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Death walks behind Crane


MANIC depression is a frustrating mess”, sang Jimi Hendrix back in 1967, and as anyone the least bit familiar with the debilitating “mood-swing” disease now known as bipolar disorder will attest ... it certainly is. Hendrix himself resides on a list of extremely talented individuals (whose genius is believed to have been partly linked to the disease) whose lives fizzled out prematurely. Jaco Pastorious, Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley are just some of the other musicians who rode this particular train outta town. 

One of the most tragic victims of bipolar disorder is the relatively unknown Vincent Crane. Once a giant of the late-1960s scene, Crane (born Vincent Cheesman) gradually slipped off the radar as his successful creations fell apart. 

What is perhaps most amazing about the man is the extent to which his disease was reflected in the work of his career-defining band ... the inappropriately light-heartedly named Atomic Rooster. 

Vincent Crane was initially a self-taught keyboardist who gravitated towards the jazz-rock bands of the mid-1960s, particularly the Graham Bond Organization. After formalising his musical studies at the Trinity College of Music in London, Crane cut his teeth with a number of British Boom R&B bands. A fateful meeting with eccentric philosopher/shouter Arthur Brown in 1966 led to the formation of one of the late 1960s’ more combustible combos.  

With Crane’s skill as an organist and arranger providing an essential counterpoint to Brown’s theatrics (and pyrotechnics), the Crazy World of Arthur Brown was a real flavour of 1968. The Crane-penned Fire actually brought the band emphatically above ground when it topped both the UK and US charts. However, the band and its personnel were way too erratic to handle such success.  

Atomic Rooster ... the Death Walks Behind You line-up: (from left) Paul Hammond,Vincent Crane and John DuCann.

Original drummer Drachen Theaker disappeared ... last seen walking out to sea holding a guitar above his head! And when in 1969 Brown decided to walk out on a successful US tour to live in a commune, Crane and replacement drummer Carl Palmer decided to call it quits. Unfortunately, the strain had told on the sensitive young Crane who began to have bleak visions and both doubts and delusions of grandeur concerning his own capabilities. Upon his return to Britain, he checked himself directly into a sanatorium. 

The lure of rock world soon proved too much though, and Crane decided to strike out with a band of his own. With Palmer on board, he auditioned for a guitarist, rejecting many including future Yes star Steve Howe, before deciding on a bassist/flautist/ vocalist Nick Graham. The album that was recorded in double quick time bore a humorous title, Atomic Ro-O-Oster, and a playful cover, but its lyrical content was graphical expressive of Crane’s battles. 

The pain he was going through was vividly present in the sheer passion of the song Crane wrote in honour of the sanatorium ... Banstead (“Please take me out of this place”), the viciousness of Friday the 13th (“Somebody please save me”) and most of all, the splendid desolation of Winter (“What is the point of going on?”), which actually built upon a theme that he had first utilised in the Crazy World’s Come and Buy

Despite the artistic triumph of the first album, Crane was forced to dismiss Graham, and Palmer was enticed into the ranks of soon-to-be supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer. He rebounded spectacularly with a line-up that included guitarist John DuCann and drummer Paul Hammond.  

The second Atomic Rooster album, Death Walks Behind You, proved a welcome return to prominence and it was the raw sexuality of Crane’s soulful Tomorrow Night that did it. The track edged its way into the UK Top 10 in March 1971, peaking a good six months after its release. Despite the triumph it was noticeable that Crane’s obsession with darkness had grown as the title track and the twisted yearning of Tomorrow Night attested to.  

His insecurity was emphasised when a single written by DuCann, The Devil’s Answer, became an even bigger hit than Tomorrow Night. Instead of rejoicing, Crane reacted by dismissing DuCann and when Hammond followed, he found himself alone representing a big-name band. 

From then on it was downhill. Successive line-ups were fronted by Peter French and then Chris Farlowe (by which time Atomic Rooster had moved away from progressive rock towards soul). Throughout this period, the band recorded tracks like Breakthrough (“An invisible prison encircles my mind”) and Time Take My Life (“Life’s a prison, and death’s the key”), in which Crane’s skill in getting others to voice his own desperation was notable. 

By the mid-1970s, however, Crane was forced to disband Atomic Rooster. His mood was not helped when his idol Graham Bond, by now a manic depressive himself, committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train. In 1976, his personal disarray was compounded when he divorced his first wife Pat, although he married Jean the next year as he set about trying a new career as a theatre musician. 

In the late 1970s, he attempted a reunion with Brown, and followed that up in the early 1980s by re-forming Atomic Rooster with DuCann and Hammond and then playing in Katmandu with another flawed genius ... Fleetwood Mac’s beleaguered founder Peter Green. A spell in Dexy’s Midnight Runners resulted in an interesting album, but no long-term salvation. 

On Valentine’s Day, 1989, Crane finally succumbed to the disease that had dogged him. He committed suicide by taking over 400 sleeping pills, thus ending both his own suffering and the possibility of a return to the spotlight his talent deserved and craved. When Hammond died of a self-inflicted overdose two years later, it set the seal on the chilling fact that two-thirds of the band that recorded the seminal Death Walks Behind You eventually ended their own lives.  

  • Martin Vengadesan, a music lover and history buff, combines his two passions in his fortnightly column. If you have any interesting stories you want him to research, drop him a line at starmag@thestar.com.my. 

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