#59 Stairway to Heavan (sic)- In Praise of Half Baked Ideas and Unfinished things. The importance of not being earnest.

“C amper Van Beethoven” II and III.  I think the C fell off the paste up board and was incorrectly lined up again.  Camper Van Beethoven placed the Star of David on the album for no other reason than to confuse people.  The symbol has such heavy meaning while this record was purposely devoid of any coherent meaning, messages or interpretation. On Subsequent pressings the star was removed after we were hammered by Rough Trade about the symbol.  They were worried that the obliqueness of our songs and the record would eventually lead to terrible mis-interpretations of our intent. Some sort of radical zionist or anti-semitic interpretation of one our songs. who knows.

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Part of the charm of camper van beethovens earliest records that they sometimes contained half baked ideas,  studio experiments and things that were really only partially finished.

Some might disagree.  But when I look back on these records I think that it was cool we had the self confidence to not take things so seriously.  Most young artists tweeze their records to death.  Over polish and over arrange each song.  They remove every little imperfection.  They constantly fret how each song will be perceived.  We did none of this.  As noted above we put one of the most meaningful symbols of the  20th century on the cover of II and III for no apparent meaning.

In 1985 and 1986 underground rock music was a very serious business to most of our friends and peers.  Lyrics were serious.  The music was serious.  Everything was very important and burdened with meaning. We were very aware of this.

I noted this in earlier posts that Camper Van Beethoven was purposely messing with that notion right from the start.  From the choice of the band name,  to the non-sensical “Take the skinheads bowling”. We felt it our mission to be seriously unearnest.

But part the way through the second album and especially on the third album  we started doing this in a different way.  We started including weird sonic experiments and including them in the record.  Half finished songs.  We included these also.   They weren’t bullshit filler,  but neither were they 100% serious endeavors.  Some were accidents.Like putting the tape on the reel upside down.  so the wrong tracks played and were backwards.

We came to believe that if we tried too hard to arrange these accidents and turn them into a real song we would ruin the original flawed yet briefly beautiful idea.

Others were songs we felt  just weren’t enough of an idea to be a real song of proper length and scope. So instead of struggling to make them a second rate “song” with lyrics and a standard verse chorus verse chourus bridge chorus outro structure,  we let them be as they were.

We WERE earnest about some things. We had the earnest belief that we were creating a sort of demi-song,  an overlooked and under appreciated form of music.

04 Turtlehead

The first entry is a Chris Molla penned ditty.  A “small idea” I remember him terming it.  A small spinning tension.  Release in the repeated abrupt stops.  An explosive atonal bridge. Then release in the repeated abrupt stops.  No words.  The title ?  I have no idea.

12 Circles

Circles was created by listening to the song the song Oh No backwards.  We learned the structure and kind of played along with it. In the A and C sections. We added a few incidental melodies with guitar and keyboard but nothing that could be considered a focal point an actual melodic theme that ties the song together.  The only part of the song that makes an effort at being a real song is the B section where we let the words to chorus play backwards.

13 We’re All Wasted and We’re Wasting All Your Time

This was also done at about the same time as circles.  This is jonathan and victor singing along to Take The Skinheads Bowling backwards.  I thin anthony guess or chris molla is also drumming along with it.  It’s got a sort of reggae rock steady feel. weird.  But again. Its just a thrown away chorus.  Perfectly joyful and mischievous.

13 Dustpan

This hard driving collection of guitar chords changes and arpeggios would have been used by most bands for the basis for a song with lyrics.  Even CVB in a more traditional mood would have tied it all together with an instrumental melody line.  Neither of these happened.  It was left this way.

17 Cattle (reversed)

Another song that contains what would normally be a good set of riffs,  an A and B section that should have made a good basis for a psychedelic blues song that an early led zeppelin or fleetwood mac might have played.  There should have been some robert plant hobbit rock lyrics over the top of this.  but no we were content with the “response” lines of the guitars.  The fact the “call” vocal lines are missing qualify this as a demi- song.    Arguing against that is the strange interlocked guitar parts in the B section.  They are of two different lengths so they phase against each other.  This is more interesting and makes this part of the song a more full fledged instrumental.  The title of this song came from a randomly drawn celtic rune. (kind of like tarot cards)  we went through a period of naming songs in this manner.  Abundance (tarot card)  The fool (tarot card).

