Tag Archives: Magma

The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard Of: The Plastic People of the Universe-Or, Can You Arrest the Band and the Audience? They Did.

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“When an inquisition increases in severity, it regularly throws up bands of visionaries.” -Vera Linhartova, 1961

“one of the highest aims of art has always been the creation of unrest.” -Ivan Jirous

“Plastic people, oh baby now, you’re such a drag” -Frank Zappa and Mothers of Invention

Rock n Roll. It has been viewed over the years as a fad, a public nuisance, a social upheaval, something that needed to be watched, put down, suppressed-for the sake of the children don’t you know. Some view it as a party, some view it as a movement towards changing the way people think about life. This is a story about the latter.

On one hand, the Plastic People of the Universe (originally Plastic People of Universe-their English wasn’t so good) were like many bands popping up all across Europe-progressive leanings, improv jams, edgy jazz inflected takes on the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention, lyrically challenging and lyrically absurd. But one thing set this Czechoslovakian band apart from their peers: they were literally outlaws. Like the government is after them, the secret police are after them, the national guard confiscates their equipment after them, the  police burn their houses down after them, they end up doing hard time in prison after them. Their crime? Bombings? Bank robbery? No. Their unique crime that gathered so much attention was their ability to play rock n roll, pure and simple. And for some reason, that scared the shit out of the government.

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The Prague Spring of 1968 saw the Iron Curtain country of Czechoslovakia in a weird place. Stalinism was gradually phased out by the new secretary of the Czech communist party, Alexander Dubcek. Newly found ideas like freedom of the press, literary guilds, freedom of speech and freedom of travel helped people shake off the malaise of being a  Soviet colony, and things looked good. After eight months of relative freedom, the Soviet Union had seen enough. Nearly half a million Warsaw Pact troops and 2,000 tanks flooded the country to restore order and a more Soviet-like ruling system. Dubcek was shown the door in April of 1969 and a hard line party leader was installed. Slowly, all of the freedoms of the Prague Spring were reversed starting in August of 1968. Things looked grim. But a seed had been planted in the short time of relative freedom.

How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)

One thing that had snuck into the country during the short era of freedom was rock n roll albums. Once the curtain of totalitarianism had descended again, smuggling albums in was nearly the only way to hear western music. (the Beach Boys did manage to play Prague in early 1969).  To be a band in the new era of Czechoslovakia, one had to follow some fairly strict rules. Bands had to register with the government and get a license, had to adhere to strict and conservative dress codes and hair styles, were rarely allowed out of the country, and had to submit their lyrics to censors for pre-approval before doing any recording. Concert appearances were likewise regulated. The state owned all of the band’s guitars, drums and amplifiers. Czech tastes in rock n roll had previously been limited to cover bands performing early and mid 60’s rock classics. But Czechoslovakia had been a bit more westernized than the average Iron Curtain country. Allen Ginsberg had visited (and been deported) in 1965, and he had laid the groundwork for a counterculture vibe across all forms of the arts. Hair got longer, and a beatnik vibe overtook the youth movement. But some folks went huge for rock n roll, and the weirder the better. The more offensive, the better. Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground, the Fugs, Captain Beefheart were the signpost of a galaxy of weird that resonated with the more artsy circles of proto hippies, drugballs, aspiring revolutionaries, dreamers and artists that were suddenly cut off from the faucet of a thirst quenching world of ideas and musical mayhem beyond their borders. The government had called a halt to the party. What were a bunch of furry freaks supposed to do?

New Potato Caboose

“What’s it like making rock n’ roll in a police state? The same as anywhere else, only harder. Much harder”-Paul Wilson, Plastic People

The flurry of activity in government didn’t affect the rock scene much in the initial months of 1969. Milan Hlavsa, Josef Brabek, Jiri Stevich and Michael Jernek formed an early version of the band called New Electric Potatoes. The name change to Plastic People in homage to the Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention song gave their audiences a clearer hint towards their intents. Things didn’t solidify until the band fused with some important members of another Czech band, the Primitives Group. Guitarist and keyboardist Josef Janicek and more importantly non musician and visionary Ivan Jirous brought a double dose of musical muscle and visionary influences. The Primitives had been one of the weirdest bands in the country: hanging dripping herrings from the ceiling for a “Fish Feast” concert, covering the band in feathers for a “Bird Feast” show-‘happenings’ these might be called-decidedly and purposefully not slick and designed to freak people out. (songs from Zappa’s Freak Out album were in their setlists) With the voluntary dissolution of the Primitives Group in April 1969, Jirous then latched on to the only other enfant terrible band in Prague, the Plastic People. He saw them as the only band who could serve as a vehicle for his version of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable-a multi-sensory performance art based rock experience (the band and Jirous were huge Velvet Underground fans-the Velvets were almost more popular in Czechoslovakia than America). While none of the band had been overseas to America, they cobbled together what they thought would be a good approximation of what they were hearing on albums: dada-ist vignettes, killing a live chicken as a sacrifice to the god Mars to begin a show, flying saucers hung from the ceiling, home made torches across the front of the stage, elements of circus (fire breathing clowns), homemade togas, liquid light shows, spaced out jams, face paint-you know, general psychedelic madness. The band played 13 shows in 1969, the most they managed in their 40 year history.

Plastic People
Outfits and hair not approved by government

The band became a lightning rod for the freaks of Prague. However, the state had other ideas. ‘Normalization’ was the Kremlin’s word for what descended upon the arts scene. Censorship was the watchword. Bands were expected to clean up their acts, or else. The Plastic People stuck to their guns, refused to let government censors edit their lyrics and refused to get haircuts. The Czech government responded in January of 1970 by forcing them to audition for a professional musician’s license-then denying them for not cutting their hair short, and being a general menace to society.  To reinforce their point, Czech officials seized their government owned instruments, denied them access to rehearsal spaces and performance halls, and put an end to the proceedings. Things looked dark.

“It was clear we weren’t going to pass the state audition to get our professional status,” says Paul Wilson, former lead singer of the Plastic People. “We wouldn’t cut our hair, we wouldn’t allow our lyrics to be vetted, so we were kicked out. We were on our own.”

“Our manager (the well-known pop impresario Pavel “Cassius” Kratochvíl) had good connections with the official music organization and arranged for us to be given free amplifiers and instruments. Around 1970 however we had to play an audition for the committee responsible for registering bands officially, and they decided that our music was too disturbing for young people and very soon they took our equipment back. At that time the easiest path would have been to stay with our manager, cut our hair and get some tidy clothes. We decided to go in the other direction.” Josef Janicek

Long-Haired, Neurotic Drug Addicts and Mental Cases

“Long-haired, neurotic drug addicts and mental cases who take delight in the grossest of perversions and deliberately sing vulgar, anti-social songs”-Plastic People of the Universe review by state sponsored newspaper at the time

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The band vowed to soldier on, however. They scraped their meager cash reserves together, and got jobs as forest loggers to purchase their own used guitars and drums (drinking away most of the profits by their own admission), built their own amplifiers from scrap electronics and kept going. Jirous solved the performance problems by offering state approved and legal lectures on art: specifically the relationship between Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. As a member of the Union of Artists, Jirous could get the government to provide permits for large halls and professional sound systems to support the lectures. The Plastic People would be onstage behind a curtain-show a few slides and then pull the curtain to have the band give musical examples of what he was talking about. Eventually these ‘art lectures’ degenerated into a short introductions on Warhol and a couple of hours of Velvet Underground covers courtesy of the Plastics. It took a while, but the government figured out they were being tricked, and put an end to the ‘lectures’. Once again, things looked bleak.

