Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Tintern Abbey: a value-for-money coupling

David MacTavish, Don Smith, John Dalton, Stuart Mackay
Few bands can claim immortality on the strength of just one 45, but the short-lived Tintern Abbey certainly qualify. The masterful Beeside / Vacuum Cleaner appeared in November 1967, but sold poorly. Its reputation has never stopped growing, however, and in recent years copies have changed hands on eBay for over £1000. The flippantly-named A-side is a woozy Mellotron-dipped ballad, while the real B-side is a stupendous psychedelic rock song, with one of the greatest distorted guitar solos of all time, courtesy of Don Smith. Though more press appeared about the band than most one-single-shots of the era, not much is known about them. Here's what I've found.

Tintern Abbey coalesced at the Overseas Visitors Club in Earl's Court, where singer / songwriter Dave MacTavish met guitarist Don Smith in late 1966. Smith brought in drummer John Dalton after meeting him at the Cromwellian Club in South Kensington, and the line-up was completed when MacTavish met bassist Stuart Mackay in a dole queue. They rehearsed at MacTavish's flat in World's End, and made demos of various songs in the spring of 1967, which can be heard here. These reached the ears of manager Nigel Samuel, who signed them up and despatched them to Cornwall to get their sound and act together, after which they signed to Decca and swiftly recorded a 45 with producer Jonathan Webber, probably in October. Here's the press release the label sent out to promote the 45:

And here are a couple of previously unseen promo shots (taken at the same session as the one at the top of this post):

And here's Don Smith onstage:

Here's an advance acetate of Beeside, named 'Busy Bee', on Larry Page's 'Page Full Of Hits' imprint, which would have been used for publishing purposes only:

And here's the actual disc, which appeared on November 24th 1967:

The band was fortunate to have a wealthy patron in the form of Nigel Samuel, a young publishing heir who was happy to splash his cash around the underground (he also supported International Times and The Deviants). As such, numerous adverts promoting the disc appeared in the music press - far more than most such 45s received. Here they are:

The ads did little good, though the band did creep into Record Mirror's 'Names & Faces' column at the time of Beeside's release:

Press reaction was favourable, though for some reason Melody Maker didn't run a review:

Record Mirror
Disc & Music Echo
Samuel also appears to have paid Michael English (of the ├╝ber-psychedelic design team Hapshash & The Coloured Coat) to design this extremely rare and valuable promo poster:

The band played a few shows to promote the 45, including one at the hip Happening 44 in Gerrard Street a month before its release:

The disc was officially launched at London's Arts Laboratory (at 182 Drury Lane) on November 27th. Melody Maker had only this to say, on December 9th:

 A further show followed at the equally hip Speakeasy on December 29th:

Oddly, despite these live ads, Don Smith has no recollection of the original quartet ever having played a concert in Britain. He does, however, recall them travelling to Amsterdam, where they played at The Birds Club - a trip this rare poster commemorates:

By the end of 1967 the band was being represented by the Ellis-Wright Agency (later to evolve into Chrysalis):

In November 1967 the band recorded further demos, but whatever momentum they had gathered was lost in January, when Smith was asked to leave (essentially because he was into uppers, and the others were more into pot). Dalton departed soon afterwards, and the duo were replaced by Colin Forster and John 'Willie' Wilson. Here's a rare signed picture of the new line-up:

And here they are in action:

You might have noticed that MacTavish has a honey buzzard (named Thor) perched on his shoulder. I asked his friend Tim Du Feu (bassist with fellow London hipsters The Open Mind) if he could shed any light on this, and he told me: "It was Dave's pet. The band lived in a mews cottage in Chelsea that was paid for by Nigel Samuel. It had a minstrel's gallery, and that bloody bird used to swoop down to catch ping-pong balls thrown by Dave. It was terrifying round there." 

