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National Health

I was a bit shocked, though not at all surprised, to hear Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has hired former M&S chief executive Stuart Rose to help fix the NHS. As an employee of the NHS with a continuous 33 year service I’ve seen a succession of changes that proponents and their sponsors have believed would put an end to the endless money-swallowing hole that is the UK National Health Service. Idiots like Hunt, and there have been quite a few before him of a variety of political persuasions, fail to grasp the meaning of the word ‘Service’. With an ageing population and an advancing understanding of the mechanisms behind disease processes, you have to throw money at the NHS if you want it to be a success. I guess that’s the nub. Hunt has not wavered from the course of his predecessor, Andrew Lansley, the architect of a master plan to open up the NHS to competition which enables giant American healthcare firms to come in and cherry-pick profitable services. There is in fact an unhealthy relationship between (mostly, but far from exclusively Conservative) politicians and private healthcare firms. There’s no evidence that either competition or privatisation benefits the health of a nation; the opposite is true. Cooperation and joined-up services are of most benefit to the patient and actually save money. Competition drives down standards and breaks the established links between steps on the patient pathway, adversely affecting patient care and actually costs the service more because of inherent inefficiencies in the fractured model. The inequality of healthcare provision in the US is quite stark but Barak Obama’s attempt to redress that inequality has been hounded by vested interests. These are the same vested interests that now hover over the NHS; healthcare for profit and health for the wealthy. A rump NHS with limited resources would be required to act as a safety net for those unable to afford health insurance, creating a two-tier health service.

The attack on the NHS has been on a number of fronts. How many NHS workers do you know joined the NHS for the money? Following government imposed austerity, NHS workers have not only had to endure a pay freeze, we’ve also had our pension pot plundered while the bankers who created the global financial meltdown are rewarded with a tax cut! It’s a lie to say that NHS staff have ‘gold-plated pensions’. The majority of NHS staff are not well paid and our pension is deferred salary. We’re going to end up paying more for our pensions, working longer and getting less money when we do retire. It’s also a lie to say that NHS pensions are unaffordable but the true rationale behind these pension changes is to make the NHS more attractive to predatory private companies.

Those with a knowledge and understanding of the history of the Canterbury scene should feel free to look away now. I hadn’t started my NHS career when the band National Health was formed, being still at school. National Health was born in 1975 after the demise of Hatfield and the North and Gilgamesh and the original line-up comprised two keyboard players, Dave Stewart and Alan Gowen; two guitarists, Phil Miller and Phil Lee; Mont Campbell on bass and Pip Pyle on drums. This doubling-up of roles stems from ‘double quartet’ shows by Gilgamesh and Hatfield and the North where they played special arrangements of material written by Alan Gowen. On a recent listen to the second album, Of Queues and Cures, it struck me that the sound was more like Egg than Hatfield and the North, even though Mont Campbell never appeared on any of their studio albums, departing in 1976, a year before recording the eponymous debut album. There’s a credit to Mont Campbell on the first album for his ‘Agrippa and Zabaglione bits’, two tracks that had been played by the formative band and the first gigging incarnation that appear in full on the Missing Pieces CD. I’d been a (fairly) early convert to the music of Egg because their 1974 album The Civil Surface, recorded two years after their official disbandment, was released on Caroline Records - a subsidiary of Virgin Records where Dave Stewart and the Hatfields were at the time contracted - at a reduced price. I subsequently sold this to a friend who at the time was collecting all music related to his hero, Bill Bruford. I just needed the cash. I eventually found a replacement on CD in Berlin in 2006 at a fraction of the cost of an ‘extremely rare’ second hand CD copy in Beanos selling for £30.

My copy of National Health is a cut-out on Visa Records, possibly bought from Virgin Records in central London in the early 80s. This features a subtly changed line-up from the band that first rehearsed together in 1975; Mont Campbell had already gone and was replaced by Neil Murray, who had been in Gilgamesh. By the time the album was released, Alan Gowen had left and though he wrote or co-wrote half the material, he only appears as a guest musician in the credits. The instrumentation on this album is pretty special with the pairing of Gowen and Stewart allowing for some fantastic music. The compositions are clever and the playing, by the whole band and guests, is exemplary.

That the band should have emerged in the middle of the punk epidemic was something of a misfortune and though National Health music wasn’t straightforward prog (though I’d certainly class it as on the prog side of jazz rock) there was enough prog baggage to hamper a smooth and successful musical livelihood; they may have been far too clever for their own good, despite the healthy dose of humour that went into the music. Of Queues and Cures continued very much in the same vein as their debut but now Neil Murray was replaced by ex-Henry Cow man John Greaves and Alan Gowen wasn’t represented at all. The politically left-leaning guest list expanded, however, with Georgie Born adding cello and Peter Blegvad adding voice. Composition credits were much more shared on this album and on Phil Miller’s track Dreams Wide Awake, Dave Stewart was asked to ‘go a bit mad’ on the opening organ solo. I get the feeling that this moment of wild abandon had more of an effect on Stewart than he might like to admit. Despite a fair portion of improvisation on live material with Hatfield and the North, Stewart liked to keep things very much under control when in the studio and he left what was in effect his own band, allegedly named after his NHS spectacles, in early 1979 because of his perception that the group was heading in a more improvisational direction. My vinyl copy (on Charly records) was procured from the Oxford Street branch of Virgin records sometime in the early 80s.

Following the death of Alan Gowen from leukaemia in 1981 the band got together to commit some of the Gowen-penned material to disc for release in 1982 as D.S. al Coda. This album is much more concise than the earlier compositions and had a very contemporary feel because of the use of Simmons DSV electronic drums. It’s still clever and I really enjoy listening to it – it used to be the cassette of choice on my drive to Brunel University, which means that I bought the album (on Lounging Records from Our Price in Charing Cross Road) in the early 90s. This was something of a find, I couldn’t believe I was holding another National Health album in my hands.

It was the collaboration that made National Health a great band. The characters involved were all dedicated and intent on creating something worthwhile. My NHS holds to those principles.

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