In the Very Beginning
1947 would turn out to be a remarkable year for rock and pop music, one which saw the birth of such celebrated musicians as David Bowie, Elton John, Steve Marriott and Marc Bolan, as well as talents as diverse – to take an otherwise fairly random sample – as folk-rock balladeer Sandy Denny, teenybopper heartthrob (and film star) David Essex, Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans (the ill-fated songwriting team who produced “Without You”, later memorably covered by Harry Nilsson), cult singer/songwriter Laura Nyro (who penned hits for the Fifth Dimension and Blood, Sweat & Tears as well as recording critically-acclaimed albums in her own right) and the Grateful Dead’s other great guitarist and vocalist (alongside Jerry Garcia), Bob Weir. However, and more immediately to the point here, it also produced three of the four founder members of Caravan: singer/guitarist Pye Hastings, drummer Richard Coughlan and, most notably for our present purposes, keyboardist, vocalist and composer Dave Sinclair, who was born in Herne Bay, Kent, on November 24th.
After attending the famous Simon Langton School (where Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge, Brian Hopper, Hugh Hopper and Robert Wyatt also studied, as well as the distinguished harpsichordist, Trevor Pinnock, and the jazz saxophone and clarinet virtuoso, Tony Coe), Dave would go on to become one of the most highly regarded musicians of the Canterbury scene, both as the writer of some of Caravan’s best-known compositions (e.g., “For Richard” and “Nine Feet Underground”) and as an acknowledged master of the distinctive “Canterbury” style of organ playing.
Having been (as already noted) one of the founder members of Caravan in early 1968, Dave has since been in and out of the band for over 45 years, interrupted by occasional stints with other noteworthy musical outfits such as Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North and Camel, and – especially in recent years – by his intense involvement with various well-received solo projects.
1) A glance at the Blows
Although Dave is (apart from a couple of early lessons) a completely self-taught piano player, musician and composer, his extraordinary compositional and performing talents weren’t formed in a complete vacuum; on the contrary, he is very fortunate to have a remarkable musical inheritance from both his mother’s and father’s sides of the family.
Firstly, on his mother’s side (her maiden name is Blow) his ancestor was John Blow (1649-1708), the renowned organist and composer to five kings and queens of England who is buried in Westminster Abbey in the musician’s gallery.
He was buried in the north choir aisle of the Abbey on 8 October 1708, near the door which at that time led to the organ. A white marble cartouche was erected on the wall nearby. The inscription reads:
“Here lies the body of JOHN BLOW, Doctor in MUSICK: who was Organist, Composer and Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, for the space of 35 years; in the reigns of K.Charles the 2d, K.James the 2d, K.William and Q.Mary, and Her present Majesty Q.ANNE: and also Organist of this Collegiate Church about 15 years. He was Scholar to the excellent musician Dr Christopher Gibbons and Master to the famous Mr H. Purcell, and most of the eminent masters in musick since. He died Octob. ye 1st 1708, in ye 60th year of his age. His own musical compositions, (especially his church musick) are a far nobler monument to his memory, than any other can be rais’d for him.”
One of Blow’s better-known works is the opera, Venus and Adonis.
Here is the Prologue: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxpWdLXGiZk]
Dave’s first-cousin Nigel Blow (1952-2011) – as his name suggests, another direct descendant of John Blow – was also an accomplished musician and helped inspire Dave to start writing “Nine Feet Underground” (indeed, the first part of this suite-like composition, which takes up the whole second side of the original vinyl release of In the Land of Grey and Pink, is punningly entitled “Nigel Blows a Tune” in tribute). The resulting 22-minute track has been consistently voted the most popular of all Caravan numbers and is still played as the closing number in Caravan’s live act, so Dave was clearly right to repay a debt of gratitude to the man who provided the initial inspiration!
2) Coster Comedy, Concert Parties and the End-of-the-Pier Show
On Dave’s father’s side, his grandfather Richard Sinclair performed regularly as a “Coster Comedian” in local shows around East Kent, and his grandmother (née Greenman) also performed as a singer (contralto) and piano accompanist at similar venues. In fact that is how they first met!
Dave’s paternal grandmother had a natural ability (which he himself has inherited), which enabled her to play the piano by ear, working out pieces of music she had heard at concerts, etc. Dave’s grandparents also ran the King’s Head public house in Wincheap, Canterbury, where Dave’s father was born in 1910.
