Jazz rock? Rock jazz? Art rock with jazz overtones? The 1977 album Kew. Rhone., by John Greaves, Peter Blegvad and Lisa Herman, doesn’t sound or feel like any record of any genre released that year. It doesn’t sound or feel like any record of 2015, either. Its singularity is such that one of its admirers, the legendary musician Robert Wyatt, insists that its existence justifies the ordinarily oxymoronic term “very unique.” A book assembled by Blegvad, also entitled Kew. Rhone., which was released in November, celebrates the record’s uniqueness almost 40 years after the fact.
As for the record itself: Composer Greaves, who played bass and piano in the still-revered progressive rock combo Henry Cow has a talent for melodies that are as complex and sinuous as they are hooky. Blegvad’s lyrics are dazzling slabs of wordplay — anagrams, acrostics, one particularly long palindrome, as well as “interactive” lyrics that operate in conjunction with the dryly whimsical illustrations on the album’s jacket. Herman sings with a bell-clear alto that infuses soul and sensuality into the challenging material. Their backing band includes jazz luminaries Carla Bley and Mike Mantler (the album was recorded at the upstate New York studio of the then-married musicians) and legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille.
After the record’s rather spectacular commercial failure, Blegvad went on to a distinguished solo career that included collaborations with XTC’s Andy Partridge, Michael Penn, Anton Fier and the Golden Palominos and others. His musical activities in recent years have taken a back seat to writing, illustrating, teaching and serving as president of the London branch of the College of ‘Pataphysics; but his songwriting was unexpectedly honored when Loudon Wainwright covered his song “Daughter” for the end credits of the hit movie Knocked Up (that cover is currently being used in a Walmart ad; the actual subject of the song, Kaye Blegvad, is now an accomplished graphic artist and jewelry maker).
Kew. Rhone. may not have racked up sales, but fans of the record (which is now available in an excellent edition from the French label Chant du Monde) are fans for life, and they include the above-cited Wyatt (who sang a couple of its songs on a subsequent John Greaves solo record), maverick designer Sheridan Coakley, novelist Jonathan Coe, OULIPO giant Harry Mathews, critic and novelist Rafi Zabor, and possibly hundreds more. All of whom are also contributors to Blegvad’s Kew. Rhone. book. The book itself has been a long-time dream of the author’s; as he wrote in 1985: “Certain works by certain artists are not really complete until they have been thoroughly glossed, until commentary and exegesis, like colonies of clinging limpets, have extended the original contours and made the work of one the work of many. Kew. Rhone. is such a work. It cries out for annotation and analysis.”
Below is an excerpt from my own contribution to the book, followed by a Q&A with Blegvad.
Excerpt from the essay “The ‘Kew.Rhone.’ Club”
When I began writing “professionally,” I approached the work of what I called “criticism” — what I called “rock criticism,” specifically — with an evangelical fervor. My mission was to champion great musicians and also to instruct them. In my first published piece I chided a favored band by charging Lack Of Artistic Growth. The first piece I published in the Village Voice, in the early ’80s, was a fervent appreciation of Peter Blegvad’s first solo album, The Naked Shakespeare, which I termed a “Great Lost Pop LP.” At the New Music Seminar in 1985, I stood up at the end of a panel that featured Bob Guccione, Jr., then editor of SPIN, and leveled a junior “J’accuse” speech at him, complaining of his organ’s lack of coverage of truly adventurous artists, naming Blegvad as one of them. My fervor amused many in the room. Guccione, Jr., then a wannabe Caligula, giggly and dingy-toothed as he was, had an amanuensis take my address and number. A reasonably venerable veteran critic, still at work at the paper of record today, drolly recollected that he had begun his career proselytizing for similar material, so I ought not give up hope. Of what, I wondered then, and even now.
By this time I had purchased Kew. Rhone. and had given it multiple listenings. I enjoyed it and even loved it, despite the fact that I did not have anything resembling the intellectual apparatus to “get” what it was up to. In a way, that’s one of the many triumphs of the record: the way it can insinuate itself into the receptive listener’s pleasure centers while accomplishing any number of things the listener is not required to much care about. When, on “Pipeline,” Lisa Herman sings “ambiguity can’t be measured like a change in temperature” and the ensemble dips into an insinuating Latin rhythm (I cringe as I witness myself wading into music-critic-speak vocabulary here), the particular grain of Herman’s voice and the light but brightly inflected tones, particularly of the bass and piano, create a numinous frisson that’s particularly sensuous. Similarly, while Peter Blegvad in conversation persistently underrates himself as a guitar player, his anarcho-feedback soloing “Twenty-Two Proverbs,” bracing dissonant pleasures aside, establishes a world-historical moment in this listeners ear, bridging the learned atonalities of Fred Frith to the less studied electric ejaculations of Arto Lindsay, anticipating the moment some ten years or so after the recording of Kew. Rhone. in which Frith and Lindsay would play against each other on the first recording by The Golden Palominos, which ensemble also highlighted at that time the visions and labor of Anton Fier and John Zorn.
All this and more exists within a fabulous architecture that, when examined from another angle, seems a massively ambitious attempt to reinvent both the art song and the pop song, with jazz almost accidentally elbowing its way in and asserting itself as the only genre sufficiently flexible to contain such efforts. It is not for nothing that Kew. Rhone. is considered sui generis, although a subsequent Greaves/Blegvad project, The Lodge, attempted to stretch song meaning and song structure in a particular way not unrelated to what Kew. Rhone. did. To return once more to conventional critical terms, one may view the subsequent efforts of Blegvad, Greaves, and Herman in separate contexts, particularly Peter’s work as a singer and songwriter with the Golden Palominos, as ways of pursuing avenues of authenticity that were informed by the then-unprecedented audacity of Kew. Rhone.. And yet for all that there is a way in which the record’s achievement remains not unpleasantly vexatious.
