As a 13 year old in 1973 I had a meagre income from washing neighbours’ cars and suchlike, but pocket money from Mum & Dad was in short supply. The financial necessity of having to feed the stirrings of what would become an all consuming vinyl habit by trawling through remainder bins in my local discount supermarket led to my purchasing some truly oddball classics that were far below any commercial radar. The average price of these albums as I recall was about 75p, which I could just afford. Most of those albums are now worth at least three figures. I may have mentioned before that my best mate of the time had an older cousin who used to play us all sorts of strange aural delights, so these circumstances combined led me to taking a strange parallel musical journey alongside digging the usual mainstream rock and prog music of the time beloved of my peers.
In that same year a certain Richard Branson was beginning to make a healthy living from his new record label Virgin Records on the back of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and they began a short series of bargain releases promoting the more obscure artistes of the time. One of these albums was The Faust Tapes by German band Faust, whom I naively thought then were pronounced “Forst”. I was only 13, that’s my excuse! Extensively advertised in the NME (my bible for alt music of choice, and faaaar cooler than the starched shirt collar that was Melody Maker, its main rival) as an album for the price of a single, then 49p - how could I resist?
Rushing home with this enigmatic looking record housed in a simple b&w sleeve the front cover boasting waveforms inside a square standing on one of its corners (Bridgit Riley’s The Quest)…
…and a series of quotes and reviews in newspaper column style on the back, with no track listing, only left me more curious.
Although I had heard snatches of Faust on the John Peel show - very lo-fi, one ear-piece, under the covers - nothing prepared me for the sonic assault that would emanate from the Dansette when I got it home. The album ranks even now as having some of the oddest sound sequences I’ve ever heard. From the moment the stylus hit the vinyl I was hooked. A lifelong obsession, first with what was known as “Krautrock” and latterly with all things sonically complex and/or off-kilter, was about to begin.
Not actually recorded as an album as such, The Faust Tapes is a compilation drawn from hundreds of hours of tapes laid down at the band’s Wumme studios, the same tapes also being the source of their first two albums “Faust” & “So Far” for their former label Polydor gmbH, who, for reasons best known to themselves, thought they had signed the German Beatles, and threw thousands of Deutschmarks at the band to build a studio and come up with the German Sgt Pepper. I think they may have been a wee bit surprised with what was delivered to them to release! After the first two albums flopped bigtime the band were duly kicked off Polydor gmbH and out of Wumme studios. Bolstered by the patronage of the inevitable John Peel, Virgin took a gamble on the band who arrived at the label armed with the tape reels. Needing something to whet the punters’ appetite The Faust Tapes was the result.
The album opens with what sounds like an attempt to hit all the keys of a piano at the same time, which if nothing else grabs one’s attention. This abruptly cuts into some rhythmic shouting and percussioning, and then we’re at the first song proper, the lazily atmospheric piano led Flashback Carouso* whose mad cut & paste lyrics include such phrases as ”Inside a stone of cream there is a language, Bring our minds together press them tight”, Exercise With Voices follows sounding like the formative rumblings of a bad trip, then the crazy “J’ai Mal Aux Dents” (My Teeth Hurt) which lurches along like a determined drunk stumbling along a train corridor, a hugely catchy chord pattern repeated ad infinitum with mucho sax blowing. The song slides into a psychedelic wig out over the revised repeated refrain of “Schempal Buddah, ship on a better sea”. Who cares what that means, it’s fab! Ending abruptly, we are now in what seems to be a German café listening to the German speaking clock, then, without warning we are hurtling along on a Teutonic subway, or that’s my impression anyway! Several more bizarre soundscapes roll past featuring church organs, treated pianos, sundry found sounds, tape effects – it’s as mad as a spoon, or Lewis Carroll on bad acid. There’s one part with slowed down and speeded up voices, road drills and a church organ that is the stuff of nightmares. Suddenly, a tune, but only for a mere 48 seconds, natch. There’s so much going on here it’s hard to keep up, and remember, they did all this without the aid of digital editing. We’re now up to ”Untitled – All on saxes” which is laid back cacophony, followed by an “Untitled” piece starring recorded thunderstorms and heavily treated guitar noodlings, all highly charged and atmospheric. Rudolf Sosna, who is credited with writing the few actual songs up to this point, then gets to lay some lounge jazz piano on us, and then we’re back on the cosmic underground train, coming back up for air in this strange land as multi-coloured skies drift by in a torpid fashion. I know, let’s have some proto-Clangers noises but a couple of octaves lower and slow them down to a stop…reprise the treated guitarisms, and round off this strange thing with three songs! Stretch Out Time is probably the most “normal” thing here, you could almost dance to it, after a fashion. The final two songs are both written by the only non-German in the band, Jean-Hervé Peron. Der Baum (The Tree) with a sort of More period Floyd feel has lyrics that make sense for once, not that it matters “See her lying on the grass, Must be a nice feeling for her ass” indeedy. Finally we have Cherè Chambre - a spoken word stream of consciousness poem in French, over some lovely acoustic guitar picking.
Breathless now? I certainly was on first listen, and although the album is, some almost 40 (!) years later, very familiar to me, I still hear new things in it. I’ve attempted and probably failed to do it justice with my ramblings above, but you really need to hear it to fully appreciate its stunning uniqueness. The ever enquiring Julian Cope loved it while according to legend, future “Rock Star” Jim Kerr used it as a frisbee. Says it all really!
True musicologists may say Stockhausen and music concrete is where this is coming from, but Faust have a playfulness absent from that serious scene. Best listened to on headphones in the dark for full frightening effect, and not for the unadventurous! If you take the plunge and like it go back to “Faust” & “So Far” for more of the same, but, in my opinion they are not as good as this monstrous construct.