Original position in magazine: pp 43-47
(Family Fodder Interview original position: pp 48-53)
by Harley Richardson
The Big Sell-Out
SHIMMY DISC SHIMMY 050
The Guilt Trip
SHIMMY DISC SHIMMY 055 3 x LP / 2 x CD Box set
Daevid Allen and Kramer
SHIMMY DISC SHIMMY 060
Hugh Hopper and Kramer
A Remark Hugh Made
SHIMMY DISC SHIMMY 076
Bongwater’s remarkable achievements seem to have passed unnoticed by most of the civilised world. Dismissed by many as an arty conceit, their back catalogue now relegated to the Â£2,99 ‘Giveaway ‘section by Selectadisc, they were largely ignored by an indifferent public. But for a few years in the late 80s and early 90s this loose conglomeration of wild musicians with Kramer and Anne Magnuson at its core breathed some desperately needed new life into rock’n’roll. Breaking No New Ground (Shimmy 02,1987) and Double Bummer (Shimmy 011, 1988) developed the use of spoken word, abstract noise and tapes of found material as dynamic tools in rock’n’roll. Too Much Sleep (SDE 9017, 1990) took the magical combination of Magnuson’s angelic singing voice and Kramer’s fragile whine to its height. The parts when Magnuson’s voice is faded out for a few seconds to let Kramer’s come to the fore still send shivers down my spine.
Their 1991 swan song, The Big Sell Out, was recorded at Kramer’s famous studio Noise New York, by then sounding on its last legs. He had his studio jiggery-pokery down pat and a lot of the techniques and tricks were now familiar to the listener but what a way to show them oft! As usual the band didn’t mess around getting to the point. The punchy opening track leads into a beautiful psychedelic ballad. An hour later the record ends with Kramer showing The Beautiful South how a cover should be done (‘Everybody’s Talking’). In between you’ve had a gaggle of sophisticated pop/rock songs, with Kramer making use of new lead guitarist, Randolph Hudson Ill. At one point the lead guitar has so much presence you think it’s going to leap out of the speakers and eat you. Todd Rungren and (of all things) Rio-period Duran Duran are evident influences and Lennon and McCartney quality-melodies just seeming to skip out of Kramer’s head. This record has more great musical ideas than you can shake a stick at.
Since then, Kramer’s output has been divided mainly between solo efforts and collaborations with various musical pals, including his Gong / Soft Machine heroes Daevid Alien and Hugh Hopper. Those hoping that his solo work would be in the vein of ‘California’ or ‘Havana’. ie like Bongwater minus Anne Magnuson were disappointed. The Guilt Trip boxed set has a more laid back, indulgent approach to songwriting, with Kramer developing a curious line in stream-of-conciousness confessional lyrics. The tight dynamics were gone but the mix of songs and abstract noise was pleasant enough (and at six sides there was plenty of it!) and there was a poignant final track with Kramer playing organ over an answerphone message which repeats and breaks down. The Secret of Comedy continued in the same vein, only with Kramer wearing his love of fey English psychedelia ever more proudly on his sleeve. His collaborations with the fey English Alien and Hopper were less interesting, being light on the found materials and abstract noise, heavy on the hippy philosophy lyrics and ropey indulgent instrumentals. None of these latter releases could be described as essential, but somehow everything Kramer touches has a little bit special something about it. Don’t let the tales of his philandering put you off – get down Selectadisc now!
Two shining examples of the benefits of solitude from Rock’s great Anchorites
UK FREAK RECORDS FRROO2 CD (1994)
An unsolicited disc which lurked in the corner pile gathering dust for months. I’d smugly assumed from the band’s moniker it’d be some tiresome lo-fi excursion into goonish humour. There it lay until one night it was given a chance and arcane currents of electricity crackled around the house.
How to describe Workingman’s Dick? The Freak records catalogue offers the unhelpful ‘psychedelic folk-pop’. Well, it’s certainly low key and home-recorded, probably with a single mic, two cheap trebly guitars (one played with Barrettesque glissando), a cavernous tom-tom and sometimes a resonating gong. It’s surely hag-improvised, the mumbled vocals dredged from unconscious depths.
But home for the Dicks has to be a desert cave into which they were exiled for their heretical mix of primitive Hindu / Gnostic / Orgone mysticism. And their unlearned improvs must be stoked by severe ritual fasting or a cache of bottled ether, with these recordings made at the inspired point between revelation and total black-out.
