Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

M. Frog

Released 1973 on Bearsville
The Seth Man, May 2009ce
Born in Clermont-Ferrand in central France, M. Frog Labat began life simply as Jean Yves Labat de Rossi. The grandson of composer Raphaël de Rossi who authored the evergreen romantic theme, “Strangers In The Night,” Labat fell in love with the church organ music he heard during his early schooldays at Catholic Seminary School. He went on to attend the Met-de-Penningen studio, Académie Charpentier and the prestigious Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. It was at this last-named location of higher arts education that Labat discovered and studied avant-garde, concrète and electronic music. He then came in direct contact with Gregorian chants during a spell in a Benedictine monastery and all of these forms would wind up informing much of his immediate musical future.

After a one-off EP of his own material was released by French CBS in 1967, Labat then joined an early progressive Rock group called Baba Scholae on keyboards and woodwinds. The group was British except for Labat and a Hungarian musician, and they recorded one (as yet unreleased) album in 1969 in London before splitting up. However, ex-Baba Scholae guitarist John Holbrook would remain in contact with Labat and would wind up as a consistent collaborator in many of his sonic endeavours to come.

Moving to Woodstock in upstate New York, Labat’s instrument of choice for much of the seventies was the Synthi-A, a portable synthesiser produced by EMS in 1971. Best known by its near-exclusive use on European space Rock albums like “Obscured By Clouds,” “Join Inn,” “Cyborg,” and “Rubycon” it was capable of subtleties of miniscule gradations and the ability to achieve an extremely wide range of colourations. Labat found a nearby friend in Woodstock possessed a Synthi-A and subsequently borrowed it for an extended period of gestation with experimentation and work on several pieces that would wind up comprising much of his first album, “M. Frog.”

In the meanwhile, he was dishwashing in a nearby restaurant owned by none other than Bob Dylan’s former manager, the imposing Albert Grossman. A chance meeting with Rick Danko during work resulted in an offer to pass on whatever recorded material he might have to Grossman, who recently had set the Bearsville Record label with its own studio. Courtesy of Danko, a tape of the Baba Scholae album arrived at the Bearsville offices. Grossman was away on business, so it was previewed by his wife, Sally who thought enough of it to then pass it onto a Bearsville Records artist, Todd Rundgren. Both were immediately impressed by it so that upon Grossman’s return and subsequent review, Labat was contacted with an offer of a contract. Once the deal was struck, discussion turned to a more palpable name for the young French synthesist. But when Grossman suggested ‘Maestro Frog’ Labat’s lighthearted reply of “No, just ‘M. Frog’” stuck. And as a newly-christened Rock’n’Roll artist, M. Frog Labat would begin the most overt stage of his career.

Once finished adding synthesiser applications to Jackie Lomax’s “Three” album, Labat returned to Bearsville Sound Studios to embark on recording his first solo album, “M. Frog.” It was at these sessions that he first met Todd Rundgren, who was immediately taken with his informed, unorthodox strategies and freewheeling spirit. The first fruits of their musical partnership would quickly follow with: Labat’s “M. Frog” and Rundgren’s “A Wizard/A True Star.” Rundgren contributed guitar and vocals to “M. Frog” and wound up doing the final mix while Labat contributed EMS synthesiser and synthesised treatments to “A Wizard/A True Star.” The comparisons of certain sounds on both albums indicate not only the use of the same EMS Synthi-A but are markedly similar as if the resonances between Labat’s avant-garde-to-rock and Rundgren’s rock-to-avant-garde approaches were entirely complementary.

Comprised of local Woodstock musicians, fellow Bearsville labelmates and his old friend John Holbrook on electric guitar plus engineering tasks, the assembled contingent that appeared on “M. Frog” were about as unlikely as the album itself. Not only did Todd Rundgren guest throughout on vocals and guitar but Rick Danko contributed bass and violin while fellow Band mate Garth Hudson appeared on uncredited Lowry organ. Seeing better days, Paul Butterfield dropped by to add some harmonica, Joe Simon played prepared piano, Fanny vocalist/guitarist June Millington contributed vocals while the trio of Dennis Whitted, Christopher Parker, and Michael Reilly rounded out the proceedings on drums.

