Hugh Banton

Hugh Robert Banton was born in 1949, in Yeovil, Somerset, England.
“To me, WWII has always seemed [like] an age before I was born—obviously, it was not, which must be infant perception. Th ere were always war movies on at the cinema; this carried on way into the 1960s, but there was undoubted optimism everywhere from 1950 on, especially once food-rationing finished. I think that drew a line.”

“My dad was a doctor. There were several musicians in my dad’s family: two of his uncles had played church organ, and another liked to demonstrate his piano improvisations. I remember being very impressed. I first had proper piano lessons at the age of seven from an old lady at the end of our street. Apparently, I came home from a lesson once to announce that she knew Mozart personally. I’m sure my dad had shown me a few things previously though; I’d started trying to play tunes long before that. When I later went to boarding school, there were always private piano lessons to be had, and on organ at school in my teenage years. By the time I was 17, I did little else at school but play the organ in the chapel. I also sang in the choir at school, ages eight through 17.”

“With classical, I remember being a Handel fan at an early age. My dad’s favourite was always Bach; and ultimately, that’s where I’ve settled too. We always had a record collection. My grandfather was a minister, so we were expected to attend every Sunday. Lots of that at boarding school too, hence the chapel organ. Obviously, at church in 1953 would be where I first encountered a real pipe organ—the only thing that interested me there, I’m sure. Th at and Christmas!”

Radio played a big part in Hugh’s discovery of music.
“I have an elder brother; he had earlier access to records by Elvis, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly and everyone, and introduced me to all that. He discovered the existence of Radio Luxembourg too. Our parents evidently had a windfall around 1960; they bought each of us a portable radio—quite a rarity back then. None of our friends had anything much better than a crystal set. Anyway, I had it at boarding school. Great asset.”

“In the UK, the BBC had an absolute monopoly: just three national radio stations from 1945 until 1967; and from then only four until relatively recently. Off shore pirate radio ran from 1964 until 1967—a
revelation for my generation, and another prog-music trigger. The BBC Light Programme channel played just that; so, rock ’n’ roll was severely rationed, maybe a couple of hours a week. But they began to have request programmes, which started to play ‘younger’ stuff . I remember live BBC request programmes circa 1963, where the challenge was to see how long it took them to find some obscure recording and get it on air; allegedly, the library staff would utilise roller skates for these occasions—probably true. Finally, a regular Sunday afternoon chart programme, Pick of the Pops, upped its game from 1961 and was essential listening (and essential taping).”

“The other element [in the UK] was the fact that we only ever effectively had one chart, the BBC’s; and inevitably, a very wide range of stuff would regularly creep in. So, alongside ‘our music,’ there was always a smattering of novelty, comedy, parents’ music (!), big bands, piano instrumentals, all sorts. Th is is what the BBC played; and apart from Radio Luxembourg there was little else. All of my generation would have been listening to this eclectic mix, had been since the mid-40s.”

Hugh’s interest in building things paralleled his interest in music.
“Electronics and music have always been my dual hobbies, still are. Electronic organs are a fortuitous meld of the two. I’ve been lucky to be employed to do my hobbies all my life. I vividly remember discovering in a book, around age nine, how loudspeakers and microphones worked. It had been bugging me for some time prior to this, and was indeed a Eureka moment for me. Prior to that, I’d messed with batteries, motors, bulbs, electric train sets; through my teens I got into amplifiers, tape recorders, radios and so on, big time. I first built a sort-of organ/keyboard when I was about 16, I think. Also built a guitar and a bass around the same time.”

“I’d always been drawn to electric organs whenever they appeared on record—loads of examples from the 50s on. Only had a piano at my parents’ home (pipe organ at school), but got an organ myself in London as soon as I could. Seeing Vincent Crane play with Arthur Brown was undoubtedly the catalyst that caused me to pursue a rock career and leave the BBC. And Hendrix, too, without a doubt. Hendrix and The Beatles were my primary obsessions from1966.”

“In 1966, I left school, having rather underperformed in exams (which stupidly didn’t include music) and pondered what to do next. Th e BBC was on my shortlist, but I didn’t have the qualifications. I was living with my parents in Edinburgh at the time. But early in 1967, the BBC lowered their entry requirements; I immediately applied and got an interview over in Glasgow—which I remember quite well—and shortly after was accepted to be a ‘technical assistant.’ First up was a stint at their residential training college in Evesham, Worcestershire, in September 1967. The course lasted four months and was all things technical—TV, cameras, sound, radio, transmitters—and come January 1968, the BBC moved me to Alexandra Palace in North London, where they housed Television News. It had been the world’s first TV studio back in 1936. There I occasionally operated cameras live, but subsequently got moved to ‘telerecording’ (copying TV to film, the forerunner of videotape)— bored stiff . Hence I left the BBC and joined a band!”

“BBC TV in London from January 1968, then I met Peter and Judge in May ‘68. I only stayed with the BBC for 12 months—much to my parents’ horror, no doubt. My BBC salary was replaced by a VdGG retainer middle of ‘68, courtesy of the management. I think Judge received a family ‘allowance’ prior to that, don’t know about Peter. Yeah, we’d all be seriously poor, all the way through to 1971, by which time we were just moderately poor!”

Hugh takes a long view on the entire progressive genre.
“I’ve always been of the opinion that what became known as ‘prog rock’ started much, much earlier than the bands (such as VdGG) who are normally tagged as such. Indeed, it was the fact that some pop records were becoming so strange and interesting from around 1965 that led me to the path I took. I wouldn’t be surprised if most others were similarly influenced. Fuzz boxes, sitars, Mellotrons, strange effects began to appear, [and] better studio gear provided new and weird possibilities [for] balancing
orchestral instruments with guitars and drums (led without question by George Martin and Th e Beatles). Meanwhile, in the US, Motown and Th e Beach Boys, for example were starting to spread their wings; but other stuff that reached the UK springs to mind: Shangri Las, Phil Spector and so on—so very different to Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.”

“To me, pop had already become mighty progressive by 1965/66, and I include Th e Beatles, Stones, Spencer Davies, Yardbirds, Small Faces, Kinks, Who and so on—and, still well before the time that I got a foothold, Hendrix, Beefheart, Floyd, Nice, etc. etc. All striving forward from the legacy of the 50s rock ’n’ roll pioneers and trying to head off in any and every direction they fancied. So by the time VdGG started, it was perfectly normal to think, what can we play that’s different to everyone else? Anything else would have been deemed ‘revivalist’! I reckon this is how ‘prog,’ as a genre, came about.”