Before Beatlemania and the British Invasion, Pete Brown was one of the UK’s few professional poets who made a living performing verse, alongside Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. From there, he toured with a backing band that included British jazz and blues greats like Graham Bond, Dick Heckstall-Smith, John McLaughlin. From there, he wrote lyrics for some classic rock songs and never looked back, still going strong at 81. In a series of trans-Atlantic conversations with PKM’s John Kruth, Brown recalls his early years in London, the influence the Beats and the impact of jazz artists like Charles Mingus before connecting with Cream.
Legendary, yet not as famous as his collaborators, Cream, Procol Harum and John McLaughlin, Pete Brown wrote lyrics to “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room” and “Theme to an Imaginary Western,” and played a vital supporting role as “The Mysterious Bard” in the halcyon days of British Rock.
Back in the day, several British rock bands had their own in-house poets: King Crimson with Peter Sinfield, Procol Harum’s Keith Reid, along with Bernie Taupin of Elton John fame. But Pete Brown’s muse quickly led him from the page to the stage. An old black and white video from a French TV show in October 1970 reveals Pete as a wild, frizzy-haired geezer, fronting his band, Piblokto, looking like a cross between Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and Yippee Jerry Rubin. While virtually unknown in the States, Piblokto rocked with the intense energy and solid chops of any prog group of the day.
In his 2010 memoir, White Rooms and Imaginary Westerns, Brown repeatedly criticized his voice – a menacing, raspy delivery closer to Leslie West of Mountain than to his collaborator, Jack Bruce. While few could ever match Jack Bruce’s powerful delivery, Pete was arguably the second-best singer in Cream, even if he never appeared on their records. Phil Ryan’s spiraling keyboard riffs recall the Doors’ Ray Manzarek or Goldy McJohn of Steppenwolf fame as Brown thwacks a conga drum between his legs, like a hippie shaman in a trance. Pete howls in a vest with no shirt, like Richard Manuel on peyote, while guitarist Ray Williams’ skillful noodling evokes Steely Dan’s jazz rock.
The Steely Dan influence has remained a constant over the years in Brown’s sound and can be heard on Pete’s 2013 collaboration with Phil Ryan, Perils of Wisdom.
PKM: Having recently turned 81 on Christmas day, you still have your fingers in several pies these days, both musical and literary.
Pete Brown: I realized a long time ago that you have to keep a lot of balls up in the air in order to keep surviving. I’m currently writing a musical, and still producing records. One of the best albums I produced was The Peter Green Songbook [1995, with performances by Ian Anderson, Arthur Brown, Rory Gallagher and Paul Jones]. And From Clarksdale to Heaven, the John Lee Hooker tribute which I produced with Jeff Beck and all sorts of people [Jack Bruce, Gary Moore, Dick Heckstall-Smith, and Mick Taylor to name a few]. If it’s something you love doing, why should you stop doing it when you’re 50 or 60? Unless you’re going nowhere with it or not improving.
PKM: When did you start writing poetry and who initially inspired you?
Pete Brown: I was 14 and started off reading Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who I still think is really amazing. And through a friend of mine I discovered [Federico Garcia] Lorca. Surrealism was always something I loved. Following that, I got into Kenneth Patchen and Robert Creeley, who was fantastic, although not really a Beat, but certainly had some of the attitude. I later worked with [Allen] Ginsberg and [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti – who were wonderful.
PKM: Did you discover poetry at school?
Pete Brown: No. It was really word of mouth. I had friends who said, “You gotta look at this.” I went to this partly religious Jewish school, which I was eventually expelled from. When I would deviate from the schoolwork, and take off writing these weird fantasies my English teacher, Dr. Levine, got pissed-off and said, “Why don’t you write your own poetry and stories, away from the schoolwork?” So, I thought, OK, well yeah, I’ll do that!
PKM: Were you a big fan of William Blake.
Pete Brown: Oddly I wasn’t exposed to Blake when I was young. It would have been very good for me! Later on, I got into Blake of course. But it was all about Gerard Manley Hopkins, who, to me was like a John Coltrane figure of poetry. He had incredible chops! The first book of Beat poetry I got, after things became available in Britain was Gregory Corso’s Gasoline. The Happy Birthday of Death, [by Corso] was also a wonderful book, full of humor. But the strange thing was that I could not discern, for one moment, any humor in the actual person.
