Julian Cope’s Album of the Month
Simply SaucerCyborgs Revisited
AOTM #12, May 2001ce
Released 1989 on Fistpuppet/Cargo (Recorded 1974)
Like a number of previous Albums of the Month, Cyborgs Revisited by Simply Saucer seems to be available in multiple versions. I have two different versions and have been told of a third, which I have not yet seen. I wrote the review below whilst listening to my favourite version. As Simply Saucer released no LPs during their own lifetime, so each future configuration will also include the (mounting legion of) fans eye view, which is fair I guess - especially as most record company A&R people are really just power-wielding fans with delusions of objectivity.
- Electro Rock
- Nazi Apocalypse
- Mole Museum
- Bullet Proof Nothing
- Here Come the Cyborgs
- Here Come the Cyborgs (Part 2)
- Dance the Mutation
- Illegal Bodies
Recently, in an attempt to at least temporarily purge myself of the Japrock which chronically seeps around our house on the Downs and clogs up the ears of the neighbourhood and obliterates the Dawn Chorus, I bought the excellently re-packaged and re-mastered Velvet Underground double-CD Fully Loaded. I hadn't listened to the Velvets in years - a conscious decision based on their needlessly un-mythical return as a U2 support act in the mid-90s. Lou's a louse, Lou's a scab, Lou's a dry husk of his former self, etc. etc. But Loaded shoulda given me no such head trips - it was always a Doug Yule-sings-Lou Reed-in-the-manner-of-Beggars Banquet-period-Mick anyway, so how could I be disappointed? But I was. I'd been listening to such full-on contemporary rock'n'roll these past months that the extra-CD just couldn't command my attention; its half-finished, half-arranged, bassless or bass heavy studio dryness wilting under the pressure of 21st Century expectations. I turned to the original album and that was little better. Not only had I never heard Loaded on CD before, but my teenage (and only) copy was a cheap second hand buy from 1976 for £1.70 on the German Midi label, with a big fat black border and a legend proclaiming "Original Rock Classics - The Velvet Underground FEATURING Lou Reed." I knew every pop, fart, bleep and blemish - I could even sing the skips. I didn't want digitally perfect Loaded at all, and I filed it away.
But hearing Doug's rendition of Reed's lonesome cowboy tales of the great outdoors and of the neurotic Burroughs-ian great indoors did somehow make me yearn for something similar-but-less-familiar. Just as putting Mick Ronson's "Billy Porter" 45 on the turntable can sometimes be the only way to slake my Diamond Dog-eyed glam thirst, so I now needed a 'new' or alternative Loaded. And, once again, it was to this album Cyborgs Revisited by Simply Saucer that I immediately turned for the right kind of homage-with-staying-power.
For Canada's Simply Saucer offered the same kind of originality that was present in other post-glam outfits such as early Cockney Rebel or Neil Merryweather's Kim Fowley-ish Space Rangers. And, just as both Steve Harley and Merryweather himself used their Bowie infatuation as a mannequin on which to hang their own personal lyrical fetishes and stylish musical neuroses, so did Simply Saucer's Edgar Breau conjure up a whole raft of imaginary Cannuck ne're-do-wells to travel with him and his group on their extremely idiosyncratic musical travelogue.
But whereas cosmopolitans such as London's Harley clothed it in a Biba 1974 Faux Franglais of violin and Spanish guitar, and L.A.'s Merryweather filled all the spaces up with Mellotron 400 and divebombing fake-Mick Ronson apocalipstick, so it was the ultra-provincial Edgar Breau's destiny to bring some kind of Modern Lovers-take on decadence to downtown Hamilton, Ontario.
Possible? Well, by mixing his Lou Reed-fixation with lashings of Barrett-Floyd and early Roxy Music B-sides1, Edgar Breau cooked up an artrock as cooly-uncool and as bifocalled as Jonathan Richman's first Modern Lovers LP or even the beguilingly amphetamine and over-arranged provincial garage-prog of the Soft Boys' A Can of Bees.
From the limited perspective of this retrospective album, it's fair to say that Breau was an excellent songwriter and man of great musical taste. The story goes that, when S.S. booked a session at Daniel Lanois' studio in July '74, Breau brought in Velvets and Stooges albums to show how he wanted them recorded.
Breau's voice sounded like Lou Reed being Mick Jagger, Doug Yule being Mick Jagger, David Bowie being Mick Jagger, even Jim Morrison being Mick Jagger. And within the (self-imposed?) narrow confines of his guitar playing, Breau conjured up some truly great rhythm and lead playing. His "Now I'm Lou/Now I'm Sterling" stance surely predated punk by so many years that his friends and contemporaries must have adjudged him a mere rip-off, little knowing the necessary myopia required to pull off such a feat. And he was a neck-wrenching Monster Movie at the wah-wah, who pulled it off in the same way that no others could, except perhaps Can's Michael Karoli.
