Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Klaatu - Sir Army Suit

Klaatu
Sir Army Suit


Released 1978 on Capitol
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 29/09/2004ce


side 1
A Routine Day
Juicy Luicy
Everybody Took a Holiday
Older
Dear Christine

side 2
Mister Manson
Tokeymor Field
Perpetual Motion Machine
Cherie
Silly Boys


Joe Kenney's fine review of the first Klaatu album (which sparked a brief Beatles reunion rumour in 1976) has brought me back to one of the biggest musical obsessions of my early teen years. For Klaatu is a band of Mystery and obsession and decoding, a "cult" band for sure. In the mid-1980's I knew they certainly weren't "secretly the Beatles", but still I poured over their records for CLUES to that MYSTERY they were obviously trying to reveal in some oblique fashion . . . . suspending disbelief to get into the carefully crafted sound world of the most self-consciously self-mythologizing crypto-pop band of all time!

The first Klaatu LP is pretty much as Joe described it. Their second LP is an elaborate SciFi prog-opera called "Hope" (1977) which was in fact recorded entirely before the Beatle Rumour started (therefore before they were selling any records), and probably indicates the direction they would have gone without the intervention of the fickle finger of fate. Because on the strength of that Beatles rumour their debut LP climbed to #32 on the US album chart, "Sub-Rosa Subway" bubbled under at #62 on the singles chart, and The Carpenters(!) actually made the Top 40 with a cover of Klaatu's magnum opus "Calling Occupants (of Interplanetary Craft)". So it's somewhat understandable that looking for a bit more success in 1978 they would dive straight back into the Book of Beatlisms for their third effort.

In fact, "Sir Army Suit" is even more of a Beatle-soundalike record than the debut if you ask me! But it's never QUITE the Beatles, it's like The Beatles from a parallel universe where Ringo dropped out in the early 70's and the remaining three continued to peaceably work together right through glam and metal and on up to disco (though in the Klaatu universe apparently punk never happened.)

Once again this cryptic record offers no hints of any kind as to the identity of the band*, however the complete lyrics are included and the album art is the kind you can (or at least, I did) study for a long time looking for odd little details and CLUES (like that lady on the back with "ER" on her shopping bag . . . the 5th & 18th letters, 5+18 = 23 . . .)

Anyway . . .

"A Routine Day" begins with the Lennon soundalike playing mournful descending piano chords & just-woke-up-singing plain verses about a grey day whilst Phil Spector-like strings sweep melancholy dust in the background. Not-Lennon sighs: "the life I lead would even make a dead man yawn" into a musical bridgelet with sad distant traffic jam sounds. It picks up into a more rollicking middle-of-the-day rat race theme, those strings sawing away now, time is money! Our despondent Lennon-alike has his blood up a bit now: "So tell me what's the bloody point of playing the game! With so much to lose, yet so little to gain? You sell! Your life! Awayyy!" A tremendous opening tune, it's a bit like the Moody Blues "Days of Future Passed" album compressed into a single 3:07 pop gem! And with an oh-so Klaatu Mystery ending too: "I stand here in the queue behind a foul cigar, my face discreetly buried in a book on mars, ho hum -- and I'm waiting on the pier til Charon comes." (References to sci-fi and greek mythology are certainly one thing that separates Klaatu from the Beatles.)**

Unfortunately the flow of the album is disturbed a bit by "Juicy Luicy", which is a period piece of 1978 roller boogie disco glitz with EW&F-style horns, girl backup singers, even a police siren! . . . but then it does occur to me that Winston O'Boogie himself had a #1 hit with "Whatever Gets You Through The Night" and that's not too far off from this! (I do smell record company pressure on this track though, as it hardly fits with anything else on the album -- it was the released as a single in Canada and flopped.)

We're back to classic 60's-progressive-pop land for "Everybody Took A Holiday" though, a sort of jaunty anti-version of the opening track because this time everybody goes on holiday for the weekend and refuses to come back to work on Monday. A fine utopian dream! And again the Mystery: this famous event happened "back in ancient times, when people worked overtime, in fact I think in 1985" (of course the song was written in 1978 -- unless it really was written by aliens from the future -- aliens who primarily know 20th century music through the lens of the Beatles, which maybe explains everything!)

"Older" has an early-KISS kinda grunge metal-but-still-pop sound, with phased vocals & echoplex guitars. Lyrics with a predictable "getting older" theme, but they do an admirable job of blending the grinding riffs with the pop hooks. Maybe this IS what the Beatles would have been doing by 1974 had they not been abducted by aliens from planet Klaatu and replaced with clones (except for Paul of course, cuz he died in 1966 remember.) Though again, I must point out the record came out in '78, not '74! You might conclude one of the hallmarks of the "Klaatu style" is that you're never sure quite what era or style they're coming from.

