LAST week we examined the career of Blondie, who sold forty million albums worldwide. Today we have another female-fronted band, but this lot would have been chuffed to sell forty thousand.
Slapp Happy are an Anglo/German/American avant garde threesome founded in the early Seventies, noted for quirky songs and unusual arrangements. They have never achieved commercial success but (or should that be and?) I still greatly enjoy their music. I was delighted recently to discover their debut album, which I had never even heard of.
It all began in Hamburg, where Anthony Moore (born 1948), a British composer of experimental music, recorded two albums for Polydor Germany but had a third rejected for being too obscure. He responded by forming a pop group with his German girlfriend Dagmar Krause (born 1950), a former club singer on the city’s notorious Reeperbahn. The third member was Peter Blegvad (born 1951), an American who had befriended Moore when they were both at boarding school in England.
Moore played guitar, keyboards and percussion. Blegvad specialised in guitar, bass, saxophone and clarinet. Krause was on piano, percussion and harmonica. Blegvad was originally meant to be the main vocalist but when Dagmar heard him sing she decided she had better take over.
With the German prog band Faust backing them, they recorded in 1972 a so-called ‘naïve rock’ album, Sort Of, which I came across only a few weeks ago while researching this column. It might be naïve, but there are some cracking tracks.
The first is Just A Conversation, which begins with distorted guitar and the sound of men talking. So far so Velvet Underground. Then Dagmar comes in with the lyrics and the sound is uniquely Slapp Happy.
It was just a conversation
In Grand Central Station one day
I’d lost my occupation
Didn’t have no destination anyway.
When it all got too boring
I gave you my shoes
And you left me there with the Barefoot Blues.
Track Number Six, Mono Plane, is a belter, a swampy rocker which reminds me of early Captain Beefheart. This is followed by the powerful Blue Flower.
Then by contrast comes All Alone, a lovely, quiet, mournful piece.
Small Hands of Stone features some wistful harmonies while the title track could almost be a Shadows instrumental.
This is a seriously impressive debut from the Slappers and I am cross that it took me so long to find it via a 1999 CD re-release. It sold zilch, perhaps because they refused to perform live, and Polydor Germany demanded something more commercial for their next album.
So, back to the studio in 1973 for the Casablanca Moon LP, again backed by Faust. This effort was not allowed to be tested on the public with Polydor refusing to release it.
Searching for a more proactive label, the band moved to London where they were embraced by Virgin Records, then rapidly emerging as the home for uncommercial weirdos. The Casablanca Moon album was re-recorded with a mini-orchestra of session musicians at Virgin’s Manor Studios in Oxfordshire and released in 1974 under the titleSlapp Happy. This was my introduction to their music, and I was charmed.
The first track, Casablanca Moon, is a strange little tango which at first seems quite lightweight, until you take in the lyrics. It begins:
He used to wear fedoras
Now he sports a fez
There’s cabalistic innuendoes
In everything he says.
Lines of sweat like tinsel start to smart his eyes
Neurosis seeps like cement through the cracks in his disguise
In a dark bordello he cracked a mirror with his cries
Underneath the Casablanca Moon.
Cabalistic innuendoes, eh? That’s a phrase you don’t hear every day in the pop pantheon.
Next comes Me and Parvati.
She dropped a tear
For the frozen beer
In the forests of upper Thailand.
It’s all extremely arty, but funny and catchy too. There are tunes on this album which lodge in your head. Every track is good but I’m especially fond of the eighth, A Little Something.
In late 1974 the trio returned to the Manor and this time, in place of Faust, they enlisted their Virgin labelmates Henry Cow as backing band. The result was the album Desperate Straights, a highlight in the oddball school of alternative rock music.
It begins with Some Questions About Hats. If you are new to Slapp Happy’s work I suspect you will find this pretty unlistenable. But bear with me. The Owl comes next.
All I can say is that, a bit like watching TV’s The Wire, after the first few listens it starts to make sense. A Worm Is At Work is a little more accessible. A very strange one is Bad Alchemy (‘what we feel we have to solve is why the dregs have not dissolved’). Here is a clip of someone singing along to it in his van which suggests that the fans are even madder than the band.
Less charitable readers will probably accuse me of being a dreadful old pseud for liking this stuff but it has proved more rewarding for me over the years than any number of big-name acts trotting out the same old cliches.
The instrumental title track is a tiny bit like an Erik Satie piano piece with drums. And then we have a piece from that well-known rocker George Frideric Handel, in Excerpt From The Messiah.
The album was billed as being by Slapp Happy/Henry Cow and the following year cameIn Praise of Learning by Henry Cow/Slapp Happy. This was basically a Henry Cow LP and although I admire the band’s musicianship, particularly guitarist Fred Frith, their agenda was all too right-on for me. And for Moore and Blegvad, who got on their bikes feeling that the Cow were overly serious and political. They both pursued solo careers. Dagmar stayed for a while but pulled out through ill-health, later joining with Kevin Coyne in Babble, a disastrously ill-conceived musical production about a couple’s relationship which Coyne suggested was based on the Moors Murderers. Blegvad did a comic strip called Leviathan for the Independent on Sunday which I struggled to appreciate.
That seemed to be it for Slapp Happy, although their original second LP was released in 1980 as Acnalbasac Noom (the pedant in me suggests it should be Noom Acnalbasac if you’re going to do it backwards). While the arrangements are different, I would suggest this is an acquisition for even more die-hard fans than myself.
After sporadic reunions, the band made another album, Ça Va, in 1997. To my ear this pales in comparison with their early work but has its moments, including the track Working At The Ministry.
They remain reasonably popular in Japan, where an interesting live album was recorded in 2000, and played together in London in 2017. And that’s the story so far, cabalistic innuendoes and all.