Dirk Campbell

The name Dirk Campbell may be more familiar as Mont Campbell, bass player, vocalist and composer with Uriel, Egg and National Health. After quitting the rock business in 1976 he earned a living initially as a graphic designer and later as a composer of soundtracks and commercials. His first solo recording was entitled Music from a Round Tower, an extended composition utilising MIDI technology, incorporating folk and classical influences, mixed in with electronic sounds and samples.

In November 1996 we met at his East Sussex cottage to discuss the story so far. Early influences were many and varied.

  "Essentially I came from a background of serious music, I was familiar with composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky from an early age. My grandfather was Martin Shaw, a well known composer of church music, he knew Vaughan-Williams, John Ireland, Benjamin Britten, Holst and all those kind of people. He was also a folk enthusiast and a close friend of Cecil Sharpe, possibly the greatest authority on English folk music and dance. My interest in traditional music began quite early, but then became dormant for a number of years when I discovered pop music. My father was in the army and had been stationed in Kenya where we lived until I was nearly 12 years old. There was much exposure to tribal music, my parents had friends amongst the indigenous population and would take me to tribal occasions. Such ceremonies might involve a thousand drummers and dancers, wonderful experiences of which I still have very vivid memories, so African music is very natural to me."

The family returned to England in the early sixties where a young Hugo Martin Montgomery-Campbell soon developed a keen interest in pop music and the culture that surrounded it.

"As a boy I became obsessed with electric guitars, I used to draw pictures of them in school. I was a keen Hank Marvin fan, Cliff and the Shadows were great, yet for some reason I never liked Elvis Presley. I liked the Beatles of course, everybody did, and the Who, Pete Townshend was a very innovative guitarist."

The City of London School circa 1966 brought together Mont Campbell, Steve Hillage and Dave Stewart through a mutual interest in rock and pop music. Dave Stewart rather nicely described this triumvirate as being "....vaguely rebellious, academically unfocussed and interested in music." Within a year or so they had formed a band calling themselves Uriel, after one of the angels in Milton's Paradise Lost, and recruited drummer Clive Brooks via an ad in Melody Maker.

"Initially we were a blues band, then we did a few songs of our own which I suppose were a bit influenced by The Nice, we saw them on many occasions, Dave was a big fan of Keith Emerson. The band was really formed around the talents of Steve Hillage, even then he was an exceptional guitarist. He would spend hours practising, subsequently becoming a very good guitarist very quickly. I started off playing guitar but moved to bass as there was nobody else. I wish I'd been able to afford a better instrument, the one I had was old, the pick ups were poor, although it did have quite a narrow neck so I could move around on it quite well."

Throughout our conversation Dirk Campbell displayed considerable modesty regarding his bass playing abilities, reflecting at one point that during his time with Egg he "didn't have anything particularly difficult to do other than the composing." Many of the pieces he composed and played on for Egg and the embryonic National Health were particularly tortuous, well outside the abilities of the average rock bass player.

"I could have been a better player but I wasn't that interested in being a bass guitarist as such, you have to be really obsessive about an instrument to play it really well, and at that time I wasn't. I became obsessive about certain folk instruments later on, but not the bass guitar. I never had that kind of feel for the instrument."

Initially Uriel played mainly low key youth club type gigs, then in the summer of 1968 they were offered a residency at the Ryde Castle Hotel on the Isle of Wight, an opportunity to polish up their act and generally get it together by the seaside. The deal was that they would play every night and rehearse during the day, with free accommodation thrown in. Things didn't quite turn out as planned, the landlady took exception to their hairy and dishevelled appearance and effectively barred them from the hotel during the hours of daylight. The promised accommodation never materialised and they ended up sleeping in the van. Musically things weren't too bad, some original material was written and they got to support Arthur Brown and Fairport Convention. Shortly after returning from the Isle of Wight Steve Hillage decided to quit and enrol at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

"Losing Steve to academia was a disappointment, I think we'd have done an awful lot better if he'd stayed, his guitar playing really was second to none. We decided to carry on as a three piece all the while looking out for another guitarist but nobody suitable ever appeared. During this period somebody got us a gig at the Middle Earth."

The Middle Earth along with the UFO was among the leading venues on the London's psychedelic rock scene. Uriel became a regular support act opening for the likes of Captain Beefheart, Soft Machine, Love Sculpture etc.

"They would have all night gigs from something like 9.00 pm to 6.00 am, and people would be sitting there smoking dope and dropping acid. The two guys who ran the place were thinking of getting into group management and we were to be their first signing, as a result we played the Middle Earth quite often. In the end the management deal never really got off the ground. They did insist we change the name though, they didn't like Uriel, so we became Egg."

