AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #206 : SLAPP HAPPY

A GUEST POSTING BY ALEX G
From We Will Have Salad blog

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!

Side One

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.

Side Two

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.

ALEX G

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.

JC

LIMOGES

Limoges – an historic and picturesque city of around 140,000 residents, located in west/central France. Not a place that I was ever familiar with until the early 80s by which time I was in my 20s. In fact, if quizzed, I’d have struggled to identify it as being in France. Things might have been different in the city had been home to a decent football side, plying their trade against the likes of St Etienne, Bordeaux, Strasbourg , Souchaux and Nantes, places that I would never have been able to pick out on any map but which I could tell you were located in France thanks to the exploits of their teams in the one or other of the three competitions played out each season by European club sides.

It all changed when Paddy McAloon came into my life.

One of the biggest legacies of Postcard Records was that it demonstrated it was very possible, in the UK, to build up a scene and a record label around the music being played in a particular locality. The north-east of England, and in particular the area around Newcastle, was particularly blessed with talent in the early 80s and it was no surprise that two locally based club promoters – Keith Armstrong and Paul Ludford – decided to start up Kitchenware Records to which they then signed a number of popular, locally based acts. One of these was Prefab Sprout, a band who were fronted by a superb wordsmith and musician who drew immediate comparisons to Roddy Frame.

The band’s first single for the label was in 1983 and it was one which, the previous year, they had self-released on Candle Records, copies of which are ridiculously rare and therefore very valuable. It was the strangely named Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone), a gentle mid-paced ballad built around acoustic guitars, soft drumming and a harmonica. It feels like and it sounds like a love song, but one in which love seems to have been lost and yet the protagonist remains hopeful. The lyric is remorseful but far from desperate. Indeed it is a song which carries an air of optimism and hope. But what, exactly was it about?

Limoges was the answer. Or to be more precise, the fact that Paddy McAloon was missing his girlfriend as she had left Newcastle and moved to west-central France.

Lions
In
My
Own
Garden
Exit
Someone

Utter genius. And a helluva love song for Valentine’s Day.

mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)

Kitchenware, in collaboration with Rough Trade, had two stabs at making this a hit single, trying again in 1984. It’s still beyond me that it was never picked up and given any sort of decent listing by BBC Radio 1 and was restricted to being played in the evenings. This should have been a huge hit.

It also came with a very listenable b-side.

mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Radio Love

It is a gem of a debut and there are times when, despite many subsequent superb releases, I often think Prefab Sprout never bettered it.

 

JC

IT REALLY WAS A CRACKING DEBUT SINGLE (27)

MOD LIFE IS RUBBISH???

Today’s offering is for my mate DJ Kenno, who I’m trying to persuade to offer up a few guest postings.

DJ Kenno is a sound lad. He’s a mod at heart, even as a 50-something getting out and about on the country roads of the East of Scotland on his faithful scooter, albeit not as often or as carefree as days of yonder. I know that others who know him, including Jacques the Kipper, do their best to try to educate him in the ways of modern music but they are somewhat fighting a losing battle.

A few weeks ago, he used the words ‘not bad’ to describe this little corner of t’internet, adding the jibe that it didn’t have enough features on mods or mod music. I suppose it’s all down to personal tastes and however you want to define mod. There’s certainly been plenty of postings about The Jam, but they’re a beat combo I would classify under new wave/post punk rather than the category that first came into being in the late 50s and reached its commercial peak in the mid-60s. There certainly hasn’t ever been anything about the band most closely associated with the mod movement, but that’s changing today.

The Who are a group I’ve never really given any time to and this is on the basis of 1977 being ground zero and any bands from the 60s could be dismissed out of hand. I now accept that was a very stupid outlook to take but, hey, I was just a daft teenager who thought he knew best….I was no different from any other 14-year-old at the time or any 14-year-old who had gone before me or who have come since. I have, as regular readers know, softened my stance somewhat and have some sort of appreciation for music from my very formative years.

But not The Who.

I think this can be down to two things – Roger Daltrey’s long hair – which made him look like a member of the hard rockin’ bands that I couldn’t then and still can’t abide – and that the band loved to boast about how loud their live performances were, akin to standing next to a jet plane as it gets airborne. Loudness = hard rock = shit. Oh and they also had recorded a ‘rock opera’, the sort of things that were openly boasted about by prog rockers like Rick Wakeman, sad men in capes who thought nothing of playing 25 minute keyboard solos for long-haired fans dressed in combat jackets and flared jeans.

