December 11, 2009

The National Balkan Ensemble a.k.a. The Third Ear Band: another mystery cleared up.

1. Web miracles 
Around the Spring of 2005, on a pair of Web sites ( and, emerged an obscure Sixties album of such The National Balkan Ensemble, "the Third Ear Band in incognito!" as someone wrote. Firstly, having worked for many years to the reconstruction of band's history and having ignored the existence of it, my first reaction was incredulity and skepticism: I thought it was a classical Web fake, and decided to let it go...
Even because during the long period I frequented Sweeney and the other guys none told me about this "parallel project", nor about that it could be a typical Rock 'trick' (a good example of it it's the Duke of Stratosphere, the psychedelic XTC...). So I decided to wait, thinking to ask Carolyn some details about the thing. 

2. A strange event 
Some time later (July 17th, 2005), really unexpectedly, it happens a strange event. Ben Cartland, through my old (and now dead) Web site (, contacted me about the project to dedicate an album to Paul Minns, that had committed suicide. He wrote: "It was fascinating finding/reading your article on the Net. Some info, expecially concerning the early years (well, years when I was considerably involved in the band) seems to strike my memory, which has also dimmed over the years concerning all details, as not quite accurate. Not that it matters anyway. It was tragic to hear about Paul's death - he and I made a lot of music together (before Richard Coff appeared on the scene). and I'll always remember him (his musical sensitivity) with respect and affection. It's very good the compilation's dedicated to his memory. Well, just thought I'd send this... don't expect a reply but feel free to do so if you wish. Best regards, Ben Cartland (ex Viola player, Third Ear Band)". At the time of my book on the band, none told me where Cartland were: I could ask him some questions about the origins of the group. For myself, as for Richard Coff, even Ben Cartland had been swallowed up by the Black Hole of time... 

3. Discovering the original NBE's album (thanks to Sean Sedayne) 
At that point, one of the few (but good) TEB's fans that sometime contacted me to talk about the group - Sean Sedayne - wrote me to present a copy of the National Balkan Ensemble record, convinced that group was the Third Ear Band at the very beginning of its career: "The record is dated 1970, but this features the viola of Benjamin Cartland who I understand was a member of the group prior to the recording of "Alchemy" - no dates, or locations are given but the music is charmingly 'primitive' compared to the focussed intensity of "Alchemy" and "AEFW" - in the first piece Sweeney plays finger cymbals throughout!". I've gotten the CD where Sean reversed the old vynil and - incredible! - three tracks sounded really as the "Alchemy"-era Third Ear Band! At the oboe attack, just after few seconds, I was totally sure: no doubts the player was the great Paul Minns! 

4. The original album track-list 
So, I verified the few data on the record cover: 

1. Cosmic Trip (5.45) 
Freely expressive, mainly dissonant, constant instrumental interplay, occasional rhythm changes, feat. violin, cello, oboe, percussion. 
2. Jason's Trip (6.17) 
As above. 
3. Devil Weed (3.41) 
As above. 
Composers: Sweeney/Coff/Minns/Cartland 

The tracks sequence (around 16 minutes) occupies just a side of the album, on the other side there are seven tracks played by another group - Comedy Links and Bridges.

The album was published by Standard Music Library (catalogue n° ESL112), a London record company born in 1965 that produced many pop bands (it's still in full activity with a tiny catalogue of 'muzak' CD).

The cover, probably a record company impersonal (and quite insignificant) cliché, shows the drawing of a bunch of instruments put there to suggest the image of a grotesque face. There's no indications about data and location wherethe music was recorded.
Sound, instruments and band line-up confirmed it was a collection of recordings made before "Alchemy", probably played in the second half of 1968 when, after idiosyncratic electric guitarist Clive Kingsley's split, followed by the well-known electric instruments and Sweeney's drum-kit theft, the band became an acoustic quartet.
The album, edited just on vynil, is now very very rare, valued on collector's market about 150-200 euros...

5. Some historical references
According the Paul Minns' diary the first documented gig played by the new line-up was on July 3th, when the musicians was at The Crypt (London) with Pete Brown  & The Battered Ornaments and Ron Geesin.
Just before "Alchemy" recording sessions (February or March 1969?), the quartet played surely also on October 20th at Country Club (London) for a "Time Out" benefit gig, and on November 28th at the All Saints Hall in Powis Garden (London), legendary place where Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett begun.
It was just in those days Peter Jenner met Sweeney proposing to him to become group's manager with his friend Andrew King (as Blackhill Enterprises): always at Powis Gardens DJ Pete Drummond presented John Peel to the band...
TEB most important gig with that line-up was anyway at "The Alchemical Wedding" at the Royal Albert Hall of London on December 18th. An happening managed by Jim Haynes with, among others, Yoko Ono and John Lennon: haddled in a sack in the middle of the stage, they had TEB's music as a soundtrack...

