Basil Kirchin: The Man Behind the Music

As part of the build up to Mind on the Run, a 3-day celebration of Hull’s own creative genius, Basil Kirchin, Matt Stephenson from Nova Studios sheds some light on the man behind the music:

All through the 70s, through the 80s, the 90s, the noughties, right up to the present – who were the musical names you associated with Hull? The Spiders from Mars, The Red Guitars, The Housemartins, Kingmaker, The Beautiful South, dig a bit deeper and you might have turned-up that bloke from Sade, that bloke from The Christians, Fila Brazillia, Throbbing Gristle…

… but hands up (honestly) who’d ever heard of Basil Kirchin?

Who knew that one of the true originals of British post-war music, one of this country’s greatest jazz composers, was actually living in a two-up-two down off Hessle Road?

Basil was born in Blackpool in 1927, the only child of band-leader Ivor Kirchin and his wife Kay. He joined the Ivor Kirchin band as a drummer aged 14 in 1941, before serving a swing apprenticeship in Teddy Foster and Harry Roy’s band. This was followed by a short stint with the Ted Heath Orchestra, before returning to dad to front the Basil and Ivor Kirchin Band.

Known as the Biggest Little Band in the World, Basil and Ivor Kirchin’s band recorded their first 45s produced by a young George Martin in 1954. They were the teddy boys’ favourites, playing Mecca ballrooms all over the country. Basil was the wildman of the drums, literally setting them on fire as he played, and keeping the band tight to a rhythm of early rock’n’roll and mambo.

Basil Kirchin sitting behind his drum kit

Basil Kirchin behind the drums for the Basil and Ivor Kirchin Band

When Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan toured the UK, they insisted on being backed by Basil and the band. That’s how good they were. That’s how far their reputation had spread in the music world.

But churning out the floor-fillers wasn’t enough for Basil. Ever since he was a kid he’d known that music was about more than keeping tight. For him it was about swing, when the music has a feeling that goes beyond words, when it speaks a language that everyone understands and that moves you on a different level and takes you into another place.

Basil wanted to find that place and explore it further. And so he began a quest to find that place inside himself.

Years before the Beatles even hit the charts, let alone dug meditation, Basil set off for the Ramakrishna Temple by the Ganges to see if his thoughts about the world and the nature of reality were, in his own words “more than just the ramblings of a pot-head”.

And yes, he was told, you’re right Basil. There are infinite realities and infinite possibilities and the source of enlightenment is within you, you just have to let it flow.

And so he let it flow – man.

Meanwhile, while Baz was up the Ganges, his dad formed a new band and got the residency at the newly opened Mecca Locarno nightclub on Ferensway in Hull.

Basil came back with some new ideas about music, that it could be free, that he needed to remove his ego from the process and just let it happen, that if you try then it won’t happen, you just need to go there. Ride the tiger, man, jump off the cliff – that’s what he’d tell the guys he played with.

For the next few years he divided his time between Hull and London. He started creating imaginary scores for films that were never made, and these became a series of classic library albums for music company De Wolfe. And then he started scoring actual films – Catch Us If You Can (the Dave Clarke 5’s answer to Hard Day’s Night), Primitive London, The Shuttered Room, Negatives, The Strange Affair, Freelance and later the cult horror classic The Abominable Dr Phibes.

And where did he create most of the music? In Hull, that’s where.

Whilst visiting his folks Basil had made friends with Hull musician Keith Herd, the genius behind Hull’s legendary Fairview Studios. Keith and Basil set about developing Fairview together – a process which gave Basil the space and resources to start expanding his musical ideas.

Basil Kirchin in the recording studio

Basil Kirchin in the studio

At some point in 1966, whilst walking through Hull docks, Basil had a revelation: he realised that the music he wanted to make was all around him – in the clank of the chains, the song of the birds – and so he set about finding those sounds.

An Arts Council grant bought him a telescopic mic and the latest Nagra audio recorder and over the next few years he embarked on a mission to take music into a new dimension, recording sounds, slowing them down on tape, and stretching the sound into smaller and smaller parts. This painstaking process – record, playback, slow down, cut, splice, re-record, mix, stretch, cut, splice, repeat – led him to create two groundbreaking albums Worlds Within Worlds which have subsequently come to be regarded as not only two of the rarest records on earth, but also two of the most influential albums ever made.

But at the time they bombed. Too weird for the record companies. Too weird for everyone. Basil always was ahead of his time.

And so Basil retreated further into his own mind and further into his own music. The film work dried up, then the production ‘library’ music too.

And yet he never stopped working, becoming an almost legendary figure within a small circle of Hull’s finest musicians, the ‘house’ players for Fairview, continuing to push the boundaries and create startling new music that never found a market.

In the late 90s Basil was diagnosed with cancer. It was just the spur he needed. Assisted by a young Hull-based production wizard Iain Firth, Basil began to utilise new technology to make some his best music yet. But we’ll save that story for another time…

After a long illness Basil Kirchin died in Hull in 2005, a lost genius of British music.

In 2017 his musical legacy will be brought back to life.

From 17-19 February 2017, Mind on the Run: The Basil Kirchin Story presents a weekend of concerts, screenings and talks celebrating Basil Kirchin’s music and legacy.

Mind on the Run is presented by Hull 2017 in partnership with Serious, BBC Radio 3, J-Night, Nova Studios and the University of Hull School of Arts.