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When Peter Blegvad takes the stage at Phantasmagoria in Wheaton Sunday night, the singer-songwriter will do so with the complete knowledge that, despite nearly 30 years of releasing records filled with his Dylanesque songs, voice, and lyrics, his name is known to only a handful of people. And most of them probably can’t even pronounce it.
“Obscurity is definitely a phenomenon I’m very familiar with,” he says by phone from New York City. “The perplexing question, which I’m sure millions of other artistes ask themselves, is how to reach the potential public that might enjoy the material.”
It’s a query the 40-something, London-based Blegvad has asked himself for most of his career, though without much interest in the answer. For Blegvad, the absurdities and ironies of life are what inform his music.
Blegvad began his rock career in 1971 as a founding member of Slapp Happy, a subversive trio that included multi-instrumentalist Anthony Moore and German singer Dagmar Krause. After suckering German Polydor to finance its first album, 1972’s Sort Of, the band of impostors made a tongue-in-cheek pop album with help from legendary German producer Uwe Nettelbeck and Faust, his band of anarchic noiseniks. A collection of demos (not released until 1982 as Acnalbasac Noom read it backwards) led to a second album, Slapp Happy, for an even bigger label, Virgin UK, because owner Richard Branson was a fan. Still looking to take the piss out of pop music, Slapp Happy took its bigger budget and replaced the rambunctious rhythms of Faust with professional session musicians for the eponymous album and, as Blegvad writes in his chronology of the trio, “Despite our cynicism, something genuine emerge[d].” But for the trio’s third album, 1974’s Desperate Straights, it was back to the avant-garde as the band merged with committed communist experimentalists Henry Cow. But the arrangement only lasted for a year and one more album, In Praise of Learning, when Moore quit and Blegvad was fired.
“The crime I was guilty of was flippancy,” Blegvad recalls. “In the early ’70s, Henry Cow were very strict Marxist-Leninists, and I couldn’t toe the party line. I don’t think I specifically mocked their ideology, but I was, and still am, a bit of a joker.” Which is ideal for Blegvad’s day job as an illustrator, publishing a weekly Sunday comic strip called Leviathan in the Independent. “I make my living as a cartoonist! It’s just very hard for me to take anything seriously, and when it gets po-faced, that’s when I find it irresistible to mock it.”
Despite his unceremonious exit from Henry Cow, Blegvad has maintained associations with its band members, especially drummer Chris Cutler, ideological leader of Henry Cow and owner of Blegvad’s longstanding record label ReR/Recommended, and bassist John Greaves. Those two play on many of Blegvad’s solo albums, including his latest, Hangman’s Hill.
After collaborating with Greaves in 1977 on the recently reissued Kew.Rhone., an early stab at mixing music and multimedia, Blegvad floated between New York City and London in the early ’80s, performing with John Zorn and other Big Apple downtowners, and becoming a member of Anton Fier’s collective, the Golden Palominos. Blegvad’s solo career didn’t begin in earnest until he approached Virgin again, which hooked him up with XTC’s Andy Partridge. Blegvad says the ensuing 1983 album, The Naked Shakespeare, was the result of “a great partnership, and of course I should have just stuck with that for the second solo record I made for them, Nights Like This ,” he reflects, “but instead I found myself stuck into a big studio production, which went on for six months [and] resulted in a record that I have absolutely no kinship with at all. I disown it!”
Virgin was trying to make Blegvad into a hit singer-songwriter, figuring his innovative pop compositions and plaintive voice and wordplay were a natural for him to become the next Leonard Cohen or Elvis Costello. “Probably, they could see that as one possible scenario. It was a gamble,” Blegvad admits. But, he adds that Virgin “financed a record that was so terribly overproduced, it certainly cured me of any illusions that that was the way to go.” The experience was “one layer of illusion after another of self-delusion, confusion. Like an onion with a million layers. It just went deeper and deeper, and then you couldn’t extricate yourself.”
The commercial failure of Nights Like This did extricate Blegvad from his contract and he spent the next three years playing with the likes of Syd Straw and putting together his 1988 album, Downtime, for ReR. The stripped-down record was patched together with the cooperation of a nearby recording studio that would phone Blegvad whenever a session was canceled. Blegvad would call up his friends and rush to the studio and record whatever he could in the “downtime,” which the studio offered at a discount.
