'Utopia Avenue,' The Greatest Sixties Band That Never Was

Jul 14, 2020
Originally published on July 11, 2020 8:28 am

Remember Utopia Avenue? Elf, their keyboardist and singer — a voice from the clouds. Dean, the bluesy Cockney bass virtuoso. Griff on the drums — who didn't love gruff Griff? And of course, the peerless Jasper de Zoet, shredding, I mean shredding the guitar.

Their great hits — "Abandon Hope," "Smithereens," "Mona Lisa Sings the Blues" — propelled Utopia Avenue from seedy Soho clubs to Top of the Pops, and then America in the enchanted times of bell bottoms, the Beatles, drugs, sex, and street protests. Remember?

Hah! No you don't, because Utopia Avenue is the title of David Mitchell's new novel about the rise of a psychedelic Sixties band that never was. Mitchell — born just after the band Utopia Avenue would have been around — says it was the music that drew him to that era, and "the particular dark magic that was in the air at that time and place. The music — 1967 was an astonishing year. Pop got separated from rock in this time, and just a year when a critical mass of people began to believe that if only they wished it badly enough and wanted it, then society could be recalibrated and rebooted. Sure, it was naive, sure after 18 months, two years, a more jaded reality reexerted itself. But yet, just while that window was open, things came in which germinated and contained the seeds of the future."


Interview Highlights

On the Canadian promoter who put Utopia Avenue together, and what he saw in them

His dream band. He saw Elf Holloway, a woman from the folk scene. He saw a dreamer and a beautiful voice. Something as poignant as Sandy Denny, say, from Fairport Convention. In Dean Moss he saw an East End boy, the other end of the social scale, an R&B, pub rock background kind of musician. In Jasper de Zoet, he saw a songwriter, vocalist — if you could somehow cross Nick Drake with Jimi Hendrix with a big generous dollop of Syd Barrett. Jasper has an interesting relationship with reality, and this certainly colors his songwriting. Griff, Griff Griffin. He's from Yorkshire, so he's not really on the class system. He's maybe like Ginger Baker from Cream, he's a virtuoso drummer with a jazz background. And the four of them, Levon the Canadian decided if he could get them to say yes, then he could curate them into a singular band, the likes of which the Soho London scene had never seen before.

On Jasper de Zoet's troubles

Novels need a variety of tones and shades and colors. And if it's all bright, then you don't have a novel. - David Mitchell

He is either schizophrenic or he has inherited some kind of sentient curse from his, well, great-great-great-great grandfather. And both explanations are possible. I think of it as a kind of toggle switch. It's very dark, but he needs to work through that darkness and come out the other side. Novels need a variety of tones and shades and colors. And if it's all bright, then you don't have a novel.

On how the flower children became Boomers

I'm not sure if a 52-year-old is the right person to ask! Part of the answer might be, through their own good fortune. Whether it's good fortune for the rest of society, or good fortune for the planet, or good fortune for governance is a much, much broader question. But if life becomes comfortable, then some of the urgency falls away. You're lucky if it becomes comfortable, it doesn't become comfortable for a lot of people.

It reminds me of an interview I saw recently with a young artist, who was asked, "When did you start painting?" And she says, "I'm always asked that. When do you start painting? My answer is always the same. When did you stop?" So the answer's in there, isn't it? Too many of us stop painting.

This story was edited for radio by Ed McNulty and Danny Hensel, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ha. Remember Utopia Avenue - Elf, their keyboardist and singer, a voice from the clouds; Dean, the bluesy cockney bass virtuoso; Griff on the drums - who didn't love gruff Griff? - and, of course, the peerless Jasper de Zoet shredding, and I mean shredding, the guitar. Their great hits "Abandon Hope," "Smithereens," "Mona Lisa Sings The Blues" propelled Utopia Avenue from seedy Soho clubs to the "Top Of The Pops" and then America in the enchanted times of bell-bottoms, the Beatles, drugs, sex and street protests. Remember? Ha.

"Utopia Avenue" is the title of David Mitchell's new novel about the rise of a psychedelic '60s band that never was. David Mitchell, the author of "Cloud Atlas," "Ghostwritten" and twice listed for the Booker Prize, joins us from Ireland. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID MITCHELL: It's great to be here, Scott. And I have to say your introduction was a work of art in its own right. I'm profoundly impressed.

