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LIVE REPORT: Slapp Happy At Cafe Oto
Sean Kitching , February 23rd, 2017 12:19

On only their third UK outing since forming in 1972, Sean Kitching embraces the chaos and collision of ideas that Slapp Happy bring to London's Cafe Oto. (Photograph of Dagmar Krause courtesy of Alan Bolger)

Formed in Hamburg in 1972 by British experimental composer Anthony Moore, his then girlfriend, Dagmar Krause, and visiting American friend, Peter Blegvad, Slapp Happy were one of an idiosyncratic era’s most unique musical propositions. Straddling a number of previously disparate genres - the more severe Rock In Opposition sound of Henry Cow, Art Bears and News From Babel, the nihilistic garage-rock minimalism of The Velvet Underground, the Krautrock scene and Weimar era Berlin Cabaret - Slapp Happy grew out of Moore’s early attempts to write pop music. Polydor had released two minimalist albums by Moore, including the excellent and unjustly underrated, Pieces From The Cloudland Ballroom, but passed on issuing a third, thereby inspiring Moore’s change of direction. With Faust as backing band and influential producer and critic Uwe Nettelbeck at the controls, Slapp Happy recorded Sort Of and Acnalbasac Noom, although the latter remained unreleased until 1980.

Prior to three days of sold out shows at Cafe Oto, Slapp Happy have only performed twice before in the UK, at the ICA in 1982 and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2000. Joined for this series of dates by Faust’s Jean-Hervé Péron on bass and Werner ‘Zappi’ Diermaier on drums, this is the first time the five musicians have played together in 43 years, a fact not lost on a droll Peter Blegvad who suggested in a filmed interview that an apt title for a new album for the group might be, Pissing Blood Into The Fountain Of Youth. None of these facts are lost on the audience either, some of whom have travelled from as far as Israel, the US and Japan to attend the shows.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the performances on both days are a little chaotic at times, although this only adds to the magic when everything finally falls into place. As Pere Ubu’s David Thomas once noted, making the audience complicit in the performance by being entirely open about its more chaotic elements always makes for an entertaining show.

An amplifier hums ominously, only to be silenced by a theatrical thump from Moore jumping out from behind his keyboard. Moore loses his kazoo and vows vengeance upon anyone who took it. Blegvad and Moore struggle comically with their harmonica stands, with the former calling out: ‘It’s like being in an iron lung!’ Blegvad occasionally has to start singing a song to remind Dagmar how it goes, eliciting a cry from one member of the audience to the effect: ‘She still sings better than you guys!’ ‘Yes, she does,’ Blegvad responds, recalling the fact that it was only after she had heard Moore and Blegvad’s singing that Dagmar decided to be the band’s vocalist to begin with.

All of the musicians put in great performances: jazzy, fluid bass runs pour forth from Jean-Hervé’s fingers, the usually possessed Faust frontman sat relaxed on the left side of the stage. Zappi taps out delicate drum patterns with a look of near mystical ecstasy passing intermittently across his craggy features, the drumsticks looking tiny in his oversized hands. When I asked him before the gig, how it was playing such material in comparison to his more usual role in Faust, often including actual sparks and sometimes even smoke, he just smiled and said it was like ‘yin and yang.’ Blegvad’s twanging guitar, ready wit and slightly Dylan-inflected vocals make him an obvious choice of go-between from the band to the audience, finding perfect foil in Moore’s keyboards, guitar, kazoo (when he can find it), vocal and occasionally waspish demeanour. It is Dagmar Krause, however, who is the band’s secret weapon. Endearingly scatty at times, there’s no denying the power of her voice when it attains full flight and many audience members are no doubt reminded again why she remains their favourite singer.

Wonderful versions of Acnalbasac Noom favourites, ‘A Little Something,’ ‘Me And Paravati,’ ‘Mr Rainbow,’ ‘The Secret,’ ‘Casablanca Moon,’ and ‘Dawn’ (the latter eliciting a surprised and delighted ‘oh yeah’ from Blegvad in appreciation of his own guitar shredding skills) are all received gratefully by an enraptured audience. Some of the evening’s true highlights come from less obvious places in the band’s back catalogue. Several tracks from 1998s album, Ça Va, sounding rawer and more immediate live than they do on that cleanly produced record are literally jaw dropping in their emotional impact. When Dagmar sings ‘We walked arm in arm with madness/and every little breeze/whispered of the secret love/we had for our disease,’ a collective shudder goes through the audience, her breathy words pronounced with such heart-rending intonation that the effect is nothing short of devastating. Similarly, when she sings ‘Let’s travel light/We’ll leave our bodies behind/We Won’t need bodies/We’ll be all in the mind’ from the song ‘Let’s Travel Light,’ I can’t be the only member of the audience to feel as if I’m floating up towards the ceiling like a balloon with its tether cut. ‘King Of Straw’ acquires additional resonance by alluding to the current political situation in the US, as Blegvad notes on the first evening, when an audience member shouts out ‘Dump Trump’ in response to the announcement of its title. ‘We owe so much to the enemy/If not for them were would we be...’ Dagmar sings. Lyrics I’d quoted in a text to my disconsolate American girlfriend a week or so before the gig when we were trying to salvage some hope in the newly burgeoning sense of opposition to the horror of ‘Trump as President’.

Such power and conviction in Dagmar’s voice as she sings, belies the apparent frailness of her physical frame: ‘He’ll only endure/If we burn him/Burning ensures his return/Name the fear, some people say/And the fear will fade away.’ Dagmar’s introduction to ‘Blue Flower’ from Sort Of makes explicit the Velvet Underground connection with their visits to Warhol’s New York studio, The Factory. Blegvad and Moore lock into a seamless guitar groove and a companion expresses surprise that this song is the original, and the more famous Mazzy Star version a cover. Finally, the band launch into ‘The Drum,’ a song conspicuous by it’s absence from their 2000 set at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. ‘Don’t ask for any encores,’ Blegvad calls out, ‘as we don’t know any more songs.’ I’m sure most would have been happy to hear any of those tracks played again, but like me, perhaps more than a few are already considering journeying to Carmaux in France for their performance at the Rock In Opposition Festival on September 17th, Slapp Happy gigs being such rare and treasured things. Although it’s a song not featured on the setlist for these shows, another Slapp Happy song springs to mind in their aftermath. If these words could be considered as a statement of intent, then Slapp Happy rise to the occasion, and then some.

‘Gone into hiding, can’t abide the latest tidings
from the tribe. It’s reported hopes are thwarted,
nothing of the wonderful survives.
It’s resurrection is the purpose of our lives,
but who can rise?’

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