A short article published on "International Time" n. 43 (November 1th-14th 1968), with a rare photo of the band (see above), confirm the acoustic turning: "... the amps were stolen and the Third Ear Band founded itself finished. They thought about it and decided that they would carry on acousticly. The group now consisted of Paul oboe, Ben Cartland viola, Glen drums, and a new member Richard violin, they came to the Arts Lab and the music began to happen again. None of the musicians know what or how it happens, they just play. What is the music like? Well, one chick admitted confidentially to Jim Haynes that she experienced two complete orgasms while listening to the Third Ear band".

Just at the beginning of "Alchemy" recording sessions in Abbey Road studios, that lasted one week-end only (a six hours session with track recorded in one take!), Cartland suddenly left the band.
"Cartland announced after two tracks that he wanted to play keyboard instead the viola!", remembered Minns (1996). "As this was totally unexpected and unexceptable he quit. He tended to be volatile and was very hippy".
From that session with Cartland one track titled "Raga in D" has left, the copy on a reel Minns kept at his home for years with the marvellous 1970 soundtrack "Abelard and Heloise": it's quite impossible, knowing praxis used in that years in recording experience, that have survived other tracks in Abbey Road vaults...
"I nearly cried when I heard this. It was like the return of an old friend. This raga is called in D and was the nucleus for ragas such as "Area Three" and "Ghetto Raga", both in the "Alchemy" album. This track should have been on as well as it was recorded at the start of that session..." (Minns, 1996).

The same band, with Cartland (not Courtland as often reported) on viola, played just "Ghetto Raga", "Druid" and "Hyde Park raga" in the first "John Peel Session" on February 11th 1969 (producer: John Walters), session aired on next July 27th (see on the officla John Peel Web site at http:www.keepingitpeel).

Comparing the three tracks recorded as National Balkan Ensemble with this "Raga in D" Abbey Road Recording, it turns out to be inequivocably a perfect corrispondence of mood, setting up and musical performance of the pieces, confirming the historical importance of this 'retrieval'.

6. Crucial proofs
At that point it was essential to get some direct proofs about the National Balkan Ensemble project, contacting single possible protagonists of that period still around - Carolyn Looker, Sweeney's wife involved to the band from the beginning, and Ben Cartland, the only musician available from the original quartet (in that period Richard Coff disappeared...).

Carolyn: "I find The National Balkan Ensemble a totally mystery. All I can think is whoever got hold of these tracks put the name to them. Before recording "Alchemy", Glen, Paul, Richard and Ben did some recordings for Ron Geesin who was going to try to sell the music for background for TV! I don't think anything came from it but maybe these are the tracks anyway, it was done in a small studio on the cheap. I vaguely remember Christopher Logue the poet being there too. Ben's leaving the band was totally his idea, he was very young - about 17! - and didn't want to commit... I think he went off with his girlfriend travelling..." (from a letter, December 2th 2005).

About Cartland, he was disappeared again (someone wrote me recently he's probably passed away...).

Then I asked Ron Geesin (on January 2th 2006) through is Web site ( His laconic answer was: "Yes, I knew the Third Ear Band because we were doing gigs on the same bill at the time, but I don't remeber ever working with them directly. That's all I can say".
In this condition of doubt, an old Nigel Cross interview with Glen Sweeney ("Unhinged" n. 6, Spring 1990) helps us to make the things clear. He said: "... we'd got this demo tape which had Ben Cartland on it - the original line-up with two violins, oboe and drums - it featured those first numbers we did at the first gigs. I can't remember what they sound like now. Geesin sold the tape to Essex Music for this library of sound effects - they must've been used on radio or TV because we got some money for them!".

So, confirming the origins of the tracks, why the Third Ear boys decided to call himself "National Balkan Ensemble"?
A convincing hypothesis is that Sweeney, usually worried about copyrights, decided to call the band so because the imminent contract signed with EMI-Harvest...

[For listening the tracks, go back at the Archive homepage and scroll on right at the free download tracks section]

no©2009 Luca Ferrari


  1. Luca ti ricordi di me Napo Camassa III aka Zenlo. Come back to me here in London :)

    1. Ciao Napo, certo che mi ricordo di te... Spero tu stia bene. Prometto che la prossima volta che vengo a Londra ti contatto e ci vediamo...
      Best wishes.

    2. Letto proprio ora !!!! hai un e-mail.?...un tel.fisso....aspetto eh ! Dove abiti ?

  2. ah dimenticavo....hai pubblicato un libro su Mike Taylor...Io ho pubblicato un mio CD/album Americano nel 2009...te lo mando...?

  3. Non avevo letto le tue risposte di ottobre, me ne scuso. La mia mail è:
    Yes, I published a book on Mike Taylor for Gonzo Multimedia, I'm very glad for your new CD and I'd like to listen to it. Write me to my personal e-mail and I'll reply you my address.