Graham Hartill and Chris Vine: Bronze Age Disco: the music of Heat Poets

Chris Torrance and Chris Vine at Chapter Arts Centre
Photograph by Dan Hartill

When you listen to Heat Poets, there’s likely to be a surprise in store. What is this? We might be bringing certain expectations: ‘poetry and music’; ‘poetry and jazz’: what might these terms connote? The music as backing track, a kind of easy-listening, subliminal even, an evocation of ‘mood’, conditioning our response? Expect a folky guitar then, or ripplingly trite piano, for ‘atmosphere’.  Or perhaps a certain context: we’ve heard that Torrance grew up with a love of be-bop, we know he admired Kerouac and Parker: expect nostalgia then, for the heady myth of beatnikdom, which was, after all, getting on for seventy-five years ago, and Torrance cut his teeth on them. But when we read his (CT’s) own article in Junction Box 4 we’ll pick up on a different kind of energy, one of excitement: the poet is quite amazed as he might be at this new collaboration, live and in recording.

Rediscovering CT’s article saved me work in explaining a lot of background and, beautifully, serves to bring his voice to the mic with all its distinctive life and enthusiasm (it’s great to have you with us Chris), allowing me to think more about my own appreciation of this work and explore some relevant matters with the other half of Heat Poets, musician and artist Chris Vine (CV) in zoom chats all the way from politically scary Brazil. CV and I go way back to school days and have done our own share of performative mucking about over time, so I think I know where he’s coming from: it’s a pleasure hearing his memories and thoughts about this remarkable collaboration.

CT in a letter (undated), post Melville Theatre (Abergavenny, 2012) gig:

It’s so hard to be specific about what is actually happening when Chris and I do our show. Rehearsal is useful, but on the night there will be departures & we just have to keep going. Like you’re on the motorway w. the gauge lighting up amber & you are 34 miles from the next gas-up station….all kinds of ideas well up subsequent to the gigs, haven’t I had enough of this hard work (rehearsals etc)? But up there – it’s pure process, & fascinating, that third or pineal mind holding the general shape….it was at the Melville that I heard Chris most clearly & felt so in the cosmic stream on FRINITE….

 Yes, Frinite – a rocker, deepened by groove. CV says he likes ‘a good groove’, which is not a word you readily associate with more cerebral modernism, or open field poetics, or with free improvisation in music: all core influences on both participants. Yes, we could be surprised – if we love CT for his hermeticism, his country life, his devotion; if we think of him as a beatnik, or a hippy – to hear that he had a strenuous go at integrating hip hop and rap in his work. I remember thinking, when I first heard him perform Frinite acappella: No, no, no! You’re past this mate, this isn’t for you: your best, your most authentic stuff, is pastoral lyric: you’re no longer young….But then, as anybody who knew Chris will testify, he was, given his relatively isolated rural way of life, one of the most well informed and connected people you’re likely to meet. I think he recognised in the performative emphases of so much poetry today, growing from slam, say, and hip hop – you know, that stuff that young people do – the most ancient sources of poesis – the rhythmic spoken word as chant and power. It also makes me chuckle that the ecstasies of works such as Angel Busted, Scratch the Prophecies and Frinite,were cooked up not in the fleshpots of Cleveland or Cardiff so much as in his dimly-lit Vale of Mercury cottage on a Friday night in the company of Radio 1’s Pete Tong et al, and a ‘sebsi’ or two.  He knew where the rhythm was at!

So yes, re Frinite: sceptical at first. But that was before I heard the Heat Poets version.


I ring Chris V in Brazil. He says, “It started in Windsor Esplanade in 1985.” Windsor Esplanade was where I had lived myself for about five years, a highly atmospheric site of old sea captains’ houses (we romantically imagined) at the edge of the Severn estuary in deepest Cardiff’s Butetown. Quiet. The sunset over the marshes out of our bedroom windows. Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Beefheart and, just a quarter of a mile behind us, the Casablanca Club, and the famous Ship & Pilot pub with their wonderful, notorious weekends. I’d moved out to China and CV had moved in from Washington D.C. This is how he presents his musical background on Soundcloud:

Official Type Bio: Began playing improvised music in the 1970’s as part of the UK free improvisation movement and was associated with the downtown music scenes of New York and Washington D.C. in the early 1980’s, working with composers such as multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp, drummer Bobby Previte and composer Bob Boilen. Formed the Heat Poets in partnership with open field poet Chris Torrance in 1985. Guitarist with Ted Milton’s cult punk jazz group Blurt throughout the 1990’s. Worked in Welsh Experimental Theatre as sound designer and composer with companies such as The Centre for Performance Research, The National Theatre For Wales and Earthfall. Currently based in Brazil, working in collaboration with Verve Companhia de Dança.

User friendly info: guitarist who likes electronics, african, lots of stuff – and anything with a good groove.

More recently, he formed the Ambient Improvisation duo Barsa and Briggy with Brazilian percussionist Wesley Ribeiro in 2010 and is currently a member of the Ethernet Orchestra, a global group of improvisers who perform in real time via internet, with members in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Canada, Iran, Norway, UK and China playing both traditional acoustic and modern electronic instruments.

Okay, back to ’85. The stage is set:

CV: “I recall asking him (CT) if he was interested in getting together and doing something, having seen him do a reading in the downstairs bar in Chapter. I also invited Roy Ashbury (the improvising percussionist). We were in the attic room and the very first session we went straight into recording, Angel Busted and some other pieces. Roy brought a lot of stuff with his drums, like chains, pots and pans, bits of metal and we just went for it! It was all done on my little 4-track – I overdubbed a fourth track later, with some guitar and bass. Then we did a gig at what was then Treforest Polytechnic. We rented a van and drove up there; that was a whole trip for T and elements of that trip found their way into other pieces of his.

I think the next gig was a year later in Oriel bookshop and that was with Roy as well. Peter Finch invited us to play there and then Oriel was going to shut down and become a government bookshop and a lady (sorry, I can’t recall her name) wanted to put Chris on, believing that this is the kind of thing the Arts Council should be supporting. There were other gigs over the years, very sporadic. We did a show in ’87 as a four-piece with Spike Reptile (Bomb and Dagger/Weekend) on guitar and Nic Murcott (Blurt/High Llamas) on drums. This was at the Mont Morence club on Charles Street in a residency organised by Cardiff DJ and promoter Mark Taylor. This was Heat Poets as a full rock band. CT was ecstatic about that gig, a new experience for him.

Apart from one, every recording was made in his cottage. Travelling wasn’t something that he (CT)  really did that much!  I specifically remember recording Frinite – I fed him this drum beat and I was putting reverb on his voice and I remember it was all done in one take, like most of them. It was such an intense session! (laughs). When it stopped I remember him having to take a deep breath….Whooosh!….like that was something, you know? Most of the time he was just slow and methodical but this was full on.

Once we got into the new millennium, digital editing made post-production more accessible. I was able to move his phrases around very slightly, if necessary. He had an odd sense of rhythm and I didn’t mess with it too much. Sometimes he would record without any kind of accompaniment and other times I would feed him some kind of groove or a guitar part or something. We only occasionally recorded when I was playing at the same time – that would have been too much like a jam session. I needed a clean recording of his voice for post-production purposes.”

Me: “It’s surprising, because it really does sound like you were playing together and, of course, when you did the live gigs you were, weren’t you.”

CV: “We planned them out. The last gigs were planned and well rehearsed. On the three CDs I think of as a trilogy – that’s Frinite, RORI and The Book of Number, I often thought of the music as a soundtrack: I would be inspired by the images he was laying down, then I would throw things at the canvas and as soon as something started to stick I would develop it from there. A lot of work went into them – Cindy, for example, took a lot of time to gel: it was a hurricane coming across the Atlantic, a woman, there were sexual connotations – I was thinking, God, how do I make something out of this? But finally I did. I don’t know how it worked out! Definitely, all of RORI was a soundtrack. All the CDs in the trilogy were thematic, whereas The Book of Heat was a big collection from the late 90s and remixes of material from the 80s.

He would change things and he would edit on the fly, and for performance he would actually have typewritten annotated versions of the text specifically for recording, with notes to himself like, ‘put a pause in here, do this, do that’ and so on, and they would be multiple A4 pages, sellotaped together into a longer piece. He made performance versions. Somewhere I think I’ve got the original ‘I See…’ that he gave me.”

“Well, it’s a bit of a jump from bebop – how did he feel about it musically, do you think?”

“Oh fine. Sometimes I would play him some tracks and he would make a choice, then he’d be off and we’d record it. He didn’t like the sound of his recorded voice, like a lot of people, and as he got older he got less comfortable, due to issues with his false teeth or whatever! But in the early days he was more strident: during the Thatcher years there was a lot of anger and a lot of those pieces were to do with his connection to the Welsh valleys and the run-down urban environment, such as ‘Angel Busted’.”

“I know I’m biased but Frinite really rocks.”

