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Basil Kirchin - An Obituary

Basil Kirchin - composer and musician

Born August 8, 1927; died June 18, 2005.

 When Abstractions Of The Industrial North was released by cult maestros Trunk Records the week before its composer's death of cancer aged 78, it was the first record to be released by Basil Kirchin for more than 30 years. That this concept album about a northern factory landscape's impressionistic pastoral jazz tones was recorded in 1966 showed just how far ahead of his time this one-time big-band drummer turned avant-garde adventurer actually was.

Listening to the record now, with the once-thriving factories he so eloquently landscaped long since razed or converted into designer flats, Abstractions Of The Industrial North, featuring future Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page sessioning, conjures up a little piece of kitchen-sink England long since past. Yet, even as he funded his pioneering explorations of sound by scoring low budget British horror films, Kirchin was already paving the way for Brian Eno's notion of ambient music, while left-field auteurs such as Broadcast, Coil and Jim O'Rourke have cited him as an influence.

It all started out so different for the Blackpool-born visionary, who, as a precocious 15year-old, was already playing professionally in his father's band, which had a residency at the Paramount Club in London's Tottenham Court Road.
In between sheltering from the blitz in the London Underground, Kirchin would work a gruelling schedule of 14 sessions a week.

Following the war, Kirchen jnr struck out on his own, joining Harry Roy And His New 1946 Orchestra as solo drummer. This was the dawn of the blaring, unmistakably British big band scene that would define an altogether spivvier, sharper 1940s and 1950s sound that would stand out from its American counterparts. Kirchin learnt his chops during this period, his versatile approach switching between concert tours and jazz club gigs, and from theatre tours to BBC broadcasts, spending hours in recording studios en route.

At the end of the 1940s Kirchin joined the renowned The Ted Heath Band, and several continental tours beckoned before the ever hungry drummer once again hooked up with his father, Ivor. An early residency in 1952 was at Edinburgh's Fountainbridge Palais, from which several broadcasts were made. This was followed by a stint at Belfast's Plaza Ballroom, which led to a 13-week series backing Ruby Murray on Radio Luxembourg.

Following a serious car accident, Ivor Kirchin stood down as band leader, giving his son a taste of life in the hot seat. Basil subsequently founded his own small combo, though he found it hard to balance the business side of things with composing and rehearsing. Once his father recovered, the two outfits joined forces for a groundbreaking four-trumpet, four-sax and three-man rhythm section line up. With Ivor looking after the books, Basil was free to channel all his energies into an increasingly exciting music, that played Latin American music to appeal to a younger set stifled by the post-war ban on jiving.

Within a year the Kirchin Band was breaking attendance records, and after only 10 months on the circuit came fourth in the Melody Maker best band poll. Both Decca and EMI's Parlophone label, headed by future Beatles producer George Martin, were bidding wildly for the Kirchin Band. Decca won, and released four singles and an EP. Martin offered them more musical control, however, and between 1951-59, Parlophone released an array of works including Mambo Macoco, Mambo Rock, Calypso and Rock-A-Conga.

By this time, Kirchin Band fans included Sean Connery and Elizabeth Taylor, while Billy Eckstein and Sarah Vaughan would only tour England if they were promised the Kirchin Band backing them. By this time, too, the Kirchins had become the first act to tour with their own PA system. With such facilities to hand, Basil became obsessive about recording shows, and even taped rehearsals. Billy Eckstein compared The Kirchin Band to Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, while a frenetic Poll Winners' performance at the Royal Albert Hall brought the entire audience to its feet.

In a precursor of times to come, however, Kirchin was becoming restless. His wild tunes were able to whip international audiences into a dance frenzy, but he was also penning quieter, more subtly shaded orchestral works he wanted to explore and expand upon. Like so many latter-day wild young things who survive their crash and burn years, Kirchin's palette was maturing. Disbanding The Kirchin Band at the tail end of the altogether more innocent 1950s caused a furore both among band members left without a gig as well as diehard fans.

Kirchin sought refuge - and enlightenment - in India, America and Australia. This marked the beginning of a new era, far more dramatically than Kirchin could imagine when 14 tapes - nine of the wild stuff, five of the quiet - Kirchin had archived, fell into the sea when the net swinging the luggage on to the docks at Sydney harbour snapped. They were ruined.

Returning to England in 1961, Kirchin began writing scores for "imaginary films", experimenting with electronics and recording techniques with friend Keith Herd. It was here that his real work began. Touting the tapes around London, it was inevitable Kirchin would end up writing music for real films. He developed a working relationship with director David Greene, for whom he scored soundtracks The Shuttered Room starring Oliver Reed, and I Start Counting with Jenny Agutter. His best-known work, however, was on horror flick, The Abominable Dr Phibes.

At the same time, Kirchen was working on his masterpiece, the Worlds Within Worlds project. Using an advanced Swiss-built recording machine, Kirchin combined saxophone (by free improvisor Evan Parker), bassoon, marimba, organ, cello and bass with animal cries, birdsong and amplified insects. Tape speeds were varied, so a slowed down canary could duet with a soprano sax in a unique experience that predated Eno's experiments.

Two volumes of Worlds Within Worlds were recorded over a two-year period, though Kirchin all but disowned them as botched attempts sabotaged by record company efforts to commercialise them. Squeamishness too was a factor, as record labels found recordings of Swiss autustic children too unsettling for public release.

Kirchin moved to Switzerland with his Swiss wife Esther, though by the late 1970s was settled in Hornsea, on the east Yorkshire coast. Here he embarked on a journey into sound that would restore Worlds Within Worlds to its unique glory. In the laptop age, sampling techniques are so commonplace as to be artless, but given that Kirchin was working with primitive and cumbersome technology, it's little surprise this took nine years, until 1978. Equipment needed to be constantly updated, and had to be financed by extra-curricular film and TV work.

Despite a lack of releases, the primal purity of Kirchin's approach began to seep out into a new wave of industrial musicians, who found an affinity with his unflinching but loving approach to discovering the everyday essence of life itself through sound. Last year, Trunk records released Quantum, Kirchin's purer, reworked director's cut of Worlds Within Worlds. Abstractions Of The Industrial North became the second of a planned series of unreleased Kirchin works recorded over the past 30 years, with more culled from Kirchin's archive to follow.

In his final interview, Kirchin declared that he "wanted to leave something for young people who are starting in music and looking for something as I've been looking all my life. the challenge is to make your life meaningful".

To share in Kirchin's journey, where love and pain go hand in hand, Abstractions Of The Industrial North is as good a starting point as any.

The Herald, July 18th 2005

ends

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