Decadence and depravity…with added cheese
Nick Churchill charts the extraordinary story of how Ilsington Farmhouse in Tincleton became ‘Jabberwocky’ – a studio used by the stars of the 60s and early 70s
Published in June ’15
It may not have the swish of Swinging London; it’s not as far out as San Francisco, or as groovy as Goa, but Dorset has more than played its part in hippy history. More specifically, the lysergically-enhanced happenings in a ramshackle recording studio set up in a farmhouse near Tincleton make for a fascinating footnote in freak lore.
High times they most certainly were and, contrary to the cliché, the surviving people that remember them were most certainly there.
Today, Ilsington Farmhouse is at the heart of a thriving holiday rental business but in the autumn of 1969 its eleven rooms and basement were available for a mere £15 a week through a small advert in The Times that caught the eye of one Arthur Brown, he of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and legendary ‘god of hell fire’ according to his million-selling hit single ‘Fire’ that had topped the charts all over the world the previous summer.
Flush with royalties and keen to get back in the groove with his close friend and drummer the late Drachen Theaker (whom he’d sacked on tour in America earlier in the year) Brown rented the farmhouse, set up a primitive studio – later improved by Ian ‘Boob’ Bowden, an ex-GPO traffic controller – and set about recording an album called Strangelands that was to remain unissued until 1988.
As Arthur recalls: ‘It was all very improvised, a long way from how we operated as …Crazy World…, which was quite planned and involved costumes. The studio became Drachen’s Jabberwocky. The times being what they were various substances were taken and then we’d record. Drachen recorded everything that went on. I would usually be naked and start improvising music that sometimes would be wonderful and other times quite dreadful.’
Musical urges temporarily sated, the participants would routinely jump into Arthur’s limo for a night’s drinking at the Kings Arms in Puddletown, but it was the mind-altering substances that ultimately brought about a reckoning.
‘It was a very challenging time,’ Arthur understates. ‘As you might imagine there were problems relating to paranoia, then the money would run out and people started to blame one another. We ran the whole gamut of human emotions, in fact it was much like the music we made, sometimes it was blissfully great, other times it was just rubbish.
‘After a while my then wife decided she couldn’t cope with the substances and the strange behaviour so we moved out and took over the servants’ wing of the manor house in Puddletown, Ilsington Manor. That brought us closer to a conventional community but it was still pretty weird. Of course at the farmhouse nobody really knew what we were getting up to, although I have to say some of what the locals did was quite strange – shooting off shotguns across the park at three in the morning seemed quite normal to them, but perhaps not to us.’
In time Arthur returned to the relative normality of London, although he retained an interest in what went on at Ilsington until the end. Drachen, guitarist Andy Rickell (aka Android Funnel on account of the upturned funnel he played with on his head) and the Crazy World’s former lighting engineer Adrian Shaw regrouped as The Puddletown Express to complete the album before telegraphing singer Rod Goodway to join them and make some more music.
It was June 1970: ‘I was drafted in as singer and wordsmith for a band who wished to make totally alien, non-commercial music whilst living in the middle of the Dorset countryside, miles from anywhere with no transport, no prospects and only the reputation of the singer who had just disowned them – of course, I took the job immediately,’ he recalls.
‘A piece called T On The Lawn For 4 was composed, performed and recorded that summer and I came up with the name Rustic Hinge and the Provincial Swimmers.’
One fine day an unexpected distraction arrived in the form of a BBC camera crew which filmed the strangeness before them as part of a documentary called In the Footsteps of Tess, nominally about Thomas Hardy, for the Look, Stranger strand on BBC2.
‘We were in the process of re-recording the vocals to a song named ‘Lychee’ and you can see a performance of this monstrosity on YouTube filmed on the lawn of Ilsington Farmhouse,’ says Rod.
‘At that time, Adrian was driving the Crazy World’s limousine. It’s funny in those days you didn’t ask where the money was coming from, you drifted around from
one palatial mansion to another and just knew that you were usually penniless yourself but otherwise living in apparent luxury. It was very odd, very odd indeed; a bit like being royalty, I imagine. But before long we were broke and broken.’