PKM: And how did Beat culture impact you?
Pete Brown: I wanted to be part of the bohemian scenery. After I was expelled from school, I hitchhiked around Scotland, staying in hostels, and former ammo dumps from WWII. I was inspired by Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek, and visions of Kerouac.
PKM: And you would later read with Corso and Ginsberg…
Pete Brown: Yes, I met Mike Horovitz [editor of London’s Beat literature magazine, New Departures, who helped organize the famous 1965 International Poetry Incarnation event on June 11th at Albert Hall, which introduced England to Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso to the burgeoning underground. Brown and Horovitz also read that evening while Peter Whitehead documented the performance in a short film called Wholly Communion] and we decided to team up together. He already had some musicians in tow and wanted to get a regular jazz and poetry group going. One of the first guys he got was Dick Heckstall-Smith [known for blowing two saxophones at once, blasting brassy chords in the style of Rahsaan Roland Kirk] and Graham Bond, who was playing saxophone at the time. Horovitz and I were already on the road performing as poets when a friend of ours sponsored a big jazz and poetry show at one of the big town halls, in 1961. The band had Graham and Dick with Laurie Morgan, one of the great be-bop drummers in Britain and Jeff Klein, a great bass player, as well as Dudley Moore [yes that Dudley Moore] on piano. He was a fantastic musician!
PKM: What was the London scene like in the early ‘60s?
Pete Brown: In ’63 we were doing a residency at the Marquee Club, playing Tuesday nights while Alexis Korner’s group, Blues Incorporated, played Thursdays. That’s when he really became famous, packing that place out with his great band comprised of Graham, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Dick Heckstall-Smith. That lasted for a year or two. Then Graham fired them all and reformed them as his own group [without Alexis, and originally with John McLaughlin, who was soon replaced by Heckstall-Smith]. That was the Graham Bond Organization, which, in my opinion, is still the greatest British band… ever!
PKM: Most Americans knew nothing about Graham Bond until his albums were finally released in the States after Cream became famous. That band meant serious business! They had a real edge and power, like the British gangster sons of Charles Mingus!
Pete Brown: Yes, the Charles Mingus band with Roland Kirk, that recorded Oh Yeah! had a tremendous influence on all the musical people over here. They were also into [John] Coltrane and Elvin Jones. They were revolutionary and had a very, very small audience to start with. When the blues thing came along, and began to reach a lot of people, the jazz musicians jumped on it, so they could still play something that resembled the music they loved.
PKM: Charles Mingus recorded an album called The Clown with [DJ/author] Jean Shepard [best known for writing and narrating the film A Christmas Story]. Mingus also recorded with [poet/artist Kenneth] Patchen. Did those records have an influence on you?
Pete Brown: Oh yes! As well as a lesser-known album Mingus did called A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry  with the same band that did Tijuana Moods and East Coasting with Bill Evans.
PKM: Did you improvise lyrics in the moment or write them down ahead of time and then read them over the music the band created?
Pete Brown: Horovitz and I were certainly capable of improvisation. When I was very, very stoned I would try to improvise, but most of it was gibberish, to tell you the truth. There’s a very good live recording we did in ‘’62 or ‘63 called Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead [Gearbox Records]. It was a 63-minute-long jazz poem we wrote, responding to each other with alternating verses, inspired by the way Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray would chase each other with their horns.
PKM: Americans tend to know you best as a lyricist, but you’ve led some rocking, inventive bands over the years, that toured around England and Europe.
Pete Brown: A number of people inspired me along the way – Dick-Heckstall Smith, Graham Bond and Jack Bruce, of course. My voice wasn’t very good at first. But being on the road and six years of singing lessons and private study of theory have helped me be better equipped for what I’m still trying to do in my old age. I just keep pressing on!
PKM: Your lyrics have always been rich in imagery. Was that directly reflective of the time when you wrote them? Has your work much changed since then?
