Francis Monkman

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Musical Beginnings

My love of music goes back to hearing radio, and my mother singing hits of the day ("Que Sera, Sera," etc). Both my parents were musical, sharing a particular love of Mozart opera. I must have seen Figaro and Don Giovanni several times before I was ten. My father also was involved in the post-war 18th century revival, and knew Hugh Gough the harpsichord builder (who died not long ago in New York, where he had lived for many years), and got him to make me a clavichord, which I still have. So I started playing at age around eight (always a late starter). Harpsichord quickly became my favourite, and though I had piano lessons at school, I didn't "connect" with the instrument until much later (I spent a good deal of time in the 80s playing Beethoven's sonatas, preferably on fortepiano). Then organ, and finally (just when I started at the Royal Academy of Music in 1967) electric guitar. It was "Purple Haze" that got me. I thought, "no good just listening, gotta do it!"

Early 1968, I'd just acquired my first "real" guitar (I'd borrowed a home-made plank from an avant-garde composer at the Academy, who probably just wanted sounds -- action, it did not have!), a surprisingly good Futurama, and a mutual friend introduced me to Robert Martin (who was considered a problem child, I think -- his mum probably wanted him to have a bit of "good influence" in his life!!). He was a friend of Florian and soon we were jamming, listening to Quicksilver, Savoy Brown, and of course Hendrix and Clapton. At this point I don't think I had any ideas about "allowing the two worlds to meet."


A while later I met Darryl in a music shop and we got talking (he'd just got them to fit a pickup to his violin). He had a pianist friend (Nick Simon) and, as I was much more interested in playing guitar, that became the lineup of Sisyphus. Darryl and Nick were very much into Spirit. One could cite them as a formative influence for Curved Air. "Young Mother" is a song that dates from that period. "Screw," as well. "Young Mother" predates Sonja's arrival, and was originally called "Young Mother in style" (it was about Jackie K/O, I think). Then it was revived for the 2nd Album, mainly because it was too good to waste.

You know, I had this little painted stone, they were all the rage in Spain that year (1968) along with tie-dye. So I got the stone-painters to do me one with "Sisyphus" on it. Must be the only surviving relic of that upwardly-inclined effort, and I don't even know where it is! With Sisyphus the material was mostly, if not all, original (actually a very fertile period when much of the early Curved Air stuff was born. Sadly, I don't think any recordings exist). Before that, Florian, Rob and I would play Purple Haze covers at parties. First thing I wrote, mid-68 I think, has ended up as the middle section of "You got to admit" on 21st CB. That's recycling for you!

The Original Curved Air

Late fall 1969, a girl I knew at the academy said that Galt McDermott (who had written the music for Hair) was doing a sequel and was looking for a pit band. Of course the play, "Who the Murderer Was?" was nothing like Hair, but there were some nice things in it -- the final playout I can still remember, it was a good chance to use fuzz (I use the word loosely) guitar on an arranged melody (that was quite new then, Robin Trower was probably the first, with Procol). There was a recording made of the music, at Lansdowne Studios. George Martin obviously figured Rob and Florian weren't "pros" and got session players. The legendary Phil Seaman was on drums (Ginger Baker's teacher). He was carried down the stairs, into the studio, onto his drum stool, played immaculately, and was carried out again, never seen anything quite like it. I was allowed in on 2nd guitar. Don't know if it's available.

Sonja was introduced to us by Mark Hanau, who had seen "WTMW," been mightily impressed, and wanted to become our manager, which he did. Anyway, Mark thought we needed a singer -- a girl singer -- and knew Sonja from Hair. We agreed to give it a go. One thing I'll give Sonja for sure, she's a brick. Imagine being left there while the band go off to discuss you! And she never imposed herself on the music (others singers take note). Hell, we used to finish with an instrumental, every night!

