Julian Cope’s Album of the Month
Le Stelle di Mario SchifanoDedicato a ...
- 1. Le Ultime Parole di Brandimante, dall’Orlando Furioso, ospite Peter Harman e Fine (da ascoltarsi con tv accesa, senza volume) (17.20)
- Molto Alto (3.12)
- Susan Song (3.36)
- E Dopo (2.09)
- Intervallo (2.30)
- Molto Lontano (a Colori) (2.45)
Futurismo Rivisitato (Schifano, 1965)
E.P.I. with 20/20 Hindsight
Though The Velvet Underground & Nico LP was considered by its creators and their record company to have been lost in the psychedelic flood which deluged America and Britain throughout late 1966 and early 1967, its super-confident air of ‘total package’ was, in actuality, an immediate counter-cultural hit. Especially in the fashion capitals of London, Paris, New York, Rome and Berlin, Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable was a holistic Pop-Art vehicle with such a thoroughness of design that it successfully created an instant and revolutionary archetype of the ultimate kind. That most European underground scene-sters could never have hoped to attend an E.P.I. performance was in no way a distraction once the Velvets’ long-delayed first album had been released. And blurry photographs of Lilithian Mary Woronov and the whip-wielding Gerard Malanga, caught mid-ritual prostrated before the statue menhirs of John Cale, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, only served to overdrive the already heightened imaginations of Western artists, poets, pop stars and entrepreneurs.
But wishing for a European equivalent of E.P.I. and achieving it were hardly the same thing, as other hip artists out to ape Warhol soon found out. The Factory’s amphetamine infrastructure supported a surprisingly Bronze Age hierarchy, and if one superstar croaked, the next one waiting in the wings was doing so word perfect and in full costume. And so it is that, thirty-five years down the line and operating with 20/20 hindsight, I would suggest that the closest Europeans ever came to achieving that Warholian 100% total package were, in reverse order of success, London’s Hapshash & the Coloured Coat (20%), Stockholm’s Parson Sound (30%) and Rome’s Le Stelle di Mario Schifano in at the top with a groundbreaking 50% pass mark. I have chosen to cite these three as examples because all of them centred around established underground ‘stars’ who, similarly to Andy Warhol, held genuine artistic credentials with a sound provenance.
Guy Stevens’ London Happenings
Hapshash & the Coloured Coat were a design team led by designers Nigel Weymouth and Michael English. This pair had already designed many famous psychedelic concert posters (Jimi Hendrix at the Filmore, Pink Floyd at U.F.O.), album and single sleeves and pop artefacts (e.g. The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” artwork) before they teamed up with the insane producer genius that was Guy Stevens. But, as conceptual artists, Hapshash were happy to take Stevens’ Island Records band, the variously-named VIPs/Art/Spooky Tooth, as their sonic springboard to multi-media heaven. Stevens, Weymouth and English invited all their friends to the album’s recording, naming them the Heavy Metal Kids especially for the occasion, whilst the omnipresent Guy Stevens here adopted the magnificent name The Human Host.
Describing the whole package artefactually as well as sonically, the Hasphash LP was a red-vinyl proto-Amon Duul percussion-o-thon of considerable charm which came in a silver inner sleeve, but whose outer package, though displaying a beautiful Ufology’n’Occulture’n’Folklore centrepiece, ultimately failed because of its un-epic un-sumptuousness. Neither was it any musically barbarian classic. Indeed, it was a pale shadow of the subsequent Krautrock which, ironically, it would soon inspire. But at least the 16-minutes of side two’s “Empires of the Sun” showed Guy Stevens’ fundamentalist hooligan attitude to slaking the shamanic thirst, coming on as a skeleton bass-driven soul mantra closest in sound to Amon Duul’s double-LP Disaster still two long years away. But, as no other fucker was coming close to this sound in 1967, it was generally dismissed at the time as amateur garbage of the highest order. Thirty years down the line, this wholly sympathetic writer suggests that, while the album was enough to help get cosmic freak-out music started, we shouldn’t exactly hold our breath for the next Hapshash revival.
