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Class ?

Main Category: Art Rock
Also applicable: Lush Pop, Pop Rock, Prog Rock
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties



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Year Of Release: 1976
Overall rating =

Oodles of psychedelic mildly progressive fun, but it IS a Seventies' album.


Track listing: 1) Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft; 2) California Jam; 3) Anus Of Uranus; 4) Sub-Rosa Subway; 5) True Life Hero; 6) Doctor Marvello; 7) Sir Boosworth Rugglesby III; 8) Little Neutrino.

How this record could ever be suspected of coming out of the furnaces of a "Beatles reunion" is way beyond me. Then again, a little press rumour goes a long way, and I'm pretty sure that with a little more effort the Ramones' debut could just as well be passed for a Fab Four offering. Print an article that says "Could the Ramones be the Beatles? A RETURN TO THE ROOTS BY THE ORIGINAL ROCK AND ROLLERS!", don't forget to note that 'I Want To Be Your Boyfriend' has the same first three words (not to mention the same artistic purpose) as 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', the record itself has the same number of songs as Please Please Me, and the cover photo is a clear throwback to the Beatles' famous Hamburg image (which it actually IS!), and presto, cat's in the bag. Come to think of it, sure would have solved the problem of low sales for the boys.

But I digress. The true question shouldn't really be "how easy it is to dupe the public?", because the answer is obvious. The true question should be, "what, apart from the lack of individual credits, prompted somebody to offer the Beatles comparison?". Surely there must have been something in Klaatu's debut album that set it apart from everything else. And there is. It really sounds nothing like any other 1976 album I've heard; a bizarre mishmash of styles and influences that perfectly accords with its epoch and goes against the grain at the same time. It's hardly a classic for the ages, but it's a very peculiar way of having you relax, sit back, and indulge in lots and lots of musical fun.

Here's just the first few "roots" of the album that happened to wander through my brain in the last minute. Starry-eyed, idealistic sci-fi-oriented psychedelia of the late Sixties. The Beach Boys and their vocal harmonies on Pet Sounds. Diluted, lightweight Californian soft-rock of the early Seventies. Early failed technophilian experiments of prog pioneers. Brit-pop and music hall. Probably lots of other minor details which I've almost intentionally missed (I'm storing these ones for my upcoming article, Is Klaatu The Rolling Stones? Hear Keith Confess). In short, nothing particularly 'substantial', but then again, not a single McCartney solo album has ever been 'substantial', and do I give a damn? Absolutely not.

It might have been exactly that mishmash, and Klaatu's obvious reluctance to follow any one particular trend as followed by most of their contemporaries, that led to Beatles-related speculations. Not that Klaatu ever sang like the Beatles; I don't hear even a smidgeon of John/Paul/George intonations in the voice of John Woloschuk or anybody else. (For my money, Pete Ham of Badfinger, and later, Adrian Belew gave much better John/Paul impersonations... well, they actually gave impersonations, whereas I don't think Klaatu ever really wanted to sound like the Beatles whilst recording this stuff). 'Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft', the album's opening number and the band's most famous song, later even covered by the Carpenters of all people, is sometimes said to be McCartneyesque in tone, but it simply isn't. Bee Gees-like, yes. In fact, that reminds me - now if somebody told me that Klaatu were the Bee Gees, that one I could believe.

Okay, enough with popular mythology debunking. The songs! They're good. They're fun. 'Calling Occupants' is a bit long, mostly because there's too many alien noises in the beginning, but it's definitely one of the better Seventies' art-pop "epics" out there - melodic, relatively sophisticated, with sections that are alternatively pompous and light/upbeat/toe-tappable; amazingly, it manages not to come across as overblown and ridiculous, mainly courtesy of the singing, which is quiet, gentle, and never too ecstatic or anything. Unfortunately, they weren't strong enough to justify the symmetry: the album's closing epic, 'Little Neutrino', is unquestionably its weakest spot, with any traces of melodic potential butchered by the grossly overdone synthesized "majesty" and silly Vocoder-processed vocals, a shameful reminder of the Peter Frampton era.