John Peel visited Jabberwocky and, liking what he heard, considered T on the Lawn For 3 for release on his Dandelion label, but it was not to be and Drachen Theaker left for Los Angeles.
‘With no record label finance, to quote Drachen we were ‘starving and well-nigh mad’. I only actually lived there for a few brief months, but it was indeed a magical place and if it wasn’t for the lack of food, beer and drugs I may not have left when I did, but I quit along with my lady and my cats.’
Adrian Shaw went with him, but they did return in 1972 with a new band called Magic Muscle to record what was the final session at Jabberwocky. The studio had always taken outside clients, including the all-conquering Led Zeppelin, who checked in to make some demo recordings* in 1970.
‘I heard the story second-hand some years ago from the late Andy Rickell who produced the sessions,’ says Rod, ‘and all I can remember is how disgusted he was by their rock ’n’ roll animal behaviour – mainly due to members of the Zep tearing-up his herbs and riding go karts rough-shod through the Jabberwocky gardens.’
It was still an impressive endorsement and when Ian Ralfini, the head of Warner Brothers in London, put together a rescue package, it was enough to keep the operation going for a while longer. The National Head Band, whose fusion of medieval folk and heavy rock largely remains overlooked, but whose line up included Winton-born future Uriah Heep/Ozzy Osbourne drummer Lee Kerslake, recorded their sole album, Albert 1, there in 1971. Side two opens with the track ‘Ilsington Farm’.
Most famously of all though, Ilsington was where genre-defining folk rock band America wrote their biggest hit, A Horse With No Name. Dispatched to ‘get it together in the country’ according to their manager Jeff Dexter, the band arrived for a five-day stay on the morning of Monday 2 August 1971.
‘Their new guitars and amps got there that afternoon and I arrived some time after that, by which time they were completely out of their trees bashing out something from the weightier end of heavy metal, I mean they had turned the amps up to 13 and were having a wonderful time. So I caught up with them so to speak and at various points we were deeply absorbed by these beautiful books of Dali paintings and Escher drawings.
‘At some point, just after the madness, when we had settled into the nice flowery mellow phase this song started to come together. It was called The Desert Song at first and eventually The Horse With No Name. On the Saturday they appeared at the annual Harrogate music festival and played the song in public for the first time. It got a huge response and we knew we were onto something.
‘I recorded a demo version with Dennis Elliott who was resident at Ilsington and seemed to be in charge. I wish I still had it as not long after that they stitched me up and went off to make millions for David Geffen in the States.’
There’s one final ingredient in the lively legend of Ilsington Farmhouse – Blue Vinny Cheese.
‘I remember it being a little unstable but we had a thing about Blue Vinny,’ explains Jeff, ‘which we used to buy from a dairy on the main street in Dorchester. Most people didn’t eat on acid but this did something special – it must have been the blue veins – so we asked if we could get it anywhere closer to London and were told the dairy also supplied a shop in Streatley** in Berkshire near to where both Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend lived. My partner in crime the producer Ian Samwell had a place there so all our Blue Vinny needs could be accommodated very well.
‘We loved it, a Cheese Trail that ran from Dorchester to the Thames.’
With its cash, chaos, loud music, illicit substances and whiff of celebrity, like all of the most ripping yarns of the sixties zeitgeist, the Ilsington Farmhouse episode is a singular blend of decadence and depravity… with added cheese. ◗
* Andy Rickell’s studio log notes Led Zeppelin worked on several songs – ‘Celebration Day’, ‘Hey Hey What Can I Do’, ‘Out On The Tiles’, ‘Four Sticks’, ‘When The Levee Breaks’ (pre-vocal) and ‘Wanton Song’, ‘Trampled Underfoot’ (incomplete demos with vocals).
** From 1953 Wells Family Grocer in Streatley was owned by champion cheesemonger Major Patrick Rance. It’s likely he was at least a partial inspiration for the Monty Python Cheese Shop sketch (various Pythons were regular visitors to the area and Blue Vinny is mentioned in the sketch) and he is widely credited with saving several cheeses from extinction. He found authentic Blue Vinny made from unpasteurised milk in production at a secret location between Dorchester and Puddletown, which – according to legend – achieved the blue veins by dragging a mouldy harness through the mixture at an early stage in its manufacture.