February 19, 2012

"Alchemy": an esoteric record for initiates.

As a powerful musical/visual/conceptual device, “Alchemy” stands as a really unique work in the Popular Music history.

"Alchemy" CD booklet cover (Drop Out Records 1999)

As on a recent essay Italian writer, Antonello Cresti writes, “this album is full as ever of musical invitations (all the tracks are instrumental) to take a more deep and conscious form of spirituality up” (read at http://ghettoraga.blogspot.com/2012/01/tebs-cultural-sources-on-italian-book.html).

Absolutely right, but probably it’s much more.

Because if it’s quite easy to discover some elements of cultural suggestions just based on the tracks’ titles, linked to the feelings of its time (the epic Sixties…), in my opinion, “Alchemy” was thought as a strong summa for an alternative life. A philosophic (music) treatise for a New Age.
Also for this, this album seems to transcend its time…

I’ve already written about the “Egyptian Book of the Dead” in this archive (read at http://ghettoraga.blogspot.com/2011/08/tebs-egyptian-book-of-dead.html) as a piece of incredibly scary sounds intended for going with the dead through his death. Music composed to remember us our ephemeral life and the responsibility to live with an ethical approach to human things.
But what about the album's other tracks?

Druids painted by Charles Knight (1845)
It's easy to state that “Alchemy” (1969) is conceptually more complex than “Third Ear Band” (1970), even if for music critics the second is generally considered better than the first. Anyway, here we have a stone circle and a druid, surely alluding to the pagan druidic ancient tradition; the direct quotation of the ancient Book of the dead (Egyptian history related); the dragon lines, as Cresti explains in his book, “a clear musical transposition of pioneer theories of John Michell, who had transposed Chinese tradition of "Lung Mei" on English culture and told about "Dragon Paths". These "Lung Mei" (an expression we can in fact translate as "Dragon Paths") are energetic lines discovered by ancient Chinese; from the heart of a dragon, usually laid in a valley among the hills, springs of energy have radiated, as it occurs with the "Ley Lines"".

In "Alchemy" we have also Dave Tomlin's “Lark Rise(based on Flora Thompson’s book “Lark Rise to Candleford”) that celebrates a vanished bucolic utopia as documented elsewhere here (read at http://ghettoraga.blogspot.com/2012/01/dave-tomlins-lark-rise-origins-cultural.html).

Swinside stone circle (West of Broughton in Furness)

And we can listen also to three apparently more obscure tracks - “Ghetto Raga”, “Mosaic” and “Area Three” - all related to the idea of space: a space to protect (thanks to the snakes on the cover...), a ghetto, a place for Hermetics where to practice alchemy (the cover concept) and turn the poor metals in gold (Prima Materia).

 Asking Dave Tomlin about this idea of space (January 24th, 2012), he writes to me: "I could speculate a little. "Area three" comes I think from the film world. It is a forbidden place; maybe dedicated to government secret experiments on... humans? There is a place like that in the Russian film 'Stalker' - Tarkowski, I think -, which would tell you all.
I think they used "Ghetto Raga" just because it sounds good. Ghettos are run down areas where poor people, usually of the same race live (Jews etc.). So Ghetto gives a rough type image, and raga is another racy word, although it's doubtful if any of the band studied Indian music. So together the two words create an interesting effect. No more than that...".

Byzantine mosaic (Galla Placidia Mausoleum - Ravenna, Italy)

But a ghetto of raga, where religious musicians play ragas besieged by the (post) modern world, could be the same area three (three as the TEB musicians?), a place for (musical) alchemic experiments...

Thus a record as a clear powerful metaphor alluding to turn bad music in good music, a superficial/commercial listening to a deep one, a materialistic life to a spiritual one…
I think “Alchemy” is a coherent, integrated device of ideas related to a definite conception of life - very distant from the usual Sixties Egyptian ephemera of fashion.
The best work ever produced by the band and one of the best albums of its time (no Egyptian junk, please!).

Maybe an alchemic product itself!?

A detail of the egg (the Great alchemic Opera) from "Alchemy" front cover

As Glen Sweeney said about the TEB music, "the music is the music of the Druids, released from the unconscious by the alchemical process, orgasmic in its otherness, religious in its oneness communicating beauty and magic via abstract sounds whilst playing without ego enables the musicians to reach a trance-like stage, a "high" in which the music produces itself. Each piece is as alike or unlike as blades of grass or clouds" (from the original 1969 Isle of Wight concert programme).

And again, just around the period when "Alchemy" was recorded: "We are beginning to move into some strange musical areas, doing a piece we call Druid. Once or twice when we've played this thing, we've gone into a weird sort of experience we call a 'Time-shift'. Nobody really knows what it is. The whole Druid piece is repetitive and extremely hypnotic and yet you have some of the instruments doing far out things so that a fantastic tension is built up. It's like alchemy. The alchemical emphasis is on the endless repetition of experiments, doing the same thing over and over again, and waiting for some sort of X-factor to appear. This is more or less what we do when we play. And our X-factor is this time-shift thing".

