Thursday, 12 June 2008

True Originals (Part 2: Sothic Yoke)

We celebrate the inspirations behind today’s critically acclaimed acts and multi-platinum sellers.

Sothic Yoke

Modern Day Counterpart: Sonic Youth

In 1986, the Daily Telegraph photographer, Donald Lawley, visited the Zummerleaze Commune at Baven Farm, in Dorset.

“I spent Christmas with my mother in Dorchester. Since I had a few days in hand before I was needed back in London, I decided that I would look up my old friend Brian Skeddings, to see how life away from the rat race was treating him.

“I had stayed at Zummerleaze on a couple of occasions in the past and found it a very pleasant place, if a little eccentric. The approach to the farm is a mile-and-a-quarter long, dirt track between rolling fields. As I pulled off the tarmac road and passed through the gates, I could hear a sustained drone (which I correctly took to be the sound of Brian’s harmoniums) emanating from some buildings on the horizon. I was surprised by how loud it was. The closer I got, the more the sound seemed to dominate the landscape, until eventually it completely drowned-out the noise of my car engine. In the fields on either side of me, I noticed small groups of people. Some were swaying on the spot, as if in a trance. Others shuffled around aimlessly.

“By the time I had pulled-up in front of the farmhouse the drone was overwhelming. It made me feel physically ill. A pair of malnourished, hollow-eyed women, who resembled concentration camp interns, looked-on impassively from the doorway of one of the outbuildings.

“I found Brian lying naked and delirious on a filthy mattress in one of the first floor bedrooms. All of the windows in the room had been smashed and it was bitterly cold. He was later diagnosed as suffering from amoebic dysentery. The farm’s water purification system, which he designed, had broken down, but everyone was still drinking from the tank. There was broken furniture everywhere. Rats had the run of the place, The toilets were either blocked with raw sewerage or no longer working. The smell was appalling. It was as if the community had taken a vote and decided unanimously to go mad.”

Lawley’s visit was to mark a sad closing chapter in what had been an 18 year experiment in communal living. And yet, right from the beginning, Zummerleaze had been rooted in tragedy. In 1967 a car accident had killed John and Martha Skeddings, leaving their only son Brian, then 23 years old, as the sole heir to Baven Farm. Inspired by the kibbutzim in Israel, Skeddings set out plans for his own self-sufficient agrarian community.

The commune opened its gates in March 1968 and began to draw a steady influx of eager recruits. The first indications that all was not well with its founder came in 1969, when Skeddings complained to his doctor that he was hearing voices. He was briefly hospitalised and placed on strong anti-depressants. Upon his release he returned to Zummerleaze and immediately set to work building a harmonium in one of the barns. The instrument was powered by generators which were, in turn, fuelled by manure harvested from the farm’s large herd of dairy cows. Unusually the harmonium was designed to play a single note. When it was finished Skeddings had it moved to his quarters in the farmhouse and positioned at the foot of his bed, where it played continuously day and night.

The following year, in what was to become an annual ritual, Skeddings constructed a second harmonium, slightly larger than the first, completing it on the eve of the summer solstice.

“Brian had become very interested in an Ancient Egyptian agricultural cult who worshipped the god, Sopdet,” says Andy Payne - one of the founding members of the commune. “It tied-in with his notions of death, rebirth and man’s connection to the land. Sothic Yolk was intended as a musical expression of these ideas and ideals.”

In 1971, both harmoniums and their generators were loaded into the back of a second-hand army truck and the band went on tour.

“It was physically and mentally draining,” recalls Payne. “Driving down all these dark country roads with the harmoniums blaring out the same note, a few feet away from where we were sitting. We wrapped blankets around them in an attempt to smother the noise, but it didn’t do much good. It was a sound that induced schizophrenia. You couldn’t face it sober. You needed to be high on something just to stay sane. The only person who seemed to be immune to the effects was Brian. The fumes from the generators made those who were travelling in back of the truck nauseous. We kept having to pull over so people could be sick. I’m still amazed that no one died.”

Sothic Yolk spent April and May touring the south of England.

