Julian Cope’s Album of the Month
AOTM #19, December 2001ce
Released 1974 on Delta Acustic
- Helicopter (13.42)
- Old Loggerhead (8.21)
- May Rain (4.29)
- On The Corner (4.26)
- Sarah 1 - Passacaille
- Sarah 2 - Per Aspera Ad Astra (10.40)
When Gento and Yogi finally fled back to their homes in Bodenwerder, in Lower Saxony, they were looking for normality and safety. As members of the burgeoning Krautrock scene, they had loved their Cologne show supporting Can, and believed that their band Part Of Time could only become bigger and better. But they were all from the fanstastic land of Baron Munchhausen, a beautiful rural area whose biggest local town was the fairy-tale Hamelin, where once had come the famed and legendary Pied Piper. And though each was intrigued by these industrial cities in which they had been called upon to perform, they had all grown up playing in the woods and ancient quarries of the mysterious Weser Valley. Yes, they wanted to play the new rock’n’roll, but all were still mistrustful of the druggies and weirdos which permeated their new lives - full of student demonstration, anti-Cold War attitude and communal living. And so, when the rest of Part of Time decided to move to Berlin, both Gento and Yogi freaked out and quit the band.
Of course, this left the Papenburg brothers in a real fix. Both Ludwig and Ulrich were excellent musicians, but how should they proceed? Their lead singer Johannes Vester was a visionary lyricist, but he was no musician. True, he contributed a mean short wave radio to the soup of their live sound, but it was hardly going to help now that the drummer and organist had both run back to the forest.
However, this was the experimental Krautrock scene of 1972, and anything was possible. Can’s manager, Manfred Schmidt, had been enormously impressed by Part of Time’s performance in Cologne. He had sat up half the night listening to Johannes Vester’s notions of where experimental rock’n’roll should go next. And he had introduced Vester and the two Papenburg brothers to Klaus Schulze, who had in turn encouraged their plans to move to his own city Berlin, where anything was possible, and the weirder the better.
And so Sand was born - a cosmic and drummerless trio with a lead singer who played VCS3 synthesizer and sang mysterious and pedantic English lyrics in a voice like a Frisian Puritan reared on Melanie Kafka and David Bowie. Sample lyric? "He is an old loggerhead - actually long ago he is dead." Reviewer’s comment: Nuff said.
On arrival in Berlin, these three longhairs beat a path to Klaus Schulze’s front door and asked him to produce their first LP, to be entitled Golem. Why did they want to call it Golem? Well, Golem was a mysterious Jewish figure from the 16th century who had been fashioned out of the earth. The members of Sand used ‘Golem’ as a verb to describe the transmutations which occurred when they played together. In the words of Johannes Vester:
"To experience with the unknown, to give life... that was our impulse... [those lyrics expressed] exactly what was in our mind when we Golemned."
And so it happened that Klaus Schulze recorded five strange and extended ambient ballads by a trio of little people from Lower Saxony, who each knew precisely what sound they wished to achieve. Some of the songs hung around from their days as Part of Time, but these, now without drums or organ, were considerably extended in duration in order to consciously create "reduction, frugality, monotony, even mantric principles and elements", as Johannes Vester would later comment.
And so long as the results sounded like nothing else ever heard before they would all be quite happy. And quietly and seemingly quite easily, they achieved this goal. For Golem is a beautifully mystical and hauntingly empty record, inhabiting those same pre-industrial landscapes in which they had played as children. The songs were occasionally propelled by picked glassy acoustic guitars and pulsing monolithic bass, as though powered by the heartbeats of frost giants delicately picking their way through their ancient Saxon township in outsize and ill-fitting seven league boots. But often-as-not the music was left to hang in mid air, as hauntingly weird translated lyrics, strangely sung in some undefined post-apocalyptic space-cockney sauntered and cooed out their bee-zarre message over washes of belt-driven synthesizers and a-rhythmic agricultural ur-folk music.
