I don’t really know if event is the right word, but I thought it would be interesting to get down a few thoughts in advance and then report back after the…event. Cecil Sharp House is the venue, 1.30 on October 3rd. It promises to be an extraordinary gathering, bringing together so many people whose lives were touched by Robert, but many of whom haven’t seen each other for decades.
I first met Robert Kirby when we were both trebles singing at the Wellington Festival in Somerset. This was an annual event where boys and men from various cathedral and college choirs got together for a week of unfettered vocal polyphony. Must have been 1960. He was at Bishop’s Stortford College and I would have been in my last year as a treble at Kings Cambridge. I remember that particular festival because as we were being driven to the station to catch the train home the car skidded and overturned and I had to crawl out through the windscreen. It was my 13th birthday. Robert and I didn’t meet again till the glory days of FabCab.
FabCab and the Gentle Power of Song
This needs a bit of explaining. I was an undergraduate at Caius Cambridge (briefly) and several of us got together (as choral scholars have done since time immemorial) to sing what we called close harmony arrangements. Our particular group (pre-Kings Singers, who were still coagulating) was called FabCab: the Cabaret from Caius (our theme tune was the Batman music with the word Batman replaced by FabCab. Maybe I should stop now…). The original line-up (it was a bit flexible) was as in the pic above: Dave Sloan, Alan Fairs, Hugh Dibley, Chris Johns, me and Marcus Bicknell. The group’s ‘career’ (and career we quite often did) was masterminded by Marcus Bicknell, who later went on to manage the nascent Genesis and run A&M records’ outfit in Paris before going into the equally nascent worldwide web, TV and almost anything else commercially creative you can think of. After singing at a May Ball in 1967/8 (with Sandie Shaw, Aretha Franklin and others too famous to mention) we were invited to record for Polydor by composer Richard Hill, who’d just had a huge success with his musical of Neville Coghill’s translation of the Canterbury Tales. Richard’s plans for the group included a change of name (can’t think why…) and for recording purposes we became The Gentle Power of Song. The first album, Circus, featured pop songs (lots of Beatles and Beach Boys covers) and some of Richard’s own wonderfully whimsical songs (with a session band that included the legendary Big Jim Sullivan on guitar and the even bigger John Wilbraham on piccolo trumpet). It sank into dignified obscurity as the publicists put it, but one of the singles, Richard’s Constant Penelope, can be heard (and seen revolving) on YouTube. We went on to make a Christmas album (Peace) with the London Gabrieli Brass, which was re-released on CD fairly recently (though unless you have a generous tolerance of bizarre tuning you might want to give it a miss).
They were heady times. We sang with Dudley Moore on TV (he memorably refused to mime playing a dummy keyboard) and we even did the Simon Dee show; Paul McCartney dropped by the studio (‘Here There and Everywhere’ was one of our signature tunes). Robert (2nd from right in this photo) took my place in the group when I forsook Cambridge for the Guildhall. For him, and for all of us, the Gentle Power (in all its brash naivety) was one of those great student formative experiences that none of us would ever forget. He went on to play with the Strawbs, before almost single handedly recovering the posthumous career of Nick Drake. We all went our separate ways till earlier this year, when we had a FabCab reunion at Marcus’ place. I couldn’t make it, sadly, and it was the last time any of the group saw Robert, who died a few weeks later. There are some very moving tributes on the Strawbs website.
The concert is being organised Robert’s family, and coordinated and MD’d by Harvey Brough, who is also something of a legend. With his group The Wallbangers he made a series of amazing doo-wop albums that have never been surpassed. I keep a cassette player just to play their farewell concert. There’s a wonderful story on Harvey’s site, where after singing to Charles & Di, HRH tells Harvey he has a dog called Harvey; Harvey replies ‘Oh really? I’ve got a brother called Rex…’. Which indeed he has.
Harvey also sang from time to time with Red Byrd, most famously in the proto RB Wigmore Hall concert where he came dressed as a mafioso, nonchalantly depositing his saxophone case on the front of the stage at the beginning and carrying it off unopened at the end. He also co-wrote (with his then girl friend Emma Freud) the eponymous Red Bird for our Songs of Love & Death album (for which he provided the drum machine, then a thing of wonder), and he can be heard singing street cries on New Fashions, an album we did with Nancy Hadden’s Circa 1500 in 1991 (and which has a version of the five of us singing Ravenscroft’s ‘Come follow me’ that absolutely rocks). But mostly Harvey is now famous for being composer of Requiem in Blue, and for his work with Clara Sanabras, Natacha Atlas and many other luminaries in that fantastically creative world where rock, folk, jazz and world music cohabit.
So the plan is for FabCab and friends to sing a few numbers that Robert enjoyed and/or arranged. We’ll be in quite illustrious company from later in Robert’s career, including Teddy Thompson, Vashti Bunyan, Steve Ashley, Luke Jackson, Ben & Jason (re-formed specially for this show), Harvey Brough & Clara Sanabras and Paul Weller, and we’re going to give the first (and last) live performance of our legendary ‘freakbeat’ single, Constant Penelope in a new arrangement by Harvey Brough. There’s more info about Robert, and the other artists taking part here.
We’ve just had a rehearsal, some of us seeing each other for the first time in 40 years. Strange and wonderful. We can still do it, after our fashion, though the repertoire is as old as we are. The really bad news is that we have to wear black bow ties…
Tickets are available from http://www.wegottickets.com/event/92859