, and me and Jake created this unusual sound, the cymbals coming together with the rhythmn guitar which created something like an electric shock wave.. then on top of that you had Shiva singing and Raja Ram banging the tambourine or playing the flute. It was a magic moment. We created this improvised wall of sound.
But you must have had songs even at the earliest gigs?
Yes. We had things already like “Giants”, Pearl and Bird” and Gangamayi. We also did a Doors tune – “People are Strange”, I think.
So Island provided the right contract?
Yes. One thing we really wanted for example was control over the album covers, which Chris Blackwell offered us. So we got our advance, and a van, and also at the same time signed with Nems (Brian Epstein’s old booking agency) so quite quickly we were doing 5 gigs a night.
So you begin to gig in the summer of 1969. What about recording?
My memory is that we gigged a bit, recorded tracks for the album, and gigged some more in between.
How did you all get to know each other?
Well, like many bands of that time, we would bond spending nights together, and drugs were of course a part of it. We’d all bond, partying or maybe playing music, writing songs and just hanging out.
So there were no personality clashes from the beginning?
Nothing like that. We got on really well together is my memory. We were different, yes, but we were all cool with each other.
The Quintessence story is not complete without mention of Swami Ambikananda. What do you remember of your first meeting with him?
I knew about Indian Gurus – everyone did in those days – but I wasn’t really into it myself before I met Swami-ji. He was a great person, really intense. I think he gave me my spiritual name Maha Dev when I first met him. One time he told me I had been a fighter pilot in a former life who had died in a crash and a fire.
Did this ring any bells, so to speak?
Well, not really. But I’ve never been afraid of fire, and my dad was a fireman in the second world war. But this kind of thing Swami-ji would say only after he got to know you. I remember for example he told everyone in the band that they should stop smoking. But he said about me “Mahadev MUST smoke”! So I remember in the back of the van smoking away, a few band members would sometimes come back and give me little nudges to get a drag or two.
How did it feel when the first album was released?
It felt great. It was like.. “nice one”. John Barham played a really important part as a producer. He took over because the original producer couldn’t handle it. We weren’t like a regular rock and roll band. We knew we had a sound, we had a band, but we also sounded like nothing else so we had no one to copy. Things took off as soon as we got John Barham. John was a friend of Raja Ram, I think. He knew what to do, in the studio and how to arrange songs. He was really crucial.
And what are your memories of Stanley Barr, your first manager?
He was a great guy and I’m sorry he passed away.
PLAYING IN THE BAND
One of the criticisms levelled at the band was a lack of rehearsal and looseness on occasion.
This is true. But this was part of it. But from my understanding of it, we got to a point where we just played by starting at the beginning and reaching the end. Yes, we would have songs with verses and a bridge but in between would be a no-man’s land and we would allow things to happen. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it would not, and when it worked, sometimes we’d work something to death. We’d have gigs where we were not so great, and then have a great gig. I always said to myself we were only as good as the last gig. Such fantastic music was played, and it’s lost now. Only parts of what we had appear on record.
There’s a sort of protocol about leading bands and who jams next.. how did this all work out?
Raja Ram did like to play his flute, but it was his band after all. We worked it out. Sometimes we were very inconsistent.
What happened if the jams fell apart?
Shiva could whip up the crowd and would start chanting, and we would all join in on various percussion instruments, and we would keep it going. Shiva wouldmove around a lot and work the crowd, and Raja Ram did this as well. Raja Ram had as well as his flute a whole load of bells, things like Tibetan temple bells. We had such a lot of interaction, and without egos being involved as to who was upstaging whom.
What can you remember about Europe?
We certainly played Germany and Switzerland, places like Heidelburg and Frankfurt, mostly at colleges and city halls, that kind of thing. Yes, we also played in the French rock and roll circus near Rouen, which was like a big top with fire eaters, gymnasts and bands. Caravan I think played at this gig as well.
Surely there couldn’t have been that many hippies when you played your 1971 tours of Northern English cities like Newcastle and Manchester?
Well, they always appeared. They always seemed to come to our gigs. I remember in that tour filling in for the Kinks at one gig who failed to appear, so we played twice and got paid twice which was nice.
What songs did you come to enjoy the most?
Giants, Gangamayi.. it would come to a point where it all began to merge together, and songs would modulate from one to another.
DROPPING THE PILOT
Come 1971 the band dropped Stanley Barr and hired Bill Shepherd as manager. What do you remember of him?
He looked like Al Pacino in a sharp suit and he drove these sports cars. He was skinny, very business-like. He was the one who organized the Cathedral Tours in 1972 which took us all over the place. When I left the band, Circle management said “hey there’s this new band ELO. Do you want to join?” But I was already committed to Kala at that point.
Why did the Island record deal end?
Well in part it was because of the limited sales of “Dive Deep”. And we just did not have a single, which would have got us on Notting Hill Gate and given us more exposure. Because we weren’t on Top of The Pops, no one remembers us.. so I can’t understand why we are so popular now. All those bands of the time ..Quiver, If, Steamhammer, the Egg, they needed hit singles. We certainly wanted one, and I remember trying to write a hit single. “Cosmic Surfer” would have made a great single. Then we turned down the offer Island records had negotiated with Bell records to go over to the states. Shiva and I voted for it, the others turned it down. When we signed to RCA we got a good advance and I remember buying a Gibson 335 Sunburst guitar with the money I got.
FILLING THE ALBERT HALL
A highlight in the band’s history was the Albert Hall gig of December 1971. What was that like?
Well it was extraordinary. I remember the dressing rooms which were great, and that we had a cook backstage which was unusual in those days. We played great, the ashram choir was there. At the end it turned out that the president of RCA records was there and he wanted us to do the same show over in Carnegie Hall, New York. We’d played the Albert Hall before, supporting Creedence Clearwater Revival.
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