The Great Unknown Ollie Halsall


“Ollie may not have been the best guitarist in the world, but he was certainly among the top two.”

John Halsey, 1997 (Drummer for Patto)

Ollie Halsall 1974

Ollie Halsall 1974

“Allan [Holdsworth] was very meticulous, very clear. He had a vision about what he was trying to do. Ollie was a lunatic, a chameleon, again: in any circumstance he’d find a way to make it work. Interesting guy! I liked Ollie a lot.

“I never heard him in PATTO, no. He just came recommended to me, and when we played we hit it off, I thought he was great. When we were a trio, we did some fantastic gigs – Mark Clarke, Ollie and me.

Jon Hiseman 2004, Drummer, founder of Tempest

I had been planning a Patto post for some time when a few days ago I stumbled upon Tempest, another top-flight band that managed to stay off my radar an unusually long time. This is especially surprising given my fondness for Patto and my long familiarity with Ollie’s work in Kevin Ayers band. The little I’d read didn’t prepare me for Living In Fear, The second album by Tempest, released in 1974.
He was a replacement for Allan Holdsworth, and the album generated even less interest than the first one so it seemed like an insignificant side project. As it turns out Ollie was the principal songwriter and singer, as well as keyboardist, playing synthesizer for the first and last time. Usually everyone focuses on his playing, but his gifts as a singer and songwriter are considerable, Living In Fear sounds a lot like a less jazzy Patto album, with Ollie’s voice and phrasing quite reminiscent of Mike Patto’s.
It is also forward looking as the cover of The Beatles “Paperback Writer” is revved up in a way prototypical of punk rock almost four years later.

Oliie, John Hiseman, And Mark Clarke

Oliie, John Hiseman, And Mark Clarke

“When I joined Tempest, I was surprised by the amount of Heavy Metal material that they were doing”, he rationalised to Melody Maker in July. “I was very surprised, because I thought they were going to be into something very different from that, because I was writing the material.
“I wanted them to do more songs, but I don’t think they really wanted to be drawn in that direction. I was always more Interested in singling and songs and writing than Instrumental things, but Jon Hiseman always wanted an instrumental-based band.”
-Ollie Halsall

“Given that late-period Tempest was essentially Halsall – chief singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, synth-player – plus a rhythm section. Ollie’s comments on the band’s musical direction might well be considered a trifle disingenuous. Be that as It may, his departure sounded the death-knell for Tempest.”

-David Wells-May 2005-from The Ollie Halsall Archives

Peter John ‘Ollie’ Halsall (14 March 1949 – 29 May 1992) was a left-handed guitarist and is best known for his role in The Rutles, the bands Patto, Timebox and Boxer, and for his contribution to the music of Kevin Ayers. He is also notable as one of the few players of the vibraphone in rock music. He was known as Ollie because of his distinctive way of pronouncing his surname with a dropped ‘h’. The Ollie Halsall Archive was established in 1985, with the aim of documenting and promoting the work of a unique musician.

Halsall came to London in 1967 to play vibraphone with the pop rock outfit Timebox (which included bassist Clive Griffiths and keyboardist ‘Professor’ Chris Holmes. Halsall took up guitar, they enlisted Mike Patto on vocals and drummer ‘Admiral’ John Halsey.

It has been suggested that the electric guitar parts played in Donovan’s psychedelic 1968 single “The Hurdy Gurdy Man” were played by Halsall.

In 1970, following the departure of Holmes, Timebox evolved into the band Patto. They played a unique blend of progressive Jazz rock featuring Halsall’s guitar work, which developed legendary status.

In 1973, Halsall left to join Jon Hiseman’s Tempest. After less than a year, he quit and did numerous sessions including a track for Kevin Ayers which this led to a permanent position in Ayers’ band The Soporifics.

In 1975, Patto staged a brief reunion comprising just three benefit gigs. The reuniting of Halsall and Patto sparked the formation of Boxer during 1975. Boxer never reached its true potential, as Mike Patto died in 1979 during the mid term of their contractual obligations to the Virgin record label and are best remembered for their debut album Below The Belt and its controversial sleeve design.

Probably the best known recording of Halsall is his work on the album The Rutles (1978), on which he plays many of the instruments and provides backing and lead vocals, most notably on the tracks “Doubleback Alley”, “With a Girl Like You” and “Get Up and Go”. Eric Idle was cast in his place in the accompanying film and Halsall only featured as a very minor cameo role as Leppo, the fifth Rutle who became lost in Hamburg.

