Composer, lyricist, singer, guitar
Although recognized more widely for his weekly comic strip, Leviathan, for the British newspaper the Independent, American-born musician and artist Peter Blegvad also pursued a songwriting career beginning in the 1970s, that revealed some of the most poetic wordplay to ever find its way into song. He played and composed songs for numerous bands, including Slapp Happy from 1968-74, Faust in 1973, Slapp Happy/Henry Cow from 1974-75, the Lodge from 1982-88, and the Golden Palominos from 1985-87, and enjoyed an acclaimed solo career as well. His most highly-acclaimed effort, King Strut and Other Stories, was released in 1990 and became a testament to his hard work and clear vision.
Peter Blegvad was born on August 14, 1951, in New York City, to a Danish father and American mother. He was raised in Connecticut until his parents moved the family to England in 1965. They moved as a result of what they perceived as the deteriorating social climate in the United States at the time, following the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. They also wanted to prevent their two sons, Peter and his brother Kristoffer, from being drafted to serve in the war in Vietnam. Before leaving America, Blegvad had already developed an interest in music and art and started writing his first songs at age 13, which were largely influenced by the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
In England, Blegvad attended a free-thinking, alternative boarding school, St. Christopher School, Letchworth, located in Hertfordshire. Here he met his future musical collaborator, pianist Anthony Moore. The two started playing together with another of Blegvad’s friends, Neil Murray, an aspiring drummer who later moved to bass guitar and became accomplished on that instrument. The trio went by several names, including Slapp Happy and the Dum-Dums. At first, the group mostly played blues and rock and roll tunes, but later on, Blegvad steered them toward more experimental music, such as the music of Pink Floyd and Soft Machine. Even in those days, Murray’s taste laid more with conventional rock, while Blegvad and Moore were increasingly drawn to the avant-garde. Blegvad focused on his other talents as well at the St. Christopher School, including artwork, and when Murray edited the school’s magazine in 1967, he devoted a whole section, eight pages, to surrealistic drawings by Blegvad that told a story.
Also during his school days, Blegvad discovered poetry, a passion that would later affect his own writing. He drew the greatest inspiration from Irish poet William Butler Yeats. “I often think my life was saved or perhaps my character was radically changed by adolescent confrontation with W.B. Yeats,” he told Hearsay magazine in an online interview. “Yeats’s interest in mysticism, symbolism and the toughness and economy of his later poems, when he was influenced by Ezra Pound, that was an enormous influence. The entire spectrum of his interests—but maybe less the political thing—really fascinated me.”
In 1971, during a stay in Hamburg, Germany, Blegvad started his first official band, Slapp Happy, with Moore, who had already released two experimental solo albums for the Polydor label, and Moore’s then girlfriend and future wife, singer Dagmar Krause. The trio recorded their debut album, Sort Of, in the spring of 1972, with the members of the German group Faust serving as the backing band. The album was released later that summer in Germany on Polydor. Faust joined Slapp Happy again to record a follow-up album in 1973, but after Slapp Happy signed with Virgin Records, the project was rerecorded at Virgin’s Manor studios in the United Kingdom with British sessions musicians. Robert Wyatt, an enduring British musical artist and former member of Soft Machine, along with members of the group Henry Cow, had suggested a re-make after hearing the Slapp Happy/Faust demo tape. The resulting album, Slapp Happy, appeared in May of 1973, while the original version with Faust was eventually released in 1982 as Acnalbasac
For the Record…
Born on August 14, 1951, in New York, NY; son of a Danish father and American mother; siblings: brother Kristoffer.
Formed first band, Slapp Happy, 1971; signed solo contract with Virgin Records, released debut album The Naked Shakespeare, 1983; released most acclaimed album, King Strut and Other Stories, 1990; began Leviathan cartoon series for Independent, 1992; released Just Woke Up, 1995. Member of past bands including Slapp Happy (1968-74), the Lodge (1982-88), and the Golden Palominos (1985-87).