And while I still couldn’t today try to give you a ten-track ICA, I am more than happy to offer a chance to listen to their January 1965 debut single, which got to #8 in the UK charts:-

mp3 : The Who – I Can’t Explain

Ah….but all is not what it seems. This may have been the first 45 under the moniker of The Who, but six months earlier all involved had, as The High Numbers, recorded a track called Zoot Suit which had been written by their then manager Peter Meaden. It flopped and led to them deciding to go back to calling themselves The Who and concentrating on songs penned by guitarist Pete Townsend.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the riff for I Can’t Explain was used a couple of times by The Clash, on Clash City Rockers and Guns On The Roof, not something I was aware of in the late 70s.

JC

A REVIEW FROM 20 YEARS AGO (2)

As mentioned before, the idea of this lazy new series was inspired by the fact that I was struggling for inspiration for new ideas for 2019. Twenty years ago, we were on the cusp of a new millennium. It’s a period which already feels like a lifetime ago but, when you turn to the music, seems to have been just the day before yesterday. This new series celebrates those circumstances by delving into the archives to re-post a review from the period, to be followed by some thoughts of my own a full two decades on.

#2 : TERROR TWILIGHT by PAVEMENT (NME, 3 June 1999 – John Robinson)

They have the truth for you every time, Pavement. Have the same slouch, the same superbly articulate shrug, sure, but it’s the truth, the open-palmed, idly-tossed jewel in the esoteric fog that gets you. When they played in London last month, the group chiefly performed songs from this LP, and this is why. The songs may change. The essential thinking behind them doesn’t.

Stephen Malkmus’ truth walks, hands in pockets, through ‘Terror Twilight’ as it has through the greatest Pavement records, and pulls up to ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ and ‘Wowee Zowee!’ standing tall. He drawls it like he means it, throughout. “Architecture students are like virgins with an itch they cannot scratch”, he muses on ‘The Hexx’. “Never build a building till you’re 50/What kind of life is that?” Well, y’know. Exactly.

It’s this kind of thing that keeps Pavement completely essential. No radical overhauls have been made: their titles oblique, their instrumentation out there, their singer so lackadaisical about his lyric composition (most of the vocals on the record weren’t put on until the mixing stage). The beauty on ‘Terror Twilight’ is more striking because it sounds like it’s been stumbled on while walking out to buy coffee, trainers or tofu.

All of which might seem a bit unlikely. Pre-publicity for the album in America had hinted that this was the band’s third crack at recording their fifth studio album, that if it didn’t work, they’d have considered packing it in, which didn’t sound like a promising prologue to what has turned out to be a wily but consistent album. Instead this is Another Very Good Pavement Album, where the only real surprise – and though fantastic, filled with giddying disorientation it is not – is that its producer is Nigel Godrich, whose technique chiefly consists of weaving a coherent production narrative out of seemingly accidental noise. Pavement were doing that, y’know, anyway.

But hey. Or, as Malkmus shrugs on ‘Major Leagues’, “Relationships, hey, hey, hey…”. The important tone he cuts on ‘Terror Twilight’ is an early-30s equanimity with life’s vicissitudes, fallen off it a few times, but still riding a skateboard, amused and never frightened. He’s been “tired of the best years of my life”. Knows that, “Time is a one-way track/I’m never going back”. He could just be freestyling, and Pavement songs might not be saddled with the most orthodox of songwriting techniques, but off the Malkmus cuff is copious wisdom thrown.

The group crackles with the same kind of insight and intelligence. Though there are songs on here (‘Major Leagues’, ‘Ann Don’t Cry’) which rely on a slightly formulaic countrified mode Pavement have made their own, the odd places the group go musically (to The Groundhogs’ ‘Split’ LP on ‘Platform Blues’, Pink Floyd on ‘The Hexx’, The Jackson 5 on latest single ‘…And Carrot Rope’) and their slack, unhurried handling of the whole procedure make it sound completely ingenuous. They’ve got a quality you can’t buy, and that’s personality.

Irish folk tales scare the shit out of you. You’ve not looked hard at a foetus in a jar. Don’t drink from the tainted flute. This is Pavement’s truth: it’s probably yours too.

JC writes……

First up, it’s quite frightening to realise it’s now been 20 years since Pavement split up, with their last ever gig being in London in November 1999, albeit there was a touring reunion 10 years later. It’s been fairly well-documented that the recording of Terror Twilight and the subsequent world tour to promote it was very much the catalyst for the break-up.

