The 33 1/3 Author Q&A (Libros Crudos Edition): John Cavanagh


We’re thrilled our Spanish partner, Libros Crudos, have translated and published a handful of 33 1/3 books in Spanish. Author John Cavanagh, who wrote on Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn for his 33 1/3 installation was interviewed by Libros Crudos in Spanish, but you can read the English translation below. Additionally, feel free to visit the Libros Crudos website to explore more 33 1/3 titles in Spanish.

Where were you born? Where do you live now? Studies and previous works worthy of mention? What are you up to right now?
John Cavanagh: I was born in Glasgow, Scotland where I still live today. My first activities as a record consumer involved climbing up on a stool to play 45s when I was 2-1/2 years old and I’ve never stopped since! Later on, I ran an antique shop for quite a while, which was tremendous fun, but I really found the place where I felt I fitted in when I found myself making radio programmes, rather than purely listening to them.

I’ve been a radio presenter for over twenty years, mainly with the BBC and also a commercial station called Radio Clyde when I started and, more recently, with a station called Radio Six International which syndicates shows around different stations. At the moment my weekly Soundwave show is running on a station in New Zealand, one in Taiwan and I think four in the U.S, as well as being available anywhere online.

In addition to the radio shows, I’m a professional voice-over artist, I’m one half of a duo called Electroscope and also make music myself under the name Phosphene, there are also my activities in record production, occasional releases on a small label and I think I’m someone who keeps an optimistic view which is open towards new adventures, hence the path to my writing a book in the 33 1/3 series.

What does this record mean to you? Why is it so important?
JC: Personally, it was a sound that caught my attention as a child, and the wider works of Pink Floyd were something I shared especially with my dad when growing up. I bought Meddle when I was 9 and discovered Relics and, therefore, Syd Barrett-era Floyd the following year. My dad and I would eventually have all the Floyd albums between us, up to The Final Cut.
The wider importance of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn ricochets through time as one of those records which was hugely influential when it came out and still retains a cache among young fans and musicians today.

How and when did this project come up?
JC: In 2002 I was contacted by Dr. David Barker of Continuum Publishing. He had been put in touch with me by the manager of a well known Scottish band as someone who might be into writing a book for a new series planned: short books on classic albums. When 33 1/3 was born, I was one of the first six people to be included in the initial run of titles.

Whom were you able to access and whom not (that is, that you’d like to)?
JC: My first contact was Vic Singh, who shot the front cover of Piper. Vic was one of the people who became a good friend following this, as did John “Hoppy” Hopkins and some others whom I’ve worked with since, too. I found some marvelous stories from people who, for example, worked at Abbey Road at the time the album was recorded and also had an involvement with Pink Floyd’s ‘Games For May’ event. Another great set of stories came from Pete Drummond who compered the Jimi Hendrix package tour which Pink Floyd played as second headliners and I so enjoyed finding out tales of Syd and a friend climbing into London Zoo at night and other personal details like that.

I did speak to Nick Mason whom, I was told, had the crispest memories of that era, but I would like to have interviewed Roger Waters, Richard Wright and the producer of the album, Norman Smith. Too many people had recycled the same old ‘Mad Syd’ stories that I had to get through lots of barriers to reach people who were already tired of their memories being twisted into whatever the writer wanted to print, regardless of fact. There were some very good works on Barrett-era Floyd, of course, but sadly the territory had been sullied by some fairly appalling ‘journalism’ too, so quite a lot of people close to this record were justifiably cautious.

What were your goals?
JC: As a Pink Floyd fan, I had lots of books on the band already and my aim was to deliver something that would bring fresh material to whoever bought the book. I didn’t want that buyer to feel short-changed in purchasing recycled work from earlier publications. Although my Piper book is not a huge volume, I conducted 23 new interviews for it and made sure that any sources I quoted from were clearly outlined as such – and those tend to be contemporary sources, rather than other books on Pink Floyd.

