Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Pearls Before Swine
An Appreciation And Love Song

Released 1966-1972 on ESP/Reprise
Reviewed by Billy Milk, 18/05/2003ce

I'd like to introduce you to my new friend. I've only known him a week and, in truth, I've never actually met him, but in the space of seven days, Tom Rapp and I have become inseparable. Let me explain. Tom Rapp was the singer and songwriter for a band called Pearls Before Swine. Tom Rapp was born in North Dakota, around the same time and place as Bob Dylan and close to the Canadian Border. Tom Rapp recorded nine albums of exquisite folk-tinged ballads, every one a classic. Tom Rapp has shared the stage with Dylan, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Chuck Berry, Patti Smith and Bob Hope. Tom Rapp gave up the music industry 30 years ago and is now a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia. If you haven't heard Tom Rapp your life is incomplete.

Some people just seem destined to slip through history's net. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young are all destined to sit forever at rock's top table. Tom Rapp's place setting has not yet been secured - but it will. Talent of this magnitude simply cannot go unrecognised.

I was introduced to Tom by Alan Pearce at Plastic Factory in Corporation Street. I like to go in there if I've got a bit of spare change in my pocket and Alan usually directs me to some unsung nugget from the 60s or 70s, often something pretty obscure which sold zilch when first issued in a private pressing by the band. It's kind of a ritual for me, a way of salving the ennui brought about by 95 per cent of modern music.

Alan's big rave last week was a box of four CDs by Pearls Before Swine, comprising Rapp's output for the Reprise label in the early 1970s. He stuck disc two, The Use of Ashes, into the CD player and everything changed.

After spending half an hour transfixed I left the shop with the box set and the two albums PBS recorded for the ESP label in 1967 and 68 and I've been listening to them non-stop for over a week.

Maybe you're reading this from a position of knowledge, maybe you've always been into Tom Rapp. Maybe, like me, you're a Pearls Before Swine neo-evangelist. I've been grabbing everyone who's come close to me in the past seven days, saying 'you have got to listen to this . . . ' The first two Pearls Before Swine albums are called One Nation Underground and Balaklava and can be filed conveniently in the hippy folk section of your collection next to Dylan, the Incredible String Band, early acoustic Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. Yet, like a shimmering summer of love heat-haze, they don't quite fit. These acid campfire vignettes are just too otherworldly, world-weary and worldly-wise to be categorised.

The first two albums are pretty much the work of a gigging band and sold respectably to the era's turned-on community. You may remember their covers: phantasmagorical pictures of death and torture by Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Brueghel, far from the peace and love zeitgeist.

As the band fractured and split, Rapp carried on writing songs, culminating in the run of four Reprise albums: These Things Too, The Use of Ashes, City of Gold and Beautiful Lies. Pretty much solo efforts, with crucial input from his Dutch wife Elisabeth and some tasty Nashville session musicians, this is where Tom Rapp's legacy remains. Like Nick Drake, who sold next to nothing in his lifetime but now commands massive worldwide respect, Rapp's standing will just continue to increase.

I could ramble about each of the albums, instead I'll proselytise about just one song. It's called Rocket Man and it can be found on The Use of Ashes in the box set. With the recent American space shuttle catastrophe, it's chillingly apt.

A boy whose dad is an astronaut looks into the night sky and imagines that each star is his father's rocket, dreaming of the adventures he has in space. One particular night, he watches an exceptionally bright star, unknowing that it is in fact his father's rocket, burning up in the heavens.

With the chilling refrain 'My mother and I/Never went out/Unless the sky was cloudy or the sun was blotted out/Or to escape the pain/We only went out when it rained' the sadness and poetry of the astronaut's death is perfectly captured.

While you can imagine Rocket Man being played at remembrance services for the lost Columbia astronauts, Rapp's power is to touch on an emotion much more personal than sci-fi.

'Tears are often jewel-like/My mother's went unnoticed by my father, for his jewels were the stars . . .' he sings to a delicate backing driven by David Briggs' harpsichord and a string quartet - Rocket Man instantly becomes a lament for all absent fathers who can't cope with family life and instead become heroic figures for small boys who in turn cannot understand why he's not around.

Tom Rapp's pretty much hung up his guitar now and he fights injustice through the courts rather than through songs. His legacy is in his recordings which, thankfully, are once again becoming available. He's a hero to me and has touched me with his delicate words and fragile melodies. Check him out.

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