‘Flaming day of the locusts’ is menacingly alluring, a looping guitar-scratch motif slowly recedes only to swarm back with triple echo volume. ‘Descension Song’ has deeply intoned phrases like ‘Open visions of crystal mountain paths’ and ‘Bird feathers blooming in the afternoon heat’, pulling off the feat of making you believe it, open-mouthed. ‘Ranada’s Demon’ speaks in disembodied tongues from a humming dung-heap in an abandoned mossy temple.
I swear this album is a true psychedelic hermetic treasure and perhaps the only contemporary sonic link with those 60s Aquarian cult recordings of Father Yod and Ya Ho Wa. Go and see if you agree. The only problem is I’m not rushing to hear any other Supreme Dicks records (there are three) lest this potent spell be broken.
Freek, PO Box 3583, London NW3 3RH
Alexander “Skip” Spence
US Sony Collector Series A9831 LP and CD w/5 additional cuts
A mysterious shimmering sonic gem – how it was ever released (in 1969) seems miracle enough, and its reissue even more timely. Skip Spence (gtr & vox) was a main man in the excellent though not very successful commercially Moby Grape. Here, he sounds like a mad mountain hermit lost in a blizzard in Wyoming, suffering all the woes of the ages yet finding comfort in his demented tunes. ‘Books Of Moses’ is an ethereal wail over guitar-plucking that resembles ancient lutes, while eerie sound effects of a stone-cutter evoke an awesome Old Testament vision. What a range he has! The deep vox on ‘Weighted Down (The Prison Song)’ could be Johnny Cash on valium, for War In Peace’ he turns in an ethereal falsetto with a slight echo, swirled in cymbals and a hesitant tremolo guitar. The lyrics on this record are often opaque and hard to decipher, but ‘Cripple Creek’ is virtually a ballad, closing with the doom-laden line ‘The search to find what wasn’t there has brought him back to you’. ‘All Come to Meet Her’ simply repeats the title in stuttering measures, suggesting an obscure march towards this inescapable rendezvous. There’s a terrifying sense of purpose to each mysterious story. ‘Grey/Afro’ refuses any comprehension, but will keep you on the edge of your seat for 9 minutes of sheer tension – what will he play next, what is he singing? Skip Spence, an introspective genius. Syd Barrett might be the nearest UK equivalent to this eccentricity. Syd’s solo LPs gave me great succour at time of need during my first year away at college … if only I’d had Oar as well.
Destroy All Monsters
Destroy All Monsters 1974-1976
US Father Yod 1 Ecstatic Peace E47, 3 x CD box
Long before Stooge Ron Asheton or MC5-er Mike Davis was involved, long before the ‘Bored’ single, Destroy All Monsters were prowling Michigan streets spewing out tons of collage booklets and cassette tapes of wild inspirational home recordings conceptual pieces, spacey jams and dirges wallowing in the mire of Japanese monster films, Val Lewton, AIP, Universal horror films and low-budget sci-fi serials. The original line-up included Mike Kelley, now a famous artist, Jim Shaw, editor of the essential astounding 1990 book, Thriftstore Paintings (Heavy Industry, Library of Congress No 90 084442), Mr Cary Loren and the public face and legs of the later incarnation – Niagara. Here’s a very appetising and attitude-rich gathering together of 3 1/2 hours of their nutso recordings.
DAM had two very distinct approaches to recording, either drones and pulses set down as a framework with other instrumentals snaking around this constant, or sloppy guitar-based monster songs and chants overlayed with extraneous noise. The former methodology yields ‘Space Beat’, a loop of sci-fi signal enhanced with twin alto wildness; ‘Conga’, a steady congabeat on the floor tom with lurching waves of violin, distorted and with heavy echo; the hopped-up brain blistering ‘Japanophile’, haunting overdriven dolphin-speak direct from the tuna nets and a super-reet organ coda. Again with ‘Egypto’ and ‘Eiectro Banshee’ fine results from this same methodology.
The latter approach delivers ‘Vampire’, sung by Niagara with the great opening line ‘bloodsucking fever has got me again…’, ‘Paranoid of Blondes’, ‘Hunger For Death’, their own Criswell contrivance, and the hometown anthem ‘Detroit’ where they namecheck lggy Pop ‘he’s a David Bowie Puppet (down in Detroit)’, Ted Nugent ‘he’s a phony crazy mother (down in Detroit)’ and the Modern Lovers ‘Got the power of the AM (down in Detroit)’. It sounds like the Stooges playing on a tranny way off and a second vocal barked out Karaoke style. Like all the tracks on this collection apart from an intense live ‘Shakin’ All Over’ there’s the unanchored immediacy of writing to tape, exploring possibilities, not worrying about the practicalities of working up numbers for a standard rock band set up.