16 Zztop Goes to Egypt

This song really doesn’t  belong in this category.  The only reason i put it in this category is that it doesn’t have two traditional elements of a fully fledged CVB song.  A repeated consistent melody or lyrics.  The main feature of the song is jonathans multiple tracks of modal violin noodlings.  The song slowly builds in intensity. After the crescendo it pedals and slowly decays.  That is the arc of the song.  Building tension a climax and decay.  It is however the most successful of our melody less psychedelic demi-songs. People always shout out for it at shows.

03 Five Sticks

This is pretty much ambiguity song backwards.  Or parts of it.  It was the result of putting the reel of tape on the machine upside down.  We made a stereo mix of it and then figured out how to play along with it.  It has a strange beauty.  Like an ancient text in a lost language.  Untranslatable.  I assume we called it 5 sticks to continue the reference to Led Zeppelin’s fourth effort.   The Led Zeppelin album features a track called 4 sticks.  get it?  I mentioned in an earlier post we always considered this album our 4th album.  The second album was both the second and third album  hence the curious title II and III.  It was recorded in two different sessions.

Also while on the subject.  We toyed with using symbols as the album title.  Just like Led Zeppelin.  However we did not.  What we did do was give the album a title that no one could find.  Unless you were looking very closely.  The album does have a title.  The title is “Soviet Spies Swim Upstream Disguised as Trout”  It’s right there in the liner notes.  And on etched in the inner groove of the first run of vinyl.  We titled it this way because we had an obsessive fan that would write us nearly everyday.  In one of the letters she (?) said she dreamed the next Camper Van Beethoven album was titled “Soviet Spies Swim Upstream Disguised as Trout”.  et voila.

07 Surprise Truck

This was simply a damn good riff that didn’t want to have a B section or anything other musical variatiion attached to it.  Relentless with just some off the cuff bullshit lyrics about “the surprise truck”.  (the “surprise truck” was the apparently the literal translation of hezbollahs code term for their then novel suicide bomb trucks).

08 Stairway To Heaven (sic)

So Led Zeppelin’s 4th and untitled obliquely titled record contained Stairway to Heaven.  Well we decided we needed a track of approximately the same name.  Of course we changed the spelling and added “sic” (Spelling incorrect). Largely because we had all just read Hammer of the Gods and we’re pretty sure Peter Grant or some english thug who worked for Led Zep  would show up and break our legs.  This track is the most accidental.  It starts with a live recording of CVB playing an after hours illegal show in The Icehouse in Fayetteville Arkansas.  It was a very early very slow version of the song processional.  Someone is playing a weird toy piano or something.  It then goes into a Mao Reminisces about his Days in Southern China.  With extra instruments dubbed in forward.  Most notably a distorted slide and a dumbek. But the great accident is when the previous song on the real comes in.  It’s Folly for two.  It’s backwards cause we were always flipping the tape upside down to do these manipulations.  We didn’t intend for that last bit to be on the recording but it did.

09 Pope Festival

Another interesting case is this song.  It doesn’t really count as a demi-song.  but there is something cool about the unfinished non-words and dense repetitive arrangement.  Later when it went onto Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart album,  it got “produced”  it has a better arrangement and structure but becomes quite inconsequential. It was also retitled “The Fool”.

12 The Fool

10 Interlude

And then all those demi-songs disappear once we start making our albums for Virgin Records.  With one notable exception the track “Interlude” from Key Lime Pie.   This is simply Garth Hudson – yes that Garth Hudson from the Band- warming up on his pump organ as the microphones and such are being placed and adjusted.

Later when the band reforms these demi songs these sonic experiments come back into play.  Camper Van Beethoven is Dead Long Live Camper Van Beethoven is largely made out of these pieces of music. Tom Flower’s 1500 valves being the most notable piece.  The drums are from a reel of drumbeats that Chris pedersen sent to us.  The strings are a chopped up bit of Dixie Babylon strings.  Jonathan and victor played along to this loop. I’d just watched a show on the Bletchley Park. This was Britain’s brilliant codebreaking enterprise in WWII.  Thomas Flowers was the unsung hero.  He built one of the first working computers if not the very first.  It used 1500 valves or tubes.  We made up the song in a few hours. Jonathan tagged on a very discouraging message to him from PJ Harvey, rejecting his suggestion she sing on his solo album.

03 Tom Flower’s 1500 Valves

finally I hate this part of Texas and Come out to show them are similar type songs from New Roman Times. But we already went into great detail about both of these.