Back To The Starting Line

Jirous had hired Canadian Paul Wilson to teach the band English so they could understand what madness was being spewed by the likes of the Fugs, Zappa and the Velvets, and pronounce things correctly in their slapdash cover versions. He eventually became the band’s lead singer for two years (eventually he was deported in 1977).  But with their instruments confiscated once again, the band had been knocked back to square one. They were reduced to borrowing instruments when they could, never being able to rehearse, and playing at secret parties.

“They were pretty much chewing-gum-and-string-gigs,” remembers Wilson. “We had no instruments to practice on, so the only time we played amplified was in front of an audience – you could say we weren’t very polished.”

Wilson estimated the band performed roughly 15 times in the 1970 to 1972 period.

The Heat is ON: 1973 -1976

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This is the era when the Plastic People legend was really born. Change was in the wind, and the wind blew in different directions. Musically, things got different in 1973 with the addition of saxophonist Vlatislav Brabenec, someone older and much more musically trained than the rest of the band. His addition brought two important changes. First, he demanded their set list contain only original material, and second that songs now only be sung in Czech. He brought in Czech lyrics by the surrealist writer and poet Egon Bondy. No more cover songs in their set pooched one of their last excuses of legitimacy to the government-‘we are just a band performing western rock because those bands aren’t allowed to visit here.’ Nevertheless, their newfound musical complexity led them to reapply for a ‘professional band’ status card. They were granted a license in 1973, but it was once again revoked within two weeks. Authorities claimed their music was “morbid” and would have a “negative social impact”, and once again they were banned from public concerts and had to retreat to the now familiar ‘underground’.

The band were not at a loss for creative ideas on how to get some illegal concerts going. House parties were the logical choice, but other ideas bubbled in: renting a riverboat for private tourist excursions, with the soundtrack on the boat provided by the Plastics. A Plastic People soccer team (with real uniforms) organized to play a village volunteer fire department. The after party? A Plastic People concert at the fire station of course. Then there were some large parties at weddings. The fact that the couples had already been married recently wasn’t shared with the officials. The wedding band? The Plastic People of the Universe of course. A new scene was growing larger as the Plastic People became the center of a second social and cultural revolution.  Newer bands like DG307, the Midsummer’s Night Band and later the Dog Soldiers were drawn in, and writers, poets, singers and artists came into a scene that was developing organically-and exponentially. The band had relocated to obscure Bohemian villages, as the heat in Prague was too much. The government had less control in the boondocks, and perceived dissidents had to leave the city for the relative safety of the forests.  Concerts were organized like American raves of the late 90’s-locations were kept secret until the final day, were generally very far out of town, and the exact location was spread by word of mouth only. People would walk for miles. You had to be literally clued into the scene.  It wasn’t long until the freaks began to gather in force, and in numbers that would make it hard for the government to ignore.

 The Merry Ghetto

 

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Booklet for Egon Bondy’s Happy Heart’s Club Banned

 

“The Plastics really started to get attention from the secret police when they started singing in Czech,” says Wilson, who despite no longer featuring in the band’s line-up, continued to be involved. “Suddenly they became more than a minor annoyance.”

Shit started to get real in March 1974. What became known as the Ceske Budovice Massacre saw the government strike back in a fashion that they never had before. Over 1,500 fans descended on the Bohemian village of Budovice for one of the rare secret Plastic People concerts. By this time, these were more than concerts, they were gatherings of the cognoscenti, the cream of the dissident intellectual crop. (There was a vibe of ‘hey, we’re getting away with this” if the Plastics managed to play for an hour without the proceedings getting busted up.) This time, the police were wise to the game, and were waiting in force. Fans were intercepted as they decamped from the train into a tornado of billy club wielding secret police. Government officials were there to take names, check IDs, throw people back onto a waiting government train to Prague. Hundreds of kids got arrested. Beatings and interrogations were handed out indiscriminately. Those who were students got expelled from college (the government paid for college, remember). The band did not get to perform.

Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club, Banned

Rather than back off, Ivan Jirous wanted the band to be a focal point for a whole new way of life in the country. He organized what was known as the First Music Festival of the Second Culture. The Second Culture was the designation Jirous gave to the collection of (literally) Bohemian dissidents and freaks as the antithesis to the government sponsored ‘First Culture’. Held outside of Benesov in September 1974, it was disguised as a wedding, and hundreds managed to attend. The band was getting more polished, and sounded like a hybrid of some Velvets, but elements of early Mothers of Invention, Henry Cow and Van der Graaf Generator filtered through an early Hawkwind scruffy lens.

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Houska Castle
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Czech out the hammer and sickle with hearts

 

 

The band was recorded at the time by friends at Houska Castle, 30 miles north of Prague  in 1974 and 1975. The intentions were to smuggle the master tapes out of the country and give the Plastic People a proper release-Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. To ensure the success of the endeavor, this information was kept secret from even the band (who were notoriously prodigious drinkers, and might let the secret accidentally slip).  The album was pressed in Ireland, the jacket printed in England, assembled in France and sent to the Netherlands for distribution (!). All benefits were listed for the Plastic People Defense Fund, London. They needed funds because the long expected day arrived. The band were all finally arrested.

Folsom Prison Blues

Future President of the Country, Off to Prison

The First Music Festival of the Second Culture had not gone unnoticed by the government. It had grown legendary in the underground among those who could not attend. The police had focused on the most vocal part of the group, Ivan Jirous-now known as ‘Magor’ (short for phantasmagoric, translating better as loony or crazy). Starting in 1974, Jirous would spend many periods in and out of prison-actually spending over nine of the next SIXTEEN years in prison. Jirous organized the Second Music Festival of the Second Culture in Bojanovice in February 1976, disguised as his own wedding. ‘Magor’s Wedding’ attracted fans from all parts of the underground, and oddly, no police attention whatsoever. Or so it appeared.

Less than a month later, the government struck. On March 17, 1976 there was a general round up of the counterculture. Simultaneous raids across the country bagged the Plastic People, DG307, Jirous…in all 27 musicians were arrested, writers and artists were taken in, concert promoters and hundreds of fans of the scene were rounded up and charged with disturbing the peace among other things. Musical instruments were once again confiscated, houses were ransacked, all of the bands tapes, artwork and notebooks were seized.  The Plastic People were left without any resources, instruments,  spiritual leader and now worst of all-without freedom.

This event did not go unnoticed outside the borders of Czechoslovakia. International outrage led to several of the band being released after a few months in prison. Vlatislav Brabenec, the Plastic’s saxophonist and Jirous were held, along with DG307’s Pavel Zajicek and singer Svatopluk Karasek. Paul Wilson, the person who had organized their one album being smuggled out of the country was deported. The government demanded a large show trial, to put the Second Culture on trial, essentially trying to end the hippie vs. communist question. The velvet glove and the iron hand were about to collide.

“I would say I survived about 80 or 90 interrogations, which was sometimes very exhausting,” said Brabenec. “It was at its worst when they threatened to kidnap my two-year-old daughter,” concedes Brabenec. “But I pitied these people, he said of his interrogators,  “I thought they wouldn’t find peace until the end of their days.” Others privy to the events  were more specific: “They would beat them up, drown them… it was torture,”

While the charges were almost comical–‘vulgar lyrics’, ‘anti-social phenomenon’, corrupting Czech youth– the verdicts were not. It was a foregone conclusion to all watching how this would end up.  Jirous was sentenced to 18 months, Zajicek to 12 months, and both Karasek and Brabenec to 8 months in prison. A simultaneous trial of three concert promoters in Plzen reinforced the government’s attack on the new culture.

 

 

 

Magor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brabenec

This verdict had the opposite effect of what the government hoped for. Powerful forces in the both the underground and mainstream Czech circles were outraged at the massive overreaction. Vaclav Havel wrote some powerful essays on the nature of freedom, and the huge injustice that had been done to the country. He contacted other western intellectuals and kindred spirits, and the cause of the Czech underground became an international one. The remaining Plastic People regrouped with a purpose. Vaclav Havel offered his own house and barn for recording sessions and underground concerts. The dissidents dug their heels in and once again the Plastics were more determined than ever. From prison, Magor tried to direct proceedings, which he now saw as quite serious-a struggle between the future and the past.