Another of their sons, Dick, was (like his father) very much the entertainer, while also inheriting his mother’s musical talents – he played drums, double-bass and guitar. His performing gifts proved very useful during the Second World War, when he was able to entertain his fellow servicemen with his well-worn banjo in such far-away places as India. On one occasion, when the troops had to pull out quickly, rather than leave his irreplaceable banjo behind he decided to bury it, and was later able to retrieve it when returning to the same spot!
However, fans of Canterbury music are more likely to be familiar with Dick’s son (and Dave’s other male first-cousin), also called Richard, who was born on 6th June 1948. Richard’s talents also stretch beyond music into art, reflecting his (and Dave’s) great-grandfather’s passion for sketching and painting. Another ex-Wilde Flower and founder-member of Caravan, Richard’s musical achievements are too numerous to detail here but will be well known to most readers of these pages.
Dave’s father’s family history, however, ultimately goes back to Ireland (where the family name was originally Gavin). In fact, his great-grandfather, Richard John Sinclair, was finally laid to rest in 1917 back in Dublin. A distinct Irish influence is evident in several of the songs that Dave has written.
Dave’s great-grandfather was an established military watercolour artist (often favouring equestrian portraits) but later – after being discharged from the army around 1879 – he also embarked on a photographic career, opening what was to become a prestigious studio in Canterbury. Many years later, after Dave’s grandfather Richard Sinclair (with his brother, Valentine) had joined the business, he was invited to join the ill-fated 1914 Shackleton expedition of to the South Pole as chief photographer; but, fortunately for him and his family, in the end he didn’t go!
Earlier, in 1867, Richard John Sinclair had married the sister of Frederick Henry Browne, who subsequently distinguished himself as a noted organ builder. In fact Browne’s the organ builders still exist in Ash, not far from Canterbury, and Dave’s father visited the company during the latter part of his life.
3) Aunt Girlie strides in
In the mid 1950s, when Dave was about seven or eight, his Aunt Girlie would sometimes visit the family home. He was completely spellbound every time she played the old upright piano (which had originally been bought for his brother John to learn on) in his parents’ home. Girlie came from the East End of London and was a very popular figure in various pubs around the area, playing a type of stride piano that Dave found amazing. He would stand beside her at the piano, intently watching every move while the ash, dangling from the customary cigarette hanging from her lips, would gradually build up until it finally dropped (as it did on every similar occasion) on to the keyboard and the carpet below!
Aunt Girlie always laughed when Dave asked her to show him how to play a little piece on the piano, and was never forthcoming, but he persisted. Eventually Girlie’s husband (who also played) gave in to his requests, showing him how to perform a short phrase, which at that time was all he wanted. Within weeks Dave was launched as a fledgling pianist in his own right, discovering so much in such a short time. Inevitably, his parents noticed this unusual talent and he was duly packed off to a piano teacher. This, as noted above, lasted for only two lessons; Dave was already too excited with discovering music for himself to knuckle down to the laborious piecing together at the keyboard of written-down music. He found the process unacceptably slow and the music he was expected to learn dull and unmotivating.
4) Choral Capers and Skiffle on the Air
As boys, Dave and his elder brother, John, were members of St Dunstan’s Church choir in Canterbury. Dave enjoyed singing the various hymns, anthems and more elaborate pieces, which gave him a basic knowledge of harmony and composition – later to prove very useful in his musical career. In 1958 he, John and other members of the choir formed a skiffle group, receiving quite a lot of publicity after BBC Radio broadcast a programme about them.
(Delving even further back into history, in 1174, when Henry II began his penitential pilgrimage in reparation for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, he changed his clothing into sackcloth at St Dunstan’s Church and continued his pilgrimage from there to Thomas Becket’s tomb at Canterbury Cathedral on foot.)
Carrying on the tradition of church music, Dave’s brother John Sinclair is currently the organist and choirmaster of one of the oldest parish churches in England, St Mary’s, originally at Reculver in Kent, but now along the road in Hillborough. He also occasionally plays the Canterbury Cathedral organ.
Having made a start on playing the piano, and been involved with the musical activities of the St Dunstan’s choir, Dave soon began to compose various pieces of music. By now he was attending Simon Langton School, and he would often make a dash for the music room during the lunchtime breaks. On one occasion – unbeknown to Dave – someone had miked up the piano beforehand, and the music was broadcast to a hall full of pupils eating their lunch! Another time, he was reprimanded after being caught by the headmaster “jazzing up” the National Anthem on the Steinway grand piano in the school hall! But it was later, at the age of 15, that Dave gave a public performance of one of his compositions on a piano at the youth club he attended regularly in Whitstable.