Pete Brown: In recent years I’ve tried to simplify my writing, to make it more understandable to people. I’m not like Van Dyke Parks or Captain Beefheart. Don’t get me wrong I like what Van Dyke does and I think that Beefheart was quite funny.
PKM: As [anthropologist] Joseph Campbell used to say: “the problem of the theologian is to keep his symbol translucent so that it may not block out the very light it is supposed to convey.”
Pete Brown: Yes! [laughs] I can dig that. Simple is best! In more recent years I’ve gotten a lot from Neil Young and Randy Newman’s songs, speaking of white songwriters that I like. Although one of my favorite lyric writers of all time is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. He wrote wonderful stuff!
PKM: American music inspired a lot of English musicians in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. In your book, you mention the influence of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong as well as Louis Jordan’s “Nobody Here but Us Chickens” and “Open the Door Richard.” Lonnie Donegan’s hit with of Leadbelly’s ‘Rock Island Line,” seemed to resonate with everyone in the UK.
Pete Brown: Lonnie Donegan was a really good musician who really sold it. It was partly his personality, but there was a movement here, that was almost equal to the folk revival in America. But there was a tendency here to be more interested in the Black exponents of the music, like Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White. I was too young to see them, but people I knew had. Big Bill was very, very important indeed. His old records were electric, like the beginnings of R&B. When he came over here, he re-invented himself and became a folk singer, playing acoustic guitar. My old friend Davey Graham was the guy who really brought Bill Broonzy’s music into the British scene and then everybody listened to him, including Bert Jansch and John Renbourn [of Pentagle].
PKM: Oh, Davey Graham is legendary! One of the greatest British guitarists… period. No Davey – No Jimmy Page! It’s that simple! Paul Simon picked up on him when he went to England and recorded “Anji” on the second Simon & Garfunkel album, Sounds of Silence.
Pete Brown: Davey was phenomenal… but a very strange guy, very far out. He came from a very odd family. I knew them very well. I went out with both of his sisters and was once propositioned by his mother! [Laughs] We worked together quite a lot. But people who take heroin go in funny directions.
PKM: That’s very subtle Pete! Rather British! Oh that’s awkward! He’s taking heroin!
Pete Brown: [Laughs] Well it was! Heroin finds the people who need it. It finds that weak spot in you. It was the curse of Charlie Parker, for an entire generation of musicians. So many musicians grew up thinking Charlie Parker played like he did because he was a junky, which wasn’t at all true. Being such a great artist and innovator at that time in racist America damaged him long before he took heroin. But you’ve got to make the decision… Am I gonna die at the age of 27 being fucked up and have people say, ‘Wow he was great, really heroic, but what a shame he didn’t live any longer.’
PKM: Doomed artist syndrome. A lot of people see it as romantic! Knowing where the music came from and what it originally sounded like, what did you think of all the young English bands covering of Muddy Waters songs?
Pete Brown: It was a strange cultural thing. The blues allowed you to do your own thing with it. But the second-hand British version was still warm, swinging, semi-spontaneous, music that was played with love and respect for its Black predecessors.
PKM: I always thought your lyric to “Politician” was like a lost Willie Dixon song. And Jack [Bruce’s] bass line was so heavy!
Pete Brown: I wrote the lyric first, actually. It was a spoken word piece, over a twelve-bar blues. Originally, I did a demo of it with John McLaughlin. It was inspired by the Profumo scandal, which was such a gaff it brought the government down, which was great and funny in some ways! [The Minister of Defense, John Profumo resigned after it was discovered he was having an affair with a 19-year-old model Christine Keeler, who, it turned out, was also involved with a Soviet Naval attache Captain Yevgeny Ivanov in London.] I showed the lyric to Jack, who had written the music for “Politician,” and it fit together quite well.
PKM: Musical trends were changing so fast in London at the time, from trad jazz to blues and soul to psychedelic in just a few short years.
Pete Brown: Yeah, there was a soul band called the In-Crowd who’d been doing well on the circuit and almost overnight they became quite successful as [the band known as] Tomorrow. Suddenly their mod haircuts were gone, and they stopped singing “In the Midnight Hour.” They started wearing white suits and were singing “My White Bicycle,” which was a good song, don’t get me wrong. They were good musicians and sang well, but it was weird…
PKM: So, Donovan was right when he sang, “Stoned beatniks out to make it rich.” Was everybody trying to cash in on new trends?
