Weekend links 377

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Holger Czukay by Ursula Kloss, from the cover of Czukay’s Moving Pictures (1993). (The painting is a pastiche of Holbein’s portrait of Georg Gisze.)

• RIP Holger Czukay. The obituaries have emphasised his role as the bass player for Can, of course, but he was just as important to the band as a sound engineer and producer: it was Czukay’s editing skills that shaped many of their extended jams into viable compositions. Post-Can he recorded 20 or so albums by himself or with collaborators, several of which can be counted among the best of all the Can solo works. Geeta Dayal and Jason Gross remembered their encounters with Czukay, while FACT reposted their 2009 interview. Czukay’s final interview was probably last year when he talked to Ian Harrison for Mojo magazine.

For my part, I was astonished when Czukay phoned me out of the blue one day in 1997 to thank me for sending him a video I’d made in the 1980s. This was a scratch production created with two VCRs that set 300 clips from feature films to Hollywood Symphony, the final piece on Czukay’s Movies album. Years later, MTV showed a couple of similar video collages that Czukay had made for Can so I sent a copy of my effort to Spoon Records thinking he might be amused. His public persona was often one of a wacky mad professor but the jokiness was allied to an impressive technical skill and curiosity. Most of our brief conversation was taken up with my answering his questions about my primitive video recording.

• “Every pebble can blow us sky-high”: A reconsideration by J. Hoberman of The Wages of Fear, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

• Dario Argento’s masterpiece of horror cinema, Suspiria, is 40 years old. Martyn Conterio looks at five of its influences.

Mark Korven’s Apprehension Engine: an instrument designed to play the music of nightmares.

• The mystery of the Voynich Manuscript solved at last? Nicholas Gibbs thinks so.

• At Dangerous Minds: The macabre and disturbing sculptures of Emil Melmoth.

Jonathan Meades reviews A Place for All People by Richard Rogers.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 229 by Erin Arthur.

• The ten creepiest objects in the Wellcome Collection.

Rob Chapman’s essential psychedelia reading list.

It’s Just A Fear (1966) by The Answers | Fear (1992) by Miranda Sex Garden | Constant Fear (2002) Bohren & Der Club Of Gore

Digging the Rubble

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1: The Psychedelic Snarl.

A few words in praise of Rubble, the 20-disc collection of (mostly) British psychedelic singles released by the Bam Caruso label from 1984 to 1991. A reader of Rob Chapman’s Psychedelia and Other Colours would find the Rubble series an indispensable companion to the second half of the book which explores the unique styles of British psych. Ideally you’d read the book while having these and other compilations close at hand, something I didn’t manage so I’ve been going through the discs myself this week, listening out for some of the many singles that Chapman discusses. The Rubble title is a nod to Lenny Kaye’s 1972 collection Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968, the first reappraisal of the garage/psych era whose success spawned Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond, 1964-1969, a not-so-good attempt to do the same for the UK, and Children of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the Second Psychedelic Era, 1976-1995. The original Nuggets was followed by the long-running Pebbles series which sprawls over 28 discs collecting obscure garage singles.

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2: Pop-Sike Pipe Dreams.

What I like about the Rubble series, apart from its covering a favourite zone of musical history, is the way that each volume is titled in a suitable manner beyond a mere number: the title of volume 8, All The Colours Of Darkness could have been used by Coil during their LSD period. Then there’s the sleeve designs by the great Phil Smee, one of the founders of Bam Caruso, the collector of many of the featured singles, and a first-rate artisan of psychedelic graphics: there’s a Louis Wain cat on volume 2, and more of those letterforms by Roman Cieslewicz on volume 10. Smee deserves a post of his own but covering such a lengthy career would be a daunting task: Discogs lists 784 separate releases, and that’s only his design work. The design on the first run of Rubble albums was credited to “Harvey S. Williams”, a Smee pseudonym playing on the name of Elektra Records art director William S. Harvey. Harvey S. Williams was also the designer of the short-lived and rather wonderful Bam Caruso magazine, Strange Things Are Happening, issues of which are advertised in the inner sleeves of the early Rubble albums. (The magazine borrowed its title from a 1968 single by Rings and Things which is featured on Rubble 4.)

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3: Nightmares In Wonderland.

The Rubble series has been reissued on CD many times, and is currently available as The Rubble Collection, a glossy cube containing all 20 discs in card sleeves together with two booklets that reprint Phil Smee’s original sleeve notes and band photos. The Rubble albums sound a little rough today when many of the songs which were taken directly from old singles have been resurrected and can be heard elsewhere in better quality. Subsequent compilations have also cherry-picked many of the better selections but this is still the ideal place to start if you want to immerse yourself in the toyshop/kitchen sink surrealism that is British psychedelia.

• See also: Richard Norris reminiscing about working at Bam Caruso, and choosing 20 favourite British psych records.

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4: The 49 Minute Technicolour Dream.

Continue reading “Digging the Rubble”

Psychedelia and Other Colours by Rob Chapman

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My mother thought well enough of The Beatles in the 1960s to buy two of their albums—Beatles For Sale and Help!—and she continued to enjoy the Fab Four’s songs up to the point when (in her words) “they went funny”, by which she meant the period after Rubber Soul when they dropped the beat stylings, picked up sitars and took to recording drums and guitars in reverse. They were also taking drugs, of course, hence the funniness, and this rapid evolution—from loveable moptops to freaked-out weirdos in a matter of months—is the subject of Rob Chapman’s huge study of psychedelia as a cultural phenomenon, the period from around mid-1965 to late 1969 when Western youth “went funny” en masse.