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Tom Flowers 1500 valves

Contains recording of a phone message where PJ Harvey rejects music from a tape sent to her by Jonathan Segel.

Further info from David Lowery:
"Thomas Flowers was the British postal service engineer who with Alan Turing built the first (years before the americans) electronic computer (Colossus?), allegedly powered by 1500 valves.   I watched a BBC documentary on Bletchley Park some years ago, and i believe these are more or less the historical facts, of course its all a little foggy to me now.
Bletchley Park (sic?): the site of english and allied efforts to break german ciphers in W.W.II.
Cipher Girls: the corps of young women who were hired to work by hand all the possible permutations once a code was partially broken.
Monty: Montgomery.
Ultra: the Cipher Girls slang for decoded german communications
Valve: English term for Vacuum tube.
Tunnyfish: nickname for the german u-boat cipher, apparently the most
difficult to break."

[INTRO:]
[A]

[BREAK:]
[A]-[Bm]-[E]-[C#m]-[D]-[Bm]-[Esus4]-[E]

[A] Bletchley Park - [Bm] what a lark
[E] Cipher girls, they’re [C#m] dressed in curls
They [D] gave to Monty [Bm] the very best of their [E] Ultra

And Thomas Flower in his hour,
It’s 1500 valves were powered
And tunnyfish, is permanently broken

[BREAK] (unintelligible echoey voices)

[BREAK] (voice of PJ Harvey):
[A] “Hi Jonathan, this is Polly, [Bm] er, got your call, and thanks very much for [E] sending that CD and demo tape that Ann? showed my Mum?. Erm, I listened to the [C#m] tape and, er, I don’t [D] feel that it’s the right kind of #thing for me to [Bm] be doing, it’s just not, I don’t feel the [Esus4] mood is right for me, so I, [E] I’m sure you’ll understand. Erm, it was real good to [A] see you the other day. Errm, I-I [Bm] hope it all goes well for you, and er, [A] keep in touch, get your card? off?, and maybe you’ll find that [Bm] recording in Majorca/New Yorker? should last [A] through, kind of help proof? some different? songs?. [Bm] So, er, yeah, really good to see you Jonathan. [A] Take care. Bye.”

8 Responses to “#59 Stairway to Heavan (sic)- In Praise of Half Baked Ideas and Unfinished things. The importance of not being earnest.”

  1. David, all of you all- I have such fond memories of that illegal afterhours party. I’ve always loved the fact that a little fragment of that tape ended up on one your records because that made it feel like it had some kind of exterior life in the world. But that’s really secondary to what a great, fun night it was. It really was a night that felt like anything could happen and that’s a very good feeling to be able to pull up from memory. Thanks for being so game and playful.

  2. Wait-”Interlude” is Garth Hudson?! Did he play on other songs? Holy crap!

  3. Serendippiness and sicopation birth some of my favorite art, many of these demis included.

  4. I haven’t posted a reply yet since I wasn’t signed up with WordPress. Thanks for this David. It’s been really interesting and has really gotten me listening to CVB again, not that I ever really stopped, but now the orange box set lives in my car again.

    These songs are some of my favorites. I love the playfulness of them, and I think that playfulness wasn’t as present on the Virgin releases. You are right, so much music was overly serious in the 80s. I think that these songs, and the rest of II & III projects the joy that can be found in the weirdness of life. It’s ironic that two decades later I take this stuff seriously because of the silliness.

    It’s a part of the way I get along with music that I rarely know a song’s name unless it’s repeated in the chorus lots of times. I like the names of your instrumentals but don’t have them tied to particular melodies. With this blog I’m getting to know them.

    Normal people get hooky pop songs stuck in their heads. I find myself whistling Stairway to Heavan (sic) all the time.

  5. Per DL: “And then all those demi-songs disappear once we start making our albums for Virgin Records.”

    I’ve always wondered about this. Was this by the band’s choice or the label’s?

  6. it’s been too long since I listened to these songs.
    five sticks – I used to make up lyrics. possible lyrics. don’t know why. “now, I sit in the rain with my ears…” .

    was just telling my friend about soviet spies the other day…

  7. lynn marie Says:

    “In Praise of Half Baked Ideas and Unfinished things. The importance of not being earnest.” I will drink to that. The songs in this post are great, even if they are half-baked ideas.

    I’ve always thought the album title II & III was brilliant, given that it’s just one piece of vinyl. Surprise Truck has always been a favorite!

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