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'Utopia Avenue,' The Greatest Sixties Band That Never Was

Random House

Remember Utopia Avenue? Elf, their keyboardist and singer — a voice from the clouds. Dean, the bluesy Cockney bass virtuoso. Griff on the drums — who didn't love gruff Griff? And of course, the peerless Jasper de Zoet, shredding, I mean shredding the guitar.

Their great hits — "Abandon Hope," "Smithereens," "Mona Lisa Sings the Blues" — propelled Utopia Avenue from seedy Soho clubs to Top of the Pops, and then America in the enchanted times of bell bottoms, the Beatles, drugs, sex, and street protests. Remember?

Hah! No you don't, because Utopia Avenue is the title of David Mitchell's new novel about the rise of a psychedelic Sixties band that never was. Mitchell — born just after the band Utopia Avenue would have been around — says it was the music that drew him to that era, and "the particular dark magic that was in the air at that time and place. The music — 1967 was an astonishing year. Pop got separated from rock in this time, and just a year when a critical mass of people began to believe that if only they wished it badly enough and wanted it, then society could be recalibrated and rebooted. Sure, it was naive, sure after 18 months, two years, a more jaded reality reexerted itself. But yet, just while that window was open, things came in which germinated and contained the seeds of the future."

Interview Highlights

On the Canadian promoter who put Utopia Avenue together, and what he saw in them

His dream band. He saw Elf Holloway, a woman from the folk scene. He saw a dreamer and a beautiful voice. Something as poignant as Sandy Denny, say, from Fairport Convention. In Dean Moss he saw an East End boy, the other end of the social scale, an R&B, pub rock background kind of musician. In Jasper de Zoet, he saw a songwriter, vocalist — if you could somehow cross Nick Drake with Jimi Hendrix with a big generous dollop of Syd Barrett. Jasper has an interesting relationship with reality, and this certainly colors his songwriting. Griff, Griff Griffin. He's from Yorkshire, so he's not really on the class system. He's maybe like Ginger Baker from Cream, he's a virtuoso drummer with a jazz background. And the four of them, Levon the Canadian decided if he could get them to say yes, then he could curate them into a singular band, the likes of which the Soho London scene had never seen before.

On Jasper de Zoet's troubles

Novels need a variety of tones and shades and colors. And if it's all bright, then you don't have a novel.

He is either schizophrenic or he has inherited some kind of sentient curse from his, well, great-great-great-great grandfather. And both explanations are possible. I think of it as a kind of toggle switch. It's very dark, but he needs to work through that darkness and come out the other side. Novels need a variety of tones and shades and colors. And if it's all bright, then you don't have a novel.

On how the flower children became Boomers

I'm not sure if a 52-year-old is the right person to ask! Part of the answer might be, through their own good fortune. Whether it's good fortune for the rest of society, or good fortune for the planet, or good fortune for governance is a much, much broader question. But if life becomes comfortable, then some of the urgency falls away. You're lucky if it becomes comfortable, it doesn't become comfortable for a lot of people.

It reminds me of an interview I saw recently with a young artist, who was asked, "When did you start painting?" And she says, "I'm always asked that. When do you start painting? My answer is always the same. When did you stop?" So the answer's in there, isn't it? Too many of us stop painting.

This story was edited for radio by Ed McNulty and Danny Hensel, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.