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Monday, February 24, 2003
Krautrocksampler and When Julian Cope Reached For the Stars -- Eight Years On
When he passes into the Great Beyond—which he will undoubtedly do with grand, epic flair—Julian Cope should be remembered as much for writing about other people’s music as he is for the music he wrote himself. That is no slap against his own prodigious musical output; indeed, his astonishing website, www.headheritage.co.uk no less than 33 recordings to his name under a myriad list of monikers cutting a wide swath of styles. Most are worth a listen, nearly as many worth your money.
Still, his writings, which include two—two!—volumes of autobiography and a manifesto on antiquarianism are nearly as accomplished – perhaps even more so. And with his 1995 masterpiece, Krautrocksampler (sadly, out of print), St. Julian very well proved himself, if not pop’s greatest writer, then certainly its foremost writer-fan. How else can you describe a book that single-handedly revived a bygone era by way of an encyclopedic knowledge communicated with the excitement of a bonafide enthusiast? It was as if your best friend wrote a book on your favorite music before you had even discovered the stuff.
I was a lucky man: I had not only purchased Krautrocksampler but in this pre-Napster/Audiogalaxy/SoulSeek era, lived mere blocks away from a record store that seemed to have every last recording the book recommended – and available for listening! Indeed, I couldn’t get enough of Damo Suzuki-era Can, kosmische supergroups Harmonia and the Cosmic Jokers or commune-turned-bongo-beating-rock-groups Amon Duul and Amon Duul II. I may have been raised agnostic, but in a matter of pages, Julian had converted me totally. And as any cursory listen to Stereolab, the Chicago post-rock scene or reading of The Wire would confirm, I wasn’t alone; long lampooned as the sound of acid-drenched German hippies incapable of carrying a tune, Krautrock was suddenly everywhere, with previously impossible-to-find records reissued by the VW busload. It had become a full-fledged revival, and whatever else people try to tell you, Julian Cope was largely the reason why.
Eight years later, Stereolab’s Mary Hansen is dead, post rock is creatively exhausted and the Krautrock namechecking has faded some. But while the hipsters have moved onto other genres to plunder—post-punk, garage, electroclash—Krautrock remains among the most fascinating, exciting of them all – the music classic and the release of Cope’s book certifiably historic.
Such were present and generally acknowledged circumstances when I pulled out my old paperback copy of Krautrocksampler recently. Unlike every other book I owned during the period, Krautrocksampler remains in almost mint-condition, as though I had barely touched it. To the contrary, for a full year, I hardly put the 140-page book down, constantly reading and re-reading passages about the latest album I’d bought or, worse, was considering purchasing. But the book was the Holy Bible as far as I was concerned: it was unlike anything I’d ever read and I suppose I felt it deserved some measure of respect.
And upon revisiting Cope’s chestnuts, I found myself as much in awe of the book and its subject matter as ever. Where so much music we grow up worshipping fits like a suit two-sizes too small in adulthood, Krautrock somehow remains surprisingly potent – its energy and passion as relevant to someone bidding adieu to his twenties as it was to pimply-faced Euroteens in the 1970’s. Why this is, I’m not entirely sure – many admired, equally mind-expanding musics fail to induce the wide-eyed wonderment in me they once did. But somehow, for some reason, Krautrock still resonates with me today. Still, I should add that with Cope’s words forever intertwined with my impression of nearly every Krautrock record I bought, distinguishing his impressions from my own has become nearly impossible.
Which I suppose could merely be the mark of a very good writer. A more academic reading of Krautrocksampler might find the prose to be overly gushy – despite claims that he does not use such terms lightly, there are countless “visionaries,” “geniuses” and so on strewn throughout the book – many made in reference to people like Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese, hardly poster children for quality control since the mid-1970’s.
But as even a cursory listen proves, Cope may very well have been dead right. As the wild abandon, the freeform, the motorik, and exotic-to-the-extreme textures would confirm, post-war Germany was dying not only to take part in the Sixties, but to take charge. From the MC-5-on-Mars of Ash Ra Tempel’s first record to the zero-gravity Arabesques of Cluster’s Sowiesoso—the entire Krautrock scene really did seem to have been populated by visionaries and geniuses just itching to take music into the future.
And, because this is pop music after all, there were charlatans as well. But far from the disdain one might expect for the parasitic corporate interests, Cope actually loves and admires their zeal, portraying them as grand architects of their artists’ visions. In fact, where Cope saves his most effusive praise—and that’s saying something—is for not a musician at all, but one Rolf Ulrich Kaiser, owner of famed Ohr Records and brains behind the Cosmic Couriers (it is perhaps because of R.U. Kaiser’s shadiest business practices that so many records were as quickly reissued as they were upon Krautrocksampler’s publishing in 1995). Particularly inspiring is Cope’s account of Kaiser’s unauthorized release of superjam sessions he’d arranged as the Cosmic Jokers in an effort to reclaim the affections of a woman feared lost to acid-guru Timothy Leary. As Cope tells it, Kaiser’s pilfering of the recordings in his semi-insane mental state was both noble in intent and heroic in execution.
Little released in or around the wake of Krautrocksampler aspires to such heights – by comparison, Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die today sounds positively inert. As much its own moment as a recounting of another, the book’s greatest lesson might well be that today’s would-be visionaries would be well-served by a little passion – or at the very least a greater willingness of those unencumbered by major-label contract obligation to grab hold of their freedom and take real chances. It’s hard to imagine many of Krautrock’s disciples ever doing something knowing full well of the risk in making a complete ass of oneself. Surely, Cope himself has made a career out of that lesson: I’m looking at an album sleeve right now where he looks to be wearing nothing but Ray-Bans and a diaper.
And I’m not laughing, so why should you?
Friday, February 21, 2003
New-ish blog added to the links from Perfect Sound Forever contributor, Jay Hinman. 's called agony shorthand.
Monday, February 10, 2003
As reported by various new agencies and the incomparable Dusted Magazine, Lou Harrison died last weekend. Aside from a vague rememberance of a Wire article recently which had amazing graphic design, as I remember, I knew nothing about the man until his death. That's when Joe Panzner IMed me on Monday night. The conversation started something like this:
Joe: Hey, you remember that composer guy I was supposed to go help bring from Chicago to Columbus?
Todd: (thinking to himself: this can't be good, is Joe OK?) yeah...what's his name...is everything ok?
Joe: Well...he died on the way here.
And so began my one week crash course in Lou Harrison's life and times with a slight break for a live show from the Blood Brothers (not bad at all). As I was talking to Joe, trying to get details into his death, I began to look at online details of Harrison's life, trying to get a feel for his relative importance or worth in the 20th century compositional world. A world that is Steve Reich, Rhys Chatham, Philip Glass, Lamonte Young, a few others, and not much else. I think the word is "tourist"?
In any case, the next few days I began to look into this Harrison fellow, found that he was known for incorporating world music into his compositions, that he worked with Schoenberg, that he was one of the first openly homosexual composers, that he was a renowned critic. And then I went to some of the concerts on campus that were held, now in his honor: chamber music- the guitar pieces sounded very similar to John Fahey (it's the only touchstone I have!), with an Asian tinge, gamelan music: the alto saxophone and a large gamelan ensemble do, in fact, work very well with one another!
And now I find that Joe had something to do with picking the pieces that were played at these concerts. I guess the point of this blog post is to smoke Joe out of his mass of work to say something acutally interesting and definitive about Lou Harrison, like I know he is capable, but these are my two cents on a composer whose work I never would have heard if it hadn't been for one of my good friends being with him upon his death. Funny how these things work...