Most of you will have heard that Ken Whaley, front man and bass player with The Green Ray passed away a few weeks ago after losing his battle with cancer.
Ken was one of life’s good guys, a true human being whose heart was always in the right place. As a musician he was second to none, his bass playing quite simply some of the best on the planet.
For many he’ll be best remembered for his playing with Help Yourself and Man. The convoluted inter-twined history of these outfits has been told a dozen times, and I don’t propose to repeat it here. Suffice to say that he’s there on that winsome first Helps album, suffered the ignominy of being sacked in its wake (something he never quite forgave its instigators) and was re-instated in time for the group’s fourth LP, which happily bore his name and his timely return in its title. He remained an integral part of the group up until its demise half way through cutting a fifth LP in late summer 1973.
During the hiatus with the Helps, he was asked to join Ducks Deluxe but quit before they ever recorded. Some years later he re-joined his erstwhile band mate Sean Tyla in the eponymous Tyla Gang. Some of his finest work is to be found on Man’s 1974 set, Rhinos, Winos and Lunatics, without doubt the band’s most fully realised studio album. Written and recorded in just three weeks, this album fell smoothly into place on every level – great musicianship, great production, great song-writing - whilst retaining key elements of Man’s beloved psychedelic guitar sound. Variously described by band mate Deke Leonard in his liner notes as Dancing Ken Whaley and the Whaley Guild, Ken’s playing adds breath-taking flow, breadth and depth to proceedings. Listen to the largely acoustic ‘California Silks and Satins’ and hear Ken play the perfect bass line!
Whaley ended up staying with Man for a year or so and can also be heard on Rhinos somewhat patchy follow-up Slow Motion but after a reportedly rancorous departure from their ranks during a US tour, drifted away from the rock and roll lifestyle into other lines of work notably journalism and he worked on local papers such as the Islington Gazette and the Camden Journal.
Thankfully he kept the music going notably playing with his old Help Yourself mucker Dave Charles on Barry Melton’s The Fish LP which saw the start of a long friendship with the West Coast guitar supremo. Barry’s band with Ken, Dave and ex-Gypsy guitarist Ray Martinez, toured as support to Commander Cody on his 1976 UK tour and what a joy it was to see them in action – seeing Ken and Dave provide the perfect rhythm section for the Fish was like a dream come true!
At the height of punk rock in 1977, frustrated that nobody was interested any longer in covering the exploits of my heroes from Man and the Help Yourself, I wrote to John Eichler, former Helps manager and long-standing landlord of that bastion of all things pub rock, the Hope & Anchor on Islington’s Upper Street. Imagine my delight when a week or so later a letter reached me penned by none other than Ken Whaley himself, updating me on all that had befallen his ex-band mates. A few weeks later still I found myself talking to the Hope’s door man incarnate, Ken himself at the foot of the stairs to the pub’s music basement about to witness the Plummets live on stage and chatting not only to Ken the but also to Malcolm Morley who’d wandered down to see his old mates from the Plummet Airlines in their new guise as power-popping new wavers!
From that meeting in September 77 a friendship of sorts developed. I moved to London a year later and the Hope became my watering hole of choice. Handy too given that I was going one day a week to college on the Essex Road. Even its twilight years the H & A was a real inspirational place to be and I would see Ken and his partner in crime Simon Haspeck (as well as members of the Eichler family) on my regular trips to watch the Soft Boys (and subsequently the Brainiac 5, Motor Boys Motor, Manipulator and dozens of other bands). It was in one of the Hope’s upper rooms that I did my first ever proper rock and roll interview with Martin Ace!
In a funny kind of way these experiences all led me to start my own magazine and when Bucketfull of Brains launched in November 79, both Man and the Soft Boys featured heavily in its pages.
Suffice to say that Ken (and Simon) probably loved the Soft Boys as much as I did and the Hope became one of the band’s few centres of support in the months following the NME’s rubbishing of A Can of Bees. Oh the nights we had down there and at other venues with the Soft Boys – but that’s a story for another time.
When the Hope finally closed its door on the Eichler years in late ‘84 I lost sight of Ken for a while.
Fast forward to 1992 and the first Man Convention in Feltham and there onstage Ken and Simon’s band, the Archers with Ken’s brother Si on drums and another Help Yourself refugee on lead guitar, the incomparable Richard Treece. Despite a very obvious problem in the vocals department and as always
a terribly under-amplified RT, I caught enough that afternoon to consider recording them for my recently-launched Shagrat label. Negotiations ensued over the next months and I finally got them into the studio with engineer Alec Hawkins (who’d worked with Elvis Costello amongst others).
The proviso: instrumentals only, no vocals!!
The results when listened to some 20 years later still sound pretty darn good even though I say it myself. Their version of Don Cherry’s ‘Brown Rice’ is particularly outstanding here – and it would remain a staple of their live set till the very end – witness their re-construction/de-construction of it on the Green Ray CD as ‘Black-Eyed Pea’ and believe!! Having rarely witnessed Help Yourself as a live band, the Archers and their later incarnation the Green Ray offered a wonderful opportunity to hear the staggering interplay between two of the best in the business, Ken and Richard. At the end of those first sessions at Barking Studios I was seized by the notion that what we had here was the British equivalent of Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen from the Airplane or Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia from the Dead. I knew Ken was a big fan of both these San Francisco bass-playing wizards and had the pleasure of standing in the Marquee club practically next to Ken the night Casady’s ‘punk’ band SVT played there in 1979. And in later years, I think I’m right in believing Ken played a Jack Casady Epiphone Signature bass just like his hero? I later learnt that Ken was also a fan of the mighty Chris Hillman – as Bill from the Messiahs once said, you’ve got to start with the best and Ken certainly had. He also loved British jazzer Dave Holland whose bass playing can be heard on Miles’s In A Silent Way which opened Ken’s funeral.
For me anyone else playing in a band featuring Richard Treece would find it hard to merit the same level of my attention but Ken did this by the bass guitar full. He was melodic, sturdy, inventive, light as feather, hard as a rock, his wonderful runs could carry the song along or he might lie back whilst he delivered a lead vocal– and when he and Richard and the rest of the band took off on one, well that was worth the price of admission alone. I’m so thankful I caught as many Green Ray sets over the years I did – always a bit unpredictable but whatever the weather you always knew Ken would come up with goods. His singing and song writing also improved with the passage of time as songs like ‘Swedish Detective Movie’ and ‘Before the Fall’, so ably attest, and his rendition of ‘All My Tears’ on a good night could always make the audience weep as the original did to the congregation at his funeral!
Like all of us, Ken had his moments too. I recall a few minor disagreements during the recording of both The Green Ray and its follow up Sighs, Whales and Trees – when Ken’s formidable Scorpio personality came to the fore. Though we resolved them in the end, I think to Ken’s rather than my satisfaction! Like all of us he also had his lapses of taste. I still maintain that his beloved ‘Alley Cat’ was at best an aberration from the 80s which to my ears would have been more at home on a Bronski Beat album! It was hardly a Green Ray number and never should have been recorded as part of the session that completed Help Yourself 5.
But let’s remember him in the greater scheme of things, as the good guy he was, for all the good times down the Hope and all the gigs elsewhere and above all for the substantial musical gift he gave to so many of us.
Kenneth John Whaley we’re really going to miss you.