SIMON: Well, thank you very much. You were born just after this novel and this period ends. What drew you to this time and place?

MITCHELL: I was, indeed. What drew me was the music and the particular dark magic that was in the air at that time and place. The music - 1967 was an astonishing year. Pop got separated from rock at this time, and just a year when a critical mass of people began to believe that if only they wished it badly enough and wanted it, then society could be recalibrated and rebooted. Sure, it was naive. Sure, after 18 months, two years, a more jaded reality reexerted itself. But yet, just while that window was open, things came in which germinated and contained the seeds of the future.

SIMON: A promoter - Canadian bloke, if you please - named Levon Frankland sees the four in different places, then sees them together. What did he see and hear and sense?

MITCHELL: His dream band. He saw Elf Holloway, a woman from the folk scene. He saw a dreamer and a beautiful voice, something as poignant as Sandy Denny, say, from Fairport Convention. In Dean Moss, he saw an East End boy, the other end of the social scale, an R&B, pub rock background kind of musician. In Jasper de Zoet, he saw a songwriter, vocalist - if you could somehow cross Nick Drake with Jimi Hendrix with a big, generous dollop of Syd Barrett. Jasper has an interesting relationship with reality, and this certainly...

SIMON: Yeah.

MITCHELL: ...Colors his songwriting. Griff Griffin - he's from Yorkshire, so he's not really on the class system. He's maybe like Ginger Baker from Cream. He's a virtuoso drummer with a jazz background. And the four of them - Levon, the Canadian, decided that if he could get them to say yes, then he could curate them into a singular band, the likes of which the Soho London scene had never seen before.

SIMON: The novel is a delightful story about a nice group of people going through some of the stresses of emerging success. And then about three-quarters of the way through the novel, Jasper de Zoet's mind takes over.

MITCHELL: Yes.

SIMON: And it doesn't help him live at peace, does it?

MITCHELL: It doesn't. He is either schizophrenic or he has inherited some kind of a sentient curse from his - where are we? - great-great-great-great-grandfather, and both explanations are possible. I think of it as a kind of toggle switch. It's very dark. But he needs to work through that darkness and come out the other side.

SIMON: How do you write out of that darkness, out of that - I think we can fairly call it torment and stress and anxiety?

MITCHELL: Novels need a variety of tones and shades and colors. And if it's all bright, then you don't have a novel.

SIMON: Yeah. How did the flower children become boomers?

MITCHELL: I'm not sure if a 52-year-old's the right person to ask. Part of the answer might be through their own good fortune. Whether it's good fortune for the rest of society or good fortune for the planet or good fortune for governance is a much, much broader question. But if life becomes comfortable, then some of the urgency falls away. You're lucky if it becomes comfortable. It doesn't become comfortable for a lot of people. If I asked you that question, how would you answer it? How did the flower children become boomers?

SIMON: Well, I don't have an answer for it, but it did make me think of something my mother told me toward the end of her life. She said it's a shame that children can't know their parents when they're young, because if they could, things would fall into place. And, you know, it made me think of that. Flower children become boomers because - well, you know what part of the answer is, too, I think? Ideally, you make enough mistakes to be more understanding of those of others.

MITCHELL: It reminds me of an interview I saw recently where a young artist was asked, when did you start painting? And she says, I'm always asked that; when did you start painting? My answer's always the same. When did you stop? And somehow, the answer's in there, isn't it? Too many of us stopped painting.

SIMON: Is there a song of the period - ideally of the period - you'd like us to go out on on this interview?

MITCHELL: Oh, that's so - that's irresistible. Let's go out with "See Emily Play" by Pink Floyd.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINK FLOYD SONG, "SEE EMILY PLAY")

MITCHELL: It's got a great intro. You're straight into it. It'll sound great. It's of its era. It couldn't possibly have been recorded in any other 18-month window. And it's strange and beautiful, and the colors in it are opalescent and pavonine, two of my favorite words.

SIMON: David Mitchell - his novel "Utopia Avenue" - thank you so much for being with us.

MITCHELL: Scott, it's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEE EMILY PLAY")

PINK FLOYD: (Singing) Let's try it another way. You'll lose your mind and play. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.