Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Wigwam - Being

Wigwam
Being


Released 1974 on Love Records
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 06/08/2002ce


This is a weird one. How about an album that sounds like nothing else before or since (a few very vague influences notwithstanding) yet never, throughout its 38 minute duration, veers into avant garde territory? I've never really known what to make of 'Being'. On first hearing it sounds as though it was made up on the spot: the tunes seem random, tentative and unresolved. But unlike, say, 'Trout Mask Replica', there's nothing shambolic or chaotic happening here. Musos will freak at the virtuosity going down, especially the bass playing of Pekka Pohjola which is straight from Planet Genius in the galaxy of Awesome XXI. But repeated hearings reveal far more than technical excellence. 'Being' is a timeless work of the utmost originality which, in spite of a loony communist manifesto lyrical concept, just knocks me out every time I play it.

First, a bit of background for those of you unfamilar with this Finnish wondergroup. Wigwam's history essentially falls into two phases: the first from 1969 until 1974 when the band was dominated by the muse of one Jukka Gustavson, a Stevie Wonder/Steve Winwood-obsessed keyboard-playing vocalist who steered Wigwam from cabaret jazz through Europrog to the unique soundworld of the album under discussion here; and the second from 1975 up to the band's split at the end of the decade when Hull-born Jim Pembroke led a much more conventional, guitar-orientated (but still good) band. The latter phase coincided with a record contract with Virgin and a tour supporting Gong, the nearest Wigwam came to a commercial breakthrough. But it was the earlier phase that was the most interesting, and it remains a crime against human existence that classic albums like 'Tombstone Valentine', 'Fairyport', and, most tragically of all, 'Being', never obtained a UK release. Even now you'll be lucky to get your mitts on this one outside of right-on shops like Freak Emporium or Ultima Thule. I will endeavour to explain why a trip to the said establishments will more than justify the effort and cost.

'Being' consists of ten tracks grouped into segued pairs (mostly with freaky psuedo-lefty titles beginning with the letter P). The first thing that grabs you is the nature of the tunes. With a few exceptions they sound as if they're being played backwards, a bit like Robert Wyatt's contemporaneous 'Little Red Riding Hood Hits The Road'. But they're NOT. Gawd knows where Gustavson and Pohjola got these chord sequences from, but they're like nothing else on Earth. Try to define the tune in the opening 'Proletarian'. It's there, somewhere; the whole thing's thoroughly tonal, the vocal harmonies are intricate (if vague) and Pohjola's Mick Karn-predicting bass "whoops" are a joy to behold, but jeez, as I said before, this is a weird one. Even the lyrics (perhaps thankfully) are difficult to comprehend, and it takes several hearings to be satisfied that you're actually listening to songs being sung in English. 'Inspired Machine' follows with another backward tune over a stilted, oompah beat and the most spaced out fairground theme since 'Mr Kite'. Pembroke gets a rare spotlight with 'Petty Bourgeois' which is far more 'normal' in sound, a fast mover with a delicious middle section, catchy finger-clicking sequence and a coda that could have graced a Mothers' opus, but its companion, 'Pride Of The Biosphere', returns us to never-never land. It's the album's definite low point: a tasteless monologue recited in a mock Tommy Beecham voice over what sounds like Procol Harum jamming on Jupiter. But it's presence is jusified by its contrast with the epic pairing that follows.

'Pedagogue' and 'Crisader' form the album's centrepiece and are the tracks to play first when sampling the record. This is where Gustavson achieves true greatness. 'Pedagogue' is nine minutes of...what can I tell you? Egg, Hatfields, Wyatt all come to mind, but only fleetingly. Key and time changes seem to occur every few bars, the double-tracked vocal line is all over the place, yet it's accessible. Weird, weird, well weird, but accessible. Give it time and you'll be singing this at the bus stop while everyone around you thinks you're deranged. There's a Rhodes solo from heaven four minutes in, and the best non-classical use of woodwind on record permating the bulk of the song. A couple of times it appears to speed up, but never for long. It's tantalising and terrific. 'Crisader' evolves straight out of 'Pedagogue' and rocks big time, like Traffic on steroids, but Winwood and Capaldi never sounded like this. Gustavson sounds like Donald Fagen on speed. The piano and organ interplay is orgasmic and the song is a real foot-tapper, yet the tune, again, is straight from the Bizarro alternate world. Man, I love this record.

'Planetist' is another track with slight Zappa ('Waka/Jawaka' period) overtones, but again, the tune is without antecedent. It features a delightful string arrangement, an inspired dual soprano sax sequence at the end, and bass playing that makes Jaco Pastorius sound like Sid Vicious. It's companion piece, 'Meastro Mercy', has more double-tracked Gustavson vocals and the only guitar on the whole album, a delicately-plucked acoustic enhancing an enchanting waltz-time cosmic melody. The album closes with Pembroke's other showcase, 'Marvelry Skimmer' ('Friend From the Fields'), the most regular-sounding track on the record (and an indicator of the direction Wigwam would follow on 'Nuclear Nightclub' the following year). It is prefaced by Gustavson's 'Prophet', which sounds like an Indian mantra devoid of all ethnic influences - world music from another world - and featuring yet more skybourne bass manouevres and, a couple of times, an ass-kicking fatback beat with ace VCS3 dexterics.

'Being' was released in 1974, when rock music was in its supposed decline. A pox on that. Had Wigwam been given the exposure (and record contracts) of such as Genesis, Yes and Gentle Giant then the school haversacks of the day would have exhibited a damn sight more taste and adventure than they did (at my school at least!). Rock was not so much in decline in the mid seventies: it was simply that the bulk of the bands that dominated the scene were more concerned with musical dexterity than invention. Hear 'Being' and you'll hear plenty of the former, but in the context of some of the most innovative rock music ever created. Make up for a quarter century of neglect and hear this great unsung band's unique music. I doubt you'll regret it.

(Update @ March 2010: Esoteric have just given 'Being' its first UK release, alongside several other Wigwam - and Pekka Pohjola - gems. Get them while you can.)


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