“Yes, it’s very good and lot of it was made in a hotel room in Malta when I was stuck there teaching tai chi to 2 people for 2 fucking weeks with nothing else to do and no money! I’d go and have dinner, get a carafe of red wine and take it back to my room! Thank God I had my recording equipment with me and my guitar, so all of the Ten Poems for Jenny and most of the Frinite stuff was done in that room. Then I went back to the UK and was house-sitting your house, Glan Yr Afon (in the Brecon Beacons), and I added keyboard parts there. Luckily I had the time because the amount of work I put into those things was phenomenal! I couldn’t do something I wasn’t 110% pleased with. I feel very good about the work and am glad it stands up and to have had that connection with Chris, really. I could feel him being inspired by the music – responding with his voice….”

Yes, I think, it’s interesting to hear those occasions, never too many, never too intrusive, when CV pauses or makes a little loop or something, and it’s great when you hear CT almost singing a phrase.

In his Junction Box article, CT pays an interesting debt to the poet Jack Spicer:

. . .the poetry is in the music.” (Jack Spicer). When I make the poem, reading it out loud helps me find the time in the poem, the tunes of the poem.

I can’t work with saxophones: their sound is too akin to the human voice. The guitar – the original lyre – is it, to the voice – the most ideal companion along the way.

I don’t sing. I can’t. But I’ll do poetry ’til the end of time. Frequently do. When a poet & a guitarist get together, new energies are released. Chris pulls out fresh stuff every time I go public with him. & I find new twists & turns in the text, pushing my expressive range further out. The jazz musicians bent the rules all to pieces. & reassembled them in challenging new ways.

You grab the spirit of expression, find a few good notes & grooves, & just keep that resonance going. Creating in the moment, for the moment; & stand or fall by that.

And although we’ve talked a lot about pulse and groove, we should remember the slower lyrical stuff: CT’s romance and gentleness is also accommodated by CV’s subtle string playing, as on, well, so much, but let’s say, Catmint, rosemary and silverweed (RORI). Where the first CD sounds rather more like a ‘poetry with music’ live recording, what CV calls the Trilogy is more produced: CT has come to think of CV more like a ‘composer’. In his Junction Box article, CT wrote:

 Where Chris Vine’s sense of time was impeccable & precise, Bob’s style was more impulsive. Chris preferred me to give a relatively straight & level reading of a poem, & let the music do the rest, whereas Bob was always keen that I “go for it.” The more volume & expression I put into my voice, the harder he would play.

 CT’s first taste of live performance with musicians was with an ensemble called ‘Dragon’s Blood’ with Barry Edgar Pilcher, a decade earlier than Heat Poets. Then he teamed up with his friend Bob Middleton. CV says:

“It’s interesting to hear his take on how he interacted with what I was doing because he never really talked about that, and how Bob was like a sparring partner. He saw me as a structuralist in fact rather than an improviser because I was actually composing in tandem with his compositions, certainly in the recorded works. When I was able to edit, digitally I had a lot more power because I was able to create pauses etc. I would still create things as improvisations and then start sculpting them a bit. I still do it today – if there’s an instrumental passage and I think that’s really interesting I can just move the vocals off a bit – I can create a pause – or, say, there’s a pause in the music so I put the voice in there. I started to do that a bit with Torrance. On the last CD I enjoyed processing his voice a bit more as well, touching it up a bit, you know.

Me: “Sometimes there’s a loop, or repetition, or moments where there’s a kind of tactical pause where he holds back, or you’ve caught it so it sounds like he is, if just for a second. This work with you makes you realise how contemporary T’s stuff is: this isn’t the work of someone stuck in his place, or in the past….”

CV: “He’s way beyond that! His work is like a cut diamond – it has these facets, the way the lines connect – one minute he’s a hundred thousand miles into space then he’s looking at a bacteria in his back garden – “the vinegar fly walks the wall of death!” It’s just fantastic stuff. He was totally plugged in. He wasn’t blunted.”

“To me, what you did highlights his contemporaneity. It’s too easy to categorise him with Kerouac and what he got up to with music. And, as you say, the sharpness of the lines is very congruent with the electrical edge of the music.”

CV: “I used to say to him, Chris, you do realise there’s nothing else that sounds like this? Not really. I mean he liked Kae Tempest quite a lot. I like a lot of her stuff myself but the subject matter seems quite limited to me in comparison with Chris. I can’t think of anyone else that sounds like Heat Poets. I always wanted to have my own sound; I didn’t want it to sound like anything else.”