Addresses: Record company —East Side Digital (ESD), 530 N. 3rd. St., Minneapolis, MN 55401, phone: (612) 375-0233, email: [email protected] Website —Peter Blegvad on East Side Digital (ESD), http://www.noside.com/esd/blegvad.html.
Noom. Despite the split with Faust, Blegvad managed to preserve the relationship and performed with the band for a few months in the fall of 1973 for a British tour with Henry Cow. By the end of the tour, Faust had signed with Virgin as well.
The tour also led to the merger of Slapp Happy with Henry Cow, beginning in 1974, to record the album Desperate Straights, issued by Virgin in 1975. Soon thereafter, Henry Cow fully absorbed the Slapp Happy trio into their band and released 1975’s In Praise of Learning. However, the association between Blegvad, Moore and Henry Cow proved incompatible by the time they had completed recording their second album. Consequently, Moore left the band and Blegvad, who admitted his inability to play Henry Cow’s music, was ejected shortly afterwards.
Taking a leave from music, Blegvad returned to New York where he took a job drawing background scenes for the nationally syndicated Peanuts cartoon series. A few months after he arrived in the United States, though, Blegvad met with John Greaves, also a former member of Henry Cow, to collaborate on an album. Blegvad and Greaves, joined by vocalist Lisa Herman, released the dense Kew. Rhone album on Virgin in May of 1977. Over the next few years, Blegvad retreated from music again, except for his involvement in several short-lived bands, until his return to England in 1982.
Upon his arrival, Blegvad reunited briefly with Slapp Happy, recording the single “Everybody’s Slimmin,’” released in May of 1983, and playing the trio’s first live performance at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Also in 1983, Blegvad signed a contract with Virgin to record solo work, and in October of that year, the label released his debut, The Naked Shakespeare, with Andy Partridge of the band XTC as producer. Blegvad also sought contributions from other musicians, such as Greaves and the Eurythmies’ Dave Stewart, to help write music for the record. However, while critics pointed to some fine moments on The Naked Shakespeare, the record overall received little recognition. Blegvad’s follow-up effort, 1985’s Knights Like This, however, was a greater disappointment. Virgin, who wanted to release a Blegvad album with more commercial appeal, hired producer David Lord to make the musician a pop sensation. Consequently, Blegvad’s songs, originally intended to be performed by his regular backing band (his brother Kristoffer and Chris Stamey on guitar and Carla Bley guesting on organ), wound up buried under Lord’s over arrangement. However, more stripped-down versions of songs from the album were later released under the title Just Woke Up, which critics called a masterpiece, on East Side Digital in 1995.
Following the failure of Knights Like This and news that Virgin wished to discontinue their relationship with the songwriter, Blegvad moved back to New York and hooked up with various musicians, including drummer Anton Fier and his collective band the Golden Palominos. Blegvad’s songs, including versions of “Not Weak Enough” and “When the Work Was New” from his forthcoming project, helped shape the identity of that group’s 1986 album Blast of Silence. Around the same time, Blegvad began work on a third solo album with Chris Cutler, Henry Cow’s former drummer. After three years of struggling through financial difficulties to complete the project, he released the uncompromised Downtime on Cutler’s Recommended label in 1989 (issued in the United Kingdom on the ReR label in 1988) to favorable reviews.
Meanwhile, another collaboration with Greaves and his band called the Lodge came to fruition with an album recorded in New York and released in 1988 by Island Records entitled Smell of a Friend. In addition to Greaves and Blegvad, the Lodge consisted of Kristoffer Blegvad on lead vocals, Jakko Jakszyk (who played on Blegvad’s first two solo outings) on guitar and vocals, and Fier on drums; Herman joined the ensemble to sing lead vocals and play piano for the song “Swelling Valley.” Also that year, the Lodge performed one show at the Bataclan in Paris, adding keyboardist Lyndon Collin and drummer Gavin Harrison to replace Fier. In 1989, the group played another show at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. For this performance, keyboardist Steve Franklin (of the band In Cahoots) and drummer Nic France (of the groups Nucleus and Loose Tubes) replaced Collin and Harrison.
