‘Clumsy, often moving and continually embarrassing.’
Many thanks to all who liked / retweeted / made positive comments on the first instalment. For those who you who followed my previous blog about The Fall, I have to warn you that I won’t be able to bang out posts like I did with You Must Get Them All – there’s considerably more music to listen to and greater research required!
Founded in Hamburg in 1970, Alcatraz were originally Ruediger Berghahn (vocals), Klaus Holst (guitar), Ronny Wilson (bass) and Jan Rieck (drums). Klaus Nagurski (flute/sax) joined in 1971.
Their debut album, Vampire State Building, was released in 1972. Opener ‘Simple Headphone Mind’ (a title that NWW would recycle 25 years later in a collaboration with Stereolab) is a lengthy mix of calm, jazzy flute, bluesy guitar solos and free jazz sax.
The rest of the album follows a similar pattern, blending blues-rock and jazz in a generally effective manner, although Holst’s solos are a little domineering in places, and nobody really needs or wants the three-minute drum solo in the title track.
By the time the band’s second album, Energie Programm In Rock, emerged in 1978, things had changed radically. Wilson had left for a career in commercial music and Nagurski went into military service; Ed Schulze joined on bass.
Although opening track ‘Energiereicher Auftakt’ (see sample mix below) is a crisp, punchy burst of King Crimson-esque prog, overall the album is a patchy affair. Nagurski’s flute/sax textures are sorely missed; Berghahn’s attempts to make the vocals quirky and humorous are laboured; there are some ill-advised ventures into a poppier sound; and Holst’s rather ragged solos are often far too high in the mix.
In 1980, following the departure of Schulze and Berghahn, the band adopted an instrumental approach and reverted to its earlier jazz-blues-psych rock sound. Live (Trockeneis Zum Frühstück) saw Ralf Twellamn join on bass and also featured Rainer Hansen on sax and flute. It finds the band on a much surer footing, Hansen’s contributions in particular broadening the sound.
By 1982, the group were reduced to a trio: Holst and Rieck, with Mike Kann on bass. They self-released an LP called No.4, the two sides of which were labelled ‘Rock’ and ‘Jazz’. Both sides feel a little forced and bereft of ideas, and the crude use of ‘slap’ bass rapidly becomes irksome.
There wouldn’t be anther Alcatraz album for sixteen years. On 1998’s Holm, Rieck, Holst and Kann were joined by Matthias Petzel on guitar and vocalist Phama John. It was another radical departure: there’s a much harder edge to the sound, and Phama John’s vocals in particular make it a far more aggressive offering than their previous albums. ‘Last Station’ is a curiously effective slowed-down mix of early AC/DC and Beefheart.
The group’s final release was 2013’s Made In Germania, a live recording from 1976. Whilst they made a wide range of interesting recordings over the course of their lengthy career, this album captures them doing what they did best: bluesy psych/krautrock.
Älgarnas Trädgård (Swedish for ‘Garden of the Elks’) formed in 1969. They were active in the Swedish free festival scene at the time, and recorded an album, Framtiden Är Ett Svävande Skepp, Förankrat I Forntiden (which translates as ‘The future is a floating ship, anchored to antiquity’) in 1972.
Framtiden is a remarkable album, an intriguing blend of psychedelic krautrock and medieval/folk influences. The first track, the thirteen-minute ‘Two Hours Over Two Blue Mountains With A Cuckoo On Each Side, Of The Hours …That Is’ opens with church bells before morphing into bleeping electronica, undercut with melancholy, spacey guitar; this then leads into a sombre, menacing viola-led passage that might have influenced Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The final third of the song features deep, ominous vocal chants and ponderous strings that descend into fractured psych/electronic weirdness. The following ‘There Is A Time For Everything, There Is A Time When Even Time Will Meet’ takes a similarly eclectic approach, also throwing in sitar and tabla.
The whole album is deliciously weird, free-form and challenging; a carefully-blended mix of folk, rock and psychedelia that’s consistently both unsettling and entertaining.
