Cult Heroes No. 47: Graham Bond
This week in our ongoing series, we look at the short life and never dull times of pioneering keyboard master Graham Bond. A man probably more known for the manner of his death and his indulgence in drugs and the occult than any musical achievements. Check out all past Cult Heroes here.
Words: Malcolm Dome
There’s a poster up in the toilet at TotalRock Radio. It has very brief summaries on every sub-genre of metal. And was put together as an introduction to the excellent documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey.
Anyway, when it comes to black metal, it cites none other than Graham Bond as one of the pioneers of this form of music. Now, on the surface it’s hard to see how a 60s keyboard player who played r&b can possibly have any connection to Mayhem, Darkthrone or Emperor. But sratch beneath surface and what you discover is a fascinating, multi-layered man. A person who once claimed to be Aleister Crowley’s son, was a heroin addict, but also created some truly spectacular music.
Born in Romford in 1937, Bond’s big break came when he joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated.
“Alexis wasn’t a great musician himself,” recalls drummer Jon Hiseman, who would later play with Bond for about a year, and then formed Colosseum. “But he was an enabler. He gave Graham, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce their own slot on the bill, and of course they went down so well.”
Inevitably, the three broke away from Korner and became the Graham Bond Trio, before saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith joined and they changed to the Graham Bond Quartet. This morphed into the Graham Bond ORGANisation, and even briefly featured John McLaughlin on guitar – in theory one of the greatest line-ups of all time.
Despite the buzz the band could generate on the live circuit, this didn’t translate into heavy record sales. Both The Sound Of 65 (1965) and There’s A Bond Between Us (again, the same year) have their moments, and Bond’s incredulously sonorous yet ground down vocal adds another dimension to the blues approach. However, neither record managed to propel the band to a new level. Listening to them now, though, they have a cachet that was perhaps born of a certain madness already growing within Bond. And it was this insanity that would take hold and shape the rest of his brief life.
“By the time, I met him he was already a heroin addict,” recalls Hiseman, explaining the genesis of this craziness. “You couldn’t apply normal standards to him. When you don’t have the stuff, you can be anything to anyone. You laugh, cry, charm. You’re ruthless, vicious – anything is possible. Did I see him ever as a normal human being? Never.”
The drummer recalls how Bond persuaded him to join the band as replacement in the summer of 1966 for the departing Baker, which gives you an insight into the man.
“I never saw myself as a professional musician. I had a job, and never considered being a full-time musician. So when Graham offered me the gig, I turned it down (Bond and Heckstall-Smith had previously seen Hiseman rehearsing with a jazz band at the 100 Club in Central London, and the keyboardist declared: ‘If Ginger ever leaves, then this is the person to replace him’). But Graham kept on, and eventually spent an entire night talking to me about it, while rolling big joints. In the end he wore me down. And what finally clinched it was when he said I’d get paid £35 a week. I was only on £11 at my proper job. Not that I ever saw that much money from being in the band. Like a lot of things with Graham it was fantasy.”
Although totally hooked on heroin, Bond exuded a personality that suggested, says Hiseman, that he was probably once charming and urbane.
“Not a lot of people know this, but before he became a musician, Graham was the top salesman for Frigidaire, selling fridges. Well, he said he was the top salesman, anyway. But he was right at the cutting edge of domestic technology (this would have been at the end of the 1950s). Not many people had fridges at the time; my parents certainly didn’t. So, for him to be so successful he had to have a certain type of personality.”
Bond did try to clean himself out, when the band signed a deal with the Starlight Agency, who were used to handling pop groups. Horrified that the principle light in this galaxy was a drug addict, they insisted he had to chuck the habit. So, in an effort to comply, he and a few roadies hired a boat on the River Shannon in Ireland.
“He went cold turkey,” remarks Hiseman. “And when he came back there were bruises all over the top half of his body – and I assume over the lower regions – from where he’d thrown himself against the boat.”
But this wasn’t the end of Bond’s problems. They actually got a lot worse. He took LSD in Ireland, while trying to get rid of his heroin nightmare, and Hiseman believes the man was never the same again. And when he drifted back to using heroin, the result was catastrophic.
Now delusional, Bond developed a gargantuan interest in Aleister Crowley, even claiming that he was his son.
“Graham created this whole fantasy about not knowing who his real parents were. But then he could have become obsessed with anything – it is the nature of being a drug addict. But being into Crowley also allowed him to dress up in fancy clothes.”
By 1967, the Graham Bond ORGANisation were over. Bond, though, went on to conjure up two fascinating albums, 1970’s Holy Magick and We Put Our Magick On You a year later. Both were done with his wife, singer Dianne Stewart, and enveloped in a disjointed yet quite brilliant occult atmosphere, Neither record should be regarded as a classic, yet they had a certain claustrophobic, doomed sensibility that makes them even now rather eerie. You can hear a man actually celebrating his demons in a musical context that is something of a jumble of confusion and philosophical contortions. But it’s darker than anything you’ve heard from the black metal genre over the past two decades.
Bond might have latched onto the whole magick ethos in a misguided belief this would be his salvation from the hell pit of addiction, but appears to have used this as a conduit to underline that he was capable of musical genius.
