(The story of Steve's association with Tony Secunda, the sessions recorded in his basement flat and the 1972 NME interview with Charles Shaar Murray)
It was in 1972 that the missing ingredients in Steve's career finally reared their heads - a manager who took some real interest in Steve and a contract - or at least the promise of one - with a major record label. With consummate irony, as with many people who associated themselves with Steve, that manager's prime motivation was a grudge against Marc Bolan. As with much of the hippy audience and underground activists who rallied round Steve as an innocent victim of the 'Judas' Marc, so the manager's underlying motive was to score a low blow against Bolan using inside information he had picked up during his time with T.Rex. This is not to suggest that Tony Secunda's association with Steve Took was entirely founded upon cynicism or devoid of any true respect for Steve's talent - indeed, Secunda's genuine respect for Steve's abilities made a refreshing change from the grudging and half-hearted employment of Doug Smith, and by all accounts, he developed a great deal of personal affection for Took as a friend. But the fact that Secunda, who had never previously worked with an as-yet unestablished artist, did not approach Steve via the traditional svengali route of a manager spying fresh young talent, perhaps at a gig, indeed the fact that Secunda only became aware of Steve's own music after he had already made contact with Took, only underlines that ultimately the origin of any concern regarding Steve's personal and career welfare stemmed in Secunda's mind from his somewhat embittered desire to spite Bolan. The final irony in this situation being that, as we have already seen, acrimony from their split aside, neither Took nor Bolan ever wished each other any serious ill and undoubtedly, Bolan's competitive instincts notwithstanding, both could easily have co-existed at the top of the charts. In short, it would not have succeeded in upsetting Bolan at all.
Of course, stunts like this were nothing new for Secunda; in the 1960's he had been responsible for the career of the Move and had managed to promote their single Flowers in the Rain to Number 1 in the charts partly via a (faked) photograph of the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson nude. Wilson successfully sued for libel, but in the process managed to blow much of the fashionable status he had acquired when he had given MBE's to the Beatles. Although the stunt ultimately backfired on Secunda (after losing their royalties on the single as a result of the said lawsuit, the Move dumped Secunda in favour of notorious hardman Don Arden, who would later convert them into the Electric Light Orchestra, then split them into ELO and Wizard) his actions in wrecking the hip reputation of the PM of the day helped establish his reputation as a promotional genius and scandalmonger par excelence. It had been such a reputation which had initially attracted Marc Bolan to Secunda and led to him signing the manager up as his henchman in order to bring practically every aspect of Bolan's career under Marc's control - in the process, putting out of joint the noses of practically everyone with whom Bolan had ever worked in the past, alongside the greater part of the music industry. With the putsch thus established, Marc finally turned upon and eliminated the last remaining middleman - Secunda. By hanging his own hangman, Marc himself now had personal control over every aspect of his career, but he had also turned his prime weapon against himself. A ragingly angry Secunda sought to wreak his revenge (this was confirmed by Keith Morris who had known Secunda at the time he managed Bolan).
With the kind of initiative only the wildly and paranoically irate can generate, Secunda's first instinct was to exploit the situation with regard to royalties to other members of the band. With Steve Currie and Bill Legend on fixed wages, there was precious little capital to be made from exploiting any discontent within T.Rex. There was always the possibility of somehow interfering with Mickey Finn's situation, but Finn had far too much loyalty to Marc (and his 50% cut of all record royalties) to be lured away on some wild scheme. So Secunda looked to the past, and, recalling that Steve Took had been on a similar financial arrangement to Mickey Finn with regard to the first three albums - indeed, Finn inherited Took's deal when he took over - and that Marc had been deeply concerned about the financial complexities regarding outstanding money owing to Steve, quickly discovered that Took was owed money from royalties arising from the wealth of cash-in rereleases (the Number One hit budget double LP reissue of the first two albums, the Top 10 single re-release of Debora, etc) and so decided to pay Marc's old associate a visit. Dropping in one day on "this dodgy squat in [Ladbroke] Grove," his opening gambit was, reportedly, "I know where there's a lot of money that belongs to you." It was Secunda's First Big Idea - spite Bolan by making him go to the trouble of getting his finances arranged so that Steve got his share of money.
