Pete Brown is an English Poet and singer/songwriter. During the mid 60's, he was doing readings in jazz and blues clubs in London and making lots of friends along the way. He met Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker at the "Marquee Club", right around the time they were forming the super croup "Cream". Being very impressed with Pete's poetry, they asked him to write some lyrics for Cream and the rest is history. Pete co-wrote classics such as "Sunshine of your Love, I feel Free, White Room" and many more. Pete was also fronted his own jazz, blues, funk fusion band called "Battered Ornaments". Today Pete continues multi-tasking with music, poetry, film making and writing. I caught up with the talented man.
P.B. - Browns machine here
R.V.B. - Yes, Mr. Brown?
P.B. - Yes
R.V.B. - This is Rob von Bernewitz from Long Island, New York, how are you?
P.B. - Hey, how you doing man.
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. What's happening over there on the other side of the pond?
P.B. - (hahahaha) Not enough
R.V.B. - Not enough? (haha)
P.B. - No (haha)
P.B. - Yes, I am keeping busy actually.
R.V.B. - Oh that's good. I'm sure your proud of your whole career and I know it's still going on, can I ask you when you were very young - what did you do for fun and how did you get involved in poetry?
P.B. - Ok... for fun to start with, I used to go and watch westerns... which I still do. I collect them. (haha). When I started growing up, first of all I got into Dylan Thomas because he was kinda very anarchic, and I love anarchy. You know and I still like it. Then the American beats really... I read "On the road", and I read Kerouac. I had started writing poetry when I was only fourteen, but by the time I had read Dylan Thomas, and then Locker, and people like that... then Corso, and Ginsburg, and Ferlinghetti, and Creeley, and all these people... Then I had began to get kind of a style together. I starting getting published a little bit. Then I started doing poetry readings... again inspired by the fact that the Americans were doing that. They were doing readings of their own work and getting paid for it... which was a great idea because I really didn't want to have a day job. (hahaha)
R.V.B. - Can you describe to me what an early poetry reading was like over in Europe. Was it like a bar or a cafe?
P.B. - Yes, yes I mean, one of the first things that I did was at the fringe, of the fringe of the Edinburgh festival. That festival on the first couple of nights... there were about eight other poets, and one girl, and one dog, and one baby. It was a small scene, (hahaha) but then we started doing things in London, and that used to bring some audiences. The news of it spread and we started doing stuff out of town. I mean at the best, I was earning maybe in American money maybe $40 a week or something like that at the very best, until we did the Albert Hall reading in 1965... with Ginsburg, and Ferlinghetti, and everybody. After that everybody's price went up and we worked a lot more.
R.V.B. - I see, so when you started out, you had a little group that you all traveled with and you all did your own poetry sort to speak?
P.B. - Yes, there were kind of various people involved. It wasn't really a movement but more a group of friends... the styles were quite different. We also had a poetry and jazz group. A regular line up of jazz musicians that would do concerts and touring and stuff like that as well.
R.V.B. - Do you remember one of the first poems that you ever wrote?
P.B. - Well the first one was the title of my first book. Well actually the first time I was ever published was in Evergreen Review in America. The kind of alternative poetry and writing Bible... which I was very lucky. I've always had more recognition in America than I've had in Britain really.
R.V.B. - You know what's funny about that? A lot of Americans get more notoriety in Europe than they do here.
P.B. - Absolutely, but one of the first poems I had published in Evergreen review, and that was just a small one which was... I write a poem and threw it in the river. The fishes thought it was bread and they ate it.
R.V.B. - (haha) That was cute.
P.B. - So that was one of the first ones. I've written long things obviously, but I started off writing short kind of things like that and then kind of progressed to other stuff.
R.V.B. - How did you start transforming your poetry into musical form?
P.B. - Well the point was that I was always kind of a music groupie you know. I was always hanging around the jazz scene and the blues scene. We were lucky enough, the jazz and poetry group had a residency at the Marquee Club at the same time that the Alexis Korner band had residency. They had the Thursday, and we had the Tuesday for a while. That particular band included Graham Bond, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Dick Heckstall-Smith and Graham Bond had already been playing in the Jazz and Poetry group and we got to know the others through them.