Sadly, all of this was towards the end of a crumbling career. He wasn’t helped by indulging in what can only be described as enigmatic behaviour. When the state-of-the-art island Studios were opened in London, Bond pissed on the floor in full public view, apparently believing he was consecrating this in a magickal fashion.
Inevitably, he was put in a mental hospital (Springfeld in South London), after being arrested for a public disorder offence. Still, he found time while in there for a six week period to organise a gig, appropriately described by drummer Paul Olsen as “Nuts”.
The last drummer to play with Bond, Olsen recalls the man’s favourite tipple at the time:
“One of his specialties was a tonic called Collis Browne’s which could be bought over the counter. Apparently this stuff contained either morphine or opium, which could be separated out with a minimum of effort. Graham found a bent chemist in Hampstead who would sell him a case which he would drink neat, bottle after bottle, without bothering to separate out the drug from the solution.
“Because he was a very large man, he could consume large quantities of anything before it affected him. I think he just couldn’t handle all the demons vying for his attention inside his head all his waking moments, and needed an enforced rest from the internal racket. Or maybe he just liked being whacked all the time.”
By now, Bond was finding it tough to earn any money. He took a gig at the Calabash Club, a reggae haunt in London, playing one night a week. But while he got paid a fiver, his bar bill was allegedly twice that! He even applied for a job as demonstrator at Chingford Organ Studios in East London – they thought it was a joke, and refused to give him the job. The same happened when he tried to get a gig on a cruise ship.
All this from a man whom the likes of Jon Lord were hailing as their inspiration. Regarded by the best rock keyboard players of the era as a giant, he was now virtually destitute and unemployable.
There did seem to be a little light at the end of the tunnel when Hisemen met him while recording the Heckstall-Smith album A Story Ended (1972).
“He seemed to have straightened himself out, was benign and focused. But then he’d get you in a corner, and try to fix you with his eyes. It was a control thing. Rather like the evangelists. They seem perfectly normal, and then attempt to almost hypnotise you into submission.”
On May 8, 1974, at the age of just 36 Graham Bond died, and in circumstances some have tried to portray as mysterious. It happened at Finsbury Park tube station in North London, under the wheels of a train. The verdict was suicide, and that’s the way most people saw – and see – the situation. Others, though, wondered if darker forces were at work. There were rumours that he was on the run after a drug deal had gone wrong; he was alleged to have bought a quantity of cocaine off a dealer, but instead of selling it on to make enough to pay back the dealer and also make a profit, he gave it all away. There was yet another story that he’d been threatened by devil worshippers.
All this has been given extra credence by Ginger Baker, who was convinced that he either slipped or was pushed.
“How would he know?” demands Hiseman. And he has a good point. “The only people who know for sure would have been at the station. If you weren’t there, how can you have any view on it? To me, it just fuels the speculation for the sake of it.
“If you ask whether I was shocked by his death, then the answer is no, I wasn’t. It was expected. I was with Jimi Hendrix the week before he died, and I wasn’t at all surprised when I got the call that he’d died. There are some people where you just wait for the news to come.
“I’m just amazed Graham lasted as long as he did. The amount of drugs he was doing must have badly affected his internal organs.”
The conspiracy theory (such as it is) is further enhanced by a supposed call Bond is said to have to a magazine 24 hours before he died. It’s been said that he sounded lucid, coherent and claimed to be have kicked his drug habit. Of course, it’s comparatively easy to convince someone on the phone that you’re clean when the reality is starkly different, but this is all part of the Graham Bond myth.
“I think his other problem was that he ended up with nobody around who could tell him the truth,” believes Hiseman. “Slowly, he removed them all, and ended up with a bunch of yes men, who’d laugh at his jokes and just tell him how great he is. In the end, given that situation, you do go mad. Politicians do it all the time, and so do rock stars. It’s very unhealthy.”
Graham Bond remains in relative obscurity. His music is hard to track down, and hardly any of his albums have been reissued for at least three decades; one exception is a compilation of previously unreleased songs called Solid Bond (originally put out in 1970) was re-released a few years ago. In short, despite his incredible story (one that ended in tragedy), he’s someone whose artistry has been forgotten.
Those whodo know of him posthumously will probably only do so through the drugs and occult stories, and the mystery some say surrounds his death to this day. But if you listen to what the man did record, it does hold something remarkable. When you realise he was making music in an era before heavy rock and prog got into their stride, then it makes him all the more of a pioneer and original.
“Personally, his biggest contribution to my career was in enabling me to make the transition from my old world to a new one, without changing my values,” says Hiseman of Bond’s impact on his life. “He gave me a confidence that carried me into doing other things. I will always be grateful to him for that.”
An article such as this can only give a slight flavour of the man and his music. Hopefully, this might have piqued your interest enough to go on and read the excellent book by Harry Shapiro (Graham Bond: The Mighty Shadow). And there’s also the website www.grahambond.net, which is dedicated to his legacy.
In the meantime, check out the music here.
Tags: Alexis Korner, Blues Incorporated, Colosseum, Darkthrone, Dianne Stewart, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Emperor, Ginger Baker, Graham Bond, Graham Bond Quartet, Graham Bond Trio, Grahm Bond ORGANisation, Jack Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Jon Hiseman, Jon Lord, Mayhem, Pail Olsen