It’s an album that I found very underwhelming at the time of release. It didn’t sound or feel like any other Pavement record which I put down to the songs being universally those of Stephen Malkmus with Spiral Stairs (aka Scott Kannberg) being left out on the fringes of things, so it was perhaps more akin to a solo project than a genuine band effort. I was expecting and hoping for more stuff that sounded like Stereo or Shady Lane and that the album would enable Pavement to somehow re-ignite indie guitar-pop after a prolonged spell in the doldrums after Britpop had imploded in such spectacular fashion. Instead, I found myself thinking it was akin in places to easy-paced country rock, (Major Leagues is a Tom Petty song in waiting), and, even worse, there were numerous tracks in which it was hard to discern any differences, wholly lacking hooks and riffs, which sounded like an art school project gone wrong.

In short, my views and thoughts couldn’t be further away from Mr Robinson at the NME.

A year or so later, some of it actually made sense when the next Radiohead album, Kid A, was released. It and Terror Twilight shared a producer in Nigel Godrich and it does now seem that much of the experimentation in sounds he deployed with Pavement would be utilised on his next project with Thom Yorke & co…..and it’s worth remembering that Kid A caused a lot of head-scratching at the time of its release.

A few weeks back, I listened again in full to Terror Twilight for the first time in a very long while….well at least I tried to. If anything, it is even more disappointing to listen to than when it first came out, failing to hold my attention span much and the FF button was utilised a fair bit, often in mid-song and then later to skip certain tracks altogether. There is some merit in album opener Spit on a Stranger while the closer, Carrot Rope, is one that I’d probably find room for if I was to compose an ICA of my own (Tim Badger pulled together a superb ICA in September 2015 – click here for a reminder. Interesting that he didn’t include anything from the farewell album).

mp3 : Pavement – Carrot Rope

As ever, feel free to argue otherwise.

Oh and if anyone feels like contributing a guest posting for this 20 years look back series, then feel free to drop me a line. All contributions are welcome and I never turn anything down (unless you happen to be suggesting something that’s already in the can!).

JC

MONDAY MORNING…COMING DOWN (3)

Week 3, and hopefully by now you’ll know the script. If not, go back 14 days for an explanation and 7 days to see who else has been in the series.

Going with a cover today:-

mp3 : Everything But The Girl – English Rose

From All Mod Cons, but I think Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt‘s version, which was recorded for NME compilation tape Racket Packet in 1983, beats it hands down. Paul Weller may well have thought so too, given his approach to EBTG to record The Paris Match when he got The Style Council underway.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF PAUL HAIG (Part 15)

So much promise within the press notes to accompany the release of the single….but when it failed to shift copies in any significant numbers, Circa took the decision to cut Paul Haig adrift, and in doing so chose not to release the album, despite Paul and many others thinking it was as good as anything in his career

All I’ve got to offer today is the 18 Feb release with the vocals provided by Voice of Reason:-

mp3 : Paul Haig – Flight X (New School Mix)
mp3 : Paul Haig – Flight X (Music School Instrumental)
mp3 : Paul Haig – Flight X (Mantronik Mix)

The decison to put the album on the shelf really was the lowest point in a career which had promised much but inexplicably never ignited with the general public.

Some old friends did,however, come to his rescue……as next week’s edition will show.

JC

SATURDAY’S SCOTTISH SONG : #147 : JACK BUTLER

Hailing from Stirling (a town in Central Scotland about equidistant from Glasgow and Edinburgh), Jack Butler were a four-piece consisting of Liam Kelly (vocals and guitar), Chris Lowdon (guitar), Allan Conroy (bass) and Greg Moodie (drums).

They released a debut 3-track CD single in 2006 on Whimsical Records, and as I said when I featured the band on the blog back in November 2013, lead track Velvet Prose did have a wee bit of the standard indie-pop sound that was all over the charts at the time but I was more taken by the two b-sides which took me back a fair bit to some of the best bits of the 80s. Candles seems influenced by the early Zoo Records stuff of the Teardrop Explodes and the Bunnymen with the angular guitar work found on Josef K songs. But it’s He Got No Game! which is by far the standout – it sounds as if the early Associates had reformed with Alan Rankine to the fore and a reasonable impression of Billy Mackenzie too….

mp3 : Jack Butler – Velvet Prose
mp3 : Jack Butler – Candles
mp3 : Jack Butler – He Got No Game!

A debut album would eventually surface in 2009, for which a writer with one Scottish-based tabloid paper went nuts, but it wasn’t enough to propel the boys to fame and fortune.

JC