John Twink Adler

The drummer/sonic explorer details his work with the Pretty Things, Syd Barrett, and a bevy of other quintessential psychedelic acts.

 

A key proponent of the British psychedelic rock and early punk movements, drummer John Alder, aka Twink, has performed and recorded with some of rock’s most pivotal figures, including Pink Floyd cofounder Syd Barrett, counterculture iconoclast Mick Farren (the Deviants), and the Pretty Things. He also worked with a number of rock icons before they came to fame, including guitarist Steve Howe, in his pre-Yes band Tomorrow, and the group Santa Barbara Machine Head, featuring future Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood and Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord.

Taking his nickname from a hair-care product, Alder seemed to embody the ideals of psychedelic-era Britain through his experimentation, free thought, and artistic playfulness. “Twink is like a traveling circus,” says Mark Wirtz, who produced Tomorrow’s debut record and the studio project the Aquarian Age, featuring Twink, piano man Nicky Hopkins, drummer Clem Cattini, and Tomorrow bassist John “Junior” Wood. “Psychedelia was almost invented for Twink.”

By indulging his diverse artistic sensibilities, Twink fearlessly explored far-ranging musical genres, and in the 1970s, as a founding member of Pink Fairies (a major influence on the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon), he was one of the few British musicians, let alone drummers, blurring the lines between proto-punk and psychedelia. Later in that decade, Alder actively cultivated a garage-band aesthetic as the lead singer for the Rings, whose gritty 1977 ditty “I Wanna Be Free,” on the indie label Chiswick, was an early U.K. punk single.

MD caught up with Twink, who was living in Morocco at the time of our talk, to discuss his career and some of the iconic personalities he’s worked with over the last several decades. Although Alder now identifies himself as Mohammed Abdullah, to avoid confusion we’ll refer to him as Twink throughout this interview.

John Twink Adler

MD: At what age did you pick up the drums?

Twink: I was twelve or thirteen when I started playing drums. My first instrument was guitar, but when I started to play with the Airliners Skiffle Group, I handed my guitar to a much better player and moved on to washboard. I progressed from washboard to drums via the Black Zillions Skiffl e Group, and on to a rock group called the Planets.

MD: Did you ever have any formal music training?

Twink: I had no formal music training, although both sides of my family were very musical. There was always music being played and listened to on the radio. I played my drums along with Bill Haley & His Comets, Lonnie Donegan, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley, and others to get my beats going.

MD: What attracted you to the life of a professional musician?

Twink: The music, and in particular rock ’n’ roll music, attracted me to the professional-musician way of life, along with the veiled promise of girls and money.

MD: You were a member of the Pretty Things when the band recorded the groundbreaking 1968 conceptual work S.F. Sorrow, which had a profound impact on Pete Townshend when he was formulating the Who’s rock opera Tommy. Pretties guitarist Dick Taylor once told me that the band had tracked a version of “Bracelets of Fingers” prior to the sessions for S.F. Sorrow. Had you recorded what would be considered demos with the Pretties?

Twink: Skip Alan played drums on that wonderful track, and I only heard the final recorded version. It was the fi rst track that the band and [producer] Norman Smith played to me when I joined the Pretty Things to finish the album. I was blown away when I heard it, and said, “This should be your next single.” “I See You” had also been recorded with Skip on drums. I played drums on the rest of the album, and as far as I know there were no demos; some of the songs were unfinished and unwritten [when the band entered the studio].

MD: How much did Norman Smith—and the mere fact that S.F. Sorrow was recorded at EMI/Abbey Road Studios—contribute to the overall sound of that record? Did you discuss certain percussion ideas with Smith?

Twink: Without a doubt Norman Smith and Abbey Road Studios contributed greatly to the finished-product sound. We did have discussions with Norman about ad-libbed, controlled jamming and linking tracks using my drums and multi drummers. Norman was very open to production suggestions. I suggested the bridge from “Private Sorrow” to “Balloon Burning,” the ad-lib vocal outro to “She Says Good Morning,” the rising oscillator sound leading into the guitar solo on “Old Man Going,” and a few other less significant parts.

MD: “Baron Saturday” from S.F. Sorrow is a great song with, again, an amazing drum passage that feels African- and Indian-influenced. How did that section come about?

Twink: That drum passage was a joint effort and included the whole band playing drums or percussion. As you probably know, [multi-instrumentalist] Jon Povey is a great drummer; I first saw him playing drums with [the Merseybeat band] Bern Elliott and the Fenmen. Both [singer] Phil May and [guitarist] Wally Waller are great percussionists as well, so we all joined in on that part, trying to create a sort of voodoo music. The verse and chorus are me, alone, on drums just laying it down.

MD: In his book White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, producer/author Joe Boyd links ’60s psychedelic-era musicians and punk rockers of the ’70s. There are some connections, but the attitude—in most cases—was different. Yet you’re credited with having coined the phrase acid punk, having performed not only with the psychedelic group Pink Fairies but with the punk band Rings.

Twink: In a commercial sense the 1960s “love and peace” musicians can be linked to the punk rockers by way of the management, record, and music publishing companies, which remained the same. I agree that there’s a contradiction in my activities, which I put down to the change in my drug prescription. During the 1960s and very early 1970s I was using hash and other psychedelics—and there’s nothing wrong with that in my opinion. However, from 1973 onwards, for about ten years, I used heroin, cocaine, speed, and alcohol—all very negative chemicals in the main.

