Monday, August 30, 2004
This week's theme begins with this guy, Neil Murray, who may ring a bell with you Whitesnake or Black Sabbath fans. In school, he hooked up with a couple of pals named Peter and Anthony, and they formed a band called Slapp Happy and the Dum-Dums and... You know, maybe this isn't the best way to start. Sorry Neil, see you some other time.
A long time ago a serious musician with ties to the avant garde teamed up with a guitar playing rock and roll fan, then enlisted a German chanteuse to front their band. After recording two forward looking albums, the group would release one much more listener-friendly disc, followed by a change of direction and a shift of lineup for its fourth album. A fifth record bore little relation to the group's previous efforts, as the driving force of the original band departed to pursue other projects. While that story may sound familiar (especially to those of you who know Squeeze), this time we're talking about a group called Slapp Happy who are, in their own way, just as important as the Velvet Underground. It's just that the people who bought copies of their first album haven't quite gotten around to forming their own bands just yet.
Last week I oh so cleverly led up to this by posting a bunch of covers of Slapp Happy songs. I'm willing to bet that a lot of people have been listening to that Mazzy Star cover of Blue Flower for years without suspecting that the song was originally released in 1972.
Peter Blegvad (the rock loving guitar player) and Anthony Moore (the avant garde guy) wrote all of those songs, and all of them were originally recorded by Peter and Anthony's band Slapp Happy. [War! was actually recorded by Slapp Happy in collaboration with another band called Henry Cow. More about that later.]
Peter Blegvad wasn't necessarily the biggest talent in Slapp Happpy, but he's currently the best known, so I'll start with him. Anthony Moore gets his own day later. The third member of Slapp Happy, singer Dagmar Krause, isn't going to get as much attention. Sorry, Dagmar fans. Nothing personal...just a lack of time and space.
First things first. It's always good to know how to pronounce someone's name.
Second thing. I could blab a bit, but why not get Peter's own history from the horse's mouth. That gets us to 1990, which is a good start.
I can't present a complete picture of Slapp Happy and all the related projects in one week. It would take too much space, too many mp3s and too much writing. I'm basically just going to post the things that I like the best, and I apologize if I leave out your favorite song.
Let's start off with the original version of Blue Flower. This comes from the first Slapp Happy album Sort Of, which was out of print and hard to find for a very long time. A few years ago it was finally issued on CD by Voiceprint, complete with a bonus track. Huge chunks of the Voiceprint catalog are available for download from eMusic for a fairly reasonable price, and Sort Of is among those chunks, so that's another way to get it. One thing you might want to look out for: in 1980 Sort Of got reissued by Recommended Records on vinyl, and that edition came with a one-sided single called Alcohol that's not available elsewhere. It's a weird song, not really worth killing yourself to get, but for the completists...
Sort Of was recorded with help from the Krautrock band Faust, and in many ways it's a relative of Faust's 1973 "pop" album Faust IV. In the past I've often had these strange arguments with Slapp Happy fans who always seem to prefer Slapp Happy's second or third albums and don't understand how anyone could prefer Sort Of. I think the answer may have to do with how much you like the Faust influence.
It's hard to give a complete picture with a few mp3s. Sort Of has twelve tracks and they all sound very different. Some are sung by Dagmar, like Little Girls World. These tracks are usually a mix of wistful folk with some bits of jazz, and the occasional tricky time-signature. Others are sung by Peter or Anthony. These tend to be weirder, like Tutankhamun with loopy lyrics and an extremely loose rhythm section driving it along. On headphones you'll hear a lot of easily-missed details. None of the tracks on Sort Of can be described as being about love, cars or girls and I can't think of any other records that really sound like it. Think of it as a Whitman's sampler of possible approaches to mildly experimental folk and jazz influence rock that hadn't been tried yet.
Slapp Happy compared themselves to the artist Henri Rousseau at the time. Reading this quote about Rousseau:
"The emergence of Rousseau is an isolated fact separate from the day to day development of art; Rousseau's painting is totally foreign to every contemporary school, whether old fashioned or avant garde."
...I think I see what they were getting at.
Tomorrow, the second album. And, the second album.
[I'd like to thank Tim from Pledge Drive for some invaluable help with this week's feature. Some of you may remember that Matthew of Fluxblog posted a Christmas-y revision of Bohemian Rhapsody done by Pledge Drive last December. That and more can be found here.]