Well, you have had an insight into some of the more surprising musical influences of my very early days. ‘Tis time now to indulge more in the “business end” of the music that shaped my life by singling out my first favourite band.
Of course, there were the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, the Who, the Zombies and the Moody Blues, whom I remember from their early appearances on TV.
However, it took a holiday in Majorca at the tender age of 12 to ignite the quantum leap into the world of prog. During that holiday, I met an “older man” aged 15 called Andy from Oxhey in Watford, to whom I still owe so much if only I knew where he was now.
He talked about Jimi Hendrix and also a band called Curved Air who had just released their debut album, the seminal “Air Conditioning”, that year. It became one of the must-play albums on Radio One in the days when it entertained thinking listeners by playing prog and heavy rock, Pete Drummond and the late and very great Alan “Fluff” Freeman being the main cheerleaders.
It was through their shows that I heard the album’s stunning opener “It Happened Today” and the extraordinary “Vivaldi”.
Here was a band whom I could really learn to love, that arthouse electronic edginess, the hints of West Coast psychedelia and folk, the doomy lyrics, the classical backdrop on which the songs were lovingly arranged, that searing violin and of course, that incredible smoky voice.
The songs seemed to be about love and loss, pain, destruction and depression – quite a heady brew but with an intoxicating sonic drama, which verged on the visceral and the intellectual, they got inside my head, and thankfully, they have never ever really left.
However, it was not until the following year that I was able to fully appreciate the wonders of the band, when their second album “Curved Air II” was released. It is a particularly special album because it was the first one I ever bought – from the proceeds of six weeks’ babysitting.
It gave a chance to finally see on the album cover what the band looked like and of course, they were magnificent and provided my first and probably only real female role model, Sonja Kristina. The lady was the quintessential hippie goddess with her outrageously beautiful face, long, straight hair and overt sensuality, seized on by many a callow youth of the day. These callow youths are now men of a certain age, who still sigh at the very mention of her name.
But Sonja always had that streak of rebellious independence and “don’t mess with me” attitude, which transcended any cute girliness. She was a real woman – and then some. And that sultry voice with its unique vibrato could only really be successfully paired musically with a violin. Darryl Way was her perfect foil. He was able to seamlessly move the violin’s melody lines alongside her vocals.
Francis Monkman was the keyboard/guitar player, a classically trained musician who later moved to Sky and composing film scores, notably for “The Long Good Friday”.
Ian Eyre was the bass player for the first two albums, replaced by Mike Wedgewood, but it was the drummer with the amazing name, Florian Pilkington-Miksa, who became a particular favourite. In fact, a very dear friend remarked recently on how much he now resembles my beloved husband, something which I had not quite previously computed.
It was fair to say Florian was of this young teenager’s first pin-ups because he was so strikingly handsome in an ethereal kind of way. We had the most extraordinary of meetings in the 80s but I shall come to that later.
I loved everything about Curved Air – the way they sounded, the way they looked, the way they seemed to break with tradition in creating music which came from a feminine dynamic, Sonja Kristina taking an autobiographical look at her world through songs such as “Young Mother” and the surprise hit single “Backstreet Luv”. Monkman provided the whole of side two of “CA II”, rounding off with the stunning “Piece of Mind” based on T.S. Eliot’s epic poem “The Waste Land”.
Their third album “Phantasmagoria” somehow passed me by back then – probably because they might have been superseded by Yes by then! However, it did produce the haunting “Melinda -More Or Less”, Sonja Kristina’s beautiful folk song about a lady using induced fantasy to blot out the spectre of her reality.
It was a radically different Curved Air which emerged the following year for “Air Cut”, with all the original band members apart from Sonja having now departed. Into the ranks came guitarist Kirby Gregory – simply known as Kirby. To replace Way and Monkman, a wunderkind called Eddie Jobson was recruited and there are no prizes for guessing where he ended up. It was an interesting album with Sonja Kristina’s tales of seemingly mythical beings and fantasy worlds. It was a heady brew with “Metamorphosis” providing the band with yet another epic showstopper.
The band continued and, by then, I was only following them from afar, even when a certain Stewart Copeland became their drummer for a year, and subsequently married Sonja Kristina.
Remember I mentioned a close encounter with one of the band members? It happened not today, but back in the 80s when I was recovering from an extremely damaging marriage. To cut a long story short, my then ex was a clairvoyant-medium who went horribly off the psychic rails and psychologically, he left me in a very bad place.
However, I had found some good friends by then and we all set off for a day in West Sussex to attend some low key New Age gathering. In the car on the way over, I suddenly had one of my occasional premonitions that told me “I would meet someone there that I know”. Well, I thought it might by my ex but we kept on going all the same.
When we got to the village hall where it was being held, we were ushered into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. There we were introduced to a couple already there: “This is Christine, and this is Florian.” Well, imagine coming face to face with one of your musical pin-ups in such extraordinary circumstances. I tried to stop the knees from trembling but I did manage to blurt out that I knew who he was and he was quite taken aback that I did recognise him as the drummer from Curved Air.
And they say the best things in life are worth waiting for and indeed they are for the one thing I had not done up until now was to see them play live.
Fortunately, they are still going strong, playing venues across the length and breadth of the land, and in Europe. So when it was announced they were playing right on my doorstep at the Brook in Southampton about four years ago, cometh the band, cometh the fan.
I was accompanied that night by that lovely prog gentleman Sean Filkins and his delightful “A” team, wife Amanda and daughter Abigail.
It was a stunning night if only to finally hear all those soundtrack songs of my youth being played. Apparently, Abigail was very impressed that I knew all the words to the songs!
Best of all, I finally got to meet my heroine, who now resembles a gorgeous gypsy queen with her long flaming locks and black lace dress. And Florian remembered our encounter back in the 80s!
I have seen them several times since, including at the High Voltage and Summer’s End Festivals, and at Farncombe Music Club, the venue for our wedding party, where they played the whole set without Florian, who fell ill that night and was unable to perform.
The whole Curved Air cycle came full circle last September, when, on the 45th anniversary of its release, the band took to the stage at Under The Bridge in London to play all of “Air Conditioning”, something which had not been done for many a decade.
The first part of the set was a selection of songs old and new, including some from their most recent album “North Star” released in 2014.
It was the sheer joy of experiencing “Air Conditioning” in a live setting and realising the album had not lost any of its power and excitement in the ensuing years.
Perhaps I should mention that Curved Air’s current violinist Paul Sax is one of the most electric forces of nature in prog, his whole demeanour that of a wild gypsy violinist.
For this evening and one evening only, he was joined by Darryl Way. who flashed and burned his way through the most extraordinary version of “Vivaldi”. To see a musician play with such incredible virtuosity and passion on a piece fashioned when he was still young enough to be at art school or music college is simply remarkable. And I do not mind saying a few tears were shed, especially when Sax joined him for a sizzling rendition of “Everdance” from “CA II” for the encore.
Ian Eyre, the original bass player, also made an appearance to help celebrate this wonderful landmark in the career of a band that simply keeps on burning brightly.
They’ll be coming here to my current home town of Basingstoke in November and next year they will be one of the bands lighting up the Cruise to the Edge.
I cannot see the Curved Air Everdance ending any time soon – not while Sonja Kristina continues to weave her wonderful sorceress magic onstage, surrounded by the ever-changing, evergreen band of musicians, bringing new nuances and subtle light and shade to their very distinct and special brand of prog.
*All photographs by Martin Reijman