Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas' Solo Albums 1981-87: Winter Comes Home

'A Day Such as This'

David Thomas’ second solo album (as ‘David Thomas and his Legs’, though the front cover merely lists the three contributing musicians) is Winter Comes Home. It is a live recording of a show he, Lindsay Cooper and Chris Cutler put on in Erding, ‘a town north-east of Munchen, West Germany' on 11 December 1982. It is largely a spoken word performance, for which Cutler and Cooper periodically provide atmospheric and presumably largely improvised backing.

In the sleevenotes to the compilation Monster, Thomas explains why Winter Comes Home has no place in the CD box set of his solo material:

BTW Winter Comes Home does not exist. According to the Authorized View, it never did exist and so, it never will exist. Those who claim to own copies are troublemakers. Report them to the Grocery Police. 

More recently, Thomas has made the album available for download, stating simply ‘This album has been out of print for decades now - the master tapes were lost long ago. Recently Paul Hamann at Suma digitally transfered and mastered a virgin vinyl copy of the album.’ (Find it here)

In taking on such a rare form for a rock musician, blending performance poetry, stand up comedy, public expostulation, theatre and music, Thomas was really making a bold move. Like the single of ‘I Didn’t Have a Very Good Time’, which may or may not have been too arcane for the already extremely arcane Sound of the Sand, Winter Comes Home was (presumably) too obscure a project for the Rough Trade label and was, instead, released on Chris Cutler’s own record label, Recommended. The calligraphy on the back cover is typical of many Recommended releases, and is Cutler’s own.

Cutler had already worked with Thomas, to a minor capacity, on his recording of ‘Sloop John B’ on Sound of the Sand. Here, Cutler was required to be part of the band recording backing to a pre-recorded vocal – never an easy task. John Greaves, the other half of Henry Cow’s rhythm section with Cutler, also played on that album. Greaves does not appear on subsequent Thomas releases, but another Henry Cow member, the late Lindsay Cooper, was to appear on a number of future albums; this was the first.

An additionally unusual element of the Winter Comes Home album and the tour it represents is the ‘text’ Thomas is using. Though Sound of the Sand had been released by the time of this show, the works Thomas is performing are Pere Ubu lyrics, largely from the band’s most recent album from that time, Song of the Bailing Man; ‘Rhapsody in Pink’ was a track from the previous album Art of Walking. These are blended, on the album, with commentary and monologues from Thomas.

To add to what might be seen as the perversity of this approach, it should be borne in mind that Thomas (and indeed Pere Ubu) was seen at this time by many having lost direction, particularly lyrically, though also musically. Whereas the trend amongst new wave (now often called postpunk) bands of the early 1980s was for depressive, harrowing and thereby ‘meaningful’ lyrics exploring a ‘dark side’, Pere Ubu had completely eschewed such output by 1981/2 – which they had already shown on Dub Housing they were more than capable of generating, should the need be apparent. Instead, Thomas’ work these days was primarily about birds, hats, walking and other profoundly mundane elements of daily life; the effect for many was childishly naïve, irritatingly rootless and perverse. Why would a band who had made their name firstly with proto-punk, Hawkwindesque rock – and then with cutting-edge new wave paranoid angst before moving into often uneasy-listening, edgy experimental material – then turn to idle whimsy? Song of the Bailing Man is probably regarded by many as the nadir of Pere Ubu’s output (yes – it’s due for reassessment, like everything) largely for this reason.

How, then, to write about these tracks? There are, of course, numerous possibilities. However, it strikes me that this, like the next Thomas album Variations on a Theme, can be regarded as a series of songs with (at least) two iterations, and the truth of the matter lies in the contrast between the two.

‘The theme for tonight,’ Thomas says at the start of the record, ‘comes in the form of a question “is hyperbole man’s best rhetorical friend?” This is also printed on the back of the sleeve as the overarching concept for the album. He describes hyberbole (he’s translating, remember, for a German audience who incidentally seem to find as much humour in his intonation and crazy voices as his actual words – not to suggest they’re not fluent in English, obviously they are) as speaking ‘more than the truth… to create a vivid impression’. ‘A Day Such as This’ is, of course the perfect song to illustrate this concept. On Song of the Bailing Man it’s brisk and breezy; on Winter Comes Home Thomas teases out all manner of possibilities. He repeats the first line twice; then Lindsay Cooper and Thomas work around the ‘H.Y.P.E.R.B.- O.L.E.’ refrain in a number of ways; the second time, Cutler joins them and turns the whole into something of a folk dance. (‘He plays drums like he’s singing’, Thomas says in the Monster sleevenotes).

During this performance, on some occasions Thomas is singing the song as it’s known on Song of the Bailing Man then on others, drifts off into his speaking voice.

So we might be encouraged to think, then, that this particular rendition of this track (and indeed the whole performance/album) has been created to showcase Thomas’ abilities as a lyricist, and a misunderstood lyricist at that. The ‘nature prance’ is not, as it might superficially appear, a random, incidental gathering of wry and musings on the passing show; it’s a thoughtful inquiry into the workings of language and observation. In that regard, while it is probably the weakest track on this peculiar album, it sets up the remainder admirably.

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