During 1976 Halsall had rejoined Ayers with whom he stayed for the next sixteen years. In 1989, he replaced ill Enrique Sierra of Radio Futura, a Spanish rock band.

A finished solo album remains unreleased – produced by Robert Fripp.

Halsall died from a heroin overdose in 1992.

Whilst working with Radio Futura, Ollie volunteered to chaperone one of the band who had become hooked on heroin. Although a drinker, Ollie had emerged relatively unscathed from his rock career. so it came as a complete shock when he died of an overdose in 1992, having spent all his considerable earnings on heroin.

He had been hooked on it by the very musician he was trying to protect, who had insisted that, whilst a more expensive pastime, there was no danger if you smoked instead of injecting.

On the night of 29 May 1992, in the flat he shared at 13 Calle de la Amargura (‘Bitterness Street’), Madrid, desperation drove Ollie to try the cheaper way. He misjudged the quantity and was found dead the next morning.

The Musicians’ Union paid the expenses and his girlfriend, singer Claudia Pujol, brought his ashes back to be scattered on the beach at Cala DeiĆ .

Sittin’ Back Easy
Living In Fear
Paperback Writer
Yeah Yeah Yeah
Waiting For A Miracle
Dance To My Tune

14 thoughts on “The Great Unknown Ollie Halsall

  1. I only know of Ollie through the Ayers funnel. This music reminds me of so much innocuous prog that I’ve heard and collected over the years. Barclay James Harvest, Caravan, Soft Machine and the rest. I really don’t see how anyone, who didn’t musically “grow up” in the 1970’s, could find the time or taste for this music at this juncture. I hope I’m wrong but these times lack all of the “stop and smell the roses” mood of this music and this type of artist. I think it’s great but I’m kind of old. Yeah, old. I just got done listening to “I against I”. I’m sure you remember KNAC radio…they played this kind of PROGGY stuff here in nearby Long Beach all the time when everyone else on radio ignored anything imported. I feel lucky to have heard all of this kind of shit when I was a wee and impressionable lad. This stuff remains a kind of a melding of technocratic musical skills and a seemingly punk DIY way of construction and playfulness. Not much playing by the rules here. Am I making any sense? Have you heard the new Beyonce’?

  2. Pingback: Down Town Evasion » Blog Archive » Quick Roundup

  3. I’ve been trying for days to figure out how to say in two sentences something that sums up the overall quality of ’70’s music compared to now. Then I heard that Steve Miller song, “Time Keeps On Slippin’, Into The Future”, which really blows, two days in a row this week, on Classic Rock Radio, and I realized something I still can’t quite put into words, know what I mean?

  4. I guess also that I wish I’d listened to Ollie in Patto and Tempest instead of “E Pluribus Funk”, Steve Miller, The Guess Who, Edgar Winter’s White Trash, Ted Nugent, The Tubes, Steeleye Span, Electric Light Orchestra, and many others.

  5. Oh yeah, that guy must have had great taste. Check out that HIWATT amp right behind him! Just like the one I posted on my website.
    I’m pretty sure his HIWATT is the ultra rare Left-Handed model though.

  6. Hmm, I don’t like the way this thread is going, with veiled bashing of Steve Miller, who is one of the great fatboy guitarists of all time, alongside Leslie West and Randy Bachman (who is in a category all his own, as great Canadian fatboy guitarists who are also Mormons) You try eating buttered popcorn and playing guitar at the same time. It ain’t easy…

  7. It was either Ayers or Robert Wyatt who christened him Ollie Haircut, but I don’t remember which…

  8. The first time you saw Ollie play live was really an eye-opener. You’d go wide-eyed, your jaw would drop, you might shake your head. You’d turn to the person standing next to you and say ‘Did I just see that?’, probably just as he or she asks you the very same question. The name of the great god of plank-spankers, Kinnel, is often invoked, as you realise you’ve just witnessed something very very special. I just feel lucky to have seen him play.

  9. In my very humble opinion, Ollie Halsall was the GREATEST GUITARIST EVER !

    I was lucky enough to hear him play with Patto a few times and was just blown away by his guitar ability.
    It is a great shame that he did not find the right vehicle to display his fantastic talent and show the world just how good he was.
    I am a guitar fan and know well all the supposed ‘great guitarists’ but Ollie Halsall was truly in a class of his own. The others do not even come close to his astonishing guitar skills.
    R.I.P. the greatest – Ollie Halsall.

  10. Seeing Ollie with Patto must have been something. So sad his best known work is as a Rutle.

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