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A Short Bio:
Between leaving school at 15 and coming to Britain, Laurie Baker worked as a trainee graphic artist on the Sydney Morning Herald, during which time, with school friend pianist Serge Ermolle, he played a regular stint at the legendary El Rocco jazz venue in Sydney. Also with musicians John Poche, Dave Levy, George Niedorf, Fred Payne and others. This set the tone for future cross-discipline experimental work in improvisation, graphic scores and multimedia production.
At the time, Baker studied harmony with Roy Mailing and double bass with Bob Waddington. From those early days he had an insatiable appetite for the latest ideas in modern music, art and technology always seeking out the new. Becoming aware of the work of Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, etc., and then Bartok, Stockhausen, Cage, etc., he set out to develop this growing interest in experimental and electronic music. "I decided to come to Europe. I worked my way over from Australia by playing the double bass in a ship's band on the Greek liner 'Patrice', and eventually arrived in Britain in 1965".
Soon after arriving, Baker met Cornelius Cardew in London, which was the beginning of a long association. Where there was pioneering work going on he would seek it out. He participated in the Little Theatre Club Sessions organised by John Stevens and coming into contact with the music of Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Peter Lemer, George Khan, etc. His compositions at this time were often semi-graphic scores and conceptual pieces for example the Twelve 30 Second Sketches for Two Double Basses 1 Player (1965), Cues (1968) and the pieces much admired by David Tudor and John Cage, Keyboard Music and Extra Material (1967).
Being active in new and experimental music circles was, out of necessity, in tandem with being a working musician/composer in theatre's, clubs etc. where he worked with pianist Pat Smythe, Reg Powell, trumpet player Henry Lowther, Harry Beckett and future Gilgamesh drummer Mike Travis. "I met him though a band which I rehearsed and did a few gigs with, formed by Henry Lowther and I introduced Mike into the piano trio I was playing with at the Pickwick Club where I played after finishing my theatre job, and we worked together in that for about six months".
At the time, Baker also played in various West End theatre productions such as Hair, as well as numerous sessions. It was while in the band of the London production of Hair in 1968 that he first met Robert Wyatt, his first contact with the Canterbury scene. "We had taken over a flat from Andy Summers as he was going with Soft Machine on a tour of the states, supporting Jimi Hendrix. It was a musicians house and we shared the flat with drummer Colin Allen. One morning Andy came around to collect the rest of his stuff before departing to USA, he had this bloke with long blonde hair wearing a Noddy and Big Ears coat with him - that's how I met Robert. We started chatting and he mentioned that he was from Canterbury area and I remembered that the American drummer, George Niedorf who I worked with in Sydney, had mentioned Canterbury when I had asked him about the music scene in Britain. I asked Robert if he knew him and by strange coincidence George had stayed with Robert apparently to teach him drums. We bumped into each other a few times over the years and I got to know him a lot better with some long political discussions when we recorded the song "Nowt Doing" for the General Strike project 1976 and we have been in touch ever since".
Baker's continued interest in electronic music led to more projets. In 1968 he took part in the landmark Music Now concert, where the music of Terry Riley, LaMonte Young and Christian Woolfe was first performed in Britain. This was a big influence, and he went on to develop his own solo live electronic performances. He also took part in the first performances of the composers Frederic Rzewski and John White. In 1969 he participated in the Scratch Orchestra from its formation in 1969, in events such as the infamous 'Beethoven Today' and Christian Woolfe's 'Burdocks' at Cecil Sharp House.
His experience in experimental and electronic music is evident in some of his recording work with Manfred Mann, Bob Downes, Ray Russell, Alex Harvey and others. At the same time he started composing for film and television with two songs for the feature film, "Secrets" (1970) performed by Maggie Bell and another by the Cymarons, an early reggae band. There was a TV documentary on Kipling (1971). In 1972 he was commissioned to produce the music for the Norwegian Modern Ballet Company, Studio Oscar, in a ballet by the Choreographer Clive Stuart. This rich and varied performance experience encompased St Pauls Cathedral, the South Bank to strip clubs (!) as well as playing in the thick of it on anti-fascist, Irish, workers demonstrations, against war preparations, and so on, acted as a sort of insurance against developing pompous attitudes in music and composing.