Pete Brown: Before I started singing properly, I had a band with John McLaughlin called the First Real Poetry Band where I semi-improvised poetry with very free electronic jazz. We played at all the psychedelic clubs. One night at Bristol University the support band came into the dressing room with this great big hamper. Most of them had short hair and the singer was Black. They were obviously a soul band, but they took all these wigs and clothes out of this hamper and suddenly transformed into a bunch of hippies. It was really bizarre.
PKM: Wow! Plastic! Fantastic!
Pete Brown: The soul thing was very good at first. But it wasn’t very original. Everyone was just copying the Americans. Then suddenly bands like Pink Floyd and a few others were doing British material, driven in part by “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane,” which opened up a whole new spectrum of what you could do musically and lyrically. It was a lot closer to home and kind of easier than trying to sing like Wilson Pickett which obviously we all wanted to do, whether we were capable of it, or not [laughs].
PKM: Yeah, Sergeant Pepper and Piper at the Gates of Dawn were both recorded at the same time at Abbey Road. John Lennon, Syd Barrett and Marc Bolan all wrote quintessential British songs, inspired by fantasy writers like Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. And then there was Ray Davies, inspired by British Music Hall.
Pete Brown: Yeah, Ray came in from a different angle, but certainly got there. [Pink Floyd’s first single] “Arnold Layne” was very big for me. I absolutely adored that song! It was very innovative in that it had this completely British subject about British perversions. Not everyone understood it, but eventually they came around. A great song, although they didn’t play it very well, apart from Syd. They’d mostly been in blues bands when they suddenly transformed themselves and were doing this new thing. And then came “See Emily Play,” which is such a beautiful lyrical song. It really revolutionized a lot of stuff, along with “Eleanor Rigby.”
PKM: I can’t imagine soul fans suddenly jumping into the new psychedelic scene. Hendrix certainly could mix those styles together, and the Chambers Brothers too. But I would think there were divided factions like the folky fundamentalists who despised Dylan for “going electric” on his 1966 tour with the Band.
Pete Brown: Well, people really loved soul music. When Pink Floyd first left London to play gigs in the provinces, people hated them [laughs] even though they had hit records.I remember once when Cream played at the Roundhouse, which was just beginning to be a psychedelic venue. They were playing on the same bill as Geno Washington, a black ex-GI who stayed over here and became an enormously popular singer. He always had great bands. It was the only occasion I saw somebody completely wipe the floor with Cream. The audience was there for Geno and didn’t like what Cream was doing. Of course, they eventually got around to liking them later, but they weren’t there yet. But people loved dancing to soul music. When the psychedelic music came along, some of it was not very danceable until people started to figure out how to move to it.
PKM: I bet acid helped everyone figure out how to wriggle their bodies to the music.
Pete Brown: Yes… It was all very Isadora Duncan!
PKM: Your lyric to Jack [Bruce]’s song “Dance the Night Away” [from Cream’s Disraeli Gears] conjured visions of Sufis twirling wildly, trying to lose themselves in oblivion.
Pete Brown: I love that one. That’s one of the few songs about my life. That one and “White Room.” I was having a bad time. I may have been spiked with something or maybe it was all the excess… whatever it was, I wasn’t sure whether I was alive or dead. So, I stopped taking everything and got sort of straight and was in a very peculiar state. My idea of reality had changed a great deal [laughs]. One of the things that kept me anchored was to go to [London’s famous psychedelic dungeon] the UFO and places like that and dance with psychedelic women, which I never did before. I’m not a dancer but I’m rhythmic, having played percussion for years. The dancing and subsequent sex afterwards kept me from going insane. Sex and dancing anchored me a great deal and got me through that time when I was having panic attacks. That’s what “Dance the Night Away” was really about.