“M. Frog” is as kaleidoscopic as its multi-coloured cover of Labat’s own synthesiser notations plotted out on graph paper. Although the songs touched upon many different styles and distinctly different shapes, taken together they sounded like the end result of the same endorphin time release capsule in LP form. Labat’s confident compositions and attention to detailed tonal colourations drew together the many disparate sections and refracted them back from the same source of robust warmth. In the accompanying 8-page cover booklet glue to the front of the album, Labat described the aim of “M. Frog”: “I want the music to pop out. It’s funny music. It’s alive. It is for the living” and the album’s opener, “We Are Crazy” achieved all of the above and then some. A sensationally catchy exercise in sonic extremism, “We Are Crazy” is like Jean-Pierre Massiera backing a spirited, 3-chord/3-IQ band of heavy metal kids by blasting holes through their efforts with excruciating Synthi-A zappings, squiggles and explosions that discharge with random precision in between both your eyes AND the gleefully moronic chant-lyrics (brayed out twice thusly):

“We are crazy!
We are stupid!
We are lazy!
We are dirty!

If you understand / You’re gonna win a prize!
If you understand / You’re gonna win a prize!
If you understand / You’re gonna win a prize!
If you understand / You’re gonna win a prize!

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na / A washing machine!
Na-na-na-na-na-na-na / A date with the Queen!
Na-na-na-na-na-na-na / A sewing machine!
Na-na-na-na-na-na-na / A date with the Queen!

We are crazy!”

Merde! A pair of solo spots sport combination rapid-fire, precise keysmanship with finely-gradated oscillations that make the Synthi-A climb to precarious heights. “Hee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee!” cackles le Frog, right before hosing the track down with the contents of another vigourously shook electronic magnum of champagne. Wild yet controlled Synthi-A eruptions continue to explode with interruptions in until everything halts on a thin centime with one final “We are crazy!” (A French only single saw a third version of “We Are Crazy” sung in French as “Nous Commes Cingles” credited to ‘Mr. Frog,’ with its flipside the instrumental version.)

Taking things way down, the instrumental “Champegarpaen” nudges slowly forth like a desert caravan appearing over a heat-hazed ridge. A lone cowbell beats slowly, leading into a synth-led accompaniment while bass and drums keep to a crawl even as the Synthi-A’s joystick makes slow curlicues, a violin starts fiddles away and gnome-like voices pipe up out from the corners. The caravanserai continues as Synthi-A amasses like shifting sands of darkened North African mysteries oscillate with droning majesty. Gregorian chants, the rhythm of a rotary telephone dialing and clinking cowbell are woven subtly into the main fabric that soon unravels and fades away to reveal only near-inaudible studio chatter from the far studio corner. Then, another corner gets turned when the slap happy “Takatykitakite” bounces in with its synthesised Saturday morning kiddy’s show melody paired with a fuzz guitar lead playing low and slow. Aleatoric hums buzz behind nonsensical vocals until barging in on cue comes a humongous jab to the ribs with a big vocal “OOOUUGH!” that could easily accompany an exaggerated pelvic thrust outwards. An artfully inserted segue of operatic vamping against background comedic vocalising keep the song from being purely instrumental as well as pinning the arrangements to odd and unpredictable peaks.

The manic paces of “Suckling-Pigs Game” is the one place on “M. Frog” that its influence on the crazier, more complex approaches on “A Wizard/A True Star” can be pinpointed easiest (much like “Flamingo” from that album bears a strong suggestion of “M. Frog.”) Not least of all because it’s Rundgren on guitar with Labat processing it through Synthi-A alongside added electronics to its structured multi-tiered passageways. This track begins as a sand-blasted hard Rock staggered into a descent of layered electronics that winds up landing in a becalmed, flutey interlude...only to return to stridently Rock out as organ clusters dance crazily all around in as a massive progressive Rock monstrosity. It ceases momentarily once more for a second pastoral counterpoint but once Labat chimes in with a cheeky, “‘Ey, piggie!” all is to quickly washed out by a huge bass synthesiser tsunami that hogs the whole scene as it extends to finish while hugging a ragged edge of Norway coastline to clot every fjord with frothing Synthi-A riptides. The strange “Broushneik” opens with backward, needling violin patches against a backward, gnawing, pulsing Synthi-A line as Frog forwardly interrupts with cries and wordlessly whooping it up through shuddering reverb. Transcendental vortexes of synthesiser pulsations continue even as manipulations cause the signal to knead into wormlike contortions and drain off as if electronic slurry. A sloppy, distorted guitar vamp on “La Marseille” takes out side one with a fragment of upbeat country honk called “Amphibian Chaff.” Here, the neighbouring Woodstock influences seep in with acoustic picking, humpty-dumpty bass, slide whistle and surprising: a lack of jaunty whistling. Either an electric guitar treated by Labat to sound like a pedal steel or a clever Synthi-A line manipulated to sound like one placidly runs over a pleasantly surprised June Millington as she proclaims in a suitably down home manner, “Gee, ah found a frog in mah tub!” Kazoo vocals patched through EMS synthesiser buzz all around like Alvin Chipmunk guesting on The Byrds’ “Nashville West” send up until a quick drum accent and tugboat whistle toot flourish in quick conclusion before getting the ol’ hook.