Money was something Steve needed quite desperately at the time as he had been out of action for several months around the beginning of 1971 with a severe case of pneumonia and had therefore been unable to gig to earn cash. One fairly downbeat article in Melody Maker in January '72 depicted him as living in very frugal lodgings near the Westway flyover in Notting Hill, with a cat and a deceased, decomposing mouse for company. Essex Music, publishers of Tyrannosaurus Rex's output, had been fairly begrudging about paying him royalties, occasionally sending payments of £1000 or so to Took, who, as Larry Wallis recalled, would usually rapidly spend the cash on a big meal out and various other indulgences for all his Notting Hill Gate hippy friends. As photographer Keith Morris recalled "the problem with Tookie was that when ever he got a royalty cheque he predictably went out and bought shit loads of drugs". Keith remembered Steve's drug taking at this time to be spasmodic, depending upon his income. Took himself, in the same Melody Maker interview, suggested that had he remained with T.Rex, he would probably have ended up like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones - dead at the bottom of a swimming pool. Nonetheless, any money, especially a large quantity, was welcome given Steve's current state of finances. So Steve and Tony got talking, initially about matters financial. After a while, however, the subject matter turned to Steve's own music. Steve talked of his own ambitions and played Secunda some of his songs. And this is what gave Tony Secunda his Second Big Idea - spite Marc by turning Steve Took into a star!
The first step was to get Steve an advance from a record company. This time, with a committed professional manager in charge of affairs, selling Steve to the music industry proved remarkably easy. Secunda went straight to Warner Brothers chairman Mo Austin and negotiated $30,000 in "seed money" to get Steve started on a recording career. The next step would be to actually get some recordings done. There was little question of which song Steve's debut single would be; Amanda had always been earmarked as being the most commercial Steve song by all who were familiar with Steve's music and so it was a fairly natural choice for an A-side. Two other songs, Blind Owl Blues and Mr Discreet, were also chosen for the session. After this, a studio was booked, Olympic Studios in Wimbledon, London. It only remained to assemble a backing band for Steve. Unfortunately Larry Wallis and Dave Bidwell were otherwise preoccupied, so an alternative bassist and drummer were found in the shapes of Duncan Sanderson and Russell Hunter, the erstwhile rhythm section of the Pink Fairies. Twink and the ex-Deviants had gotten themselves well established as a recording and gigging unit and even after Twink's departure, the three former sidemen of Mick Farren had continued to put out material until guitarist Paul Rudolph left the band. With only two members left on board, the remaining Fairies were effectively defunct and seeking work, and so in many respects Steve was returning an old favour by recruiting them into his backing band. When the threesome turned up at Olympic Studios (where the Stones and Jimi had famously recorded), they met up with an old acquaintance, ex-Junior Eyes guitarist Mick Wayne who was in the studio that day working on something else and they invited him on board. Mick agreed to become the fourth member. So, Steve had his backing band and work proceeded apace.
It was at this point that things hit a roadblock, however, Steve was never able to decide firmly on how he wanted his records to sound. As Wayne put it "The trouble with all that dope induced thinking was that he was always questioning the results. Nothing ever got finished." Steve himself commented in an interview at the time that he was "trying to suss out what 'boogie' is" - trying uncertainly to determine his musical direction. Quite to what extent the three tracks were ever recorded, we can only guess, but evidently they were not yet ready for pressing onto vinyl by the time the studio booking ran out - indeed the chief legacy of this session in music history is that subsequently, Wayne, Sanderson and Hunter would form an new version of the Fairies, who recorded the single 'Well Well Well'. Another recording session, with Larry Wallis, at RG Studios in Morden appears to have degenerated into little more than a party, as Wallis recalled in 1987 "He thought that when you hired a recording studio, you invited all your friends and it was party time."