PKM: That all comes through in the song. And [Eric] Clapton’s 12-string guitar on that track is different from anything else he’d done up to that point. It’s reminiscent of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” which first brought the Indian raga into rock. While we’re on the subject of Disraeli Gears, what was that enigmatic “thing” you refer to in the lyric to Jack’s “Take it Back”?
Pete Brown: Well, that’s really about the draft and Viet Nam and the threat of the draft papers. Y’know… “Take that thing right out of here!”
PKM: I think a lot of guys could relate to the line, “I got this great need, the need to stay alive…” So then… how did you get started with Cream?
Pete Brown: Through the jazz scene and Graham Bond I’d met Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who told me they were forming this new group. I was reasonably well known, and did I want to help out with some lyrics to a song they’d just recorded at the studio.
PKM: Cream’s first single, “Wrapping Paper,” was rather strange. What was it about?
Pete Brown: It was actually inspired by two movies – John Ford’s A Long Voyage Home, which was based on a play by Eugene O’Neill, and there’s a scene with a newspaper headline that moved me and also scene in Orson Welles’ film A Touch of Evil, when he comes through the door as the wind blows these dirty newspapers around. And he’s just like the newspapers, dirty and blown in off the street.
PKM: I can almost visualize it! What was the “White Room” – a bar, an apartment, a state of mind?
Pete Brown: It was a room in someone’s apartment. I had fallen out with my parents and didn’t want to go home. I had been semi-destitute, a semi-bum, living on people’s floors and eventually I began to earn some money from songwriting and the White Room was the first place I moved into. It was all painted white and a friend of friend asked if I wanted it. I could just about afford it and it was like a new blank page. Soon after I moved in, I wrote this eight-page poem, which was called “White Room.” At the time Cream was on the road and Jack had already written some music for [the lyric] which hadn’t worked. I thought about this “White Room” idea and this poem and because I had been to journalism college and learned the technique of how to precis, to cut things down to the essential, I made it one page long and took it to Jack and with a few tweaks that was it.
PKM: Do you have the original long version of the poem?
Pete Brown: No… my bag with all my poetry in it got stolen at one point and I never found it again…
PKM: Ugh! Like a lot of guys my age who grew up in the ‘60s and started garage bands, I played and sang “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room.” Not only was “White Room” hard to play with the opening riff in an odd time signature – 5/4, but the lyrics were almost impossible to remember with all of those images…
In the white room with black curtains near the station
Black roof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings
Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes
Dawn light smiles on you leaving, my contentment
Pete Brown: At that time, that was my poetic heritage. I had been one of Britain’s few professional poets, it’s mostly how I made my living, from performances but it was a very precarious living until I started writing songs. I worked hard at it. I was just trying to make an honest living [laughs].
PKM: Didn’t [Atlantic Records producer] Ahmet Ertegun initially write off “Sunshine of Your Love and “White Room” as “psychedelic hogwash.”
Pete Brown: [Laughs] Yes, Ahmet certainly said that! Because, you know the first concept of Cream was that Eric would be the front man. But Eric wasn’t interested in singing at that time. He was more interested in playing, besides Jack was such a great singer that it was a hard act to follow. Eric sang the harmony parts and they sound pretty good!
PKM: According to Clapton’s biography [Crossroads by Michael Schumacher] Jack Bruce was initially embarrassed by the title “SWLABR” – which stood for “She Was Like A Bearded Rainbow.”
Pete Brown: Because we weren’t really grown up yet, there some misogyny in the lyrics I didn’t know I was doing, unfortunately. I wasn’t fully aware yet. I love women and wouldn’t knowingly slag them off. However, when I wrote those lyrics, I think a lot of attitude was inherited from the classic blues, which is filled with misogynous lyrics about the war between men and women.
PKM: It’s got a very psychedelic, sexual quality to it for sure.
Pete Brown: Really, it’s about this guy whose girlfriend just kicked him out and he’s defacing pictures of his girlfriend, like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Didn’t someone try to do that?
PKM: Yeah, Marcel Duchamp! But on a replica. Your brand of surrealism was really different than Bob Dylan’s imagist lyrics. It came from a different place.