I was a great fan of Terry Riley (having played in the 1st London performance of "In C" in 1968) and was very impressed by "A Rainbow in Curved Air". Then I had a kind of "musical vision" of a high-energy rock sound going into a Terry-like tape-loop improvisation. That became "Propositions", my first complete song, I suppose -- not the words, though. Sonja wrote them, I think. "It Happened Today", as well, though I gave her a general idea along with the title. "What Happens When You Blow Yourself Up" was all her idea, I think, and I must say I like it! Anyway, come the Galt McDermott show, we had to have a name, and we liked "Curved Air" best of the options (can't remember any others, in fact).

"What Happens When You Blow Yourself Up?" -- obviously I succeeded, cause I'm blowed if I can remember why it was left off the album. It used to be quite common to leave not only B-sides, but A-sides off albums, in the UK at least. A lot of early stuff got bypassed, lost, overtaken. A shame, really. I was recently reminded of "Thinking on the Floor," and thought, yeah, that's really great, good title. I've done a lot of that. Then who remembers "Derelict Tenement" or even "The Undertakers' Song". None of this stuff got recorded, but some of it was great. Oh, I've got a couple of tapes of an early Curved Air gig done by local radio. I'll have to fish them out, see if they're usable.

Touring and Tensions Within the Band

We played three tours of the States (and loved it, by the way, and the audiences loved us). One of my favourite moments was in Oklahoma City, where we were supporting Johnny Winter, who was most charming and the audience rushed to the front of the stage almost immediately. I don't know if they knew who we were (someone said they'd been told we were "Yes!") but we got along just fine). Now as you probably know, it takes a long time and many miles covered to "break" the States (if you'll pardon the expression). Jethro Tull took seven tours, having been booed off stage on their first. So maybe we just didn't stick around long enough. I for one was a nervous wreck by late 1972, took me several years of deep breathing, Tai Chi, etc to gain enough centre to "wish to repeat the experiment" (in Sky). I did sense a defining moment (as it seemed to me), when, on our first big Boston gig, the Chrysalis promoters pulled us off stage just before "Vivaldi", fearing, I think, that we were about to upstage Tull, who were on next. I am remembered for having put one of them in fear of his life, if only for a few moments. Do you know how heavy those plexiglass guitars are?

Basically Darryl and I respect each others' work, but we don't really see eye-to-eye on most things. And we never really got the co-writing thing together. I wanted to get my first 'epic' together, so it looks like a split forming (at the time of the "Second Album"). In fact, the centre was never really solid after Rob left. I regret to say that we asked him to, is the truth. (There were reasons, strong enough it seemed at the time to outweigh the inevitable loss). A fact which led me to contact him again in 1990, and since then we had some terrific jams with Florian. But, the transition from "hanging out and getting it together" to "working band" is so stressful that I guess none of us were ready for it. Sonja put it very well when she said, "You've got the whole of your life to write the first album, and six months to write the second".

During this time, Florian got sick, and we needed a dep for a few months. I was already playing some sessions, and knew Barry DeSouza from studio work. He was a good drummer, more intricate than Florian in a jazzy sort of way, but we were relieved when Florian was well enough to bring his own flair (and considerably more clout) back to the band. Barry did a good job helping us out, though. I'd forgotten he was playing on the 1971 Beat Club videotape, which as I remember was one of our most "inspired" TV performances -- they knew how to get the best out of bands, the Beat Club people (quite unlike our own dear BEEB!). By the way, Sonja lent me the BEEB live CD, and the early stuff (sorry, I'm sufficiently prejudiced not to listen to any later CA material, likewise Sky) sounds great!

