Wild and Whirling Words

Here’s the unique Adam Bohman with Music and Words 2 (PARADIGM DISCS PD 30), the follow-up release to Music and Words which came out in 1999. Clive Graham of Paradigm (who compiled and edited the present release) has not been idle in keeping the work of this English eccentric in print in the meantime, since the original volume was repressed in 2013, and in between there was the amazing Bunhill Row LP of Adam’s fractured songs, released in 2006.

Revisiting my notes from 2000, I recall that the original Music and Words was pretty much a split between two modes: the first was documents of Bohman’s musical performances using unorthodox instruments and hand-woven organic junk objects, and the second mode was his spoken-word recordings, mostly in that case excerpts from his “diary” recordings – one has the impression he takes a hand-held cassette recorder wherever he goes and speaks his impressions directly onto the tape. 15 years ago I likened him to Patrick Keillor and other peripatetics who make observations on the streets of London, noted Bohman’s interest in talking about what he’d just eaten for lunch or dinner, and his predilection for reading out loud shop signs – or indeed any printed information that interested him. 1

All of the above elements continue to feature on the diary recordings published on Music and Words 2, which present snapshots of London life, but also documents Bohman’s trips to Southend and Wiesbaden. Food, taking a bath, train journeys, going to the pub or the market, or strolling along Southend pier are all adventures which create fascinating and highly peculiar sonic episodes; apparently trivial details are read out loud from whatever source catches his eye. Because of Bohman’s unconventional speaking voice, these utterances become a strange form of rough poetry. Then there’s the sound caused by the tape machine turning on and off, creating those odd “catches” in the rhythm of the work, and a micro-second or two of tape varispeed glitch. And of course the snatches of “field recordings” that leak on to the tape, almost background sound effects to his daily journeys, including the sounds of running water for his daily bath, railway station announcements, street market chatter, and the general hubbub of the public. All of this amounts to rich and fascinating material that is very interesting to listen to. What strikes me on today’s listen is how gloriously absurd and bizarre the every-day world can be, made even stranger as it’s refracted through the lens of Bohman’s mind, voice, and cassette recorder. This isn’t to say that the phone number from a hair-dressing salon sign becomes, when read aloud, the mystical number that solves the entire universe, but it does somehow mean more than it originally did. I have the impression that Bohman is trying hard to make sense of the world, through planning and describing in detail his own actions – whether it be what to eat for breakfast, which train to board, or what happened in a charity shop five minutes ago. In between the scraps of documentary information, his personal mental processes can be glimpsed.

These diary sections are interspersed with other recordings which are frankly almost uncategorisable, but for today I’ll put them under the general category of Bohman music, songs, and sound art. They are incredible, and frankly even more engaging than the musical segments of the 1999 release. ‘Among the Twinkling Stars’, ‘Crimson Catfish’ and ‘Interruptions’ are assorted forays into tape collage and tape manipulation, using found sources and following illogical patterns to produce exciting jumbles of random noise; even the method used for these assemblies is odd, as Bohman makes no attempt to conceal his primitive, coarse edits and tape-starts, displaying no interest in refining his technique. ‘Vicar With A Travel Bag’ and ‘My Wife’s Having a Baby’ are both songs which, I think, use found musical sources and Bohman simply drops his hilarious lyrical fragments on top, singing with force, gusto and abandon, heedless of hitting the notes so long as his messages are conveyed and understood. He could make a song anywhere, any time, using whatever material comes to hand. Both these songs, by the way, are dead-on parodies of “the Normals” in society 2, something which Bohman does with a curious mix of bewilderment, affection, and caustic hatred, going well beyond anything an angry punk rocker could ever manage as they try to put the world to rights through song. Bohman does this again on ‘Barry On The Blower’, another barb aimed at Barry Manilow fans (the previous such barb was a song on Bunhill Row) where for less than 60 seconds Bohman puts himself into the role of a harmless but mindless Manilow fan, and at the same time effortlessly creates a fine example of that rare breed – a piece of telephone-based sound art 3.

I personally would love to hear more Bohman songs. There aren’t that many of them on this album, but when you hear ‘Ordnance Survey’ you too will wish he’d make up more songs full of sideways comments on the things that matter to him, such as walking in the countryside with the help of OS Maps. Even the combined talents of Jonathan Richman, Television Personalities and Frank Sidebottom could not come close to matching the whimsical genius that is expressed in these 96 seconds. Then there’s the near-menace of ‘When A Man’, almost a song – but more of a sound poem, expressed using two or more overlapping tape sources, where’s Bohman’s utterly unmistakeable vocal tones are pitched at their creepiest and creakiest, as he endeavours to lay bare the sheer absurdity of male macho posturing in sexual politics, in relations, or just in everyday life. He does it using metaphors from silly action-adventure movies, but he mostly does it by mercilessly peeling away male defences with his penetrating x-ray vision. Not designed for maximum comfort among the guys in the audience, and it’s the opening track on the album too. Then there’s ‘The Lost Islands’, some three minutes of utter lunacy which to me is the centre-piece of the album; found sounds, collage methods, recordings of clunky improvised clatter music, strange voices, all heaped up in disarray working to an inexplicable logic, to arrive at the soundtrack to the most insane TV epsiode or movie that never existed. It is, frankly, simply glorious.

These recordings were sourced from early-ish tape recordings made mostly in the mid-1980s (although the earliest here is from 1977), and appeared in published form on releases such as Monaural Monstrosities, Starting From Scratch, Apricot Flavoured Telephones, and other surreal titles. Brother Jonathan Bohman appears on three instances. There are photographs of Adam Bohman including one by friend Peter Strickland, and there are instances of Adam’s collage and painting artworks from the cassettes. I mention this to let you know what a well-curated “archival” release this is, citing titles, sources and dates, and also so that I can wonder out loud how much more of this material there is yet to be exposed. Is the world ready for it? I wasn’t. I’ve got as far as hearing 15 of the 28 cuts on this release, before I could feel my sense of reality vanishing away. Which means I’ve still yet to experience the joys of ‘The Jenkins Family’, ‘Galactic Radio Storm’, and ‘The Unfortunate Demise of Sammy Slug’, but with titles like those, frankly how can you miss?! For me, this is an unmissable record which I suggest you purchase with all speed. From May 2014.

  1. We might note that all of this is some time before such things became more mainstream on Twitter, but I like to think Bohman’s more in the mould of such flâneurs as the surrealists or even earlier characters of 19th century Paris.
  2. Only Vivian Stanshall comes close as a forebear of Bohman, and his ceaseless efforts to Baffle the Normals should have gained him an OBE for services rendered to the UK.
  3. Other examples would include, I suppose, ‘The Blimp’ by Captain Beefheart, the speaking clock on the Hastings of Malawi LP, and ‘Mystic Tune’ by Fred Lane. But there are more, and I think Clive Graham once compiled an entire radio show of them.