From within this interesting collaborations developed, the first of which was the legendary Sunship, which has remained legendary, in spite of its absence of recorded legacy, because of its stellar line-up including several future big names of the British progressive rock scene - Alan Gowen, Jamie Muir and, briefly, Allan Holdsworth. "I suppose it was formed by Alan, Jamie and myself, the three of us. It went through lots of different permutations and Allan Holdsworth rehearsed with us for some time until it folded. I had met him through Australian saxophonist Ray Warleigh. I had known Jamie Muir though free improvisation and new music circles (Derek Bailey, Scratch Orchestra, etc.). Jamie also played on some of my concerts of experimental music with John Tilbury at Goldsmiths, including a performance of Frederick Rzewski 's "Coming Together" too I remember. At this period I was doing solo electronic concerts at places like the Arts Lab, colleges using a synth and tape delay".
"I seem to remember we formed the band and rehearsed at Jamie's place in Islington. There was also a variation of the band with singer Arthur Louis which had one gig at the Roundhouse. Christine Jeffrey [Muir's former bandmate in the Music Improvisation Company] also came along to rehearsal and sang a few times and I think there was a sax, Dave, at one point... And one of the guys who sat in on Sunship was Mike Oldfield - he was one of my deps in Hair and I had met him though Alex Harvey". What did the music sound like? "Looking back the music mainly consisted of songs as vehicles for improvisation, including some long freeform introductions using synth, etc. It had a certain energy but essentially it was looking for something special in a singer to give it some focus". What about recordings? Were any made at the time? "Some rehearsal recordings exist and low quality tapes of two gigs I think. There was a very good recording of the Roundhouse gig but unfortunately a lot of it got erased".
Sadly, by July 1972, Sunship was no more. "It finished mainly because Jamie joined King Crimson : we lost our rehearsal space as well as our drummer. I remember Jamie going to the audition for the King Crimson job, with his drum kit on the tube. He kept it secret, hence the tube. Alan Gowen then formed Gilgamesh with Mike Travis, and I formed the short lived Maze with Greg Bright (So) and Rick Miller, Australian drummer and friend of Dave MacRae's, and Allan Holdsworth on guitar. I think we did one gig at the Bull's Head but Allan had other commitments by then which came first... He was playing a lot with the brilliant pianist Pat Smythe, who I also did some work with in a Soho club". Although they didn't work together again subsequently, Baker kept in touch with Gowen until his untimely death in 1981. "I even had a play-through (audition) with National Health duo of Alan and Dave Stewart, who commented that I had done very well with all the strange time signatures. I wasn't really in any position to join the band at the time but Alan wanted me to do it. Brigid and me used to visit Alan and 'C' [Gowen's wife Celia] socially for years and we were in touch. I wasn't aware of him being ill, we were living out of London and it was all very sudden and a terrible shock at the time".
After Maze split up at the end of 1972, Baker embarked on yet another band venture, which was to last for about five years : People Liberation Music. "It was formed by John Tilbury, John Marcangelo, me and Brigid did all the organising. Cornelius Cardew joined in 1973 after he came back from working a year in Germany, Keith Rowe and Vicky Silva joined and were members for many years and Hugh Shrapnel and Jeff Pearce were also involved. Jeff Pearce, Dave Smith, Alec Hill and many others played with the band over the years. There were several different drummers - drummers always seemed to be a problem! -, including John Hewitt, John Mitchell, Tony Hicks from Back Door and Pip Pyle".