Breau's other great strength was as a canny band leader, too. He chose highly unlikely musicians to accompany his muse and then he gave these other members plenty of space. I hate to imagine how limited was his pool of prospective musicians in 1974 Hamilton, yet Breau somehow found three equally forward-thinking psychedelic psoul brothers in Neil DeMerchant, Kevin Christoff and the mythologically-named Ping Romany. Local Canadian writers still talk of them "performing a weird mixture of Velvet Underground/Syd Barrett/Can/Pink Fairies material in their formative years," which was hardly the way to the top in London '74, let alone Hamilton, Ontario.
The splatter-clatter drumming of Neil DeMerchant is at the amphetamine heart of Simply Saucer. He seems to have had a kit made up entirely of snare drums. His ride cymbal was a snare drum - his crash cymbal may have been a snare drum. He wore an "I play snare drum" t-shirt. Simply Saucer rhythms sound as though 30-piece teenage marching bands are here to terrorise your neighbourhood. DeMerchant squirms and swivels around the beat like Cheap Trick's Bun E. Carlos copping dollops of Buffin during his astounding "Walking with a Mountain"-period. With a stick up his ass.
On bass, Kevin Christoff sounds as though he probably thrummed and clawed at a Gibson with the treble position hacksawed off - all looming boom boom, whilst the truly odd-man-out was the bizarrely-named Ping Romany on 'electronics'. No keyboards for this guy, Romany claiming his inspiration from "Stockhausen, Sun Ra and Eno".
At this pre-punk pro-muso period of the '70s, even Eno was still coyly referred to as a 'non-musician'. So we can only imagine the self-conscious sniggers that would have emanated from the casual watchers of Simply Saucer's Hamilton shows, as Ping Romany delivered mind-numbing whirrs, blips and glitches from his "electro-palette of sonic skree", as his champion Bruce Mowat called his sound over a decade later.
But the turbulent stop-start careers of Arthur Lee's Love would seem like so much plain sailing to the members of Simply Saucer, as employees at Canadian branch offices of the major American record companies all ran for cover at the very suggestion that Rick Bissell, manager of the dreaded Simply Saucer, was coming to play them some demos. The indifference of Simply Saucer audiences was nothing compared to the hostility and vindictiveness shown by people in the Canadian record industry. And, by 1975, the show was off the road and in the ditch. New members failed to rescue the SS from "too little work and too much substance abuse", according to Bruce Mowat. Indeed, the only contemporary release under the name Simply Saucer was three years later, when the rise of Punk allowed the ominously-titled "She's a Dog" to be released on 45. Unfortunately, by now only two of the original members still remained, and the song is righteously excluded from this 1974-only compilation.
Cyborgs Revisited opens with the very-Barrett Floydian clatterstompf of "Electro Rock", an extremely catching pop song with a riff kinda like the Stones' "Dandelion" and lyrics about some guy called Gypsy Jones throwing stones at the moon. There's also a Mr. Smith, a girl called Suzie, Jesse James exchanging his brain and a whole bunch of characters doing stuff that Lou Reed and Syd Barrett would have been proud to have them do. Breau's voice is in Jonathan Richman-meets-Doug Yule mode here, until the song ups its pace into an entirely new gear and the whole thing becomes a Barrett Floyd-ian workout with Roxy-period Eno brewing an electro-storm in a DDT-cup. Neil DeMerchants's drumming has him on 'en-snare only' mode as Breau's lead guitar scoots between rhythm Barrett and lead Barrett, unwinding down a DeMerchantian percussion tunnel. Breau's wah-wah playing is fucking casebook stuff, the Ping Romany synthesizer looming and looming and de-glooming. Finally, at the height of the freakout, the pop-minded Breau deludedly attempts a neat ending, in which the starship tries to make a three-point turning back into the song, fails and crash-lands but Breau sings the final verse anyway. What the fuck. Last verse. Sure? Didn't I tell you? Yes.
"Nazi Apocalypse" starts of with a riff copped directly from "Lucifer Sam" as Breau relates his tale of Hitler from Eva Braun's point-of-view. Here, he's Peter Hammill in a snotty Armand Schaubroeuk mode. "I'm cyanide over you - bye bye baby, baby so long" he cooes. "Nazi Apocalypse, Adolf and his henchmen in their crypts". Then off we go into a swooping lunging city psychedelia which dissolves into another of DeMerchant's snare drum-only clatterstompfs de force. They surely pick riffs of extreme estimation and always whip 'em off in nothing flat; Breau's wah wah again fuelling the fire as Ping Romany's sheets of synthesizer build electric fences of impenetrable sonic - you can see through 'em but don't cross over or they'll burn yer brain.
"Mole Machine" is an instrumental like "Matilda Mother" given the Here Come the Warm Jets treatment. Ventures/Davie Allen & the Arrows theme guitars emit from a Mike Curb soundtrack and more clatterstompf drumming which combine to give out a Joe Meekian take on space rock. This is an early and Utopian pre-"Planet Earth is Blue and there's nothing we can do" view of space. Canadian I guess. Zoony loonies hang and natter with groovy Carnaby Street babes, until ugly space munsters emerge from their Bakelite coffins and do the science lab, baby.
