Last weekend I went to Cologne for a concert. This might seem an excessive indulgence for someone living in Kent, but you have to understand, this was Slapp Happy. Formed in 1972, the band has – to the best of my knowledge – played live just three times. The first was in London in 1982 (I was in Manchester at the time and only found out about the concert weeks later); the second was a small tour of Japan in 2000 (so technically speaking several concerts), followed by a performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London (which again I missed). The third was in Cologne, and after thirty-eight years of following the band, I was there.
Chances are you won’t have heard of Slapp Happy, because few have. Maybe, if you have made it to this second paragraph, you might be among the lucky handful who know of them, and if so you will unquestionably cherish them. There is no other reaction possible.
For those not aware, but curious, Slapp Happy are an avant garde pop group (paradox fully intentional), formed in 1972. Their members are an anglicised American, Peter Blegvad; a Briton, Anthony Moore; and German singer Dagmar Krause. Each with a background in experimental music and/or the literary avant garde, they produced an album for Polydor in 1972 entitled Sort Of which established their particular form of what Blegvad called “naive rock” or the “the Douanier Rousseau of rock’n’roll”. Where others on the experimental fringes of rock music challenged their listeners, Slapp Happy beguiled.
Their métier was a sort of artful artlessness; unassuming songs that nevertheless were brimful of witty or surprising lyrical conceits, with adroit musical structures that nevertheless sounded amateur in the best sense of the word. They sang of mysterious assignations, romantic longings and uncertain journeys, conjuring up vignettes with an artist’s eye.
It was just a conversation
in Grand Central station one day
I’d lost my occupation
Didn’t have no destination anyway
Their music referenced French chanson, Weimar cabaret, jazz and pop, the stand-out feature being Krause’s extraordinary voice, veering as it did between the declamatory and the disarmingly wistful. With their clear allegiance to the literary intelligensia (Byron, Kafka, Rimbaud each get mentioned in their songs) Slapp Happy were a European confection, untrammeled by borders, set free from convention, modest radicals in all they would do.
That first album failed to sell, not least because the band declined to play live. An equally strong follow-up album, Casablanca Moon, was produced in 1973, but Polydor refused to release it (it was eventually released as Acnalbasac Noom in 1980).
Slapp Happy decamped to Britain, where things more favourable for the offbeat, as Richard Branson had kindly decided that the way to musical fortune was to sign up the oddest and most uncommercial acts available for his Virgin label (not surprisingly, a strategy he eventually abandoned). They re-recorded the Casablanca Moon songs, replacing their original rough edge with a more sophisticated, richer production, released as Slapp Happy in 1974. Filled with catchy tunes, ingenious lyrics and smart arrangements, it too failed commercially (they still weren’t playing live).
Clearly indifferent to fame, Slapp Happy caused surprise by teaming up with rock experimentalists Henry Cow, attracted by their strong left wing stance. They made two albums together, one in which Slapp Happy predominated (Desperate Straights, 1974), as inventive as ever but with a much more jagged, challenging sound – agit pop, if you will; and In Praise of Learning (1975, and yes it’s a pun on Lenin), in which Henry Cow predominated. Krause elected to stay with Henry Cow, the others did not. And so Slapp Happy split up.
It was not long after that I first discovered them, through a Virgin sampler album V. The trio were then engaged on solo careers (Krause singing on Kevin Coyne’s peerless stage show and album Babble; Blegvad producing the ‘lost’ experimental classic Kew.Rhone with John Greaves; Moore producing Flying Doesn’t Help under the romantically suggestive pseudonym A. More, one of the finest of all unknown rock albums). Unexpectedly they reformed in 1982 for the perky single “Everybody’s Slimmin’” (boasting a typical Blegvad line, “How did Franz Kafka get so thin? / He ate himself from within”) followed by their first-ever concert, at the ICA in London on 10 September 1982. I’ll still cursing the fact that I missed it.
A tantalising extract from the Channel 4 broadcast of the opera Camera, with Dagmar Krause
They dissolved once more, only to reappear in 1994 to produce a televised opera, Camera (music by Moore, lyrics by Blegvad, Krause singing the lead). It was broadcast on Channel 4 on 6 February 1994, in the days when Channel 4 could still be counted on to do such a thing. Released as an album in 2000 under their individual names, rather than as Slappy Happy, it is unlike anything else they ever did, nor indeed like anything opera you may have heard (“The story of an imaginary country and tax-haven based inside a suburban house”, reads the pithy summary on the BFI database). My memories of it have faded, but the music alone is very fine and the clip that exists on YouTube suggests an innovative creation in need of rediscovery.
By now settled into an intermittent existence that followed no recognisable commercial pattern (if they ever had a business plan, it was a pataphysical one), Slappy Happy reappeared in 1997 on Branson’s V2 label with Ça Va, their most commercial offering to date. It boasted a rich production, haunting melodies, ne’er a dull track on the record, and perhaps their single greatest song, ‘Scarred for Life’, a ballad of wounded love.