"Dear Christine" is a McCartneyesque ballad where they work in yet another fake British-ism (cf, "what's the bloody point") by setting the action in Bournemouth (in fact Klaatu was from Canada.) Probably most people wouldn't like this song much, but during my obsessive phase with this record I also happened to have a crush on a girl named Christine -- so the song conjures up nothing but fond feelings for me. No worse than "Meeeshell, Ma Bell" really. (Strangely enough, it was chosen as the album's flop single in the US.)

Side 2 kicks off strong with another grungy number, this time about Charles Manson (which of course ties directly back into the whole Beatles mythos yet again)! It's pretty easy to suspend disbelief and imagine this as the Beatles' answer record to Manson (as if they would have ever considered doing such a thing!) Neat production touches with some sorta clanking percussion, creepy phasing on the vocals, drooling neon guitars . . . kinda reminds me of Black Sabbath's "Born Again" without all the muck. The best bit is the bridge section where the tape slows down as a mumbling Manson sound-alike mutters about God, which is followed by Hitler speechifying and "sieg heils" plus machine gun fire! Over-the-top, a total classic!

And the hits keep on coming with "Tokeymor Field", an irresistable bubblegum romp through green hillsides on a bright sunny day. It will make you want to run out and fly a kite! As the phasing overtakes the repeated final phrase and they drift off into the stratosphere it's pretty obvious that they're really singing about "toke-ye-more" field ("dancin' through the green grass" etc.!) An ode to the 60's practice of thinly veiled drug songs: perhaps. Another delectable slice o' pop: you bet.

"Perpetual Motion Machine" also has a 60's psych-bubblegum flavor, this time complete with cute whirling machine sounds and even a bit of calliope. Sounds like someone's summer of '67 knockoff of "Paperback Writer", and I mean that as a compliment!

"Cherie" is another McCartney ballad, or perhaps rather a Jagger-Richards ballad for Marianne Faithful to sing in front of a string quartet. Cuz this tune has got a serious case of old timey classical-itis (reminds me of, whatsit? Pachebel's Canon?) Again, some would be inclined to call this dreadful schmaltz, and though this was the one song on this LP I never liked back in the day -- I have to say listening to it today it don't sound half bad to me at all. I mean, for a sappy love song it sure beats Peter Frampton's mewling (or whatever else was the rage in sappy love songs back in 1978.)

The finale "Silly Boys" is an obsessive-compulsive conspiracy theorist's dream. The lyrics are printed on the sleeve in mirror-writing, so you gotta stand in front of a mirror while listening to the record to figure out the words! A weird, cult-like magick ritual thing to do, which I did many years ago and again earlier today! Musically it's a flumpfing space boogie where most of the instruments are recorded backwards***, with a Stockhausen-by-way-of-Yellow-Submarine freakout coda. There's two vocal bits trading off here: one is a voice singing backwards, and the other is a vocoder voice "pretending" to be played backwards, but it's NOT really backwards it just sounds that way.

I mean like, you know how if you play "Stairway to Heaven" backwards it really DOES sound like he says "my sweet Satan," but it's actually just a coincidence? Well Klaatu constructed an entire song around that phenomenon! The fake-backwards lyrics ("hark and enamour me, may I survive?") make about as much sense as the actual-backwards-singing-translated-into-lyrics ("ahhh, plasticine walls forever and overly happy.") This track totally fucked with my head and freaked me out in my teen years! OF COURSE I had to play it backwards and decipher all those hidden meanings ("oh gorgeous madman, you are illuminated" was the line that really got me -- yikes more Illuminati stuff!) The title of the album is another backwards phrase from this song ("Oh Sir Army Suit, you're psychic!")

Klaatu in general, and I think this album in particular, truly deserves some recognition for creating a unique sound-world of their own. Sure, it owes more than a little inspiration to the Beatles, but I think the comparisons (while obvious) can be overstated. It's not anything like an attempt to duplicate the Beatles sound (ie, to fool people like all those ripoff "Beetle" records from 1964), but more like a dream of what the Beatles might have been like in another time and place. And I think ultimately it's the sense of utopian fantasy found in dreaming a nutty little dream like that which gives Klaatu a real claim to the pantheon of the Unsung (much like other outsider scifi dreamers such as the Silver Apples, Chrome & Zolar X.)

I mean would Lennon, McCartney & Harrison have reunited in the late 70's to sing about flying saucers? Of course not! But . . . JUST IMAGINE IF THEY DID! (Or don't imagine it, throw on a Klaatu record!)


* In reality Klaatu was John Woloschuck, Terry Draper and Dee Long. They are in fact depicted in cartoon form on the back album cover (mingled with a crowd of other people), though in 1978 no one would have known what they looked like. I've been a fan for almost 20 years and I only just saw a picture of the group on the Internet a few weeks ago!

** VIDEO! And here's an (unfortunately low resolution) but nonetheless very cool animated clip for "Routine Day" taped off of Canadian TV: http://www.klaatu.org/hnype/routine.asf

*** The backwards tracks are from the original single version of "Anus of Uranus", a song which was also on their first album.


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