Oi Polloi

Progg-Not Prog (AKA - Kapten Zoom Versus the T-Doja Twins) Or the Cosmic Reunion of Swedish Psych and the Widnes Griffin

Published: Fri Sep 22 2017

You may have noticed that we’ve recently worked with Andy Votel on some pretty potent t-shirt / cassette combi-boxes, paying homage to the undervalued world of Swedish psych.

Here’s the story behind it all, courtesy of the man himself.

About five years ago Steve and Nige at Oi Polloi asked me to do a mix-tape and article to celebrate their 10th birthday. They needed an oblique, global, musical representation that drew parallels between all our collective-collector habits... and I needed a new jacket and some shoes... and thus was born the Plight of the Hunter mix-tape. 

Five years have passed since then, which marks another milestone birthday and significant growth and change for all us, but the tongue-in-cheek title of that mix-tape (a spoof of the Robert Mitchum classic if you didn't notice) remains very much at the forefront of my shallow dome. Does the plight ever stop? Does the dig get harder as the years go by? What happens when we dig too deep? Do you ever come out the opposite end? Was it ever a plight in the first place? Are there plenty more fish in the sea? is OCD just and anagram of cod? "Dude Where's My Motivation?" 

As rants go, it was always gonna be the case that when the dig got big the machines would take over. In 2017 the only time many boutique-archeologists get their hands dirty is when they've run out of "odourless-and-acid-free-keyboard-cleaning-fluid". While out in the wild the true luddite-detectives now knock shoulders with retired Bargain Hunt box-setters and fair-weather kitsch-merchants in a landscape where major charity shop syndicates centralise their stock and everyone's equipped with a palm-pilot price-guide polishing-up ghetto gold and gentrifying the scavenger hunt. It's hide-and seek versus blind man’s bluff with no intention of a bonus round of doctors and nurses to lighten to load! Eclectic has become Selective, Random has become Boredom. Welcome to normalisation. Is mystery now history. Who came in earlier and bought all the weird shit? Remember that record shop in A Clockwork Orange? With all the imaginary bands with fantastic names that nobody would ever get to hear. Well that's what it was like when I first started buying Swedish records. 

"Alice?! Alice!? Who the fuck is Almqvist?" Not unlike the head-chefs at Oi Polloi I also made an early-doors decision that if I was going to preserve my passion for the hunt I’d have to leave my comfort zone and over the years Steve and Nigel's outer-national penchants for Japanese denim, German footwear and Dutch pancakes has matched my own fondness for Hungarian glam-rock, Turkish disco and Czech soundtracks. But as I write this article, in late September, I think if we ever did another joint Oi Polloi / Finders Keepers Records Christmas party then a Gothenburg / Stockholm / Malmo road-trip would make a fantastic weekend. Imagine how many unpronounceable Swedish psych 45's would fit in a classic Fjällräven Kånken school bag (...approx. 176 in a straight pile). 

Sweden is one of my fave global digging spots and I fondly remember the first time I ever went record shopping there in the early naughties with Ismail Samie (who compiled the groundbreaking Who WIll Buy These Wonderful Evils series) and Chris ‘The Judge’ Arthur, and out of the hundreds of boxes we trawled I must have recognised less than one percent of the artists on these enigmatic independent labels. Bliss right? Since then I've had a damn good crack at remedying that problem and this mix-tape, made exclusively for Oi Polloi, is my homework, albeit a bit late and slightly dog-chewed... perhaps it's an early Christmas / late birthday present. 

"Doris!? Doris!? Who the...?" Up until the mid 90's "Doris" was my one and only. This mononymous Swedish psych starlet came into my life like an exotic Scandinavian foreign exchange student and our first encounter was brief (via a dodgy Swedish bootleg called Cosmic Agogo). Then after a year of pining, whining and repeating the magic words "Do you speak English?" down Swedish record dealer’s land-lines I finally sent my love-letter of uninsured bank notes to a stranger’s address and waited for the original article to arrive at my door (the dark days before Discogs, huh?). 

Her outfit (sleeve) looked handmade, tailored out of pieces of coloured paper, a simple design, exotic, avant-garde but built to stand the tests of time. The music within however was expertly crafted, intricate and intense and from that point Doris (Svennson) accompanied me on all my worldly DJ trips, eventually chaperoned by big-brothers like Bo Hansson, Charlie And Esdor, a dude named Pugh and an entire Pop Workshop as she whispered, "You'll Never Come Closer". Spurred by Bergman's cinematic depiction of Swedish liberalism I would later meet ladies like Kisa Magnusson, Alice Babs and Monica Zetterlund (all in original vinyl form) who also spoke very good English... but then, all of a sudden there was SILENCE. 