Charter 77

Charter 77 was written in the wake of the trial, and published clandestinely in December 1976. It was a manifesto and a declaration of intent-the underground wasn’t about to go quietly. Nine prominent Czech intellectuals from all walks of life were signatories to it, virtually guaranteeing arrest. Soon over 200 important Czechs had signed it. Havel was arrested trying to bring it to the Federal Assembly, and the Charter was confiscated. Unsurprisingly, copies had been smuggled to the west, and it was published simultaneously in newspapers in France, England, Germany and the United States. The Charter was represented as a “loose, informal, and open association of people . . . united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world.” The Czech government did not react well, with random arrests, deportations, interrogations, expulsion from college, loss of driving permits-general harassments. The Plastic People were not forgotten by the government.

Midnight, a New Day?

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Post arrest Plastics with Vaclav Havel (R) in 1977

“The teenagers in the boondocks had no idea the underground existed,” says Wilson. “Suddenly they did and it looked exciting as hell. More and more people found themselves drawn into the Plastics’ orbit.”

The band were followed wherever they went. Police were following everyone associated with the Plastics and the underground. They were once again forced to play parties in the woods. One uncomfortable consequence, though? Houses they played in tended to burn down after they played there. The police were immediately suspected, although there was little recourse. (the police did do it). Police surrounded Havel’s barn for a 1977 show, letting people pass (and taking down names), but not moving and letting the band play. (the barn was eventually burned down in retribution for hosting events)

Jirous was released but then arrested twice, once for ‘inappropriate comments at an art opening’ and then again for involvement with an underground magazine. He stayed in jail until the government fell in 1989. Brabenec had enough, and depending on who you listen to, was either forced into exile or petitioned to emigrate permanently in 1982.

According to Pepa Janiček, “Some secret policemen visited Brabenec’s home at night and said “so you play the saxophone? How will you play it after someone has knocked your teeth out?”.

In 1986, the Czech government allowed the first ever rock festival to be held-Rockfest 86. Bands who had been blacklisted for years were allowed to play for the first time. Things were starting to mellow.

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In 1988 the government offered the remaining members : Janicek, Hlvasa, Kabes and Brabec a devil’s choice: reinstatement of their performance license, the one denied way back in 1970-with a catch. They could never use the name Plastic People of the Universe again. Brabec quit, refusing to perform without the name they had literally given up blood, teeth and years of their freedom for. The remaining band reformed as Pulnoc, which means ‘midnight’. They were signed to Arista Records in the States, and toured America, to ecstatic expat Czechs and those in the west who knew the tale.

After all of the better than two decades of harassment, imprisonment, confiscations, interrogations and beatings-one might expect the story would end with  more of the same. But instead, quite the opposite resulted. The Plastic People of the Universe were asked to reform at the behest of new Czech president, Vaclav Havel. They performed legally for the first time since 1970.  Fucking unbelievable.

What About Other Recordings?

Although there are enough people in the west who have heard of this band, fewer have actually heard their lone album-most people who know of them only have heard this single album. And even fewer know there are a dozen or so essential releases out there, lovingly curated by GLOBUS International label out of Prague. They put together a stunning 15 Cd compilation of their various eras (insanely rare, fetching up to $1,000 online).   Single CDs are available from this set if one really looks around, and is willing to buy from overseas. The first CD in the set is one of the two treasures: Muz Bez Usi (Man With No Ears) 1969-1972. This one captures the band in the early days-some when they were still legal. Most of this is professionally recorded, something rarely afforded the band. The band is surprisingly tight and inventive-a hybrid of straight ahead Mothers of Invention with general psychedelic jamming. Overall, circa 1969 their blend of influences sounded not unlike early Amon Duul II (who were forming in Germany in the same months). The first eleven minutes of the album is a suite of a half dozen songs that gets the ethos across quickly, and is the best snapshot of what they were like in the chaotic early days-highly recommended :

Other pieces are harder to grab, but the next big one is the recordings they did once released from prison,  Kolejnice duni (Railways rumble) 1977-1982. The Third Music Festival of the Second Culture held October 1, 1977 was their first reunion show for the public. Known as the 100 Points, the concert was held in Vaclav Havel’s barn, and this recording is the 28 minute centerpiece of this album. Here the band has evolved into a completely new sound-Magma, Henry Cow collide with darker sounds-early R.I.O. (if there ever was a band deserving of the title ‘Rock In Opposition, it surely is them). Here is 100 Points:

Their 1978 album, Pasijove hry velikonocni (Passion Play), is Vlatislav Brabenec’s masterwork-he wrote the whole album to tie up all of the threads of Plastic madness up to that point in one single statement. (In reality, these guys had to know that every day literally could be their last). Don’t be fooled by the religious implications of the title-the band was finally making an oblique and thinly veiled political statement-persecution ending in crucifixion? Legally plausible deniability? (“C’mon guys, we’re only singing about Jesus! Hey, hey put that guitar amp down!”). Strings from Jiri Kabes were now becoming one of the signature sounds of the band-the link to their earlier Velvets days. Early Magma vibes swirl in with some early Hawkwind, Van der Graaf and Popol Vuh sounds-lots of Christian Vander intonations combine with Peter Hammill angst throughout-alternating with hypnotic instrumental jams reminiscent of Gong or Nik Turner circa 1971. The sounds of the forests are out in full force-again an R.I.O vibe. Stark, harsh and ominous, this is as close to definitive as they got in a single album, with some great meditative playing in there as well. Wide ranging, not easy listening but sometimes confrontational stuff.

Co znamena vesti kone (Leading Horses), was smuggled out to Canada for release in 1981, and is probably their easiest to find release. Poppier and less confrontational than Passion Play, it is the last to feature Brabenec.

An album was recorded in 1983, Horezi porazka (Beef slaughter), to be smuggled to Canada for release, but it had to wait 20 years until it saw the light of day. Here the band continues to develop the heavy strings arrangements that defined their later sound in Pulnoc. Univers Zero with Zeuhl undertones is a good description, but the band is starting to really carve out their own unique Bohemian dark sound-the sounds of the gypsy forests and of villages of centuries past weave seamlessly into one now coherent whole. Those paying close attention might notice that some of their more important riffs get recycled on future albums-the conceptual continuity that Zappa referred to in his own work.

The musical perception of this band as only the snapshot of Egon Bondy’s era recordings is really a crime. This band danced from psych rockers to Amon Duul-ish space rock to darker Velvet Underground to Zeuhl sounds of Magma and Henry Cow to flirtations with quirky Cardiacs and Devo inflected 80’s sounds to a final restrained dark ‘Univers Zero as a pop band’ sound that morphed into the above ground Pulnoc. That is quite a musical history journey for a single band, especially one so hassled on a daily basis, an amazing feat in retrospect.

The Power of Music-Never Underestimate a Hippie

America had a handful of bands that tried to stick it to the government and preached some borderline seditious vibes: the Jefferson Airplane, MC5 are two of the better known examples, with some singular examples like Steppenwolf’s Monster album also lurking in the background. But an important difference is that while American bands consciously tried to foment some level of rebellion, the Plastics were just going about their business, making music as art and being generally weird. But while hippies in America had vague aspirations to some formless change, the Plastic People helped literally overthrow the government, and one of their prominent literary advisers, Vaclav Havel (who had done time in prison for being a dissident) was now president of Czechoslovakia. Frank Zappa was an adviser to Havel, and flew into Prague and found a crowd of 5,000 awaiting him. Lou Reed came in for the extended inauguration proceedings in early 1990 to meet Havel, where Reed gave the president his new album, and Havel told Reed the story of his rise to power and the band that had provided the secret soundtrack-the Plastic People. Havel took Reed to a small club that night to see a band, and Reed realized they were playing a song from the first Velvet Underground album. Fans went wild when they realized that Lou Reed AND the president of Czechoslovakia were in attendance. Long term dissidents came to greet them and regaled Reed with tales of the days of repression-where they had recited Velvet Underground lyrics to each other while in jail to help stay strong. Things had come full circle as the members of the Plastic People wailed away on stage.