After an introductory looped segment of sped-up conversation, phone banks lighting up and synthetic geegaws, the wonderfully gaga “We Are Crazy” returns in instrumental form. The lack of vocals allows for the synth eruptions to cut in and scatter even louder and pout sexier as Labat’s EMS Synthi-A rides craggy heights with several high-pitched sequences that knife shrilly through the arrangement. The backing band is cut with more reverb as if an attempt to flesh out the track, but it’s no use: those Synthi-A blasts rock the whole scene as though electronic pulleys continue to groan under their sine line labours of musique concrète haulage. A sudden explosion rocks the proceedings into silence and everything ceases until the opening looped speaking reconvenes and then fades.

Even as the most orthodox moment of the album, the jumped-up piano-led boogaloo of “Hey Little Lady” soon turns into a complex stretch of manic, stentorian Rock during the chorus of incomprehensibly English/French/and/or/nonsense-ish declarations. Rundgren kicks in with a squelchy, fuzzed lead guitar solo while Paul Butterfield wails in the background on harmonica and soon, everything except Rundgren’s guitar and accompanying driving drums tumble away to allow for an acre of headspace for the guitar solo to run rampant -- phased and tweaked by Labat before ending in a pool of quaking echo. The lighthearted “Monkey People” kicks in with xylophonic hammering in strident clusters paired with Garth Hudson’s low, overhanging Lowry organ. Nicky Hopkins-styled breaks on the 88s enter then vanish with a lovely woman’s voice intoning like a enchanting nixie to “Come with me to Marishney/I’ll love you the Irish way” as a background choir of gurgling babies, gnomic vocals and plucked Jew’s harp erupt in premonition.

Warm and wistful, “Welcome Home” carries an “All Along the Watchtower” vibe as Labat sings in whispery tones over a strumming rhythm acoustic guitar with full band backing and strands of Synthi-A. The mood is one of leisurely draining a bottle of Bordeaux with a good, long-lost friend. Garth Hudson maintains a low profile on Lowry organ and while Rick Danko’s bowed stand up bass is treated by Labat and Labat even found a way to insert two thunderous sax accents. Dusky skies streaked with purple, blue and red Synthi-A lines trail off into the distance as darkness folds into itself. Labat’s spoken words on the coda gently drift off, along with the track, into the skies. Co-written by Labat and John Holbrook, “Relax Goliath” is a 6 minute synthesiser epic that plumbs the depth of the electronic ocean as eddies and currents swirl by and sparkle with glittery space dust. Echoed interstellar gravities release while entreaties and low vocal mantras meld into the electronic hum of synthesized-Gregorian vocal chants. All is undulation and quiet pulsation like a series of waves lapping on distant shores forever. After a slight hint of church organ hymn, tiny red glimmers pulse on the horizon just as all wraps away into silence.

As a solo album, “M. Frog” was a screaming success and a true showcase of Labat’s masterful integration of styles and sounds. Then he joined a group called Utopia...