Still, there's enough silly short goodies to compensate. The two rockers, 'Anus Of Uranus' (hideous title, but one that was bound to come some day) and 'True Life Hero', are quite typical for 70s soft rock: poppy, inoffensive riffs and sort of a desire to conjure a bit of rock'n'roll energy out of thin air, if you get my meaning. But both are memorable, somewhat funny, and essentially devoid of the worst symptoms of that epoch, neither pretending to have "social value" nor agreeing with the cock rock standards of the day. In fact, 'True Life Hero' is downright infectious; dunno about you, but I happen to totally get off on that energetic, life-affirming branch o' sound.

The Beach Boys tribute 'California Jam' is loose, directionless, and not too memorable, but then again, the same could be said of quite a few Beach Boys tunes as well. I'd like to think of it as an unassuming tribute, with the vocal harmony style captured quite well - if anything, it's just too self-consciously 'Californian', starting with the title and ending with, well, every single trick of the arrangement. (Another good reason why this could never be the Beatles - you'd never have somebody like McCartney paying such a direct homage to his former rival). On the other hand, 'Sub-Rosa Subway' is the one and only song on here that truly rips off the Beatles: its musical imitation of The Great Psychedelic Happening is directly copied from George Harrison's 'It's All Too Much', what with the long monotonous coda, the hand clapping, the glory-singing brass section, and all the little pink elephants buzzing around.

Finally, they try their hand at a little British humour with the lounge-oriented number 'Sir Boosworth Rugglesby III', where Woloschuk's vocals are artificially slowed down to imitate a drunken sailor's brawl - and again, it all depends on the attitude you might share towards such things. The melody is fun and catchy; the gimmickry is older than hell; the humour is drifting somewhere in between good and bad taste, I can never decide for certain, and in uncertain cases, I drift towards the positive.

Fact is, 3:47 Est, according to 1976 standards, is firmly rooted in the mainstream. It probably wouldn't have had anywhere near the actual success it happened to get without the silly Beatles story, but it didn't contain anything even remotely "new", and this in a year when punk and New Wave elements were already being smelled on the horizon. And at the same time, it wasn't "regressive" or "retrograde" either. For my money, Styx were regressive in 1976, trying to freeze up musical values the way they were; this Klaatu record tries to diversify and lively up these values by hearkening back to the days when experimentation and innovation, no matter whether meaningful or pointless, was the norm. And that, more than anything else, more than the actual elements of the sound, more than any direct musical references, explains all the Beatles analogies.



Year Of Release: 1977
Overall rating =

BC for Beatles Cornified, BL for Beethoven Lite, BS for... okay, just read on.

Best song: HOPE

Track listing: 1) We're Off You Know; 2) Madman; 3) Around The Universe In 80 Days; 4) Long Live Politzania; 5) The Loneliest Of Creatures; 6) Prelude; 7) So Said The Lighthouse Keeper; 8) Hope.

Silly stupid simpletons. How could any reasonable brain-powered human being ever consider the possibility of this band being the Beatles, much less believe in one? With the release of Klaatu's second album, even the hardiest adept of the "Neo-Nazi for Zionism" movement should have been able to see the bare truth - namely, that Klaatu... were the Electric Light Orchestra. Circa 1972 or so.

If you weren't around in 1972, let me remind you what the Electric Light Orchestra were doing in 1972. Not that I was around in 1972, but if I had been around in 1972, it certainly wouldn't be so that I could hang around the Electric Light Orchestra. They were writing these long, long, long compositions that didn't have much in the way of original or memorable melody, but were quite notoriously stuffed with symphonic orchestration to boot, so that whenever you heard one, you'd be like 'wow man, VIOLINS! THIS IS, LIKE, ACADEMIC STUFF, MAN!' and proceed to listen to the composition, very proud of yourself because you were being offered something that was formerly high society-like and now handed down to the average Joe.