American hippies fantasized the dream-change the world and get enough power to start making the rules. Czech hippies didn’t fantasize, and it was no hyperbolic hippie hallucination: they were ones who actually went out and fucking DID it-they changed the rules, dumped the government on its ass, and installed one of their own as president-a president that has Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa albums in his collection. Can’t think of any countries who can say that. And that my friends…is the real power of rock n roll.

“All of the stupid brains are out in the sun: our powerful nation lives in a velvet underground” -The Sun, by the Plastic People of the Universe

We weren’t political, we were dissidents against our will’‘ -Milan Hlavsa 1988

 

 

 

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Pink Floyd-The Early Years Box Set: Price Check on Aisle One!

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Okay, the Early Years box set is the big kahuna, the whole enchilada-the motherlode of early Pink Floyd/Syd Barrett that fans have been waiting for…waiting so long that many have actually forgotten they were waiting for it in reality. But people were fairly ecstatic that a huge and I mean huge amount of Pink Floyd rarities were seeing the light of day finally. But then…people got a look at the proposed price, one of the eye poppingly highest price tags in the history of rock releases. And everyone drew a long breath. Does this thing have nuggets to tempt even the most jaded Pink Floyd aficionado? Hell yes. Does the content (27 discs) come up equal to the price? (pre release list price- $699.00, Amazon pre-order price $571.36 at the time of this writing). Well lets do the math. 571 divided by 27 is twenty one and change per disc. For a single CD, that’s a pretty hefty entrance fee. But multi disc sets usually discount pretty heavily. Most double CDs clock in at around $19.99. Triple CDs average $25. See there is an industry prescribed sliding scale for multi disc sets. But over twenty one dollars per disc for the full run of 27 discs? (actually with the DVD/BluRay duplicating each other, this is only a 19 disc set, at $36 per disc!!) Mighty strange marketing here. Are they kidding? Did they include something worth this literally obscene outlay of dosh?  Let’s look closer:

First, any Floyd head worth his salt  owns 90% of this stuff already. Vinyl and cassette in the early 80’s, CDs in the 90’s-whatever. But the list of famous bootlegs is long, and folks like the author and his close friends have owned this stuff on vinyl bootleg since 1979 ticked into 1980.

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You get the idea. There is a lot of good stuff here. Among the 10 cds, 8 blu-rays and 9 dvds are plenty of treasures. But we have already heard much of this. The legendary More Furious Madness from the Massed Gadgets of the Auximenes? Mostly here, yet not called that for some reason. Known as ‘The Man’ and ‘the Journey’, it was a 1969 concert slated to be released as a live album, but shelved for some reason. But something Floyd heads have owned for decades. The Stockholm 1967 soundboard recording with Syd Barrett? For many, this is the treasure of the box, yet it has circulated for a while on bootleg forums. 1965 recordings with original guitarist Bob Klose? Ok, that is pretty cool. The long sought after 1967 John Latham soundtrack recording done by the Syd led Floyd? Now we are getting somewhere. That takes care of CD 1 and CD 2.

1968 BBC sessions that have been heavily circulated comprise CD 3. Studio tracks readily available pad out this disc. Outtakes from More and some heavily bootlegged 1969 BBC and Amsterdam stuff comprise CD 4. The aforementioned Massed Gadgets unreleased live album takes up CD 5. 1970 BBC sessions (again, heavily bootlegged and common) make up CD 6. Zabriskie Point outtakes (these somewhat rare compared to the rest) take up CD 7. CD 8 is Meddle era 1971 with an early version of Echoes, again BBC stuff. CD 9 is a clunker-a 2016 remix of Obscured By Clouds. Why? The original is a favorite of many Floyd heads and was the opening section of the first leg of the 1972 US tour. Unnecessary. The final CD is back to BBC 1967 with Syd Barrett, some 1968 BBC stuff and the famed 1969 session they did for the moon landing.

The DVD and Blu-ray stuff is more enigmatic. First-is this set really a mixture of Blu-ray and DVD? Why? Blu-ray folks will put their noses in the air at DVDs. And DVD people will not be able to play Blu-rays. Puzzling in the extreme. (a closer look reveals that the DVDs and Blu-Ray duplicate each other-so it is really a 19 disc set, which puts this at a gagging price of over $36.00 per disc!) Yet this stuff is where most of the unreleased material resides. A compendium of exactly what is on the set can be found here.

A video of the unboxing with some close ups of the extra memorabilia is here.

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Five original facsimile picture sleeve 45s are included, as well as facsimile memorabilia (a la Who Live at Leeds lp) in a nod to the vinyl collectors (very few of who actually still spin 45s, as they are a royal pain in the ass to change every 3 minutes).

So the main underlying question remains: Is this thing worth it? Could I spend the same amount of money on something else?

So what could a budding rock aficionado get for $699? Let’s put together a comparably priced fantasy space/prog/classic rock new CD essential collection with seven hundred bucks to spend (using Amazon prices for new CDs), and see what we can come up with:

Pink Floyd -Dark Side of the Moon $7  A prism refracting white light into a rainbow on a black background

Pink Floyd – Meddle $7.50  Related image

Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother $7.00 Image result for atom heart mother

Pink Floyd -Piper at the Gates of Dawn $8.00 Pink Floyd - The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn special edition vinyl replica CD

Pink Floyd – Saucerful of Secrets $4.00 Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd – Obscured by Clouds $8.00 Obscured by Clouds by Pink Floyd (CD, Mar-1987, Capitol)

Pink Floyd- More $7.oo  Image result for more pink floyd

Pink Floyd – Ummagumma $16 Ummagumma by Pink Floyd (CD, Apr-1994, 2 Discs, Capitol) Remastered w/ Slipcase!

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here $9 PINK FLOYD**WISH YOU WERE HERE**CD

Pink Floyd- Animals $8 Pink Floyd - Animals (Remastered CD 2011) Brand New & Sealed

Pink Floyd -Relics $9 PINK FLOYD**RELICS (GATEFOLD/STEREO)**CD

Hawkwind-the first 8 albums in one box 11 cd  $39

Tangerine Dream- 3 cd 4 lp virgin box $11 The-Virgin-Years-1974-1978-Box-by-Tangerine-Dream-CD-Jan-2011-3-Discs

Ash Ra Tempel – Best of Private Tapes 2 cd $11 Ash Ra Tempel

Klaus Schulze – La Vie Electronique 3 cd  $20 Klaus-Schulze-La-Vie-Electronique-CD-Box-Set-NEW

Faust-Complete 5 cd $39 Product Details

Can-the Lost Tapes 3 cd $30 Can-The-Lost-Tapes-UK-IMPORT-CD-Box-Set-NEW

Ozric Tentacles-Vitamin Enhanced 6 cd $60 Vitamin Enhanced [Box] by Ozric Tentacles

Gong- the Trilogy box 3 cd $49 Gong - Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy [CD New]

Magma – Konzert Zund 12 cd $70 Kohnzert Zund

Grateful Dead-the Golden Road 1965-1973 complete 12 cd $70 The Golden Road (1965 - 1973)

Yes – The Studio Albums 1969-1987 12 cd $40 The Studio Albums 1969-1987

Frank Zappa –  Läther 3 cd $10 Läther

Sensation’s Fix-Music is Painting in the Air 1974-1977 $12 Music Is Painting In The Air (1974 - 1977)

Genesis-Archive 4 cd $57 Genesis Archive, Vol. 1: 1967-1975

King Crimson-21st Century Guide to King Crimson 4 cd $45 21st Century Guide to King Crimson 1: 1969-1974

Okay let’s stop there and figure out what we got with that haul. 16 bands. 25 releases. 95 cds. Roughly six hundred bucks. This would keep anyone pretty busy for….what, a year at least?

