Third Eye Band – 1970

There was once a time when a band like the Third Ear Band, which sounded beyond rock and folk into some other realm of dance music, would open for the likes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. There was a time when such a band could play at the Isle of Wight festival, the Hyde Park “free concert”, and somehow sneak under the rock or folk label. Defying any categorization, this band normally fronted by Glen ‘Zen’ Sweeney on percussion and Paul Minns on oboe or recorder would have a revolving cast of musicians join them to create a folk-rock sound that predicted post-rock, by going way beyond pre-rock. Here’s where I recommend going to the Youtube video I’ve linked to in the bonus track section and coming back here afterwards…

As they said in a poster for their concert at the Isle of Wight:
“The music is the music of the Druids, released from the unconscious by the alchemical process, orgasmic in its otherness, religious in its oneness, communicating beauty and magic via abstract sound whilst playing without ego enables the musicians to reach a trance-like state, a ‘high’ in which the music produces itself. This is the aim of the Third ear; to act as carriers of consciousness and to play a music that being non-conscious is an organic synthesis of all musics “…each piece is as alike or unalike as blades of grass or clouds”.

Poster provided by the great Third Ear Band fansite:

Before they became one of the first popular progenitors of an alternative world music they were trying to be an electric acid raga band. Raga in the sense of using electric guitars and effects to create a trance inducing sound. Sometime during this early stint as band all their gear got stolen, except for a few drums and their wind instruments. Rather than give up their goal they decided to go full on amplified acoustic. Rather than look for musicians in the rock field they’d look for classically trained, but similarly minded string musicians. Their first release Alchemy had the goal of combining: the raga, the “Book of the Dead” of the ancient Egyptians, Jewish litanies, and Celtic legends.

Alchemy album cover.

This first album, and song provided a taste of what was coming. Using a cyclical melody, they’d try to capture a certain motif that every other musician would improvise around. Usually in songs like “Ghetto Raga” you’d get at the spirit they’re trying to evoke, its the sound of pre-classical music, the sound of the mystical, the sound of the Medieval and Olde World. With known subjects they could invoke the music they were asked to capture…for their next album the subjects were elemental and went beyond easy recollection.

For Third Ear Band they were to tackle the sound of the elements. Joining Paul, Glen, and Richard Coff on viola and violin now would be Ursula Smith on cello. Slimming down their core group of six musicians to just four would force them to build even more interplay amongst each other. This would remove more of the world music feel, and make it feel like a chamber orchestra trying to remind itself of the sound of the basic elements of the world.

Third Ear Band album cover.

That’s what you hear clearly in the sound “Earth”. Its the sound of trance dance, during times where dance was meant for conjuring and summoning, a sound meant to try to explain away something unexplainable then…the growth/death of crops, volcanoes, drought and more. Simply listen to sound of the Paul Minn’s oboe trying to work its way with the sound of Richard’s viola, the only thing pushing them together are the background sounds of the really subsonic rhythmic cello played by Ursula and Glen’s bodhran.

Similarly, a song like “Fire” shows a different way such instruments can present the feeling of such an element. You can feel the friction of all those wooden instruments trying to find their way to free themselves from the heat of the initial song blast. All of the music is abstract but the invocation again is quite clear.

The hardest part to describe is the band itself and the music. Music like this, for its time, was meant to go beyond world music and go deeper into the realm of inner, magical music. There’s a reason they brought up the Druids, music like this was trying to capture an English sound that was free from restraints of tradition and modernity. Digging deeper than perhaps many bands were willing to go, they’d capture a new feeling other neo-folk bands could take that summoned some hidden past…

Recommended Listening:
Alchemy (1969)
Third Ear Band/Elements (1970)
Abelard & Heloise (1970)
Music from Macbeth Soundtrack (1970)
Magus (1972)

Bonus track, pretend you were John Lennon and/or Yoko Ono, watching this band live a long time ago: