Faust Epiphany

David Stubbs

The Wire, Mar 2004

This was one of a regular series in The Wire where people described their musical epiphanies

As yet another CD, drawn from a pile several feet high, falls instantly to pieces in my hands on opening, I can't help reflect on how irretrievably different it was as a solitary, impecunious, undersexed teenager in the late 70's. Then, buying a single album meant saving up four weeks of paper round money, while double-albums would require a top-up from the dinner money fund. Each new record I acquired - Trout Mask Replica, Electric Ladyland, Rock Bottom - was like a new child. Infatuation was instant and lifelong. And, as with a new child, there were wonderful, tactile, sensuous associations - the odour of plastic, the static electric frisson on withdrawing the vinyl from the inner sleeve. There was even the worrying tingling in the loins, the 'half-hard' at the point of purchase. Such, such were the joys of acquisition.

In the case of Faust's first two albums, reissued by ReR (then Recommended Records) several years after their 1971 and 1972 release, this joy was deferred with exquisite cruelty. I has first come across Recommended following the purchase of a Plastic People of the Universe album, a snatch of which I heard on a World in Action documentary about Czechoslovakian dissidents. The accompanying 'brochure', all penned in Recommended founder Chris Cutler's inimitable script, contained numerous impassioned capsule reviews of avant garde rock groups too subterranean for NME or Melody Maker.

Most prominent, however, was news of the imminent reissue (limited edition of 600) of Faust's debut album, Faust, plus the follow-up So Far. Cutler waxed rhapsodic, observing that copies of these albums had changed hands for up to £60 each while out of print. I'd never heard of Faust, but their promise to me seemed one of obscure Europeaness and musical otherness, as alluring as it was vague. Germany felt planets away from dismal, cash strapped West Yorkshire, its sleek metal, urban gothic charm hinted at Modern Languages classes.

And so, with a credulity that still gratifies me today, I sent off a postal order to Recommended. The two pieces of vinyl, circular slices of a Dream Deutschland would be mine in a matter of days, maybe.

Only they weren't. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. Occasional Cutler apologies would plop on the doormat, written in green ink and exhorting everyone to keep the faith. The albums would be with me soon. I had little idea what caused the hold-up. The delay, however, only intensified the romantic aura around these albums, which became fabulous objects of speculation. What were Faust? What would Faust be? I found myself dreaming about how these albums might sound, shimmering, Aeolian riots of colour and vibration. Daily disappointed by the postman, I cultivated a compansatory obsession with The Mothers Of Invention, whose deleted early albums I acquired from Leeds Record Library. But still the promise of Faust glowed phosphorescent on my horizon.

Finally, ten months after I'd ordered them, the albums arrived. The joys of unpacking, those usual, unseemly frissons were multiplied by the tardy arrival. The debut album, on transparent vinyl inside a sleeve featuring an x-ray of a fist, might appear typographically naive nopwadays but in early 1980 it looked and felt quite ethereal. The second album, So Far, was all black except for the typeface but equally enthralling in it's opacity.

Faust were not what I had dreampt of. They surpassed that. The debut album opened with a filthy, crackling burst of synthesiser generated electricity, in which snatches of The Rolling Stones' Satisfaction and The Beatles' All You Need Is Love were reduced to cinders. Like much of the album it was probably conceived with a smile on it's makers' faces. To me, however, it was a solemnly devastating statement of intent. Jimi Hendrix had abolished surf music on Third Stone From the Sun. Now Faust were doing the same to the rock canon.

The subsequent tracks, a montage of fragile, pastoral musings, parodies of The James Last Orchestra and ferocious jazz rock, buffeted by the occasional massive broadsides of abstract synthwaves and culminating in a looped, ectoplasmic organ riff were the most extraodinary I had ever heard. It was a beauty akin to Lautreamont's famous, proto-surrealist observation about "the chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella". This was dada and surrealism applied to contemporary music. Many of the lyrics were assembled by the 'heavenly (or exquisite) corpse' method favoured by Andre Breton and co, random montages that somehow generated piercing and poignant meanings, the 'wonderful wooden reason' of Meadow Meal, the plaintive poetry of the incongruous. Faust's musical corpse was similarly heavenly.

So Far was more structured, concentrated, each track accompanied by a painting by Edda Kochl, whose montages and menecing, whimsical and darkly kitsch dreamscapes I committed to memory. At times, So Far (which the group were ordered to make more commercial [sic - ed]) was couched in a sort of rhythmical sarcasm, especially the engagingly silly riff of the title track and the monotonous, tribal pounding of It's A Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl, which, when he heard it through the ceiling, prompted my dad to thunder upstairs to the airing cupboard, convinced the boiler was on the blink. Still, this was enchanting, astonishing; Julian Cope declared the saxaphone solo at the end of Sunshine Girl his favourite of all time and I agree. So inappropriately appropriate, so unexpected, glancing you in a tender place.

I was strangely uninterested in Faust as individuals - which one was Joachim, excatly what did Rudolf do - I attended to the collective and their musical results. Faust were more primitive, less 'finished' than Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention, who also delighted in abrupt juxtaposition. Yet there was something about Faust - the acoustic whistfulness, the barrages of unsculpted noise, the harrowing frenzy, the fuzzy repetition which signified a certain, insistent intensity and soulfulness lacking in the cold, superior virtuosity of Zappa.

I tried to interest schoolmates in Faust via the 'show and tell' session during General Studies. I didn't get past track one, Why Don't You Eat Carrots? A coalition of sixth form punks and Proggies jeered and stamped their feet with the deliberate intention of making the needle skip about the vinyl, creating a fast-cut musical montage of their own. Funny at my expense, natürlich, but there was a baying, reactionary fury underlying their derision, reminiscent of crowds who rioted at the premiere of Rite of Spring.

This was part of the attraction of Faust - the soundtrack to my violent, (anti-)adolescent desire not to belong or fit in, confirm my apartness and vindicate my solitude. The dreamlike quality of their music - disjointed, bizarre, often profoundly nostalgic in it's dark, womb-like pools of sound. Sad - but more significantly, Faust reconfigured my very notions of what is possible in rock music, how disparate elements can be brought together and feel organic. Faust inculcated in me an impatience with the conservative smallness, the timorous greyness, the insistence of straight white lines (stripes?) that characterises conventional rock. Faust put me off the road to where I am today.

David Stubbs, "Faust Epiphany", The Wire 2004, © The Wire

ref: The Wire