Pete Brown: I liked Dylan quite a lot as a writer, but not as a singer though. I was obsessed with the cinema. My head was full of images from early John Ford films, and films by Buñuel and painters like René Magritte and Salvador Dali, who I once met, that was lovely. I loved British humor – [Peter] Sellers and The Goon Show, and Dick Lester’s Running Jumping Standing Still. All of those things were ingredients to my writing.
PKM: Speaking of humor and surrealism, you knew Vivian Stanshall…
Pete Brown: We were on the same circuit, so I’d seen him perform a few times and the Bonzos [The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band] were often the support band for Cream at several theater shows. After a gig we went back to Jack’s place and he told me about the two-dimensional tuba and things like that. He lived near me for a long time, and we became friends. He was alcoholic and a Valium addict, but he got straight again for the umpteenth time and did his comeback then he had me in his band, playing percussion and singing backing vocals. Jack was with us for the first night, but then he fled [chuckles].
PKM: He seemed like quite an eccentric…
Pete Brown: I thought he was a genius, crazy and anarchic. He had great ideas and could write stuff like nobody could. He wasn’t the world’s greatest musician, but he was instinctive and made the best of it. Live, he was magic! After the Bonzos split up I saw him at a gig, and he was completely out of his mind, but the audience loved him so much. He was a hero. They just wanted to be there, and they sang his songs for him. He came up in the hippie era which was filled with satirical nostalgia for lost aspects of being British.
PKM: It was a big part of the fashion too.
Pete Brown: Yes, in the military clothing.
PKM: Yeah! Like Beatles’ bright uniforms on Sergeant Pepper and Jimi Hendrix’s braided Hussar jacket! And there were groups like the Purple Gang, and the New Vaudeville Band doing “Winchester Cathedral” and even Jack’s voice sounded like an old-time crooner singing through a megaphone at times.
Pete Brown: That goes back to the jazz-oriented British bands. Al Bowlly was particularly important, but a lot has gotten lost in the past and the current cultural climate doesn’t necessarily refer to it very much.
PKM: At one point in your book, you refer to Jack as “a dour Scot” and yourself as “a cynical Jew.” What was the dynamic of your collaboration like?
Pete Brown: It was really based on what we had in common. Everything from being left-wing socialists, while loving everything from Charlie Mingus to Duke Ellington and Muddy Waters. We both had romantic elements to our work. His was probably a bit stronger than mine. But he had a much greater knowledge of classical music than I did at the time. He did go to music college for a year and played the cello rather well. Being of Russian and Polish background, I liked composers like Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Khachaturian and later on Debussy and Ravel. I worked 48 years with Jack. He was such a fucking great musician.
PKM: It seemed strange to me that after Cream split, everybody put their money on Clapton, but as far as I’m concerned Jack was the true artist, although he never enjoyed great popularity and sales. I still think Songs for a Tailor was one of the most brilliant albums then – or now!
Pete Brown: Apart from the stuff Jack did with Robin Trower – Songs for a Tailor was one of the only albums he made that reached the middle of the charts, but that album was one of the two solo albums that really sold. The last record he made, Silver Rails also did very well.
PKM: And you wrote the lyrics for that one as well?
Pete Brown: Jack and I hadn’t been talking for a while, for various reasons we won’t go into… I got a call about five or six years ago saying he wanted to do a new record. He said it was going to be ‘an old man’s record.’ But he’d been quite ill. He had bought himself another ten years with a liver transplant. Knowing the state he was in, I knew I had to let bygones be bygones and get to work and we came up with some very, very good stuff. I’m proud of it and it was quite successful. It’s an extraordinary record. He was really quite ill, but he managed to get through it.
PKM: What was the scene like at the UFO club? [Pronounced “You-foh,” the legendary psychedelic club opened on December 23, 1966. Run by American record producer Joe Boyd and jazz photographer/man-about-town, John “Hoppy” Hopkins, the UFO was open weekly at 10 PM on Friday nights in an Irish Pub, with music by Pink Floyd, Procol Harum and the Soft Machine, while experimental art films by Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger were shown, along with poetry readings.]
