Freak Out - An interview with Roberto Calabro'

Your long "street fightin' musician" career is full of interesting events. First of all, can you tell me about the show that changed your life. I mean, the Jimi Hendrix concert in '67 at Stockholm?

In 1967 my father was posted to the Russian Embassy in Sweden. He was detailed to meet his contact at the Grona Lund on a Monday evening, 11th September 1967 (I remember the date well, as it is now my Son's birthday). As a diplomat, he could always get seats for concerts. Some of my schoolfriends had seen Jimi's show the previous week, and after hearing him play on Swedish Radio I begged my father to take me along. I think he thought I would be good cover for his clandestine meeting, but when he disappeared for half an hour, and the guy next to me wearing a kaftan and beads passed me his cigarettes, some sugar candy he had bought from California. Then this guy got up on stage with a guitar and made it scream and cry, whisper and shout, it was louder and wilder than anything I had ever seen, it was almost as if I was watching it through a kaleidoscope, but then I remembered that piece of "sugar candy" that the guy next to me had brought from California, and I don't remember what happened next! By the time my father returned I was wearing nothing but a painted face from my neighbours girlfriend, and she had painted something else as well! He was furious that such attention was brought to him as he led me away giggling and exhilarated.

Would you remember your presence during the 68 factions in Hungary, helping the students revolt in that country. What happened then, what are your memories?

After Stockholm, my father decided I should complete my studies in a good communist country, where I would not be under the influence of the decadent western cultural materialist society. He was posted to Budapest, where I was to attend a military college in order to train for intelligence work. However, the experience of Stockholm had left itsmark, and while I could see the benefits of a society where people were equal, I could not accept being part of the oppresive reime which enforced those conditions on an unwilling society, and where individual freedom of expression was not tolerated. I escaped from the academy one night, and went home to confront my father. I entered the house quietly and crept upstairs, only to peek through the bedroom door to see him performing an act of gross indecency involving the British Consul and his regimental goat. I felt so betrayed that I decided to leave home and seek my fortune on the road. I stole his identification and that of the British consul, giving me two diplomatic passports, and his balalaika, because it was the most personal thing that he loved (he used to play Russian lullabies to me on his knee), and because I had an idea after watching Hendrix play.

I ran out of the house and was picked up by some Czechoslovakian students who were on their way back to Prague. They were part of the Czech underground movement, and were delighted to see my diplomatic passports and interested in my secrets of my KGB father. I now think these were CIA, as my father was shot soon after my escape, and his peccadilloes, were discovered. If I had not escaped then I might never have survived myself! The "students" introduced me to a forger who changed the passports into my name, and to a group of musicians who had electric equipment and amplifiers, and were also into Hendrix. At our first gig I tried to play guitar, but I got into a Hendrix "flashback" and started smashing it up on stage, breaking it into several pieces and a mass of tangled strings (no-one told me that using lighter fuel was less destructive - you can use it again if you put it out fast enough). Everyone felt it was cool and groovy to trash the guitar, but then I realised I could not put it back together again. I sorted through the pieces and found the wiring and pickup were still intact. Then it came to me, why not put the pick-up in my Father's balalaika, and use that next time. Well it took some time working carefully with a chisel and fretsaw, but I managed to get it to fit, and when I plugged it in it blew me away - and the rest of the band who said it was just "too weird maan!". I left them to it, and they soon left the country and went to California (or was it back to California - I am not so sure!), and went on to form a band called Hoffman's Bicycle! They left behind more of the "candy" I had been given in Stockholm, about 6 crates of it, and a big bottle marked "acid". I decided to get my revenge on the system and decided to poison the entire politburo by putting what I thought was sulphuric acid in the punch at a diplomatic function. I gained entry using my false ID, and had just emptied a few drops of the bottle into the punch when a young Czech Army captain saw me, and challenged me. I told him it was Vodka, and he was already drunk so he took a swig straight from the bottle promptly fell over (with a broad smile on his face). I decided that I had better make my escape, and rifled through his pocket for his wallet. (If we ever meet again Vaclav, I will return to you your 5000 zlotys). I hid on a goods train trying to reach the West, but ended up back in Hungary, with a bottle of what was obviously not sulphuric acid, but something quite different and useful anyway. The train stopped in sidings and I headed for the university, where I met another radical group who were plotting to overthrow the Russians. They were very interested in my bottle, and decided to put it in the local reservoir.

