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The Musicians’ Cooperative (1970-1975): my next project

I took advantage of the first lockdown to complete my long-planned book on the London Musicians’ Collective (LMC), which was reviewed in this month’s Wire magazine. Ironically, one door opens and another shuts: the latest lockdown has meant that the Wire Bookshop is currently closed for business, which rules out one principal source for the book’s availability. It should soon be available through my updated website, improvmusic.co.uk.

And so, as the days stretch out unforgivingly, and the only other person that I currently see is my lovely wife, I’m going to crack on with the next keep-sane project, which will be the story of the LMC’s immediate predecessor, the Musicians’ Cooperative (MC), which was essentially a ‘first generation’ self-help organisation, designed by the early London-based free improvisers to promote the music through regular gigs. It was rather brutally terminated when the Unity Theatre in Mornington Crescent, latterly its main venue, burned down in November 1975. The music kept going through the activities of the LMC, a rather different, mainly ‘second generation’ entity. The MC was a ‘purer’ beast, almost totally committed to then-radical ‘total improvisation’ (Barry Guy’s ‘Ode’ was one obvious exception), to which improvisers had to invited in to join; the LMC welcomed other genres and anyone was free to join.

The MC organised an ‘International Festival of Improvised Music’ (basically first generation English players with a smattering of German and Dutch confreres), at Ronnie Scott’s Club and the Bloomsbury Theatre in January 1974. I was a student in London at the time and attended a couple of evenings, and they left a great impression on me, the first time that I saw such legends as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann. The festival was organised by the MC, and was a landmark event. I’ve got in touch with most of the surviving members (Bailey, John Stevens and Paul Rutherford have long passed), but memories can be rather vague (it is, after all, fifty years ago), and, as is often the case with early DIY bodies, written records were seldom kept. (There is much written documentation about the LMC, however, stored in the London College of Communication.) It’s therefore likely to be a rather stitched-together memorial, from a variety of secondary, as well as primary, sources, but I do think that these early attempts to ground improvised music in regular live events needs to be recognised, as they are liable to vanish as the time gets further and further away. From this time of information-overkill, I will be looking back at a ‘scene’ of information-scarcity.

Custom Post Images

The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.