In the end, this box isn’t really universally the “unheard” motherlode it appears to be, but is coming from a similar place as Frank Zappa’s Beat the Boots box set, where Frank reissued some of the most important Zappa bootlegs in their original covers. What were they gonna do-sue him? So I hope this last part gives a bit of perspective on where your six hundred dollars could be spent otherwise. If this was at a more reasonable $15 per disc, it would be $285.00 for the box. This begs the larger question: “WHERE DID THE OTHER $400.00 GO? This might be where one could say ‘Can someone charge a record company with fraud?” and actually mean it. A box set that is priced $400 over what it should roll out at is……..friggin’ criminal.

And perhaps, in the spirit of the bootleg origins of most of the material on this Floyd box, and the spirit of the truly ironic, many of us will wait and…you know….see if it will show up somewhere sketchy for download instead? Shhhhhh…

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Image result for pirate flag

C’mon, SEVEN HUNDRED bucks for a fucking CD box? Really?

fortes fortuna adiuvat

Update: Warning-Caveat Emptor
Even at $400, this is still overpriced for what you get. On paper, the 10 cd audio content is tantalizing. In reality, the tendency to screw up remixes in sonic quality (which has become a trend lately) hits this package squarely on the nose, and bloodies up the whole thing. Huge clanging treble issues render much of the audio borderline unlistenable. In many songs, cymbals crash with a harshness that cymbals just aren’t supposed to sound like. The Obscured By Clouds disc suffers heavily from a harsh, unnatural and digital sounding mix that makes this particular disc something no one needs. If one is only going to listen to this on mp3 on their computer, perhaps some of the sonic problems would be less noticeable. Can’t say I know of anyone ready to dish out $400-$500 for mp3s though.
More specifically in the complaint department, why some of the BBC stuff I have owned on cassette since the 80’s is superior in sound quality to what shows up here is dumbfounding. It is like the research department spent zero time tracking down better versions that are readily found in the bootleg field.

Pet peeves:
Where is Let’s Roll Another One instead of Candy and a Currant Bun? My friends and I have had this for decades, and they didn’t bother to look for a version of it? Mixing out the chipmunk vocals on Scream Thy Last Scream? To what end I’d ask? The  1967 Advision sessions not included (which had Lets Roll Another One). Remixed Vegetable Man instead of the original mix. Stockholm live 1967. Sigh-vocals from the show are not up in the mix. Nothing to do about that as it was a product of the show at the time, but still, this holy grail bit is slightly underwhelming. In the Beechwoods, something discussed for years as one of the unheard Floyd masterpieces is an intriguing and out of character sounding instrumental, decent quality-is missing the vocal melody, an unfinished eye opener of sorts.
So, 8 of the video discs duplicate each other, the Obscured disc is a listen once throw away, leaving us 18 real discs at a minimum of $400 at this date (12/10/16)—still over twenty dollars per disc. The vinyl 45s suffer from a similar over equalization towards a harsher high end. Throw in defective BluRays that most everybody got and now have to exchange, and you have a product that is nowhere near even a $300 price point.
Some good stuff in there, to be sure, but dodgy sound on more of the live stuff than I expected, overly ‘high end heavy’ equalization yielding harsh treble across so many songs? Peeved. In the end, although this seemed to be the Floyd dream, it’s really not worth a huge financial outlay by a longshot. Fortunately, a friend kicked down to buy one, giving many a chance to hear the great, the good and the disappointing together. Try the $12 two cd condensed version of it first to give it a test run for the sound would be my advice. Separate sets are coming after the New Year to give the subsets of this more manageable release.

 

“There Is No Prog, There Is Only Zeuhl”-The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard of Redux: Unraveling Magma

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Magma. Just the word itself is intimidating. Part rock, part liquid, thousands of degrees in temperature. It can be easily outrun but is able to eat whole roads and towns. It can light the ocean on fire. Not a bad band name for what that can conjure up. And honestly, some of that is not a bad reference point. The fact that this band is so unknown 45 years into their career is criminal, as they are as groundbreaking as any of the legendary rock bands of the sixties. In a continuing series of ‘the best bands you have never heard of’, the monumental French band Magma is next up for unraveling.

When I first encountered Magma in freshman year of college, I was thoroughly intimidated. I was beginning to be drawn to weird bands-Genesis, Yes and King Crimson first, then Gong, Van der Graaf Generator and Hawkwind later. My main source for these bands was the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, a late 70’s publication by Harmony (and highly recommended)

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This book was my best friend and my bible when I was seventeen. I devoured it from cover to cover voraciously. It taught me the wonders of many strange things: Hawkwind, Gong, Gryphon, Can, Henry Cow, Kraftwerk, Mike Oldfield, Caravan, Soft Machine, Amon Duul II, Gentle Giant, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis-a whole world of European rock music that was decidedly strange and were offshoots into territory unlike anything I had ever heard of, some quite unlike rock at all. For a boy weaned on Blue Oyster Cult, Kiss, Boston, Yes, Rush and Derringer, this was mighty unfamiliar territory. One band stood out from the rest: Magma. According to the Encyclopedia, Magma was an early 70’s French progressive band that had essentially created their own form of music. They had planned a ten lp cycle describing colonists in space returning to earth and being viewed as alien conquerors that was to be called Theusz Hamtaahk. To further muddy the waters, the band (or more correctly founder Christian Vander) had created a brand new language to accompany this decidedly weird weltanschauung. The much maligned Rolling Stone Record Guide took Magma to task with one star reviews and described them as “Deep Purple undergoing a bout of colitis’. In retrospect, a more accurate smartass review would be closer to “Electric Flag and Coltrane attend a mid 1930’s Nuremburg rally”.  The language the band speaks, (all of the songs are sung in it), and have given themselves new names in, is called Kobaian. It has a decidedly Germanic guttural feel to it, alien and threatening. Horns and chanting are predominant, and although there is guitar, it lives mostly in the background. Drums and bass (sometimes two bassists) are essentially the lead instruments.

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I ventured into my college town to see if I could locate any Magma albums. I received either blank stares or astonished  splutters- a wee 17 year old chap asking for Magma albums? I located Attahk (a good place to start)  in a cutout bin of a tiny record shop and brought it home. The first thing I noticed was the names of the band members: Klötz Zaspïaahk, Stündëhr, Dë Wëlëss, Kahal Negümüraaht,  Stöht Ürgon, Wurd Gorgo…decidedly strange. Then the band member photos: each one was a skull x-ray. This was definitely a band cut from different cloth. Even their logo was mystically strange and compelling. Magma Live on the Tomato label was the only thing left in print in America (and is another great starting point for newcomers) was put on special order at another store, and took about six months to materialize. This double album, recorded live in France, captures Magma at the height of their powers in mid 1975. Vocalist Klaus Blasquiz wails away in falsetto Kobaian, Janick Top (the only co-composer in the history of the band) frenetically erupts on bass, while from behind the kit, Christian Vander intones some pretty heavy bass chanting to keep the gravitas solid. Here is a snippet of mid 70s Magma, with Klaus as lead vocalist, from their masterpiece Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh:

I became the only Magma fiend in my circle of friends and slowly accumulated all of their LPs in a five year period. Then, the more difficult task of acquiring the CDs came next. Emissaries were sent to Paris to nail down some essential and elusive titles. (As an aside-my second trip to the UK,  I spotted a Mini with a three foot Magma logo painted on the drivers door. I instantly set off in hot pursuit on foot chasing the car, but it eluded me at the second light. What I would have actually done had I caught the car was not really thought out. In the late 70’s, there was a rumor that an article in Playboy said that the headquarters of the US Magma fan club was located at UMass. In the early 80’s, I got off on the wrong floor in Sylvan, and as the elevator doors opened, I was greeted with a seven foot tall Magma logo. Holy shit! It was true!)

