In the pantheon of progressive rock, few bands have courted acclaim and criticism in such equal measure as Leviticus. Condemned by some as hopelessly pretentious and hailed by others as musical visionaries, the band defied both changing times and the tide of opinion to become legends of the progressive genre.
Their quirky Anglo-centric songs such as “I Know That’s My Wife (In Your Wardrobe)”, a paean to cuckoldry, and “Cuppa’s Ready”, a twenty-five minute epic exploring the esoteric art of tea-making, are now considered classics of their kind and have spawned dozens of imitators over the years.
Now, after splitting up “for good” ten years ago, it is rumoured that they have put aside their differences and are about to tour again, so it seems an appropriate moment to reflect on a unique story, one that began in 1952 with the birth of lead singer, Charles “Zebraman” Joliffe.
1. In the beginning…
Charles Joliffe came into this world on very much the right side of the tracks. His mother, Anna Hyde-Douglas, the youngest daughter of the Fifth Earl of Crossbullock, met his father, Lord Algernon Joliffe of Cromarchty, at a grouse shoot on the latter’s Scottish estate, and their courtship was swift. “We fell in love to the sound of the shotgun, while grouse tumbled all around us,” Anna was later to tell Horse and Hounds magazine. “It was the most romantic thing ever.”
By the end of the hunting season it became abundantly clear that grouse were not the only things to have fallen. Anna and Algernon were hitched with almost indecent haste, a shotgun wedding in every sense, and Charles arrived within the month. “Late on parade, thank God!” Algy Joliffe told his drinking companions that evening in the Old Bull and Buttock.
Despite such auspicious origins, life was to prove anything but easy going for the young Charles. Algy Joliffe was a notorious eccentric whose penchant for free love and kitchen appliances made him a dangerous host and an unpredictable houseguest. A rumour circulated widely that only the financial intervention of Joliffe’s solicitor had prevented one acquaintance – the business end of an egg-whisk having been surgically removed from his rectum – from reporting his lordship to the authorities. For his own protection Lord Joliffe was sent away to the remote Scottish Isle of McGuyver and forbidden to make contact with his wife and young child.
The loss of her husband hit Anna like a round of buckshot peppering a ptarmigan. Ever a sensitive soul, she began to lose touch with reality, the threads of her sanity unraveling with every passing day. The balance of her mind thus disturbed, it is less than surprising, in retrospect, that she brought Charles up as a girl named Cynthia for the first five years of his life. Mindful of her delicate hold on reality, both servants and family friends felt disinclined to point out her error. Only the intervention of Lord Joliffe’s favourite ghillie, Wee Willie McBrogue of the Clan McBrogue, would eventually bring a dismayed Anna to her senses. “Yon wee bairn’s nae a lass, but a lad, lassie!” he declared one day during a fly-fishing foray on the River Spey. “It fair breaks my heart to say it, but say it I must, nae matter how gude he looks in his wee pink dress and pigtails.”
To outward appearance Charles bore with the change stoically, but he would later confess to a sense of lost identity that haunted him throughout his formative years. “I never quite got over Cynthia,” he told Rolling Stone in an early interview. “For the longest time I wanted to play with my dolls, and I could never get the hang of Y-fronts. But my mother was relentless. Eventually I was more Charles than Cynthia.”
Lord Joliffe returned from exile when Charles was six, bringing yet more eccentricity to a life already less ordinary. The intervening years had done little to curb his lordship’s culinary enthusiasms, as a botched experiment with a kitchen-maid and a Spong mincer would prove. Algernon Joliffe did not so much sail close to the wind as lash himself to the mast and steer a course for the teeth of the storm. Scarcely a week passed without some new scandal surfacing in the Sunday tabloids. It was, in many ways, a relief to the young Charles when he was sent away to public school – the forbidding and austere Gruffington Grange – just after his eleventh birthday. Here, at last, Charles was to discover a greater sense of self, and it was a love of music, shared with three of his schoolmates, that would pave the way.