Steve, it would appear failed to appreciate the earnest, business-like atmosphere required to make actual records - perhaps influenced by the experiences of making Think Pink and Mona The Carnivorous Circus, he basically saw recording sessions in much the same light as casual jamming sessions held in friends' houses. "Which sounds great, you turn up at a session and the lights have to be turned down low and you drink a bottle of Southern Comfort and smoke some joints and all that. But when someone's paid for the day and at the end of the session there ain't any sensible tapes been made ... Took lost all his credibility. He was too out of it all the time." Attempts at forming bands for Steve from professional musicians also fell by the wayside, often because Steve himself would freak them out, most commonly by spiking their drinks with acid, an old trick of Steve's which back in the late 1960's had earned him the nickname of "The Phantom Spiker" amongst his underground friends - indeed, Bolan himself strongly suspected that Took was responsible for the infamous mass-spiking with STP of the orange squash at the launch party for the UK edition of Rolling Stone, the victims including Marc himself as well as June and Jeff Dexter (who was less seriously affected due to his previous experience with hallucinogenics.) On one occasion, Took even spiked Secunda's drink, as the manager recalled in 1994 "I turned around and said, 'you bastard, you put something in my drink, didn't you?' And Steve just smiled and said 'yes, but don't worry. I gave you a lot!'"
In the end Secunda conceded to Steve's way of doing things. He had a basement flat in his office and so he set it up for Steve as a live-in recording studio. An 8-track Revox machine was installed in the flat along with ample amounts of blank tape and a wide array of instruments: primarily an acoustic guitar and an expensive electric keyboard, along with various assorted percussion goodies left over from Steve's time with Tyrannosaurus Rex. Tony then left Steve to it, like a flower left in the greenhouse to get on with growing in the sunlight. "I just gave Steve an open book - 'we've got a little budget, so you should be able to get some songs together.' And he did to a point." In the little downstairs room, where new meaning was being attached to the expression 'studio flat', Steve could hold the ultimate jamming-session party, filling up as much tape as he wanted with as many ideas as he wanted. Friends of his from the underground could come along and help out when they and he felt the need, at other times he could just get on with things by himself. It was cheap, accommodating and fairly bohemian, the perfect set-up for Steve to sketch out just how he wanted his solo album to sound. The plan was that from this, the best moments could then be taken back to Warners and turned into a proper album.
And for some time, this arrangement worked remarkably well. In the basement flat in Mayfair, Steve would sketch out a song, playing it on acoustic guitar then jamming some percussion onto it, occasionally even double tracking his bongo playing to achieve a nice haunting stereo effect. He would then sit down with the keyboard, creating huge orchestral effects giving the impression of huge glossy production far removed from the small basement set up in which Steve was working. Occasionally, some of Steve's friends would visit him in the flat, forming impromptu jamming bands in order to create some of the electric rock sections of the tapes, in a style harkening back to the days of the original electric Shagrat of 1970. Unfortunately, much of the vocal and guitar work on the tracks was taped with Steve mildly inebriated and/or stoned, thus lending the a somewhat incongruous effect to the finished result - a kind of Concerto for Orchestra and Stoned Hippy Strummer. It is doubly unfortunate since these sessions have since gone on to become the most widely available recordings of Steve's songs, and so the combination of the slurred, half-powered vocal and the swamping of the songs beneath the dreams of overproduction may well have lead many a casual listener to underestimate Steve's abilities both as a singer and as a songwriter. It is a pity that, for example, the acoustic Shagrat sessions from early 1971 have not achieved such a high profile as, although more sparsely produced, they do better represent Steve's talents as a writer and performer. Nevertheless, these tapes are invaluable to the more seasoned Took devotee as they represent the clearest insight into what sort of recording artist he imagined himself to be, and just how he felt that his records ought to sound.