The years went on, and Magma remained mostly a European and French area gigging band. The band went through many lineup changes (over 50 by the late 90’s) and had some influential personages float through the band- Pierre Moerlen (Gong), Francis Moze (Gong),  Patrick Gauthier (Heldon), Daniel Denis (Univers Zero), Brian Godding (UK sessions, Kevin Coyne), Sometimes there were horns, sometimes no horns. Sometimes a powerful guitarist (Claude Olmos) and sometimes no guitar at all (Attahk, Udu Wudu). But through it all, they still maintained a fairly consistent and iconoclastic sound, easily identifiable. Below is a segment from 2005 that shows that 35 years into their career, the band can still bend reality and dimensions:

The band returned to the States in 2003 for Nearfest prog festival, and some sporadic shows exposed them to a new audience. I trekked down to Brooklyn in 2007 to a small low ceilinged club. Three female vocalists chanted ancient Kobaian hymns in perfect harmony, crystalline voices supported by the superb drumming of Vander. Part Elvin Jones, part teutonic ritual rhythms-the low ceiling seemed to lift to cathedral heights. My friend said “I get it! This is like opera as rock n roll.” She was exactly right-Magma’s music is a fusion of opera, rock, jazz, classical and a touch of the unknown. No band can touch so many points in one evening. And like German opera, you don’t need to know what they’re saying to enjoy it (there is no Rosetta Stone for Kobaian). In addition, Magma can also conjure up some moments that are very hard to describe-drums and incantations are chanted creating some very large group hallucinatory experience. Rock? Jazz? It’s truly difficult to pin down.

I gathered up a small posse to see them on a short US tour this year (2015). The band delivered two hours of magic-Kohntakorsz, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh (all forty minutes of it) and Slag Tanz comprised the set. Zombies was the encore. It was a completely devastating and powerful performance, and the packed house was silently stunned at the end. After the show, I watched folks trek upstairs to the backstage room. I took a chance and followed a group of Parisian musicians who were friends with the band and latched on to them into the room. Waiting patiently until they were done, I spoke in halting French to Christian Vander. He was a genuine presence in the room, like Hendrix or Townshend, this guy had created works of music so singularly unique and powerful that I was a bit in awe. He was affable and friendly, signed a CD, graciously listened to my terrible French, and gave me a huge hug. I have never experienced anything in my life like a Magma show. It transcends just a concert into some weird uncharted territory.

In the long run, Magma is so much more than a band. It is closer to a pre Christian pagan ritual-flames reach to the stars, drums thunder polyrhythms that induce trance like states and reality melts away. What is revealed is some inner truth. Part dark, part light but the world is stripped bare for all to see: Zeuhl (which supposedly means celestial in Kobaian) is at the core and pervades all. Much like the Egyptian philosophical idea of “as above, so below”, Magma’s music mirrors the vastness of a universe little understood by humanity, and throws it into the blender of human frailty and the horrors of human cruelty. Somewhere in there lies the superman, ubermensch, that flows through Teutonic mythologies, an ability to synthesize the elements and rise above it all. For all its militaristic underpinnings, Magma is essentially a spiritual release for the human soul, pretty heady stuff for a prog rock band. Their success depends on how far you are willing to immerse yourself into this world and surrender. Let the Kobaian language flow over and through you, let the magical rhythmic pulses of days gone by produce an altered state of reality. Then? You might be able to see over the edge, and glimpse another plane of existence. That is something no band in the history of rock music has been capable of doing at such a level. And the fact that in 2015, they are still capable of doing this live in concert is a testament to an unrecognized musical genius. Christian Vander says he doesn’t really compose so much as go into trances and let the music flow through him. This statement I do believe, for the musical output of Magma is truly otherworldly. Do yourself a favor, and take a dip into another dimension. No rock band can do that anymore.

The Best Band You Have Never Heard Of: Unraveling ‘the’ Cardiacs

cardiacs early color cardiacs

If there is one band that needs translating for Americans, it is the Cardiacs. (technically just ‘Cardiacs’ for those in the know).  Too decidedly ‘British’ for most ears on this side of the pond,  Cardiacs are hands down one of the best but most unknown bands for most music fans in America– that they deserve large accolades for a career of unending achievement, creativity and downright absurdity is a huge understatement. Sounding like a an unholy mating of Gentle Giant, Madness, Frank Zappa, Van der Graaf Generator, Marillion, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Stranglers, Devo, the Damned and King Crimson, the Cardiacs created their own mythology and ran with it. Ran far.  Stir in with their self created mythology a theatrical stage show, make up and costumes, heart stopping rhythms, and a whimsical carnival atmosphere and you begin to get close to the edge of their peculiar brand of madness.

The band had its origins in 1977 as Cardiac Arrest, a punky and choppy rhythmed burst of maniacal energy. Founding brothers Tim and Jim Smith were the mainstays. Tim wrote nearly all of the music and lyrics, diabolically complex on both fronts, (sometimes surpassing Frank Zappa’s level of genius in composition). But it wasn’t until the arrival in 1983 of the gifted William Drake on keyboards that the classic lineup of the band took form. With Tim on lead guitar and lead vocals, brother Jim on bass and vocals, William on keyboards, Sarah Cutts (later Smith) on saxophone, Tim Quy on percussion and Dominic Luckman on drums the band took on a new life. Gone were the rougher punk edges, arrangements became more musically spastic, and the insanity quotient was upped considerably.

At first they had a decidedly limited appeal, mainly because they were so utterly unclassifiable. In the early to mid 80’s, bands in the UK were sorted into nice little slots-punk, metal, ska, Northern Soul, pop, the occasional anorak progger, but these guys defied description. They were dubbed early on as ‘pronk’, a hybrid of prog and punk, and were the sole member of this unique genre.

coonssultant consultant

They dropped the Arrest in 1981 and became just ‘Cardiacs’, with the self released cassette Toy World showing their pronk style starting to really flower. But by 1983, the pieces were in place to conquer… not the world exactly but pieces of London one step at a time. Their stage show was a maelstrom of uninterrupted madness. Well, sometimes interrupted. Their label, the Alphabet Business Concern (their own creation) sent in a semi fictional ‘suit’ to keep the band in line-The Consultant. Accompanied by his secretary Miss Swift, The Consultant would show up in the middle of a concert to berate band members and generally complain about the band’s lack of commercial appeal and slovenly make up jobs and costumes. Brother Jim was a frequent target for abuse from The Consultant and Tim as well, coming in for a good dressing down at least once a show. Occasionally Jim would burst into tears as a result of the torrent of abuse. What the hell was going on here? Is this real? Is it theater? Audience members not clued in were extremely puzzled and sometimes annoyed at the intrusions during the set by these management types. Others recognized the Dada approach the band had woven so seamlessly into a ‘rock show’. Issues were further clouded when Sarah married Tim. With the last name Smith, she and Tim announced they were brother and sister. Then would make out furiously in front of the startled press corps when interviewed.  Their image in the UK was one of ‘what the hell is going on with these guys?’ on every level, with incest now added to the equation. A late 1984 slot opening for Marillion was met with regular peltings with thrown objects and beer. Apparently their appeal was a bit selective, though Marillion were huge fans.