“We were never a band in the conventional sense,” says Payne. “We would set-up the harmoniums somewhere in the countryside, usually within a few miles of a village. The drone would act as a clarion call, drawing all the nearby freaks out of the woodwork, although actually we had quite a cosmopolitan audience - it wasn’t just hippies and burnouts. For a while there was this church choir who used to follow us around and sing hymns. Other people would bring their own instruments and a performance would evolve organically around the drone. Sometimes it was one big free for all. Other times people would go off into small satellite groups and sing their own songs. The longest we ever played was at Famneaden in Somerset. That lasted three weeks before the police moved us on.

Some of the group’s spontaneous jams were captured on tape by the producer Peter Arundel, who joined the Sothic Yolk on tour in the summer of 1973. These recordings appear in a heavily edited form on the band’s debut album - Trig.

“There must have been hundreds of hours of tape, says Payne. “Peter whittled it down and wove the best bits into a sonic tapestry. It was our masterpiece.”

A second album, titled Shroud, arrived a year later. By this time Arundel and Skeddings had fallen out and the record, which was effectively four unedited slices of performance spread across two vinyl LPs, showed a marked drop in quality.

Back on Baven Farm, Skeddings had made the acquaintance Steven Neale - a former doctor, who had been struck off the medical register for needlessly injecting the breasts of his female patients. Neale arrived at the gates of the commune one morning touting a recipe for a potent homemade hallucinogen. He was welcomed with open arms by Skeddings who christened the drug Dewbit Brown and began adding drops of it to the communal breakfast porridge.

“Steven’s arrival at Zummerleaze certainly marked a turning point for the commune,” says Payne. “In my opinion it allowed a few wolves into the fold – people who we wouldn’t have let in a few years beforehand. Suddenly a lot of work on the farm wasn’t getting done. As a result many of the companies with whom we had good relationships stopped doing business with us.

“Brian had found a new method of amplifying his harmoniums and it was beginning to make life on the farm uncomfortable. They were never turned off. Even repairs were conducted with them playing at full blast. I could see that I was on a slowly sinking ship. On the day that I left, I went to say goodbye to Brian. He was in the process of building a harmonium so large that it completely occupied one of the barns. We used to call it ‘The Barnonium’”.

By 1980 the situation at Zummerleaze had deteriorated further, provoking a mass exodus from the commune by many of its longest serving residents. Sothic Yolk continued to make occasional forays into the outside world. The group’s final performance took place in 1981, just outside Bowman’s Copse in Hampshire, but quickly degenerated into a violent running battle with the police, in pitch black woodland.

“As far as I can tell Baven Farm ceased to function at some point in 1984,” says Lawley, who, following his visit in 1986, took it upon himself to alert the authorities. The ensuing raid on the property ended in the enforced hospitalisation of Skeddings and his remaining acolytes.

“They filled an entire wing of Eglim Psychiatric Hospital. Social workers were frantically trying to identify who everyone was, so that they could contact family members. One mustn’t underestimate the scale of the human tragedy. This happened over twenty years ago and a lot of these people are still in institutions.”

In 1987, Baven farm was sold at auction. Today Brian Skedding is a resident of a private psychiatric facility in Buckinghamshire. In 1999, all 13 of his harmoniums were purchased by the architect Florian Lehrer who had them relocated to Hamburg. This included the famous ‘Barnmonium’, which was painstakingly dismantled, shipped to Germany in crates and then rebuilt.

“I don’t think Brian ever forgave me for calling the authorities,” say’s Lawley. “The truth is that, by the time I visited Baven Farm, Zummerleaze was a sick animal. I put it out of its misery.”


Archie Valparaiso said...

Was the dispute over the Yoke/Yolk dichotomy ever resolved? I seem to remember it was the subject of protracted litigation, but I don't remember how, if at all, the case was eventually settled.

backwards7 said...

It would never have been an issue if the band's logo hadn't been so willfully indecipherable. Didn't the Judge describe it at one point as "a decomposing font"?

I assumed the name was a play on words - the yoke of the ploughshare and the yolk as a symbol of birth and things beginning anew.