Apparently Samuel used the band's house as a party venue, and expected the band to provide spontaneous live entertainment at all times of day and night (the lucky neighbours). Not many gigs seem to have been played beyond its walls, but Samuel continued to place ads (whose purpose is unclear) in International Times as 1968 wore on. Here's another:

and another:

and another:

In March, Forster was replaced by Paul Brett. Here's the final line up (clockwise from top left: MacTavish, Dalton, Brett and Mackay):

At much the same time their management was taken over by Spencer Davis, who was evidently looking to expand his interests (he also handled July). Here's the announcement:

On March 16th, Melody Maker announced the band's second single and subsequent tour:

The single did not appear, perhaps because (as a surviving demo attests) it was a boring pop ballad, with none of the genius of their debut.

Other ads appeared in the first half of 1968 - here are a couple:

The new configuration taped some demos at Tony Pike's studio in Putney, four of which were released on this EP in 2006 (click on the back cover image for more info):

Do What You Must and How Do I Feel Today? are said to have been pencilled in for release as a 45 (IT announced that it was 'in production' in mid-March), but it never materialised. The songs are pretty good, but - in my opinion - not as inspired as the earlier 45. In its 'Pop Supplement' of March 8th-21st 1968 IT described Tintern Abbey as 'an emergent progressive pop group coming onto the club scene', but in the following issue John Peel criticised their inclusion:

Though they'd received relatively prominent promotion and had a well-received single behind them, work seems to have been intermittent, and an LP that was reportedly planned for August was never recorded. That autumn Melody Maker announced that:

By the late summer, however, things had more or less ground to a halt, and by the end of the year Tintern Abbey had petered out.


  1. yet again more stupendous research by Lord Morton Jack. Never realised the oft-used pic of band cum bird of prey, was the second line-up.
    Beeside is such a great record, and strangely under-comped compared to Vacuum Cleaner, which is of course great too.
    All I wish for now is the lyrics, particularly for Vacuum Cleaner, which I assume is about taking drugs: 'fix me up with your sweet dose, now I'm feeling like a ghost ...all the time. Now my head is really spinning, lately now I've shown some willing...to help you with the housework.. it's (inaudible). Break it up break it up (hash?) lets have it now..etc etc'

  2. good gracious, this is amazing! thanks for all of your hard work.

  3. Wow, another amazing post. Where do you find all of these photos, ads and documents? Very interesting stuff! Thanks a lot!

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. can you tell me where you sourced the photos for the hapshash posters? i had never heard them mentioned in any listings of their work. The style of this poster is similar to the Mike Mcinnerney/Dudley Edwards work done under the name Om Tenticle. Let me know what you can

  7. Hi Paul - in the book Underground Graphics (Academy Editions, London, 1970, ed. Graham Keen & Michel La Rue), the picture is credited to Michael English. The colour version used in my blog was taken from an eBay listing, while the B&W version is scanned from my copy of the book.

  8. ah, that is one book i don't have so i didn't realize it was in there. I am going to seek this book out for sure. thanks for the info


  9. Tremendous material, many thanks Richard.

    // Patrick Lysergia

  10. The tricky bits in the Vacuum Cleaner lyrics are 'in my heart I really know, gold clothes don't buy my soul' and 'to help you with the housework, pick up all the dirt'. And yes, the 'break it up' bit does refer to hash, as confirmed by Don Smith. So there you go!

    1. Hello Richard, an excellent job compiling this information. Many thanks,

      Sir Henry.

  11. I recall reading somewhere that David Gilmour auditioned for them. Can't recall where I read that. But if true it must have happened prior to him joining Pink Floyd in December 1967. ie just prior to Smith leaving.

  12. re: Anon 24 November

    http://www.pinkfloydz.com/intgilmourrcmay2003_.htm refers in passing to a relationship
    http://forums.naimaudio.com/topic/pyschprogfolk-thread-for-anybody-interested?reply=1566878606877467 refers to an audition.

  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.