Thursday, 26 January 2012

Kosmische Musik, English Apocalypses and Cosmic Cowboys


What a wonderful selection of LPs turned up at the Oxfam music shop in Exeter today (and a very big thankyou to the generous donor). There were some prime examples of Kosmische or Krautrock music from the late 60s and 70s, including the LP with the track which gave rise to the genre’s dubious English label. This is Mama Duul Und Ihre Sauerkrautband Spielt Auf from the Amon Duul album Pyschedelic Underground. Amon Duul was in the fact the name of a Munich commune with radical artistic and political aims. Its music tended to reflect the non-hierarchical ideology of the commune, with large groups of people gathering to indulge in endless freeform guitar, percussion and chanting sessions. One of these was recorded in 1968, and resulted in the Psychedelic Underground album, as well as several subsequent releases, including the double LP Disaster/Luud Noma, released on the BASF label in 1972. Those who favoured a more focussed and disciplined approach to music (and, it’s probably fair to say, had more musical talent and imagination) split off, but held on to the Amon Duul name. They became Amon Duul II and released some of the classics of the Kosmische genre at the heavier, guitar-based end of the spectrum. The only record of their’s which we’ve got in this batch is Made in Germany (the single LP version), however, a 1975 attempt at a more poppy direction which is generally considered to be a bit of a misfire, but might be worth a listen nevertheless. The Amon Duul commune reflected the darkening tenor and shift towards violence of the counterculture in Germany, playing host at various times to members of the Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, as singer Renate Knaup recalled during the excellent BBC4 documentary on Krautrock.

Faust were another German band whose music arose from communal living conditions, although their ensconcement in a house-cum-studio converted from an old school in the rural setting of Wumme was always directed towards artistic rather than political ends. Known for their pounding rhythms, minimalist approach to harmony and use of non-musical sound from radio static to heavy industrial machinery, they mixed this experimental approach with the odd snatch of tuneful psych pop. They also had a strong graphic sense, and their first LP was released on clear vinyl in a clear plastic sleeve, with the band’s name placed alongside the black outline of an x-ray of a human hand, lyrics printed in red unobtrusively running beneath that. We haven’t got that one, but we do have The Faust Tapes, with its equally eyecatching Bridget Riley op-art cover, and its cut-up and collaging structure, juxtaposing fragments of song with percussion, manipulated tape sounds, noise and instrumental improvisation. The Faust Tapes originally cost 49p in the shops. Outside the Dream Syndicate, a collaboration between Faust (well, most of them anyway) and Tony Conrad was a little more expensive at £1.49. It offered two sides of heavy drone, pounding percussion overlaid by the single held-tones of Conrad’s abrasively bowed violin. Conrad was a member of LaMonte Young’s Dream Syndicate in New York, and as such was a pioneer of minimalist music, although relations with Young have subsequently deteriorated over issues of ownership of recordings made at the time. His face glares in monochromatic close-up from the sleeve of the LP, a rather more intense, less friendly variant on the cover of the Terry Riley LP A Rainbow in Curved Air, in which his bonce rises above the landscape like a benevolent sun. Riley appears in a duet with John Cale (who played alongside Conrad with Young), on the LP Church of Anthrax, which we’ve also got in, another album of sidelong drones, with rhythmic propulsion here given by Riley’s avant barroom piano.

The electronic end of Kosmische music is provided by Kraftwerk, with their second LP, its cover boasting the simple but striking graphic image of a green bollard. Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider had been left on their own at this stage, original member Klaus Dinger having left to form Neu with Michael Rother, who had also played with Kraftwerk in live performances. The music is still feeling its way towards the cool electronic modernism with which they would become synonymous, and meandering flutes, guitars and violins and experimental tape manipulations still play a significant part here. However, the extended Kling-Klang is a pointer towards things to come, and also lent its name to the studio into which Schneider and Hutter would disappear for lengthy stretches of time to perfect their perfectly formed pieces of man-machine music. Like all of their first three records, this has never received an official release, presumably failing to meet their exacting standards of painstaking perfectionism, so this is a rare opportunity to get an original copy. If Kraftwerk grew into the electronic classicists of German music, then Klaus Schulze, as an early member of Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream and subsequently as a prolific solo artist, represented its Romantic aspect. We have his third LP, Blackdance, with its somewhat corny cod-Dali cover. In fact, this contains as much acoustic guitar picking and percussion as it does synthesisers. Julian Cope included it in his top 50 in his book surveying German music of the 60s and 70s, Krautrocksampler, confessing that ‘as a 17 year old, this record was my seduction LP, the only one I had…it’s easy to spend an entire evening just flipping Black Dance back and starting again’.

Florian Fricke, the main creative force behind Popul Vuh, largely put aside synthesisers from an early stage. His music blends improvisation and composition, combining piano, electronic guitar with chamber music arrangements often incorporating sacred vocal sounds. His soundtrack for the 1979 Werner Herzog film Nosferatu includes the lengthy piece Brothers of Darkness, Sons of Light (Bruder des Schattens – Sohne des Lichts), which begins with ominous, subterraenean vocal chants shadowed by mournful oboe and punctuated with dripping, splashing cymbals, before transforming into a circling piano and guitar figure which takes us out into the sun, haloed with a burred haze of sitar and tamboura. Gorgeous sacred music, slowly ascending towards transcendent peaks, and a perfect accompaniement to the Caspar David Friedrich inspired landscapes of Herzog’s film. This one’s made it onto the Oxfam online shop (through the auspices of my trusty compadre Kevin) and you can find it here.

