Flee Past’s Ape Elf (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR096) is an infamous cut-up record from the 1970s, which Feeding Tube Records have now reissued in “expanded” form as a double LP. Robert Carey was a student at Hampshire College (in Amherst, MA) in the early 1970s and studying electronic music, where he got his hands on a stack of reel-to-reel tapes of voice recordings. Hauling himself up by his own hamhocks, he starting cutting and splicing the material to arrive at his own personal style of musique concrète and tape editing, inspired by William Burroughs cut-ups and by Frank Zappa’s use of the technique on his early records, especially Lumpy Gravy. An LP appeared in 1979 on the Twin/Tone Records label, under the name Orchid Spangiafora, with an absurd and slightly unsettling collage artwork on the back cover, and no other information apart from the track titles. Byron Coley, the music journalist, may or may not have assisted with the work. That same year, Orchid Spangiafora was namechecked on the equally infamous Nurse With Wound list 1.
The record’s a fun and bewildering listen. Carey’s source materials were perhaps unpromising – almost everything comes from the TV, so it’s a mix of adverts, game shows, actors, news clips, announcers, and banal background music, none of it particularly well captured or well recorded in the first place. His methods were simple but very painstaking, making small mosaic-like fragments of sound, and carefully assembling them to form nonsensical or absurd statements…or sometimes they are repeated and looped – not always in exact patterns, but slightly varying ones – to likewise arrive at verbal gibberish. Surreal humour emerges, and this has proven to be one the most endearing and popular aspects of this avant-zany item. These cut-ups also make a kind of musical sense sometimes, such as when we hear the differences in timbres and tones of voice all collided and mixed up with each other; and the fragments of background TV music which accidentally leak into the mix also create fragmented non-tunes. At the more extreme end of his experiments, the record dispenses with spoken words completely, and simply samples phonemes, pauses for breath, gasps, and other “errors” in human speech. It’s all in the service of scrambling common sense, of bypassing rational thought. I suppose there’s some part of the human brain that wants to make sense of it when we’re apparently hearing another human being talking. When this fails, thanks to Carey’s multiple tripwires and booby traps, I further suppose that the brain goes slightly bonkers.
I call this approach “uniquely American”, because to my mind it’s clearly fundamentally different in method and intent to the French school of musique concrète. The latter was proposed from the start as high art of some sort, and made serious-minded, methodical explorations of the potentials of magnetic tape and its playback; even the original sound sources were created or selected for their aesthetic properties. Conversely, the Orchid Spangiafora record derives from decidedly “lowbrow” source material, and Carey while perhaps not a pure autodidact plumped for the “hands-on” method of tape splicing, rather than any dry, academic approach. The intentions behind it are, I suggest, more about having mischievous fun than creating an artistic statement. The record wallows in its meaninglessness, and is almost devoid of content 2 …you’d have no problem tracing its lineage back to American Pop Art, and it also carries a lot of Pop Art’s sneering, nihilistic cynicism with it too. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but you can also see how this record is one of the missing pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that includes Negativland, People Like Us, the Illegal Art community, and the Broken Penis Orchestra. All of the above came after Orchid Spangiafora, and they have all been ruder and nastier; they’ve also used similar methods to make well-aimed subversive attacks on the mass media 3.
This reissue includes a booklet compiling images, photos, stories and research that shows how this record has resonated over time, “landing in the ear” of not a few influential and significant listeners, including Boyd Rice, Richard Rupenus 4, Mark Mothersbaugh, members of Pere Ubu, William Burroughs, and Gary Panter. Coley’s exemplary research pays off again in this fine reissue of an essential slice of historical freakdom which still delivers many twisted thrills. From March 2014.
- Although the chronology may appear a tad puzzling, since that first NWW LP came out in January 1979 and the Orchid Spangiafora not until October; I think the explanation is that it had been circulating as a cassette tape since 1977, before the record deal was struck. ↩
- That said, many listeners have found a species of absurd Dadaist poetry in the bizarre utterances, and Steve Stapleton went so far as to title an album track after his own (mis)hearing of one of them. ↩
- My point here would be that although Flee Past’s Ape Elf may derive from mass media sources, it doesn’t explicitly critique them in the way that Negativland did. ↩
- His early Mixed Band Philanthropist records, and the Bladder Flask LP, are fine examples of absurdist tape cut-ups; “I…knew how laborious it could be”, he states on the back cover here. ↩