The Dave Stewart version of these events is that the Middle Earth management felt the name Uriel sounded too much like urinal!! Around this time the opportunity arose for the session that became Arzachel, an attempt by a small independent record label to produce a psychedelic album by numbers. Egg had just signed an exclusive deal with Decca hence the need for pseudonym.

"I shuddered when I heard it had been released again, it's pretty awful, although it's the only time the original Uriel line up got to record together. I suppose it's fine as a showcase for Steve Hillage, he played some good stuff on it. The extended improvisation Metempsychosis that made up side 2 of the original record is of the type that bands would play at the Middle Earth, pretty boring but the sort of thing that was in vogue at the time."  

The music had to progress if Egg were going to have any success, but how?

"I remember talking to Jeff Dexter the DJ at the Middle Earth and happened to ask him what he looked for in a new group. He said he only liked bands who wrote their own material. It hadn't occurred to me until then that my own stuff could be equally as valid as any other, lack of self confidence I suppose. I came up with a few pieces and told the others that this is what we'd have to do if we were going to get anywhere."

All the cover versions and blues numbers were dropped and were replaced by the growing repertoire of Campbell compositions, yet on the Egg albums all material was credited to Campbell / Stewart / Brooks.

  "We were very egalitarian, Clive did most of the driving, Dave did most of the solo work and I did the composing, so we credited Campbell / Stewart / Brooks. I did write some lyrics but they were a bit embarrassing, as a middle class public schoolboy I really had nothing worthwhile to say. It was mostly sixth form poetry, immature self conscious nonsense."

This is probably fair comment on the whole, the honourable exception being the charmingly autobiographical words to A Visit to Newport Hospital off the Polite Force album which reflect on the summer season at the Ryde Castle Hotel.

  "Of our three albums The Civil Surface is my favourite, it has the most mature music on it. Clive was a fantastic drummer, we made him do all sorts of extremely difficult things which he would learn with great stoicism. Some of it was a bit pyrotechnic, in a sense I suppose we were competing with other rock bands of the time. I admit we were very pretentious and as composer I was most guilty. Nevertheless I did enjoy what I wrote, I could still listen some of it now although not in an unqualified way because I am always conscious of compositional and recording deficiencies. Some of the titles were further examples of our inherent pretentiousness, calling side 2 of the first album Symphony No3 was pretty embarrassing. Our stab at the charts, Seven is a Jolly Good Time, was a single written in the style of The Nice but is probably best forgotten."

There was a fair amount of live work, both as support and headline. Martin Wakeling reviewed one such gig at Kings Lynn Tech in 1970 in Facelift 6. Here's what he had to say.

The stage lights dimmed and Egg ambled on. Stage right - Dave Stewart, unbelievably long haired, hunched over a battered keyboard, centre - Clive Brooks, only visible as blurred movement in the midst of his drums, stage left - hirsute Hugo Montgomery-Campbell, camouflaged in a fringed buckskin jacket behind a huge natural wood bass guitar, with a glittering French horn held on the crook of his arm.

The set was complex and mesmeric, impelling rhythms and decorative keyboard flurries. Occasional softly spoken, almost apologetic announcements from Montgomery-Campbell in a voice that smacked of elocution lessons. Song titles that were meaningless at the time and quickly forgotten. Egg were a hidden band, hidden beneath their hair and their instruments, hidden beneath the dim lighting, hidden in a place like King's Lynn. They were earnest and serious, locked in a secret communion with each other. Perhaps we learnt the power of listening because Egg's uncompromising intricacy offered no alternative, beauty in a desert.

Rock 'n roll it certainly wasn't!! Dirk Campbell continues the story.

"It was difficult to gauge what sort of following we had. Most of the gigs tended to be at technical colleges and universities where quite a lot of people would always turn up for the weekly gig. Gigs that we promoted ourselves, like a regular spot at a pub in Tottenham Court Road, would maybe attract 20-50 people. It's hard to tell though how much people were aware of us, we were often on at gigs where there were quite a few other bands, so perhaps 1000 people might come along to see a variety of bands, not specifically us. As Egg we never played outside the UK. We never made any money, the deals that we had, about which Dave could explain a lot more, were very poor. The funny thing is we could have got a much bigger advance from Decca, we thought that if we didn't ask for too much they would be better disposed to us, how naive can you get? We got an advance of �2000 with which we calculated we could buy a van, a 200 watt PA system and a decent organ. So that's what we asked for and that's what we got. If we'd asked them for �10000 which was more like what other bands were getting, they would probably have agreed."