Peter Gillingham [keyboards] takes up the story:
“To be honest, when we first met Charles we all thought he was a bit of an oddball. Everyone knew that his dad was nuttier than a squirrel on acid, so no-one was that keen to share a dorm with him. You might wake up with a spatula where the sun didn’t shine, if you catch my drift. But there was something about him. I remember saying to the twins [Cedric Thornton, bass, and Jonas Thornton, guitars] maybe we should give this guy a chance.”
“Yeah, and I remember saying ‘if he picks up a can opener, it’s every man for himself!'” interjects Jonas.
The Thornton twins and Gillingham were heavily influenced at the time by the music of Tommy Steele. The Steele Sound was everywhere, and “Half a Sixpence” was the song on the lips of teenagers nationwide.
“God, yes,” recalls Cedric. “I remember the first time I heard “Little White Bull”. It sent shivers down my spine, you know? It was classic stuff, like nothing we’d ever heard before. When I discovered that Charles not only knew all the words but could pick out the tune on a glockenspiel…well…it was a defining moment. Up until that point we had been just three public schoolboys. Now we were, like, four public schoolboys. With a glockenspiel.”
The glockenspiel had been a gift from Charles’s strange Aunt Brunhilde. “Every year she would descend on us,” recalled Joliffe in a 1978 interview with Vanity Fair, “and we would be, like, ‘oh no, what has she brought this time?’ On one occasion I remember it was a stuffed armadillo, which was certainly very different, not to mention very poorly preserved. The day she brought the glockenspiel she made me stay up all night until I could play the opening bars of “The Ride of The Valkyries”. Whenever I think of her now, it’s always that bloody tune that comes to mind. That and her handlebar moustache.”
“We’d spend every spare minute playing that glockenspiel,” reflects Gillingham. “While the other kids were into rugger and cricket, we’d be fighting over whose turn it was to play. Of course Charles was very proprietorial; it was his glockenspiel and he never let you forget it. Over time, though, I managed to convince him that his talents lay elsewhere. I graduated to the piano eventually, but I think it was always accepted that I would take any glockenspiel parts.”
February the Ninth, 1967, was a historic date: the first live performance by the band that was to form the core of Leviticus. “We called ourselves “Peter Gillingham and The G-Men” and we played a three-song set in the school gym.” Peter recalls. “I had written a song called ‘Twice a Thruppence’ which was, of course, horribly derivative of Tommy Steele . Charles contributed a strange song about salmon fishing in a dress, which I have to say I didn’t understand at all. We finished with “Half a Sixpence”, which pretty much brought the house down. I think that night we all knew that rock music was in our blood. We weren’t about to let anyone, or anything, stop us.”
Joliffe has a different take on that night. “We were pretty average. Worse than average: we were mundane. And that’s being unkind to mundanity. I didn’t like anything about that night, from the name of the band through to the whole idiotic obsession with Tommy Steele. It took a lot of persuasion to get me back on a stage and when I did it was because we had renamed the band and we were going in a whole new musical direction.”
The new band was named “Rosebud”, after the closing line of “Citizen Kane”. It was, indeed, a different kettle of fish, with the song writing falling far more to Joliffe. Access to the school music room and hour upon hour of practice had started to hone their undoubted raw talent into something much more promising than just another wannabe Steele band. Additionally, the boys had come to the attention of a Gruffington Grange old boy, the music impresario Goldman Klein. The pieces were all in place: success was now just a matter of time and burgeoning talent…
2. And it came to pass…
The contrast between Goldman Klein and Charles Joliffe could not have been more marked. One of six children born to Jewish parents in the slums of Hackney, East London, Goldman would later recount that his family “not only didn’t have a pot to piss in, but couldn’t even afford the piss.” His father, Oscar, had fled wartime Germany and attempted to set up a tailoring business, to little success. “To be young, Jewish, white and poor was a huge disadvantage,” said Klein. “I made up for it by inventing this whole persona for myself at school. I pretended to be an heir to Russian royalty fallen on hard times, and would wander around drumming up support to bring the Tsars back to power.”