Leave me something to remember you by,
more than a lock of your hair.
Leave me scarred for life,
show you really care.
In some other universe it was a huge popular success, but not in this one.
They carried on their separate lives. Krause as solo singer, specialising in Eisler, Brecht and Weill. Moore as a songwriter, penning numbers for artists as varied as Paul Young and Pink Floyd, entering academia as a professor sound and music at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. Blegvad enjoying cult fame as a cartoonist for The Independent on Sunday with his surreal ‘Leviathan’ drawings.
In 2000 Slapp Happy hit the road. Unfortunately for most followers, that road was in Japan, where they enjoyed a strong following. They played a number of concerts, as a trio, in Kyoto, Sapporo and Tokyo, releasing the CD Live in Japan the following year. Initially available only in Japan, it has a melancholic tone, led by unadorned accompaniment and Krause’s softening voice. It serves as a particularly fine introduction to their music (there are no new songs on the CD). As time as passed, it has become my favourite of all their recordings. A concert with David Thomas & Two Pale Boys and the Queen Elizabeth Hall was held that year, but news of it entirely passed me by.
And then nothing, until 2016, when the appearance of a Slapp Happy Facebook page hinted that something was a-foot. It is not at all clear why, but Slapp Happy decided to reform at the invitation of the Week-end annual music festival in Cologne, backed by the friends and contemporaries, the German experimental rock band Faust (who provided the backing for Slapp Happy’s first two albums). In practice this meant bassist Jean-Hervé Péron and drummer Werner Diermaier. And I was there.
What do you do when you meet your heroes at last? You just look at them, I suppose. Recognition is all you need. They come on stage, looking their age but also looking as though time has treated them gently. Moore, sporting a velvet jacket, appears the sort of genial chap you might meet in a wine bar, a dead ringer for the late Keith Barron. The tall, white-haired Blegvad looks, I must confess, somewhere halfway between myself and my father. Krause comes across as that kindly schoolteacher, now retired, who has never forgotten about you.
They and the bassist each have music scores on lecterns before them, and there is a sense of them not being entirely sure how to go about this concert business once again. It is, after all, sixteen years since they last played these songs. They are possibly under-rehearsed, and the first few numbers are plagued by problems with the sound equipment. Krause apologises, then looks all the more lost during ‘Heading for Kyoto’ where she is surprised either by the song’s key or pitch. The audience is a mixture, enthusiasts to the front, the curious further behind. The indifferent beyond them talk at the bar, and there is the sound of chatter throughout the concert. Occasionally the band engage everyone with some of their more upbeat numbers, notably ‘The Drum’ and the Velvet Underground pastiche ‘Blue Flower’, but as in life they slip the attention of the majority while conquering the hearts of the minority.
Gradually things come together, and the music delights. Highlights include an impassioned rendition of their homage to Arthur Rimbaud, ‘Mr Rainbow’, and the typically Blegvadian conception, ‘The Unborn Byron’, celebrating the poet yet to be born and probably the only pop song yet written to include the words ‘amniotic sac’. The audience understands the charm, and takes them to their hearts. Rushed for time, they abandon the idea playing ‘Scarred for Life’, alas, but are brought on for a quick encore, playing the chirpy ‘Charlie and Charlie’. They bow nervously, wave goodbye, and are gone.
Fleeting footage of Slapp Happy rehearsing for the Cologne show (playing ‘Let’s Travel Light’)
Slapp Happy were, and have remained, pure avant garde. They don’t always directly sound like it, but it is how they have lived it: always unorthodox, never travelling down anyone else’s furrow, at home in the vanguard. They and their fellow musical radicals of that time, the set that tend to circulate around Chris Cutler’s heroic Recommended Records, never changed the world but were not compromised by it either. That’s the special privilege of artists as opposed to politicians, whose own art has to be that of compromise. Artists need only do that which is true. How hard that must be, given how many fail to achieve such a pure goal, yet how easy Slapp Happy have made it look.
Let’s travel light
We’ll leave our bodies behind.
We won’t need bodies,
We’ll be all in the mind.
For the record, here is the set list from 26 November 2016:
Introductory poem by Peter Blegvad, Casablanca Moon, King of Straw, Silent the Voice, Slow Moon’s Rose, The Secret, Mr Rainbow, A Little Something, The Drum, Heading for Kyoto, The Unborn Byron, Blue Flower, Child Then, Let’s Travel Light, Charlie and Charlie (encore).
The WEEK-END Festival has published an interview with Slapp Happy, including video of two songs from the Cologne concert, ‘The Drum’ and ‘Let’s Travel Light’.
Just a hint that we may hope for some more music from them…
- Peter Blegvad has a suitably idiosyncratic personal website at www.amateur.org.uk plus an elliptical site dedicated to his Leviathan cartoons
- My less than polished photographs of the concert are on my Flickr site
- Not all of Slapp Happy’s music is available on Spotify, but the pairing of the albums Slapp Happy and Desperate Straights offers a good representation of their work