In a Dave Stewart interview somewhere I recalled a reference to a TV appearance by Egg on Colour Me Pop, a show presented by Michael Parkinson, and there was also a long forgotten series which looked at pop music past, present and future.

  "The Anatomy of Pop it was called [1971]. It was presented by Steve Race, I seem to remember it went out at midday on a Sunday, a time when hardly anybody would be watching. The last in the series looked at how pop music might develop in the future, and somebody had told the producer that Egg represented the future of pop, which was laughable of course. I think we did the last section from Long Piece on the Polite Force album, which was quite fast and furious with a few tricky bits. I suppose unusual time signatures might have been considered as being a new development in rock at the time, but really it was just us being flash."

Another diversion during this period was the Ottawa Music Co. a sort of Rock Composer's Orchestra, conceived by Chris Cutler and Dave Stewart as a pool of musicians and composers who would perform one another's music.

"Chris and Dave would have made a successful business team if they had been more interested in making money out of music by conventional means. As it was the OMC was more about non-conformism and irony. Post-modernism was much to the fore, though it wasn't called that then of course, with many affectionate references to the popular music of previous decades. Such numbers included Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, There's No Business Like Show Business, I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date, the Dick Barton theme etc. [Dick Barton was a popular radio detective series from the fifties]. There was progressive rock from Henry Cow and Egg and various combinations of same with woodwind instruments and other small combos. A friend of Jeremy Baines, a guy called Anthony Marshall had composed some blinding pieces, with witty names, for electric piano which I think Chris and I had to accompany. My clearest memory is a fond one of indulging in audience abuse with my piece Nearch (from the third Egg album The Civil Surface), a rhythmically lopsided piece with a final staccato chord that occurs after a period of silence. I decided to extend this idea such that, whenever the audience began to applaud, we repeated the final chord. Applause would cease immediately. As soon as tentative applause began again I would take this as the cue for another final chord, and so on. Taking the piss out of our loyal fans, really, but I think they shared in the fun. The general feeling of the show was one of genteel poverty. Gear was very basic and always breaking down. Why did we only manage three performances? Chris and Dave found it too worrisome and stressful to organise, and the rest of us were content to do as we were told."

By 1972 Egg's lack of success was becoming a problem.

"It had become a constant struggle driving up the motorway to some technical college, playing really quite difficult music for a limited number of people, and then driving home again. By 1972 the feeling of getting nowhere had become overwhelming, after four years I really had had enough. It seemed to be different for Dave and Clive they wanted to keep on playing. By this time I had come into contact with spiritual ideas that demonstrated higher realities and modes of experience. I became aware of a way of life that might provide a solution to my spiritual stagnation. The teachings of the people I met seemed to suggest that my lifestyle as a rock musician was not commensurate with the inward evolution that I was searching for. It wasn't to do with the physical lifestyle, I didn't take excessive quantities of booze or drugs. Nobody ever actually told me I must stop playing, but the urge to escape from the sense of purposelessness I was feeling was strong, so I decided to quit. Spiritual fulfilment was certainly not immediate, it would be some years before the feelings of unease subsided. I later realised I had been right to quit when I did but it had been for the wrong reason. In truth I don't think I was ever cut out to be a rock musician, as time passed I had enjoyed it less and less."

The first significant post Egg move was to enrol at the Royal College of Music to study composition and French Horn.

"It was only after I'd been there a couple of months that I discovered there was no actual diploma in composition at the RCM, you could study it but you couldn't take an exam in it. I'd got in on the strength of my French Horn diploma, but it soon became clear that I was not cut out to be a horn player or any kind of orchestral player. I began to realise that I function far better as a self taught musician, the formal conventions seemed to stifle my creativity. It was more fulfilling to discover things myself than to be told what is right or wrong by some external body. Overall though it was an interesting experience, in particular the compositional guidance of Professor Edwin Roxburgh who was very influential in many ways."

By 1974 Mont Campbell had left the RCM and turned to graphic design as a living. Meanwhile Dave Stewart was expanding his horizons with Hatfield and the North, and Clive Brooks was a member of the Groundhogs.

  "The opportunity arose to record a final Egg album thereby clearing up material left unrecorded when I quit. Dave was playing with Hatfield and the North and had a contract with Virgin, so he suggested to them that we might do a one off album, to which they agreed. They set a budget for the studio time, which unfortunately ran out during the mixing, and it shows. We had to mix the whole thing in a day so the sound balance on some tracks was dubious to say the least. The drums were far too loud almost all the way through which shouldn't really have happened despite the time constraints. Enneagram was recorded first, with some fine playing from Dave, and subsequently had the best mix. I tended to take a back seat on mixing and performing, composing was my main interest so once I'd written the music I felt I could sit back and relax, something I regret now."