John Twink Adler

MD: You played for a while in Pink Fairies with a second drummer, Russell Hunter. How did you coordinate your performances?

Twink: The double-drummer Pink Fairies was not planned, but once it started it became very organic and not choreographed. I was happy with the two-drummer thing with Russell. We complemented each other in the sense that when Russell was not available, for whatever reason, I was there for the band to carry on. By the same token, Russell was there for me to step up to the mic and perform some songs.

MD: You left the U.K. for Morocco in the early ’70s but later returned to rejoin Pink Fairies. Why were you lured to North Africa in the first place?

Twink: Friends, who had been there already, told me it was really cool, and Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka had a musical influence on me. I wanted to check out the music scene in general.

MD: You recently converted to Islam. Why?

Twink: My belief has never changed. I simply found a practical way to express gratitude for the abundance of good things in this world that are given to us all freely, and a practical way to express my gratitude to a higher power, which in Islam we call Allah. This includes talent to make music.

MD: Were you raised in a religious environment?

Twink: In some ways, yes. My school motto was “God fi rst, others second, self last,” and we sang hymns at morning assembly. My father was raised in a Quaker school, but my parents were not religious—just good people.

MD: Some of your material borders on the occult, such as Aquarian Age’s “Good Wizard Meets Naughty Wizard” and “Dawn of Magic” from your 1970 solo record, Think Pink. What fueled your interest in magic?

Twink: In my quest for the truth I did read and study the occult during the late 1960s and early 1970s. I visited, but decided against joining, a famous witches and warlocks coven in London, and when I moved to Cambridge I became very interested in the works of Aleister Crowley. That interest remains today. The coven was Alex Sanders’, which was in Notting Hill. Alex wasn’t in good health at the time, and his wife Maxine would often lead the meetings. The song “Dawn of Magic” paints a picture of the time when Adam and Eve arrive on earth, closely followed by the devil, after being banished from the Garden of Eden. “Good Wizard Meets Naughty Wizard” is a lighthearted ad-lib B-side for the Aquarian Age single “10,000 Words in a Cardboard Box.”

MD: Tomorrow’s “My White Bicycle” was a kind of unofficial anthem for Britain’s underground psychedelic movement. What can you tell us about how this song was recorded?

Twink: There were a few new percussion ideas that I proposed—for example, the backwards-tape recording of closed hi-hats in “My White Bicycle” to create the illusion of cycling fast through the streets. And the sped-up drum passages in the song “Revolution” create the illusion of a Cossack dance group performing.

MD: In the early ’70s you played with Pink Floyd cofounder Syd Barrett in a group called Stars. Is the perception of Syd the spaced-out rocker romanticized or wrong?

Twink: When I worked with Syd in 1972 I found him to be no stranger than anyone else around at that time. We had a good working relationship alongside [bassist] Jack Monck. He was always on time for rehearsals and gigs. My theory is that it was good for Pink Floyd to have their “Crazy Diamond,” and when Syd did eventually surface with Stars, well, it had to be stopped. They couldn’t possibly put up with Syd being seen to be sane, playing in another group with other respected musicians.

MD: So you believe Floyd essentially sabotaged Syd’s career?

Twink: Things had been going very nicely for Stars until we played a high-profile gig at Cambridge Corn Exchange, when everything went wrong that could possibly go wrong. The performance was reviewed in the music press in a negative light. When the review was published, which was after a second show we did at the Corn Exchange two days later, which went very well, Syd was called to his London music publishers’ office, who drew his attention to the negative review and told him to leave Stars. The same music publishers were managing Pink Floyd, and, knowing Syd’s vulnerability, they used it as a torpedo to sink the band, because how could someone who is allegedly insane and incapable of performing be actually doing gigs—and good ones at that?

MD: You took a break from playing drums in the ’90s. Why?

Twink: I was very busy with my label [Twink Records]. However, I did play drums on a number of projects during that time. Pinkwind, members of Hawkwind and Pink Fairies, played many shows throughout the ’90s and released two live albums. I reunited with Paul Rudolph from Pink Fairies and recorded two studio albums with him in Vancouver, Pleasure Island and No Picture.

MD: Are you playing drums, either on recorded material or on stage, these days?

Twink: I have a new CD just out on Sunbeam Records; it’s called You Reached for the Stars by Twink and the Technicolour Dream. It was recorded in Rome last January and mixed and mastered at Abbey Road Studios in June. For the mixing and mastering I had the pleasure to reunite with Peter Mew, who was the engineer for S.F. Sorrow.

MD: I heard that the name Pink Fairies is really due to Mick Farren. Is this true?

Twink: The origin of the name Pink Fairies begins with my band the Fairies [1964 to 1966]. I was hanging out at Mick Farren’s flat in London’s West End with Mick and his two roadies, Boss Goodman and Tony Wiggins. Mick said, “Tony has suggested we call our drinking club Pink Fairies,” and so it began. [Author/Deviants manager] Jamie Mandelkau then wrote a Tolkien-style short story, “The Pink Fairies,” of which the beginning part was used on my first solo album, Think Pink. When we came to finish the recording I decided to call it Think Pink as a promotional tool for the band project. The band Pink Fairies materialized about six months later, and the rest, as they say, is history.