How to describe Slapp Happy? Literate yet playful might be a start. Or you could go with Wikipedia’s description of the band as “a self-described ‘naive rock’ group which mixed simple pop structures with obfuscatory lyrics drawing equally from semiotic and symbolist traditions”, a description which seems a bit obfuscatory in itself. Asking the internet for bands who sound like them, you just find posts saying nobody does – or listing so many disparate acts that it stops being a useful comparison at all. All of which makes them sound rather more outré than they actually are, though they certainly did always go their own way, and that way was by no means a straight path.
The Slapp Happy story starts in Hamburg in the early 1970s, where English composer Anthony Moore was writing music for films, and releasing albums of a minimalist, modern-classical bent, along the lines of Terry Riley or Steve Reich – very a la mode, but not the sort of thing that set cash registers ringing. If the likes of Riley and Reich were cult artists, Moore was downright obscure, and Polydor Germany were losing patience with their wunderkind signing. Couldn’t he, they suggested, go away and write something that would, you know… sell?
Slapp Happy were Moore’s attempt to comply with that request. Recruiting his German girlfriend Dagmar Krause as vocalist and American schoolfriend Peter Blegvad on guitar, with Moore himself playing keyboards, the three avant-gardists determined to make a pop record. Were they successful in this? That question is answered by the title of their 1972 debut album: “Sort Of”. It was the start of a career that packed in plenty of twists, turns and sideways lurches before the group split just three years later, followed by four decades of on-off reunions.
Slapp Happy have a relatively small catalogue with some fairly jarring stylistic shifts from album to album, making it quite a challenge to pull together a reasonably cohesive compilation. This may explain why they’ve never done it themselves. At a basic level, you can split their career into four phases according to who their backing musicians were at each point: there are two albums (1972-3) on which they were backed by members of krautrock innovators Faust, one proto-chamber pop album (1974) with session musicians, two albums (1975) credited jointly to Slapp Happy and jazz-proggers Henry Cow, then intermittent reunions with essentially just the basic trio, which cover a long period (1982 to present) but have produced only one proper studio album, 1998’s Ça Va. For this ICA I’ve featured two tracks from each phase plus two wildcards, which as it turns out are both from the “reunited trio” phase, but sixteen years apart. If you want to explore further, at least this should give you a pretty good idea of which albums you’re likely to enjoy… and which ones you probably won’t!
Casablanca Moon (from “Slapp Happy” a.k.a. “Casablanca Moon”, 1974)
Slapp Happy recorded their debut album Sort Of (which we’ll get to later) in Hamburg with help from members of Polydor labelmates Faust, and returned to the studio thereafter to make a second LP with the same style and line-up. Which, as it turned out, didn’t please Polydor one bit. The first album had been slightly more successful than Moore’s solo LPs, but still not a huge seller, so when presented with more of the same (albeit with, in my opinion, considerably stronger songwriting), they rejected the second album and dropped the group.
It didn’t stop Slapp Happy for long; they quickly fell in with the then experimentally-focused Virgin label, relocated to London and set about re-recording the album at Virgin’s own studio The Manor with more polished arrangements played by session musicians. The result was a self-titled LP from which this was the lead track and only single: one of the group’s most accessible and catchy numbers, and with its espionage theme it also features one of Peter Blegvad’s more straightforward lyrics. For the parent album’s 2010 reissue (as a twofer with follow-up Desperate Straights, which is an excellent deal), the album has even been retitled after this song.
Europa (from “Desperate Straights” with Henry Cow, 1975)
For the follow-up, Slapp Happy invited Virgin labelmates Henry Cow to fill the role previously taken by Faust. The collaboration generated two albums, Desperate Straights and In Praise Of Learning – the first essentially a Slapp Happy album with Henry Cow participating, the second vice versa.
The Desperate Straights tracks were by far the hardest to fit onto the ICA, but it would be a shame not to have the album represented somehow. Desperate Straights has much more of a Berlin cabaret feel to it, and is a stepping stone toward Krause’s more idiosyncratic recordings with Henry Cow splinter group Art Bears. You get the impression that Moore was rather relishing the chance to go a bit more avant garde again, but this particular song has a pleasing daftness to it and some nice use of brass.
Child Then (from “Ça Va”, 1998)
Having returned to his native New York and lost touch with the UK art-pop scene, Peter Blegvad had never heard of XTC frontman Andy Partridge before Virgin suggested him as producer for Blegvad’s 1983 album The Naked Shakespeare, but their working collaboration proved so fruitful that it has continued on and off ever since. This Blegvad/Partridge composition found its way onto Slapp Happy’s 1998 reunion album Ça Va. Having made their previous LPs in their mid-20s, the group were now approaching 50 and like much of the album, this song finds them in reflective mood, but an arrangement with some unexpected Indian touches stops it from getting too maudlin.
Everybody’s Slimmin’ (Even Men And Women!) (single, 1982)
Nothing maudlin about this one! A one-off single on something called “Half Cat Records”, which never released anything else and which I therefore assume was their own label, this synthpop outing was just too much fun to leave out. Peter Blegvad’s lyrics always tended toward the humorous (“I am to my bones a flippant individual” he declared in a 1996 interview) but this one is outright jokey. You could imagine this becoming a novelty hit in the musical climate of 1982, which is an interesting idea. It didn’t, though.