The band recorded a second album in 1973-74, but it wasn’t until 2001 that it was mixed and released as Delayed. Heavier and crisper then Framtiden, it’s a more than decent piece of psych-prog; although it doesn’t quite have the unusual inventiveness of its predecessor, it’s well worth acquiring.
All 7-70 (Ritual All 770)
Alan Sondheim is an American poet, critic, musician, artist and cyberspace theorist. He was also the leader of the first artist included on the NWW list, although his internet presence doesn’t exactly promote this aspect of his work. As such, it was a little challenging to unearth much detail about the three recordings that make up this part of the list.
The website of ESP-Disk (the label on which two of the three recordings were released) has this to say:
‘Alan Sondheim was the young, exuberant leader of a pack of improvisers living in a communal loft in Providence, Rhode Island. Undaunted by attempts to categorize electronic music as the province of academic tinkerers — a cold, unfriendly realm, with its own authorities, audiences and mystique — they plunged fearlessly, joyously and unselfconsciously into the medium, discovering new way to express their ideas. Their ESP cds, ESP 1048, RITUAL-ALL-7-70 and ESP 1082, T’OTHER LITTLE TUNE, merge free improvisation and electronic instrumentation.’
Their first released recording was actually The Songs, on the Riverboat label. It’s unclear as to when this came out originally (it didn’t receive a CD release until 2005), but it was recorded in March 1967. According to the sleeve notes of the 2005 reissue, it was ‘a single improvised performance… the vocalists were not told how to sing it.’ Sondheim himself played nineteen different instruments, including a suling (Indonesian flute), shenai (Indian oboe), chimta (Indian percussion instrument) and bansari (Indian flute). Barry Sugarman added tabla and dholak (Indian hand drums) and naquerra (Moroccan kettledrums); a further five musicians (including two vocalists) were involved.
It doesn’t really work for me. There’s just too much thrown at you; nothing has a chance to breathe or develop; the sheer number of instruments involved seems to be the principal focus, overriding the aesthetic outcome.
Ritual-All-7-70, released in 1967, is more sparse and more successful. Although it still contains passages of frantic, urgent improvisation, the pace is more considered and there’s a balance that The Songs lacked.
T’Other Little Tune (1968) is, for me, by far the best of the three releases. There’s a much more experimental approach in terms of the recording, and the improvisation feels looser and less self-conscious. ‘Rock‘ throws shards of jagged reverb at a jazz-blues riff; ‘Breathe’ gives a skronky sax space to wander expansively; ‘Think Synk’ is a heady mix of glitchy beats, reverb-laden horns, demonic boogie-woogie piano and ugly stabs of electronica.
Mark Perry first came to public attention as the editor of punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue, which he founded in July 1976. (It is often cited as the source of the famous ‘This is a chord / this is another / this is a third / now form a band’ image, although this actually appeared in a different fanzine, Sideburns.) It only ran for twelve issues, the final one, in September 1977, featuring a flexi-disc that marked the first recorded appearance of Perry’s band Alternative TV, ‘Love Lies Limp’.
In a 1978 interview with the NME, Perry confessed that he had always seen Sniffin’ Glue as his avenue into the music business: ‘I always wanted to be in a band’. He had formed Alternative TV with Alex Fergusson, whom he had met in the Rough Trade record shop, the pair discovering a shared love of the Velvet Underground. They became friendly with Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P Orridge, and used TG’s rehearsal rooms at Martello Street (see the entry on Albrecht/d in the previous post).
Recordings of these sessions (with Genesis P-Orridge on drums) were released in 1996 as The Industrial Sessions. They’re not especially enlightening, mainly consisting of studio chatter and scratchy, skeletal early versions. The most interesting track is the discordantly warped jam, ‘Industrial Porridge’.
The earliest incarnation of ATV featured Tyrone Thomas on bass and John Towe (previously a member of Generation X) on drums. By the time that the band played London’s Rat Club on 14 September 1977, Towe had been replaced by Chris Bennett. The gig was released as Live At The Rat Club ’77 in 1979. Audio-wise, it’s a terrible recording (the Discogs entry notes, somewhat generously, that ‘this recording was made on a portable mono cassette player, and therefore is not of conventional sound quality’).