"It happened once at the London Arts Lab, and as we played, it seemed as if time had slowed down and we had drifted into a completely different dimension. And when we finished, nobody moved at all. They were kind of stuck there. So I felt that perhaps it had happened to them too. So that's the thing we are trying to get into. Although it can be quite a strain during a public performance, like living on the edge of a cliff, since nobody knows what might happen. To be on stage and feel it happening can be quite frightening. You go out of yourself, and when you come to, you discover yourself on stage with hundreds of people staring at you. You get this split-second thought: 'Have I been playing? Have I ruined the whole thing?' In a way, it's very similar to meditation and mantra chanting, which is why I feel what we are doing has a very religious depth" (from "Gandalf's Garden" #4, 1969, interviewed by Muz Murray).

Tomlin clarifies me (January 30th, 2012) that "in the mid-Sixties, there were many different influences. One was the legend of King Arthur's Court. Another was the Aliens - flying-saucers - messages from the stars. Also Blake's "Jerusalem", the Ley-Lines, Ramana Maharishi. And the mysterious arts of Alchemy.
There was an Alchemical saying of the time: 'When the sound of the music changes the walls of the city shake', which the Third Ear used at one time. Glen was very much drawn to the Alchemical myth. In fact a few years before he died he kept an ex-WWII torpedo-boat on a north London canal. Its name was 'ALCHEMY', he and Carolyn used to roar around the canals in it and everyone had to get out of the way; they were the terror of the waterways. I sometimes visited them on the boat and when Glen died she took the compass from the boat and gave it to me (this compass came from Glen Sweeney's boat Alchemy)...".

As in the past, people used to write books for initiates, in modern times, musicians play records to open the mind and soul of people ("Happy new ears!" John Cage wrote): Third Ear Band has left us a beautiful, scary record of magic/esoteric/philosophic music for the everyday life & death... 
Also for this reason sometimes we return to it as a sort of breviary, listening to little drops of it as a thaumaturgical magic potion!

"Alchemy" CD back cover (Drop Out Records 1999)

no©2012 Luca Ferrari (unless you intend to make a profit. In which case, ask first)


  1. A couple of things as they occur to me...

    Stone Circles predate Druidism, belonging to a much earlier prehistoric culture about which very little is known. The prehistoric landscapes of Britain were shaped by these people, from more famous places like the Avebury complex and Stonehenge to the awesome henges at Thornborough which (like the Pyramids at Giza) mirror the stars of Orion's Belt. The association with Druidism is as romantic as Druidism itself and certainly figures in the Third Ear mythos and Glen's world-view we catch glimpses of in his lyrics & elsewhere.

    I still maintain Glen was an intuitive Shaman, like Sun Ra; both are essentially visionary tricksters. As Sun Ra said: "You have to the trust the people with intuition now - you see, they don't know what they're doing. The ones who do know what they're doing haven't proved anything!" I think that's as true of Glen as it is of Sun Ra.

    The other thing is about Dragon Lines. The remarkable thing here is that such lines are marked by hills topped off with churches dedicated (generally) to Saint Michael, a dragon killing saint. I've heard of others, but the principle line is John Michel's Saint Michael's Line that courses southern England from Saint Michael's Mount through Glastonbury Tor.

    Sadly, the 'reality' of such things becomes rather urgent dogma in the context of the 'New Age', making it difficult to get a more balanced overview of their cultural & socio-political significance, much less the emergent 'folklore'. Like many other aspects of 'New Age' thought they don't really hold up to close an analysis - fair enough the Saint Michaels line, but next we're off with geometrical links to the Great Pyramid. Perhaps Michel is a similar trickster, but here again Glen is referencing something which is largely intuitive, especially with the increasingly New Age slant of the later albums with their references to Pyramids, Dolphins and (yes!) even Sun Ra himself.

    Third Ear Band - music for the Druidic Trickster Shaman in us all - or at least five or six of us anyway.

  2. Thanks Sedayne for your very stimulating contribution to my hazard. I think Glen was a Shaman trickster, yes, sometimes he used to joke with magic, tarots, insights... Very impressive for some people, but finally he was a smart, sensitive & intuitive person with a very good level of esoteric culture... I think he was an extraordinary manipulator & assembler of suggestions that produced works of art, intellectually beyond their time. Anyway, as you say, TEB hadn't an intellectual profile, it was a very instintive project... at least it was born in that way. I'm agreed with your statements about the last New Age slant of TEB, in some ways so controversial... at least for five or six of us, of course!