The Unborn Byron (from “Ça Va”, 1998)
Following the release of “Everybody’s Slimmin’”, Slapp Happy belatedly made their live debut with a one-off show at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts, but after that, nothing was heard from the trio until 1991, when Blegvad and Moore were commisioned to write an opera, Camera (as in room, not imaging device) for German TV, and brought in Krause to play the lead role. It came out on CD a few years later and it’s pretty cool but I’m not including anything from it here as it’s not really a group release, nor very amenable to having songs taken out of context.
Nevertheless it led… eventually… to a proper reunion, and what is to date their last studio album, Ça Va. For this one they decided to do without backing musicians and used a lot of electronics instead. Another change is that although Blegvad had lost none of his delight in the sound of words, his lyrics were generally less flippant and for the most part you could actually tell what the songs were about. You certainly won’t have any difficulty deciphering this one, and since I’m a bit of a Byron fanboy anyway, this charming fantasy was an easy choice.
A Worm is At Work (from “Desperate Straights”, 1975)
My second and last selection from the Henry Cow collaboration. I’ve skipped over the second Happy/Cow LP In Praise Of Learning as it’s clearly more a Henry Cow project with long proggy instrumentals and only one Blegvad/Moore song, “War” (later covered – after a fashion – by The Fall).
Although the Happy/Cow pairing was reasonably successful (certainly by the standards of the two groups involved, both having rather a “cult” following at best), it also sowed the seeds of the dissolution of both groups. Slapp Happy’s Blegvad and Moore found their humorous approach at odds with Henry Cow’s more politically-engaged outlook, and left the collaboration, only for Krause to stay behind. The depleted duo issued only one single, with Moore on vocals, before going their separate ways. Henry Cow themselves splintered soon afterward, with one camp becoming the Krause-led Art Bears, considerably less accessible but worth investigating if you like the Desperate Straights tracks. On the other hand, if you dislike the Desperate Straights tracks, I can promise you’ll absolutely hate Art Bears!
Charlie ‘n Charlie (from “Slapphappy or Slapphappy” a.k.a. “Acnalbasac Noom”, recorded 1973, released 1980)
This track begins a run of three songs on the ICA that I first heard as covers. In fact, Charlie ‘n Charlie was probably the first Slapp Happy song I ever heard, courtesy of an early 90s cover by Leicester art-pop supergroup Ruth’s Refrigerator. Their version isn’t much different to the original – even Slapp Happy’s version sounds like a janglepop song that could just as easily have come out in 1993 as 1973.
As to its origin… remember that album which Polydor rejected? Well, in 1980 Henry Cow’s Chris Cutler had it rescued from the vaults and issued on his own Recommended Records label, initially in a limited run as Slapphappy Or Slapphappy [sic] and then on general release as Acnalbasac Noom (under which title it remains on Recommended’s catalogue to this day). Personally, I tend to prefer the re-recorded album issued by Virgin, though I know a lot of people, including both Blegvad and Moore, favour the original recording. But hey, why not have both? In any case, this song – a vocal version of the instrumental title track from Sort Of – didn’t appear on the remake, so Acnalbasac Noom is the only place you’ll find a studio recording.
Blue Flower (from “Sort Of”, 1973)
A mere eight tracks in, we finally go all the way back to the start. Sort Of is very much an album of two halves: side one is mainly blues rock pastiches sung by Blegvad and Moore, with Krause only coming into full voice on side two’s stronger, folkier material. I would suggest it’s a “finding their feet” album. This Velvet Underground-influenced track is probably the album’s – and maybe the group’s – best known song, thanks to a couple of early nineties dreampop covers by Mazzy Star and Pale Saints.
The Drum (from “Slapp Happy”, 1974)
In the corner of the blogosphere I tend to visit, the 1991 cover of this song by Edinburgh duo The Impossibles seems to be considered a bit of a minor classic, due in part to a 12” mix by Andrew Weatherall. That cover is based on the 1989 version by US experimentalists Bongwater, but this is the original… well no, strictly speaking the version on Acnalbasac Noom is the original and this is a remake, but this was the first version released. Slapp Happy’s catalogue gets confusing like that. The Drum is basically a bit of a nonsense song, but it’s nonsense that sounds good.
Scarred For Life (from “Ça Va”, 1998)
Scarred For Life is actually the first track on Ça Va, but it seems more like a natural closing number, and thus, here it is. Perhaps the closest thing to a conventional pop song on the ICA (it only took them a quarter of a century!), but still with a clever lyrical conceit. We’re unlikely to ever hear anything new from Slapp Happy again (they still play the odd live show, but haven’t debuted any new material in over twenty years) but this isn’t a bad way to go out.
PS : Alex does such an incredible job with his ICAs, providing high quality copies of the tracks as well as the unique artwork for the front and back of the imaginary record cover. It’s only fair that I make these available as one file for downloading in addition to the individual tracks above. Click here for the package.