Now, since the purpose of ELO circa 1972 was exactly that - offer the average Joe a glimpse of "high art" rather than write good music - it's natural that nobody remembers that stuff. Later on, ELO went to simpler, but far more purposeful things and started getting real good. In come Klaatu. The time is rife. It is, after all, the era of the punk revolution. No better moment than to expand on their art-pop inclinations of yesterday and release their progressive masterpiece. Who knows, maybe soon enough the critics will finally get tired of kissing dirty punk asses and yearn for The Return Of The Son Of Tarkus Twice Removed Revisited, conducted by Rick Wakeman, performed by the London Symphonic Orchestra. On ice. In the meantime, here's a taste of things to come: Hope in the face of Klaatu, the wannabe bunch of Jeff Lynnes taken for a wannabe bunch of Lennon-McCartnies.

Hope is, alternatively, very very good and quite very miserable. Not just that; sometimes it's good and miserable within the same song, with both sitting half a yard apart from one another. Naturally, the most miserable thing here is the album concept. The age of musical utopias, anti-utopias, and prayers to the Universal Good in the face of the Universal Bad had, after all, ended shortly after Tommy; you'd have to be really really dorky, like Neil Peart, for instance, to continue milking these cows in the "Me-Age". However, that kind of dorkiness has to be overlooked; starry-eyed idealism and cruel exploitation of mythological and sci-fi cliches were really the plague of the 70s which you have to be able to close your eyes upon if you really want to get into some of that stuff in the first place.

What's worse is that the music is simply not very good. Parts of this album - most notably 'Prelude' on the second side and huge chunks of 'Long Live Politzania' on the first one - are straightforward attempts to write something very conservatively "classical" by emulating everything from Beethoven to Tchaikowsky, and, well, I'm always very skeptical about that kind of stuff. Why the substitute when there's always the original? Beats me. Did John Woloschuk ever, for one teensy-weensy moment at least, nurture the thought that one day his name would be remembered alongside even the third-rate classical composers from the genre's finest era? Dude! No great classical composers ever came out of Canada. Period.

Not that I do not admire the composing skills of these gentlemen from imaginary outer space. Nosir, I don't. It takes guts and gore to master that kind of composing, that it does. And once you've mastered the technique, you may rest assured that it won't sound particularly nasty. But it just doesn't impress; certainly not in the way great classical does, nor in the way the early masters of prog did, when they were busy building upon the foundations of the cathedral rather than emulating the building down to the last gargoyle. End of story.

Chapter Two now, in which the Heroes, having bravely circumnavigated the Scylla and paid their toll in flesh and blood, find themselves in the Land of Milk, Honey, and Happy Sappy Britpop A La Creme. One thing neither Beethoven nor Tchaikowsky (nor, in fact, Chuck Berry, despite namedropping both in one line!) had in their backpack was the kind of tune that is here represented by 'We're Off You Know'. Bouncy, uplifting music hall stuff with hooks a-plenty and more empty-headed idealism (not to be confused with "empty-headed idiotism", which is close, but not quite the same) than can be found on an entire American religious channel (any given one). But I don't mind, I just got infected. Cheerful music hall material just gets me every time.

An even better pop tune is the title track, which closes the album in a manner somewhat similar to 'Eldorado' closing ELO's Eldorado. The entire song is awash in George Harrisonesque dreamy guitar, slightly annoying synths, wishy-washy Mellotrons, and a vocal melody to beat all vocal melodies, past and present. (Correction: a vocal melody that is intended to beat all vocal melodies. Whether it succeeds is up to you to decide. Oh yes, AC/DC fans are not welcome to the jury). If you want to feel inspired, enlightened, and comforted, this is clearly the song for you. If you want to know the kind of material it takes to make somebody else feel inspired, enlightened, and comforted, it is likewise. If you want to sneer, mock, and ridicule the kind of people who need a song to make themselves feel inspired, enlightened, and comforted, it is ever more so. In short, I am sure there's enough for everyone in a song like 'Hope'.

But wait! There's more. Klaatu wouldn't be Klaatu if they'd only wanted to limit themselves to sissy pop and classical pretense. There's weirdness a-plenty in Dee Long's 'Madman', which, true to its name, alternates between quiet faux-folk sections and rip-roaring "astral" hard rock, so schizophrenic in nature that at certain points it just seems they recorded a bunch of isolated guitar snippets, mixed them in random order, and clipped onto the rhythm section with their eyes closed - and it worked! (I seem to remember the Beatles trying something like that for the Sgt Pepper sessions, by the way). And, while I could easily live without the pseudo-classical parts in 'Long Live Politzania', large segments of this central epic are quite okay. Isn't it sort of funny how everybody was so busy debating whether Klaatu were the Beatles or not that they actually failed to notice that 'Politzania' is, in fact, none other than, well you know?.. 'We'll smite our foes for we are right and God is on our side'. 'Politzania, red white and green, Politzania reigning supreme'? And here I thought Canadians were usually nice to Americans.

