Our resident archivist Dan Coffey stirs up the waters with both his background check of Peter Blegvad’s storied history and the man’s triumphant effort from 1990, “King Strut and Other Stories,” which proves a very salient companion piece to SEM’s review of “Gonwards” a few years back. So sit back and absorb yourself a key history lesson in what we might term “what’s possible,” as Peter Blegvad represents that as much as anything.
There aren’t many singer/songwriters with a more varied artistic background. Peter Blegvad found himself living the bohemian life in Europe and hooked up with the German band/commune Faust. Working with them for awhile, he quickly formed a musical alliance with more academically trained musician/composer Anthony Moore and Moore’s girlfriend Dagmar Krause. These three quickly formed the subversive pop band Slapp Happy, full of catchy tunes and, courtesy of Blegvad, extremely surreal lyrics with a twisted sense of humor (c.f. “He used to wear fedoras, but now he sports a fez / There are cabalistic innuendoes in everything he sez,” from the song “Casablanca Moon”).
Slapp Happy released two albums on their own before merging with the more serious art-rock band Henry Cow. The resulting album, Desperate Straights, remains a critical favorite to this day, but Henry Cow and Blegvad soon found they had little in common and went their separate ways. Blegvad, in the late 70s, like several other art-rock musicians based in Europe – Fred Frith, for one – decided to try their luck in the burgeoning Downtown NYC avant garde music scene.
Ex-Henry Cow member John Greaves came to New York not long after Blegvad, and the two of them, along with vocalist Lisa Herman, composed an album that became another critics’ darling, and confounds listeners to this day. The album, Kew. Rhone. (1977) consists of songs whose lyrics refer directly to the artwork included in the album. Thus it is a completely self-contained recording without any outside referents, and all this added to Blegvad’s zany but always ultra-clever wordplay. If this weren’t enough, the music is sublime, featuring, in addition to Blegvad on guitar and Greaves on bass, a slew of jazz musicians including Andrew Cyrille on drums and Carla Bley on keys!
After this album, Blegvad tried to start a few bands in New York City (The Big Guns among them), but they never took off. He also worked with John Zorn on the latter’s Locus Solus album, all the while supporting himself as an illustrator. In the early 80s he signed a deal with Virgin Records and released two albums with them: The Naked Shakespeare and Knights Like This. Both were overproduced commercial failures. The former, at least, showed Blegvad still more or less at the height of his songwriting powers; the latter began to show chinks in the PB armor. The songs just weren’t that good. One gets the sense that he was not an artist who could produce music under the fire of a deadline, which is what Virgin demanded. Alone again without a label, he put together a band called The Lodge, consisting of PB, his brother Kristoffer, John Greaves, and Jakko Jakszyk.
The Lodge released one album, Smell of a Friend, in 1988, and it was a solid rock album, still full of Blegvad’s lyrical peculiarities (it included a song about milk, where every line was a quote from a text that happened to mention the substance). Also in 1988, Blegvad released a solo album, Downtime. The title referred to the way the songs were recorded; when the local studio had a cancellation, and there was downtime, he would haul his gear in there and record as quickly as he could. That’s the story, anyway. Downtime marks the first indication of Blegvad’s interest in Americana-flavored music. The experimental tracks were few and far between, supplanted by earnest renditions of songs like The Louvin Brothers’ “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby.”
All this leads up to this installment of Embery Lane’s feature album this time, King Strut and Other Stories, a gorgeous collection of Americana-twinged songs where the mysticism and cleverness is played down in favor of truly beautiful storytelling and gorgeous musical accompaniment. It was released in 1990 on Silvertone Records, and soon went out of print, though it was re-released sporadically over the years. Companionship under stress seems to be a common theme throughout the album: “Gold” is the story of a pair of prospectors who fall on hard times; “Shirt and Comb” relays the tale of a woman who dresses like a man so she doesn’t have to leave her beloved behind when he is conscripted for battle, and so on. “Swim” tells the story of a man being saved by a vision of his beloved. “Meantime” and “Real Slap in the Face,” reflect Blegvad’s growing lyrical interest with the vagaries of fate, and the title track is enough to satisfy those who still crave Blegvad’s penchant for mystery and the occult.
Except for a few tracks from Blegvad’s next album, Just Woke Up (East Side Story, 1995), including “Daughter,” made famous by Loudon Wainwright III, King Strut seems to be Blegvad’s high-water mark, musically speaking. Further albums like Hangman’s Hill and Choices under Pressure (the latter released to coincide with the publication of his book of cartoons, Leviathan. N.B. The word is still out on his recent collaborations with Andy Partridge, Orpheus: The Lowdown and Gonwards—the author has not had the chance to hear them yet).
King Strut is one of those rare albums that takes an artist completely out of their milieu and presumably, comfort zone, and allows them to shine. He probably only had one album’s worth of decent songs of this type and should have moved on sooner rather than rehash the genre with his next two albums. If you can find a copy of King Strut on vinyl or CD… jump on it! It’s the career high of an artist with as many peaks as valleys.