"Bullet Proof Nothing" is more Doug-meets-Jonathan but this time on the Partridge Family bus. Then it gets all electric and DeMerchant clatterstompfs his snare drums-only as they Stones it up and Breau entreats his maybe missus to 'treat me like dirt - I'm a point blank target for your mindless abuse." It's like something from that lost Cale period of the Velvets. You know that lumpy early "Andy's Chest" sound.
"Here Come the Cyborgs" opens with flowering solo monophonic synthesizer to present an Edgar Breau song of extreme catching-ness. It's more of that Velvet Underground of "Foggy Notion" and you know some relation of his is about to marry a midget's son any moment. Don't leave the room as the second half of the song is a different kettle of gunk entirely - sludgey unresolved blues with scales and a tail.
"Here Come the Cyborgs Part 2" is a different song with that cyclical riff thang that turns up in Iggy's "New Values" title track. Rudimentary rock with two chromosomes missing. Take me. Edgar's in a Beggar's Banquet soap opera with a Gimme Delta Shelter twang from Nowhere At All. Then the riff stop-starts into a slop trough that even the 1978 Soft Boys woulda kicked into touch. Yuck. I love it. Imagine getting the dirtiest 1966 Dodge Charger (or maybe Plymouth Barracuda - it's the same thing) then taking all the badges off and pretending it's a mark 2 Sunbeam Alpine. You've got it taxed and insured but you've hand-painted it matt white and left T-Cut smears on the windscreen. That's the fucking sound of this song. Breau starts intoning "Here come the cyborgs" like he's watching them file out of Cyborg School and we should bully the underachieving fuckers. Right On.
I guess "Dance the Mutation" is the album's 'best' song. It open with a Stones-y take on a Beatles riff and Edgar Jagger sings a sloppy tale of sex in unhygienic places and it's a catching thang that has you itching with the sheer scabies of it all. Hey, this is not Mick Jagger at all. It's bloody Bowie being Jagger on Diamond Dogs. It's fucked, I love it. Ping Romany even plays some super-hook on his synth. He's actually playing music on that thing. Even the floor shudders at his feet - actually Breau tells us this in the song. It's Let It Bleed and you wish Edgar Breau woulda hadda made it big. He's the kind of songwriter who woulda got better with success - it woulda bred a confidence and, by now, we'd all be accepting of him as the Cannuck third punk (after Neil Young and Burton Cummings). Dammit!
"Here's some Heavy Metaloid music," says Edgar at the beginning of "Illegal Bodies". It's about the future. "Unless you have a metal body, they're not going to allow you to walk the streets," he notes, before adding the cutest "No kidding". Then a fast'n'high strummed Stirling rhythm kicks in and they hoedown on one chord as the most delighted Breau declares: "What a fantastic movie I'm in - What a fantastic scene I'm in." It's an on-the-one bolt-thrower with the pumpingest piston bass and a suppressed synthesizer which bubbles and undercuts and takes its time and waits for its moment and maybe any minute now until until until ... whoa!!!! Here comes the fucking electric fence again, guys'n'gals. We duck'n'cover, then run from this electrical chicken wire and get safe behind the sofa, which is too cosy and deludes us. Ping Romany is building a sonic hothouse with about ten square miles of chicken wire around the compound. Let me in. Let me out. Whatever, it's all the same thing!
The rhythm drops down to a steaming "Train Coming Round the Bend" when, suddenly, Keith Richards and whosoever-his-best-friend-is-that-day gets thrown outta the old caboose like the Chuck Berry hack he could often be, only to be replaced by an Edgar Breau in Lou Reed shades, and a knitted occult-symbol'd roll-neck sweater which his pagan aunt made for him. Breau turns his guitar into a crop sprayer and gasses the audience with yet more immense streams of DDT and later claims that he'd merely supplied the suggested dose. With the band as OD'd as the audience, the song is tied up neatly with a coupla riffs from "Dance the Mutation" and they finish.
This live in concert ending to the LP finishes with a declaration from Breau: "Thanks, we'll be back in just a few minutes." And 13 million minutes later, I ain't holding my beath. They came, they saw, they left. Oh well. Simply Saucer rocked Hamilton in the 70s, but now they're here to rock you. They done gone international 26 years after. Better late than never. Better to be a Proto Has Been than a Never Was. And, baby, indude they WAS!!!
- The early B-sides such as "The Numberer" and "The Pride and the Pain" appear to have inspired Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets, possibly even too much in places. Still, patchy as Brian Brain's song career was, that first LP's still worth it just for "Blank Frank", "Dead Finks Don't Talk" and the definitive "Baby's on Fire." The rest of that stuff - fergetaboutit!