Pip Pyle joined following recommendation from Robert Wyatt. "He played with us quite a bit, including the series of concerts at Unity Theatre the night before it was burnt down. In fact he was going to leave his drums there overnight and collect them next morning but fortunately decided to take them with him at the end of the gig!". This must have been quite a different context to play in for the ex-Hatfield drummer? "Well, I don't think it would have been much of a challenge for him musically speaking, more to do with the political content, but I'm not sure of Pip's views on that as I never really had the opportunity to talk to him on this!".
PLM went on until 1978. "At one point, we had a more or less stable line-up, with myself, John Marcangelo, Cornelius Cardew, Keith Rowe, Vicky Silva, Hugh Shrapnel and Jeff Pearce. We did a lot of gigs, tours of Ireland and Wales, concerts at the South Bank, Unity Theatre, ICA, Universities and Art Colleges and so on, as well as playing for many community organisations and on workers demonstrations. We collaborated with Recreation Ground Theatre Company on several anti-fascist projects and did festivals with other musicians. We did a lot of research on songs that came from peoples struggles around the world, and met A.L. Lloyd (folk singer/writer). We were writing our own material and we produced several songbooks with music as well as a number of song sheets, to popularise the music we were performing, which it did. There are a number of recordings and we do plan to get a CD out in the near future".
In 1976 Baker was commissioned by Unity Records to compose and produce an LP of a piece celebrating the anniversary of the 1926 British General Strike. It was titled General Strike and credited to the Unity/Hanwell Band. This had other Canterbury luminaries like Pip Pyle, Dave MacRae and Roy Babbington, as well as Tony Hicks from Back Door and a guest appearance by Robert Wyatt (that particular track has appeared on the Wyatt compilation Flotsam & Jetsam). "I composed one side and John Marcangelo the other, I was the producer. We had raised some money from trade unions, but part of the commission fee came from the Arts Council and they were going to fund the final pressing of the LP after we had finished the recording. Brigid and Cornelius went in to see them with a copy of the near finished tapes and they said that no-one liked the music!! So they refused the funding to finish the project and even demanded the master tapes although they had only funded a portion of the work. We told them to get lost at that point but it did mean that the LP didn't get released we didn't have the money to do it ourselves at that point. We have plans to get it pressed as a CD".
Musicians on it apart from the Hanwell Band were Dave MacRae, Evan Parker, Roy Babbington, Keith Rowe, Tony Hicks, Brian Spring, Robert Wyatt, Gilbert and Sullivan singer Skaila Kanga, Dave Smith, John Hewitt, Vicky Silva, Groucho, Alec Hill, John Marcangelo, and the SingCircle choir. "I had known Roy Babbington when I was working up in North East - Newcastle, West Hartlepool - and was working with Tony Hicks for several years in a trio with Reg Powell, both up North and when we moved down to London. Dave MacRae was a New Zealander whom I had know in Australia and Tony also worked with him in his band after Back Door, I think he still does in Sydney".
A temporary move out of full time music at the beginning of the 1980s to a film dubbing mixers job at the BBC greatly strengthened Baker's technical skills. He also continued to compose music for Television and Radio, as well as developing his own music and political songs, between work and keeping himself busy as ACTT/BECTU shop steward and NEC member for around 12/15 years and chairman of the ACTT BBC divisional committee for a time.
In 1991, Baker set up the MusicNow record label, of which he artistic director, with his partner. The opportunity to return to full time music came after leaving the BBC in early 1995. "The last three years we've been concentrating on developing the label with two CD Extra projects "A Little Water Music" and "South of the River" with composers Brian Dennis and Hugh Shrapnel, a British Composers Web project, an e-commerce site, and other smaller projects. I'm currently working on a CD Extra of my own material which is mainly new work but I'm thinking of doing a double CD and having a historical section to include some of the things we have been talking about as mostly they have never seen the light of day and there is some interest out there. It just seems that a lot of the projects I've been involved with over the years never got on record for one reason or another and it would be good to rectify that. As you point out, not many people know about me...".