After the disintegration of their respective bands Dave Stewart and Alan Gowen conceived National Health as some sort of rock orchestra to play a mixture of heavily scored pieces plus looser tunes with space for improvisation. Mont Campbell was invited to join as bass player and composer, but surely there must have been a certain amount of reticence bearing in mind previous experiences.

"Not really, the material was excellent, Dave was writing a lot by then, after Hatfield and the North his composing had come on in leaps and bounds. I remember reading something in Melody Maker to the effect that Dave was keen to work with me again, so when I heard he was starting a new band I simply offered my services. I was inspired to write a number of pieces, although looking back they sound a little awkward in places as initially I wasn't exactly sure how the band would sound. I felt Agrippa was particularly successful, the best thing I've written in the progressive rock vein. I felt my compositions for National Health were honest, and not just clever for the sake of it. My own playing was fine despite a bit of a lay off after Egg, although I was still having problems with poor equipment."

  Other Campbell compositions were Zabaglione, Paracelsus and Starlight on Seaweed all of which can be found on the 1996 release Missing Pieces. In the characteristically quirky sleevenotes to the compilation National Health Complete Dave Stewart likens Agrippa to "the soundtrack of a mad film where gigantic mud creatures trudge through primeval estuaries." An overactive imagination? Maybe, but it is a pretty spooky piece of music. As for Zabaglione he simply describes it as "the hardest piece of music I've ever played live."

Obviously Dave Stewart and Steve Hillage were old mates from the past, but what of the other musicians?

"The only one I even slightly knew was Phil Miller. Bill Bruford was a fabulous drummer with a lively and creative mind, excellent in all areas of technique and particularly suited to the sort of music I was writing at the time. We did very little live work and a lot of rehearsing, but the same old feeling came over me after a year or so, that we were going nowhere extremely slowly, so I left. Dave never questioned me as to why, he just accepted it. There were also a few personality clashes, I just didn't get on with certain other members of the band. We did a few good gigs but I never felt we were communicating anything meaningful to anybody, it was like playing in a hall of mirrors."

After leaving National Health Mont Campbell rock musician gradually metamorphosised into Dirk Campbell folk musician and other avenues of composition began to open up.

"Post National Health I wasn't doing much musically, I had what was basically a folk group, two acoustic guitars, violin and flute. I played guitar. Then in the early eighties through mutual involvement in a spiritual path I became acquainted with David Anderson, an up and coming film maker studying at the British Film School. He went on to make Dreamland Express, a very impressionistic film on various levels for which I was invited to write the music. David and I shared many experiences, so I was able to understand the undercurrents of the film which may not have been immediately obvious. It won the 1983 BAFTA for short animations, and David subsequently built a successful career as an animator. I thought this was going to lead to other musical projects, but it didn't really, well not for another 8 years anyway! By this time David's company had begun to get enquiries from people who had seen his showreel and had heard the music from Dreamland Express and asked about the composer. So eventually I got the opportunity to do a couple of TV ads, this in turn led to more ads and a two more of David's films. Both were highly rated, one having since attained something of a cult status, a powerful five minute animation called Deadsy. I wrote and performed all the music, lots of dark ethnic sounds, African drums etc."

Having a couple of acclaimed soundtracks on the CV increased the amount of interest from the advertising world.

"After an initial meeting with a client you assemble a few ideas, and hopefully they'll like one that can be developed further. Most of them are pretty anonymous sounding though. The last big one I did was the Goldfish credit card campaign that featured Billy Connolly. I'm not a high profile composer like David Dundas or the Mike Ratledge / Karl Jenkins organisation, and it's not what you'd call a reliable income."

The soundtracks and ads also led to other musical disciplines.

"I do quite a lot of library music, CDs mostly of ethnic atmospheres, either authentic pieces or more accessible stuff. If you're a film maker looking for soundtrack music, instead of commissioning a piece of music you can contact a music library company. If they have the sort of sounds you require then you pay for the use of it. It's quite big business, the company I'm writing for is international, they sell their stuff all over the world."

Dirk Campbell's first solo release Music from a Round Tower is a rich tapestry of orchestral samples, weird synth lines and ethnic instrumentation. Five years in the making, it established an entirely new musical identity from the progressive rock experience of Egg and National Health.