Dave Turns Professional
1) 1967-71: Wilde Flowers on the Grey Way to a Pink Pinnacle
Although he has since achieved worldwide renown as a keyboard player, Dave actually started his musical career playing bass guitar – first with some lesser-known local bands, and then slightly later (just after Hugh Hopper had switched from bass guitar to alto sax, shortly before leaving) with the Wilde Flowers. This, of course, was the Canterbury-based semi-pro band in which key members of both Soft Machine and Caravan served their musical apprenticeship at various times. From the beginning of 1967, however, Dave firmly opted for organ (at this time using a Vox Continental).
At this point in its existence the Wilde Flowers’ repertoire consisted almost entirely of cover versions of R ‘n’ B hits, but unfortunately there are no recordings – either studio or live – of the band during this final phase.
However, when the Wilde Flowers finally disbanded, three of its most recent members – Pye Hastings, Richard Coughlan and Dave – joined forces with an earlier member of the band, Dave’s cousin, Richard Sinclair, to create the fully-professional Caravan. The band rehearsed intensively, first at a rented house in Whitstable, and then in Graveney Village Hall. They were soon talent-spotted in Canterbury, and prestigious London gigs (including one at the Middle Earth in Covent Garden – a key “underground” venue) were rapidly followed by a recording contract with Verve/MGM. This in turn produced the first, self-titled instalment of the series of three much-loved albums featuring the original line-up, and it was also around this time that they established their business relationship with manager Terry King.
Their self-titled debut, released early in 1969, was followed in 1970 by If I Could Do It All Over Again (I’d Do It All Over You), by which time the band had switched record labels and moved to Decca. The opening trilogy peaked in April 1971 with the band’s bestselling and most critically regarded album to date, In the Land of Grey and Pink, released on Decca’s “progressive” subsidiary label, Deram, in a handsome gatefold sleeve which boasted beautiful and distinctive artwork by Anne-Marie Anderson. Over the course of these three initial albums Dave had refined and perfected his keyboard style – especially his use of the Hammond organ – as demonstrated by his fluent improvisations on “Winter Wine” and the instrumental sections of “Nine Feet Underground”.
2) 1971: A Brief Interlude in a Year of Crisis and Change – Meeting Mr Murphy
However, Dave left Caravan in August 1971, only a few months after In the Land of Grey and Pink appeared. He later recalled: “In retrospect, it was a crazy time to leave the band, soon after our most important release, but I didn’t realise it at the time. I did, however, desperately need a change, and inspiration from other people.” Shortly after his departure, he met John Murphy, a singer, guitarist and songwriter who was to become his songwriting partner (mainly as a lyricist) for the next decade. The pair also rehearsed informally with drummer Pete Pipkin, doing, in Dave’s words, some “amazing playing”, free from the constraints of working on specific material for a definite professional purpose.
3) 1971-72: Dave Goes Underground with the Moles, and then Heads Due North
However, high-level professional music making was shortly to beckon again. In the previous year, 1970, Dave had guested on Robert Wyatt’s first solo album, The End of an Ear. This proved to be a successful collaboration and it was therefore not at all unexpected that, when Robert left Soft Machine (also in August 1971!), he should call upon Dave’s services for the new band he was forming. In the autumn of 1971 Robert assembled Matching Mole with Phil Miller (ex-Delivery) on guitar, Bill MacCormick (brother of the music journalist, Ian MacDonald) on bass guitar and Dave himself on keyboards, and the new quartet immediately went into the studio to record its first, self-titled album.
Dave contributed the music to the outstanding opening track, “O Caroline”. The song has subsequently been played and covered many times by other artists, including Elvis Costello at the June 2001 Meltdown Festival in London (in the course of the Soup Songs tribute to Robert), and it has helped to boost sales of the album worldwide.
However, it fairly soon became apparent that the style of most of the music played by Matching Mole didn’t really suit Dave, who preferred more structured, song-based material to the looser and more open, jazz-influenced improvisation favoured by the rest of the band. After the first few gigs the band became a quintet with the addition of pianist Dave MacRae (a player with an exceptionally strong jazz pedigree, who had performed and recorded with Ian Carr’s Nucleus after stints with Buddy Rich and Annie Ross), before Dave finally decided to leave in March 1972 after a European tour.
Dave then resumed his songwriting activities with John Murphy until he was once again asked to take part in a new band venture. This time, the call came from his cousin (and ex-Caravan bandmate) Richard, who was in the process of forming Hatfield and the North with Dave’s ex-Matching Mole colleague Phil Miller and ex-Delivery and Gong drummer Pip Pyle. But, once again, feeling uncomfortable with the musical direction of the band, Dave decided to leave after a few months. It was his opinion at the time that Dave Stewart, formerly with Egg and Khan, would be the ideal replacement for him, and few would now find fault with this inspired recommendation.