Horribly muffled as it is, Rat Club is still historically interesting. The ‘Love Lies Limp’ flexi had already marked ATV out as different from the punk herd, its cod-reggae/ska approach being some distance away from The Damned or The Sex Pistols. Rat Club reinforces this. Opening song ‘Memphis’, (notionally a Chuck Berry cover) sounds like a ragged Velvet Underground recording from c. 1966 until Perry’s vocals kick in. Particularly pertinent is the pairing of ‘Alternatives To NATO’ and ‘You Bastard’. The former, a lumbering, eight-minute atonal mess (which doffs a cap to Beefheart’s ‘Dropout Boogie‘) features Perry indulge in an extended rant where he reads out an anarchist pamphlet and describes an imaginary Soviet invasion; this suddenly morphs into the two-minute ‘You Bastard’, which is every bit as generic-shout-punk as its title suggests.
A ‘proper’ single, ‘How Much Longer’, followed. It followed a much more orthodox punk approach musically; the lyrics, however, sneered at ‘Nazi armbands’, ‘safety pins’ and ‘talk about anarchy, fascism and boredom’ (although they also mocked the hippies’ ‘long and stringy’ hair, ‘Jesus boots’ and ‘peace signs’).
Fergusson left the band at the end of 1977, going on to play in Psychic TV with Genesis P-Orridge. ATV’s next single was the curiously slight, dub-influenced ‘Life After Life‘. This was released on Deptford Fun City Records, a label set up by Miles Copeland (brother of The Police’s Stewart Copeland; another of his labels, Step Forward, released the first two Fall albums). Deptford Fun City was also the home of Squeeze, and their keyboard player Jools Holland played on ‘Life’. He also made brief but notable contributions to ATV’s debut album.
Those who knew of Perry via Sniffin’ Glue might have expected straightforward DIY punk thrash. However, whilst a couple of songs did fulfil that brief – ‘Action Time Vision‘ is a crisp, poppier take on the Sex Pistols; ‘Why Don’t You Do Me Right‘, although a Frank Zappa cover, filters it through a Sham 69 lens – their expectations would be confounded. The album was a mix of studio recordings and a performance at the 100 Club from February 1978. It opens with the sort of grandiose prog-style introduction (with synth provided by Holland) that punk had sought to destroy. ‘Alternatives’ (the ‘to NATO’ and the anarchist pamphlet by now absent) then settles into a gentle groove over which Perry encourages audience members to come on stage and ‘say what they want about a particular subject’. In Perry’s press release for the album, he said that:
‘The full piece concerns the presentation of ideas to the audience, and an attempt to break down spectacle/spectator barriers, by allowing audience participation. It works to a certain extent but the conclusion – chaos – is inevitable.’
This is a rather positive reading. What actually happens is that ‘Ivor Drumstick’ (who sounds very much like Gareth from The Office) invites people to audition as a singer for his band, a woman shrieks sporadically, someone asks the audience what their favourite TV programme is, another berates them for being scared of skinheads and then a fight breaks out. At this point we cut briefly to some dialogue from BBC2’s Open Door before returning to the 100 Club recording and Perry’s dismissal of punk’s breakthrough into mainstream media – ‘diluted shit’. It’s one of the most remarkable opening ten minutes to an album, somehow managing to be simultaneously banal, fascinating, inventive, entertaining and cack-handed.
The rest of the album is an utter mess, albeit an intriguing and often rewarding one. ‘Still Life’ sounds like up-tempo Slint; ‘Viva La Rock ‘n’ Roll’ opens with incongruous boogie-woogie piano from Holland, references Jim Morrison and Rimbaud over a driving garage-punk rhythm, then concludes with choral backing vocals and extravagant classical piano; ‘Nasty Little Lonely’ is a slow, bluesy number that takes a left turn into Black Sabbath halfway through; ‘Red’ is a startlingly ham-fisted take on Tony Iommi’s self-indulgent ‘FX‘.