R.V.B. - So obviously when you got to meet Ginger and Jack... did they approach you and ask you about your poetry?
P.B. - What had happened was they had both done the jazz and poetry concert with me and so they knew what I could write. They knew I was very sympathetic towards the kind of music that they liked, so they decided it was a good idea to give me a call when they formed Cream. Get someone else in to do some of the lyrics, which was very lucky for me. (hahaha)
R.V.B. - Yeah, well you know what was great about the early Cream, was they took down home American blues and added a little psychedelia to it.
P.B. - Oh sure and a bit of jazz too, because I mean I've always said that psychedelic rock was rock musicians just improvising. Jazz musicians obviously always improvise, but until psychedelic rock came along than they weren't improvising that much. They were just doing songs with little bits in, you know, Then people began to stretch out and do different things with texture and sound and improvisation.
P.B. - Yes, the first thing they did was "Wrapping Paper". They called me down to the studio and played me the backing track and I wrote a lyric for it. It wasn't the best one I've ever written but it was a beginning, you know.
R.V.B. - Uh huh, and then you went on to what?... "White Room"?
P.B. - Well yeah, the next one was really "I Feel Free".
R.V.B. - Right, that was from the first album.
P.B. - Right. That was quite a big hit in Britain. I think it reached number nine or something like that.
R.V.B. - You know that's one of the few songs I saw Jack play. I saw Jack play here with Ringo locally and they played "I Feel Free".
P.B. - Oh did they? Great!
R.V.B. - It's just a great song. Great Lyrics, great song.
P.B. - Yeah, well that was the first real big success we had. I mean, I was in a transitional stage at that point, myself. I had a few booze and drug problems which I stopped very abruptly and never went back to. There was a bit of a gap after "I Feel Free" while I sort of got myself together. Then we started writing the stuff, which turned out to be on "Disraeli Gears" which of course was an enormous success including "Sunshine of your Love" and those things.
R.V.B. - So did you write all of the lyrics of Sunshine or did you co-write that?
R.V.B. - I see. Um "Theme For an Imaginary Western".
P.B. - Yes, one of my favorite songs. I still sing it.
R.V.B. - That had hits with two different artists.
P.B. - Yes it's had a few covers over the years. "Colosseum" did it as well.
R.V.B. - Over here in the states also, because Leslie West is a local guy here in New York.
P.B. Yes sure.
R.V.B. - I mean that was a immense hit for them.
P.B. - Right Yes. I mean I love that song. That song was really written about the "Graham Bond" organization because I kinda saw them as a mixture of pioneers and outlaws.
R.V.B. - Did that have anything to do with you being into westerns to begin with?
P.B. - Oh yes absolutely. When I had heard the music that Jack had written for that particular song, it reminded me of some of the scores that people Dimitri Tiomkin did for some of the westerns in the 50's, so it immediately became kind of a western you know.
R.V.B. - Well congratulations on that one.
P.B. - I still love that one, you know.
R.V.B. - I'm sure. So did you mess around with a musical instrument?
P.B. - Yes, I started off on trumpet and later on became a percussionist and obviously I'm a singer. I began singing in 1967 really.
R.V.B. - So this "Battered Ornaments" group that you put together. I hear through the grapevine that people have a hard time putting that in a category. What did you have in mind as far as a musical direction?
P.B. - Well ha, there's a number of musical directions. There's a bit of folk in there, quite a lot of jazz, especially some of the more funky jazz. For instance there's a record by Albert Ayler called "New Grass". I don't know if you know that record. It's got Bernard Purdie, and people like that playing on it. It's got a very funky kind of rhythm section, you know. That was some influence on the "Battered Ornaments", and there were some funk influences because I had been very friendly with David Graham and been sort of... I knew people on the modern folk scene, as well as the jazz thing. I've always been into good music anyway so wherever it was, I went. There's all sorts of influences in the "Battered Ornaments". Right now... what I do now is a fusion of the things I love which is basically kind of soul and blues with a touch of jazz really. That's what my current band does.