The subject of just who else recorded on these sessions remains to this day, a vexed question, to say the least. Two main primary sources exist, Steve's own notes made on various tapes as well as Tony Secunda's own memories of whom he saw passing on the stairs down to the basement as he was going about his other business on the floor above, chiefly as recounted to Dave Thompson in 1994. With both Took and Secunda now passed on, we can only derive from these sources, particularly the latter, a rough list of who may have performed on the session, or at the very least who may have been present. Musicians who were cited included Larry Wallis, Mick Wayne, Twink, assorted Pink Fairies, a few of Hawkwind and even Mick Farren. Certainly most of the electric guitar work on the tapes bears the distinctive hallmark of Larry Wallis's playing, however some of the other suggestions made by Took in his notes might cause one to raise an eyebrow; for example the crediting of Mick Wayne as a bassist or of Pink Fairies bass player Duncan Sanderson as a drummer! It seems that for some time in 1972-3, the basement flat became the fashionable place to hang out and jam for all attached to the Hippy scene in London, particularly its Ladbroke Grove headquarters. Indeed, in an added piece of publicity, Steve received a visit from Sounds's Steve Peacock, who wrote a progress report on the sessions for his paper in November. Took performed the song Flophouse Blues, under its alternative title Ballad Of The Mountain Grill, for Peacock, who wrotethat "For those few minutes he was transformed from a friendly, slightly untogether, muttering interviewee, into a strong, uninhibited, totally magnetic musician. That was beautiful - it was all he needed to do the whole afternoon."
The most controversial credit of all, however, goes to a mysterious individual listed only as "Crazy Diamond", who appears to have performed guitar and various vocal effects on two acoustic versions of Lucky Charm and Beautiful Deceiver. Remarkably, Secunda allegedly suggested that this individual was none other than Syd Barrett, still just barely hanging onto his sanity in 1972. Certainly, while the idea of the 1970s Barrett in his deteriorating mental condition actually working properly in a studio might seem more than a little far-fetched, it admittedly does become rather less inconceivable if one thinks of it in terms of him having popped round to see an old mate for an afternoon and sat around playing a couple of songs to tape. Supporters of this theory point to how the version of Beautiful Deceiver featured in the sessions is entitled "Syd's Wine". Steve had taken to renaming his songs with one-word titles ('Wine' = Beautiful Deceiver, 'Give' = Still Yawning Stillborn etc) and thus 'Syd's Wine', so the theory goes, could be taken to mean that it was a version of 'Wine' on which Syd worked.
Others, especially those who have researched extensively into Barrett's career, insist that these claims were nothing more than a publicity exercise for the sessions in the mid-'90s and matters have not been helped by an otherwise excellent Barrett biography which erroneously placed the sessions as having taken place in 1974. For some time in the 1990s, the pendulum of evidence swung away from any possibility of Crazy Diamond having been Barrett, however later reports that Took participated in the recording of Barrett's drum -instrumental track "Rhamadan" in 1968, raise once again the possibility of the favour being returned as well as Mick Farren's recollections of Took's social association for Barrett during The Madcap Laughs period (for Took, the final months of Tyannosaurus Rex). Later on, in 1974, there is a documented Took-Barrett connection when, as described at the time in Barrett-zine Terrapin Took gave its editor Paul Cox the address of Barrett's flat in Chelsea Cloisters, resulting in Cox pursuing Barrett down the street and ultimately Syd having to relocate outside of London for a while There was of course the outside possibility that the answer to all this may lie with Roger Keith Barrett, but given how he is already hounded relentlessly by journalists and devotees of his own work alike, but Barrett's death in 2006 from cancer put paid to this particular hope.
Whoever 'Crazy Diamond' might really have been, certainly his or her contributions the two tracks in question do bear considerable hallmarks of Barrett's style. The acoustic Lucky Charm, entitled Molecular Lucky Charm, as well as the 'Syd's Wine' version of Beautiful Deceiver both feature considerable amounts of vocally-created sound effects. The former starts with a loud rushing jumbo-jet noise not dissimilar to that on the Beatles' "Back in the USSR" and then proceeds to fade into Took and 'Diamond' strumming the tune together. As Steve occasionally mumbles bits of lyric, Crazy lets loose with noises from some alien jungle that would do credit to any BBC Radiophonic workshop contribution to Doctor Who, Blake's 7 or any other science-fiction programme. Whistling birds and insects, psychedelic alien nightingales, the distant sound of waterfalls as the song rounds into a fresh verse, all are there. At the end, the song fades away to a chorus of nightingales, insect and a helicopter-sound. Although a very atypical Took track, Molecular Lucky Charm is nevertheless very beautiful to listen to, albeit far removed from the original Lucky Charm song.
