Stuart Cowell of Titus Groan – a British Eclectic Rock Band of 1970

 

In May 1970, while hitchhiking around England with my older brother—we were Canadian teenagers going off on our own during a family vacation—we attended a rock festival. The Hollywood Music Festival was so named for an area called Hollywood in a 30-acre field at Ted Askey’s Lower Farm at Finney Green, between Madeley Heath and Leycett, near the town of Newcastle-Under-Lyme, in the county of Staffordshire, in the West Midlands region of England, United Kingdom. To keep it simple, it was not far from Stoke-On-Trent.

We saw every band. On the Saturday, the lineup was Radha Krishna Temple, Screaming Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, Mungo Jerry, Family, Titus Groan, Mike Cooper, Black Widow, Ginger Baker’s Airforce, and Tony Joe White. On the Sunday, the lineup was Wildmouth, Quintessence, Colosseum, Black Sabbath, Grateful Dead, Mungo Jerry again, Jose Feliciano, and Traffic. Some of the announced or advertised bands did not play.

I was able to remember my impressions of several of the bands and even got a recording of the Grateful Dead’s set. I found a lot of information, including some photos and set lists on a website. In researching the acts, I discovered that Titus Groan had not yet recorded at the time I saw them but shortly afterwards made one album before breaking up. I tracked down a CD reissue of it that added the songs from a single release. It contained everything that Titus Groan ever recorded, and showed the band to be highly musical, instrumentally adept with interesting timbres (various keyboards, including piano, Wurltizer electric piano, organ, and woodwinds : sax, flute, and oboe) and stylistically varied, a mix of hard rock, jazz and blues rock, with harmony vocals and a dash of country. The members were (from left to right in the photo :) Tony Priestland (sax, flute, oboe), Stuart Cowell (keyboards, guitars, vocals), Jim Toomey (drums), and John Lee (bass, vocals).

Intrigued, I dug for information on the web and came across Stuart Cowell’s address. The interview was conducted via email exchanges in October and November 2016.

CM : What was the inspiration for the band – the name and the music ?

SC : I was very affected my Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy [of books], more so than some of the others in the band. That said, Tony was very well read and had a similar regard for it. I recently reread Titus Alone, unedited !! What a difference to the edited version. The first editor emasculated it ! I did not know that at the time ! All references to modern day transport eradicated !

CM : How did the band members meet and what was your previous playing experience ?

SC : Musically we all had different influences. My early influences were blues, soul, rockabilly, folk, and to a lesser extent jazz. I loved Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Booker T and the MGs, and the guitar style of Steve Cropper, also James Burton, Scotty Moore and early Elvis, Albert Lee, Eric Clapton, Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, Bill Broonzy, Clarence White, and many more. I hate(d) most, but not all pop music ! I became enamoured of bands such as the Byrds, the Dead, Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Jim Toomey had a background in trad jazz before he moved on to soul music. He liked prog and heavy rock. I didn’t. Tony Priestland had played in the same soul band (whose name I forget) as Jim. Jim and I played with a bass player / singer / song writer called Jerome Arnold, a former member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Tony was in a soul band with Jim prior to this. John Lee was playing with the well-known tenor player Dick Morrissey. I cannot remember how we met. I think they rehearsed at the house/ studio where Jim and I lived.

CM : Did you have formal training in music ?

SC : I trained at a choir school/ headquarters of the Royal School of Church Music in UK. I studied voice and piano.

CM : What do you recall about the Hollywood festival ?

SC : The Hollywood festival, just when we thought we had it made, Mungo Jerry got a better reaction, far more entertaining ! I remember seeing them there. I thought they were a breath of fresh air and deserved the reaction that they received. They had the same management as us (Red Bus). I enjoyed Tony Joe White despite the fact that he had a drummer but no bass player ! I regret that we could not stay [for the second day]. I would love to have seen the Dead. I would also like to have seen Traffic ; I have always been a fan of Steve Winwood.

CM : Some of the other acts at the Hollywood festival—Mungo Jerry, Wildmouth, and Mike Cooper—were also managed by the Red Bus agency of London. What about them ?

SC : I have great memories of Ellis Elias and Eliot Cohen (Red Bus). They passed good work my way. Ellis got me my first mortgage and I subsequently was offered a gig with Paul Brett’s Sage, a folk rock band in their stable. [Listen to “Custom Angel Man” here and “Jubilation” here, with Stuart Cowell on lead guitar]. I also played on the B-side of one of Mungo Jerry’s singles, I forget which one.

