July 21, 2011

"Life takes so much time!". An interview with Ursula Smith, the legendary TEB cello player.

Yes, dear inveterate TEB fans, at last we have got the announced interview with Ursula Smith, the legendary great cello/violin player of the Third Ear Band!
As she writes me from his home in Norwich, 
"(...) Sorry this has taken so long. I hope it is of some use/interest. Life takes so much time!".

Right. Here's the interview...

Ursula Smith at the end of a concert with the Norwich Philarmonic Orchestra (2011)

What kind of musical training have you got? 
"I started piano lessons at the age of eight and took up the cello at 13, I had lessons on the cello at school but the teacher was never there for the lessons, I have an idea that he didn’t think girls should learn the cello. I taught myself from what I had learned on the piano. Later I had lessons from a Polish gentleman who was a professional cellist . He helped me with the audition for the Royal Academy of Music".

As every serious TEB fan knows you met Glen and the other guys after a concert in a prison... What do you remember about it? Why did you decide to join the band?
"I left the Royal Academy in 1966 and did a year teaching. I didn’t enjoy the teaching much and left at the end of the year. I then took a job as a cleaner in a pub. At the time I joined a folk duo with singer songwriter guitarist Mike Deagan. We did some bookings in a folk club called Les Cousins in Soho (London) and it was there that we met folk singer Bridget St John. She was a friend of the DJ and broadcaster John Peel and one day she asked us if we would do a free concert for the remand prisoners in Holloway Prison. On the day we arranged to meet with the other performers John Peels flat. John wasn’t there at the time but that was where I first met with the Third Ear Band. The only person I recognised was the cellist Paul Buckmaster who I knew fom the Royal Academy, as we had had the same professor.
I remember we were playing to an audience of about 90 mostly young girls in a courtyard. . Around the yard were tall concrete walls with small cell windows in them , at the end of each number all these hands came out of the cell windows and waved.
One girl spoke to me in the interval and told me that she had been in the Arts Lab near Covent Garden, and she was on an acid trip, when the police came in and the the Arts Lab was raided. She was arrested and now she was on remand in Holloway.
It came as a complete surprise to me at the end of the concert when Glen came up to me and asked me to join the Third Ear Band and I accepted. I learned later that the reason I was asked was that there had been several gigs that Paul Buckmaster was not able to do".
TEB 1970 (L-R): Minns, Sweeney, Coff and Smith (photo by Blackhill Enterprises)

Which are your feelings about the two years you played with the original TEB? Any particular memory about concerts, events, some anedocts...? 
"The band was on tour around the country. We played gigs in Scotland, in Wales, in Manchester - in a club called the Magic Village run by Roger Eagle - and some in a club in Birmingham called Mothers which was rumoured to be run by gangsters.
One of the early bookings I did was the first Isle of Wight festival with Bob Dylan on the bill. We arrived on the island by ferry and then drove to the venue field. The day before had been the rock and roll night headlined by the Who. We were on in the afternoon with folk artists like Tom Paxton, Richie Havens and Julie Felix, and in the evening was the comeback concert of Bob Dylan backed by the Band.
When I walked out on the stage there were people as far as I could see. I sat down and when the amplification was set up, I drew my bow across the strings and and I heard this great roaring sound, through the giant sound system and the monitors.
The other band members got set up and as we started to play the music came together. 

TEB on stage at Isle of Wight Festival (August 1969) with  Ursula on cello (on right)
We did some broadcasts mostly for John Peel, sometimes with an audience and sometimes just as recording sessions. The album "Earth Air Fire and Water" was recorded in Abbey Road Studios.
Abroad we did the Paradiso in Amsterdam, where most of the audience were lying on the floor, and we did several festivals in a giant sports stadiums in Germany.
There was a festival in an Aircraft hangar at Le Bourget airport in Paris, where the Pink Floyd were playing with a whole range of other bands. I remember we stayed at the Paris Hilton and we did a TV show in Belgium. We did two concerts in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank - the first one was called "The Crab and the Crescent Moon": this was shortly after the moon landing and the title was based on a dream that Glen had had. Dave Loxley did a poster for the concert which was based on a tarot card. 

The music was accompanied by a light show by Tina Keane and there was a guest appearance by sitar player Sam Hutt. Later Sam Hutt became famous as the country singer Hank Wangford.
We were booked to do a national tour with folk singer Al Stewart. Glen wanted to call the tour "Atlantis Rising", myself and Steve [Pank, her husband and road manager of the TEB] were detailed to go and see Al to ask him if he would accept that title. He was a bit doubtful about it and said he would be just as happy if the tour was called ‘Ham and Eggs’.

