Nektar: The circus is back in town

By  Peter Lindblad

Perhaps no other prog-rock act of the early ’70s possessed a stage show as elaborate as Nektar’s.

A dazzling array of colorful lights bombarded rapt audiences senseless as the band conjured up mind-altering, sonic carnivals for the masses, juggling time signatures like court jesters amid a dense thicket of sound.

One night, however, in 1974, the show was brought to a sudden halt, and now, Nektar knows why power was cut at the band’s infamous New York debut at the Academy of Music that year. It wasn’t an immense power surge that blew the circuits. It was human error.

“We had just started the show and were halfway through the first song when one of our crew backstage tripped over the main power switch and killed everything to the instruments and PA,” says Nektar guitarist and vocalist Roye Albrighton, for the first time publicly revealing the secret. “He quickly realized what had happened and returned the power almost immediately. It was only years later that he told us all the story… all we could do was laugh.”

Mick Brockett, Nektar’s unofficial fifth member, conducted the visual aspect of each performance with incredible panache.

“Mick was doing bits and pieces at the Star Club around the late ’60s and knew the rest of the guys before I joined,” relates Albrighton. “He was doing lights for bands that were passing through, and when Nektar formed, he just came along and stayed with us ’til the breakup in the ’70s. I have to admit, for the time, his light show was remarkable, although I was never really in the position to be able to fully appreciate it live, as I was performing and was too close to the screens to see it properly.”

That would be the same Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, made famous by The Beatles. It was there that three members of a group called Prophecy — keyboardist Allen “Taff” Freeman, bassist Derek “Mo” Moore and drummer Ron Howden — first met Albrighton. All four were English expatriates playing the German club circuit.

“Ron, Mo and Taff were all British musicians who had already played together for quite a while around the U.S. Army bases in Germany and had ended up living in Hamburg,” recalls Albrighton.

“I was there in 1968-1969 with my own band, Rainbows, also out of the U.K. During the day, the Hamburg clubs were virtually all closed, including the Star Club; it was during a walkabout one day that I passed the Star Club and heard a drummer practicing. I stepped inside and watched this guy playing drums; he was amazing, and his rhythmic ideas were right up my street, as I am, and always have been, big into rhythms. I introduced myself, and before long we were jamming together during our days off.”

As fate would have it, after Rainbows returned to the U.K., Albrighton got a telegram from Moore. Prophecy was losing its guitarist, and Moore asked Albrighton to join them. He jumped at the chance, traveling to Hamburg to meet up with the rest of the band on Nov. 5, 1969. This melting pot of grand, creative ambitions and musical experimentation known as Nektar was born, combining Freeman’s idiosyncratic keyboards, Moore’s powerful bass movements, Howden’s deft stickwork and Albrighton’s thrilling vocals and virtuoso guitar playing.

“Nektar coming together at the time it did was a time when experimentation was rife with musicians,” says Albrighton. “We were at a crossroads with music, and we were all a little tired of playing the standards; it was breakout time.”

In 1970, Nektar signed to the German label Bellaphon. Two years into its existence, Nektar launched the space-rock epic Journey To The Centre Of The Eye before constructing the grand concept album A Tab In The Ocean.

“I think that our first album, Journey …, was what I can only describe as letting it all out… it was a gluing together of all the ideas we had been playing around with for quite awhile,” says Albrighton.

A sea change occured between Journey … and Tab In The Ocean.

Tab In The Ocean was a slightly different story; here, we had the chance to actually spend time on the finer details of arrangements and sounds,” says Albrighton. “This comes with a record company who sees the possibilities and gives you the green light to just do what you want. How many of them let this happen today?”

Starting with a simple musical premise, Nektar then would spin out complex variations of it and add layers and layers of sound.

“We would have an idea (or someone would), and as a unit we would work on it ’til the early hours,” explains Albrighton. “Most of our inspirations came from using the sound checks at shows to work on ideas, or if we had a long enough piece, we would just slip it into the nights set somewhere, just to see the reaction.”

Working out its ideas on the road prepared Nektar for the studio, where recording time was a precious commodity.

“Apart from the live jamming to write and experiment, when we were almost ready with the pieces (enough to fill an album), we would then take time to refine a story line,” says Albrighton. 

With Brockett helping piece together story lines, the recording process usually came together quickly for Nektar.

“The album would be just about ready when we entered the studio to record; this is why Nektar never took too long to record an album,” says Albrighton. “God! When I read about bands taking a year or more to do one, I often wonder what we could have done with that amount of time.”

