February 1, 2020

The title track of The Other Side is 18 minutes long, occupying a full side on the vinyl version, and has all the characteristic trademarks that will probably make it a genuine Nektar classic.

I recall a football commentator once saying that everyone remembers the teams that make it to any big cup final but everyone forgets the teams that were eliminated in the semi-finals. That natural habit of remembering only the winners can be seen in the music business too. As time passes, history only remembers the most successful. For the 60s, we tend to remember only the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for example. Even for progressive rock fans, those too young to have lived through that glorious first wave of the early 1970s might well have the perception of that period as one of Yes, Genesis, ELP and Pink Floyd striding around like giants in a musical vacuum. The reality was very different and these now legendary groups were surrounded by a wealth of other bands, some of them barely remembered now, who not only produced fine music but also influenced strongly their more famous musical cousins. 

One of those bands was Nektar, who in many ways were one of the strongest innovators in the burgeoning progressive scene. They were one of the first bands to release a concept album and one of the first to bring an integrated lighting show to the concert experience. And they had album covers worth staring at for hours on end! They flourished in the first half of the 70s but like many progressive bands of the period the arrival of punk was the kiss of death and the band broke up in 1978. There were a couple of semi-successful reunions and it looked like the sad death of founding member and lead guitarist and singer Roye Albrighton in 2016 was the end of the road for the band. But surprisingly the band is back, put together by three other founding members Ron Howden (drums), Derek “Mo” Moore (bass, keyboards, vocals) and Mick Brockett (special effects), with support from Rhyche Chlandra (guitar, vocals) who spent a brief period in the band back in 1978, and Randy Dembo (bass, 12-string guitar) who recorded one album with the band at the start of the millennium. Kendall Scott (keyboards) is the final member of the new lineup and the only brand new member of the band.  They’ve been busy in the studio working on a new CD / double LP, The Other Side, which has just been released. Velvet Thunder was therefore excited to be able to catch up with Derek Moore to reveal the history of the band and discuss their latest release.

The reformed Nektar lineup playing Progstock 2019 in New Jersey

One oddity about the band is that despite consisting of Brits, they were never based in the UK. The band members got together in Europe but only came together under the Nektar umbrella after several years of their members meandering around Europe. I therefore start by asking Derek to dig into the depths of the Nektar story and tell me where it all started. ‘Ron Howden and myself met in France’ begins Derek before hesitating and then continuing ‘in errr…..I think it was Nancy’ (well it was a long time ago and one French town looks like another!). ‘We knew each other from Sheffield but we’d never played together. He came up and said he wanted to be in the band and so we switched drummers that night! Ron and I have been together ever since.’ The next piece in the jigsaw was keyboard player Allan “Taff” Freeman, who they met in Ludwigsburg, Germany. Along with Colin Edwards, the band formed The Prophets which morphed into The Prophecy and played the German scene through much of the second half of the 60s. This was mainly, but not only, as a covers band as Derek points out: ‘Yes, we were doing a lot of r&b covers but we were writing some of our own music as well such as Odyssee which later appeared on the Sounds Like This album.’

Derek then recalls how the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place: ‘In 1969, Colin Edwards decided he was going to leave and I sent a telegram to Roye Albrighton who we already knew. Roye was in Sweden at the time but he came down to join us. We played a gig without any rehearsal whatsoever; we just jammed. Before the gig, we’d decided that if it went down we’ll we’d call the band Nectar, and if it didn’t go down well we’d call the band Pollen.’ Thank the Lord it went down well since Pollen would have been a rather insipid name! And what about the change of letter from “c” to “k”, I inquire? ‘Ah, that was just to make it sound a bit more like a hard rock band’ explains Derek.

The slightly disturbing debut album cover

Nektar’s first album, To The Centre Of The Eye, was released in 1971. While nominally containing thirteen tracks it was really a single piece of music in thirteen sections. It was also a concept album and I put it to Derek that it was very much ground-breaking and ahead of its time. ‘Yes, I think so’ agrees Derek. ‘We had the Astronaut’s Nightmare track pretty much written by the start of 1970 and by mid-1970 we could have recorded the whole album but we didn’t have a record deal at the time. We were playing the whole thing live in gigs! The entire album was then recorded in 1971 on an 8-track tape. There was no Dolby or none of that stuff then so we had to record the whole thing in a single take live and then overdub from there.’ Nektar were tagged in that period as the “band based in Germany” so I am curious about how much that being out of the mainstream influenced the band’s sound. ‘We were definitely less influenced by the mainstream in the UK’ reflects Derek. ‘The German scene was very different. They didn’t want to hear pop music. England at that time was into pop music. In the German scene they wanted to hear something new. They were hungry for anything new so we played none of the pop stuff. I think that German scene helped us immensely. We still had outside influences: the Beatles, Vanilla Fudge, The Moody Blues, and The Mann Band who were around with us too but certainly we were trying to keep to ourselves as much as possible so that we could produce our own music.’

