As I may have mentioned somewhere, or as you may have been able to infer somehow through my writing, as a teenager I was a fairly religious reader of the rock and roll magazine Creem. By religious I mean that I would read each issue cover to cover at least twice each month. Even the column by the British critic and sociologist Simon Frith, whose work I considered relatively dry—Creem was, you may recall, the magazine that published a Lester Bangs profile of Lou Reed titled "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves." That having been one of Bangs' more restrained pieces. Anyway, there was one column Frith wrote in the wake of the rise of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, about the reaction to punk from more established rock musicans of the progressive camp, both musically and politically. Specifically, musicians involved in the loose-knit organization Rock In Opposition. One of whom was Simon Frith's brother Fred Frith, who was at the time still a member of the group Henry Cow. Simon's lead sentence in the column was, and remains, one of the best of it's kind I ever read. It was: "The greatest guitar player in the world is my brother Fred." What a bold thing to say, and what a cool thing to be able to say. I wondered if it was true, or even arguable. But recordings of Fred Frith's music were thin on the ground in Lake Hopatcong, where I was living at the time. I was in my late teens, about to graduate high school and enter college at the time I read that article. I'd heard of Henry Cow and of Frith before. I remembered several years before reading an item in Melody Maker about the recording of the Henry Cow/Slapp Happy hybrid album In Praise Of Learning. I'd seen Frith name-checked on the back cover of Brian Eno's Another Green World. But I had not heard the man play guitar.
Some months later I entered college, and some months after that I read, in the Village Voice, a review of Hopes and Fears, an LP by a group called Art Bears—not "The" Art Bears, but merely, Art Bears, which will make sense later on in this piece—by Michael Bloom. Bloom was one of a handful of regular/occasional contributors to the Voice rock music section who championed what you'd call art rock (Jon Pareles and John Piccarella were the others) and his writing on the album I recall as being highly evocative. (The group, as it happens, was born out of a conflict within Henry Cow, at a point when Frith and drummer/lyricist Chris Cutler were interested in exploring song forms with vocalist Dagmar Krause, and other factions of the group more insistent on longer compositions and such. The band split up, but not before fulfilling gigging obligations and making a final instrumental album; all of the members of Cow as it was constituted at the time of the split contribute to the Art Bears' record.) And by November of 1978 I had moved out of my parents' house and into an apartment in Paterson with a college roommate, had gotten myself a kind of punk-rock girlfriend who worked in the typesetting department of my college paper, to whom I had lost my virginity and everything, and one night I and the punk-rock girlfriend had gone to either the Rockaway Mall or the Garden State Plaza and visited the Sam Goody's record store and I found not only the very intriguing Hopes and Fears but also a copy of the Fred Frith solo album Guitar Solos, and I bought both.
I was quite eager to hear them right away, so my punk-rock girlfriend, who also had HER OWN CAR, drove me back to the place in Paterson, where my roommate, a Beatles aficionado among other things, had a reasonably good stereo hooked up in the living room. I am not sure if he was in the place when we got there. Anyway, we got there, and the first record we put on was Hopes and Fears. And again, I did not hear Fred Frith play guitar.
