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Slapp Happy Ecstacy – Peter Blegvad & Andy Partridge’s “Gonwards”

Peter Blegvad & Andy Partridge
Ape House

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Swindon and Hamburg haven’t much in common. Swindon is a landlocked railroad town midway between Reading and Bristol and a solid hour plus from the heart of London, laying claim to a massive Bodliean library – 153 miles of bookshelves – and sporting a population just north of 200,000. By contrast, The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city with 1.8 million inhabitants and a wider metro area swelling to five million. It’s a world-class transport hub and one of Europe’s most affluent cities. The young Beatles, it should be noted, never went to Swindon. The only conceivable link you’ll find between the two is the appearance of the word ‘Saxon’ deep in each city’s origin story. Oh, that and the year 1972.

In 1972 the 21-year-old Peter Blegvad followed his school buddy Anthony Moore to Hamburg, a piece of peregrination nearly as prophetic in the young man’s life as his parents’ decision to emigrate from the United States to England seven years prior. There, somewhere near the Reeperbahn, perhaps, the two aspiring leftfield-leaning musicians would meet Dagmar Krause and hatch the devilishly eccentric prog-pop band Slapp Happy.

Meanwhile, in Swindon, a couple of slightly younger pals by the names of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding began bashing away together in various glam-fringed bands with names like Helium Kidz and Star Park. Partridge, however, had seen the outsider light, exposed to, and brilliantly infected by, the likes of Captain Beefheart and Sun Ra, stylistic influences that would soon begin informing the devilishly eccentric pop tropes of the newly-named XTC.

Destiny, it seemed, had planted its seeds, and it was only a matter of time before the jumpy incomparable genius of Andy Partridge would find itself inside the same room with the restlessly inimitable prose-poem leviathan Peter Blegvad. The first time would be eleven years later, Partridge producing and playing on Naked Shakespeare, then again in 1990, appearing on Blegvad’s sorely underrated gem King Strut & Other Stories as guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, co-composer, and, even, on a few tracks, producer. The latest is Gonwards, released on Andy’s Ape imprint. Between King and Gonwards, instructively, was Orpheus – The Lowdown, a modern-day revisioning and partial takedown of the mythic king daddy of lyre pyrotechnics best known for fucking up at the last second the retrieval of his beloved Eurydice from the clutches of the Underworld.  Beside’s displaying Blegvad’s usual – which is to say unparalleled – literary tomfoolery (placing the mighty Thracian in a Galveston bowling alley chasing skirt is, you have to admit, a nice touch), it also seems to offer Partridge the ideal adoptive home for the orphans born of a union between his skewed, outré solo album Take Away from 1981 and the encyclopaedic whimsy of all those Fuzzy Warbles, whether it was the pure Beefheartian riffery on “Beetle” or the atmospheric jitteriness of “Heartcall,” the unvoiced lyric for which even includes the word ‘warbles.’ The two of them, in all their cunning and grace, managed to produce in Orpheus a piece of work both deliriously irreverent and homagistic, creating in the process an oddly relatable portrait of a figure whose godlike status couldn’t shield him from grappling with conflict and oh-so-mortal doubt like the rest of us. It was, in short, an album where mirth met the myth and it spawned not only a newly-rendered legend but as well a swell of expectation for another project even half as grand. Well, here we are, nearly a decade later and they’ve not only delivered but delivered with what seems a surpassing ease. So, OK, gonwards and gupwards we go, then.

There being no overarching narrative this time, it’s possible you could jump in anywhere but do yourself a favor and start at the start, as if ever there’s been an album-opener, “The Devil’s Lexicon” is it. A Frankenstein tale where the monster is made out of imagination itself, TDL is a track that asks you to conjure a creature conceived from an unholy congress between Ken Nordine (an obvious touchstone), an autopsy report written by Allen Ginsberg, and a crisply tattered copy of Gray’s Anatomy sung by Tom Waits, minus the gravel. Should Mary Shelley be rolling in her grave she’s doing so out of pure, giddy delight.