It must also be understood that this Sand LP was recorded at a time when Klaus Schulze was actually being paid by Membran Records of Berlin to experiment with the famous Kunstkopf-Stereophonie or Artificial Head Stereo Sound, in which a whole other world was placed in the headphones of those listeners who wanted to go beyond the Quadrophonic of the day. There was a plethora of recording and mixing aids being used in the early-mid 1970s, many of which followed on naturally from the 1960s Hi-Fi industry boom. But probably equal amounts were generated through the desires of sonic experimenters such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. This culminated in a situation wherein many different composers, utilising any number of variously-sized loudspeakers placed in different configurations around the audience, gradually allowed the technology itself to dominate their work rather than enhance it. Fortunately, though the Artificial Head technique did compromise the final mix of many of these LPs, the effects achieved when wearing headphones are still remarkable today. It really does do your head in. So when you listen to this Sand LP, get the cans on, babies - it’s a stone groove of ambulent proportions. Unfortunately, though Membran’s experimental record label Delta Acustic simultaneously released several other experimental ‘rock’ LPs, it is said that the Sand LP is by far the most achieving and entertaining.1
Golem begins with "Helicopter" in which the phased vocals and twittering VCS3 of Johannes Vester set up a sound worthy enough to accompany some newly-imported space religion. A few minutes into this comes the electronic pulsings of Ludwig Papenburg and the strummed bass of Uli Papenburg, rhythmic but wholly uninterested in the 4/4 beats of rock’n’roll. Their sea shanty listing ship rocks from side to side, as Johannes Vester takes up the story:
"In the sky is flying high a blackbird with a dusty cry,
On the hills the ravens croak while satyr plays a dreadful joke,
By the water damp fog whirls see the smoking steaming earth,
And the air is dark and strange and cold."
Where does this guy get his pronunciation from? Is this a regular voice in Bodenwerder? Are orators of his type ten-a-penny round his neck of the woods? Or does Johannes Vester inhabit the peripheries of every neighbourhood? Around eight or so minutes into "Helicopter", a whole other rhythm takes over and we’re suddenly pitched into a world of the recent dead. Now, Vester is some north European shaman summoning reluctant spirits out of their graves. Just as Odin pissed off the sleeping Goddesses with his acts of midnight seething, so then up pops Johannes to do the same to poor old sleeping Allfather himself.
Next up is that crazy "Old Loggerhead" song, which kicks off with the eeriest harmonica and synthesizer-cross-the-swamp. Down comes the slow descending bass chords of Uli Papenburg, as Vester begins his next strange tale of dark forest characters at the edge of sleepy dark age townships.
"He scraped a living in a ramshackle cot
Outside the village near the mystery wood."
Of course Old Loggerhead’s behaviour is far too anti-social for the locals, themselves guilty of all kinds of clandestine habits. And Vester continues his tale of how:
"Once some fellows stalked up to his shack
They used caution - took the old beaten track
Painted a white cross on the brittle gate
So they marked the place of imaginary fate
And they returned to their peace-loving folk
Reported excited on the nocturnal joke."
Hearing Vester pronounce the phrase ‘once some fellows’ is a revelation in itself. And when he tells of Old Loggerhead’s disappearance with a ‘sinister giggle’ the effect is quite superbly chilling. And, as I said at the start of the review, you can’t get a better lyrical pay-off than:
"He was an Old Loggerhead - and actually long ago he is dead."
Side Two opens with the Alpen folk of "May Rain", a strange cross between Pearls Before Swine and Witthusser & Westrupp, with a melody directly from Can’s "Vitamin C". Mallet-balalaika and picked winter acoustics hurry along this hook-nosed song like long-coated spirit-Fagins on some unknown stroke-of-midnight mission to the gates of Hel (sic).
