by Matt Leivers
Back in the late sixties and early seventies, Notting Hill was the centrifuge of underground London. In the rectangle between Ladbroke Grove, the Westway, and Portobello Road you’d find the offices of the magazine Friendz, the Teenburger design studio of Barney Bubbles, sci-fi author Michael Moorcock on the tables of the Mountain Grill Restaurant, Hawkwind playing in the Westway underpasses, and sort of holding it all together was John Trux, Friendz editor, gig-stager, and one half of the team (the other half being Louise Fitzgerald) that headed the loosely organised mob known as the Greasy Truckers.
The Greasy Truckers were a community-focussed group who recycled the money they raised through their various activities back into projects such as building and running a hostel in Notting Hill Gate. Their legacy these days is largely a pair of live albums recorded at benefit concerts at The Roundhouse in Chalk Hill Farm in February 1972, and at Dingwall’s Dance Hall in Camden Town in October 1973.
The first record, Greasy Truckers Party, was the origin of Hawkwind’s brief flirtation with the hit parade, featuring as it did highlights of the concert from which their single ‘Silver Machine’ was drawn, albeit much-overdubbed. What’s on the album is an excerpt of the embryonic Space Ritual, featuring monolithic versions of ‘Master of the Universe’ and a thunderous ‘Born to Go’. It would be the highlight of the LP, were it not for the whole of side one being taken up by Man turning in a career-defining twenty-two-minute version of ‘Spunk Rock’, which was so hot it’s still smoking forty-five years later. There’s also Brinsley Schwarz and Magic Michael, but the less said about them the better.
The second record, Greasy Truckers Live at Dingwalls Dance Hall, is much more of a mixed bag. The Brinsley Schwarz country-jog slot is filled by Norfolk commume dwellers Global Village Trucking Company, a band who were better in principle than on record (although not being on record was one of their principles), notable mostly for co-founder Jimmy Lascelles being first cousin once removed from HRH Queen Elizabeth II and for having one transcendent song called ‘Look Into Me’ which happily makes its only recorded appearance on the Dingwalls Dance Hall album, almost worth the price of admission on its own. The Magic Michael delirious ranting slot is filled by… well, thankfully no-one fills that slot this time, unless you’re of a mind that Gong do. Gong’s tracks (‘General Flash of the United Hallucinations’/’Part 32 Floating Anarchy’) are prime trilogy-era stuff, but both are just excerpts of concerts recorded elsewhere. Possibly you’re of a mind that Henry Cow filled the Magic Michael slot, but Henry Cow were always a beast unto themselves, seldom more so than here, improvising for their lives in a studio set recorded a week after the Dance Hall’s enforced 2:00am closure curtailed their live performance.
What makes any of this relevant in any way to Tusmørke are openers Camel. At this point in their careers, Camel had released one distinctly lacklustre album which gave no intimation at all that the band would go on to achieve considerable acclaim. The eponymous debut is a stodgy affair, but after its recording, Camel toured relentlessly and pretty quickly turned themselves into a vital and engaging act. Just before starting to record their second album (a whole order of magnitude better than their first), they played at Dingwalls Dance Hall, and what’s captured on the album is a huge steaming Hammond organ-driven delight called ‘God of Light Revisited’ (parts one, two, and three): nineteen-plus minutes of repetitive, percussive, trance-inducing riffing.
Which brings us (finally) to Tusmørke, and Sankt Sebastians Alter. This track, which takes up all of the first side of the cassette of the same name, is a twenty-five-plus minute, huge steaming Hammond organ-driven delight recorded live at Musikkflekken in Sandvika, Norway, on 21st February, 2015. This would be the 666th anniversary of the black plague’s first arrival ‘on the shores of the kingdom of the midnight sun’—the event it celebrates.
And what a celebration it is. After a rather bleak couple of minutes of noodling bells, percussion, and flute, the thing suddenly kicks in to a monumental melody that sounds like something straight off Camel’s 1975 The Snow Goose. It’s uplifting and magnificent, and then the singing starts and it’s straight into ‘In a Gadda da Vida’ territory. There’s a Moog and maybe a hurdy gurdy in there, and the whole thing is just this glorious prog mess. ‘The Black Death! The bubonic plague lays waste to the land! The Black Death! Black rots are dancing around the dead!’ It all sounds rather… fun!
Until, that is, it’s not. The music suddenly slows to a dolorous mournful crawl, and the Danes and Protestantism and Modernism are coming, and magic and folk wisdom are on the wane. It’s worth noting that the Norwegian and Latin lyrics are (mostly) translated on the accompanying insert, which is a blessed favour for English speakers, and a worthwhile exercise, because knowing what they’re on about adds quite markedly to one’s enjoyment.
The music wends on, and there are enough shifts of tone and mood to mostly hold the interest over what is quite a daunting length of time. Cleverly, themes recur, especially that maddening opening melody, and this is really quite deft, because even on the first listen, these little snippets of familiarity provide anchors in some of the music’s more abstract passages.
Repetition serves another purpose as well, because repetition is ritually important, and Sankt Sebastians Alter is nothing if not ritual. That it’s simultaneously celebration and dirge is not a failing.
Side two (La Peste Nera) is a very extreme reworking of the Sankt Sebastians Alter recording, so extreme that the source material is virtually unrecognisable. In the hands of Nicola Vinciguerra, the piece becomes an excursion into dark ambience and noise, entirely in keeping with its subject.
The physical release of Sankt Sebastians Alter is limited to 200 hand-numbered cassettes, and is well worth getting hold of while you can.