Friday, September 03, 2004
This is the last day of Slapp Happy week. Thanks to everyone who helped, contributed or commented. My main intention (with all due respect to the Henry Cow fans in the audience) is to bring this band to the attention of the non-prog crowd. It's probably worth mentioning that the person who introduced me to Slapp Happy wouldn't have known what the Canterbury scene was if it had landed on his head: he was a huge Negative Approach fan who had apparently stumbled onto Slapp Happy at random. And when I flipped over Sort Of (this would be around 1991) I was in the midst of a Beat Happening infatuation and had no idea who John Greaves, Chris Cutler, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, etc. were.
Personally, I think that Sort Of is somewhat underrated, largely because it's often reviewed by people who view it as a move towards Henry Cow, rather than as a move away from Faust. Articles about Slapp Happy often go on about charm and wit and cleverness and so on, and that's all fine, but I sometimes wonder if it might scare some people away who like their rock with a little more rock. There was a rougher and much more groove-oriented side to the band (as heard on the Sort Of tracks Just A Conversation, Heading For Kyoto and especially Mono Plane) that's kind of gotten lost in the shuffle, which is too bad. I'll come back to this at the end, but I think that Peter Blegvad's solo career, in particular, might have gone better if he'd paid more attention to that aspect of Slapp Happy.
Nonetheless, I'm finishing up with Kew. Rhone which is an extaordinarily charming, witty, and clever collaboration between Peter Blegvad, John Greaves (who played bass in Henry Cow) and a bunch of often-famous musicians, including jazz people Michael Mantler and Carla Bley. It originally came out in the punk rock year of 1977.
I'm somewhat at a loss for how to describe it. If there was ever a sui generis album, it's Kew. Rhone. Loosely based on a painting by C.W. Peale called Exhuming the First American Mastodon, it looks like it should be a bloated disaster. I don't want to go song-by-song, but let's look at the track Pipeline as an example. It has the most ridiculous excuse for lyrics I've ever seen:
Here are two gentlemen and a lady contemplating a length of dug-up pipeline.
Figure B. Illustrates the assertion -
'Ambiguity can't be measured like a change of temperature'
Figure C. Consists of a list of assorted equipage. A gentleman imagines how the items on the list would look if only part exhumed. (He thinks they wouldn't look unlike a length of pipe).
(The Lady's Assertion):
'When you remove a rung from a ladder,the whole is suddenly part, the part is whole.
But the hue and temperature of a pipeline are ineluctably parts. Without the pipeline they would cease to be.'
(Second Gentleman's Assertion):
'Anything you care to mention of three dimensions (like a length of pipe)in a certain light may be seen as the projection or the shadow of an entity of four dimensions' (see figure D.)
And if it's not bad enough that those words sound more like a philosophy textbook than a song, there are actually diagrams in the liner notes that you need to look at in order to understand the references to Figure A, etc. It's because of things like this that people had to invent punk rock in the first place.
But. But. But. It works. Here's the track, and somehow vocalist Lisa Herman manages to make that mass of verbiage sound almost as smooth as Sade. And the whole album is like that ("great" not "like Sade"): cryptic, punning, ultra-clever lyrics by Peter Blegvad (one song consists entirely of a list of proverbs, one revolves around the Blegvad-coined palindrome "Peel's foe, not a set animal, laminates a tone of sleep") are married to music by John Greaves that manages to be catchy despite switching to a new time signature every five seconds. Assuming you've had years of vocal training, you'll be able to sing along with the album after one or two listens. I've had the title track stuck in my head for days, and it's really frustrating because I can't play guitar well enough to actually play it, so I have to walk around the house sounding like a crazy man with my a capella version. Here's Robert Wyatt singing it (this is an alternate version that appears on John Greaves' Songs CD -- it also appears as a hidden bonus track on the Kew. Rhone CD).
About the CD. It came out on Voiceprint in 1997 and it's wonderful. It comes with a very, very, very cool bonus multi-media thing for your computer that provides background, alternate versions of two of the songs (both available elsewhere), an unreleased track, and interviews with lots of the people who made the album, all of whom fail to answer the question "What does 'Kew. Rhone' mean?" Totally essential.
You may have noticed that I haven't posted anything from Peter Blegvad's solo albums. Long story short: I don't really like them. For someone who's been involved with so many out-there musicians, his own work is incredibly conservative singer/songwriter stuff. I'm sorry, but someone else will have to talk about him. The only Peter Blegvad product that I can really get 100% behind is:
(A book of his fairly amazing cartoons. Go here for samples.)
But, since there was a request, here's Peter performing a song called Special Delivery live in 1985 with the Golden Palominos as his back up band (he was a member at the time). This is from one of several bootlegs of the Blegvad Palominos. Kind of reminds me of late-period VU. Peter sounds so great when he sings like this...it makes me really sad that he's turned into such a subdued (somewhat charming and cerebral) candidate for an NPR special.
Odds and Ends:
I've left out a lot. Depending on your musical taste, you could productively follow a lot of paths that start at Slapp Happy. I haven't touched on the Art Bears, The Lodge, Dagmar Krause's solo albums, most of Peter Blegvad's albums (he has something out this year with Andy Partridge that I haven't yet heard), and so on.
I also haven't talked at all about Slapp Happy's Ca Va album (it's worth hearing, though not really of a piece with their first wave of albums), their Live in Japan album (from a reunion in 2000...fun but not essential, and bootlegs include more songs), or the Camera album (it's opera: someone must like this, but that someone isn't me). Lots of details on various Slapp Happy releases (including some bootlegs) are here.
There's a wonderful timeline-style discography here. While going over that, I noticed that there's one Slapp Happy track floating around that I didn't know about. It's a 1974 BBC session track with Robert Wyatt, with a version of A Little Something that's different from the album version. Cute.
I'm going to take a break on Monday and Tuesday. All of these mp3s are coming down on Wednesday, so tell your friends now or forever hold your tongue.