"Turid!? Turid? What the heck is Silence?" I asked the man behind the counter holding my 12" stack as Ismail and Chris worked on their own 7" versions. Silence is a long running independent record label and studio (still) based in the small Swedish town of Koppom approx. 17 miles from the border of Norway and for the most part of the last decade, has been the focus of my Swedish intrigue/obsession/stalking habits. 

Silence releases from the 1970s are the closest looking things you are ever going to get to privately pressed LPs with almost exclusively hand-drawn typography and painted cover art. The label is probably most famous for releasing Bo Hansson's Lord Of The Rings (which by today’s standard is most famous for being sampled by rappers like Black Moon, Souls Of Mischief and Peanut Butterwolf). Their second most-famous move would be releasing the music of a very influential band called Träd, Gräs Och Stenar (trans Trees, Grass And Stones) and their third most famous manoeuvre would be releasing an incredible proto-punk record about getting hammered by drinking paint stripper through a shoe (or a piece of stale bread) called T-Doja! They're also most famous amongst my own kids because one of their best bands was called The Dung(!). 

So in summary, their 'fame' was limited... in fact it's a pretty obscure affair but none-the-less an addictive one will an enormous wealth of a musical genre that Scandi musos like to call ‘progg’ (not to be confused with ‘prog’, more later). So, what's not to like? The beauty of Silence is that within Sweden they were pretty influential (not to mention a bit political) and other bands and labels either wanted to be-them or be-seen-with-them, so lots of other Swedish imprints began to look like Silence, which means, by the end of the 1970s, all Swedish record shops must have looked (oh, and sounded) incredible! 

The closest thing I can compare to a Silence LP, on a wider global scale, is the politically driven national micro-label Sain from Wales (which means Sound... which is also similar to Silence albeit inverted). My first ever and favourite artist on Silence however is a singer that I once described as, "the Swedish answer to Linda Perhacs". 

So, have we established independent Swedish psych is the most important music in the world yet? Outside the gaze of the major labels the independent sound of 60s/70s Sweden has got a lot to answer for. The attention to detail and production techniques are always impeccable, which relies on the countries hi-spec and creative studios. 

Drums are always crisp and heavy, bass always thuds and the fuzz is always... fuzzy. In between the years of 1959 and 1973, Oklahoma City born spiritual/ free jazz genius Don Cherry literally travelled to every jazz portal in the world, recording in Poland, France, Italy, Germany and beyond, before finally settling in Stockholm where he assembled much of the personnel with whom he would record albums like Eternal Now, Organic Music Society and the soundtrack to Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain featuring Christer Bothén and Bengt Berger from the Swedish groups Archimedes Badkar, Bitter Funeral Beer Band and Spjärnsvallet. 

Meanwhile other groups took on the guise of commune bands, such as International Harvester - providing Sweden with an alternative to Amon Dull 1 (before somehow morphing into the aforementioned Träd, Gräs Och Stenar), before the emergence of bands like Kebnekaise and Samla Mammas Manna gave the entire commune-rock explosion a run for its muck (a legacy upheld today by bands like Goat and the awesome Uran).

Elsewhere supergroups like Made in Sweden, Solar Plexus and Absolution united some of the best music school players. Throughout the mid to late 1970s a crack team of musicians such as Janne Schaffer, Ola Brunkert and Björn J:son Lindh took time-out from their schedules as omnipresent prog session men to form the band Absolution (around other units called Pop Workshop and Baltik) before reconvening in the studio to provide the rhythm section for an obscure pop group who decided to call themselves Abba or sumthin.

With melody indoctrinated in the Swedish young, it’s plain to see from where its pop-musical heritage stems. Following the birth of pop music, conceptual rock discs made specifically for children has held a firm fixture in Swedish recorded music, perhaps more-so than literally anywhere else on the map. Many of the kid’s records marketed to young progressive families featured a wealth of credible rock musicians to boot.

At the top of the pile remains an LP called Goda Goda, which features members of the aforementioned groups Solar Plexus and Made in Sweden providing the back beat for the LP best exemplified on the head-nod anthem ‘Mitt Sår’ (My Wound?). The album is a must have inclusion (which spawned a very rare 45, as well as a Dutch remake by the female singer Trille) and is centred around the songwriting skills of Jojje Wadenius who soon changed his name to George, threw his hands in the air and ran off to America to join Blood Sweat & Tears and Steely Dan. 