The next day the whole city was on the streets, and the Russians were running scared. After all, they had drunk the water too and were having really bad trips about the karma they were creating for themselves. Although I was Russian, I fought with the people and we all gathered together in the central square for a peace rally when the tanks arrived. I was just starting my set on the Balalaika, playing counterculture anthems by Hendrix, Dylan and Knip Dyolf, the Austro/Hungarian supergroup featuring the Gipsy Prince, Terrab Dys, on Vocals and Lead Guitar. The crowd were really getting off on what I was doing, and the Russians seemed less agressive for a while, and we all ended up having a big party and open-air orgy. Meanwhile, the KGB had found out what was going on, and sent their top snatch teams in to restore order. They were met with smiles and flowers, and so were extremely disorientated and suspicious. I was by then about 4 hours into the set, which had by then turned the crowd into a huge throng, drumming, chanting, chanting and dancing to whatever I was putting through the PA. I was targeted and arrested, my balalaika being left behind and saved by the drummer, who had been in my old military academy until that morning when he drunk a cup of tea with his breakfast, and out of the blue decided to join the revolution.

After my arrest, I discovered that my movements had been monitored, and that my "student" friends were not Czechs but CIA agents. I was accused on complicity in a CIA plot to turn on the whole of Eastern Europe with LSD and was sentenced to ten years hard labour in a Siberian prison camp.

The labour camp years were hell at first. The guards never fed us, so we had to escape at night and bring back wild mushrooms from the forest. It was only through drinking the hot Toadstool Soup that I and my comrades managed to stay alive through the Siberian winter.

I wrote the song "Toadstool Soup" to keep our spirits up, soon the guards heard it and wanted to know why we were so happy. I was interrogated and put in solitary confinement, and all my comrades became depressed and bolshie, and stopped work. The guards were worried because if the camp did not fulfil its five year plan they would have to join us, and so they let me out. A day or so later everyone was happy again. This time we offered the guards some soup, they tried it and were happy too, we never had any more trouble. They wanted to know the recipe, but although I promised to make them all the soup they wanted, I would not tell them the secret ingredient! They were happy, we were happy - it became one long party.

In the end one of the guards was due to be posted to Czechoslovakia, but had got so fond of the soup that he wanted to stay. I saw a means of escape, and traded with him the secret of the recipe for his uniform and travel papers. Once in Prague it was an easy matter to contact the underground, who reintroduced me to Pavel, the drummer of Budapest, who had kept my balalaika and returned it to me. I was smuggled through the Austrian border in a consignment of furniture. I was free, and I owed it all to the toadstool soup!

How did you meet the UK festival scene of the 1980s?

I arrived in England as a refugee in 1978, still in the furniture crate. The KGB were after me, the CIA had never heard of me (their "agents" had disappeared after sampling the merchandise), and there was no-one I could turn to for help. I was hitch-hiking from Southampton trying to get to London, when I was picked up by a bunch of freaks heading for the Stonehenge festival. There I met the tribes, and learned that living without an identity maybe was not so bad after all. I was still traumatised after my imprisonment, and the anticlimax of escaping the iron curtain allowed the dark memories to seep through. My English was poor, and had not been used since schooldays, but at the festival I was "adopted" as a hopless case by two wise women, Zoe and Alice, in a green converted ambulance. I had nowhere else to go, and their kindness and love helped restore my faith in humanity. We spent summers at the festivals, doing tarot readings and selling incense and crafts, and cooking a big pot of veggie curry every night. I met and got to know bands like Inner City Unit, Here & Now, Ozric Tentacles and of course Hawkwind. The winters we spent camped on hilltops amid the Stone Circles and sacre sites which give the craft power and continuity with the earth and humanity. Every full moon and fire festival people came to the circles for purification, healing and celebration. When needed, the gathering cast spells binding those who would defile the planet, and on the occasions the magick worked we were given signs from the goddess. One ritual was in a blizzard, which stopped for two minutes in just the section of sky that the sun was setting in, right over the centre stone of the circle and behind a distant peak. That one really worked (and is still working).

I began to realise that music is an essential part of ritual and can help us all to reach a higher plane. Certainly when I am playing I can slip into a trance and play stuff I never dreamed myself capable of playing. Dancing and ecstatic raves areonething, allowing people a personal release, but concerted dancing, dancing with a purpose, that can really achieve things. The secret is a common purpose, and an agreement on how to carry it out, and then complete abandonment of the ego into a trance state, joining hands in a power spiral to concentrate, multiply and direct the common will-energy at the problem. I started jamming on the balalaika with friends around the camp fires on the long winter nights. There was no electricity, so I did not know if the electrics still worked.