The painting that inspired the concept of Remember The Future

1972’s excellent A Tab In The Ocean cemented their following which then led to two albums in 1973. The first was Sounds Like This – a fine effort but one which Derek candidly describes as ‘getting all the old songs out of the way to free up the field for the next album’! The second album fromthat year was the band’s first chart success, Remember The Future. Like To The Centre Of The Eye, it was concept album – in two parts this time, corresponding to the two sides of the vinyl – and with a similar theme of a human being enlightened by extra-terrestrials. Derek recollects how the concept came together almost casually: ‘When we did Remember The Future we basically had all the music written when we went into the studio but we hadn’t got a lot of the lyrics written. One day we were in Bellaphon, our record company, and the proposed album cover was there and as soon as we saw it we thought “there’s the story!” And that’s where the whole storyline came from. We then went into the studio and recorded it in just 5 days, working day and night around the clock.’

1973’s Remember The Future made it into the US Top 20, which was a fine achievement, but subsequent releases – 1974’s Down To Earth and 1975’s Recycled were less successful. I ask Derek whether he has any views on why their success diminished at that point.  ‘I think our music was too far ahead of its time’ reflects Derek. ‘Today, you hear people talking about Down To Earth or how classic Recycled is but back in the day I remember Down To Earth was sort of warmly received but not as well as Remember The Future and Recycled but now everybody is talking about it. I think we were just ahead of our time.’

Recycled: the high water mark of Nektar in the 70s

Derek’s mention of the Recycled album prompts me to point out that it does still sound extraordinarily modern today and perhaps represents their artistic peak. ‘We were definitely peaking’ confirms Derek, then adding candidly “but Recycled is also when the band actually finished.  We recorded that one at the Château d’Hérouville, near Paris, which we nicknamed Horrorville! But taking the tapes to England we re-recorded a lot of different parts and added the choral parts to finish the album.’ 1971-75 undoubtedly represents the classic period for Nektar. Oddly, guitarist at the time Roye Albrighton was reluctant for the group to be pigeon-holed as progressive rock, but I observe that listening to these albums it’s hard to deny that this was exactly what the band were in those years. ‘Yes’ agrees Derek ‘but you know we were doing the Nektar style of music before the term progressive rock was actually coined. That came much later. But yes, I do believe the original Nektar was progressive rock as is most of the stuff on the new album.’

Having released that series of albums from their German base, the band packed up bags and went to live in America. ‘We just found that we had more acceptance in America than anywhere else’ explains why Derek ‘and there was a bigger market. And we wanted to get into a bigger market because we were playing to full houses in Germany but there were only really six or seven possible venues to play but in the States we had the whole of the USA to play for. So, we came over here and have lived here ever since.’

Things musically fell apart quickly in the States though. Roye Albrighton left just before the studio sessions for 1977’s Magic Is A Child release. Magic Is A Child contains more straight forward songs but is still clearly in Nektar’s style so I was curious to discover whether Roye contributed to writing these songs before he left. ‘We wrote all the songs on that album without Roye except for the track Listen. We were a very synergistic band. We all wrote the music and Mick and I wrote 90% of the lyrics.’ With the band running out of steam, Derek explains his own exit in 1978: ‘I felt it had run its course. We did Magic Is A Child which was OK, it was received well, but I met my wife and I didn’t want to tour any more so I left’. Leaving aside the short period in 2002 when Derek temporarily rejoined to play the NEARfest event and another handful of gigs, he had a four decade break from the band during which he worked doing construction amongst other things. That was an awful long break without any thoughts of starting another band, I observe. ‘No, Nektar was my only interest and I didn’t have time to consider anything else. I didn’t even pick up a bass while out of the band.’