"Around 1991 I was learning how to use a MIDI, a system that combines a keyboard with a sampler and sequencer. You can record digitally, trigger samples from the keyboard and build up layers of whatever sounds you want. It was all new and exciting and the creative impulses began to flow. Around this time Dave Stewart had an enquiry from somebody in the States wanting to know if I had any material to release. I had written a seven minute piece, a bit minimalist, a bit impressionist, just enjoying myself really, so I sent Dave a tape which he liked a lot. The guy who'd requested it originally wasn't too sure, he was probably expecting Egg style rock music. Dave contacted ESD in the States who were interested but of course wanted a complete piece. This took a couple of years, I had to fit it in around other stuff. There was a period when I completely dried up, but I managed to get going again and finished it around Autumn 1992. It was a very slow process, I didn't actually record until 1994, mainly at a friend's studio in North London."

The compositional process may have been slow but the end result was certainly worth waiting for. Although conceived as a whole the piece is divided into 20 individually titled sections. Virtually all the music is played or generated by Dirk Campbell, occasional vocals are provided by Lucianne Lassalle and Barbara Gaskin, plus various Turkish stringed instruments played by George Hadjineophytou, who also engineered the sessions.

"I would use the MIDI to create the orchestral sections out of samples and various synthesised sounds and then integrate live instruments. It's very easy to fall into a Frankenstein's monster approach to recording this way, just bolting bits on here and there. I suppose that criticism could be levelled at Music from a Round Tower but I think it's a question of degree. It is possible to make interesting music by combining samples and live instruments in a sympathetic and integrated fashion. I'm not trying to do something indigenous to another culture, it was always intended to be a composition for western listeners. Interestingly most of the ideas and impressions used were obtained without leaving this country. London is exceptionally rich in ethnic music, there are 400 languages spoken and many different nationalities all very passionate about preserving their own culture in its purest form. This is why the indigenous music of these cultures is often equally as good in London as in the actual countries of origin."

The early folk influences dormant from the sixties until the late seventies have come very much to the fore. Dedication has been such that considerable instrumental expertise has been achieved.

"I have become skilled on a number of near eastern instruments, in particular the air reservoir instruments or bagpipes, such as the gaida (Greece) and tulum (Turkey). I also play various instruments of the flute family such as the Ney (Turkey) and Kaval (Greece). They are regarded as primitive, but to me they have an appeal that connects to something beyond western influence. They are from a time when the music had a deep sincerity and a human quality that has largely been lost. With these ancient musical traditions simplicity is of the essence, the music is not rich texturally it is often monophonic, so the skill comes in the decoration of the melody. Living traditions have their own genius, their own sophistication and skill. I have a deep respect for any genuine unbroken tradition, unfortunately many so called world musicians are turning them into hybrids for their own commercial ends and the original feeling is lost forever."

  There is a lot of depth to Music from a Round Tower, repeated listening constantly reveals new aspects. It is difficult to categorise, some would say world music, or new age, but these labels only tell half the story. Alternately sparse then orchestral, frequently rhythmic, the flow of ideas is impressive. This is definitely not background music, it constantly grabs your attention, and nothing outstays its welcome.

"It's probably due to my low boredom threshold, I imagine the listener becoming restless too. The piece has no classical form as such, it is a kind of exploration, a feeling of travelling without needing to arrive, like moving through a landscape of constantly varying and surprising topographical features. You have an idea, develop it for a while, then move on. It's like a documentary film maker who goes on location, shoots a lot of footage and then edits it together into a coherent whole. I am very influenced by Stravinsky, particularly The Rite of Spring, a composition with no formal shape or architecture, no beginning, middle or end, but to my mind the single greatest piece of music of the 20th century. There are very few references to earlier sections, and then only as afterthoughts. This freedom struck me as a fine way to write a piece of music, so that's how I conceived Music from a Round Tower. I like the piece, I can still enjoy it, it is sincere, it's the only piece of music I've written that truly expresses how I feel, it is a summing up of my musical experiences to date. If Music from a Round Tower has any purpose it will be to extend the listener's musical boundaries. If it makes people more open minded then it has served a purpose."

With a composition such as this there is an art in making it impossible to tell what is sampled or live, written or improvised, accident or design. Dirk Campbell has succeeded in all areas, this complex yet accessible and enjoyable music deserves to be heard. Music from a Round Tower is available on Voiceprint in the UK and Europe, ESD in the States, or direct from Dave Stewart's Broken Records.

Some interesting links:
Review of Music from a Round Tower (Stephen Yarwood for Facelift magazine)
The Anatomy of Pop (Melody Maker article previewing the 1971 TV series)
Ottawa Music Co. (Chris Cutler's memories of this ambitious musical project)
Subud International Cultural Association (SICA)
Dirk Campbell: Composing for TV (1997 interview by Dave Stewart for Sound on Sound magazine)
Biographical Page on Calyx (the definitive source of information on the Canterbury Scene)