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Magma's Retrospektïẁ, Reviewed By Snooker's Steve Davis
The Quietus , November 21st, 2017 10:49

Steve Davis, our favourite snooker player and our favourite Magma fan, walks us through the new reissues of their 1981 live albums.

This Friday, Southern Lord reissue Magma’s three live albums Retrospektïẁ Volume I + II and III, which were recorded at Paris’s L’Olympia on January 9, 10 and 11, 1980 and originally issued on RCA the following year.

For me, seeing the group live for the first time was an epiphany. It’s still etched on my memory. June 9, 1974, at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse. Me and my mate Neil Rogers went along to see the support group, Isotope. Hugh Hopper, who’d been in Soft Machine, was in them and their first record had just come out and everyone was raving about it. We were 17, wore flares and afghan coats, our hair was long and we listened to the bands on the Canterbury scene - Soft Machine, Caravan, etc - so we were primed for it.

I wasn’t a Magma fan then. I’d heard [1973’s third album] Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh via a school friend and not thought much of it, so I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by their performance at the Roundhouse - but that’s exactly what happened. As soon as they took the stage, I was transfixed. Drummer, leader Christian Vander, bassist Jannick Top, keyboardists Michel Graillier and Gérard Bikialo and Klaus Blasquiz singing in Kobaïan – their made-up language… I still feel the excitement I felt back then just thinking about it. The energy and emotion was intense. I was lost in the music, in the powerful rhythms, in the strange, fascinating vocals. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the lyrics, the human voice became another instrument and form of expression and it enveloped you and pulled you in. I remember the sweat coming off them and rising into the air, I remember Jannick Top breaking a string but continuing playing, I remember headbanging, everyone was headbanging, as this animalistic ritual was unfolding in front of my eyes. I knew we might not be able to get a train or bus home as it was getting late, but I didn’t care. We were staying right to the end because Magma really were a revelation.

I went to Virgin on Oxford Street soon after - at that time it was located up the back stairs of a shoe shop - and bought Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh and [1974’s] Köhntarkösz. I reassessed MDK, of course, and absolutely loved it. I still do. It’s in my Top 5 albums I’d go to a desert island with and probably my most-played record ever. I remember going back to the Roundhouse the following year to see them again and being transfixed once more, especially by Christian Vander behind the keyboards on their version of ‘Lïhns’.

Soon after though I became serious about snooker and music was taking a backseat around the time Retrospektïẁ came out. I bought them, gave them a listen then got swallowed up by my career. Jump forward to 1987 and I was back in a very different Virgin record store on Oxford Street, but I thought, I’ll just see if there’s a Magma section. There was, and flicking through it I came across Christian Vander’s new band, Offering, which I didn’t know about. I was transported back to when I used to see Magma and thought, Why don’t I put them on in London? Of course what I should have thought was, Why don’t I get a plane and go see them in France? That would have been a lot cheaper. But I set up Interesting Promotions and put them on for three days at the Bloomsbury Theatre - January 19, 20 and 21 - at the exorbitant price of £6 a ticket. I didn’t realise there were 14 members of the band at the time – the hotel accommodation bill made it impossible to break even, let alone make money on it.

The shows were amazing though and got great reviews in Sounds and Melody Maker. The last night was sold out. My snooker-playing peers thought I was mad, as did my manager and best mate Barry Hearn - but all credit, he came to one of the shows to give his support. He came with his wife and the boxing promoter Frank Warren and his wife. Vander came on stage wearing a head mask looking like Medusa and they went straight into ‘Zëss’ which, if ever there was a song written under the influence of magic truffles, it’s that one. I don’t think they knew what to make of it. Afterwards Status Quo called up, asked if I wanted to promote their tour. It was a big no! Magma was a one-off. We’ve kept in touch since then - we’re not on the phone every day but we catch up now and then and I still see them whenever I can. I saw them at Café Oto in London last September, where they had a sold out three-night residency, and at L’Olympia in Paris this February, where they were playing with the Metälïk Orkestraah. That was really cool.

But then they were always seen as cool and underground, and playing on bills with groups such as Sunn O))), Unsane and Circle recently at the Melkweg in Amsterdam, they’ve tapped into a switched-on younger audience, who Magma say are appreciative from the beginning. In fact, Magma are saying they’ve never seen such fantastic crowd reaction at their shows before and that’s great because live shows and live recordings are a vital part of what they’re about. What’s interesting about the way Magma work is that they will premiere new songs live, they’ll shape them on stage and they can change several times before reaching their final destination as a studio version - those live recordings map their journey. There was a time when I collected Magma live bootleg tapes but that way madness really does lie.

With the three volumes of Retrospektïẁ, III came out first. It wasn’t their first live album, they’d already issued 1975’s Magma Live, a double album, partly recorded in June of that year at Taverne de l'Olympia. But this is very different. There are three tracks. Opener ‘Rétrovision’ is Vander’s nod to Motown and soul music. It’s not really Magma, in essence - it’s more a curio, a blip - but it’s a credible stab at soul music, and Vander being a genius is able to carry it off.

‘Hhaï’, in contrast, perfectly captures their style at the time; here the song is in extended form with Didier Lockwood adding magical improv electric violin. Then in the middle bit of the song, when they perform it live, Vander stands up from the drumkit and sings and it’s inspirational. It makes you feel alive. It’s like the bit in the Blues Brothers when the light shines down on them. When I brought them over I said that to Vander and he said the piece had been written about death. I was like, Oh shit! ‘La Dawotsin’, meanwhile, is like the finale, the encore track to finish off the evening. Vander’s vocal is show-stopping. He’s the drummer yet he still has a tremendous vocal range, and when he does sing, it’s very emotive; the whole thing is really like Italian opera. You don’t have to know what he’s singing to feel it. He’s so passionate and brings the song to life.

Retrospektïẁ I & II, a double album, comprises ‘Theusz Hamtaahk’, the first movement of the trilogy of the same name, which had been a part of Magma’s live set since 1974, but this was the first time it had ever been committed to wax. Versions of ‘Wurdah Itah’ and ‘Mekanik Destruktiw Komandoh’ complete the album. The last spotlights Didier Lockwood on violin again and Bernard Paganotti on bass. Paganotti took over from the legendary Jannick Top and one of the fascinations for Magma fans is analysing what the many different musicians over the years bring to the same pieces. Paganotti was one of their greatest bass guitarists and there are always discussions about who was the best – Top or Paganotti – but for me I embrace them all, and I actually think Philippe Bussonnet, who is playing with them now, is as good as they’ve ever had. He is technically astonishing.

While these reissues aren’t the best place to start for the Magma neophyte (I’d suggest Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh), for the connoisseur they are essential, and they provide another piece in the Magma jigsaw puzzle. They’re issued as a limited pressing of 1500 hand-numbered vinyl copies and remastered by Brad Boatright, with original artwork by Eva Nahon, and the classic comicstrip by Solé, Dister and Gotlib of Magma, and I’ll be buying one for sure.

Steve was talking to tQ’s Lois Wilson.