If there's one moment on the album where classical influences really help - and, for once, are actually used as influences rather than models - it's on 'The Loneliest Of Creatures'. It's about the last survivor of Politzania's formerly flourishing empire or something. More importantly, it starts off deceptively, sort of like a folksy ballad would, then the vocals go 'sometimes I feel like I'm the loneliest...' sort of like you'd expect them to go around a Europop tune of the ABBA variety, and then whammo! in come the strings and harmonies with a vengeance, counter-attacking the lead vocalist with an 'oh no, oh no, you're not the loneliest creature...' chorus exactly the way you'd expect things to go in an oratorio, and a pretty ecstatic one at that. This is real clever - and real fun.

Final verdict: Hope suffers from overkill syndrome. I wouldn't say that it's loaded with pretense. Yes, I was afraid it would be. It has a song about a lighthouse keeper on it. I've been mortified by songs about lighthouse keepers ever since Peter Hammill dedicated one to that highly prog-related profession. But cast aside all fears. Styx are loaded with pretense; Rush are overloaded with pretense; Klaatu are not loaded with pretense. After all, some parts of this stuff are funny - you go and find me one Rush song that is (intentionally) funny. But that's not the problem with it. The problem is (a) elements of dated instrumentation (some of the synths are really grating) and (b) all that faux-classical pap, like I'm being forced to admire a XXth century papier-mache Gothic cathedral or something. Apart from that, it's all cool tools and one of the greatest albums ever in the history of mankind. Look at all the red highlights out there!



Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating =

Back to merging Brit-pop, sci-fi, and silliness. Could be worse, you know.


Track listing: 1) A Routine Day; 2) Juicy Lucy; 3) Everybody Took A Holiday; 4) Older; 5) Dear Christine; 6) Mister Manson; 7) Tokeymor Field; 8) Perpetual Motion Machine; 9) Cherie; 10) Silly Boys.

In one lengthy "retrospective" interview with John I remember reading the most ingenious explanation of why Klaatu never followed Hope with another twisted 'progressive' conceptual album - something along the lines of "if we'd released a second album like Hope, people might imagine we thought there was something wrong with the first one". Who knows, maybe had all the illustrious prog rockers of the early Seventies assumed the same line of reasoning in time, the reputation of the genre might have been ultimately salvaged...

But irony apart, I'm really quite glad that Klaatu abruptly shifted gears, because this helped them get into adequate shape and release what I hold to be their masterpiece. I would no more trust this band with writing a four-minute-plus song than I would trust Genesis to go punk-rock; the tendency has always been that the more "epic" their compositions are, the more boring and cliched they actually become. So it's true that Klaatu weren't the Beatles, but at heart they were nevertheless an idealistic Brit-pop band, nothing more and nothing less, and idealistic music-hall-inspired pop hooks were the one area in which they were truly successful. So what could be better, in this case, than an album of reasonably short songs, all brimming with nostalgic idealism and choking with poppy hooks?

Nothing, and Sir Army Suit never ever deviates from this steady course, at least until its very last track. Maybe part of the album's strength lies in that Dee Long makes a marked return as the band's second important songwriter (Hope, if you remember, was almost entirely penned by the proto-Ukrainian guy) - although at this point, Klaatu were still going anonymous on the album sleeve, even if the Beatles rumour was practically all gone. A few of the songs have been pulled out of the vaults, which is okay, because the older they are, the simpler it gets, and the simpler it gets, the better it is for Klaatu. But it's not like the new compositions look pointless and meaningless in the light of the oldies, either.