However he accepted the title and during the concert we shared with him at the Queen Elizabeth Hall he gave a short speech about how Nostradamus had predicted the assassination of the Kennedy brothers. He then sang a song about Nostradamus. Later when he toured America his tour was called ‘The year of the Cat’.
The Third Ear Band played for two Druid ceremonies, the midsummer one on Glastonbury Tor and the Dawn Equinox ceremony at Parliament Hill in London.
We had been in Germany playing at couple of festivals and recording the soundtrack for a German TV production of Abelard and Eloise. On that, we first watched the movie though on a TV screen and then it was played in front of us while we improvised the music.

When we arrived back in London having had virtually no sleep we were immediately rushed into the back of a van and driven to Glastonbury Tor. We climbed the Tor carrying the instruments. Luckily it was beautiful day. My cello was the heaviest and the biggest. The person having the most problem was the Chief Druid who looked like he might have heart attack at any moment. He had to keep stopping to have a rest. When we all reached the top I found that there was nothing for me to sit on, so I sat on the side of the Hill. After the Druids performed their ceremony, we played to the people and to the Sun. 

TEB playing for Druids in 1970: Ursula on left with Glean on tablas and Coff on violin

The dawn ceremony for the equinox was on Parliament Hill in Hampstead. We processed with the druids and formed a circle, and the druids started the ceremony. Paul was asked to play to announce the rising of the sun.
The Chief Druid got the time wrong and Paul had to keep playing for ages till the correct moment of the sun rise. We were honoured to be asked to take part in these ancient ceremonies, it was a unique experience for the band.
We also did a concert in the Royal Festival shared with a French avante garde music group...".

Why did you decide to leave the band with Richard Coff? What did happen to the Cosmic Overdose (?) project?
"After Steve left the band as driver, we were doing a tour of Belgium when Richard called me and Paul together, and Richard started a discussion saying he was not happy with the way the band's finances were being run. He said he had decided to leave and asked me to go with him. That was when I left the band. 
Richard and I did some rehearsing and got some ideas together. Richard rang the "Melody Maker" music paper and got an interview, but we had not got equipment or management or agency.
We were busking near Speaker's Corner Hyde Park when this South African guy came up to chat to us, and said he knew a guy who ran an equipment shop and he could get us some equipment there.

We went to the shop and Richard spoke to the manager who told us that this person was an intelligence agent for the South African government and that we should be very wary of him.

After that Richard rejoined the Third Ear Band and so did Paul Buckmaster.
Soon after that the Third Ear Band got signed for doing the music for Polanski’s "Macbeth"...".

What have you done just after the split with Coff? 
"I got interested in traditional folk music and in 1970 I went to a traditional folk festival in Ireland and took up the fiddle. I used to go down to sessions at Cecil Sharp House [English folk song and dance society] and joined in with the folk dance band there.
Later I played with a ceilidh band called Ginger Beer Shindig with some people who l later formed the band Blowzabella. I did a recording session for Clive Palmer on his first Album. I remember the comic actor John Cleese coming into the studio.

I moved to Norwich with Steve in 1971 and our son was born there in the Autumn of that year. By then Steve was playing the guitar and bass guitar and we formed a folk dance band called the Haymakers. We played at dances, clubs, festivals and fairs until the early 1980s.

On one occasion I depped for Dave Swarbrick of the Fairport Convention. I did the arrangements for a live production of Peter Bellamy’s "The Transports" and recorded [on cello] with the comedy folk duo The Kipper Family as part of The New Trunch Coronation Band.

 A rare VHS from YouTube with a Bellamy rehearsal: note Ursula with her cello on right

How Glen contacted you for playing with the reformed TEB? 
"After that period I was playing fiddle in bluegrass and country bands until I started teaching music in a school in Suffolk. Around that time Glen asked me to rejoin The Third Ear Band playing fiddle for a tour of Italy..".

Lyn Dobson and Ursula at  "Psycho Club" (Genova) on  January 1989 (photo by L. Ferrari)

What are you doing now? 
"More recently I have returned to playing classical music on the cello. Currently I am the principal cellist with the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra [read at http://www.norwichphil.org.uk/index.htm] and I do freelance work for local choral societies and occasional chamber concerts and string quartet concerts". 