... And then there was Kapten Zoom! Ecological, illogical, smog-chomping, politically correct super hero whose theme-tune sounded like a Gong out-take (played by Gunnar Idering from bands called The Mascots and NJA-Gruppen), while his costume was painstakingly tailored out of contrasting green lycra with a cerise silk cape which would put both Rick Wakeman and George Clinton to shame (rumoured to be back in to production by Stockholm's Our Legacy label by summer 2018). Then there's the porn-rock records like Belinda by Tom Zacharias, but they don't involve clothes of any description. Tom Zacharias also went on to make kid’s records too... errrrr, hang on!   

When asked to write an article drawing the parallels between Swedish clothes and music it’s difficult to not just write “The Cardigans" (Boom....!), whose saccharine pop studio albums fended snob animus by including pretty good Black Sabbath cover versions complete with Stepford Wifey vocals that were, at the time, 1000 percent more sinister that watching Ozzy Osbourne clear up dog-eggs in an episode of The Osbourne's. But the contemporary legacy of Swedish progg doesn't end (or start) there. So, now that I’ve got that crap joke out of my system we can continue. 

Luckily I've had the privilege of spending quality time with some legends of old and new Swedish bands who quite unlike most cultural micro-genres consistently work together in supporting and creating genuinely progressive Swedish music. Last year I was proud to DJ for the dark wave duo Twice A Man who consisted of former members of both Älgarnas Trädgård and Anna Själv Tredje, two of my favourite bands on the Silence label, whose LPs are impossible to get hold of partly because no one outside of Sweden is brave enough to attempt to pronounce their names. Thanks to an introduction by Gustaf at the amazing HÖGA NORD/Omlott label, the true gentleman known as Nikke Ström (from bands Nationalteatern, Nynningen, Snibb, and Spjärnsvallet) has been the only Swedish rock star patient enough to teach me how to actually say the names of these records correctly (and has resorted to reading my mind when I ask him about rare LPs). 

In recent years I have had fond memories of DJ'ing Britcore Hip-Hop and Turkish Psych sets with different members of Dungen and recently helped members of Goat carry 6,000 logs into a tall outhouse before the winter set in. Thanks to people like Conny, Elena, Joachim (from Ideal) and Erik (at Gagnef Festival) I have managed to see, what many lard-arsed journalists might call a Swedish progg revival, first hand, and wished it was happening on my own doorstep.  

On the third weekend of September (this year and every year I hope) myself and Jane Weaver will return to Liverpool International Festival Of Psychedelia (A.K.A. Liverpool Pzyk Fest) and I’ll be playing what I consider to be the "heaviest psych vinyl records of all time" headed-up by a central track called ‘Wolf's Mouth Song’ by Scorpion (A.K.A. Fuck The Cops by Charlie And Esdor), meanwhile Träd, Gräs Och Stenar (A.K.A. Trees, Grass And Stones) will be reforming for a gig that promises to be amazing (A.K.A. Interesting). Providing I get this article into Sam at Oi Polloi quick enough I’ll be the one at the festival wearing the Our Legacy jacket, a Hoga Nord jumper and white Finn Comfort shoes (I know they're German). 

I think I mentioned it already, but, hopefully you've already noticed that this erratic love letter to Swedish pop is accompanied by a free DJ mix which contains a broad selection of the more obscure music discussed herein but in reality, practically couldn't scratch the surface of Swedish progg's wealth of amazing music. The key difference in progressive music from Sweden is that it actually did what it said on the tin — it progressed, and for that matter it continued and continues to do so — which is why the "prog" genre tag is thoroughly redundant here. It's progg, not prog — music genuinely born out of ‘progressivism’, a movement in society which would, by design, affect all forms of art, culture, politics and general positivity, which we seem to be distinctly lacking at the moment regardless of our co-ordinates. 

In 1968 the Swedish band International Harvester (later to become Träd, Gräs Och Stenar) would record an LP for a Finnish label (with a penis for a logo) featuring a track bizarrely entitled ‘The Runcorn Report on Western Progress’. And the article slowly grinds to an end. Just in time to celebrate the completion of the six-lane toll bridge to the east of the Silver Jubilee Bridge, benefiting a "17 minute train ride from the heart of Liverpool city centre and direct links to Manchester every hour" Perhaps Swedish psych has finally returned to its second spiritual home to reinstate the true meaning of progg. Did I mention the Widnes Griffin?

The Oi Polloi Andy Votel Swedish Progg box-set is available right now. Get it here.

Or if you haven't got a tape player, listen to the mix here...

And finally, Andy will be playing at the Liverpool International Festival Of Psychedelia on the 22nd of September. It should be good.