Still flying high..The McCully Workshop Story
The McCullagh brothers, Tully (born Terence on 31st May 1953) and Mike (born Michael on 7th April 1947), have been an integral part of the South African music scene for five decades now. In 1965 they started as a folk-rock trio with Richard Hyam and called themselves the Blue Three. Richard had been in a folk duo, Tiny Folk, with his sister Melanie. After a few personnel and name changes, like The Blue Beats and Larfing Stocke, the line-up settled down (for a while) in 1969.
“I had my own studio in the garage since I was 12” remembers Tully. It was a single garage in the garden of their home in Plumstead, in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town. The brothers' father, radio personality Michael Drin (his stage name), painted the name “McCully Workshop, Inc.” on the garage wall. “McCully” was an easier-to-spell version of McCullagh and the “Inc.” was a tongue-in-cheek addition. “We had been playing music for 6 years” remembers Mike McCullagh. “In 1969 I was 22 and Tully was 16, along with Richard Hyam, his sister Melanie and Allan Faull the group started.” “We all wrote our own songs”, continues Mike, “and we just took the best ones for the album. Tully wrote 'Why Can't It Rain' in the middle of the night and this became a hit single putting McCully Workshop on the charts for the first time.” This song went to number 12 on the Springbok Radio charts in July 1970 and also reached number 13 on the LM Radio charts.“Why Can't It Rain” drew the attention of the Gallo label, and they said they wanted an album. McCully Workshop signed probably the first independent licensing deal with a major label in South Africa.
The “Inc.” album shows a variety of styles and influences including The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd. “'Sgt Pepper' was very important, as were the pop charts at the time”, recalls Tully.Another big influence, according to Tully, was The Moody Blues 'Threshold Of A Dream' which was released in April 1969. Echoes of Graeme Edge's poems can be heard in Mike McCully's spoken words during the moon landing-inspired 'Head For The Moon'. A photo of the garage was used as the album cover. The photo was taken by Sigurd Olivier from the Argus newspaper and the cat's name was Sirikit.
The follow-up to 'Inc' was the album 'Genesis' recorded in early 1971 and released in June of that year by Trutone Records with catalogue number STO 745. After the 'Inc' album there was a deliberate move to do something different and progressive. “'Genesis' wasn't really a concept album based on the Bible,” says Tully, “but more about looking back and learning from old wisdom”. Tully speaks of “…dream stories, about waking up with ideas, the words and music together, real stream of consciousness stuff.” “It was more about the feel than the actual words,” Tully explains. The core of Mike McCully (drums), Tully McCully (vocals, bass) and Ian Smith (brass and flute) from the 'Inc' album was now enhanced by the Hendrix-influenced guitarist Bruce Gordon. The contemporary musical vibe at the time of the album's recording was very brass influenced with bands like Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Traffic pushing the boundaries of Jazz and Rock.
McCully Workshop spent the next three to four years changing line-ups and playing countless live gigs. They moved away from the brassy sound of the 'Genesis' album and replaced it with a more keyboard dominated line up and returned to the studio to lay down tracks for a new album. The `Workshop` hunkered down in Advision Studios in Long Street, Cape Town with Tully as engineer and producer. 'Ages' was recorded using a Studer 1 inch 4 track recorder.
“'Ages' is a sort-of concept album”, remembers Mike McCully. In the early 70's, the promise made by the improvisational bands in the late 60's, like Cream, Iron Butterfly, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and many others, had started to bear fruit. It was a time of rock music becoming really heavy and progressive, but also a time of the Singer-Songwriters genre and Folk Rock. Medieval themes, Lord Of The Rings and 'Dungeons and Dragons' styles were the also the order of the day. Mike says that when McCully Workshop used to perform live around that time, the set list would include their arrangements of classical pieces like Bach's 'Toccata in D Minor', Grieg's 'Hall Of The Mountain King' and Strauss' 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' (better known as the theme to '2001: A Space Odyssey)' alongside 'Every Little Thing' by The Beatles and 'The Man From Afghanistan' by Curtiss Maldoon. Quite an eclectic mix.
When asked about his favourite song on the 'Ages' album, Mike McCully says without hesitation: 'I Walked Alone'. “This song had very difficult drumming, and I was influenced by Jim Keltner at the time. And the drumming on 'Guinevere' features double-tracked triplets”, continues Mike, “and live I used to play this with four sticks (a la John Bonham) for audio and visual effect.” The album opener, 'Avenue' is a bass-driven rock track, which echoes 'Salisbury'-era Uriah Heep, whilst 'Carbon Canyon' is an up tempo Steve Miller Band influenced blues boogie with rollicking piano and cool guitar licks from Richard Black who brought his impressive rock credentials into McCully Workshop as a replacement to Bruce Gordon. Black also brought his flute-playing skills to the 'Ages' album, and the flute adds an extra dimension to the Focus-inspired instrumental 'Shingles'. 'Step On Easy' is influenced by Country Folk Rock, and would not have been out of place on a Stealers Wheel album. 'Blues In C minor' was recorded live at the Students Union Hall at the University Of Cape Town. It is a tongue-in-cheek improvisational live blues jam with Tully trying out his best Louis Armstrong impersonation. “It was a spoof song”, says Tully, “I would make up different lyrics every time I sang it”. Leon Morton's organ-playing shines on this song.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer were a big influence on the recording sessions. Keyboardist Leon Morton loved Keith Emerson, Mike McCully rated Carl Palmer as a top drummer, and Tully McCully is a singing bassist, just like Greg Lake. Leon Morton used an Elka Rhapsody string synthesizer (also used by artists like Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream) extensively on the 'Ages' album, and the epic chords on 'The Plague' are thanks to this instrument.
Richard Wilson's violin playing can be heard on a number of tracks on 'Ages' including a few of his own compositions. '1623' and 'Shingles' are among Tully's favourite songs on the album .'Great medieval sounds, mixed in with Irish jigs”, says Tully. “They were very much in the style of 70's prog-rock band East Of Eden`s surprise hit single,. 'Jig-A-Jig' ,we even used to play that song at our live performances”. Richard Wilson was also a classically-trained pianist and his playing can be heard prominently on 'Guinevere'. This song is a powerful prog-rock ballad that reached the LM Radio Top Ten. The vocal harmonies of Crocodile Harris can be heard on this track and it was performed live during the early days of South African TV.
McCully Workshop always prided themselves on their vocal harmonies, and were influenced by bands such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Yes, The Beach Boys, Uriah Heep, The Moody Blues and The Beatles. “We were always well-rehearsed with our vocal harmonies”, remembers Tully. 'Forgot How To Smile' was penned by Richard Black and Tully wanted to try something different with the vocals, so he put them through a guitar phase pedal! On the subject of strange effects, the echo chamber for this album was the 18 by 12 foot corrugated iron water tank on the roof of the studio building. “We put a speaker on one side, and two mikes on the opposite side to create echo and reverb effects” says Tully. “Then one day a storm came and blew the water tank across the road on top of the building next door!” Unperturbed they strung cables across and continued to use it.
After the release of “Ages” Leon Morton left to pursue a career in banking, and Richard Wilson formed the Wright Brothers with Crocodile Harris who had a hit with Tully's composition 'Silver Bird'. Rupert Mellor joined on keyboards and together with Tully ,Mike and Richard embarked on a string of Top 10 hits with the likes of 'Buccaneer' and “Chinese Junkman”, both of which appear on the “Revisited” album.
40 years after “Inc” the Workshop is still open for business.