Phantasmagoria and the Split

At the time of "Phantasmagoria," the band just looked like a mountain that even Sisyphus would balk at. I remember the moment when Clifford Davis, our manager after M.H., spelled out what we were going to have to do just to get somewhere near even. We felt burned out. I was, as I said, wrecked. I wore earplugs to go on the tube. I went to a naturopath three times a week (recommended for crisis). Well, in the middle of all this, with impending personal crisis/crises looming, where did we find ourselves? The "Phantasmagoria" idea just seemed like a "bit of fun" (certain amount of tooth-gritting), as I'd always been fond of the Lewis Carroll poem. But when I listened to it recently I thought "what an accurate picture of our predicament", even the "ghoulish party sounds" on "Once a Ghost" come across more like a "ghoulish cocktail party!" So, I think that, having painted such a picture of circumstances (situations?) we had to call it a day -- or re-invent ourselves as "60s survivors" in the AOR mould, as did Mac and Floyd. Glad we didn't -- at least we survived as a genuine underground band!

The First Reunion

Then in 1974, Chrysalis were suing us. We had broken their contract on the advice of Clifford, who said we could prove that they had not been acting in our best interests, but by then he was no longer our manager! So we had no way of fighting the case. Lo and behold, there were the Copelands waiting with a touring and recording "package" designed to get us out of trouble. Still, I'm glad we made the "Curved Air Live" album, it's not too bad. But, good as it is, the live album doesn't really match my memories of the best of the early days. Late 1970, just as we were really beginning to take off, that's when I remember the best gigs. Though it's fair to say, we never let anyone down, I'm sure of that. We just couldn't keep doing it without becoming stale. So I left again.

And I certainly wasn't ready to go back on the road yet. About that time, Richie Blackmore asked me to join Rainbow, but I'd just got married, and wanted a bit of "home life". But it's true to say that, unless Darryl and I could co-write stuff, it wouldn't really be one band, more two half-bands. Does that make sense?

Session Work

I worked in sessions throughout most of the 70s, so it is a little hard to remember all the names, faces etc. But here are some, at least.

Live: Steve Harley '75, Shadows Tour (this was an experience) '77. 801. I never listened to anything 801 did, after I left. There was "Initial Speed", think that's the track, I overdubbed on, on the 801 studio album -- must put a midi file of that riff on my site! But there were some 'problems' from the start -- Brian Eno as you're probably aware, doesn't like 'musicians' (remember I was a 'session-man' at the time), so I had to go round his apartment and persuade him I wasn't too bad, you know, and we agreed to include 'a.n. non-musician' (turned out to be Lloyd Watson) and all was fine. And it was, indeed, a fine mix, I love Lloyd's work on 'Live'.

Also, some classical work on harpsichord, including a "debut" recital at the Purcell Room (South Bank) that drew rave reviews from the Times and the Telegraph. Once, in the early 80s, I played Soler's "Fandango" at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with flamenco guitar accompaniment from Juan Martin. There was a piece in 1977, I think, called "Logorhythm" (or similar spelling), for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord, that was performed once at the Purcell Room, to some acclaim. It really was an excellent neo-classical sort of thing, but sadly the score vanished. I'd love to get that back, and issue it.

TV: Innumerable shows, Leo Sayer, even one episode of Benny Hill (!), Paul Nicholas show... Trouble with sessions, the better they are, the less you remember, a bit like the 60s! There was a Jimmy Webb spectacular, I remember, and many of the film sessions (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire Strike Back, Superman II, several Bond movies).

When I think that I was working in the studio nine hours a day, six days a week, for several years, I can't help feeling there must be a lot more to tell. Sometime, I'll make a "concerted effort" to dredge up the 70s, but not just now.