CM : Can you provide me a set list from the Hollywood gig or that time period ?

SC : Sorry, I don’t have a set list.

CM : Did you have a name for your style ? Comments on the web call it proto-prog or progressive rock.

SC : I never aspired towards prog rock. I considered most of it BS. I think our management had other ideas. Eclecticism maybe, but not prog or heavy music for me. At the time, the cracks began to show (not unusual in bands).
I had several reasons for my antipathy to prog rock, I didn’t like having it forced down my throat, a bit like making kids eat Brussels sprouts though personally, I love ’em ! A lot of it felt, to me, like long-winded arrangements of sometimes mediocre songs. If I want complicated, I would rather listen to Vaughn Williams or Dave Brubeck. I loved people like Clapton, The Band, Dylan, and Ralph McTell for sticking to the basics and singing good songs.

CM : Who did you see as your competition at the time ?

SC : Personally I never saw music as competition but I can’t speak for the others !

CM : Tell me about the recording process – did the band play live and record vocals after ?

SC : Recordings wise, at PYE studios in London, we put down the basic backing track first, followed by vocals, then solos, fills, harmonies, etc.

CM : How did the band arrange the vocals and the harmonies ?

SC : From what I remember, I arranged the harmonies ; I don’t remember anyone else being that way orientated, except possibly Tony.

CM : Were you pleased with the record ?

SC : I personally wish we had the freedom/ budget to record that was accorded to Crosby, Stills and Nash, whom I greatly preferred ! At this point, I was disillusioned by the UK rock scene. I backed the wrong horse. I think I was born in the wrong country, or should have migrated to the US ! I was constantly under pressure to renounce my beloved Telecaster in favour of a Gibson Les Paul. Didn’t happen !

CM : The only song that Titus Groan recorded that was not an original composition was Bob Dylan’s “Open the Door Homer,” from the basement tapes. Did you learn it from a bootleg ? Did you know that it was in the repertoire of Fairport Convention (under the title “Open the Door Richard”) around the same time ?

SC : It came from a demo, but I don’t know its origins. It may well have been a bootleg. Next time I see Dave Pegg I will ask him about it !

CM : Besides the Dylan song, did the band do other covers ?

SC : We played all our own stuff on gigs. We flirted with “Gimme Shelter,” but I doubt we ever played it live.

CM : About the album cover image – did the band choose it and what did you think of it ?

SC : I like the cover. It was done by Sue Baws, our manager’s wife. He chose it, but I think we all liked it.

CM : What caused the band to breakup and what was your reaction ?

SC : In hindsight, I think Tony was irreplaceable. He left after a contractual disagreement with the manager. In many ways, he was the heart and soul, even the conscience of Titus Groan. Ten years ago, I was interviewed by a fledgling Japanese journalist. He asked me what was my best moment with Titus Groan. My reply was : the day I left !

We had a double bill with Terry Reed. David Lindley, who was in his band, offered to introduce me to Linda Ronstadt. I should have taken his advice ! I was too hell bent on buying my first apartment and having being newly married to take the risk. Wrong again ! Despite having had two divorces, I have to say band breakups are far more cathartic !

When I realized that we were becoming typecast as prog rock, I knew it was time for me to move on. If you ask yourself was he pushed or did he fall ? The answer is both ! Tony had left first and was replaced by an American multi-instrumentalist, Doug Meister, who now lives in Nashville. I don’t know about the final death throes of TG, but hope it wasn’t too acrimonious. By then, I had other fish to fry.

CM : Please comment on each of the songs on the CD.

SC : “It Wasn’t For You” - Co-written with Tony Priestland, it is about substitution. In other words, making it with one person, but thinking of somebody else ! I think the arrangement was more complex than it needed to be. That said, another horn part in the riff might have helped. Too much drumming for my taste. Great sax playing from Tony.

“Hall Of Bright Carvings” - Around the time that this was written I had, much to everyone else’s consternation, rediscovered my more folky influences like Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell, Davy Graham, and John Renbourn. I spent more time with my acoustic guitar and the opening riff may well reflect that. Most of the lyrics were written by Tony.