Andy Warhol & Terry Riley in Stockholm
However, the seemingly unlikely location of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet (Museum of Modern Art) had, in late 1966, become the home of a genuine multi-media bunch led by experimental artist BoAnders Persson. His ensemble Parson Sound had worked with Terry Riley on a Swedish performance of the incredible drone piece Terry Riley In C. The experimental electronic music which BoAnders Persson had made prior to the formation of Parson Sound had helped his introductions to the world of high modern art. But, in any case, Sweden was already a society looking to its young artists for navigation. Subjects such as sexual politics were being explored in 1967’s I Am Curious Yellow by Vilgot Sjoman, and the formation of a so-called ‘rock band’ by a credible experimental artist such as Persson, was bound to catch the attention of both the underground and mainstream Swedish media. Indeed, so successful were Parson Sound’s performances that they would later provide the live performance soundtrack for Andy Warhol’s 1968 Moderna Museet exhibition, Screens, Films, Boxes, Clouds & a Book.
More than tragically, Parson Sound’s heraldic post-Terry Riley proto-Velvets ur-drone became totally lost to culture, and their mid-60s live performances resulted in no contemporary album releases. The ensemble remained together into the ‘70s, but later changed their name with every subsequent album release; to names such as International Harvester, Trad, Gras os Stenar (Trees, Grass & Stones) and the comically unhip The Hot Boys. More unfortunately, each increasingly difficult-to-pronounce name took them a stage further from the Pop-Art which had spawned them. So it may come as a shock to discover that, only this year, have Parson Sound at last fulfilled their early promises with the release of a fabulous double-CD anthology full of the ur-drones which had once so successfully provided the sonic backdrop to hip mid-60s Stockholm.
Spend Bubble Hour in your Dream-Machine
Marianne Faithful and her son Nicholas escape from Mick Jagger in Schifano’s car
Throughout that summer, Schifano and Pallenberg had stayed at the Chelsea home of Lord Harlech, whose children, Jane, Julian and Victoria Ormsby-Gore, were all obsessed with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In the same circle were the art dealer Robert Fraser, the antique dealer Christopher Gibbs, and the Guinness heir, Tara Browne, who later ‘blew his mind out in a car’.
It was in this environment that Mario Schifano began to understand that, however cool he could be as a painter and sculptor, no artist in the ‘60s could ever hope to approach the level of adulation and respect that could be brought by being a member of a pop group. This must have been particularly galling for an incredible painter such as Schifano. Born in Libya in 1934, his exhibitions of Pop-Art had been wild successes since the late ‘50s.1
Understanding the level of intrigue which Andy Warhol had created with his multi-media packages in New York, Mario Schifano set out to emulate this success. But feeling that such a thing could be easily lost in the Swinging London of late 1966, Mario Schifano percipiently chose to set up his project back home in Rome. And rather than aim for a merely achieving replica of Warhol’s idea, Schifano decided that the music created by his proteges could only gain ground if it was perceived by the hip intelligensia as being part of the genuinely radical avant-garde. But Schifano adored the way the front sleeve of The Velvet Underground & Nico bore no other legend than the words ‘Andy Warhol’. Which is how he hit upon the self-aggrandising group name Le Stelle di Mario Schifano, or ‘The Stars of Mario Schifano’. Now, how fucking Me Generation is that?
In Rome, Schifano collected together four unknown musicians and schooled them in the kind of sounds which he was expecting from them. Urbano Orlandi was a skinny guitarist with a Sterling Morrison haircut, and a scything simplistic fuzztone sound. Organist Nello Marini was an Afro-headed and moustachioed avant-gardist, whose dedication to the cause of atonal jazz clusters hid his considerable classical schooling. Sergio Cerra’s drumming was excellent but less important than his dazzling looks and excruciatingly Milanese fashion obsessions. Of the cumbersomely-named bass player Giandomenico Crescentini. nothing is known of his history either before or after the group.2
In live performance, screens, lights, even clothes aped the Velvet Underground.
