Finding these two albums together on a single cd was a long-held dream of mine. These are the two albums this quirky and intelligent group recorded for Virgin Records in the early 70s -- one of them after they joined forced with the leg endary progressive band Henry Cow.
Slapp Happy were like no other band of their time -- or since, for that matter, now that they've (Sort of) reformed. The melodies are jagged but hummable -- a disconcerting type of pop music. The lyrics, always intelligent and challenging, are filled with incredible wordplay, humor and obscure philosophical references. This music will make you tap your foot, but it will also definitely make you think -- and we all know exercise is good for us, right?
I can't think of another songwriter to whom I can properly compare Peter Blegvad -- a look at the constantly-endangered life of a spy, always living on the edge; a song about reincarnation; a look at Michaelangelo through the suspicious eyes of a contemporary; a paean to French poet and enfant-terrible Arthur Rimbaud; a re-working of a section from Handel's 'Messiah'. Beginning to get the picture? There was no subject off-limits to Blegvad on these albums -- and his career has shown that this is an integral part of his songwriting ethos to this day. He has continued to amaze his listeners in the years since these albums were released.
Dagmar Krause's voice MUST be heard to be appreciated. German-born, she sounds as if she were raised on a mixed diet of Brecht-Weill-Eisler political ballads, opera, and pop music. She can coo, she can warble, she can shriek, covering all bases in between as well. Admittedly an aquired taste, her voice is one of the imminently recognizable, integral parts of Slapp Happy's 'sound'.
And then there's Anthony Moore. His keyboard work, as well as his occasional songwriting, comprise the remaining piece in the puzzle that is Slapp Happy. Never 'in your face' with his playing, he nonetheless contributes irreplacably to the overall effect. 'The owl', 'Slow moon's rose', and 'Apes in capes' are all Anthony Moore compositions, and show him to be a fine writer with his own style.
Instrumentally, the basic group of three was augmented on both of these albums. On the first by some of England's finest progressive musicians of the day, gathered together at Mike Oldfield's Manor Studio by producer Steve Morse. It's basically a re-recording of most of the songs from 'Acnalbasac noom', which is also available (for those who prefer the less-produced, earlier recording).
By the time 'Desperate straits' was recorded in 1974, Slapp Happy had begun working in tandem with Henry Cow, and the two groups merged soon after its release. Rather than the based-on-compositions improvisational style that was favored by the Cow on their lps, and to a greater extent in concert, the merger with Slapp Happy reined them in a bit for this recording -- but their roles here give it a sound that could never be mistaken for anyone else. Fred Frith's mind boggling guitar work, Chris Cutler's instantly-recognizable drumming style, Lindsay Cooper's work on oboe and bassoon, Tim Hodgkinson's keyboards and clarinet, and the impeccable bass of John Greaves, all added immeasurably to the album's personality.
Again, this is pop music for the listener who enjoys being challenged -- challenged to think and ponder the words, to appreciate the lines played by the different instruments as they wind and weave their way in and out of each other's paths...and challenged to take a step beyond -- WAY beyond -- the music that our good buddies at the major record labels would have us swallow, spoon and all (...and say, 'Thank you sir, may I have another...').
If you've never heard these folks, start here -- later, you can look back and remember where the worm at work in the core came from...