Nate on Slapp Happy
March 13th, 2009 | Uncategorized
–with Faust: Sort Of (Polydor, 1972) and Slapp Happy—alternately released as Casablanca Moon (Virgin, 1974) and Acnalbasac Noom (Recommended, 1980)
–with Henry Cow: Desperate Straights (Virgin, 1975)
About three and a half years ago, as ReR MegaCorp was gearing up for the long-awaited release of Out Of Cold Storage, a 6-CD This Heat box set, I received an email offering me a discounted price on the then-impending 9-CD box they were putting together, documenting the English avant-prog band Henry Cow. “Henry Cow?” I thought, drawing a blank on who this band was, or what they sounded like. Shelving, inexplicably, any further investigation for another year—nevermind the fact that the Cow box has, to date, not yet seen the light of day—I was later to discover that the paths of Henry Cow and one of my favorite bands, Faust, crossed in the mid-to-late 1970s: both bands had collaborated with an Anglo-American-German trio known as Slapp Happy.
Formed in Germany in the early 70s, Slapp Happy were, sans augmentation, the American guitarist/lyricist Peter Blegvad, British composer Anthony Moore, and German vocalist Dagmar Krause. Blegvad and Moore were the primary songwriting duo, and as such are responsible for some of the oddest and most intoxicating pop songs ever recorded. There was a subversive element in Slapp Happy from the start; by their own admission, their idea—“an idea at the back of it,” to borrow from Joseph Conrad—was to write pop songs that weren’t quite or ultimately that, to have record companies release albums filled with songs that were infinitely more smart, loosely-arranged, and unsentimental than the reigning pop of the day. Blegvad was to call this approach, in the liner notes to their first album, Sort Of, “Naïve Rock, the Douannier Rousseau sound,” the latter being the nickname of a particular post-impressionist who was ridiculed during his lifetime for making art that showed up his lack of formal training. Moore, however, did study music—and even Rousseau ended up admitting having had some academic training. No matter. Time spent listening to Slapp Happy will leave no one guessing as to what Blegvad et al. were after. Blegvad’s association with German avant-gardists (or proto-punks, or minimalists, or unabashed prog-rockers, depending on what album you’re listening to) Faust got their label, Polygram, on the hook and afforded Blegvad, Moore, and Krause the opportunity to travel to Faust’s legendary studio at Wümme. From that town in northern Germany, incidentally, emanated some of the greatest music of the latter half of the 20th century—it was here that Faust recorded Clear, So Far, The Faust Tapes, and 71 Minutes, as well as Outside the Dream Syndicate, their collaboration with the American musician and video artist Tony Conrad.* It was also where Slapp Happy took on Faust’s rhythm section, comprising Jean-Hervé Peron (bass) and Werner “Zappi” Diermaier (drums), as their backing band, with production help from Nettlebeck.
This was a stroke of genius on Blegvad’s, or whoever’s, part, because there has quite possible never been a more “Naïve”-sounding band than Faust (there also may never have been a better one—just sayin’). Polydor released Sort Of in 1972, and most critics’ responses dovetailed with their fondness (or lack thereof) of the winsome vocals of Dagmar Krause. Sort Of can, at times, sound like a particularly shambolic pop record, yet it has a number of moments marked by an esoteric beauty (Krause’s double-tracked vocal emerging from swirling, unintelligible male voices at the beginning of “Just A Conversation”; Blegvad’s guitar lines on “Little Girl’s World,” at times recalling those of Sterling Morrison on the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”; Moore’s repeated piano couplets, somehow functioning as both melody and percussion, on “Blue Flower,” a song later famously covered by the Pale Saints; the entirety of “I’m All Alone”). Slapp Happy are also unafraid to show that they can rock, can find a groove and hang in it (“Tutankhamun,” “Mono Plane”). Again, these are pop songs that aren’t quite that—if one would allow me to sound like a bit of a jag-off for a moment, I’d say that they’re deconstructed pop songs. A good example is the song “Sort Of,” from the album of the same name which, with its super-melodic, cheery, twisted surf-rock guitar line would have undoubtedly been the radio-destined single from Sort Of—if it had had any vocals. It even clocks in at 2:21—the perfect length for a single. It’s almost as if Slapp Happy, sensing that they had perhaps come a little too close to the pop sound they claimed to be subverting, left this gem without words, making it instant anathema to any Polydor executive begging for any scraps that would have made Sort Of a more marketable affair. (A non-instrumental version of “Sort Of,” called “Charlie ‘n’ Charlie,” made it onto the CD release of Acnalbasac Noom as a bonus track.)