The band struggled on without Derek, releasing the uninspiring Man In The Moon album in 1980 before calling it quits in 1982, but Roye Albrighton reformed the band in 2000 and with various formations released a further five albums (of which 2013’s Evolution is in my opinion the most interesting and worth listening to) before his untimely death in 2016. After the death of Roye, Ron Howden the last active founding member of the band continued on with new members but in early 2018 decided to leave and reform the original Nektar band after what were apparently arguments with keyboard player Klaus Henatsch about the direction of the band. Roye confirms this story: ‘In 2018 Ron has been trying to get the band together with a guy in Germany, Klaus. But Klaus wanted too much control and wanted to be at the centre of everything but Ron sad “no, I’m the original guy, I should be the one saying what’s going on”. So Ron parted company with them and came over to see me and said “Will you help me to put the band back together?” and I agreed.  I called Ryche (Chlandra) and asked him whether he wanted to be part of it and he said yes so we went to a rehearsal studio owned by a friend of ours, John Curley. He let us use the studio for free. And the three of us just clicked right away. So I asked Mick if he was interested in coming back and then I asked Randy if he was back in. Since Randy played bass too, I thought we’d play with two bass players for now and maybe down the road I’d step out. But the band is so good with two bass players that I decided to stay in. Then we found Kendall Scott who is fantastic, and that’s the new band.’

The new band line up with Derek standing out in a loud shirt!

I can’t help but observe that there is one founding member conspicuous by his absence: Allan “Taff” Freeman. ‘I know’ responds Derek a little sadly ‘but he wasn’t interested. I called him up and spoke to his wife but he didn’t even call us back. He’s a bit of a hermit you know. But, maybe it worked out for the best in the end because we found a great keyboard player, Kendall Scott, who can do both Allan’s keyboard parts and the synthesizer parts that Lary Fast used to do. Kendall is a genius; he’s awesome.’

With the new band in place, it was time to get into the studio to see what they could do. Luckily there was a wealth of material already in hand originating from way back in 1978. ‘Yes, a lot of the ideas originate from that period my basement!’ confirms Derek. ‘Rhyche and I put a lot of stuff together there. And Taff added some stuff and Ron too. When we started putting the album together we worked on the title track first, which took some ideas from 1978 which were then expanded and new stuff added, and a lot it was just jamming between guitars and keyboards. Everything just worked perfectly.’ Indeed it did – the title track is 18 minutes long, occupying a full side on the vinyl version, and has all the characteristic trademarks that will probably make it a genuine Nektar classic.

Putting the new album together in the studio

I observe that album opener, I’m on Fire, is unmistakably a Nektar composition, from the surge of Hammond at the beginning to the typical Nektar boogie of the main section, and Derek concurs. ‘When the original Nektar group was together, we all contributed to the albums. Roye took over the writing after we left and if you listen to Roye’s stuff there are things missing from the original band. Now on this album we have returned to group compositions and that original sound has returned.’  The track Skywriter highlights another strength of the band: the ability to write a great melody. In those early albums, the musical virtuosity perhaps overshadowed the vocal line sometimes but I venture to suggest that the way this album is produced highlights these strong melodies really well. ‘Well that’s good’ exclaims Derek ‘because that’s exactly how we feel about it too. Skywriter was built on an old song called Skypilot but we sensed something was missing. Then Ryche came up with the verse – don’t ask me why we didn’t have a verse in it; I thought we did but we didn’t (!) – and boy, as soon as he did that the whole thing gelled.’

Nektar are famous for lengthy instrumental sections and this album is no different. The near-instrumental Drifting is a show case for the talents of the newer members of the band: Kendall Scott’s keyboards and Ryche Chlandra’s guitars. I point out that they seem to be enjoying themselves there and fitting in remarkably well with the band. ‘Yes, they certainly are’ affirms Derek ‘and that track was recorded live in a single take. All we added to that afterwards was the short vocal part and piano that accompanies the vocal. Everything else was first take.’ I mention the maturity in the way some of the songs are constructed on the album, quoting as an example the composition on the album the relatively simple ballad Look Through Me which has a magical moment when the drums and main band come in two thirds of the way through the song. ‘Funny you should mention that’ Derek chuckles. ‘We started doing that live in the encore. We’d bring out a couple of stools and me and Rhyche would come out and start playing the song; it’s beautiful stuff and then when the drums, bass pedal and guitars come in, it just blows me away every night.’  