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My personal favorite is the 1984 self released cassette, The Seaside. Whimsical and unsettling, like being dosed on a merry go round without being told, most of their core tunes are here. Gina Lollabridgida, R.E.S., Nurses Whispering Verses, Gibber and Twitch (that one sums their whole ethos in one tune), A Little Man and a House, and their eventual lone hit, Is This the Life? This is the one to start with, and is the single best encapsulation of their unique sound. I could listen to this album every day for the rest of my life, risking a stoning from anyone in earshot. Try to find the cassette version if possible, as the CD reissue omits 4 key songs. (Update 2016: the Seaside cassette is currently on sale from the band in its original form as a 2lp vinyl version, a cd version, and a deluxe version of LP, CD, cassette and raft of memorabilia in a box. Get it now, it won’t last.) Their first vinyl releases were the Big Ship EP and a rough live album, The Rude Bootleg in 1986. Both are hard to find, but contain strong examples of what they could accomplish in studio and on stage. Jazz, ska, punk, prog rock and music hall stylings collide, usually in the same song. Their first release proper came in 1988 with A Little Man, a House and the Whole World Window. It featured some rerecorded versions of the key songs from The Seaside cassette, and is considered their most famous album. It contains their only single to chart, a blast of un-Cardiac like pop in the vein of the Cure, Is This The Life?

The band began to fracture in 1989 with the departure of of saxophonist Smith. She was replaced by Christian ‘Bic’ Hayes, a guitarist of some renown. Tim Quy left in 1990. The loss of the sax and tuned percussionist altered the band sound significantly. Nevertheless, Tim and Jim soldiered on, until in 1992 their new label Rough Trade folded during the pre release of Heaven Born and Ever Bright, putting the band in significant debt. The future looked dim.

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But the band had some tricks up their sleeve still. 1995’s sprawling double album, Sing to God is considered by some fans to be their finest hour. It certainly is the strongest release of their 90’s era, and contains some classic songs-“Dog Like Sparky”, “Eat It Up Worms Hero” and others resonated with the power of their early 80’s work, deflating the opinion that the band was past its prime. The line up changes continued as the band settled down as a quartet. Guns, released in 1999 was their last studio album proper. A tad more commercial than anything previously released, it still retained the original imprint of the bands trademark sound. The band toured intermittently until 2007.

After releasing a single in 2007, things were picking up. But in 2008 disaster struck. After getting off a bus, Tim Smith was mugged by an assailant. During the mugging, Tim had a heart attack. The aghast mugger called for help on Tim’s phone before departing, likely saving his life. At hospital, Tim had a stroke, further worsening his condition. The long rehab process restored Tim’s mind, but sadly his body has not yet responded. At this point he is immobile and unable to play.

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My first exposure to the band was at the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival. I had flown over to England with my roommate to witness the starship Hawkwind in all their mighty glory, having given up all hope that they would ever come back to America. After a lengthy Hawkwind set the first night of arrival, the wee hours of the morning beckoned. Taking to the main stage at about 2 am were a band unknown to me. Looking like a twisted Eddie Munster, the leader of the band gyrated, ranted and chanted his way through utter musical insanity. ( a comment heard on site said “this is like that choppy shit your RIO friend likes so much-Art Zoyd, Univers Zero, Zamla Mammaz Manna). And choppy shit it was! Childish poems interrupted songs. “I stepped on a worm and I didn’t care, I picked it up and I said there there”. Saxophones, synth and guitars clashed in what seemed to be almost musical chaos, yet a thread of continuity wove the stops and starts together in some form of recognizable tune. Throughout it all, a repeating mantra was chanted, with every line ending in “but that’s the way we all go…” I was stunned at the end of their show. What the hell had I just witnessed? Were they fighting onstage? Why were they dressed like acid damaged ghouls? Did I even like what I had just seen? So I filed them away. Unfortunately I hadn’t quite caught the band name. Cardi-actors was what I thought someone say. But they had planted a seed in me, waiting for the right time to burst. The line ‘that’s the way we all go’ stuck with me somehow.

I continued to try to find out who I had seen, but clues were few in the pre internet days. A vague space rock influenced band called Levitation on Capitol Records crossed my path in 1992, and someone seemed to know a bit about them and said one of their members was from the Cardiacs. Aha! That was it! I now had the name of the band that had tattooed my brain so permanently and succinctly in 1984. But a search for any of their music in any store in the New England area was fruitless. Fast forward to this past year: I had the privilege of attending several My Bloody Valentine shows with backstage passes to all shows. My Magma shirt caught the attention of one of their guitar techs. We had a long chin wag about that bizarre band, Hawkwind and festival life in the 80’s UK. As a parting remark, I asked if he knew of the band the Cardiacs. He paused, rushed over to hug me, pointed to his older guitar tech partner and said “that is Bic, former guitarist of the Cardiacs, my mate and also one of my all time favorite bands in the world!!” Needless to say, we became fast friends as he had never encountered a Yank who had heard of them, never mind actually seen them. His enthusiasm was a catalyst to make me seek out their music.  I finally located most of their long out of print CDs (their albums can go for over 75 bucks on eBay) and started to infect my friends. Their reactions vacillated between consternation and delight when exposed to them. One comment from a first time listener: “their songs are like treasure maps, how do they find their way back to the starting point?” But a three decade long search was finally completed. The seed planted so long ago had bloomed in a spectacular fashion.

In retrospect, the Cardiacs approach updates the Kinks on The Village Green Preservation Society-preserving the long tradition of British Music Hall sounds that rang through every UK generation since World War 1, a sound very peculiar to American ears, but familiar to pretty much every single person in Blighty.

Few bands in my life have had to power to make me openly weep for sheer joy at hearing such music. They can do this to me regularly. To borrow a phrase, this is truly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. A band this talented and inventive and nobody in America knows about them? Go out and fix that folks!

A final spin around the block with Gina Lollabridgida…

Jodorowky’s Dune-The Greatest Film That Was Never Made

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The recent 2013 documentary currently showing across the country, Jorodowsky’s Dune,  is a heart rending masterpiece, a tale of an almost made film that was so visionary, with echoes of power that have resonated throughout the years that followed its two year aborted production. It was a hugely funded production that finally came to an unfruitful end in 1975. As a documentary, it is engaging and takes the viewer on a roller coaster ride. But the possibilities it hints at are more tantalizing than one could ever imagine. And I can imagine a lot. Picture a confluence of the giants and legends of truly mind blowing art: HR Giger, Salvador Dali, Moebius of Metal Hurlant fame (Heavy Metal for Americans). Their work at pushing the boundaries of fine art stretched from the 1920’s to the present, and had the common trait of being considered the top of their individual fields of operation. Giger and Dali were my college roommate and my favorite visual artists at the time. We both had separately loved early Heavy Metal magazine and had collected the art of Moebius for years.  Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd and Magma? Floyd and the extremely iconoclastic Magma were definitely in my top five favorite bands in 1982 (and still are to this day). This is a short list of a group of folks that I worshipped as gods among men circa the early 80’s, and I did not elevate many to this status lightly. How word of this project’s existence has evaded me up til now is something that is beyond troubling. This was a short list of artists and musicians that I saw as uniquely talented, without any contemporaries, and influential beyond belief. Very few in my acquaintance knew all of these personages and the novel itself as essential cogs of an unspoken cosmic ascension, so this list struck me as particularly mystical. Years separated me from the 1975 production, but had I (or my roommate) known what was up with this project in 1982, I know I likely would have sold all of my worldly possessions, and flown to Paris to devote my life to this picture. Some of the art production staff did exactly that.

