Halsall started out playing drums and the vibraphone (an instrument on which he became extraordinarily proficient) before taking up the guitar in 1967. By 1970, as a member of the cult-favorite band, Patto, he had evolved into one of the world’s most sensational players. That he never got that recognition can only be explained by the fact that the world had a number of top players already in the marketing line up and there was only so much promotional effort made available by the record companies.
Other guitar gods that didn’t make the Super Stardom Line Up of those early days- but should have- were in my opinion Jan Akkerman from the Dutch prog band Focus, Eddie Hazel with Parliament-Funkadelic who died 7 months after Ollie, Chicago’s Terry Kath, Jimi Hendrix favorite guitar player at the time, and April Lawton from Ramatam.
“Ollie’s music involved many diverse elements. Primarily, perhaps (since this is what first attracted attention), he could play very fast and was the first to discover how to do it. Forget Van Halen, Satriani [and others]; no one has matched his technique. Second, and more importantly, Halsall possessed a melodic sense that transcends any formal analysis. Besides Hendrix, only two others stand in the same league – Richard Thompson and Django Reinhardt.”
He is notable as one of the few players of the vibraphone in rock music. His best known recordings are his works on the album The Rutles, where he plays many of the instruments and provides backing and lead vocals of Dirk McQuickly, the Beatles’ equivalent of Paul McCartney. His role in the accompanying film however, went to Eric Idle and Ollie only featured in the cameo role as Leppo, the 5th Rutle who became lost in Hamburg.
In 1970, following the departure of Holmes, Timebox had evolved into the band Patto. They played a blend of progressive Jazz rock featuring Halsall’s guitar work.
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 led to a permanent position in Ayers’ band The Soporifics. He was briefly considered as a possible replacement for Mick Taylor following his departure from the Rolling Stones.
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.
During 1976 Halsall had rejoined Kevin Ayers with whom he stayed for the next sixteen years until his death. For much of that time he frequented the town of Deia in the north of the Spanish island of Mallorca, commuting to Madrid on the mainland to produce and play for numerous Spanish artistes. In the 1980s he was, together with vocalist Zanna Gregmar, part of a Spanish synthpop band created by producer Julian Ruiz called Cinemaspop. They released two albums – ‘Cinemaspop’ (1983), just a collection of synthpop covers of classical movie tunes, and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1984) which included some compositions by Halsall, as well as a bizarre electronic version of The Troggs’ Wild Thing. In 1989, he replaced the ill Enrique Sierra in Radio Futura, another Spanish rock band.
It is amazing that so few people seem to know about him. His guitar work was so unusual, fast, and fluid that it would leave you speechless. He could also make his guitar sing or cry given a gentle tune. If the world made any sense, he would be way up there on the guitar hero list with Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, etc.
There is also a great intrigue with the ‘rumors’ that he recorded a new released album with Robert Fripp (King Crimson) that led to him carving into his guitar the words Blue Traffs, the name for the alledged band that recorded the album. (Traf being the reverse of Fart.)
He was blessed with an incredible gift as you can hear for yourself in this video from 1971 with his band Patto. Imagine that he picked up guitar just 4 years earlier!!!
Sadly Ollie died of a drug induced heart attack at age 43 in Madrid, Spain.