Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Look at the last Laughing Clowns LP - Ghosts of an Ideal Wife

Painting by Judi Dransfield-Kuepper

When the Laughing Clowns broke up in late 1982 and began a new course of direction with Peter Milton Walsh as their bassist the following year, the so-tagged 'free jazz' element of the Clowns would be left in the past.

Like bandleader Ed Kuepper's previous band the Saints, the Laughing Clowns also moved themselves away from their previous releases to push a new sonic boundary with each vinyl release. By 1983, the band had stripped down its sound, and the mixture of horns, drums and fretless and double-bass competing against one another for the forefront with the wafer thin guitar floating through the tidal waves of soloing had disappeared.

In that year the band recorded Law of Nature and it was the first time the focus was more on the lyrics than the virtuosity of its musicians propelling it. Songs began to stop drifting past the 5 minute mark, and the sparse piano playing from the first 18 months of the band courtesy of Dan Wallace-Crabbe reappears again with adjunct member Chris Abrahams, while the delicate layering of electric and acoustic guitars (which made the basis of Kuepper's debut Electrical Storm) showing its first signs of life.

With Ghosts of an Ideal Wife, the Clowns final album posthumously released in the early months of 1985, the band had already broken up in the December of the previous year after an east-coast tour of Australia. With the bolstered brass backing comprising of Glad Reed on trombone with Louise Elliott and Diane Spence taking on various members of the saxophone family. With bassist Peter Milton Walsh amicably departing to pursue his songwriting with the Apartments and the band adding the eighteen-year old Paul Smith, the last (1980s) line-up of Laughing Clowns surprisingly dusted off a selection of tracks from Prehistoric Sounds - including Everything's Fine, Swing for the Crime, and Brisbane (Security City) - songs which hadn't graced their setlists since their first shows in and around Sydney in 1979. For the 1984 tour, Kuepper made good use of the large horn section to breathe new life into the songs in which the Saints had never played live during their signing to Harvest in the UK.

When the Prehistoric Sounds was released locally in 1979 by EMI, it was the same year the Clowns formed (close to a year after the Saints dissolved in London) and Ed Kuepper essentially went out to promote the LP with his new outfit as vocalist Chris Bailey adopted the Saints name whilst removing himself (albeit temporarily) from the band's past when they surfaced in Australia to tour in the year of the monkey (1980).

The final line-up of the Laughing Clowns before their reunion in 2009. Photo by Judi Dransfield-Kuepper

From the opening blast of Crystal Clear (the only single taken from the album which featured the non-album b-side, Just Because I Like) and its anti-funk hi-hat galloping relentlessly for 4:44, to the high tensioned drama of The Flypaper dangling on the edge of side B, Ghosts of Ideal Wife carries the heavy shadows of the past along 37 minute course of bitter pasts goodbyes. Ed Kuepper's finger slide guitar of No Words of Honour, the non-horned New Bully in the Town a sequel of sorts to the American prewar hillbilly of the folk tune Bully of the Town, recorded by the Skillet Lickers in 1926.

And in terms of continuum, Ghosts of an Ideal Wife acts in many ways as the sequel to Prehistoric Sounds itself. Not only the fact that Winter's Way (along with the Aints track Red Aces) dates back to as early as 1975 to when the aspiring photographer Jeffrey Wegener was holding court as the Saints drummer. [Winter's Way was also a part of the repertoire of the first Laughing Clowns line-up. A 1979 recording of this song with Kuepper on 12 string guitar has since been lost.]

Both Ghosts of an Ideal Wife and Prehistoric Sounds give resonance to a band breaking up and struggling against the odds to complete what's been started and duly carrying a a course of songs wrapped up in a colourful, harmonious brass section. The title-track boasts Kuepper's first recorded appearance of the humble banjo with a lengthy solo workout resembling his later acoustic duo work with drummer Mark Dawson on the 1990 album, Today Wonder.

... and then like a cord being pulled out of a wall, the song Ghosts of an Ideal Wife and the album itself stops in mid-flight as The Only One that Knows opens the windows that is side B. The album's only epic, though in the sense of minutes, seven seems quite modest compared to previous workouts presented on Laughing Clowns 3 and Mr Uddich Schmuddich Goes to Town. Nonetheless the tune's drama and its ebb and flow effect courtesy of Jeffrey Wegener's ability to go well past mere time keeping and come back again in a matter of bars.

Like Bob Dylan, Kuepper's lyrics rarely give much away. With his marriage to Judi Dransfield around the corner, Kuepper opens up with another chanson d'amour in the vein of their hit but missed, Eternally Yours with It Gets so Sentimental.

Laughing Clowns close up with the Flypaper - with the riveted ride cymbal catapulting to damaged the damaged lead break and again to a piano, before the single coils light up again and the horn section squeezes the last blow of energy and leaves us with a fading guitar note. Then it's goodbye...

Something 'bout a rise and fall when token signs you've seen/ 
Your Gods are not love/
You still the wear the names of those who've gone and gone and gone and never return/
Flypaper that's on the wall I've said enough often enough.

Logan and Albert News, December 19, 1984. Donat Tahiraj Archive.

Kuepper had considered retirement from music altogether after five years of fronting his own band and had seriously considered opening up a bookshop. That was until he decided to take a guitar along to his honeymoon and the rest (as they say) is history. Louise Elliott and Jeffrey Wegener soon joined Chris Bailey's version of the Saints for a tour. Glad Reed and Diane Spence joined Just a Drummer. Paul Smith appeared in Ed Kuepper's first solo touring band and on his second album, Rooms of the Magnificent with guest appearances by Reed and Spence.



scott said...

long time follower/downloader
first time commenter
(yeah i know)
ghosts is one of my favorite albums
but then it's ed
so you know it's good
loved the kelpies

keep up the good work

Bob said...

Thanks Scott and thanks Donat for an excellent read, cant wait for the book!

David Gerard said...

Yeah. Got this album and played it every day for a year. Or something like that.