After we looked at the biggest-selling albums in history last week, it’s time to take the opposite tack and look at some of the most leftfield albums on the list. Excitingly, there are a few weird albums on the list, so let’s dive in.
Syd Barrett, ‘The Madcap Laughs’
I’d heard Barrett’s sole album as undisputed frontman of Pink Floyd and not been blown away, but I was looking forward to seeing what he could do solo. The album was recorded in a couple of incomplete attempts, occasionally with Canterbury scene hands like Mike Ratledge and Robert Wyatt, before Barrett’s old bandmates Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour lost patience and stepped in to ensure Syd actually finished his record. Waters and Gilmour’s production has the feel of a stitch-up: on one song, Barrett blows a number of takes, mumbling excuses, before finally finishing the song, not singing a note in tune. Not that Barrett’s writing does him any favours: even on the full band tracks, the arrangements meander around trying to keep up with Barrett’s compositions, which twist and roam with all the agility of a run-on sentence. This rarely feels like a competent album made by a professional musician: a wasted opportunity, much like Syd’s career generally. Syd only did one more album (and a brief run in a band called Stars): it is not on the list.
Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, ‘Safe as Milk’
I’d heard freak landmark ‘Trout Mask Replica’ already, of course, although have always found the story of the recording more interesting than the music itself. ‘Safe as Milk’ was recorded with a completely different, pseudonym-free incarnation of the Magic Band (no Mascara Snake or Zoot Horn Rollo here) including Ry Cooder on guitar. It’s a lot less abrasive than ‘Trout Mask Replica’: it’s essentially a bluesy 60s rock album with an aggressive vocalist and a willingness to experiment with time signatures and instruments (the marimba and the theremin appear). Pretty good.
Dagmar Krause, ‘Tank Battles’
Krause was a singer in a couple of avant-garde bands before starting a solo career. Here, she fronts an album of covers of Hanns Eisler songs, most of which have Berlot Brecht lyrics. There are a whopping 26 tracks here, some of which last scarcely a minute. The clattering percussion intro of ‘You Have To Pay’ and the creeping clarinets of ‘Mothern Beimlein’ are early oddities, while ‘The Perhaps Song’ could be a soaring ballad with a different arrangement (here it sounds like an Expressionist nightmare). On the second side, ‘Ballad of (Bourgeoise) Welfare’ and ‘The Wise Woman and the Soldier’ are the most explicable songs. This stuff can’t possibly have had much of an audience in 1988, but Krause never seems to have taken the easy route.
Laibach, ‘Opus Dei’
Laibach are a rotating cast of pseudonymous artists/musicians (always the same pseudonyms) from Slovenia whose specialty is bombastic Teutonic pop. With their baritone vocals and overwrought backing, they sound like a kind of proto-Rammstein from the 1980s, and indeed Rammstein acknowledge the influence. It’s difficult to know how to rate this objectively, as their hilarious cover of ‘One Vision’ is great and yet I’m unlikely to listen to this album non-ironically. It’s an amusingly weird addition to the list though and an unpredictable deviation from the norm. Laibach also did a cover of the Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’ album: some of their versions are improvements (‘Across the Universe’ for example).
The Residents, ‘Duck Stab!/Buster & Glen’
The fascinating mythology around the Residents has secured their legendary cult status: their anonymity, their benevolent (malevolent?) management The Cryptic Corporation, their many onstage looks (the tuxedo/giant eye look most famously). Their music has always felt a bit like an endurance test, mind. This album is a pair of EPs glued together – although ‘Buster & Glen’ was previously unreleased – and features relatively accessible pop melodies submerged by bizarre vocals, cacophonic distorted organ stabs, and kids’ music lesson arrangements. ‘Duck Stab!’ is more childlike, ‘Buster & Glen’ grim and sinister, both sides oddly tuneful despite the sabotage attempts.
Todd Rundgren, ‘A Wizard, A True Star’
Given Todd’s association with Meat Loaf, and his prog rock band Utopia, I’d assumed his records would be hard rock. However, Uncut rated this as the weirdest album of all time last month, which triggered my curiosity. It kind of sounds like what would have happened if Rufus Wainwright had tried to do Of Montreal’s ‘Skeletal Lamping’ in 1973: it hurtles through acid-drenched fragments, including ridiculous covers, kids’ songs, showtunes and anything else that came to mind. The first seven tracks have a combined running time of just ten minutes. It reminded me of all the things I loved as a teenager: mid-90s Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, early-00s Devin Townsend, and plenty of Elephant Six/Polyvinyl stuff from the mid-00s (Tame Impala are fans). God knows what the audience in 1973 thought, but this album is incredible.
Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence, ‘Oar’
The backstory here is probably more interesting than the music: Spence drummed in Jefferson Airplane and played guitar in Moby Grape before drugs and mental health issues got on top of him. Completely losing it, Spence attacked his bandmates with an axe and was sectioned. While in a mental hospital, he accumulated tons of songs, and was left to his own devices in a recording studio in Nashville to get them on tape. He assumed that they would be orchestrated later: they weren’t. If you don’t know the background, though, you probably wouldn’t detect it until the final song, ‘Grey/Afro’, which is nearly ten minutes of despair. The rest are fairly standard, if particularly morbid and colourless, psychedelic country-pop, with Spence’s only-just-intelligible vocal being the most notable feature. The bonus tracks added onto the 1996 reissue give the game away a bit more, being mainly grim bass-and-drums workouts in the model of ‘Grey/Afro’ with false starts and half-complete takes reminiscient of ‘The Madcap Laughs’.
Unsurprisingly, this was quite an interesting week!
Next week: I’ll be exploring another genre I know almost nothing about: folk.
Progress report: 450 albums listened to (45%), 551 remain.