One more minor attempt at a breakthrough album, 1990’s King Strut and Other Stories, with the British label Silvertone, was released to much acclaim but few sales, and Blegvad soon found himself back with ReR. (There is a rare promotional jingle for King Strut, on a compilation called Peter Who?, featuring Partridge singing “Peter Blegvad, rhymes with egg-bad.”) 1995’s Just Woke Up (released in the U.S. by East Side Digital) cuts all the crap, presenting Blegvad in his most comfortable setting to date, fully relying on his storytelling and clear but innovative folk-rock compositions.
Hangman’s Hill is only Blegvad’s second U.S. release (though East Side Digital eventually issued Downtime domestically), available on ReR through Cuneiform Records, and it’s a consistent collection of Blegvad’s wit, both musical and lyrical. Blegvad told The Wire a couple of years ago, “A lot of the time the lyrics of my songs are singing the unspeakable the sort of things I’d never say soberly.” Many of his songs highlight the ironies of love. But where a love song could easily become maudlin, Blegvad says, “you’ve got to give it that little twist. Because you realize that you stand back from what seems like these epic dramas, they’re really storms in a teacup, and we all die anyway, and so what’s the point?”
The Dylanesque title track begins with loping, electric folk-pop and the verse “Hardly by luck, hardly by skill/We found ourselves on Hangman’s Hill/With a jug of wine, and time to kill/A match of wits, a test of will/How am I gonna kiss you if you don’t stand still?” Blegvad gets tangled up in more comically blue lyrics (“Partly cursed and partly blessed/On Hangman’s Hill, partly undressed”) before moving to a jazzy break replete with walking bass line. It’s the sort of composer trick the ability to make a pop tune more than just a compact series of major chord progressions that Blegvad shares with fellow intellectual rockers like Costello and Partridge. Such trickery sometimes makes an otherwise simple song sound preciously overwritten, but Blegvad merely uses the tune’s bridge to cross back to the opening, ascendant chord progression. He finishes the cut with the words “You came to me all of a mist/First you punched me with your fist/So hard to resist/Said you wanted to be kissed/I said well if you insist/Because it’s all grist to the mill/But how am I gonna kiss you if you don’t stand still?”
“Scarred for Life” is also rich in irony. Over a beautiful, finger-picked guitar, Cutler’s gently shifting percussion, and Greaves’ wide-ranging bass lines, Blegvad sings, “Leave me something to remember you by/More than a lock of your hair/Leave me scarred for life/Show you really care/You can do it with kindness/Cleaner than a knife/Just by making yourself scarce, you can leave me scarred for life.”
Slapp Happy also performs the song on the just-released ccea Va, the trio’s first album in over 20 years. ccea Va is on V2, Branson’s latest label, though Blegvad jokes that the airline and wannabe cola magnate “[doesn’t] actually know Slapp Happy is on his new label at all!” With the warm but mysterious vocals of Krause hovering over Moore and Blegvad’s resplendent music and rich arrangements, Slapp Happy has evolved from its jokey beginnings into an accomplished and compelling chamber pop band.
Blegvad pokes fun at his anonymity in songs like “Crumb de la Crumb” from Downtime (“[Y]ou’ll like my album/It’s an absolute gem/Tho it’ll never go platinum”) and “The Only Song” from Hangman’s Hill (its only lyrics being “Imagine a world where this was the only song/And against your will/You had to sit and listen to it all day long/Until it made you ill” repeated over the same descending chords for nearly seven minutes). While his obscurity doesn’t bother him too terribly, it sometimes “seems the pre-eminent question that people have. ‘Oh, I listen to your music. I think you should be on the radio. How come you’re such a failure?’ Well, each of us has our own justification for what we do. Obviously, we wouldn’t continue doing it if we perceived ourselves as pitiful failures. And I don’t,” he says. “I think my music is just a glorified hobby. I can’t make a living doing it, but I certainly don’t feel like giving it up. I enjoy it a lot. And it’s a kind of social situation, working with friends, and playing to a small, cult following, most of whom I know by name.”
Introduce yourself to Peter Blegvad at 8 p.m. at Phantasmagoria, 11319 Elkin St., Wheaton, Md. Hangman’s Hill is available at the show or by contacting Cuneiform Records, P.O. Box 8427, Silver Spring, MD 20907-8427.