A Q&A With Peter Blegvad:
Kew. Rhone. was recorded a full year and a half after In Praise Of Learning, the second Henry Cow/Slapp Happy collaborative record. A lot of water went under the bridge in that time and, if I understand correctly, there was a considerable amount of bad feeling as the two combos dissolved. How did you and John manage to maintain your collaboration through that tumult? And how did it happen that you wound up moving your base of operations to New York for this project?
It felt bad being fired by Henry Cow, but I deserved it. It was probably what I secretly wanted. Over the years that followed I worked happily with various members of the band in one way or another, so whatever “bad feeling” there was didn’t go deep in my case. When I moved to NYC, John and I kept in touch. We wanted to develop the potential we’d sensed when we wrote “Bad Alchemy” together, and I think we’d already decided NYC was the place to do this. John managed to wheedle a tiny budget from Virgin, and that very day he met Carla and Mike, musical heroes of his, and Carla suggested that their studio in Woodstock might be available and affordable. So a “plan” fell into place.
I’d moved to NYC (my birthplace) to see if I could start a career as an illustrator, following in my father, Erik’s, steps.
In his notes to the Chant du Monde reissue of Kew. Rhone., John Greaves recalls that he found what would become the lyrics to the song’s title track in your waste bin. Were the anagrams and palindromes you were constructing at this time always meant for use in song?
Useful piece of equipment for a writer, the waste bin. Writing those things, I didn’t have song in mind. I hoped the anagrams and palindromes might become some kind of word-object, poetry or magic spell. I don’t remember how they became lyrics for Kew. Rhone., it might have been down to John and that waste bin.
CBGB was a going concern at the time of Kew. Rhone.‘s composition and recording. I know that John recorded with the Love of Life orchestra, and that you got involved with an early iteration of Ambitious Lovers. But that was quite a few years after Kew. Rhone.. To what extent did the then-burgeoning New York scene exert an influence on Kew. Rhone.? Inasmuch as you felt you were in any camp at all, was Mike and Carla’s the most congenial to you?
I went to CBGB occasionally. I liked the bands that sounded a bit inept or amateur. I felt Slapp Happy had anticipated that innocent DIY quality years before, but I kept it to myself. I think I saw Television play. I think John saw Talking Heads there and met David Byrne, who was a Robert Wyatt fan. Before we found Lisa Herman, John thought Byrne might make a good singer for K. R.. John worked at the Strand with Jody Harris, who knew John as Peter Blegvad because John was using my Social Security card. Jody might have been a source of info about bands at that time, not sure. I found Jody too intimidatingly cool even to talk to. Besides, he couldn’t understand why I was claiming to be Peter Blegvad. I’m sure the New York scene had some sort of influence on K. R. — in terms of permission, maybe — but if so, it was pretty oblique. Punk was an attempt to clear the decks, K. R. wanted to do something similar, albeit in a very different way. I didn’t think in terms of camps. Mike and Carla had been jazz musicians, but they were extending or transcending the meaning of that. Working with them was very congenial, yes.
I remember in conversation you recalling Richard Branson, then still head of Virgin Records, making some suggestions about Kew. Rhone. that you were obliged to resist. Would you care to recollect them again?
No memory of what those suggestions might have been, I’m afraid. The miracle is that Richard and his cousin Simon Draper (head of A & R) allowed that record to be made at all. They wanted to make money, we wanted to make art. But they rather sweetly indulged us.
The record came out on the same day as the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, or so goes one particular tale. What went through your head? Through John’s? Through Lisa’s? Did you ever imagine you and Johnny Rotten would both be in the same band (but not necessarily share a stage), The Golden Palominos, years later?
As Jonathan Coe demonstrates in the book, there was no such coincidence, nice as the notion is. I suspect a record as elaborately pretentious as Kew. Rhone. would have been lumped in along with the music punk wanted to annihilate (although the oddest people turn out to have been fans — Morrissey, for instance — so who knows?). We weren’t competing with other bands or youth movements. Weren’t part of that conversation. I admired the Sex Pistols’ audacity and wished them luck causing chaos/provoking thought, but aside from that, nothing went through my head. I was a bit old for punk. I felt closer to what Laurie Andersen had just started doing — she’d made a 45 rpm record of a kind of pop song and dared to call it “art.” But she hadn’t got a major record company to produce and distribute it as we had. In this, as in so much else, Kew. Rhone. was the more radical experiment.
I think one point of Anton’s ‘recombinant ensemble (the Golden Palominos) was to put unlikely people together and see what happened. Getting John Lydon to sing a Robert Kidney song was a great example. I was very surprised (and thrilled) to be on stage with [The Numbers Band's] Robert Kidney, that’s for sure.
Speaking of Branson — what a character! You went through the wringer with Virgin as a solo artist, and yet the reformed Slapp Happy did end up on V2, Branson’s short-lived music concern post-Virgin. While it can’t be said he conducted music business dealings in a consistently artist-friendly manner, from my consumer position I have to give him credit for getting out a good number of records that might never have existed otherwise. Am I right?
I don’t know how aware he was of who was signed to his labels. I suspect he was happy to delegate. But I’m grateful to him and the other people I worked with at Virgin over the years.
You are possibly the only member of the College of ‘Pataphysics who has written a song that’s used to accompany a television ad for Walmart. What are the ramifications of that, do you think?
Ha! Ain’t that a trip? Thank you Loudon! I hope ramifications will include more corporations licensing songs from my back catalog — [Kew. Rhone. song] “Pipeline” for ExxonMobil perhaps?