Ursula on cello during a rehearsal at St Andrew's Hall (Norwich) on 5th December 2008
Ursula on November 6th, 2010 at St Andrew's Hall Mahler rehearsal

(An attempt of) An Ursula Smith discography
Third Ear Band 
"Third Ear Band" (LP/CD - Harvest SHVL 773, UK 1970)
Third Ear Band
"Abelard & Heloise" (CD - Stampa Alternativa SB, ITA 1970/1997)
C.O.B. (Clive's Original Band)
"Spirit of love" (LP/CD - CBS, UK 1971)
Third Ear Band
"Experiences" (LP - Harvest SHSM 2007, UK 1976) anthology
The Kipper Family (with the New Trunch Coronation Band)
"The Ever Decreasing Circle" (LP/CD - Dambuster Records, UK 1985/2005) 
Third Ear Band  
"New Forecasts from the Third Ear Almanac" (cassette - ADN RECO1, ITA 1989) live
Big Ray
"Naked" (LP/CD - City Slang, GER 1992)
Ursula played violin and cello on three tracks. Read at http://ghettoraga.blogspot.it/2013/04/unknown-1991-ursula-smiths.html
Peter Bellamy 
"Wake the Vaulted Echoes" (Free Reed Records, UK 1999) anthology 
3 tracks have taken from the never officially realised BBC 1982 production titled "Maritime England Suite" (read details at http://ghettoraga.blogspot.com/2010/11/ursula-pank-nee-smith-played-also-on.html

(Discography updated on April 17th, 2013)
no©2011 Luca Ferrari 


  1. PS - That Al Stewart song about Nostradamus was covered by Peter Bellamy on the album 'Tell It Like It Was' - it also features on the the 'Wake the Vaulted Echoes' collection mentioned in the above discography. Jon Boden recently covered it as part of his Folk Song a Day project.

  2. Thanks for all, dear friend. It's quite funny that Glen wished to call the tour "Atlantis Rising" and Stewart "Ham & Eggs" - it seems to me a strong methaphor of the TEB fate!

  3. I think of the Third Ear Band as being touched by something amazing - they became the mediums for a musical channelling which drew on a significant crack in the zeitgeist. Listening to A&H this almost becomes tangible! As the only female in the band, mabe Ursula added some essential potency?? Be it on the cello, or in her amazing violin playing on New Forcasts - just a shame Paul wasn't there at the time really. Sweeney's visionary genius was to somehow make all this possible, however so briefly & imperfectly at times, but there's always something. Ham and eggs? That's almost Alchemical in itself!

  4. This is truly one of the wonders of the internet. When I was grooving to the "Elements" album as a 15 year old in 1976, I never would have dreamed I'd read an interview with the mysterious Ursula Smith 35 years later! Thanks for this fascinating information - Peter Bellamy - wow!

  5. Thanks to you for these kind words. I've just been lucky to meet & managing the Band in the '80's... so after the tragic end of Glen and Paul I decided to tribute their wonderful experience with this Archive. Just that.
    Any contributions to the recollection of this obscure story is greatly appreciated.

  6. Whooshhh thanks so much. I do agree with Richard.. Ursula has always been the One Mysteriuous Dame for me... awesome work as usual Luca, thanks again

  7. Thanks to you. In the future I hope to have a long interview with Carolyn Looker and probably one with Steve Pank, the original driver of the Band... He knows many little things about the origin of the Thirds and it could be very interesting to reveal some other 'mysteries' surrounding this lost story...

  8. It was great reading this interview with Ursula as it helped fill in her back story to a great extent. Ursula was kind enough to record some cello and a little violin on a couple of tracks for my band, Big Ray, back in 1991. I knew she had been in the Third Ear Band, but at the time knew little about them or her beyond the fact that she was an acquaintance of my ex-girlfriend's mother (who was herself a violin teacher). So, like I said, it's great to find out more :-) For the record, Ursula was very, very generous with her time and her talent and contributed some beautiful cello to our songs. Considering that we called her out of the blue and gave her almost no notice, it's astonishing she didn't tell us to go and take a hike. She's credited as Ursula Pank on the album. For the completists among you the details are here http://www.discogs.com/Big-Ray-Naked/release/2446276

    1. Thanks for your memories, I've put a little piece about it on the Archive just now. For any TEB/Ursula Smith fans is an important revelation!