Rather, I heard the astringent voice of Dagmar Krause, accompanied by funereal woodwinds, singing, in strong tones with an occasional slight fluctuation that seemed pitched somewhere between deliberate vibrato and near-voice-crack, the opening lines to a song by Hann Eisler and Bertolt Brecht: "In such a country/and at such a time"—and then the voice, seemingly an alto exploring the outer end of her range, shifted to a plaintive falsetto—"there should be no/melancholy evenings/even high bridges/over the rivers/and the hours between the night and morning/and the long long winter time as well/all these are dangerous." She went on: "For in view of/all the misery/people just throw/in a few seconds' time/their unbearable lives away." The song is called "On Suicide." The next tune began with some highly-fucked up keyboard tones, an electirc organ with some serious contact trouble maybe, and ominous drumming, a stark piano figure; the chorus, such as it is, has Dagmar, ending each word with a repressed sob, stating, "There are no questions just demands/oh give me the order and I'll cross the border/I don't want to be where I am." On the next song, "Joan," there is finally some GUITAR: a soaring four-note riff with a martial drum figure behind, and Dagmar asking the question "Was I a witch?" Yes; the song is a musical contemplation of the Maid of Orleans. It is only on the fifth song on side one that we approach anything like "rock," and that is because the song, "In Two Minds," the text of which applies a Marxist and possibly Lacanian analysis to the topic of teen alienation and concurrent mental illness, or, more to the point, "mental illness" ("as parent secretly conspires with parent/to discredit conscience and reject all criticism/as a shameful sickness"), is in part a pastiche of/homage to The Who's "Baba O'Riley." It was a little after this point that my punk-rock girlfriend and I, who considered ourselves adventurous, open-minded listeners—because a big part of being punk rock was being adventurous, and having an open mind, we reckoned—determined that as intrigued as we were, we had no idea what the hell we were listening to. I think that my roommate, who had either been there the whole time or who had turned up shortly after we put the record on, had compared Krause's vocal stylings unfavorably to those of Yoko Ono.
So maybe we'd better put on Guitar Solos, because on a record so titled, the artist making it is clearly out to show his stuff, and in a relatively direct way. And, we recall, the guitarist's brother has proclaimed the guitarist the greatest in the world. (Doesn't seem, on the evidence of Art Bears, on whose record he also played keyboards, like a very showy guy, though. In the experience of the American rock fan, shit-hot guitarists tended to dominate their combos with shit-hot guitar playing, c.f., Eddie Van Halen, and Frank Zappa even.) Certainly the minimal liner notes, which specified "all music heard as played," and, even more scintilatingly, "the middle part of 'No Birds' was played on two guitars simultaneously" promised a show of some kind of virtuosity.
And the opening cut, "Hello Music," while decidedly offbeat and not all that "rocking," did not/does not disappoint. A two-bar two-chord vamp (later, on exploring a guitar myself, I figured out he wasn't really playing chords, just barring and unbarring a fret) followed by a four-note cascade at a VERY lively speed, followed by dashing runs with wryly discordant intervals and all manner of harmonics sneaking in on the sidelines. It was kind of hard to believe Frith was doing all this without overdubs—still hard—and again, I later found out that he'd modified his guitar in all sorts of unusual ways, adding for instance a neck pickup and using a stereo volume control. The guitar hence emitted sounds from all sorts of places at once, at different speeds. Combined with an exceptionally dextrous playing approach—as I believe I've said elsewhere, Frith plays guitar with his entire body, really; more than any other guitarist I've seen, he makes his instrument an extension of his being—he makes the six-string sound like it's a hundred-string. He ends this particular demo with a bright and cheerful traditional major chord, a punchline that's simultaneously sardonic and entirely devoid of cynicism. The rest of the album is somewhat less immediately jaw-dropping, except when it is even more so. But Frith is concerned here with improvising first, and blowing your mind with technique maybe tenth. On the evening of the first hearing, it was an easier LP to relate to. Even the Beatlemaniac roommate allowed that Frith knew his way around the instrument.
These two records changed my life. They changed how I hear, they changed how I process music. I went back to Hopes and Fears many, many times and still do. I went from not quite understanding it to feeling a deep concordance with it, and it led me to much other great music. Its philosophy and aesthetic corresponds to my own, and when it doesn't, it challenges my own, and stretches it. I think that's what music, that's what art, are for. Guitar Solos remains a pleasure and a marvel, on the same plane of listening. I thank Fred Frith, who I continue to think of as the greatest guitarist in the world, and Chris Cutler, and Tim Hodgkinson, and Georgie Born, and the late Lindsay Cooper, for having made this music.
Here's Cutler on the origin of the band name "Art Bears:" "I took the name Art Bears from a sentence in Jane Harrison's Art and Ritual......'even today, when individualism is rampant, art bears traces of its collective, social origin,' p 241. But not too much should be read into this."