“Liverpool” - By that time, John had emerged from a somewhat introverted persona and was more open to taking the lead vocal. My reaction to that was thank F...K, but I never got the gist of it, almost surreal. A bit like Fairport Convention meets Yes ! I think he underestimated his vocal prowess, and at that time I may well have overestimated mine !

“I Can’t Change” - Once again, great vocal from John ! Enigmatic song, sounds drug related but I never saw him do more than beer and tobacco ! I think that’s how he imagined a bad acid trip to be.

photo from a reissue album of Titus Groan, Tony Priestland (sax) at left, Jim Toomey (drums) at right :

“It’s All Up With Us” - Lovely melodic tenor sax playing from Tony. Jim wrote the lyrics. I guess in retrospect it’s all about burnout !

“Fuschia” - A clever song written solely by Tony, lead vocal by John. I think the lyrics show a good understanding of Mervyn Peake’s Fuschia character, Titus’s sister. A touch of Jethro Tull !

“Open The Door Homer” - Better than I remember it. Barry [Murray] the producer had hired a session pianist ; I wish he had been louder in the mix !

“Woman Of The World” - All my own work, no co-writer. The acoustic guitar should have been much higher in the mix. It would have sounded better with fiddle, harmonica, or pedal steel ! It was about my first attempt at a permanent relationship, failed expectations on both sides. Break-up by mutual consent, instigated by me. Barry, the producer, (jokingly) said I had written it with John Sebastian. I wish !

CM : What song do you think best represents the band or your contributions ?

SC : I think “Hall of Bright Carvings” comes closest to the zeitgeist. I am not happy with any of my own vocal offerings.

CM : Now how do you view your experience in Titus Groan ?

SC : The impact it had on me was stay away from prog rock, keep for the most part to the music I like and get well paid for it !

CM : How did being in Titus Groan affect the music that you did later ?

SC : Positively in as much as I followed my heart. I found it very hard to trust other musicians or even myself. I enjoyed freelancing. I started to make real money which gave me more self respect. I found out that what Titus Groan hated about me, other people respected !

CM : Tell me about the music you do and are interested in now.

SC : Over the years I followed my true loves : folk, country, rock, rockabilly. I always had a bluesy side and still do. I spent some time in Germany with a musician called Julian Dawson who turned me on to the music of Paul Brady / Andy Irvine and Irish folk music in general. As an indirect result, decades later, I moved there in 1994.

In 1980, I emigrated to Australia. The line up at my farewell concert at the Half Moon [a legendary venue in Putney, London] included Maddy Prior, Rick Kemp [both of Steeleye Span], Dave Pegg (of Fairport Convention/ Jethro Tull), Ralph McTell, et al. Oh, I nearly forgot…and me ! The band line up was composed of guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and pedal steel. I haven’t seen Dave Pegg for a while but I have a feeling I will ! I saw Ralph McTell recently. We went for a drink together with John Roberts (a promoter friend of mine). Ralph has lost nothing of his abilities but has gained even more class.

CM : What is your connection to Steeleye Span ?

SC : My connection with Steeleye is through Ralph McTell with whom I had worked some time after Titus Groan. Rick Kemp, the bass player was on one of the tours. Prior to my departure for Australia, I stayed with him after I sold my house.

CM : What is your involvement with music now ?

SC : I have a regular acoustic session conveniently situated round the corner in Sexton’s pub, in Kinvara [Ireland] where I live (website). It is fairly eclectic and anything can happen. We have had many good people guest with us, including a former member of Country Joe and the Fish. You can find me on youtube : key in “Stuart Cowell/ Play with my Fender.”

CM : Which member of Country Joe and the Fish came and jammed with you ?

SC : I have played a couple of times with Bruce Barthol, the original bass player with the Fish. He always has dinner with us when he comes to Kinvara. A lovely guy.

CM : Did you remain in contact with the other members of Titus Groan ?

SC : I lost touch with John and saw Tony a couple of times. Jim moved to Sydney shortly after I did. We socialized quite a lot but didn’t play together. Eventually, he moved to Queensland and I moved to Ireland. Sadly, we have lost touch. He had a walk on part in a Johnny Depp episode of Pirates of the Caribbean ! He does have a web page.

CM : Thank-you.

SC : All the best, Stuart.


comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several interviews with musicians from the 1950s and 1960s. To go to the index page, click here.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006