Library Albums

Vis-a-vis library albums, I'll have to check the list with the relevant companies, something I am planning to do soon (precisely with a view to possible reissue etc). The title of the 1984 album escapes me for now, but I know the first track was called "Tokyo Traffic". Library music is like Hindemith's "gebrauchmusik" -- utility music. The word "utility", of course, contains a realm of possibilities. I am amused to note that Brian Eno started writing "music for airports" etc. around this time. Herbie Flowers used (jokingly, I hardly need mention) to refer to Sky as "legalized library music" (there was at the time some legal shenannigan to do with library usage and musicians' fees). One might be tempted to infer that the title itself would imply some "background" nature to the music, but I think it's fair to say that my success in the library field was due to an inability on people's part to ignore the music! (There was one track networked on U.S. sports TV, I'm sure, but I don't know which one.) You know, I used to 'do' advertising? Crocodile Music's the company I set up with Malcolm Ironton, never felt right (whatever my personal inclinations) to withdraw my support from a friend, once proffered, so I remain a 'sleeping director', no pay, that kind of thing. Malcolm told me recently (the good karma came in handy so's I got "21st Century Blues" published) that I'm still known, in the 'advertising world.' as "the one they couldn't buy!" I finally quit advertising, having gone through a phase of just being very picky about the product, in the middle of a Levi's ad (they got to use the demo version in the end, they already had that), and the story stuck. Mad, most people would call me, just for that.


The formation of Sky goes back to John William's second "crossover" album, which came to be called "Travelling", after the track I (for the most part) wrote for it. The late Stanley Myers, whose film-work you probably know, was John's arranger/producer on these ventures, and he asked me, first of all, to play on the album. Then, having come to a halt while working a version of Bach's Gigue from the G Major French Suite, he asked me to try and "find a continuation", the result being the title track of the album as it stands. Well, you can tell it's a kind of proto-Sky, and the idea grew inevitably out of that. Then I tried visualizing "this band" on stage, and imagined the kind of music I'd like to hear them play, and the result was the opening of "Opposites", which became the second side of the first Sky album. I also liked the idea because it seemed to cut right through the direction that musical values (post-punk, after all) seemed to be taking. And the audiences contained a greater variety of people than you would believe possible -- leather-clad youth refusing to sit next to their parents, that sort of thing. Amazing!

All I can say is, there seemed to emerge (from where?) a need for Sky to re-invent itself, come the third album, as a "true" MOR outfit. The seeds had been effectively sown with Herbie's piece "Scipio" on the second album. (Without wishing to air personal grievances, I think I could say that I always felt this piece, which I refused point blank ever to play live, was motivated by a "look, anyone can write a long piece" attitude). So, clearly outvoted in the dash for mediocrity that the third album, for me, represents, I quit. A little-known postscript: in the late '80s, long after John Williams had left, it was suggested that I write another long piece, in the manner of "Opposites" and "Fifo." The first movement of this work (which I determined to call "Another Dish for the Roof") exists in demo form (Rob Martin, for example, thought it was one of the best things I'd done). The other three movements were planned, but scarcely sketched. Perhaps it will surface.


Film scores. Yeah, I feel somewhat short-changed on this one, as I always felt certainly after the success of "The Long Good Friday," that I was something of a natural film composer. Possibly a little too good, you know? (After all, no director really wants the composer telling his own version of the story, right?) I did one more film for John McKenzie (director of "LGF") called "The Innocent," about a boy with epilepsy. It's very low-key, but worth seeing, I guess. After "LGF," Zoetrope (Coppola's studio) became interested for a while, but in response to a request for "examples of my work," I sent them a copy of "Dweller on the Threshold" and, unsurprisingly I suppose, heard no more.

Dweller on the Threshold

Did Darryl play on "Dweller?" I'd forgotten. He's on "Ouverture", on "Virtual Classics," I remember that. Andy Latimer did the guitar work. Well, it's quite an album, not perhaps to everyone's taste but certainly deserves to be known better. I've got 2000 copies (vinyl) sitting in my basement, that I never had the heart to throw away. If you want some, let me know (though the cassette is very good, done on chrome tape). It's another candidate for CD, sure, but the copy masters are on Ampex 456 and you've probably heard of the problems they're having with "jellification" or some such. So the tapes aren't to be played "on spec", if you get me.