Perhaps the most impressive track is the oppressive, paranoid ‘Splitting In Two’, which Perry described as being ‘about an individual in a completely confused and nervous state’.
It would be an understatement to describe the album as a little divisive. This is illustrated by the contrasting reviews of Record Mirror‘s Chris Westwood and Danny Baker, writing for Zigzag (you can read both here). Westwood thought it ‘one God almighty hotsy of the first degree, a 100 proof no bull killer which shows the second raters just where to get off’. Baker begged to differ, calling it a ‘pretentious bit of indulgence’ and a ‘disastrous LP’.
Despite the hippy-bating of ‘How Much Longer’, Perry’s next confounding side-step was to tour with Gong offshoot Here And Now (they even played at Stonehenge). The liaison resulted in a split live LP, What You See… Is What You Are.
This, however, was nothing compared to radical departure of ATV’s second album, Vibing Up the Senile Man (Part One). By this stage, Perry was the sole original member; he and Dennis Burns (who had joined just before ‘Image’ was recorded) played virtually everything on the album (although Genesis P-Orridge contributed to three songs) and apparently every track was recorded in a single take. Senile Man wasn’t as divisive as its predecessor as pretty much everyone hated it. The closest to a positive comment came from the NME‘s Paul Morley: ‘clumsy, often moving and continually embarrassing’.
For anyone who bought it on the strength of ‘Loves Lie Limp’ or ‘Action Time Vision’, Senile Man must have been a considerable shock. Perry had been listening to artists such as Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and it shows. Not only are there no sharp, hooky punk tunes, the whole album is a sprawling piece of abstract, atonal experimentation. The incongruous juxtaposition of Perry’s strong cockney accent against the fragmentary, atonal sounds makes for an even more bizarre effect. (I have to confess that – as a matter of personal taste – his accent does occasionally grate on my ears). The weirdly touching ‘Facing Up To The Facts‘ is the only track that has anything like a recognisable melody; the sole use of coherent or conventional percussion comes on ‘Graves of Deluxe Green‘, which sees the band once again delve into Black Sabbath territory.
Senile Man‘s excursion into the avant-garde is brave, admirable and inventive. Perry doesn’t always quite pull it off, however, as his lyrics occasionally fall short of the poetic abstraction for which he seems to be aiming. This is most notable in ‘The Radio Story’, which seems to be striving for something like the Velvet Underground’s ‘The Gift‘ but is let down by his clunky, prosaic lyrics – perhaps a result of the determinedly ‘first-take’ approach.
‘There’s too many bands already playing their greatest hits on stage without A.T.V doing it as well. I mean it would be taking advantage of people if we went on playing stuff like Action Time Vision and getting away with it. We thought that audiences would appreciate the fact that ATV were trying to progress and we’re trying to write new music on stage.’
Perry changed the group’s name to The Good Missionaries. A C60 release, Scars On Sunday, featured ATV’s penultimate gig (recorded at Greenwich Theatre in April 1979) on one side, and The Good Missionaries’ debut performance at the Lyceum in May on the other. The A side sees the band attempting to capture Senile Man‘s approach on stage, with variable results. Perry is in confrontational mood, telling a member of the audience questioning the length of the songs that ‘the next one is going to last a couple of weeks’. The last couple of minutes captures a chaotic stage invasion.
The three Lyceum tracks on the b-side are improvised jams. ‘Bottom Of The World’ is muffled, aimless and self-indulgent. The 17-minute ‘Good Missionary Goes For A Walk’ has a bit more edge and drive about it, but still feels as if it’s being played for the benefit of the band rather than the audience. ‘The Morning They Took Me Away’ is a fractured punk/dub/space-rock hybrid.