In “Le Feel Internacionale” on “A Wizard/A True Star,” Rundgren heralded the imminence of Utopia with “Wait another year/Utopia is here.” But there was no need to, for Utopia had already been conceived before the recording of “A Wizard/A True Star” reached completion. One night at Max’s Kansas City, during a showcase of the all-female Rock group Fanny (whose “Mother’s Pride” album Rundgren had just produced), Rundgren stated to Labat his desire to form a band that would include him on synthesiser. Recently back from London, Rundgren was impressed by the current visual shock of glam Rock and stated to Labat that it would be good for the band to have a crazy look. Labat agreed, adding “But if we do this, then we’ll have to go all the way.” And oh, brother did they ever. Once assembled and kitted out by Nicky Nichols in animal print bodysuits, they were all assigned specific hair colours: David Mason (not the founding Traffic member but an American keyboardist) had his beard shaved and long hair cut, dyed and rinsed into a blue, yellow and red tonsorial nightmare. Then the Sales brothers (having previously appeared on Rundgren’s “Runt” and “Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren” LPs) were brought on board with Tony the bassist’s hair assigned bright pink while his brother Hunt’s was dyed black with a huge white stripe in the middle to approximate that of a skunk. Rundgren’s hair stayed its multi-hued red and blue while in keeping with his amphibian moniker, M. Frog Labat’s hair was, of course, bright green.

Right after the release of Rundgren’s “A Wizard/A True Star” on March 31, 1973, this initial version of Utopia embarked on an abortive two-month American tour that would grind to a halt after only a handful of dates. Unfortunately, there is only one recording extant of this great lost lineup in the form of an audience tape from a live performance at C.W. Post College in Brookville, New York. It reveals a set list heavy on material from “A Wizard/A True Star” fleshed out with tracks gleaned from “Something Anything?” and “Runt” along with a premier of the “Utopia Theme” (co-written by Mason and Rundgren) while rounded out by Labat’s own “We Are Crazy.” Onstage, the group lived up to this last-named song’s premise. The Sales brothers wore welding masks with visors while clad in tight black threads, the unassuming Dave Mason kept out of harm’s way stationed tightly to his keyboards while Rundgren issued forth quick run-through medleys of his hits to allow for more previews of ‘AWATS” material. Meanwhile, Labat was encased with his synths inside a clear geodesic dome topped off by Hunt Sales’ drum kit, emerging only for “We Are Crazy” wielding a laser gun rigged with a remote control trigger for the synthesisers to erupt concurrent with the retina-dazzling effects pointed into the audience. The tour was rife with high spirited hi-jinks, such as the occasion when Labat was left gasping for breath when his dome was locked from the outside while dry ice from the stage floor crept in and was trapped within his synthetic close quarters.

This lineup was just too crazy, too ahead of its time and altogether too unstable to last. Not to mention that Bearsville management couldn’t take the sight of their investment in a serious artist responsible for “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light” go down the tubes with an unruly group of space punk glam-bangs who had all seemingly copped one-way tickets out of their minds. After the tour broke down, a newly-reconstituted lineup of Utopia was drawn from the ranks of players who appeared on “A Wizard/A True Star” with Ralph Schuckett (keyboards), Mark “Moogy” Klingman (keyboards) and John Siegler (bass) joining new drummer Kevin Ellman into the remaining Utopia nucleus of Rundgren and Labat. This six-piece reconvened in August, 1973 with the first of several extensive tours, with almost a year passing before the release of their first album, “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia.” Nearly an hour in length, a live version of “Utopia Theme” in full effect at the Fox Theater, Atlanta kicked off side one with a furious amalgam of “Tommy”-era Who power chord riffs and tightly regimented keyboard signatures swept into a progressive Rock suite as Labat’s Synthi-A flourishes and treatments ran rampant throughout. “Utopia Theme” is one of the most sensational moments of the album.

A live performance on “Midnight Special” the same year on American TV captured the group’s rendition of “Black Maria” with Rundgren sporting a skimpy, winged halter-top with outrageous eye makeup and multi-coloured hair matched in outrageousness only by the massive, customised Synthi-A rig manned by Labat wearing bright green hair and tinted aviator shades. The rig would soon expand in the following year to a multi-panel console through which Labat not only played synthesiser but was able to treat Rundgren’s guitar signal feed with pitch to voltage conversion. As explained by Mark Vail in “Vintage Synthesizers” (Miller Freeman Books, San Francisco, 1993), this treatment “determines the frequency of an audio waveform and creates a control voltage which, when applied to the control input of a properly calibrated oscillator, will cause the oscillator to output its own signal at the same frequency.” This is a technical way of explaining a fluctuation in timbre that was sometimes subtle, sometimes conspicuous but always highly unpredictable: especially live. This function was extremely sensitive to lighting, temperature, and climate change so the results could only broadly be predicted. Luckily, unpredictability and spontaneity seemed to resonate with Rundgren’s current direction to that “city in my head/heaven in my body.” Or at least for the period of 1973-74, which was largely spent with extensive Utopian tours of the United States.