4) 1973-75: Plump Nights & Symphonic Stunts – On Board the Caravan Once More
Shortly after, Dave was approached by Pye Hastings to re-join Caravan temporarily for a tour and studio sessions. This he did, his playing coming to the fore with the added use of synthesizer and other instrumentation. The result was the much-admired album For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night, which did much to re-establish the band in public and critical favour after a brief period of uncertainty and drift. Although unable at that point to contribute any of his own material, he nevertheless reorganised the key track on the album – the closing suite beginning with “L’Auberge du Sanglier” – into which he inserted Mike Ratledge’s “Backwards” (originally from Soft Machine’s Third album), using an orchestra to underscore its beautiful melody, and thus bringing the album to a fittingly climactic conclusion.
Eventually, Dave decided to stay with Caravan and recorded two further albums with them: Live With The New Symphonia (1974) and Cunning Stunts (1975). For the latter, Dave was very involved in the composition work, writing the music for both the opening song of side one, “The Show of Our Lives”, and, on the reverse of the original vinyl album, another (almost) side-long suite in the “Nine Feet Underground” mould, “The Dabsong Conshirtoe”, to which John Murphy contributed lyrics.
After the release of Cunning Stunts, Dave left Caravan once again, but this time musical reasons were only secondary. “Things were getting very bad with management, and I was advised not to do anything contractually for about a year or so. So I just had some time off…” He went down to Majorca and spent some time there with his cousin Richard who, following the break-up of Hatfield and the North, was staying at Daevid Allen’s home in Deya.
5) 1975-78: Dave Goes South, Minds His Manners and Takes a Trip to the Moon
Later, back in Canterbury, the cousins attempted to form a band together, which evolved into Sinclair & the South, also featuring John Murphy and (for just one gig) drummer Bill Bruford. A live recording of the band in Dave’s private collection awaits possible future release.
However, Dave’s main project during the years 1975-77 was an intended solo album. He reminisces: “Jeremy Darby, a friend of mine who worked for the Gulbenkian Theatre in Canterbury, persuaded me to record some songs. I had plenty that were just there doing nothing really, unrecorded, so we decided to put them down on tape in a demo form”. Unfortunately, two years of hard work eventually came to nothing, as the projected studio album remained commercially unrecorded, the sudden advent of punk apparently being a major reason why the material was not taken up by any record company at the time.
However, the demos were eventually released on CD in 1993 as the Moon Over Man album: a mixture of introspective ballads, more commercial, up-tempo songs (recorded by a band line-up featuring Mark Hewins, Graham Flight and Pete Pipkin) and a couple of humorous songs co-written with John Murphy.
These Moon Over Man sessions led to the formation of The Polite Force, a gigging band which was a popular live draw in Canterbury in the period 1976-78. The core of the band during the first year or so was Mark Hewins (guitar), Max Metto (sax), Graham Flight (bass) and Vince Clarke (drums), with Dave on electric piano or – when Vince was unavailable – drums. The Polite Force’s musical legacy is now available on CD, thanks to the Voiceprint label’s Canterbury Knights release.
6) 1978-1980s: Touring with Camel and Caravan
In November and December 1976, Dave had briefly re-joined Caravan when a tour was set up to promote the double-LP compilation Canterbury Tales. For this occasion he shared keyboard duties with Jan Schelhaas (who had earlier succeeded him in Caravan), which he did again two years later when both joined Camel for the world tour promoting the Breathless album. Having spent six months touring many countries – including Japan in January 1979 – Dave left Camel upon completion of the tour in March of the same year.
Dave was once again involved when Pye Hastings re-formed Caravan for a tour in 1980, and also took part in the subsequent sessions for The Album. The latter included a new version of “The Piano Player”, previously demoed by Jeremy Darby for Dave’s abortive solo album. The following year he also contributed songs to the Back To Front (1982) album, which featured the original Caravan line-up together for the first time since 1971. For this project he brought in his colleague from Camel, Mel Collins, to play sax and flute on some tracks.
In 1982, after two previous years working with pianos, Dave opened his own piano shop, “Avenue Pianos”, in Herne Bay, Kent, and continued running a successful business there until he finally closed it down in 2005. In those years he specialised in the restoration of thousands of acoustic pianos of all types.
7) 1990s-2002: Dreams, Mirages and Battle Stations
Dave remained involved in the sporadic activities of Caravan, especially between 1990 and 1992 when the original line-up (joined by Jimmy Hastings on flute and sax) toured England and Europe several times. He also took part in his cousin Richard’s band, Caravan Of Dreams, whenever possible and played on the band’s eponymous album.