 

The tale of how this film developed to the point of being at pre production 100% complete, ready to film, yet did not go any further is compelling. It is a tale of magic and madness, two hallmarks or true genius. The assembling of the players is a fairly unbelievable set of syncronicities that ended up echoing through the following decades of film and rock history. No film that was never made has had such a far reaching influence on the world’s culture. What Jodorowsky wanted at the time was to create an experience that simulated a genuine LSD experience. Pretty heady goals for the most liberated artist, yet this was his spoken aim. His unspoken aim was an exponential leap of consciousness: to mirror the film and use this film to inspire a new messiah among us, someone who could lead humanity from its earthly shroud to take us all to the next level. He wanted to do something sacred, he wanted to create a virtual and also tangible mutation in someone, anyone.  Ambitious does not even begin to cover what this man’s aims were. He was thinking about changing the whole planet forever through one single film.

 

Alejandro Jodorowsky was a throwback in art, one of the last true surrealists. Partly brilliant partly insane, he was able to follow an extra terrestrial muse that spoke snippets of disconnected truths of the universe into his ears. HIs two hallucinatory films: 1970’s El Topo and  1973’s Holy Mountain make Satyricon look like a Brady Bunch episode. A riot broke out at the debut screening of his first film, Fando y Lis in 1968, a reaction and honor that two other cutting edge folks debuts also received: Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring both caused riots (in 1896 and 1913 respectively, in Paris). But it is the cast of characters he assembled, all disconnected from each other, and then convinced to be part of what he called ‘my group of spiritual warriors’, that is his greatest achievement.

 

baron harkonnen  pirate baron palace

And who would Jodorowsky grab to make his vision of a book he admittedly never read until after beginning the project(!) easily accessible? Jean Giraud, better know as Moebius. His art almost single handedly carried the first major sic fi magazine, France’s Metal Hurlant in the mid to late 70’s. Its popularity caused a relaunch the next year in America as Heavy Metal. His art is flawless, futuristic, but perfect in perspective and vision in all aspects. He banged out storyboards at a rate that amazed Jodo (his nickname during the production). The complexity of pulling a single shot out of one’s head and translating to storyboard is expansive and expensive. Their ability to not only talk out the whole film quickly and get it on paper, then include camera directions as well? That is a symbiotic relationship that any Hollywood team would openly envy. He was the rock of the production, translating the master’s visions into recognizable form, 3000 pieces of art that told the whole story, with framings, special effects and costumes incorporated. Overworked and honestly under credited  in his talented efforts, Jean Giraud  brought an artistic vision that was the foundation of people believing this thing could actually fly. Jodo said on camera “How can I find this guy? There is not internet yet…” and then walks into a meeting and accidentally runs into Moebius there doing something unrelated. Bang-magic! He is now part of the team.  This happens a couple of more times: Mick Jagger having heard rumors he was cast as Feyd Harkonnen walks through a large crowd towards Jodo at a huge cocktail party and says ‘Yes’ instantly, without anything being asked  Jodo stalks Orson Welles in Paris through his known love of restaurants, and when the robust Orson doesn’t seem interested, Jodo drops the bomb that he has hired the head chef of that very restaurant to follow Welles and cook just for him for the duration of the production. Orson was now on board as Baron Harkonnen.

hr-giger-2 hr-giger-elp

H.R. Giger was the next artistic piece of the puzzle. His work embodies horror on a level that makes some reel out of an exhibition room of his work. The Necronomicon is a perfect example of what many call a dictionary definition of the dark side of the universe. His work was best known at the time as the album cover for Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery. (He later did Debbie Harry’s Koo-Koo). The demonic forces epitomized by Giger’s design of Castle Harkonnen were frightening. (And re-used in 2012’s Prometheus)

dali        Moebius_Shaddam_IV

The tale of the acquisition of Salvador Dali as the Emperor is even better. Dali was known to be what could be termed as  ‘difficult” throughout his life, but was even more prickly in the 1970’s. This was the era when he used to term himself ‘the Divine Dali’ in public. The association of HR Giger with the film had intrigued Dali, and he tentatively agreed to play the part. However, he wanted to be the highest paid actor in the history of film. He wanted $100,000 per hour he worked. A quick meeting with the producer brought back the answer-this was just impossible. But together they came up with an ingenious solution. Calculating that Dali’s actual screen time would be under five minutes, they then went to him and offered a modified pay agreement: $100,000 per MINUTE. Apparently unable to discern what they were up to, Dali instantly agreed. Now they had some important casting pieces in place.

lear dali

Dali demanded that his muse, the androgynous and slightly scandalous Amanda Lear, be included as one of the important cast members, Princess Irulan. In an effort to please the surrealist master, everyone instantly agreed. (Amanda Lear is a whole story unto herself. To this day no one can seem to agree if she is a transsexual or woman. Her dalliances with Brian Ferry and David Bowie were tabloid fodder for years)

David Carradine swallowed a a large and expensive candy dish full of Jodorowsky’s vitamin E pills during his intake interview and won the director over with his spiritual warrior attitude. He was to be the Duke Leto. Jodorowsky had tapped his son to play Paul Atreides, and put him through two full years of martial arts and combat training, seven days a week of physical and scholastic challenges to prep for the role of the messiah.

flouyd

The musical participants were to be chosen to represent each individual planet. Tangerine Dream, Gong and Mike Oldfield were early choices, but the director wasn’t satisfied until Pink Floyd was chosen to be the sonic equivalent of House Atreides. The scene where the producer of the film and Jodorowsky retell the story of trying to get Pink Floyd on board is intercut perfectly as each contradicts the others memories. What they do agree on is that Pink Floyd was convinced by a slammed door, a last ditch impassioned speech from Alejandro “holy anger” he called it, and a viewing of Holy Mountain. The band planned a double album devoted to Dune.

magma magma group

The choice of Magma to represent the musical theme of House Harkonnen made perfect sense at the time. They were from Paris, the base of this production, and if anyone could be called spiritual warriors, it was these guys. They invented their own language, Kobaiian (named after their supposed home planet), sang exclusively in this language that only they spoke, and recorded music that fell somewhere in between John Coltrane, Electric Flag and a mid 1930’s Nuremberg party rally. Nobody on the planet would have been a better choice as the militaristic themed Harkonnens.

Sadly, Hollywood was not ready to make this 12 hour film. Too cutting edge, too hallucinogenic, too visceral, too long….the list was endless. Everyone agreed it was brilliant, but sci fi was considered B movie drive in fare, not something to invest in. Jodorowsky had arrived a couple of years too early. 1977’s Star Wars rewrote what expectations for science fiction would be. (and borrowed bits from Dune quietly to implement into the background) Funding dried up, and as props were being built and sets started construction, the plug was pulled. Two years of hard work by some of the most gifted artists was flushed. Or was it?

The legacy of this film is in several things that happened later. The blockbuster reaction that Star Wars saw made studios actually go looking for sci fi films. This enabled the most important legacy of Dune, the 1979 film Alien, become a reality. With art direction from HR Giger, and the art pair of Chris Foss and Dan O’Bannon, the whole art design and direction team from Dune were in control. It was hugely successful primarily for Giger’s nightmarish set and character designs.

attahk

Other films stole directly from specific scenes in Jodorowsky’s widely circulated storyboard book. From films inane and sublime, many films looted the source: the first Indiana Jones film, Flash Gordon and Contact all lifted exact scene devices and costume designs from Dune. But there were other collaborations as a result. In 1976 Giger did the album cover for Magma’s Attahk, another product of the associations made during the making of the film.

joro

Some of the main players have died very recently. Giger and Moebius; last month and 2012 respectively. Dan O’Bannon died in 2009. But Alejandro Jodorowsky is very much alive today at 85, and still the energetic and questioning visionary he was 40 years ago. The film ends with him staring straight into the camera, avoiding the interviewer. With a fixed stare, he glares out at you challenging his critics and challenging the viewer. “Why will you not have ambition? Try to be immortal! Do it! Try!”

I will take him up on that offer. I think my roommate and I may have unknowingly done it already three decades ago.