After this, Blegvad agreed to record his next solo effort with the Silvertone label and obtained a larger recording budget. In July of 1990, he released King Strut and Other Stories in the United Kingdom to critical acclaim. Produced by Stamey, who previously played with Blegvad’s band and the Golden Palominos collective, the album consisted of short stories set to music and was regarded as the songwriter’s most accomplished solo outing. The following year, the members of Slapp Happy reunited, in a sense, when British television commissioned an hour-long opera entitled Camera, with music composed by Moore and a libretto written by Blegvad, performed by Krause. The television opera aired in 1994.
In 1992, Blegvad resumed his career as a cartoonist, accepting an offer to draw a weekly comic strip called Leviathan for the Independent on Sunday that brought him unanticipated fame. Consequently, he became more widely known for his comic series, rather than for his music. Nonetheless, Blegvad continued to pursue his songwriting. He collaborated again with Greaves for two more projects: 1992’s Dr. Huelsenbecks Mentale Heilmethode and 1995’s Unearthed, a set of Blegvad’s stories (many of which had been published in 1994 in his book Headcheese) recited over a variety of musical backdrops.
The year 1995 saw the release of Blegvad’s first proper American release of his career with Just Woke Up, recorded in 1992 and 1993 and issued on East Side Digital. Performed as a trio with Greaves and Cutler, Just Woke Up, which many critics hailed a masterpiece, featured new versions of three songs from Knights Like This, as well as the song “Something Else,” originally recorded by the Golden Palominos. Guest musicians for the release included Kristoffer Blegvad on guitar and pedal steel player B.J. Cole. The group made their live debut in July of 1996 at the MIMI Festival in Avignon, France, followed by a tour of the United States. In April of 1998, Virgin’s subsidiary label, V2, released a new Slapp Happy compilation album that earned critical acclaim entitled Ça Va.
In addition to writing music for other musicians, pursuing a solo career, and creating his weekly comic strip, Blegvad also contributed his artwork to numerous albums and singles by other artists. Some of these included Greaves’s 1992 album Accident, as well as his 1997 CD Little Bottle of Laundry, Pere Ubu’s 1993 CD Story of My Life, and many others.
The Naked Shakespeare, Virgin (U.K.), 1983.
Knights Like This, Virgin (U.K.), 1985.
Downtime, Virgin (U.K.), ReR, 1988.
King Strut and Other Stories, Silvertone (U.K.), 1990.
Just Woke Up, East Side Digital, 1995.
Peter Blegvad and John Greaves
Kew. Rhone, Virgin (U.K.), 1977; reissued, Europa, 1977.
Unearthed, Sub Rosa (Belgium), 1995.
Dr. Huelsenbecks Mentale Heilmethode, 1992.
Sort Of, Polydor (Germany), 1972.
Slapp Happy, Virgin (U.K.), 1973.
Acnalbasac Noom, Recommended (U.K.), 1982; reissued, Cuneiform, 1988.
Casablanca Moon/Desperate Straights, Virgin (U.K.), 1993.
Henry Cow/Slapp Happy
Desperate Straights, Virgin (U.K.), 1975; reissued, ReR (U.K.), 1982.
In Praise of Learning, Virgin (U.K.), 1975; reissued, Red, 1979; reissued, East Side Digital, 1991.
Smell of a Friend, Island, 1988.
MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Robins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Chicago Tribune, September 11, 1998.
New York Times, November 11, 1997; September 9, 1998.
“Discography: Peter Blegvad,”http://www.reality.sgi.com/relph/music/blegvad.peter (January 22, 2000).
Hearsay Online, http://www.hearsaymagazine.demon.co.uk/peter.htm (January 22, 2000).
“Peter Blegvad,” http://www.alpes-net.fr/~bigbang/musicians/peterblegvad.html (January 22, 2000).
“Peter Blegvad on East Side Digital,” http://www.noside.com/esd/blegvad.html (January 22, 2000).
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