Time will always frustratingly prove that the centre rarely holds for an extended period, and doubly so for experimental Rock bands. Whether through incessant touring, commercial demands, shifting band chemistry or just a dream departing before dawn all good things always come to an end. By 1975, so did Labat’s tenure with the group he had helped found, along with his contract with Bearsville management. He would maintain ties with Rundgren and assist on a few of his projects, such as pitch-to-voltage treatments to Steve Hillage’s guitar on his Rundgren-produced “L” album.

In 1977, a series of bizarre events would alter not only Labat’s musical direction but his entire life as well. During a record company meeting, an executive suggested to Labat that a remake of “Little Drummer Boy” from his recent second solo album, “Underwater Electric Orchestra” could be a success if it contained the accordion playing of Idi Amin. Well-known at the time to be Dada’s favourite instrument, Labat could even treat the proceedings through his Synthi-A and the novelty appearance of the notorious Ugandan dictator on record would undoubtedly cause a sensation. The joking soon evolved into a bet whereby if Labat succeeded, he would be provided with a sizeable degree of both creative and financial freedom to pursue his musical endeavours. It was agreed and once cleared for entry, Labat flew to Uganda with recording devices and video equipment (the latter loaned from Rundgren in order to preserve the session as proof of the bet’s fulfillment.)

Labat stayed in the capital city of Kampala for several weeks before granted permission to meet with Amin. The meeting and subsequent arrangements all seemed in order, but on the eve of the recording session things quickly turned ugly. The Ugandan secret police arrested Labat on charges of espionage and whisked him off to the innocuously-named State Research Bureau in Nakasero that was in reality a death camp where interrogations, torture and executions were routinely conducted. After several harrowing weeks of experiences more befitting a war crimes tribunal report than an article on Rock Music, Labat managed an impossibly rare escape, eventually making an uneven passage back to Woodstock alive but changed forever.

The changes came with a gradual withdrawal from music-making into sound production. He re-recorded several tracks from his previous “Underwater Electric Orchestra” along with some new pieces and released it in 1978 as his third solo album, “Transition No. 1.” The eighties would be far quieter for Labat than the previous decade. Moving from Woodstock to New York City, he spent much time traveling the world and then reverting to his full name by 1987 when he recorded his final album to date, “En Voyage,” with old friend John Holbrook. Labat and Holbrook then set about work on a portable digital recording system called ‘High Definition Recording System.’ Especially designed and developed to record in live situations, the HDRS would prove to be a useful tool for what would come next.

In 1989, Labat returned to his hometown of Clermont-Ferrand where he lives to the present day. At first involving himself in the field of sound production and recording church organ music with the HDRS, Labat was named Exclusive Producer of Sacred Music at Notre-Dame de Paris where he recorded a series of albums of the Cathedral choir and organ called “Organa Via” and “Viventia Organa.” In the mid-nineties, Labat created his own Ad Vitam label for which he began recording a series of albums with the purpose to ‘defend the belief that music can do things which neither politics nor diplomacy, much less violence, cannot.’ During the war in Bosnia, he moved to Sarajevo where, provided with false papers, he recorded an entire album of the Trebevic choir comprised of Serbs, Croats and Bosnians called “Les Voix de l’oubli.” Unbelievably, Labat organised their escape through a tunnel under Sarajevo airport for a well-received tour of 37 concerts. He followed this up with a series of recordings in Azerbaijan that brought together French, American and Azerbaijani artists. In 2003, his recordings in Israel and the Palestinian Territories united in song 100 musicians from those regions of every denomination: Jews, Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Armenian Christians. The recordings became the album “D’une Seule Voix” (“With One Voice.”) An accompanying French tour was subsequently hailed for both its musical and cultural achievements, which caused Jean-Yves Labat de Rossi to receive several of the most distinguished French awards in the arts: two Orphées d’Or from the Académie du disque lyrique, the Prix de l’Académie des Beaux-Arts and was recently knighted as a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.

It appears that the true spirit of Utopia never left Labat, whose strange odyssey as A Frog/A True Prince could be summed up with a quote in the booklet from “M. Frog”:

‘Do not underestimate M. Frog. In a single bound he makes the future the present.’

-Special thanks to Jean Yves Labat for his time and assistance.