MICHIGAN, Book Beat Gallery 1995 ISBN 1-MI61648-7
Not content with making rock’n’roll, Destroy All Monsters were also driven to produce Art! They produced six issues of an eponymous art magazine, filled with collages, lyrics, photos and drawings, which are sampled in this book. I knew nothing about the band when I saw this gorgeous collection in Rough Trade, but it looked so great I had to pick it up. Now collected to accompany the above-mentioned CD set and a Destroy All Monsters exhibition at Book Beat. The sources for this book might be familiar: ’50s nudie photos, EC comic strips and magazine adverts, psychedelic / optical illusion graphix and of course the obligatory movie monsters (the approach / aesthetic is not dissimilar to Gary Panter’s). But I can’t resist the humour and imagination and visual flair of this stuff, and it’s a revelation to me that this was being done back in the ’70s. To save money, the original magazines were printed on whatever paper the band could find, often pre-printed materials such as leaflets. This process gave rise to unexpected visual effects. Geisha This! doesn’t attempt to reproduce the original materials exactly as they were published, but emulates them in spirit – so much thought and care has gone into the paper stocks, and printing different overlaying colours. It’s a beauty! Too much for one sitting, just take in a few pages at a time. Cary Loren writes pieces on both the band and the magazine, explaining the DAM manifesto and the different qualities that each member brought to the project and there’s a flexi single included to round out the package. Apparently a compilation of the film work by some of the members of the band is due. I wish these multi-talented individuals would put on a show round my neighbourhood!
Limited to 1000 copies.
Book Beat: 26010 Greenfield, Oak Park, MI 48237, USA
I’m a bit mystified by this band’s current huge appeal. Their work rate is indeed impressive: Stereolab are so prolific they make The Fall seem like workshys. In the time it takes to say Emperor Tomato Kitchen they’ve knocked out another three LPs and ten singles. But it’s a safe bet these will be filled with yet more similar sounding songs based around Modern Lovers and Velvets riffs.
For a band who profess to believe in experimentation their records show every sign of a risk-free studio recording technique: having quickly found a sound they were happy with they’ve stuck to it. Which’d be fine if it was anything to write home about but with the guitars mixed politely low, the bass muddy and the drums clear but weedy, it’s a pretty tepid brew. Only the keyboards occasionally make any impression. This restraint is matched by the musicianship. Rarely do Tim and the gang let rip enough for anything to really catch fire. Too often the listener is left waiting for something to happen, suggesting the band still has a key lesson or two about the dynamics of repetition to learn from their Krautrock forefathers.
But these misgivings aside, I can’t deny that Stereolab have produced at least a couple of really special records. I’d suggest you try their 1992 debut Peng (Too Pure, Pure CD1 1) and their first compilation of early singles and obscurities, Switched-On (Too Pure, Slumberland 22). What sets these apart is the vocals, which on later records consist more often than not of Laetitia singing over a second vocalist’s repeated cutesy French pop phrase. On these two discs more inspired second vocals are intertwined beautifully with Laetitia’s lines, behind which everything fails into place and the band’s musical faults seem trivial.
Half-Japanese: The Band that Would Be King
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, 1993
It’s a shame this documentary wasn’t made five years earlier, when the sentiments expressed wouldn’t have been undermined by the music – mostly studio sessions from Fire in the Sky and a lame roaftop acoustic set. Even the presence of Mo Tucker couldn’t persuade me that this stuff is anything but fourth-rate. The remainder of the film is entertaining fodder for the underground music fan: David and Jad Fair discuss their philosophies of music; the very odd Byron Coley holds forth on why Half-Jap are better than The Beatles; Penn Jillette tells an illuminating tale about the release of Charmed Life; and you do get odd glimpses into the inspired side of the Fair brothers’ work, courtesy of the video Half-Japanese Live in Hell.
Less rewarding by far was the gig at The Garage, 23rd September 1995: I’ve given this band the benefit of the doubt once before at the mostly unlistenable show at The Powerhaus, but this time there’s no doubt that the god-awful sound is at least partly the fault of the band. Jad Fair created more musical problems than he (or The Garage sound system) could handle, by including three guitarists in his band of merry men, plus a bassist; any dynamics in the songs being flattened out by the resultant overload of distortion. You’d think after all this time Jad would’ve got the hang of playing third-rate venues like The Garage – Boss Hog recently showed that it’s not impossible to achieve a decent sound – but he just seems intent on making things difficult for himself … and us.