It was now that Rosboch suggested the whole of the album’s first side should feature one incredible cosmic jam – something which would pitch the record way outside the mainstream and be perceived as something worthy of a scene-maker such as Mario Schifano. The previous year – 1966 - had already seen Love’s Da Capo give premature birth to the 20-minute jam phenomenon with the appalling “Revelation”. Later that year, Frank Zappa had utilised ‘auxiliary’ musicians for the side-long “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”, which had closed side four of the Mothers of Invention’s double debut album Freak Out. Even the Rolling Stones had closed Aftermath with the 11-minutes of “Mother Sky”-period proto-Can they called “Goin’ Home”. Ettore Rosboch and Mario Schifano brazenly decided that, in order that they should be perceived as having gone further than everyone else, they could not afford to hide away their masterpiece on side two. No, this motherfucker was gonna be the opening statement.
TV on with the Sound Off
Orlandi, Crescentini, Marini and Cerra in 1967: together Le Stelle di Mario Schifano
“The Last Words of Brandimarte, as taken from Orlando Furioso, with guest Peter Hartman; which should be listened to with the TV On, but the Sound Off”
The record begins with hip Italians in a recording studio speaking rock’n’roll English and Italian simultaneously, and demanding this and that from their engineers. “Piano! Piano!” screams one at the overly loud drum sounds blasting his ears. “It’s fucking red!” As each musician toys with his individual instruments, it is clear that there ain’t gonna be much normality here to pin down the general sound. Touch the organ keys and the sound zooms off into outer space, tinkle the ivories and the music of the spheres cascades across the firmament. Beat the drum and an army of percussive orcs disappear over the sonic horizon. Then Francesca Camerana sings her Spanish guitar madrigal with tuning up and cosmic percussion tinkering alienating her – a front line nurse singing “Greensleeves” to her dying soldier/lover with clueless first time musicians in the hallway undermining her melodies. Get this mawkish chick out of here. Peter Hartman and co-producer Ettore Rosboch punish pianos as Nello Marini assumes the position and begins to ‘Irmin Schmidt’ the organ with karate chops. Out of the murk, remedial pre-schooler rhythms arise amidst screams and the pianos weave around the dual drummer and percussionist soloist. Horrible horrible organ plinks and maracas s-s-s-shake, and graveyard vocals holler under the multiple piano rolls. The shitty bass playing about as malformed as that three string affair the Canadian Nihilist Spasm Band used to feature, looming and booming around the walls of the studio… Then, around 6 minutes into the track, the chaotic rhythms drop down into a monolithic epic of ass-clenched and cliched fuzz guitar as a whole mystical other takes over.
From here, we enter the genius of true turds on a bum ride!
For it is at this moment that they locate the path!
The navigation is over and the doorway leads to dissonant sonic magnificence in Aladdin’s chambers of enlightenment.
Mario Schifano himself All the Hasphash and Parson Sound (and Amon Duul and Velvets) comparisons dissolve as a raging intoxication of otherworldly anti-rhythm globalises your senses and mobilises your troops. You attempt to tear off your headphones but you ain’t wearing any. Ace Ventura Pet Detective is driving your white van and no amount of Red Bull is gonna sort you out now, as the record moves out of all accepted musical forms into the truly avant garde. Wind from Uranus tears this fart apart, and spreads it thin and streaky along the underside of your kitchen ceiling. You kangaroo hop across Vauxhall Bridge in shrieking first gear, smooth as taking a suburban cul-de-sac full of sleeping policemen at 70 mph. The percussionist has all the feel of a fat alderman shaking his heavy mayoral chain. And sack that fucking bass player - Prometheus is bound upside down but he ain’t the hanging man tonight. Odin, Loki and Graham Simpson off the first Roxy Music album attempt some Bavarian skank, as coyote vocals howl and yelp. And all the while in a shelf on the shed… U-Fucking guest it. Exhausting to describe and exhausting to listen to, you grab the oldest coldest stickiest can of fizz from the back of the refrigerator and pour it over your belly. The whole thing finishes on a long looming note of guitar resonance, it merges into an excerpt from some classical trumpet piece, a beautiful series of end chords and you’re off the fucking hook, finally! Get behind me, Santa!