The album is remarkably well-paced, almost predictably so: "softer" and "harder" tunes alternate with each other one by one, and songs that are similar in melody and/or attitude are usually placed far apart from each other so that you get this weird feeling of extreme diversity - even if in reality there's nothing particularly "extreme". Still, there's balladry, music-hall, light upbeat pop, hard rock, and even... disco. Yep, that's right, Klaatu actually do a disco song! But it's a good one. And if you ever were around in the late Seventies, you couldn't not do a disco song and stay alive. Unless you were a punk, at least, and Klaatu were punks only in the "who these punks think they are, coming out with rubbish concept albums about Politzanias?" sense of the word. Besides, 'Juicy Lucy' is actually an old song, carefully oiled and reassembled for the disco age, and its primary hooks and charms have nothing to do with disco. And truth be told, I dig that arrangement. When the brass section kicks in at the end - wooh! None of that slick Beegeesian attitude - this is unabashed-fun pub-rock in a disco coat. I challenge you to resist it.

Nor do the boys forget their little sci-fi fetish. Sometimes they bury it deep inside the lyrics; you'd never know, for instance, that a song as "normal" as 'A Routine Day' would have anything to do with it unless you concentrated on one of the last lines, about 'my face discreetly buried in a book on Mars', because otherwise, it's just a typical[ly excellent] Britpop concoction, pianos and synthesised strings and upbeat rhythms over which Woloschuk is sadly complaining about the same old "just a cog working like a dog" shit. Only where somebody like Ray Davies would find consolation in village greens and paternal family comfort, this guy finds it in planetary escapism. You could actually take this song and stick it right in front of Hope's 'We're Off You Know' - it would have fit one hundred percent. But Sir Army Suit is not supposed to be a concept album, and the life-sucks sadness of the tune illogically segues right into the drunk decadence of 'Juicy Luicy'. Or maybe not illogically?...

Dee Long also nurtures his own escapism on the slightly bizarre 'Everybody Took A Holiday', which is set in the "future-in-the-past" mode ('it happened back in ancient times... in fact I think in 1985...') and equates the idea of escape to that of a 'holiday' - one from which people actually may not return on time. This unusual, fun twist is perfectly balanced with vocal hooks a-plenty and melodic embellishments like the mind-blowing "bumble-bee" synth effects on the chorus and the cool guitar solo. The only thing I still don't understand is how the heck could Dee be so unsure about his singing prowess that on almost every song on which he takes lead vocals (provided it's actually him, of course) the vocals have to be electronically encoded. Didn't anybody ever suggest that this might eventually get annoying? Or was this also a part of the band's general sci-fi outlook on life?

Because I honestly think that the stupid sound effects on the vocals are the only thing that mars perfectly enjoyable hard rockers like 'Older' and 'Mister Manson'. Maybe the respected gentleman thinks that running his acoustic signals through a rusty vocoder or whatever he runs it through gives it more "authenticity" within a song that complains about growing older. Maybe he presumes that if you do not croak out lines like 'I think it's time you realized, for I can see it in your eyes, you seem convinced that you will live forever' instead of singing them, that if you do not make them sound like the confession of an old, hopelessly drunk, fallen angel on the verge of developing throat cancer, they will not make any impression whatsoever. Maybe it's just an obsessive-compulsive case of not being able to let alone a piece of studio equipment once it happened to catch your eye. Whatever. Even so, I'm still liking 'Older' a lot, and the brief morality play of 'Mister Manson' even more. There's even a bunch of convincingly scary and threatening hard rock riffs in there, a relative rarity for Klaatu.

But even if Woloschuk contributes one song less than Long, he still wins in terms of pure quality, because there are few things more delightful than the innocent charm of 'Tokeymor Field'. It's all music hall, but it's actually a bunch of different signatures and several mini-melodies seamlessly flowing in and out of each other; the closest analogy I could find would probably be the Kinks' 'Autumn Almanac', although Klaatu's creation is hardly as emotionally complex as Davies'. But it's radiant and optimistic, in a clever way all its own, and a great way to be introduced to Klaatu's ability to take familiar chord sequences and string them together in previously unexplored patterns that pleasure the heart like nothing else.

Heck, I was all set to follow my Sixties fetish and award this a bloody whoppin' 13, but, of course, the band had to go and bring me back to reality with the album closer. If 'