Our dear friend and colleague Pip Pyle died in Paris in the early hours of August 28th 2006 shortly after travelling home from a Hatfield and the North concert in Groningen, Holland. Phil Miller phoned to tell me the awful news. Later that day, Richard Sinclair told me the Groningen gig was the best they had played with the revised Hatfield line-up and that Pip had performed particularly well; as Richard put it, “He went out in a blaze of fire”. After the concert everyone was in good spirits and Phil and Pip (who had known each other since the age of four) went out together and stayed out till 3am. It’s a consolation to know that Pip’s career ended on a high, happy note in the company of lifelong friends.
I first met Pip when I was 21, when he was drummer in Delivery and I was organist in Egg. Our bass player lived near Pip’s flat in East Sheen, SW London, and one Saturday night, as our two bands drove home from gigs ‘oop north’, our vans happened to cross paths on the North Circular Road. Being a cheerful, hospitable lot, they gesticulated for us to come and have a cup of tea at Pip’s place, which we duly did despite it being two thirty in the morning. Later, guitarist Steve Hillage auditioned Pip for his new band Khan. My partner Barbara Gaskin was Steve’s girlfriend at the time, and she remembers Pip trying to chat her up. When he asked where she was from, she answered, “Hatfield”. Pip replied, “Oh really? I’ve always wanted to be in a band called ‘Hatfield and the North.’ ”
Pip’s chat-up lines were appalling, though most of the time they seemed to work. His favourite (which made me cringe) was “What kind of music do you like?” He wasn’t in the least interested in the answer; the question was merely a preamble to a well-rehearsed routine which went something like: “Oh, really? My favourite music is jazz. Do you know if there’s a jazz club in town? Maybe we could go there for a drink.” I always hoped one day a woman would take the wind out of Pip’s sails by responding to his cynical query: “I’m interested in the twelve-tone experimentalism of Webern and Berg, but I must say I fucking hate jazz.” Sadly, this never happened to my knowledge.
Pip liked a drink. (Understatement of the eon.) He liked to boast about how drunk he had been and how idiotically he had behaved as a result - the more idiotic the behaviour, the greater Pip’s enjoyment in recounting it. When pissed on tour he would call his wife Pam in the small hours, asking stupid questions like, “Where am I?” Drunk after a Hatfield gig in France, he blundered into a phone box and rang Pam to ask where his Ventalin inhaler was. (An asthma sufferer since boyhood, he was forever losing and panicking about the bloody thing.) Pam replied, ”Have you looked in your shoulder bag?”
“Where’s my shoulder bag?”
“Haven’t you got it with you? Try looking on your shoulder where you normally put it.”
“It’s not there.”
“Try looking on the other shoulder.”
“Oh yes, there it is.”
Ten minutes later, he called Pam back to ask how to get out of the phone box.
Despite having a way with words (he was an accomplished lyricist and a great letter-writer) Pip mumbled badly on the phone, to the extent where when he first called to invite me to have a play, I could barely understand a word he was saying. He had a very slight drawl and used the word ‘boring’ in a way I’d not heard before, to mean irritating or disagreeable as well as tedious. Many things were ‘boring’ for Pip - slow traffic, bureacracy, delays, shaving, rules, pomposity, the inexplicable failure of others to do exactly what he wanted. He also used the interrogative ‘right?’ a lot, especially in raised-voice argument: “Yeah Phil but, right, don’t play a solo there, right - don’t play there, right - and we’ll get a good backing track, right, then you can overdub it later, right, right?” Then, after Phil had gone ahead and played a solo anyway: “Phil! I said, don’t play a solo there, right? Boring.”
But life with Pip was anything but boring. He hated the dull, routine and mundane, so if nothing entertaining was happening he would contrive to drum up (as it were) a bit of excitement, even if that meant severely disturbing the peace of others. He and his close friend Benji egged each other on; on the road they were like a mad double act, Benj playing Oliver Reed to Pip’s Keith Moon. Their chaos was generally good-natured, but it was unstoppable and all-embracing - if you weren’t in the mood you just had to get out of their way. At times the mayhem went too far and culminated in boorish and destructive behaviour which, to put it mildly, wasn’t funny. Though Pip would try to laugh it all off, it was severely embarrassing (for example) to face people who had kindly put us up after a gig and explain why their toilet had unaccountably been smashed up in the middle of the night. We could deduct money from Pip’s wages to cover damages, but it wasn’t so easy to repair peoples’ hurt feelings.
Though Pip found it amusing to project the image of an out-of-control alcoholic destructive automaton and never really moderated his behaviour and general outlook throughout his life, there was a lot more to him than that. He was (though he sometimes did his best to conceal it) an intelligent and quick-minded man. He was addicted less to the drink than to the social entertainment it afforded him; if he felt the time was right, he was able to stop drinking for long periods without lapsing, and I don’t recall ever seeing him drunk when performing.
As has been often said, he was an extraordinary, gifted, imaginative and hard-working drummer, with a steely determination to do his musical best at all times. Given a tricky passage of music, he would never take the easy way out and play something trite and simplistic - instead, he would spend a long time thinking up an innovative drum part (the composer’s mind at work). This meant that although he might occasionally over-reach himself, his drumming was never (to coin a phrase) boring. And once he had mastered the octopus-like co-ordination required to play a particular section, he would throw himself into it with unbelievable drive and commitment, dragging everyone along in his wake.
To hear an example, listen to his drumming on ‘The Bryden 2-Step, Part 1’ (the opening track on National Health’s Of Queues and Cures) - as we go into the rhythmic chordal passage at 3:09, Pip practically explodes: his ride cymbal work alone is amazing, but at the same time he’s belting out the backbeat, hitting all the accents with great precision, throwing in snare rolls and tom fills in unexpected places and generally driving the music along like an express train. I occasionally moaned at him for speeding up the tempos on stage, but his unique urgent, hustling style imparted great energy and musical interest to the pieces he played on.
As a lyricist he excelled in throwaway, slightly surreal lines and phrases, more often than not humorous but sometimes interspersing absurd wordplay with heartfelt personal observations. He and Richard Sinclair ended up co-writing some great songs more or less by accident - Richard often left a space where the lyrics were going to be and Pip would fill in the blanks when the occasion demanded more than a la-la-la. ‘Let’s Eat’, my favourite Hatfield song, is a good example of that. But I think Pip reserved his most sensitive, poetic and moving lyrics for his own songs. Take this extract from the autobiographical ‘Fitter Stoke Has A Bath’:
Bing billy bang
Desperate Dan, frying pan
Kling klong kling
Klong kling klang
Michael Miles, bogeyman
In business matters, Pip was the most proactive of the four of us - when I visited his flat he was often on the phone hustling for gigs and seemed to be on a mission for the band, which is why (taking nothing away from Phil and Richard’s massive creative contribution) I tend to think of Hatfield as his group. Musically, he led by example; he always gave 100% on stage and in the studio, even if the rest of us were falling by the wayside. Though he disliked gig post-mortems, he gave a rousing pep talk after one rather limp performance, urging us not to be put off by stage sound problems: “If a monitor’s feeding back, kick it over!” he shouted. I never forgot that. If some lyrics needed finishing for a recording date, Pip would step in and write them. If we were rehearsing a difficult piece, he would write out his own part and doggedly work at it till it was right. He wasn’t so good at getting his arse on stage - whatever time we were due on, Pip would make a point of not being ready. (“Tell them ten minutes, right!”) But if a fellow musician needed help, he would be there at the drop of a hat.
With his premature departure we have lost one of England’s best and most adventurous drummers, a good composer and songwriter, a fine lyricist and a deranged sonic experimentalist to boot, but most of all we’ve lost a good friend. (Pip may not have been faithful to his wives and girlfriends, but he was fiercely loyal to his musical colleagues.) We will miss his gleeful grin and wicked cackle, the strained, monotone drone he uttered involuntarily while playing (clearly audible on recordings when you solo his drums, a never-failing source of amusement to him and the rest of us), the sound of breaking glass announcing his arrival, the child-like, uninhibited and contagious peals of laughter which emitted from his general direction at regular intervals. A big character, a big heart and a big talent - without him the world will be a quieter and, yes, a more boring place. Right?
Dave Stewart, September 2006
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