Performances and the Relationship With Darryl

Oh dear, it'll sound like we're "real hostile" (which we're not) but I didn't play at Darryl's South Bank TV show in 1987 -- probably "already booked". We did several shows (including Glastonbury Festival -- classical tent) doing amplified classical music -- Bach Concerto in D minor, Mozart Sonatas, Vivaldi, I did Beethoven's Pathetique in a sort of fortepiano sound, on synth. All good stuff. Darryl had an album out of some of this material ("The Elektra Ensemble"), maybe it's still available. We did a performance together with Terry Riley, and an orchestra which Darryl led, of "In C" at Sadlers Wells in 1986 -- that was something. We were due to follow up with a mini-tour of Italy (they love Terry there) where we would have played Mozart Piano Concerto 24 in C minor with yours truly on synth, and "In C". All with amplified chamber orchestra. Sadly, the tour got scrapped, dodgy promoter job -- you know the kind of thing.

Of course, Darryl and I go way back (no pun intended), and of course having shared some pretty "formative" experiences, there's a real link. Perhaps we'll do more. It's fair to say, though, that he has a far more "regimented" approach to rock music than I have, which does indeed make it hard to see eye-to-eye when working. Of course, this is fine when the object is (as in the 1990 live reunions) to "lick a few old songs into shape", but would make working on new stuff much harder, I think. This is probably the main thing preventing a "serious" get-together, because we would have to do new material (if only for our own sakes!), but I for one would want it to be more integrated than "I've got a song, you've got a song." Who knows?


There was a TV show in the offing, that was the main reason for our reunion in 1990. Trouble is, it got scrapped. On the 1st gig, the bass player was my trusty Atari (and a damn fine job it did too, and the piano on It Happened, and...). At the second gig (The Dome, Tufnell Park), Rob stood in, but not through any fault of his, it was a duff gig. We did one new number "Twenty Years On" (original, huh?) which was rather good. Sadly, the T&C desk recording failed to catch it (we started with that one). "A little bit saddened and a little bit bushed". Yeah.

1990 -

Since then I've been continuing my musical education, as I see it. In an experiential kind of way. I became interested in playing the organ again, Bach's too good to be away from for long, and he kept his best ideas for that instrument. Also, of course, the harpsichord, and I got to tackle the Goldbergs properly for the first time, as well as forming an appreciation (and I think, understanding) of the music of the 17th century, and its relevance (being the last time that western music was modally based) to present day trends, especially in rock music.

A good indication to me that I was "making progress" was the Virtual Classics (library) album. I could hear that I'd found a new richness and more detailed texture in my orchestral (ie general multi-instrument) writing. On the occasions I've heard bits used on telly (an indulgence I've not had recourse to, since before starting work on "21st CB"), I've been struck by the 'interesting' effect it has -- I suppose a few 'not so interesting' programs have benefited thereby. (I'm not speaking of Jonathan Dimbleby (who kindly gives me a credit on his interview show -- unheard-of for a piece of library!) He continues, I'm sure, to be interesting. So basically, I was picking up scattered fragments (not literally, they're still lying around the place) and tying up loose ends. I fullfilled quite a few misplaced ambitions -- I even "cracked" the Reubke organ sonata (organ afficionados will know what this entails), but although I had intended to include it in my 1996 recital at Westminster Cathedral (in the event an all-Bach affair, and none the worse for it), I figured that one evening (all the time allotted) wasn't sufficient time to get to know such an instrument, as well as program the huge number (I counted over one hundred) of registration changes such a piece requires -- and it must be very carefully "orchestrated." too. So in many ways it was a great time for me, a challenge, but then what else?