Blegvad’s writing, as always, is superb, it is to die for, it is the bomb. They’ve done us the favor of including the lyrics but if I may suggest, first time through anyway, just listen. Much is the joy of discovery, lines nearly overlapping in profligate – yes – delight, a word that may well dot this review like tea shops across the vestigial English countryside. Even considering that much of “The Devil’s Lexicon” amounts to little more than an inventory/recipe/instruction manual, making it Gonwards’ starkest moment (“Germ To Gem,” in similar fashion, comes closest to matching it), it’s still a-burst with twisty lyrical ingenuity. “Glass venom blood chalk straw, to choose a random example, “From fur go further, smoke and clay, say, linked by a spark in the dark,” to choose another. By the latter quote the song’s nutgraf has been exposed, the body walks, we’re told, “the blues are abroad in the land” and what little literal sense it’s meant to make has been made, a point punctuated by the arrival of a screaming and seemingly drunken blues harmonica riff courtesy Billy “The Onion” Jones – not pseudonymous but rather on loan from Amorphous Androgynous – and the heartbeat drums tumbling upward into full J. Geils bluster as the harp spirals further away a la Andy’s possessed outburst way back on ‘All Along The Watchtower.’ Yeah, maybe it takes it a while, maybe it makes you wait a bit, but eventually “The Devil’s Lexicon” builds itself into a monster, it essentially outwaits Waits in the vamped-up blues stakes.

And thus we have an operating principle. On that opening track the music builds as the words build, both in tandem with the being being constructed within the song. It’s not only a neat parlor trick, it’s also the key to this record and in fact any project, it would seem, that Peter and Partridge partner in.

An infamous Manhattan-based editor-teacher I once studied under held as his fundamental tenet the act of unpremeditation. No plotting, no pre-set characters, just language pulling the story forward by its nose. A method better-suited to the short-short story than the novel, it possibly produces its most pointed result in song form, particularly when it’s Blegvad behind the pen (and Andy and Stu Rowe behind the desk and handling the majoriy of the bells and whistles and frets and keys that bring the thing to life, glorious life). As practiced here, this process can have an uncanny fleshing effect, and the pieces on Gonwards almost universally emerge as 3-D artifacts of nuance built upon suggestion built upon implication. While in most instances little, by song’s end, is explicitly certain and one may even feel a touch of vertigo in the short silence between tracks, there is no doubt a thing of substance has just passed by us because, despite its shiftiness, it still casts a shadow.

“Looking At The Sun,” relying as it does on clapped hands and snapped fingers, one sustained electic piano chord, a simple double-tracked acoustic/electric Beatnik guitar figure and little else, is a study in nervous minimalism. The solo, such as it is, is a vocalized horn part – one suspects Andy – similar to what one uses to mimic the theme to Dragnet or The Twilight Zone and yet it’s as appropriate for this short, concise piece, which wraps up tight and tidy in two minutes and change, as a wind-up key in a mechanical toy.

Which isn’t to say that Gonwards stints on song songs, don’t go getting that impression now. Though it may be persuasively argued that the works this pair is creating are, in essence, glorified spoken word albums, it’s what you find when you unpack that word ‘glorified’ that distinguishes. “Sacred Objects,” with its languid, woozy swing, its kettle drum gravitas and Andy’s perky, precise guitaring – like Django on low boil – will have you nodding your hepcat head well past sunset.

In the wake of its church organ intro, “St. Augustine Says” swoops into a sybaritic singalong anthem of sorts, a tale of afternoon pyjamas, schnapps regrets and necktie aversion attended to by parping horns, a flittering flute and a bop of the regular suspects, all riding a gently twisted sentiment (“she looks good for a hundred/I move in for the kill/if age hasn’t withered her/I believe I will”) before loping into an elevating chorus no sane person could shake. Seems I’ve been whistling the damn thing for weeks.

A note on the instrumentation: A fair amount goes uncredited on this album, the flute and horns just mentioned among them. As they often play a crucial role in the overall quilt of sound, I assumed they were keyboard-created, which, as it turns out, is mostly true, with a caveat. Answering a query from Bowers & Wilkins , Andy explains: “The sonic landscape of the record was a mixture of old and new sounds – some of the older ones made with Mellotron rhythm loops. These were made for Mellotron though probably recorded in the US in the 1950′s by the Chamberlin folks, (the forerunner of the Mellotron), and were used as ‘band accompaniment’ for the keyboard player to play their melody over the top. Basically, they were recordings of session players vamping on one chord in a set tempo.” Helps to keep this in mind, as it will come up again.