Moving quickly, Nektar had established itself as a force to reckoned with on the progressive-rock scene. The hype machine was working overtime, and the buzz was nothing but positive.

Still, Nektar had yet to establish a foothold in the States.

Its 1973 album, Remember The Future, Nektar’s first U.S. release, held promise, making a dent in the Billboard charts, but Nektar went against conventional record-label wisdom by splitting the title track into two side-long pieces. Nektar wasn’t worried that the world wouldn’t get it.

“Not really. At this time, in the early ’70s, it was never questioned,” says Albrighton. “However, we were asked to do a single, which we did (in fact several), which did quite well in Europe. When we arrived in the U.S.A. for the RTF tour, we were astonished to hear the album on the radio being played by complete sides, something we never expected.”

A watershed year for prog, 1973, despite the airplay and Gold-record status afforded Remember The Future, saw Nektar making a name for itself in America and cementing the band’s reputation as a premier live act.

Still, Nektar never quite gained the acclaim of Yes, King Crimson or Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and that may have been of their own doing.

“To be quite honest, Nektar were fairly isolated from most other bands; we lived in the woods and kept ourselves to ourselves mostly,” says Albrighton.

Any desire to trump their prog-rock fellow travelers creatively didn’t come from some need to beat them at their own game.

“Nektar didn’t need to push its musical boundaries; this came automatically,” says Albrighton.

As ambitious as Remember The Future was, Down To Earth may have exceeded it conceptually. Here, Nektar produced an album that brought to life an aural three-ring circus, even as it embraced more song-oriented material. A musical trapeze act, with daring feats of instrumentation and arrangement, amazing vocals from gospel singer P.P. Arnold and breathtaking brass flourishes, Down To Earth might just be the greatest prog show on earth.

“Again it was a bunch of ideas that were floating around, one of which was a riff that when Ron put the drums to, it sounded like the marching of a parade of elephants (trunk to tail) through the jungle,” says Albrighton. “Another was the middle section on ‘Astral Man,’ where it goes from double to half time on the chorus, which when you use the imagination reminds one of free flight — hence came the trapeze artist taking off.
“Much the same happened with most of the songs on that album until we realized that a circus concept was on the books.”

Despite the album’s sophisticated artistry, the world at large gave the record little notice. 1974 brought a live album, Live at the Roundhouse, and two more live albums, released by the band’s German label, fed devoted fans in the U.S. and Germany. But Albrighton left Nektar by the time 1977’s Magic Is A Child (the cover featured a young Brooke Shields) was released and was replaced by American Dave Nelson.

A double greatest-hits anthology was released in 1978, and in 1980, Albrighton and Freeman reconfigured Nektar to include David Prater on drums and Carmine Rojas on bass. Man in the Moon, the band’s most pop-oriented effort, was the result. Afterward, Nektar scattered to the four winds.

“Mo Moore became a very successful businessman in New Jersey with his company, Taff Freeman became pretty much a recluse for a while, Ron Howden just kept playing his kit when and where he could, and Mick Brockett had his custom car-painting shop,” says Albrighton.

Albrighton played in several other groups (Snowball and Quantum Jump). Then, while recovering from a serious illness in 1999, he wrote and recorded the album, The Follies of Rupert Treacle, done entirely with the Roland synth guitar.

“Later that year I contacted Bellaphon records in Frankfurt, Germany, regarding a question about why the CD release of Remember the Future had turned out so bad, the question also arose as to why Nektar had stopped making albums,” says Albrighton.
“To be honest, I had no answer to that, but it went on to why we don’t make another album. This got me interested, and one thing led to another which ended up me writing a whole new album called The Prodigal Son. I managed to find Taff Freeman to step in for the keyboards, but I couldn’t track down Ron at the time.”

Twenty-two years after Man in the Moon, Albrighton was contacted by the Nearfest organization in New Jersey about the possibility of a Nektar reunion show. Building on the success of that event, Nektar put out the 2004 album Evolution and a DVD, “Pure.” In May, Nektar released its latest work, Book Of Days. Albrighton will move onto a solo project next. Looking back, Albrighton isn’t sure what set Nektar apart from the prog herd. What isn’t in doubt is that Nektar was utterly unique.

“I think that we just really wanted to be us,” says Albrighton. “We didn’t intend to be vastly different on purpose; I guess it just came out that way. We were never satisfied with standing still, we could have written another Remember the Future… but why? Instead, we did Recycled.

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