By the time we come to "On the Corner", Vester’s dialect has become cross-continental. He moves happily and effortlessly from a kind of Brummie-Swiss Syd Barrett to cartoon Norwegian milkmaid and her cow, via South Africa and the Amish - and sometimes all in the space of one line of lyrics. "On the Corner" is the catchy one. Y’know how certain songs sound like singles NOT because they’re commercial, but because they are just not nearly so fucking weird as the stuff that’s gone before. Well "On the Corner" is that guy. Starts with boogie drum-machine, moves through several (catchy) rhythm changes, then out of the blue settles on the single-most jarring and inappropriate cajun soul beat you ever did hear. Hear it the first time you laugh. Then you whizz back in case you misheard. Then you listen one final time for pleasure and the sheer audacity of THAT beginning. Finally you hear the entire song, and by the way it is great.
"Well, I’m standing on the corner with my feet soaking wet," sings Johannes Vester, over a soul bass line and an acoustic guitar and not much else. Maybe his voice is just a fucking genius joke because the guy sounds like a sheep-shagger. I’m not saying he is but he don’t half sound like it. Sounds like the biggest hick yokel ever allowed in the recording studio - makes "Da Da Da" by Trio sound truly worldly wise and city slick! And when we get to the line about Johannes having ‘a pain in my bones’, he really makes the overly-mannered pronunciation of Marc Bolan and Donovan sound bog standard in comparison.
The album closes with the ten-minute two-part epic called "Sarah" - a sort of Not Available-period Residential lost-Child-Goddess-in-the-attic-of-the-world tale. Part one asks the same question over and over again: "Is it you Sarah? No, it’s the storm." The sounds are atmospheres which fall and rise like the breathing of the twilight wind on the Marlborough Downs. The music is the movement of the Sun glimpsed from some ancient eminence in that final hemi-second before it dips below the horizon. And, of course, by the middle of this song, it has become quite clear that Sarah and the storm are one. And even though Sarah the Storm Giantess has picked her way everso carefully though their neighbourhood, she has still "uncovered all the fields" and "petrified trees". And so, uncover of darkness, Sarah is "gone with the stream". Sarah is gone, Sarah is gone, Sarah is gone, Sarah is gone, Sarah is gone... fade... Sarah is gone... fade... Sarah is gone...
And so the Golem LP finishes. Sand had a truly eternal sound. Like the Mongolfier Brothers hanging above 19th century Paris, it is so close but so out-of-reach that you could imagine them all blowing away at any moment - a life-threatening experiment which seems superficially simple to achieve. And this is what you hear on W.S.Y.M. Unfortunately, it is nowadays quite impossible to buy this LP is the original format. So please beware that the modern Sand reissue suffers from that horrid modern phenomenon - Extra Tracks! O Yeah! You get no sense of the single-mindedness which Sand used for their original muse. There’s not even a nice big 30-second gap between "Sarah" and the following piece. Instead, beware that you get unnecessary demo versions of LP tracks aplenty plus a very nice unreleased solo LP by Johannes Vester.2 This lot all comes under the banner Ultrasonic Seraphim, which you have to buy to get to the real deal. That said, several of the tracks are really fucking great. It’s just a shame that it all gets mish-mashed (and even horribly cross-faded at times) in the dreaded name of Good Value. Still, it would be horribly churlish of me not to praise this reissue, because I myself wouldn’t even have had a copy otherwise. So enter the world of Sand with both feet jumping and you’ll descend into a quicksand - keep your hands free and close to the CD eject button. But dig this fucking weird Saxony sound and fill your heart. You know it makes no sense.
- Though I have heard none of the other Delta Acustic LPs, those which have been recommended to me are We Hope to See You by Seedog (Delta Acustic 25-125-1), Planet of Man by Code III (Delta Acustic 25-125-1) and the sampler Kunstkopf Dimension (Delta Acustic 10-130-1). This last one includes all kinds of sound experiments beyond Stereo and Quadrophonic.
- Don’t ask why, but this solo album was recorded under the name Johannes Vester & His Vester Bester Tester Electric Folk Orchestra.