The early eighties were a period of intense music listening for me: I had emerged from my earlier infatuations with glam rock and prog rock (though I would never outgrow my taste for British folk rock), and I was in a college town where, for the first time in my life, I was listening to real “alternative” radio – back before that had become the designator for yet another money-spinning pop genre – and had access to some good record stores, places that carried the tiny labels, the imports. One of my finds, must have been 1983 or 1984, was Hopes & Fears, a record by Art Bears, a band of which I knew nothing except the name of the guitarist – Fred Frith – who’d played a bit on some of my Eno albums.
It was about that time that, in the middle of a road trip between college and home, I ducked into a Knoxville record store and found the big Brian Eno box set, Working Backwards, which collected all of his LPs to date and added an additional unreleased disc of “music for films.” They wouldn’t take my check, I remember – I had to borrow the cash from a woman riding with me. It was the beginning of a long love affair with sumptuously packaged box sets, which in some ways culminated Christmas before last with the present to end all presents (from Herself): The Art Box, six CDs of Arts Bears music, sensitively remastered and sumptuously packaged under the direction of Chris Cutler, the band’s drummer.
Art Bears took their name from a sentence in Jane Harrison’s Art and Ritual: “even today, when individualism is rampant, art bears traces of its collective, social origin.” That’s a perhaps pretentious mouthful for a “rock” band, and in sharp contrast to the name of the band out of which Art Bears sprang, Henry Cow. Henry Cow was one of the mainstays of the 1970s British “progressive” scene, a group of viciously talented ultra-leftists who began as something like a Pink Floyd knockoff, for a while merged with the song-based band Slapp Happy (Peter Blegvad and Dagmar Krause), and then moved towards long, free-form improvisation. Hopes & Fears was initially to be the fifth Henry Cow album, this one emphasizing song forms rather than instrumentals, with Frith and Cutler mostly at the helm. By the time the record was 3/4 done, the other band members had decided it really wasn’t a Henry Cow record at all, and left Frith, Cutler, and singer Krause to finish things off.
They made two more records after 1978’s Hopes & Fears: Winter Songs (1979) and The World as It Is Today (1981). (That last is a short one – the LP plays at 45 rpm, which makes for grand sound quality but short playtime.) All three have been out of print for ages, and the earlier CD re-releases were of spotty sound quality. The music is composed by Frith, who is one of the great talents of his generation: A fantastic guitarist, making use of various Cageian “treatments,” and generally regarding the guitar in the same “outside” manner that one expects from Eugene Chadbourne or Elliott Sharp in his weirder moments. Frith is also a first-rate bassist (check him out on the Naked City records), a passable violinist, and knows his way around all manner of keyboards. His compositions, while they bear some traces of his own beginnings in the folk clubs, are like nothing else in “popular music”: his sense of melody and harmony owe almost nothing to blues-based rock idioms, but seem to spring out of some warped post-Schoenberg school of lieder.
Cutler is a fantastic drummer, harnessing a kind of Keith Moon-like anarchic impulse to a tight sense of timing and an impeccable ear for unconventional sounds. But in the Art Bears context of songs rather than instrumentals (though there are some snazzy warped folk-dances on Hopes & Fears), his gifts as a lyricist are every bit as important as his drumming. The songs on Hopes & Fears are a mixed bag of lyrics treating issues of family, generational conflict, and society. Winter Songs are based on carvings and decorations on the Cathedral at Amiens, and use those tiny fragments to build up complex meditations on history and change. “Gold,” based on wee illustration of a chest of coins, reworks a passage from Das Kapital:
I was born in the Earth
Out of fire and flood
Owned men mined me
And out of their lives all
my value derives
And out of their deaths
I am the shadow: Money
I come between;
Both time and persons
I can transform
Anything into what
And make men immortal.
Of course the lyrics alone can give no indication of how powerful this is listened to, from the quiet, melodic beginning – Dagmar Krause double-tracked in harmony over a muted piano – to the tightly restrained antipathetic energy of the second half. "Gold" is pretty much a piano song, but more often than not Krause’s glass-cutting voice, sometimes sounding like she was recorded in a broom closet, at other times with its edges blurred by fuzz effects, soars over Frith’s brutal guitar and Cutler’s assymmetrical drumming. Krause’s singing – a cross between Lotte Lenya and Yoko Ono – is an acquired taste; while she’s always on key, the timbre of the voice can be as grating as Cutler’s drums. She’s a masterful Brecht interpreter; it’s worth one’s trouble to track down Supply and Demand, her collection of mostly political Brecht songs. (Hopes & Fears opens with “On Suicide,” a haunting Brecht/Eisler ditty.)
The World as It Is Today is perhaps the most powerful political record I know before Gang of Four’s Entertainment. (Okay, maybe it ties with Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On.) The titles alone give an indication: “The Song of Investment Capital Overseas”; “FREEDOM (Armed) PEACE”; “The Song of the Dignity of Labour under Capital.” The lyrics here are firmly within the mainstream of English leftism, from the Levellers through the Chartists and William Morris down to Christopher Hill, and they mingle Marx with the apocalyptic visions of the Revelation of St. John the Divine. The music is appropriately apocalyptic as well: what if rock music had emerged, not out of the matrix of African American and American hillbilly traditions, but from a meeting of English folk dance, Olivier Messiaen, and Karlheiz Stockhausen?
The Art Box repackages all three of these records is glisteningly fine sound, and adds three additional CDs: Art Bears Revisited is a 2-disc set of remixes by such luminaries as Frith, Cutler, The Residents, Anne Gosfeld, and Christian Marclay, throwing in three Art Bears rarities. Art Bears provides a few more remixes, as well four tracks of the Art Bears playing live and two further performances of AB songs by various combinations of the band’s principals. I’m not a big remix fan, but these 3 discs are all well worth listening to.
The Art Box (as well as the individual Art Bears albums) is available from the ReR Megacorp website: go ahead, give it a listen. You won’t be bored.