From the same era in England we have a few albums by Van Der Graaf Generator. The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other displays the light and dark side of Peter Hammill’s writing, with the beautiful, plaintively hope-filled ballad Refugees set between the alternate apocalypses, future and historical, of Darkness, White Hammer and After the Flood (one to compare with Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes the Flood). H to He Who Am the Only One is a title which indicates Hammill’s interest in science fiction, religion and mythology, and the album is shot through with these themes, from the monsters of the deep in Killer to the fabular cast of The Emperor in His War Room and the metaphysical cosmic terror of Pioneers Over C. There’s still room for another of his extended, heartfelt ballads, of the sort which found a place in his solo LPs, with House With No Door. Hugh Banton and Dave Jackson’s unison organ and saxophone lines create a uniquely dense and powerful sound, and guest Robert Fripp adds characteristically jagged and surprising guitar lines here and there. A slightly later record from the mid-70s is Still Life, followed up on the themes of the earlier LPs, with Pilgrims a companion of sorts to Refugees, and Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End (with its nod to Arthur C Clarke’s classic novel) continuing Hammill’s use of SF to meditate on transcendence and immortality.

Heading over the pond, we’ve got early Byrds escapee Gene Clark’s lost and rediscovered mid-70s classic of cosmic country pop No Other. Strength of Strings and Lady of the North are soaring songs with the full glimmer of orchestrated and chorally arranged production surrounding Clark’s gently cracked croon. Take a pedal steel glide above the clouds. The Grateful Dead are present in the form of the slightly underwhelming form of Bear’s Choice, Bear being their resident chemist and wayward genius Augustus Owsley Stanley III. He chooses to focus on the Dead’s R&B side, with Pigpen to the fore – always the least interesting aspect of the band to my ears. I expect you had to be there. There’s some pleasing, low key acoustic numbers on the first side, however. The first two solo LPs from Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia, Ace and Garcia, are here. Ace is a Dead album in all but name, with the various members playing throughout. Garcia’s sees him trying out all the instrumentation, with only drummer Billy Kreutzmann on hand to help out, and essaying a little studio experimentation and electronic tape music as well. These LPs contained many of the songs which would remain concert favourites for years to come: Weir’s Playing in the Band, Cassidy, One More Saturday Night and Looks Like Rain, and Garcia and co-writer Robert Hunter’s Deal, Bird Song, Sugaree and Loser. For a bit of Tex-Mex psych, there’s a couple of LPs by The Sir Douglas Quintet, whose whimsically British sounding name did little to disguise the fact that his was a Hispanic and Texan band through and through.

There are a few records by Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. Beefheart’s Clear Spot sees the good Captain aiming for a degree of commerciality, with a slicker production and more direct songs. The results lack the poetry and colour of other records, and Beefheart seems preoccupied with more carnal and earthy matters, neglecting his visionary side. Fortunately, this returns in the later LP Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), the bracketed title track of which memorably creates a crooked rhythm from the juddering swish of windscreen wipers. Floppy Boot Stomp and When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy are irresistibly childlike and infectious. The cover features one of Beefheart’s paintings which would come to occupy his creative talents (as plain old Don van Vliet) in the place of his music (and there are further sketches on the insert lyric sheet). Zappa is present in the form of that old perennial Hot Rats, with Frank sporting a bowler which the pidgeons seem to have got to on the inside cover, striding past the gates of Buckingham Palace. His more scabrous and unappealing side is revealed on the ‘comedy’ of the new Mothers Fillmore East June 1970 album (other portions of which, featuring John and Yoko, turned up on their Some Time in New York City LP), and the 1977 Zoot Allures, which at least has the lyrical, filigreed guitar instrumental interlude Black Napkins.

Finally, we have the third and final of Throbbing Gristle’s original Annual Reports, 1978’s DOA, which mixes their usual, rather desperate ‘industrial’ attempts at being as shocking as they possibly can (the usual mix of fascism, disease, child murder and disfigurement) with more interesting experiments with found sound, tape manipulation and the poppy electronica of the Abba tribute (sort of) AB/7A. If this included the repellent porn calendar insert included with the initial pressing, it would seemingly be worth huge amounts of money. Thankfully it doesn’t. Coming almost up to date, we also have a copy of Boards of Canada’s second LP from 2001, Geogaddi, it’s artificially time encrusted electronica spread across five sides of vinyl, the sixth being inscribed with the figures of a man, woman and child resembling the etchings on the gold plate attached to the side of the Voyager space probe. All this and more should be in the shop in the next few days, so if you’re in the area, pop in and have a look.

3 comments:

Chloe Rose said...

Gene Clark? Captain Beefheart?
Oh the luck you have had!
I adore both artists and both albums listed.
Captain Beefheart's track on the Big Lewbowski soundtrack is truly inspired and so perfect for the movie. Have you seen it at all?

I am currently hoping some Nico albums will turn up at my local Oxfam. Vinyl copies are so sparse where I live and sometimes a CD just doesn't cut it.

Jez Winship said...

Yes, the Big Lebowski’s a great film with a fabulous soundtrack. Yma Sumac, Moondog, Beefheart, Nina Simone, Meredith Monk and Kenny Rogers (with a song now indelibly associated with surreal bowling dreams) all together. Who could ask for more? Well, a little Creedence would have been good, but then the Dude never did find his tape, did he? I played Gene Clark and Beefheart in the shop (I thought Amon Duul might be going a bit far, although it might be a good one for clearing the shop of lingering customers at the end of the day). They both sounded great. I don’t think we’ve had any Nico come in on vinyl, although we do have an odd Velvet Underground compilation on Plastic Inevitable Records called Velvet Underground etc., which I’ve never come across before, and which delves into the more obscure corners of their output. One for completists only, I suspect.

Kevin Rands said...

Come on, Ralf Hutter & Florian Schneider, release those first couple of LPs on CD!