This isn’t an undocumented era but Chapman’s book provides an overdue counterweight to the American focus of earlier studies such as Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (1987). Psychedelic art evolved in San Francisco but it’s an irony of the form that many of the wildest, most typically psychedelic concert posters were promoting acts that were only marginally psychedelic in their sound or, in the case of the older jazz, soul and blues acts, weren’t psychedelic at all. Chapman is more interested in the multi-media light shows than the poster art, and he reaches back in his early chapters to the origin of the San Francisco light shows in the avant-garde art of the Modernist era (especially László Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator of the 1920s) and the art schools of the 1950s; he also traces the familiar journey of LSD from the Sandoz laboratories in Switzerland and the clinics of America to the front pages of newspapers and magazines. One of the most remarkable and unlikely aspects of psychedelia was the way in which a short-lived poly-cultural phenomenon maintained an aura of danger and illegality late into the 1960s even while psychedelic aesthetics were filtering into every facet of mainstream life: films, fashion, decor, advertising, even children’s television—all bloomed briefly with vivid colours and melting typography.

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Playboy gets hip to the trip, December 1967. Art by Wes Wilson.

Chapman touches on all of this but the bulk of his study is concerned with the music which was always the core of psychedelic culture, even if many of the artists involved were only following a trend (or, to be less charitable, jumping on a bandwagon). American groups are given their due, and Chapman has some smart things to say about the often neglected surf boom of the early 60s; as noted here last month, the first piece of popular music to use “LSD” in its title was LSD-25 (1960), a surf instrumental by The Gamblers. Surf bands and garage bands mutated into psychedelic groups but there was often little change in the overall sound beyond adding an effect or two to the instrumentation. Adulterated or processed sound is what I usually look for in psychedelic music, the psychedelic experience being one of distorted or exaggerated perception. Adulteration (or lack of it) is the most obvious factor that differentiates American psych from its British equivalent: White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane is a great song (its final line is fixed to every page of this blog) but is psychedelic only as a result of its lyrical context. Musically, the song is a simple rock bolero next to which Strawberry Fields Forever sounds like a broadcast from another planet.

Continue reading “Psychedelia and Other Colours by Rob Chapman”

LSD-25 by The Gamblers

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A post last year concerned some of the songs that have flaunted their acid credentials by incorporating the letters L-S-D in their titles, the most famous being (of course) Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. While it might be an idea to follow that post by tracking down songs with the word LSD in their title, a quick glance at Discogs shows an entire blotting pad of potential candidates. So I’ll let someone else do the leg-work on that one.

This post is less ambitious, prompted by a brief history of surf music in Rob Chapman’s Psychedelia and Other Colours. The Gamblers receive a mention for being the first group to record a piece of music with LSD in the title: LSD-25 was the B-side of their first single, Moon Dawg!, released in 1960. Moon Dawg! has the distinction of also being one of the first (if not the first) surf singles, and was later covered by The Beach Boys on their debut album, Surfin’ Safari (1962). With its hyperactive drums and twanging guitar Moon Dawg! certainly sounds like a surf number, whereas LSD-25 is more like one of Link Wray’s smouldering instrumentals. I’d heard the A-side on a Cramps-related singles compilation, Loose Lips Might Sink Ships, but hadn’t heard LSD-25 before so this is a welcome discovery. Someone had to be first with the LSD reference (chosen at random by a studio engineer according to Chapman), and we could have done much worse than this.

The Gamblers only recorded one more single before disbanding but guitarist Eliot Ingber had a distinguished career playing with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Little Feat, Captain Beefheart (as Winged Eel Fingerling), and (I didn’t know this) as a member of The Peter Peter Ivers Band (sic) on Terminal Love (1974). You may not know Ivers’ name but you’ll probably know his voice when it appears in David Lynch’s Eraserhead in the guise of the Lady in the Radiator singing In Heaven.

Previously on { feuilleton }
More trip texts
Trip texts
Acid albums
Acid covers
Lyrical Substance Deliberated
The Art of Tripping, a documentary by Storm Thorgerson
Enter the Void
In the Land of Retinal Delights
Haschisch Hallucinations by HE Gowers
The art of LSD
Hep cats

Turn, Turn, Turn, a film by Jud Yalkut

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I’m currently reading my way through Rob Chapman’s lysergic doorstop Psychedelia and Other Colours, a comprehensive study of a cultural phenomenon that’s well-represented on these pages. So expect more posts like this one which concerns another gem of abstract/psychedelic cinema. Turn, Turn, Turn (1966) is a collaboration between Jud Yalkut (visuals) and the Us Company aka USCO (sound). The latter receive several mentions in Chapman’s detailing of the early psych scene in San Francisco in the mid-60s; here they put a Byrds song through the mangler while Yalkut’s mechanical and other effects flicker and gyrate. The visuals are reminiscent in places of the film made by László Moholy-Nagy of his Light-Space Modulator, fittingly so when Chapman credits Moholy-Nagy’s machine with being one of the many forerunners of psychedelia in the art movements of the early 20th century.

The YouTube copy linked here has a bonus at the end with a truncated version of a later Yalkut collaboration with Nam June Paik, Beatles Electronique.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Mothlight, a film by Stan Brakhage
Walter Ruttmann’s abstract cinema
7362, a film by Pat O’Neill
Here and There, a film by Andrzej Pawlowski
Power Spot by Michael Scroggins
Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, a film by Jud Yalkut
OffOn by Scott Bartlett
The Flow III
Chris Parks
Len Lye
Matrix III by John Whitney
Symphonie Diagonale by Viking Eggeling
Mary Ellen Bute: Films 1934–1957
Norman McLaren
John Whitney’s Catalog
Arabesque by John Whitney
Moonlight in Glory
Jordan Belson on DVD
Ten films by Oskar Fischinger
Lapis by James Whitney