A Short Bio:
During most of the seventies, Alan Gowen was a central character of the Canterbury scene as a member of Gilgamesh, National Health and Soft Heap, thanks to his outstanding talents both as a keyboard player and composer. His untimely death in 1981, at the tragically young age of 33, sadly put an end to a very promising career.
Born in 1947, Alan Gowen hailed from Harlow and started his musical career in the late 60's playing jazz and be-bop in a jazz trio together with drummer Roger Odell, later of CMU (alongside Steve Cook) and Shakatak. It was during this period that he first became acquainted with his later National Health colleague, Phil Miller. After moving to London in 1971 he joined Assagai, an offshoot of the Afro-rock group Osibisa. Another member of this shortlived venture was percussionist Jamie Muir, with whom Gowen then formed Sunship with bass player Laurie Baker. Mostly a rehearsal band, Sunship didn't make any recordings, which is a shame as, for a few weeks, it also included then-emerging guitarist Allan Holdsworth. It eventually folded in mid-1972, following Muir's departure to King Crimson.
After the break-up of Sunship, Gowen began working with Mike Travis, a drummer friend of Muir's from his Edinburgh days, for his new band project, Gilgamesh. The other original members were Rick Morcombe (guitar), Alan Wakeman (saxophone) and Jeff Clyne (bass), although the latter had left by the time Gilgamesh played its debut gig in January 1973, and was replaced by Richard Sinclair for the occasion. Gowen actually auditioned for Hatfield and the North as a possible replacement for Dave Sinclair, but they ultimately decided Dave Stewart was a better choice.
Meanwhile, the first incarnation of Gilgamesh distingrated. Gowen and Travis were left to recruit new members Phil Lee (guitar) and Neil Murray (bass). Club gigs, mainly in the London area, followed, as well as a demo recording at Pathway Studios (now available as part of the Arriving Twice CD, released on Cuneiform in 2000).
In November 1973, Gilgamesh played two double-quartet gigs in Leeds and London with Hatfield and the North, playing special arrangements by Gowen. This experiment was the precursor to National Health, the band Gowen later formed with Hatfield's keyboard player Dave Stewart, who became one of his close friends. 1974 was mostly spent writing and rehearsing, with only one gig in the whole year. Meanwhile, Steve Cook had replaced Murray on bass, and for a brief time, Gilgamesh was even augmented with a second keyboard player Peter Lemer (as documented on a BBC session from that period).
In early 1975 Gilgamesh was signed to Virgin Records' sub-label Caroline to record its debut album. By the time the sessions took place, Jeff Clyne had returned to the fold as bass player. The album was co-produced by Dave Stewart and featured a guest appearance by Amanda Parsons, one of Hatfield's 'Northettes'. Mainly composed by Gowen, Gilgamesh had him performing on a variety of keyboard instruments on which he demonstrated an impressive versatility and mastery.
Coincidentally, both Gilgamesh and Hatfield came to an end in mid-1975, and the time seemed right for Gowen and Dave Stewart to realize the common project they had talked about for months : to create a rock orchestra that would not only include two keyboard players, but also two guitarists and three vocalists, not to mention the obligatory rhythm section. Eventually, National Health included only one vocalist (Amanda Parsons), but had no less than seven members : a dream come true for Gowen. Unfortunately, both the personnel changes, which eventually trimmed down the line-up to just five members in early 1977, and the financial difficulties encountered by the band in securing a record deal, caused Gowen to leave National Health in March 1977, although he briefly returned to perform on the band's debut album which included his composition "Brujo", and "Elephants" which he had co-written with Stewart.
In 1977-78, Gowen worked on new material with an informal rehearsal-only line-up of Gilgamesh, consisting of himself, Phil Lee, Neil Murray and former Nucleus percussionist Trevor Tomkins. Murray was eventually replaced by Hugh Hopper for the sessions of Another Fine Tune You've Got Me Into, which took place in Wales the following summer. It was more relaxed, flowing and jazzy record than the band's first effort, with Gowen performing mainly on electric piano and synthesizers.
In the meantime, Gowen had become involved in a new band venture, Soft Heap, a quartet consisting of himself, Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and Pip Pyle. The latter, busy with National Health, was replaced for the inaugural French tour of April 1978 by Dave Sheen (thus the change of band name to Soft Head), during which the LP Rogue Element was recorded. A week off at Jacky Barbier's club in Burgundy also saw Gowen and Hopper recording duo tapes, which surfaced almost two decades later on the Bracknell-Bresse / Improvisations CD. An eponymous studio album by Soft Heap was recorded the following autumn, with Pip Pyle back in the line-up.
In January 1979, Gowen rejoined National Health, replacing the departing Dave Stewart, staying until the band's break-up in March 1980, following several European and American tours. Unfortunately, no studio album was made during this period, but a live document saw the light of day in 2001 : Play Time (Cuneiform Records), a compilation of recordings from the 1979 European and American tours. While playing with National Health, Gowen was still a member of Soft Heap, whose bassist was now John Greaves, which made both bands almost identical in line-up.
After National Health's break-up, Gowen asked Hugh Hopper, who since his departure from Soft Heap had stopped playing bass, if he wanted to collaborate on a duo project. This resulted in a superb album, Two Rainbows Daily, with only Gowen on electric piano and synths and Hopper on bass, with minimal overdubs. Three months after the recordings, the duo played a one-off gig in Bracknell with drummer Nigel Morris (ex-Isotope and Stomu Yamash'ta's East Wind). This was Gowen's last public appearance. Excerpts can be heard on both the CD reissue of Two Rainbows Daily and the Bracknell-Bresse CD.
Only a couple of weeks after this concert, Gowen was diagnosed ill with leukaemia, which meant that he only had a few months more to live. Gowen's reaction was to compose his own musical epitaph under the title Before A Word Is Said, and record it with some of his favourite musical associates : Phil Miller, Richard Sinclair and Trevor Tomkins. The sessions took place in late April and early May 1981, by which time Gowen was extremely ill with leukaemia and the effects of chemotherapy. He died only a couple of weeks after completion of the recording, on May 17th. The album was released under the name Gowen-Miller-Sinclair-Tomkins by Europa Records, run by Jean-Pierre Weiller, a close friend of Gowen and his wife Celia, in 1982.
Shortly after Gowen's funeral, scores of unrecorded or newly rearranged compositions of his were uncovered by his former National Health's colleagues (Phil Miller, Dave Stewart, John Greaves and Pip Pyle), who subsequently decided to reform the band to play a benefit gig at the 100 Club and record an album (with guest appearances by Elton Dean, Jimmy Hastings and Richard Sinclair among others) of these compositions. The result was D.S. Al Coda, released in 1982 under the name of National Health, again on Weiller's Europa label. This music was again performed at two gigs during the Edinburgh Festival in the summer of 1983.
Hugh Hopper : "With his technique and talent, Alan could have been one of those keyboard monsters playing in giant stadiums and making gothic concept albums - if he'd been a more arrogant and extrovert person. Instead, he spent most of his time in his front room in Tooting surrounded by keyboards, LP's and cassettes, reams of sheet music, small bells and percussion instruments, hooters and clockwork toys. And there he would sit writing and playing music - working wonders with Minimoogs and other analog keyboards that in those days were somewhat less than user-friendly".