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People United: Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts, film director Mike Figgis and free-jazz legends?

Recordings sometimes have fascinating backstories. Usually, they are cases of serendipity or snafus resulting in altered or ad hoc groups that make unique music. Rarely does the backstory become as legendary as the recording on purely musical merits, which usually requires the recording to be out of print for years. Such is the case with People Band.

Released in 1970 on Transatlantic, a label best known for its roster of contemporary British folk musicians, People Band’s lone album was quickly sent to the cutout bins. It was all but forgotten except by collectors, but Emanem has reissued the album as 1968, and it’s import not only as an early milestone in British improvised music but also for People Band’s implausible constituency.

The improbability of the story is directly related to the music and agenda of the London-based group, many of whose members also played with such higher-profile units as Soft Machine (saxophonist Lyn Dobson) and Mike Westbrook’s bands (saxophonist George Khan). Unlike contemporaries like Spontaneous Music Ensemble and AMM, which developed specific languages and maintained concert protocol, People Band took the idea of freedom and spontaneity to mean that they could play anything at any time. And they did, tapping free jazz and chamber-music models and presaging the conductions of Butch Morris.

Additionally, People Band’s performances broke through the fourth wall: musicians moved through the audience, encouraging them to pick up one of the dozens of percussion instruments scattered about. It was an aspect of the group’s work that flourished with its hook-up with the performance art group People Show (which also prompted People Band to drop its previous name, Continuous Music Ensemble). People Show mixed theater, sculpture and texts with general mayhem and a pointed political point of view compatible with People Band’s; for instances, their aversion to state-controlled electricity meant an acoustic-instruments-only policy. Typical of how People Show turned the traditional performer-audience relationship on its head, they once herded the audience into cagelike sculptures of chicken wire and bedsprings, surrounded by improvising musicians-then hauled the audience one at a time into a mock interrogation room, where actors grilled them.

Into this scene walks Rolling Stone Charlie Watts, a friend of Terry Day, People Band’s drummer and titular leader. Certainly, Watts was no stranger to the off-beat, nor was he unfamiliar with the championing of esoteric music, given bandmate Brian Jones’ recordings of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. And given the various legal issues facing the Stones at the time-members were dealing with drug charges, and the band was in court over the original cover for Beggars Banquet, a stark photo of a toilet-financing and producing a People Band record was a balm. Microphones were strewn about Olympic Studios, and musicians meandered about playing any number of instruments that crossed their paths. Watts watched from the booth along with Day’s roommate, the future punk-rock iconoclast Ian Dury.

Though their ranks fluctuated from gig to gig, one of the regulars who made the session went on to international acclaim-though not as a musician. Mike Figgis, director of such award-winning films as Leaving Las Vegas, was a college music student and budding jazz trumpeter, and for him People Band was a thoroughly transforming experience. He was one of two musicians to bring radios to the session and simultaneously turn them on to a BBC presenter introducing a program on John Cage. Figgis stayed on until 1970, when the relationship between the Band and Show ruptured; even avant-garde theater can withstand only so much anarchy. Figgis went with People Show, which probably put him no closer to becoming a bankable major studio film director. Though Figgis continued playing in units such as the Dury-fronted Kilburn and the High-Roads, music soon took a back seat to film. Still, Figgis remembered his People Band roots when it came to casting movies like 1988’s Stormy Monday, in which several of his former colleagues appear as the Krakow Jazz Ensemble.

After People Band’s 1972 demise, Day collaborated with a Who’s-Who of European improvisers and was a member of such provocative units as Alterations and the Four Pullovers (both have reissues available on Atavistic and Emanem, respectively). Beginning in 1990, he was sidelined for almost a decade with a debilitating illness. In recent years, however, Day has performed on a limited basis, playing bamboo flutes and leading conductions with the London Improvisers Orchestra. He and Watts remain friends.

Originally Published