The Opposite of The Ramones by Thomas Hylland Eriksen
The Opposite of the Ramones
by Thomas Hylland Eriksen
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Little did the founders of Compendium Records know that they were crafting lofty plans in the eye of a storm, wedged between the seven fat years and the innumerable lean years of progressive rock. For more than half a decade, adventurous, experimental music based on sound musicianship and an irreverent attitude towards musical (and other) conventions, had ruled the waves. The odd time signatures and occasional lyricism of King Crimson had filled stadiums in the US. Gentle Giant’s intricate, contrapuntal tunes had perennially been hovering on the brink of commercial breakthrough for seven years. Hugely popular groups like Yes and Pink Floyd were performing music that, in their finest moments, could only be classified as prog. Henry Cow and Soft Machine won awards and critical acclaim. Peter Hammill of Van der Graaf Generator adorned the walls of teenage girls’ bedrooms in Italy, and Phil Collins was still playing the drums like an octopus on speed (only to resurface, half a decade later, as Elton John).
1976, the year of Fidardo 1 – Henry Cow’s Concerts – was the last year in which progressive rock, or ‘underground’ (Hugh Hopper’s term), or ‘avant-garde rock’, could lay claim to its share of the mainstream music market. Ten striking albums released by Compendium Records, represented with one track each on this memorial CD, bear testimony to a time when genre boundaries were fuzzy, confidence in the intrinsic strength of good music was still healthy, and outstanding musicianship was considered an asset, not a liability, in the area of popular music. The launching of the label nonetheless coincided almost to a day with the ascent of punk rock to world domination and the broad dismissal of anything smacking of pretentious or ‘difficult’ music. Along with punk came other new fashions such as reggae, ska and – not to forget – the one-man movement called Bruce Springsteen with his honest, down-to-earth rock for the working man. Prog musicians either tried to adapt to the new situation (sometimes with lamentable results, as in the case of Gentle Giant) or went underground, and as it turned out, there was no viable niche left for Compendium in the ravaged music world of the late 1970s. The ten albums sampled on this release nevertheless represent more than a nostalgic look in the rear mirror; some of them sound as fresh, and as original, as they must have done in the 1970s. Notably, all this music is very obviously played, unlike much contemporary music which sounds more as if it has been assembled.
The opening track is taken from Compendium’s only profit-making release, as well as being the only mainstream jazz album issued by the label. Karin Krog, the acclaimed Norwegian jazz singer, teamed up in an unlikely partnership with the American avant-garde saxophonist Archie Shepp for the album Hi-Fly. According to legend, Krog dragged Shepp along to the Compendium office with a proposal for a joint record; since Shepp was due to leave on the following day, however, the entire album would have to be recorded on the very same evening; a studio had to be booked and musicians had to be found. The rush in the studio does not show on the album, and Shepp’s inspired postbop solo on ‘Steam’ wanders endearingly around, below and above Krog’s warm, rich voice. Apparently, Shepp caught his flight the next day, possibly in a somewhat drowsy state.
Vanessa could be described as Compendium’s house band, jointly led by the record label’s Frode Holm on keyboards and the saxophonist Svend Undseth. ‘Black and White’ was their second album, and ‘Street Talk’, the shortest of the four compositions that make up the LP, is a fast and funky tune initially driven by Holm’s electric piano. Tightly arranged and furiously played, the track ends with a fast, contagious tune played by Undseth, just about catchy enough to be performed in the shower by a competent whistler. When they were behaving like this, Vanessa were about as dancable as prog would ever get.
It was only on the fourth record that Compendium’s connection with Soft Machine alumni was established, through the collaborative efforts of Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean with pianist Keith Tippett and drummer Joe Gallivan on the largely improvised ‘Cruel But Fair’. ‘Seven Drones’ begins with a few minutes of uncompromising free blowing by Dean, hovering above a bumpy bed of massive drumming interspersed by sharp needles of mildly discordant piano stabs and a droning bass pattern playing by a Hugh Hopper who may have wished himself to a more mellifluous territory – and who perhaps is responsible for nudging the band towards a few precious glimpses of poetry in the second half of the track, which add nuance and beauty to an otherwise very hot stew.
Joe Gallivan, as it happened, would return on the next Compendium release, this time as a multi-instrumentalist collaborating with woodwind player Charles Austin and armed with the luxury of four singers for the remarkable ‘Peace on Earth’, represented on this compilation by the title track, a solemn piece almost approaching devotional music in its dreamlike progression from choral song with flute twirls to a melancholy sax exploring unfamiliar minor scales.
Saluki, apparently named after a dog owned by one of the band members, represents something very different again. With a horn section that could shame many a soul band and a lead singer in Freddy Dahl whose voice and charisma might –with just a wee bit of luck – have given the band (and label) some well-deserved commercial success, Saluki played a varied mix of funk, rock and pop. The upbeat ‘Come Down’ is a funky song placing the band in a territory occupied by the likes of both Blood Sweat & Tears and Weather Report, with blistering solos and a contagious funky groove.