The version of Beautiful Deceiver is more strained than the original, slow and melancholy unlike the up-tempo pop of the 1971 version, and Crazy Diamond's vocal contribution can sadly only be clearly heard on stripped down acoustic mixes of the track - a slow, up-and-down, oscillating wheezing sound gradually moving further and further to the foreground. Crazy also strummed guitar alongside Took on this track, a much gentler lilting sound counterpointing Took's rocky stabs at the strings (it was a regular habit of Took to treat his acoustic like an electric) and managed to keep the flow of the song going when Steve fell off his chair at one point (Secunda recalled hearing the track with Steve afterwards and enquiring as to the relevance of the loud crashing noise at the start of the final verse. Steve gave a sheepish grin and admitted "I fell off my chair!"). Took also layered on the keyboard-strings and some percussion onto the track in the form of bongos and marracas, to flesh out the track into a solemn orchestral number, the 'orchestra' proceeding along at the same slow, stoned pace as Steve, in a rather cartoon-like manner.
Of the other tracks, the electric numbers lack the sheer energy of the 1970 Shagrat tracks, but make up for it with a greater degree of polish. Of the material covered in the April '70 Strawberry Studios session, only half of one track appears to have been rerecorded fully- the latter half of Steel Abortion, picking up at the start of the slow middle section and entitled 'I Caution You'. In its original electric form, Lucky Charm is a fairly forward moving 4/4 blues rock number sporting the same riff that Bolan used on 'Buick Mackane' and 'Children of the Revolution'. Steve screams the lead vocals in a Heavy Metal Headbanger style, which although mosh-worthy enough, makes it somewhat difficult to decipher the lyrics. There is also a shorter, slicker mix of this track entitled 'Scorpius' which runs for about one minute and is stripped of Took's vocal and guitar part. A brief abortive electric stab is made at Give (the retitled Still Yawning Stillborn) as well as a full and rather extensive acoustic version, with the guitar tuned above normal by two semitones and Steve's power-strumming accompanied by some light drums (mainly concentrating on cymbals.) Heavier thunderous drumming is used on dark power-ballad "Seventh Sign" which also probably started life as an electric number. The original acoustic demo of this features a short coda on the guitar which was sadly given the chop from the produced version.
The least listener-friendly of the bunch is the track 'Days', in which a clearly stoned Steve mumbles and picks his way gradually and endlessly through a song one evening, with very heavy hypnotic Pink Floyd-esque bongos. Things pick up a bit when the keyboards come in halfway through to create an effect that best embodies the 'Concerto for Orchestra and Stoned Hippy' description, but can be very heavy going for the first-time listener. By contrast, the two versions of Flophouse Blues, otherwise known as 'The Ballad of the Mountain Grill" (after a 'greasy spoon' cafe in Portobello Road oft-frequented by the Pinkwind community) are probably the most accessible material to have emerged from the tapes - a catchy tune which works well in both acoustic and electric form. In the former, Steve effectively double-tracks his bongos to create a nice stereo effect, while the keyboards are set to Hammond organ mode. It also features probably Steve's best vocals from the available tracks from the session, possibly suggesting that it was done during daylight hours when Steve was reasonably together. The latter is very much the link between the ballad style of Steve's acoustic work and his harder-rocking electric aspirations, finally breathing electric energy into Took's ballads, only to be cut off midway through verse 2.