What were your difficulties, fears, worries? Any anecdotes?
JC: Plenty! An anecdote that springs to mind was also a source of difficulty and fear and worry. Someone who is noted as a person with, shall we say, a rather impish sense of humour told me that he was going to get Nick Mason to talk to me. My name was apparently ‘imprinted on [Nick’s] consciousness.’ This went on for about 6 weeks or so until the rather gnomish gentleman got fed up playing games with me and just dropped me very suddenly. At that point I found myself without a Pink Floyd member’s first hand view on the album and running behind the schedule I’d set for myself. It so happened I was talking to Robert Wyatt about something unconnected to my book project: a BBC radio show we were working on. Robert asked what else I was up to and when he heard the name of the mischief maker, called his wife Alfie to the phone. She knew the man in question a long time ago and said he was always doing things like that. All of a sudden, the Wyatts came to the rescue and I was in touch with Nick Mason and several other new contacts whom I hadn’t spoken to before. If you ever hear stories of Robert and Alfie being wonderful examples of humanity, they’re absolutely true! As for the guy who caused the problem in the first place, I still have a sneaking fondness for him, although I’ll leave his name out of print!

How much time did it take?
JC: I started on sourcing and recording interviews in Summer of 2002 and completed the book by the end of January 2003.

What did you learn from writing it (about the subject, or about the writing process itself)?
JC: A tremendous amount! At the point when I was first asked to do it, I’d never written anything long-form before. Features and reviews of, say, 600-1,000 words were as much as I’d tackled. Essentially, what I did was to structure it as though I was building a radio documentary series. When I sent a big chunk of it to David Barker, his comment was that it had the feel of… a radio series! There’s an astute reader for you! He liked it that way too.

Are you happy with the outcome? Would you change/add something? [The awkward question]
JC: I am proud of the book as it is. Of course, if I was going to write it now or at any other time in between, it would’ve been different. There are certain people I could maybe have got to talk to if I was doing it now who simply weren’t accessible to me in 2002, but that’s down to another ten years of life going by and getting to know certain other folks who would be prepared to vouch that I’m not another journo out to do a hatchet job!

There’s a lot of me in the Piper book, a lot of personal reference points and as someone who read it very recently told me, it starts out as an adventure and that’s what writing it was for me: an utterly wonderful adventure and one which has had significant effects on my life through special friends I’ve made both in the writing process and with those who’ve found me through the book.

Have you had the chance to read any other 33 1/3 book that you enjoyed?
JC: Oh yes, I’ve read a few of them and the Greatest Hits compendium of extracts from the early volumes. I think it’s a wonderful series. It becomes difficult to single out a few and leave others unmentioned, so under these circumstances I tend to answer with the first title which pops into my head and that’s the outstanding work on Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix. John Perry, guitarist with The Only Ones amongst other things, wrote that. He had seen Hendrix in London early on and also had a really comprehensive grasp of the studio techniques used at the time Electric Ladyland was made. This gave his work both a good story and the sort of detail studio fanatics (like me!) want to know – and all in a very enjoyable balance.

Would you like to write another 33 1/3? What would be your pick if so?
JC: Oh yes, I certainly would! It’s such a comprehensive series now and some of my favourites like Trout Mask Replica and Forever Changes are already there, but a few that I’d love to delve into would be some of ‘lost’ records produced by Andrew Loog Oldham, like Home and Away by Del Shannon and Would You Believe by Billy Nicholls, I think the first Kate Bush album [The Kick Inside] would make a fascinating bit of storytelling for a 33-1/3, as would the only original LP by the Shangri Las, Leader of the Pack. They’re not exactly considered as an albums band, but what a story! Loads of amazing records are now springing to my thoughts… Gris Gris by Doctor John, the United States of America album which sounds so fresh decades after it was issued, Joe Meek’s I Hear A New World, Sepultura’s Roots, a record I was quite close to when it came out, then there’s more recent things like that beautiful Thurston Moore record Demolished Thoughts and, now that I think of it, another Pink Floyd title comes to mind: The Final Cut. It’s perhaps their most maligned record, yet for those who connect with it, a most extraordinary album indeed.

Which is your favorite song of this album and how does it inspire you?
JC: ‘Chapter 24’ is one that resonates very strongly for me. Aside from a wonderful evocative sound and the cyclic thoughts of time therein, the duo I’m part of, Electroscope, covered this and it really was a bit of a turning point in my becoming less self-conscious about singing!

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