Faust Epiphany

Don Watson

The Wire, Sep 2000

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

One of the effects of the rabid reissue programs that accompanied the CD revolution was to offer shrinkwrapped package tours into your teenage bedrom. Music, as we all know, can recreate the details of the time it is associated with in the mind of the listener, with all the eerie realism of one of Philip K. Dick's neurological holidays. For a while it was impossible to venture into the Megastore without your eye catching a sleeve that took you back to the days when Virgin's record shops were all beanbags, headphones and Captain Beefheart posters.

Like a lot of people my teenage years were divided between going out music and staying at home music. The going out music (War, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Johnny Guitar Watson, Northern Soul) had all resurfaced. Like a left brain/right brain imbalance, the staying in music was the foreign country.

It seems like an obvious point to make, but after having a good wander around this foreign country, the strange thing is just how recognisable it all is. The huge seismic shift that punk represented in cultural terms, merges into a surprising degree of continuity in purely musical terms.

It came as a surprise to me just how well some of the music I listened to at the age of fourteen or fifteen stands up. I wallowed in nostalgia for the visionary, surreal romanticism of Kevin Ayers' "Confessions of Dr Dream", wondered at Kevin Coyne's evocation of the twee and the violent. I immersed myself all over again in the bleak hybrid of noise and dance music that constitutes Can's "Tago Mago", rediscovered the Brechtian wit of Slapp Happy and generally came to the conclusion that I must have been a pretty weird fourteen year old.

That, no doubt, was the impression I had intended to convey at the time. But deep in the very scary sonic territory of Can's "Aumgn", I did begin to wonder how I'd got here the first time round, only two years after shelling out 7 shillings and sixpence for T. Rex's "Ride a White Swan". Wilful perversity and a desire to be different are of course a major part, but where did I first discover the forbidden thrill of discordance?

The answer, I finally realised, has lurked in my record collection ever since. Despite all the various vinyl culls over the years, I could never part with The Faust Tapes, even though I never actually played it either. Occasionally I'd take out the sleeve, a reproduction of one of Brigit Riley's op art piece 'Crest', liberally smeared with fingerprints from vintage NME print, look at it fondly and put it back in the rack. Perhaps in the back of my mind I thought it was a voyage into abstract sound better experienced through memory than in real time.

After all, I bought The Faust Tapes for the same reason that most of the hundred thousand or so people did in 1973. It was cheap. At 48p it was the current price of a single. In those music-starved days, finding that a whole album was within your immediate price range, when you thought you could only buy three minutes worth of escape, was irresistible. Even if it was by a band you'd never heard of, and even if they were from Germany.

And like you did in those days, I listened to it. Constantly. It was an uncomfortable experience sometimes - there's a moment on the first side, when a single deep note is sustained by an imperfect voice, becoming louder and louder, ever more hysterical, demented-sounded and jarring, until it is joined by a cacophony of noise swelling up behind it. Even the nastiest moments of "Tago Mago" can't quite compete.

When I finally did acquire a CD of The Faust Tapes my first reaction was one of disappointment, not at the music, but the sleeve. The Brigit Riley had seemed such an integral part of the package that the woodcut illustration of the Dr Faustus story seems a poor substitute.

The back of the original album had been a covered with dense type, featuring reviews from a number of music papers, which were as influential as the music itself. Ian MacDonald's piece from the NME of March 1973, particularly set out the agenda for my listening over the next two years. Captain Beefheart, Velvet Underground, Brian Wilson, Frank Zappa. If the sleeve had changed, the thrill had not. The Faust Tapes contains so much of what was to intrigue me for the following decades that I begin to wonder if I would have been at all the same person had the nascent Virgin not decided to pull off the 48p marketing scam. There are MacDonald's signposts of course, there are also traces of Edgar Varese, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Serge Gainsbourg. And there are elements which no doubt made me more receptive in later years to DAF, Pyrolator and Neubauten. Not least the thrill of the exotic that derives from the album's conspicuously European nature, its sense of sophisticated travelogue.

What is so striking about The Faust Tapes, particularly in comparison with the three studio albums that surrounded it (Faust, So Far and Faust IV) is the density of the ideas. Where the 'proper' albums tend to establish themes and tease them out over a sustained period, The Faust Tapes flickers from texture to texture, from melodic pop to avant garde and back via jazz with a sense of restless delight. It's interesting to refer back to the original sleeve notes, where MacDonald attributes the more sustained nature of the studio albums to 'the demands of a commercial company'. It seems odd now to think that the twenty minute extemporations of the other three should seem more commercially acceptable than the two to three minute juxtapositions of the tapes. There is a suggestion that in doing their 'real' work, Faust lost some of the joy and humour of The Faust Tapes. Although there are melodies on the other albums, there is rarely the sense of splicing pop music into cacophonous noise. Even the moment referred to above resolves, after drawing out its discomfort to the maximum, to a pop song of Velveteen electricity.

For the last few weeks I've been doing exactly what I did at 13 - playing The Faust Tapes over and over and over. Now I've found my way right back to the beginning, and realised the thrill is still there, it's time to start all over again.

After all adolescence is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

Don Watson, "Faust Epiphany", The Wire 2000, © The Wire

ref: The WIre