As part of the publicity drive emerging from this era, Steve gave one of the two most important interviews of his career in November. "Steve Took - From Bolan Boogie to Gutter Rock" published as a two-page spread in the 14th October 1972 edition of the NME, accompanied by an evocative picture of Steve on a park bench reading an NME feature on Bolan, is widely taken as the definitive document on early '70s Took and indeed, several quotes from it have already been featured in this article. Certainly, far more than any of the shorter pieces from this time, it accurately captures Steve's personality, his wry offbeat sense of humour, (he had taken to reversing people's names, calling Bolan 'Nalob Cram' and himself 'Evets Koot') his sense of surrealism ("I like pouring hot wax over people, especially young ladies with large breasts or small breasts or any kind of breasts, I don't mind, I'm not fussy.") as well as an accurate portrayal of life for Took as an up-and coming young solo artist. The title of the article came from an off-handed comment Marc had made during an interview wherein, when asked about Steve's whereabouts, he had replied, "Er, I dunno. In the gutter somewhere," a comment which Shaar Murray reported that Took had very much taken to heart, almost as a guiding principle in life.
The interview also reported Steve's own feelings as to his reputation as a heavy drug fiend: "[Rolling Stone said that I ] wanted to put acid in the water supplies and burn down the cities, and I'm the original flower child! I mean, if you want to put acid in the water supplies, I'll drink it because I don't know what they're putting in the water supplies. Fifteen thousand Japanese have just keeled over with this terrible disease, man, and it's from the drinking water and they're all screwed up with malformed brains and bones and there's a generation of children that's been born malformed and it's to do with the drinking water. Now that's chemicals and that's what I've been into and that's what I've just come out of and now I like listening to both sides and listening to Radio Peking." Nevertheless, Steve was careful to avoid any lessening of his image as a Wild Man of Rock: "I was reported in your newspaper [the NME] as 'back on the road after straightening his head out.' This is entirely untrue. I haven't straightened my head out. I can't think how anybody could think my head's straightened out, because it's not, is it? (comic German accent) It's not straightened out at all!"
While with Secunda, Steve also had other possible projects in the works. For example, there was another attempt at a band with Dave Bidwell and a Japanese bass-player, Eisuke Takahashi, and it is believed that it was these two to whom Steve made reference when he spoke in the NME interview of "a couple of cats I dig working with." This three-piece outfit jammed together frequently in late 1972/early 1973, even playing a gig which reportedly produced such a negative audience reaction that Took and Takahashi eventually abandoned their instruments and switched to a comedy sketch based around martial arts demonstrations. Also during this time, Keith Morris was engaged to take a series of promotional shots. One of these appeared in the 'Mojo' article written by Mick Farren regarding Steve in '95, however the remainder have not been published. These photographs range from the standard 'promo' photo to some of Steve in a more relaxed mood clowning around. The book on Steve Peregrin Took - His Life & Music "A Trip Through Ladbroke Grove" will contain around two dozen of these photographs.
In the end however, Secunda's original desire to wound Marc finally
simmered down as once again, as with the earlier attempt at recording him
at Olympic Studios, Steve was never finally satisfied with any of the tracks
he recorded. Although Warner Brothers were reportedly very enthusiastic
about the prospect of recording Steve, Took himself refused to allow Secunda
to take any tapes to Warners. "They're not ready" Steve claimed and Secunda
would later profess to being unsure as to whether this referred to the
tapes or the record company! There no longer seemed any point in running
a free months-long jamming party underneath his office. "Steve would do
things like - he'd say he had this idea for a song, and he wanted to get
it down, and then he'd go on playing for hours. You'd tell him you wanted
something shorter, tighter, 'write a four minute single, Steve!', and he'd
say okay, I can do that - we'll talk tomorrow.' Then he'd roll another
joint, switch on the television and that was the last you'd hear of it."
Towards the end of their time together, Took had become increasingly disenchanted
with Secunda (one friend recalled that Steve had taken to referring to
the manager as 'Tony Suck-Under') and although Secunda did eventually mix
a selection of tracks together for Steve's benefit, so that he could use
them as a demo tape for future management and record company negotiations,
the archive of tapes was eventually sealed into a large wooden box labelled
"Steve Took's Ramblings" where they were to remain for well over two decades.
As for Steve, his departure from Tony Secunda's control marked the end
of any sense of meteoric or even upward ascent in the music world. He was
to have more opportunities for success during the seventies, as we shall
see, but it certainly did condemn his career in the long run to be seen
as that of the persistent journeyman - it would never be 'brave new morning'