He tells me that sometimes people compare his music to Pink Floyd or Mike Oldfield and I say, well, it’s because they’ve never heard a lot that we take for granted, other sources – Beefheart, Hendrix, free jazz, even Xenakis and the European classical avant garde, etc. They’ve just never heard it. Another  comment, from people who like the music, was that they didn’t get Torrance’s voice. CV would just reply, “Have you listened to the poetry, man?”

“It was an amazing partnership with Chris – for almost 30 years I think it was.”

“Even when you were moving around the world.”

CV “What helped a lot was the technology. In the mid 80’s, the cassette multi-track Portastudio came out which gave mobility. You could take the Portastudio anywhere and it gave you the chance to do overdubbing. I was able to take it, as it changed over the years, to CT’s remote mountain cottage where I could record him where he was most comfortable. He would sit in the Moebius Chair and I would give him the microphone. Being able for him to record in his domain was, I think, important. I’ve picked up on this in the last couple of years doing recordings, playing with people on line – you don’t have the pressure, such as time pressure, and you’re in a creative mode, like in a rehearsal. I often say rehearsals are more fun than performance, because that’s when you’re doing the creating.

T would very very rarely stop a recording and say, no, no, that wasn’t very good. That happened maybe 5 times in 30 years. His sense of focus was unbelievable.”


Well, we could could go on but, in conclusion, let me say I believe that the work with Heatpoets reveals a lot about CT’s work that would otherwise stay hidden. It shows its diamond edge and contemporaneity: all the expected genres are there, the Beats (the name Heat Poets was originally a pun!), bebop, even rap, without the work being at all limited by them: the sound carries by turns both the lyrical accuracy and the dynamic vocal thrust of the Torrance poetics. There are huge swathes of lyrical beauty in this work.

CV asked me to point out that Torrance’s famous Neath Valley landscape was close to his own heart too – it wasn’t just his words, but his place, and of course, the personality, that fired the musical engine.


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the ages of poetic art have split themselves asunder (though perhaps it’s always been that way); I go to readings where the average age of the audience is mine (O God!). I grew up at the tail-end of beat and post-beat UK poetics, a ‘renaissance’ and flowering: McSweeney, Monk, Griffiths et al. and Torrance. And who of my age listens to the likes of George the Poet & Kae Tempest? I imagine a cry of protest and I know I’m simplifying – poetry has always been an overlap of diverse fields, and even of definitions. What is this? But it would be nice if we could come together more: ages, genres, art-forms. Heat Poets draws on the best of a good many worlds while, as CV says, there’s nothing else like it.


There are only two places online to hear the Heat Poets recordings and only one of those to download them.

This is the main one. Name your price/donation (it could be zero) for the 21st century trilogy albums. Downloads can be any format desired: mp3/flac/wav

Book of Heat currently is unavailable, though CV says he intends to upload it to Bandcamp at some point. Bandcamp is really the best option: it looks good, people can listen to the tracks (for 3 times) or download it. Payment is via Paypal which is by far the best way to transfer funds.

The other place to hear the music is on Spotify:

Copies of the RORI CD ( a beautiful edition with lyrics, and artwork by Ian MacDonald) are available from Phil Maillard at Canna Press. Please enquire via Junction Box.


Some further reading:

Hartill, G. Heat Poets launch: RORI – A Book of the Boundaries, Performance at Chapter Arts Centre, 23rd February 2011. Poetry Wales: 47.2. Autumn 2011

Hool, R. Frinite: the Evolution of a Poem. Tears in the Fence: 63. Spring 2006.

Maillard, P. CT & the Beats. Beat Scene: 104. Summer 2022.

Torrance, C. Comet. Junction Box: 4.




With many thanks to Chris Vine & Phil Maillard for their help in proof-reading this article.



Graham Hartill was born in the English Midlands in 1952. As a teenager he was fascinated by innovative music and theatre and staged a few chaotic performances. He moved to Wales, worked with performance and installation and went on to study in the USA. On his return he began to assimilate the influences of American open-field poetry and became a mainstay of the burgeoning poetry scene in Cardiff, running writing workshops in a wide variety of community settings. He was writer-in-residence in HMP Parc for fifteen years and teaches post-graduate students Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes for the Metanoia Institute. Graham has published widely, both poetry, papers on facilitation and co-translations from classical Chinese.

Recent publications include:
Rhapsodies: (poems). Aquifer Books, Llangatock, 2021
The Selected Poems of Meng Haoran (with Wu Fusheng). The Commercial Press, Beijing, 2021
Selected Poems of the Seven Masters of the Jian’an Era (with Wu Fusheng). The Commercial Press, Beijing, 2018
Slipping the Leash (with Chris Torrance & Phil Maillard) Aquifer Books, Llangattock 2015


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