For those of us hoping (OK, jonesing) for some remnant marker of our beloved XTC, “The Impeccable Dandy in White” will suffice quite nicely, thank you very much. From the very off, with Partridge beavering away on parallel ukuleles, the murmur of Mike Rowe’s Hammond and the brisk arrival of some cha-cha snare beat – Andy again – there’s a sense that, even as we’re soaked in a Caribbean tropicalia vibe (one waits – in vain, thankfully – for the calypso roll of a steel drum), we could just as easily have woken up in an English Settlement. This thing’s a treat, this buoyant, poignant ditty of a Tom Wolfean character seeing, with fatal success, his chromatic opposite. Words-wise Blegvad is so on his game here that to cite an example would cheat the splendid exactitude of the whole. I’ll only say that to experience a fullness of language this precisely coiled is to marvel. That aside, the joy is in the details: the island shake, the impish bass peeking through, the way the not-quite-a-chorus middle bit, pivotal to the narrative arc, slows into spaghetti western emphasis, Morricone vacationing in the Bahamas. Then comes Andy’s ‘oil-can’ solo, spidering in sunny frolic over the frets and again, decisively, the hopes and prayers of the XTC sect have truly been answered. Quite generous when you think about it. I mean, just a shred would have satisfied, a quick swatch of that recognizable Swindonian fabric and yet, in “The Impeccable Dandy in White,” they’ve given us the full suit of twinkling lights. It wouldn’t be out of order to celebrate with a pint or black and tan, perhaps, chased with a shot or two of rum.

Whereas I would happily expound further track for track, I’ll instead do us all the prudent favor of taking the jeweler’s eye to a couple of centerpieces. With its temperament of fevered restraint, its mosquito-buzz tension, the sonic tweaks that act as fleet sound effects inserted by sneaky elves, “The Cryonic Trombone” exudes the rather distracting sense of being on a constant verge. At over seven minutes it’s the album’s lengthiest track while also boasting the most straightforward narrative, if you can characterize as such a tale of a trombone endowed with powers far beyond its brass dimensions (a towering cone of ice vapor being, in a sense, the music it makes). Yet, despite the relative linearity, “The Cryonic Trombone” emerges as perhaps the album’s most unsettling track, due not least to the eerie, trembling drone of a three-handed e-bowed guitar attack, sustained to some quivering degree almost throughout. Aside from a lone bongo and a kettle drum sound off in the corner, we’re well past the four minute mark before something comes along to provide an anchoring effect, in this case a rhythmic violined keyboard figure which, when joined a minute later by a lovely oboe–based melody, lends this whole Fitzcarraldo-ish enterprise the soundtrack dimension it’s been rather begging for. In the midst of all this subtle nerve-rattling, speaking in baritones, sits Blegvad’s voice, a calming, unflappable presence that only breaks its steady stride when adopting the spitting tongue of a promoter near song’s end. Indeed there’s something patrician in his delivery, as if he can’t escape, even at a remove of nearly half a century, the Connecticut Yankeeness of his formative years. The man’s a walking dictionary of the knowing droll.

A much tidier, songier package, “From Germ To Gem” ends as it begins, with the lucent cry of Andy’s electric, the tone almost lupine, a singular howl like a wolf in an isolation chamber. Between those two flanged brackets lies a gem of accumulation, a commingled quilt of unlikely elements stitched together in seemingly seamless fashion. It is, like all of Gonwards, as surely constructed as it is organic, it’s just we can’t see the joins, the piece flows past us with the silence of ligaments. And so that sustained electric screel makes harmonic bedfellows with the snowy cheer of a sleigh bell, a flute’s flitsome accents (Frank Abrams), the slow funk of Stu Rowe’s tremeloed bassline and a multi-tracked choir of Partridges that falls somewhere betwixt a pile of monks and a Sergio Mendes backing track. In the meantime, naturellement, we’re treated to another novel lyrical traverse from Mr Blegvad, taken – skippingly – down a typically sinuous, fluid path, this time leading from the origins of storytelling itself through the Malvern Hills where we nod to Mr Wordsworth, get interrupted by a quick phone call and end up, with mildly salacious results, in the office of a beaming female doctor. It’s tricky, how he does this, the mechanism hard to decipher, as the writing strikes equally as both recursive and expansive. By song’s end it would appear the caduceus has swallowed its own tail, and yet the impression one gets while  inside the piece is one of almost limitless possibility, it could go anywhere, it has that freedom. What I’m reminded of, sitting here stewing inside this paradox, are the careful architectures of M.C. Escher, whose ambition, I once read, was to capture infinity on a piece of paper. Though the sonic palette offers an arguably more dimensional medium, the accomplishment on this album feels no less stunning.