Goldman Klein had what would these days be termed ‘an addictive personality’. He was addicted to many things, of which bouts of outrageous lying were perhaps the least dangerous manifestations. Promising his Gruffington Grange teachers future Russian honours in exchange for cash, he quickly made his first £100. “I realised there was easy money to be made out of mendacity,” he is quoted as saying, “and, frankly, I never looked back.”
Less rewarding were his various experiments with drugs. “I had a motto: ‘if it moves, take it; if it doesn’t move, take it until it does’. I was doing stuff that should have killed me. I’d love to say that which didn’t kill me made me stronger, but I’d be lying. I would turn up at parties covered with acorns and tell people I was an oak tree…shit like that. For many years people mostly considered me a weird pain in the arse. I also had a thing for blancmange, and a lot of people couldn’t relate to that.”
Klein was undoubtedly weird, but, by the late Sixties, he had charted on several occasions with songs of a diverse “bubble-gum” nature. His first hit, “Everyone’s Got a Baboon” had rocketed to Number One in the British charts and funded all his subsequent recordings. Given the disparity in their respective musical styles, Klein’s interest in Rosebud possibly had less to do with art than the fact that he was irresistibly attracted to young men of a public school disposition (indeed, he was later to serve a jail sentence on account of this predilection).
“Call us young and naïve,” says Jonas, “but we honestly didn’t get that about Goldman. He visited the school one day, heard us play and immediately wanted us to record an album for his label. We were totally happy to let him pay for it. The fact that he liked us to record while he danced naked in the production box…well, we simply put it down to artistic temperament. Though we were very puzzled by the blancmange. He always had a lot of blancmange.”
Goldman’s recording studio was in a barn just outside the English town of Reading. Every weekend for a month Rosebud decamped there by bus and train from Gruffington Grange, returning to the school late on Sunday night. “Goldman insisted we stay up on Saturday nights to watch the male nude wrestling scene from “Women In Love” in his private projection room,” explains Jonas. “He really loved that scene and would ask us if we thought it would play better enacted in blancmange. We’d tell him yes, and he’d be happy for the rest of the weekend.”
It was during this time that Klein persuaded them that Rosebud was not a great rock name. He suggested ‘Leviticus’ instead. “At first we didn’t get it at all,” recalls Jolliffe. “We said, if we have to do the biblical thing at all, surely ‘Genesis’ would be a better bet, but he told us not to be silly. The debate rolled on for weeks, but I guess he must have worn us down in the end, because by the time the album was mastered we were calling ourselves Leviticus.”
Their first album, “From Leviticus to Reading Station” was released on the Blancmange label, in January 1969, to mild indifference from the public and critics alike. Understated and with few indications of the musical directions to come, it is clear, in hindsight, that Klein’s influence had not succeeded in drawing the best from his young charges. The glockenspiel featured heavily, perhaps too heavily; on later albums a running gag would be the tag line beneath the credits that said “No glockenspiels.”
Charles took the lack of success very badly.
“By then I was totally pinning my hopes on a career in rock. I remember reading a review, in Melody Maker I think, which just said: “I have heard the future of rock and roll, but, frankly, not at any point on Leviticus’ banal debut album. These sorry school kids wear their Tommy Steele influences on their sleeves, and the result is little, white and bull.” That was pretty hard to read; and all the worse for being so true. Goldman Klein had pushed us to record the album in a hurry, and as a result we had fallen back on our old, familiar, pre-Rosebud material.”
Peter Gillingham was less downbeat. “There was a lot to admire on that album,” he said. “I particularly like the glockenspiel solo on ‘Three Farthings Short of a Shilling’. I agree there was a lot that was influenced by Tommy Steele, but everyone is influenced by something.”
Cedric Thornton was more blunt: “We produced an album without a single gong. It was never going to work. We should have insisted on gongs.”
Undaunted by the setback, Leviticus severed all ties with Goldman Klein and signed up to the newly created Machismo label, run by posh entrepreneur Toby “Tonker” Tinkerton. They recruited a drummer, bought a gong and headed into the studios. This time they meant business.
To be continued….