Moving on to the lyrics, Derek explains the loose concept behind the album and the very original twist for vinyl listeners. ‘Mick came up with The Other Side as a concept and it tells a story. The first song is about the lead character’s undying love for his girlfriend; the second song is Skywriter where she passes on and he’s up in the sky writing letters hoping that she can see it. And then the next song is the title track and that’s the musical journey to the other side (i.e. to the afterlife). And then there’s Drifting when he is floating in space and thinking about her. And then they travel to the Devil’s Door and back but not surprisingly don’t want to stay there. And next up is the instrumental The Light Beyond that is about the light that people say they see in near-death experiences. Look Through Me which is about looking inside yourself before concluding with Y Cant I B More Like U. The whole thing tells a story and as Mick says if you get the vinyl and you play them in a different order then you get a slightly different story! But the whole story is about the other side, the afterlife if you like, and the connection to life now.’ With the subject of death often being associated with grinding doom metal, I point out that it appears the exact opposite of this and is actually a very positive and uplifting album. ‘Very positive, yes’ agrees Derek. ‘The whole thing is a positive musical trip to the other side. We’re all going to end up there! If you listen to The Devil’s Door, that’s a song we wrote with Roye back in 1974. And when we were re-listening to the original, getting ready to go and re-record it, we noticed the guitar part in the intro was so crystal clear that we decided to use it on the new recording as a tribute to Roye. And the sound panning on that section was done by our sound engineer for many years Vinny Schmid, and he died about six years ago so we were happy to have him on the album too.  Most people of our age have people who are now residing on the other side and we wanted to write about it as a positive experience.’

Klaus Holitza’s cover for Sounds Like This which eventually became the cover for Live Anthology 1974-1976

The album sports one of those intriguing album covers that seem very reminiscent of those early 70s albums. I ask Derek who created that. ‘The cover was done by Helmut Wenske. Helmut did all our classic covers from the early 70s. When we were doing the album, I got hold of him – I had to send him letters because he doesn’t have a computer and it was a three week turnaround each time! I asked him if he’d got anything and he sent me three pieces, two of which are on the album, front and back. As soon as I saw them I knew that this was right for The Other Side. Sadly, Helmut told me that these were the last three pieces that he’d produced and that because of his arthritis he was no longer able to paint. I have to say that the cover for The Other Side couldn’t have been more in tune with what we were doing. The same is true of those 70s albums too’ adds Derek ‘and you know that for Sounds Like This he produced an unbelievable cover in 24 hours, painting overnight? The original cover idea was painted by Klaus Holitzka but the record company then said they really wanted Helmut to do it but he only had one day to produce it!’. Curiously, it took some time but that Klaus Holitzka painting finally saw the light of day as the cover for last year’s Live Anthology 1974-1976 album.

The band is back out on the road again, playing intimate venues in the States, so I’m curious to find out what material they are playing. “We are doing a lot from Remember The Future, A Tab In The Ocean, and Recycled and of course the new album.’ That’s surely the set that every Nektar fan wants to hear! And Derek confirms that Mick’s magic light shows are back to boot. ‘Oh yes, the light show is awesome. We did the last liquid light show in October. Since then it’s been digitized and it’s really going well.’

With the band being of a certain age, one could assume that the audience would be of the same demographics too but Derek debunks that theory:  ‘It is actually young and old. At the Roxy & Dukes show in New Jersey, a guy came up to talk to us. He was probably in his 50s and he was with his son who was probably 15 or 16. They were talking to me and I said “it’s great that you’re introducing your son to the band” and he said “No, you’ve got it all wrong; he’s introducing me to the band!” The guy bought everything we had on sale at the gig. He was totally into it and his son was thrilled.’

Sadly, as Derek explains, there are no present plans to play in Europe because of the “other” version of Nektar, led by Klaus Henatsch. ‘We can’t play in Europe until we’ve resolved the mess in Germany where another band registered the name although there’s nobody from the original band in it. We are fighting that right now. They tried to stop us releasing the album. They are trying to stop us coming over and doing concerts. So we’re working on that with our lawyers right now which I’m not thrilled about.’ 

Let’s hope Nektar can resolve those legal matters and young and old in Europe will have the chance to hear one of the great progressive bands of the 70s, and if their new album is anything to go by then maybe one of the great progressive bands of the 20s too. In the meantime, just sit back and enjoy listening to The Other Side!