R.V.B. - Do you still put poems over it?
P.B. - I wouldn't call them poems. I mean I still write poetry but basically I'm doing proper songs with proper lyrics you know, with my current band which is called "Psoulchedelia". We have a record out currently which is called "Perils of Wisdom".
R.V.B. - I see, now throughout your career, was there any shows that really stick out in your mind.
P.B. - Ha, well obviously gigs that I've been to?
O.B. - Yeah well I suppose the "Cream" sort of last concert was pretty memorable. I'm mean "Cream" when they broke up for the first time that is. That was pretty good.
R.V.B. - Was that the "Farewell Cream" show?
P.B. - Yes, in 1968 I think it was... and that was pretty good
R.V.B. - Right, Right did you go back to the reunion show when they played Albert hall.
P.B. - Yes that was good too. Musically in a way, that was even better I thought because they had all grown as musicians over the years. It was much more subtle. I liked it a lot you know. I was impressed with it.
R.V.B. - It was something that had to happen. They needed to make amends and let the music do the talking.
P.B. - Absolutely. In 1970 I was lucky enough to be playing in a festival with my band and we were on the same night with Duke Ellington so we were allowed to remain on stage and be right next to that. I mean I'd seen Duke Ellington's band many times but it was great to be on the same stage on the same night. It was fantastic.
R.V.B. - Yeah, I mean he's an American icon.
P.B. - Yeah, oh absolutely. I mean to me he's God like. There's a few Americans I regard as being my kind of Gods. I mean Mose Allison is another one. He's one of the great lyric writers and great musician too. Allen Toussaint can do just about no wrong. I love Allen Toussaint. He's always writing and producing and everything what he does.
R.V.B. - Did you ever come over to the states?
P.B. - Yeah, in fact I'm hoping very much in fact that I'm going to be there in August and maybe do a gig at the Iridium in New York. I'm hoping so.
R.V.B. - Oh wow, that's my neck of the woods.
P.B. - Is it? Good
R.V.B. - I will definitely be there if you're on the bill.
P.B. - Yeah, there's a chance that we might be there. There are various reasons why I would be coming over at that time but also we would try to get that gig together because it's been offered.
R.V.B. - Oh very nice. So you came out with your autobiography?
P.B. - Yes I did in 2010. Currently we got the rights back and we're trying to get it into paperback and e-book so I'm hoping we'll get a deal sooner rather than later. (hahaa)
R.V.B. - How long of a process did that take to jot everything down?
P.B. - To write it, about 2 1/2 years I would say. Not working all the time or everyday or anything like that. In between gigs and doing what I was doing, yeah it took about 2 1/2 years. Not an experience that I want to repeat. (hahaha)
R.V.B. - Well you know, at least it's done and it's documented.
P.B. - Sure, I'm talking to a publisher about it at the moment and I would probably re-write some bits of it and maybe add some stuff because I've lived several years since then. (hahaha). So there's more to talk about, you know.
R.V.B. - So are you enjoying yourself now? Are you in good health?
P.B. - Yes I just came back from a power walk. I do a lot of exercise. I don't eat any meat... I don't eat any dairy, hardly any sugar. I do a lot of exercise as I say and no bad habits. Yeah I'm very happy that I'm still working at the age of seventy three and still doing gigs. Next week I'm doing a couple of gigs with a twenty two year old guitar player. I produced his record that's coming out soon... a young guy called Chrissy Matthews who is really incredible. He's like the kind of ne Jeff Beck in a way. He gets me to do guest appearances with his band. We do some songs together.
R.V.B. - That sounds nice. Do you have any other hobbies when you're not doing music?