In November and December 1994, Dave joined Pye and Jimmy Hastings in an augmented line-up of Mirage, the band formed by former Camel members Peter Bardens and Andy Ward. The Mirage concerts for that tour included several of Dave’s best-known compositions – “For Richard”, “O Caroline” and an abridged version of “Nine Feet Underground”.
He also performed with Caravan on the band’s comeback album The Battle Of Hastings (1995), which Pye had originally envisaged as a solo album. With the bulk of the material already written, Dave nevertheless was able to record one of his own songs, “Travelling Ways”, which was heavily featured on BBC radio and later covered for charity in Ireland. He subsequently played on the albums All Over You (1996) and All Over You Too (1999) in which the band re-recorded some earlier favourites in new arrangements.
In 2002 Dave was heavily involved in the process of contributing the bulk of material to the album that Caravan were then recording, but subsequently left the band in October 2002 following creative disagreements with Pye. In the end, Caravan’s Unauthorised Breakfast Item featured one of his compositions, “Nowhere To Hide” (which Dave re-recorded soon after for his Full Circle album), along with an organ recording on “Revenge”.
8) 2003-Present: Solo Ventures – Circles, Streams and Different Skies
After leaving Caravan, Dave was at last able to record his long-awaited debut solo studio album during 2003, which finally appeared in January 2004 as Full Circle, a song-orientated venture, featuring In Cahoots’ current rhythm section, Fred Baker (Bass) and Mark Fletcher (drums) on a number of tracks. Other personnel included Dave’s cousin Richard Sinclair, (vocals/bass); members of the current line-up of Caravan: Jim Leverton (vocals), Doug Boyle (guitar) and Simon Bentall (percussion); and the musicians that Dave was then working most closely with: Roxane (vocals) and Marcus Bishop (drums and engineering). Members of the junior and senior choirs of St Edmund’s School, Canterbury, also participated on one track. So much material was recorded during those sessions that a second album, Into the Sun, was released at the same time.
In the Spring of 2004 Dave performed some gigs in Japan (Osaka and Tokyo), supported by members of the band SixNorth. The song “Always There” (in its original version) was specially written and recorded for these concerts, a free CD being given to everyone who came. Later the same year Dave was joined by his cousin, Richard Sinclair, and Japanese musicians for three further concerts in Osaka and Tokyo. They played music from Caravan, Hatfield and the North, Matching Mole and their own solo albums.
While remaining in Japan, Dave also produced a re-mastered version of his first solo release, Moon Over Man. This was released in 2006, and while it is currently out of print, it is soon to be re-mastered and released as Moon Over Man Reunion Version with an updated studio recording of the first track, “Wanderlust”.
Having eventually decided to base himself mainly in Japan, Dave then went on to record his most ambitious album, entitled Stream. It took five years to complete, and featured many musician friends from all over the world, including multi-instrumentalist, studio wizard and vocalist Billy Bottle and vocalist/violinist Martine Waltier, who have continued to work with Dave ever since. In addition, and during breaks in his Stream recording schedule, he also released two more albums: a limited-edition album of his home recordings made over the previous twenty years called Treasure Chest in 2009; and an instrumental piano-solo album called PianoWorks 1 (Frozen In Time) in 2010.
Very soon afterwards, Dave started work on his next album, The Little Things. Both Japanese and English versions (with slightly different running orders) were produced and finished in 2013. A less overtly ambitious project than Stream, it was completed in a far shorter time. The major departure this time was that Dave decided to sing more than half the tracks himself, and – apart from two songs that were sung in Japanese – also covered all the backing vocals.
Dave explained that The Little Things is a more intimate, personal venture, with most of the numbers being ballads. He was also very pleased that at last he could produce on this album a studio version of “Canterbury”, a song he wrote sixteen years previously about his home town.
9) The End and the Beginning
With his grandmother’s sensitive ear, his grandfather’s love of performing, his Irish ancestry, Aunt Girlie’s inspirational pub-piano style, the Anglican church music (and skiffle!) that he was involved in at a young age and his illustrious forebear John Blow’s composing and organ playing, Dave has been blessed with a remarkable musical background – a rich and diverse legacy to which he himself has now contributed so much. The future also bodes well: Dave’s latest project, Out of Sinc, is a more rock-orientated album than its predecessors among his solo output. Live shows are also being planned for the future, so watch this space!
Neil Saunders, February 2014. Updated May 2018.