Found soundtracks: Once Around the Sun

By Daniel Spicer

Once Around the Sun, just released on vinyl for the first time, is an artifact of a lost moment in time. Rescued from obscurity forty years after its creation, the album is a tantalising relic of the global counterculture of the late-1960s and early 70s, and a unique record of Australia’s part in it.

More specifically, it’s the soundtrack to a film of the same name that remains unseen and unfinished, a quixotic project that was intended to document Australia’s first ever open-air rock music festival at Ourimbah in New South Wales. This ‘Pilgrimage of Pop’ took place in January 1970, attracting more than ten thousand Australian hippies to what was essentially conceived as Woodstock Down Under. Now largely forgotten, Ourimbah festival was the Australian counterculture’s finest hour: a bucolic utopia throbbing to the sounds of homegrown jazz, rock, R&B, blues and soul. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were rumoured to make an appearance but, in the event, settled for sending a telegram, announcing helpfully ‘WAR IS OVER IF YOU WANT IT.’ The BBC World Service tutted that longhaired youngsters “openly smoked marijuana at a rock festival on a farm near Sydney.” In other words, it was an unqualified success.

Gordon Mutch, a sculptor, experimental filmmaker and ace-face of the Sydney underground was given the task of filming the festival. His plan was to document not just the musical performances but also the alternative lifestyles of the counterculture, which, even by this relatively late, post-Altamont point in history, still seemed to offer a viable route out of mainstream society. Mutch wanted to capture this blooming youth culture in all its earnest glory. But it was not to be. When a financial backer for the film couldn’t be found, the whole project was dropped before editing had been completed. Once Around the Sun sunk without a trace.

That is, until now. Four decades on, staff at Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive discovered the lost footage and audio recordings from the festival, along with the mysterious, forgotten score now being released as the LP Once Around the Sun (Roundtable Records): not the live performances from that weekend in 1970, but rather a suite of original instrumental compositions by Australian jazz composer and arranger, John Sangster, intended to provide the incidental soundtrack as well as the music for the opening and closing credits.

Back cover of Once Around the Sun

On the face of it, Sangster might have seemed a strange choice to provide a soundtrack for this Age of Aquarius project – a straight-ahead jazzer from an older generation (born in 1928) who had collaborated with impossibly square trad jazz stars such as Humphrey Lyttleton. But, as it turned out, Sangster was hipper than he seemed. In the mid-60s he’d been turned on by the sounds of the New Thing emanating from New York – the free-jazz of Sun Ra and Archie Shepp – and, in 1969 he had begun to work with rock musicians, and even went to so far as to join the expanded line-up of the Aussie Progressive Rock group Tully, who provided the musical backing to the original Australian production of the controversial rock musical Hair. Given the spirit of the times, it’s not hard to imagine Sangster being belatedly psychedelicised by the younger crowd he was associating with. It would certainly explain why, with Once Around the Sun, he created one of the most genuinely strange soundtracks ever committed to wax.

Once Around the Sun is an ambitious, loosely strung-together concept album that draws on cosmological and spiritual themes in a grand sweep of vague hippie profundity. The opening piece, 'The New Universe Begins', acts as a statement of intent, beginning with huge, portentous fanfares clearly echoing the juddering cosmic significance of 'Thus Spake Zarathustra' so strikingly used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a couple of years earlier in 1968. From there, in just eight minutes, it weaves through tense rumblings not unlike the dark interstellar vistas of Sun Ra’s 1965 avant-Big Band classic, Heliocentric Worlds; then into chugging horn-heavy jazz-rock; and finally a noir-ish, jazz plod – all done with the bold, genre-busting audacity of jazz conceptualist George Russell’s epic suite Electric Sonata for Souls Loved By Nature.

Elsewhere, the album delves into pastoral folk, with sunburst acoustic guitars and flutes, as well as raga-ish sitar interludes and funky acid-rock-with horns. Clearly, Sangster was attempting to capture the zeitgeist, to mirror the sounds then in vogue with the Love Generation but, somehow, these elements never quite convince, coming across as manufactured approximations – the kind of camp-kitsch ‘youth music by numbers’ that can also be heard on Jean Claude Vannier’s comparably skewed 1972 concept album L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches. But its most serious and exploratory segments are utterly gripping collisions of avant-garde classical and large-scale free jazz, like a collaboration between Sun Ra and Ligeti. In these moments, Once Around the Sun remains light-years further out than anything that was performed at Ourimbah all those years ago.

Audio extracts from Once Around the Sun can be found here.

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