The jam sessions I had (on a pretty regular basis) with Mike Gore (he's a natural, spacey sort of player -- intergalactic power chords, that sort of thing), at whose suggestion these jams began (I hadn't touched guitar since the days when I felt it necessary to inject a "grunge element" into "Fifo"), and Florian, and various other people who would sometimes show, and Rob, on the occasions when his work (he programs Macs in New York for HBO, probably runs teams of programmers I should say) would allow him a few days off to cross the pond and join us. There exists a 60-min CD (culled from some five hours' worth, much of it as good, or perhaps I should say, of similar quality) of this stuff, which gives a pretty good idea of the kind of thing the 'Curved Air backline' was up to in 1968, with perhaps an edge of freedom born of experience to boot. Certainly no tired old men here, though! After one particularly energetic and uplifting "workout" I remember Rob exclaiming enthusiastically "Freakout" (which, I suppose, was what we had just before been about). I've since pondered on the relationship between "freakouts" and Tibetan ritual music, the same swoosh and crash of cymbals, the same long held "phased" notes with decoration (=feedback), the bass swooping and diving in the pit of your stomach. The difference? Well, to have an excuse for this kind of thing, one had to wrap it up in a "song," maybe just slip in a bit at the end. After all, no-one's going to sit there for hours and listen to this stuff, are they? Are they? The jam that's on digital was done during the Gulf doodah, tanks rollin' cross the TV screen while we was gettin' it on, kind of thing. I e-mailed Robert Hunter (the Dead's erstwhile lyricist) who'd published on the web a 'poetic response' to the event (mostly compiled from the meeja) entitled "A Strange Music." Now this sounded pretty much like what we'd been up to, so I thought we might connect. I understand he's not able to reply to e-mail anymore, though. Too bad.

21st Century Blues

Iron Butterfly. Yassah! Presumably you've spotted the 'Garden of Eden' allusion -- incidentally, "Acid Casino" has nothing to do with any substance whatsoever. Wouldn't wish to prejudice folks' minds in any direction. Any direction at all. Nohsah!. Then, lo and behold, I picked up my trusty Dan Armstrong (soon to be supplemented by a Gibson SG Deluxe 1970 with single-coil switch, and a beaut Mexico Strat circa 1996) and, certainly by April '97, had the complete album sketched (except for "iftruth", which came along at New Years '98, written and recorded in a few days). First thing(s) I've written on guitar, they fit the hand so nicely, I'm thinking of publishing them in some kind of book -- I'm sure you'd get along fine with Poisonality, it's good working on the riff. So, my first thought was to look for musicians, after all there was no way I was going to pass up on my jamming experiences, I just had to get that "live feel" on the album. Plus, I had no money, so couldn't afford to pay musicians' rates, and hey, I've been on that trip already. Mike was an obvious choice for second guitar, but after we'd spent a couple of months playing the stuff (you should have heard it, or we should have recorded some), it became clear that Mike wasn't going to be solid in the way you have to be when you go in the studio, but he sure deserves his arrangement credit.

Then I looked for other players, and I needed bass and drums as well (neither Florian nor Rob, for different reasons, was available). I started frequenting blues jams at a pub in Camden, and hey, the man in a hat gave a good account of himself. Then someone got jealous and it stopped being fun. Then the pub closed. In the meantime, I'd tried a couple of guitarists, a couple of bass players; they were good, but -- what can I say? It's hard enough putting together a band when you're eighteen, finding the right guys to hang around with, spend some time. You know how it goes. Then an old friend left me some money, just the right amount to get the setup I now have (based round Ensoniq's Paris system -- both George Chkiantz and I are knocked out (and you should know how hard he is to please!) so I hope 21st CB turns out a good plug for them, in terms of sound, they deserve it. The converters are awesome! So as it turned out, I didn't "go in the studio", but by the time (end of last year) that I'd planned and put everything together, I'd somehow resolved myself to the idea that, jamming or no jamming (strike that -- "jamming at all costs") I was going to have to put the whole thing together myself (George had already, back in early summer, offered to bring his undisputed and mysteriously untapped -- in recent years -- engineering expertise to the project. Hey, I'm pretty mysteriously untapped myself, now I think of it!).

By the way, I see there's a band called "21st Century Blues" (I can't have figured no-one else would get to it). Maybe they even got there first, don't know. If they're better than my album, I'll consider changing the name! (Allow for a considerable amount of prejudice, here.)

From a series of interviews conducted by Richard Wynne, late 1998 through March 1999.