Hugh Hopper was active in many constellations from his departure from Soft Machine in 1974 until his death in 2009, but his finest album was arguably the one released by Compendium in 1976, ‘Hopper Tunity Box’. A heady mix of unclassifiable but immensely listenable music played by Hopper, Elton Dean, Gary Windo, Dave Stewart (the organ grinder formerly of Hatfield) and others, this one-of-a-kind album has no fillers and not a single dull moment. ‘Spanish Knee’, the track represented on this compilation, is a fast composition where Dean’s alto sax does most of the melody work, and with Nigel Morris’ energetic drumming and Hopper’s intricate bass riff in the engine room, there is little space for dreamy moments here. This is no-nonsense, high-octane electrical music, and although it may be described as a crossover between jazz and rock, it is definitely not ‘jazzrock’ in the usual sense of the word.
Compendium stalwart Joe Gallivan, back with Charles Austin and a stellar team of soloists on ‘Intercontinental Express’, now reveals a soft spot for large-scale, minutely orchestrated prog-fusion of the kind also explored by the likes of Neil Ardley and Mike Westbrook around this time. With his two previous appearances for Compendium in mind, this contribution adds further diversity to his work, and it may also be the most satisfactory of the three albums, although the genre it represents – the prog-jazz concept album – would soon go brutally out of fashion. Built around a simple theme, the seven-minutes-plus long composition ‘Human Syndrome’ includes half a dozen inspired solos and beautiful ensemble work. Like many other ex-Compendium musicians, both Gallivan and Austin continue to make lovely music even today, but they have all but given up on the music industry, which was never capable of supporting them financially in the first place anyway. There is an important message about the flattening of the commercial music scene and the devotion many musicians feel towards their work, in the fact that Joe Gallivan now allows people to download his recent work for free from his website.
The next track is taken from Mirage’s ‘Now You See It’, a personal favourite from a vinyl LP I played to shreds in the 1980s. The CD was issued only a few years ago, and it took a couple of late evenings of detective work on the Web until I finally got to order mine straight from Brian Godding himself (who may still have a few copies left, by the way). Built around the contrasting work of Godding’s sophisticated filigree guitar work and George Khan’s muscular, straightforward tenor playing, the band was also blessed with a great rhythm section in Dave Sheen and Steve Cook. Ranging from the jazz ballad to avant-garde rock, Mirage was chiefly an improvising band based in north London. The music on ‘Now You See It’ is nevertheless mostly composed, and it still comes across as powerful, moving and original, thirty-five years on. Featuring Khan’s throaty tenor, the catchy melody of ‘King’s Heads’ gives ample room for improvisation, mostly by Khan on this track. For a full taste of Godding’s magnificent (and hugely underrated) guitar playing, the only option is to get the CD.
Moving even deeper into fusion country is the Norwegian band Blow Out, led by guitarist Jon Eberson and keyboardist Håkon Graf, both pioneers in the world of Scandinavian fusion. On this album, comparisons with the likes of Mahavishnu Orchestra are inevitable, although the jazz background of the musicians was always perceptible even at their most blistering electric moments. The track represented here, ‘Watching Everybody Else’, finds the group in a contemplative mood, with a lone synthesizer meandering above a thin floor of delicate acoustic guitar weavings; it could almost have been something out of Brand X’s acoustic catalogue, but it is unmistakeably Blow Out: a mature, confident and tight electric jazz band which – like so many other Compendium artists – would have deserved a tonne of commercial success, but – alas – that was never to be.
Rounding off this compilation is an extensive outtake from a Henry Cow concert at the Henie-Onstad Arts Centre in Oslo in 1975. Henry Cow, one of the most innovative and influential of the unclassifiable groups in the 1970s, were ‘lent’ to Compendium by Richard Branson of Virgin, and the double ‘Live Concerts’ show the group in a variety of moods, from the songs featuring singer Dagmar Krause (and, on occasion, Robert Wyatt) via extended instrumental compositions to the purely improvised ‘Oslo’, featuring guitarist Fred Frith on violin and drummer Chris Cutler hitting – it would seem – anything within reach. Although in some ways untypical of Henry Cow, whose studio albums rarely contained group improvisation (with the exception of side 2 of ‘Unrest’), the 28-minute long ‘Oslo’ is, in a different sense, vintage Cow, contrasting pastoral idylls with industrial alienation, tortuous screeching and screaming with beautiful poetic segments, bearing witness to a band thriving on contradictions and contrasts.
Many years ago I tried to explain Chris Cutler’s lyrics on the Art Bears’ albums (one of the successor groups to Henry Cow) to a friend, pointing out that although Cutler was a card-carrying Marxist, his poetry owed more, perhaps, to Hegel’s idealist dialectics than to Marx’s more earthy analysis. My friend laughed and commented that it did not appear to him that the Art Bears, although marketed as ‘rock’, were a serious competitor to the Ramones. In this he was doubtless right. As a matter of fact, if anyone reading this wonders where to place the Compendium roster of artists in the wider context of rhythmic popular music, they are right to feel uncertain – these artists thrived and developed in the interstices between genres – but one way of explaining it is by saying that Compendium stood for the opposite of the Ramones. That, incidentally, is nothing to be ashamed of. I should indeed imagine that young people listening to this wonderfully explorative music for the first time will soon be back for more. Unless, of course, they prefer the Ramones.