In total contrast to the first side, side two is wholly at odds with freak-out chic and is, instead, choc full of extremely catchy stuff. “Molto Alto” opens the side, coming on almost like a 70s take on psychedelia, so full of stock 60s devices that it’s like something off Faust’s Last LP. If you know the amazingly claustrophobic production of the Seeds’ most full-on album Future, then imagine that with crunching snare and a sort of Circus Maximus-type raga meeting head-on with The Deep’s awesome 45 ‘Color Dreams’. Maybe the psychedelic guitar is actually background, but with whole track fading in and out totally, it gives off a haunting Blue Things-plays-Yardbirds flavour.
“Susan Song” follows with its string section and mournful Ruby Tuesday-ness, like some aural netherlander midway Between the Buttons on the horns of Aftermath. Mournful and yearning for some long lost moment, an exquisite rippling piano hooks you in like the tragic “Atridsvisan” of Sweden’s Sammla Mannas Manna.
“E Dopo” is one more truly catchy mother, and sounds just like a 45. Imagine “Granny Takes a Trip” by the Purple Gang meets Aftermath-period Stones, but played by Da Capo-period Love, then into 6/8 scythe lead guitar over a backing track which reminds me of John’s Children’s “Smashed! Blocked!” And it doesn’t hang around to bore you, either. A coupla minutes in and they’re already hitting the American Radio fade button… bang, zoom, outa-here.
Okay, so then “Intervallo” brings us back to Faust again. Cliché upon cliché and it’s wonderful. Cylindrical lead guitar dual with itself over Sounds Incorporated organ and it’s the party that everyone thought the 60s was. We’re listening to The Monkees’ “Goin’ Down” as played by the Chocolate Watchband on the set of the movie Psyche Out. The guitar is pure garage blues “Psychotic Reaction”. Plenty of laughing, screaming, and groovy shattered times. And thus the album closes with the tragedy-laden “Molto Lontano (a Colori)”, as flute by the extraorchestrally-named Anton Mario Semolini dances around peculiar and mournful vocal declarations and a lilting guitar organ thing.
As I told you, side one is the real reason for this making Album of the Month, but it’s all pretty great. And the glorious artwork and sleeve inners do tend to get stared at as you listen to side two. Also, there are more dedications than any Chocolate Watchband LP (or the Mothers’ Freak Out), which is a strange sort of success in itself. Finally, for those of you unsure of freak out LPs in general and this one specifically, I’ve gotta tell you that I did not lightly chose to review this record. Indeed, I’ve had it in my collection since the end of the last millennium, and it still gets played all the time. For me, its ur-klang sits right up there with Amon Duul 2’s “Phallus Dei” title-track, Aphrodite’s Child’s 19-minute “All the Seats Were Taken” from 666, and “Why Don’t You Eat Carrots?” from the Faust clear album. Sadly, Mario Schifano died in 1998, but I’m sure he’d have been made up to see his long lost ‘Pop’ project up there with such bad company.
- Schifano continued to be successful, presenting many of his favourite paintings at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, in 1994, during their exhibition The Italian Metamorphosis 1943-68.
- Ironically, early bootleg re-issues of this album were signed exclusively by bass player Giandomenico Crescentini. Stranger still, the new re-issue on Italy’s Akarma Records is also licensed by him.