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GONZO MAGAZINE #257: Jon meets Judge Smith

I am very fond of Judge Smith. He has had one of the most peculiar career arcs of anybody I know.

At university, in the mid-1960s, together with Peter Hammill, he formed the notoriously spiky progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator with Judge on drums. They were the first band signed to Charisma Records, but Judge left the band after the first single. The split was, apparently, perfectly amicable, and he was to work with Hammill and other alumni of VdGG over the years. He then formed a peculiar jazz-rock band called Heebalob, which included sax player David Jackson, who went on to join VdGG.

The third VdGG album - H to He, Who Am the Only One - featured one of the bands most memorable tracks. The opening song, ‘Killer’– the song about a killer shark – featured bits from an old song by Judge, called ‘A Cloud as Big as a Man’s Hand’.

The shark, in the song, became very lonely because he’d killed everything.

Judge then spent a while as a scientologist, before settling on a career as the composer of stage musicals for the next few decades. He was particularly adept at fusing avant-garde sensibilities with hummable tunes, and the subject of these slices of musical theatre included the ‘Kibbo Kift’; a peculiar youth movement from the 1920s and 30s, which has recently taken centre stage as the subject of a book by Annabella Pollen, who most recently surfaced as part of the 3 day event in Liverpool, which marked the return to the world stage of The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu.

 After many years of work developing a new form of narrative music he calls "Songstory", Smith completed and released, in 2000, the double CD Curly's Airships, about the 1924 Imperial Airship Scheme and the R101 airship disaster of 1930.

Among many others, Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, Arthur Brown, David Jackson, John Ellis and Pete Brown performed on the project. Smith believes that the 2 hr 20 min work might be the largest and most ambitious single piece of rock music ever recorded. Curly's Airships was to be the first of three Songstories so far written and composed by Smith.

After a gap of Lord knows how long, Judge has decided to return to the live stage, and has started putting a band together. He has also made an arty movie about life in his girlfriend’s old garden. You couldn’t make this stuff up. After a gap of a couple of years, I decided that a conversation with Judge was well overdue…


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