This article is from the original Ork Alarm magazine, and is reprinted with kind permission of Steve Davis.
Magma in New-York
Let me tell you the story of Magma's visit to the Newport Festival in New York in 1973 and the signing of the record contract with A&M. In the autumn of 1972, Michel Colombier took his friend Herb Alpert (the "A" in A&M) to a concert by Magma. Alpert was so impressed by the group's music that in the following, months he made enquiries to me about the possibility of a deal to release Magma's music in America. In the course of six months negotiations with A&M and our French label, Philips, we were able to arrange to sign a worldwide contract with A&M. A truly historic contract for any group, let alone a French artist: the production over five years of ten albums (two per year), royalties of 12%, and an investment in advances and promotion of $1,000,000. You must understand, from such an investment, that A&M believed intensely in the future of Magma and their music. For my part, I had been dealing with record companies for 20 years and I had never encountered people with the open minds, the artistic and commercial intelligence and the plain honesty of the A&M folks.
The contract was signed in June. One month later the Newport Festival would start in New York, organised by George Wien. At the Chateauvallon Festival in France in 1972, he had heard talk of Magma and we had been highly recommended to him by his European correspondent, Simone Ginibre. Immediately, A&M suggested a visit to New York to allow us all to meet their team, and some journalists, and to have the opportunity to make a small start, because the USA is such an immense country that you have to begin somewhere! Now, that year, encouraged by the success of the "Newport" the year before, and a little optimistically, George Wien had organised a lot of concerts, all over the city: enormous stadiums like Shea or tile Nassau Coliseum (20,000 seats) and halls like the Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic Hall (between 1,800 and 2,500 seats), as well as a multitude of other places.
First of all, Wien proposed to us that we should be the opening act, with Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway, but on one condition: our set should not last more than twenty minutes, because the show had to finish on time to avoid trouble with the unions, etc. But Magma played concerts which lasted a minimum of two to three hours, and twenty minutes was just too short, just enough for half of 'Mekanïk Kommandöh'. Finally, after some discussion and a visit to New York, and knowing that we would not be able to play under our normal conditions, we were obliged to accept the concert on the 7th of July at the Philharmonic Hall with Doug Kershaw (traditional jazz with banjo), Roy Ayers (jazz-soul with vibraphone), and Aïrto Moreira (the celebrated percussionist with Miles Davis, the big star of the evening). It was obvious that the audience was not into the avant-garde (like that of Mahavishnu, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and others), but it was that or nothing. All the same, we had permission to play for fifty minutes. As we were the illustrious unknowns, our fee from George Wien was not enough to cover transport and lodging, so A&M took over all the costs.
Magma arrived in New York on the 1st of July after an epic voyage lasting 48 hours. During the next five days, there were rehearsals with some very good horn players from New York (among them Randy Brecker, the young trumpeter with Horace Silver) and the preparations for the concert; the choice of material, the sound equipment etc.
Saturday 7th July. There were five hundred people in the hall, known for its disastrous acoustics for groups. Among them were Herb Alpert, Jerry Moss (the "M" in A&M), all their team, and some journalists. We were scheduled as the second act, and we distributed five hundred programmes, which gave a short explanation of our music. Magma played for an hour and a half. As always 'Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh' disconcerted some of the audience, notably those who had come to see Doug Kershaw, without doubt they expected to hear something else, and had come along half-cut, as is the custom at festivals. A few days later, when we went to the Village Vanguard club to listen to Elvin Jones, a dozen students recognised Christian and the others and expressed their satisfaction at seeing a European group produce an original and intelligent music, a rare thing. Above all, we were left with the impression that rock & roll, while still very powerful, was in a state of crisis. The work of people like McLaughlin had started to make a profound mark on the young, but the music of Magma was without doubt an evolution in taste away from the reality of American music.
We had another confirmation of this at the reception that A&M organised for the press on the 10th July at the Hippopotamus club, New York, where we were able to play for a little longer. The journalist's reactions and those of the people in the music business, were extremely positive. Gil Evans, the highly respected arranger and composer, congratulated us. He had been at the concert. The minds of the media were more open to innovation in the States than in France. Our next album 'Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh' was released in America on the 24th August 1973, followed a little later by a simultaneous worldwide distribution.