Tell me something about Solstice night at the 84 Stonehenge Festival

At the 1984 Stonehenge festival I managed to blag an amp and effects pedals and decided to make some noise. I did not really know what I was playing, but it sounded great, and people started to come over to the bender in increasing numbers. One of these was Uncle Nik Turner, who insisted I join him and the rest of the band on stage on Solstice night. I thought he meant Inner City Unit, but when I got there at 3am Dave Brock was setting up his amps and synth. Somebody slipped me a cup of tea before I went on stage, and it tasted vaguely familiar, and I just remember a whirl of lights, vestal virgins and weird sounds coming from this triangular thing in front of me. I think it went OK, but the trip and police presence at the stones brought the memories of the prison camp flooding back, and I spent the rest of the festival a gibbering wreck again.

How is the UK festival scene - Is there any band you feel close to?

The UK festival scene has sadly changed out of all recognition. Sure, we used to have a couple of old Bill drive round the site in a Panda, to make the locals think they were doing something, but things really started to get heavy after '84. I think beating the Miners had given Thatcher licence to persecute anyone she pleased, and we were selected as the next "enemy within". The stones were closed an imprisoned in razor wire, and everyone has heard of the trashings at Nostell Priory, Molesworth and culminating in the Beanfield. The 1st of June 1985 was a beautiful summer day, and a full moon. Overnight we camped in a clearing in Savernake forest, and drove in convoy to the site in a carnival atmosphere. We expected some resistance from the police, but never the viciousness of what actually happened. In the Beanfield, people were being arrested and beaten up all around me. There was this old bloke with a wizened goatee beard who was staggering under the blows of an officer in riot gear. I don't know why I did it, but I hit the policeman over the head with my Balalaika, in a symbolic act of defiance and sacrifice. Needless to say I was arrested. I still had no ID, so they were trying to detain me when I asked to telephone my late father's British lover, and by now a senior officer of MI5. I did not even have to ring, at the mere mention of his name the police were apologetic and let me go without charging me or making any entry in their records. (I think the press and TV were banned from using the footage of me striking the police office, using a D-notice). It had been a beautiful day before the battle, but afterwards it rained for three months, washing out Wimbledon, the Cricket season and dampening the spirits at Ascot. Was it the planet's revenge on the establishment for defiling her greatest temple?

The scene was disturbed by unruly elements and "rent a crowd" during the late 80s and early 90s, although many festivals continued until recently. The Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994 will make it virtually impossible to hold festivals without the organisers and bands risking having all their equipment confiscated. The Act has caused such a politicisation of formerly apathetic young people, and now the spirit of demonstrations and green militancy is well and truly rekindled, as witnessed by the protests against new roads, and cruel treatment of farm animals, seen all over the UK.

There are several bands I feel close to, personally and musically. In particular Poisoned Electrick Head, who have taken me on our several times, and most of the LP was recorded in their studio. Also THC, Gong, Hawkwind and Here & Now, who have been good friends for years. I have many musical influences, but one day I would like to do a Pink Fairies song or two. It is not just the music which matters, but where people are coming from. The festival scene has spawned bands of all possible musical descriptions, but bound together by a common ideal and spirit.

What do you think about Hawkwind, Ozrics, Dr. Brown & Dead Flowers?

Hawkwind I have known for many years. They are such a part of everyone's life and influences that they can easily be taken for granted. It is not only their music, which every few years hits a purple patch of excellence, but their support for the counterculture and the festival movement which other successful (and not so successful) bands tend to forget when they are shifting units. Space Ritual remains an all-time classic, and since Alan Davey joined the band in the early 80s they no longer miss Lemmy in the engine room quite so much. Now down to a three piece, they even seem to be following my own approach in producing a huge sound with midi and loads of effects! The Ozrics have been stalwarts of the scene for many years, and I have played support to them a few times. My favourite LP of theirs was "Erpsongs" and their early cassette releases. Eat Static produce nice twiddly ravey things, but I prefer the more structured but less rigid approach of the original Ozrics.