Musically the playful ingenuity comes at you from every angle. The fin-de-siécle oom-pah-pah of “The Dope On Perelman” (Grigori, one assumes, the Russian mathematician – Google ‘soul conjecture’ and no, I shit you not) is underpinned by an avant-mechanical keyboard bit that sounds like John Cage playing at a 4-year-old’s birthday party. A horn theme soon comes along that could backdrop a Pan Am commercial. For a dreamy respite there’s an off-kilter but silky jazz interlude, vibes included. There’s more than I can say, really, the thing’s a delicious mess that nonetheless goes down smooth as a Dadaist milkshake. Album-closer “Worse On The Way” is a lachrymal East European waltz that pays sincere tribute to the form, suggesting, with its chopped dragging rhythm and sad, gypsy-plinked piano, yellowing lace (pre-Iron) curtains and the waft of boiled potatoes. A lament of certain impending doom – coming soon! – from a particularly pessimistic nihilist, this is Tevye on a bad day, clouded of brow, heavy of heart, stricken by a moment of brutal honesty. The only hopeful subtext one might possibly draw, as the song trails off down a broken cobblestone alleyway on the fatalistic heels of a soprano sax, is one of a kind of Carpathian carpe diem where you better grab it now because, bad as it seems today, tomorrow promises worse.

So, you’re thinking, a sobering end, then, and of course you’re right and of course you’re wrong. Yes, WOTW is rather bracing but no it’s not depressing, simply because nothing dressed this beautifully could be. As richly embroidered as a Hungarian wedding dress, with an airy, rather ethereal keyboard effect providing a layer of angelic sympathy above the apocalyptic sorrow of the lyrics, you can’t help but sway as the hopelessness unspools. As it has throughout the album, the sonic surrounds are basking and saturative and for this we need throw at least a couple of kopeks in the direction of Stu Rowe, whose co-helming hand (with Andy) helped till the rudder of this project and whose instincts, I suspect, were indispensable.

In the end, though, after that final fade into the Slavic mists, as you sit in your own umbrous twilight absorbing this prodigious record, its many and multi-faceted flights of captivating fancy, the elephant breathing most loudly behind you is language, it’s Gonwards’ central element, its raison d’etre et cetera. Blegvad isn’t merely enamored of language, he’s made out of the stuff. Were you to inadvertently sever a limb, a cornicopious strew of wondrous verbiage would splash to the carpet, fluid liaisons of oddly-parsed fragments, sly alliterative passages linked to each other in hopscotching, daisy-chained tandems. The word ‘inventive,’ in all its variously-worded definitions, has never met a beast like this: erudite, bonkers, almost irresponsibly imaginative and, as often as not, funnier than hell. From its diastolic genesis to  the drifting finish, from, shall we say, germ to gem, bounteous grins are guaranteed. Even in the rare instance – and I’m thinking “What A Car You Are” here – where the substance stalls somewhat in the clutches of cleverness, there comes a line like this: “Hush now, listen to what the engine said, bookofthedead, bookofthedead, bookofthedead…” (repeat eleven times), implying, with neither warning nor explanation, a whole ‘nother level of meaning. And everywhere, on every track, the writing delights like that. Surprises snake around corner after corner that in immediate retrospect make a kind of freshly untwisted sense. Listening to Gonwards, I became addicted to the wickedly unexpected, rapt at the ever-smooth sleight-of-tongue, as if I were in some carnival tent, spellbound by a trickster logician afflicted with the most curious case of glossolalia. It’s enough to modify the annals of linguistics. I could see conferences dedicated to the written works of Peter Blegvad, a Gonwards symposium on opening night. Harnessed to the equally idiosyncratic energies of Andy Partridge, I’m afraid we have an engine that doesn’t know how to stop, a lively, clattering, humming Rube Goldberg apparatus fueled by a flow of somersaulting ideas and all wired up with sinuous insinuations, performing wild syntactical stunts while emitting perfectly alluring noises and beeps and a surfeit of timeless melody. I’m afraid we have a monster in our midst, and we couldn’t be happier.