P.B. - Yes I've got some hobbies. I collect model busses. I like that. The movies is more than just a hobby because I've got a little film production company and we're hoping to do our first low budget feature film this year. I've been a screen writer for a long time. Various things were done and not done but now we've got our own company. There's a film documentary being made about me right now... a feature documentary. After that we're gonna try and do the first drama... the first thriller. It's gonna be a low budget thriller.
R.V.B. - Well that sounds like a lot of fun and a different way to approach something.
P.B. - I love the movies, I mean my life being quite British but at the same time Jewish I guess. American culture has always been my thing, you know. I've always been into certain aspects of American film making and obviously American music has always been number one for me. That's where I've always looked for inspiration.
R.V.B. - That was one of the things I wanted to ask you. When you were first exposed to early American things did you go to the record store and buy them? How did you hear about them?
P.B. - Sure. After i went through my silly teenage stage which didn't last for all that long. When I started getting into kinda proper music... the first records I bought... one was by Gerry Mulligan and the next one was by Sidney Bishet. So that was classic jazz music.
R.V.B. - That's classic stuff for sure.
P.B. - Then I started getting into the blues. Muddy Waters and eventually Howling Wolf, T-Bone Walker and all these people. I love all that very very much... very deeply.
R.V.B. - Was there a record store that you frequented to buy these? How did you hear about it?
P.B. - Yeah there was a nice jazz record store in London in the west end which is where we used to go to... It's called Dobells. It's gone now but that was the first of the proper dedicated jazz record shops. I would go there and there were other places which were sources of... I would buy old records. I still have a collection of old 78's. A lot of old blues kind of on the Okeh label, Vocallion and all those things. Sleepy John Estees and people like that you know. I love all that.
R.V.B. - Yeah I'm a vinyl collector myself. I primarily play records more than CD's. Do you think that the digital age hurt the music industry or helped it?
P.B. - Yes, I think it did hurt it because first of all it enabled all the copying to be done. It was absurd. they really shot themselves in the foot with that. They didn't think to invent some kind of technology which made it impossible to try to copy things, you know. So that really reduced everybody's wage packet very badly. It was not good. Right now of course... at least in Britain they are getting back to vinyl revolution going on. Everybody's buying vinyl right now and CD's are running out. They're not buying them so much.
R.V.B. - You know the same thing is going on here. There's a big resurgence in vinyl
P.B. - I think it's really healthy because I think there's more information on vinyl, you know. I once had a conversation with this guy called Roger Mayer who use to make all the effect pedals for Jimi Hendrix. I was interviewing him on something and he'd been a scientist working for the Navy before he got into the music thing. He said that he could physically prove that there's that much more information on vinyl and analog then there was on digital and I believe him of course.
R.V.B. - Yeah well it's a warm signal.
P.B. - Yes that's right
R.V.B. - It's a continuous sine wave where as digital's on off on off on off so a CD, obviously they clean up the scratches and what not but it still doesn't have the warmth of a vinyl record in my opinion.
P.B. - No, no you're right. There's more that you can do now to make it better but even so people are certainly turning off the digital thing and going back to vinyl. Especially people who really care about music and want to hear as much as is available on there.
R.V.B. - Yeah that's true. I would be one of those people. Well thank you very much for taking this time to speak with me.
P.B. - Your welcome.
R.V.B. - I appreciate it and as I said earlier congratulations on your fantastic career and may it continue and good luck with your feature film.
P.B. - Yeah and if you can get it, check out my current record.
P.B. - Instead of Pearls it's called "Perils of Wisdom?. It's on the Repertoire label.
R.V.B. - And the name of the band is called?
P.B. - Well it's got my name on it and my partner Phil Ryan and the band is called "Psoulchedelia".
R.V.B. - Ok I will look into that and get myself a copy. Hopefully on vinyl.
P.B. - The vinyl hasn't been released yet but it will be at some point.
R.V.B. - Alright well then I'll get the CD
P.B. - Ok cool.
R.V.B. - Anyway, Thank you very much and enjoy the rest of your career.
P.B. - Thank you "Cheers".
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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