Perry was nothing if not productive, and a full-length Good Missionaries LP, Fire From Heaven, emerged before 1979 was over. Recorded live in May and June, it maintains the avant-rock approach of Scars, but is much more tight and focused. Henry Badowski’s sax work also broadens the texture. (Side A / Side B)
Perry released his first solo album in 1980. Snappy Turns opens with the title track, a crisp, syncopated, almost jazzy number. Things become distinctly more experimental thereafter, but overall Perry hits a generally successful balance between the avant-garde and conventional. The vocals on ‘Inside’ are a little painful in places, but ‘At War’ is an excellent Beefheart-esque freak-out, and ‘Quagga’s Last Stand‘ is a lovely mix of jazz sax and meandering electronica. The album is arguably one of Perry’s best pieces of work.
Alternative TV made a surprise return in 1981. Strange Kicks was released on IRS, another of Miles Copeland’s labels, home to the first few REM albums. It’s accessible, mainstream and verges on the insipid. The diversions into electro-pop (such as ‘Communicate‘) were ill-advised. Perry had many talents, but his grasp of melody was not one of them, and this set of conventional tunes leaves his singing painfully exposed in places, for example on the awkward ‘Mirror Boy‘. 1987’s Peep Show was a solid enough if not especially inspiring set of post-punk tunes; My Life As A Child Star (1994) was rather ordinary. Apollo, released in 1999, flirted with big-beat/electro rhythms and has its interesting moments.
Revolution, released in 2001, opens with a title track that sounds like Motorhead. Thereafter it flirts occasionally with a spot of dub, but is dominated by predictable new wave chug. Their final album, Opposing Forces (2015), takes a couple of engaging diversions (‘Dream’ and ‘Stars‘, for example), but once again is too often generic.
In 1968, Marc Blanc and Patrick Fontaine played in the Bananamoon Band alongside Daevid Allen (between him leaving Soft Machine and founding Gong). In 1969, Blanc and Fontaine were joined by François Garrel (flute) and Bernard Lavialle (guitar) and formed Ame Son.
Their debut album, Catalyse, was released in 1970. (N.B. The Discogs entry for the album suggests that there is some confusion across the various issues of the album regarding track information; this is notable with several of the videos available on YouTube. Apologies if I have mismatched any!)
The album is a refreshing mix of jazzy prog, French pop and space-rock; the Gong connection is certainly audible on several tracks, for example ‘Seventh Time Key’ (here incorrectly titled as ‘Hein, Quant a Tai’).
‘Enclosion’ (or at least what this issue claims to be ‘Enclosion’) features a pleasing mix of restrained free-jazz improvisation, melodic, bluesy wah-wah prog and early Genesis-style pastoral gentleness.
Catalyse is not completely flawless. The vocals in particular are rather hit and miss, and the musicianship is not always fluid enough to pull off the range of styles attempted. That said, the occasional lapses into amateurishness are endearing rather than irritating, and it provides an historically interesting insight into the late 60s/early 70s underground French prog scene.
A 2016 Russian reissue included nearly an hour’s worth of bonus material. One highlight is the poppy, skittering 1969 single, ‘Je Veux Juste Dire’; another is a sprawling, 25 minute demo version of the same song.
Ame Son disbanded in 1971. Prog Archives suggests that they reformed in 1973 ‘and are still playing together from time to time’, although I can’t find much evidence of this other than the fact that the sleeve notes to Primitive Expression allude to a couple of tracks being recorded in 1975-76.
Primitive Expression, released in 1998, compiles a range of unreleased outtakes and live tracks from 1969-1976. Much of it consists of the lengthy demo of ‘Je Veux Juste Dire’ split into several separate tracks (one of which is in the sample mix below), but it also includes a 1975 recording of ‘Sweet Georgia’. This was written by Bernard Stisi who, along with Blanc, Fontaine and Lavialle was in pre-Ame Son outfit Les Primitivs.
The sleeve notes point out the Yardbirds influence apparent on ‘Sweet Georgia’, a decent enough slice of 60s blues/garage-pop, also notable for the odd pronunciation (‘sweet jaw-jigh-ah’) of the the title character.
Live recording ‘Le dédale‘, from 1976, is a slow, smokey blues with an Eastern tinge, recorded by an incarnation of the band where only Blanc remained from the original line-up.
NWWL Mix #02
I do not own the rights to any of this music, and will happily remove anything if asked by anyone who does so.