Richard Williams on the European bands who are rejecting the traditions of Anglo-American rock.
IT’S NOW half a year since I wrote about some Continental bands who looked like providing a challenge to the dominance of the Anglo-American axis. In that time one of them, Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe, has made a couple of successful British tours, while journalists have lately been fighting to interview another, Amon Düül II, on their recent non-playing visit.
Soon after that first piece was published, I had a visit from Rolf Ulrich Kaiser, a well-known German writer involved in a new label called Ohr, which specialises in recording avant-garde German bands. He informed me of a somewhat astonishing fact: that it’s only when English or American writers praise their bands that the German youth will take them seriously.
Wealth of talent
That seems to me an unfortunate state of affairs, for there’s a wealth of talent building up over the Channel which needs first of all to be recognised by its own public, purely for survival. For a long time now, German promoters have been packing kids into festivals by hiring a dozen British bands (any dozen British bands) and padding out the bill with a few local outfits, like Düül and Xhol, paid rock-bottom rate and accorded no respect. On more than one occasion I’ve seen a band struggling to make itself heard while playing far better music than the headline British or American acts.
The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, in other Continental countries. The audience want to hear what’s fashionable, which means third-rate blues bands from that well-known Home of the Blues — London.
So I want to write again about some more European bands, playing European music, in the hope that it will persuade a few more, at home as well as abroad, to listen to them. I’m not saying they’re better: but some of them are certainly different, and have new ideas worth rather more than footnotes.
FIRST, THERE’S Pan, a Danish band from the same stable as Burnin’ Red. Actually they owe as much to France as to Denmark, for their singer, second guitarist, and main composer is Frenchman Robert Lelièvre. I’ve had their album, on Danish Sonet, for some time now, and it gets played all the time. They are capable of an unusual variety of textures and dynamics, while sustaining a recognisable personality which places considerable emphasis on clean, lithe playing and intelligent, melodic songs.
Perhaps the outstanding track is ‘Lady Of The Sand’, which starts as a ballad but develops into a 6/8 jam on a brief chord cycle, highlighting the contrast between the guitars of Thomas Puggard-Müller (long-lined, graceful arabesques) and Lelièvre (harsher, tauter, but still screaming). This track, with its slow fade and final ringing vibes arpeggio, carried a very real cathartic effect.
It’s not the only jewel, though. Lelièvre’s phased vocal over stinging guitar on ‘Song To France’ is extremely beautiful, while ‘Il N’ya Pas Si Longtemps De Ca’ marks him as a composer of unusual merit. The other musicians, who perform with an unerring sense of discretion, are Henning Verner (piano, organ, vibes), Arne Wurgier (bass, cello), and Michael Puggard-Müller (drums). Freddy Hansson’s production is, surprisingly, far better than that on most British albums, not afraid to use the technique of the studio to enhance the music.
ANOTHER DANISH band, now apparently defunct, is/was Maxwells, whose Maxwell Street album was recorded by Joe Berendt for the German MPS label in 1969. Led by guitarist Lasse Lunderskov, their lineup was Lars Bisgaard (vocals), Kjeld Ipsen (trombone). Bent Hesselmann (soprano, alto, flute), Torben Enghof (tenor, flute), Niels Harrit (keyboards, flute, vocal), Joergen Werner (bass), and Boerge Robert Mortenson (drums).
At the time it was cut, it probably sounded excellent; now it’s a bit too close to Chicago for comfort, and the jazz content occasionally sounds rather half-baked, with the exception of Enghof’s tough tenor. The album indicates that they must have been pretty exciting live, though, even though the material isn’t too strong.
AND SO TO Germany, where Amon Düül play in the shadow of Amon Düül II. They don’t deserve to though, for their ideas are even more extraordinary. I know of three records they’ve made: two albums (Psychedlic Underground and Collapsing) for Metronome and a single (‘Eternal Flow’/’Paramechanicial World’) for the same company’s hip subsidiary, Ohr. They’re all fairly amazing.
The albums, which are the earliest, consist mainly of strong, simple riffs played over and over again, often for ten minutes at a stretch, with variation kept to the minimum and then only being a slight shift in rhythmic emphasis or some electronic modulation of the sound.
This music is wholly Germanic: leaden, unswinging, intransigent, but extremely hypnotic. It sounds as if they’re not very good musicians; but then, in technical terms, neither was Baby Dodds. The feeling, the continuum, is what matters.
The single, which also appears on a worthwhile sampler double-LP called Ohrenschmaus, is quite recent, and indicates that they may be moving back to more melodic forms. I don’t see any reason for them to sing in English, though; the gutteral consonants of German suit this music far better. ‘Paramechanical World’ is actually quite… pretty.
STABLEMATES of Amon Düül are Guru Guru and Floh De Cologne. The former, consisting of Ax Genrich (guitar), Ulli Trepte (bass), and Mani Neumeir (electric drums), have their first cut, ‘Der LSD-Marsch’, also on Ohrenschmaus, and they seem to be further into sound than the others. The electronics are manipulated fully, particularly by Neumier, a former avant-garde jazz musician who some years ago invented the “mani-tom,” a tom-tom with variable pitch operated by blowing through a length of rubber tube.
Despite Genrich’s occasional clichés, they sound promising, and I look forward to hearing their album, UFO, when it arrives.
Floh De Cologne (Floh = Eau or Flea, get it) are a full-blown “polit-rock-band,” whose album Fliesbandbaby’s Beat Show is an anti-materialistic polemic, pouring scorn on current capitalist fads. Much of it is recited, rendering the words meaningless to non-German speakers like me, but the music is attractive and sounds appropriate.
They seem to be exploring, conscious of the possibilities of pop as political theatre, and they appear to be succeeding. I’d like a translation, though, because the words sound most interesting. “Fliesbandbaby,” by the way, means “Conveyor-belt baby,” so you get the general drift. The line-up is Markus Schmidt (guitar, organ, bass), Dick Stadtler (guitar, organ, bass), Gerd Wollschon (guitar, organ), Dieter Klemm (guitar, bass), and Hansi Frank (drums).
OHR HAVE several other interesting bands, like Limbus, probably the furthest out of the lot; Witthauser and Westrupp, a folky duo specialising in social commentary; Annexus Quam, and Embryo. The label can be contacted at Wittelsbacherstr, 18, 1 Berlin 31. West Germany.
Lastly there’s a French band, Zoo, who’ve been praised in some quarters but to my mind conform to the general pattern of French pop over the past decade: where Hallyday copied the Presley/Cochran/Holly/Vincent arch-type, Zoo go after the big-band BS&T thing, only using two violins. Good musicians, obviously, but their album (I Shall Be Free on Riviera) is pretty boring, and isn’t helped by the dire vocals of Ian Wallace, an Englishman who veers between Clayton-Thomas and Georgie Fame.
What’s encouraging about bands like Pan, the Düüls, Can, and Floh De Cologne is that they’re beginning to play their own music, with no genuflections towards the Anglo-American tradition. That is just as it should be.
© Richard Williams, Melody Maker, 30 January 1971