Pete Brown: The UFO was a bit elite. It attracted the avant-garde and the underground, who were mostly quite middle-class… myself not-included. They were mostly quite educated crowd, interested in Pink Floyd, Tomorrow and Procol Harum, bands who were developing a following. I didn’t think Pink Floyd was too great, except of course for Syd, and Gilmour was a wonderful musician. So, UFO began to attract a wider audience, but remember, it was only once a week. People I was friendly with went there and I liked the atmosphere. I was already reasonably well-known as a so-called “underground” poet, and part of the political feeling of the times, so I was persona-grata. I went there to jump about and performed with my jazz band, called Brown’s Poetry.
PKM: Joe Boyd said that Hoppy was one of the most important people of the time. What’s his story?
Pete Brown: Hoppy was certainly one of the leaders. He a really big jazz fan. He was always around photographing the great jazz people, both British and American. That was his first claim to fame, as a photographer, and then he got political and helped start the International Times. He was potentially a very, very good leader, but I think his power was reduced by acid. He took quite a lot, and it didn’t do him any favors. That’s my impression. And then, of course, there was the bust.
[After the UFO was branded as a “hippie vice den,” by the London press, “Hoppy” was arrested after a small chunk of hashish was discovered in his flat. Unceremoniously hauled in before the judge, he was handed a nine-month sentence. While “Free Hoppy” graffiti appeared on city walls overnight, Paul McCartney bought a full-page ad in The Times, supported by a host of London luminaries, demanding fair treatment for Hopkins. The alleged “Summer of Love” began with Hoppy behind bars, serving time in the notorious Wormwood Scrubs prison, where Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote “We Love You,” after famously spending a night behind bars following their February 12, 1967 bust. With “internal bickering, police harassment and better-funded competition,” on the rise, the UFO soon “lost its way and closed by October,” Joe Boyd later lamented.]
Pete Brown (continues): At the time people were making themselves susceptible by taking too many drugs, especially to the cops who were very nasty at the time, who were trying to undermine that movement at the behest of the politicians.
PKM: Speaking of politics, let me ask you about the impact of London’s first underground paper the International Times, or IT as it was known [the equivalent of New York’s East Village Other].
Pete Brown: Sure. The left-wing underground movement basically grew out of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament [which first began in London, in 1958. The CND founding members included Gerald Holtom, who designed the internationally recognized peace symbol] and an alliance with the American anti-war efforts. [IT’s publisher/editor/and author of many fine books on music and Beat poetry] Barry Miles is a friend of mine. I’ve known him since he was a kid. I used to play gigs at the Cheltenham Art School when he went there. He was always a very forward-thinking guy. He loved Ginsberg [and wrote a biography of him in 1989]. So, the paper had aspects of [Beat] literature to it. I had been making a living from poetry readings at the time and wasn’t having a very good year in 1964. He started this place called the Indica Gallery, notable for the fact that it was supported by Paul McCartney. The Fluxus artists showed there and that was where John met Yoko [in November 1966]. Miles had called me to help him build the place. I was sawing shelves when I met all those people.
PKM: It seemed like after the war and all the longstanding social mores of British life started breaking down and then “Swinging London” as Time magazine dubbed it, exploded.
Pete Brown: It did! But my only problem with that was the drugs. Not that I’m a rabid conspiracy theorist but there seems to be enough evidence to prove that the British underground was very, very undermined by acid in particular. It was made to look very desirable, but it caused a hell of a lot of damage. It killed a lot of brains that could have been very useful in really changing society. I watched people taking that stuff and avoided it and thought I don’t want to be like that! [laughs] I was a drunken speed freak! I didn’t want anything mind-altering. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time that doing speed, drinking alcohol and smoking pot as well, I was pulling myself in three different directions, which eventually had some quite bad results. The good result was that I eventually I stopped doing all of that, forever.
PKM: Maybe it was because everybody was so young and didn’t realize what they were doing to themselves. The list of tragic heroes is a mile long, from Brian Jones to Syd Barrett, and Keith Moon, to name a few…
Pete Brown: People didn’t know what the limits were. They didn’t know when to stop, and in the end, it stopped them! I was always suspicious of Timothy Leary. I thought he might’ve worked for the CIA as LSD had been developed as a weapon of war. It was very damaging and dangerous and caused a lot of trouble.