I have not heard enough of Dead Flowers and Dr. Brown to form an extensive opinion. The stuff I have heard Dead Flowers play seems so varied, almost from sub-67 Floyd grunge to 90s ambient, an interesting combination indeed. Dr. Brown have a mean guitarist and summon up that power trio energy with a psychedelic blues fusion which I can really relate to.

Let's talk about your first album. First of all, why "Psychic Revolution"? Tell me about the lyrics and general message of this record.

Psychic Revolution is an extension of the spirit of oneness which was born in the 60s and nurtured during the festival time. The riff came out of solstice night at a stone circle on Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire with a group of around 20 people jamming and chanting. The song continued the groove and developed it into what it is today. Moonsong has always had a special magick when he played at the right time and place. Several magickal things have happened, synchronicities and healing. It is only by having a revolution in the way we all think and feel that the planet can be saved. Anyone can have a miliatary or politico-economic revolution, but to have a psychic revolution requires something special

Do you think that sixties messages such as "Peace, Love and Music" (and all hippie philosophy) are still actual now in the nineties?

The problem of the sixties was that all the freedoms were so new that people did not know how to handle things. Free sex, drugs and rock & roll caused a fair number of casualties, and still most people were more concerned with their own hedonistic pleasure than with really changing society. Now we are not so naive, and we have learned to handle drugs more sensibly. There are fewer rock stars dying of overdoses, more prominent citsens owning up to smoking a bit of pot, and the general acceptance of the psychedelic drug imagery within popular culture is increasing. Psychedelia is no longer a trivial pursuit for the educated bourgeoisie who could afford to "turn on, tune in and drop out". The message for the nineties should be: "TURN ON - TUNE IN - TAKE OVER!"

Are there in "Psychic Revolution" any favourite tracks? I really like (apart from the Hendrix covers) "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "Burnin' With The Fire". Can you tell me about these songs?

Apart from those already mentioned , "Blacklisted Blues" really came from the heart. With the demise of the festival scene and the persecution of travellers, it was time to try and enter mainstream society. I was fixed up with ID by my MI5 contact, in return for some of the photograps (I still keep one locked away safely, just in case). No-one would give me a job, and my way seemed blocked at every turn. I would get offers which were mysteriously withdrawn, interviews followed by the "I regret" letters of rejection. It was a soul destroying time. Writing the song helped me vent my anger, and soon after I even got a job!

"Onward Christian Soldiers" was written during the Gulf War. It could be any war, Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda, Washington DC, anywhere where people are killing other people who differ from them in race, creed or political beliefs.

"Burnin With The Fire" was another song waiting for a lyric. It was always a ritual invocation of the four elements of the universe, with the chorus coming first, but it needed a verse for each element. I was looking for inspiration through several books and liber umbrara, and then discovered these beautiful words that fit perfectly, almost as if they were meant to be found, in Starhawk's "Spiral Dance". I wrote to Valerie Walker of Compost Coven in California, who wrote the invocation, and she readily agreed to using her "rhyming invocation to the four quarters" in the song. Half the royalties from the song are to be donated to Greenpeace.

Have you done any recordings other than this LP? Are you working on a new album?

Apert from the legendary Hungarian EP in 68, I have recorded a demo cassette entitled "Muzik for Pagans". There is a lot of material waiting to be recorded, and two songs are down on tape. Expect a commercial style dance 12" version of "Ilkely Moor Ba'a't'at" the traditional Yorkshire "national" anthem, an ambient version of the Lady's Prayer (the charge of the Goddess) and the title track of the second LP "Gaian Odyssey". There is also a semi-traditional Russian medley given the Boris treatment!

Apart from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, what are your most musical influences?

Briefly, Daevid Allen / Gong, Steve Hillage, Pink Fairies, Led Zeppelin, John McLaughlin, Lemmy, Ravi Shankar, Ozrics, George Formby, Poisoned Electric Head, Magic Mushroom Band, the Cramps / Meatloaf (inspired me to go on stage in the first place), Inner City Unit, the Orb, Porcupine Tree & Hawkwind. Plus many others too numerous (or unhip) to mention.

What are your plans for the Future?

I want to tour the world spreading peace, love and harmony, and helping the people to rid themselves of oppressive dictatorhips who believe they know what the people need, and stop them reaching fulfilment. On the other hand, I may be found shot by the CIA / KGB / MI5 or other security services seeking revenge.

Is there anything else you wish to add?

"Ghribniy Supp, Ghribniy Supp, Peetyeh Odyin, Eeelee Nah Grupp"