In 1973, Slapp Happy again collaborated with Faust in Wümme ; the resulting recording wasn’t released until 1980 under the title Acnalbasac Noom, as Polydor’s German arm deemed it too unpolished and not pop enough, and refused to release it. They had Slapp Happy re-record all of the tracks in London with a number of “professional” studio musicians, and incorporated string arrangements into some of the songs. Those songs were released in 1973 as Slapp Happy, and later re-released as on CD Casablanca Moon by Virgin in 1993. (Are you keeping track of this convoluted history?) Despite my obsessive fondness for Faust, the Slapp Happy/Casablanca Moon recordings are fantastic, mostly because (thankfully) the studio augmentation didn’t succeed in taking away from the relaxed nature of Blegvad and Moore’s arrangements, and because Krause’s vocals are further back in the mix, generating a strange and dreamlike sound—which itself is further enhanced by Blegvad’s lyrics. The lead-off track, “Casablanca Moon,” is something out of Graham Greene, the story of a spy who himself may be being watched by sinister eyes: “He lurks behind a paper in the shadow of a mosque/He can’t count all the continents he’s crossed/Trailing party member leaving footprints in the frost/Underneath the Acnalbasac Noom.” It doesn’t end well for our man: “Yesterday evening, he finally lost his mind/The walls fell in and all mankind/Was standing before him, raising their hands/In a significant gesture which he didn’t understand.” My favorite lyric comes from “Dawn”: “Dawn/He’s in a postcard of the dawn/Where the knives of light/Have left the dark night tattered and torn/The firmamental cars/On the highway of the stars/Are doing ninety (for your love)/He’s in a corner on the right/The sole survivor of the night—and it’s you he’s thinking of.”
Without wanting to slight Faust’s contribution, the only track which I can say undoubtedly works better on the original Acnalbasac Noom recordings is “Drum,” on which Blegvad just shreds, Neil Young-style, on a perfectly-distorted guitar, while Diermaier plays the relentlessly primitive drum beat I always associate with him, and which he deploys to greatest effect on the epic “From The Side of Man and Womankind,” the 27-minute A-side of Faust’s October 1972 collaboration with Tony Conrad. (That album is quite another matter…) That said, what does come through more clearly on the Acnalbasac Noom recordings is Moore and Blegvad’s seamless blending, or homage-paying, to a number of different musical styles: Bossa Nova and Tango, in particular.
Long before he set his sights on space travel for people with too much money, in the early 70s, Virgin’s Richard Branson ran one hell of a risk-taking record label, signing such Krautrock and progressive acts as Faust, Gong, Tangerine Dream, Can, and Henry Cow. Once dismissed by the critic Julian Cope as playing “wacky Cambridge University degree music,” Henry Cow formed in 1968 at, well, at Cambridge University. Their own history—of a serious, uncompromising avant-garde music, politically radical in form as well as content—is fodder for a blog post of its own; but, in 1974, Virgin paired the Cow with Slapp Happy, resulting in Desperate Straights. Henry Cow’s influence comes through far stronger on this album, in my opinion, though it could be that Moore and Blegvad found Virgin an atmosphere far more conducive to their more high-minded tendencies. This is a strange record, to be sure, often sounding like a collection of Kurt Weill-esque lieder cycles. It still has its pop moments, however—“Strayed” is an example of this, and sees Blegvad attempting, with great success, his best Lou Reed vocal delivery. Post-Slapp Happy, Dagmar Krause went on to form the fantastic, hyper-political Art Bears (a typical Art Bears song title being “The Song of Investment Capital Overseas) with former Henry Cows Fred Frith and Chris Cutler.
If this, somehow, has piqued your curiosity and you want to explore further, order Slapp Happy music from the boys over at Downtown Music Gallery, one of the best (and one of the only surviving) record stores in New York.
*These albums, along with the sessions Faust recorded for John Peel at the BBC, are gathered in the indispensable Recommended Records box set Faust: The Wümme Years 1970-73, available at Amazon and from the ReR Megacorp website. The Tony Conrad/Faust collaboration can be found from a variety of online sources, or at finer record stores. Incidentally, when Lou Reed and John Cale moved into Tony Conrad’s Ludlow Street apartment in the mid-60s, they found Tony had left behind a book exploring American S&M called The Velvet Underground, and found that a suitable name for their new band. So there.This entry was posted on Friday, March 13th, 2009 at 11:41 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.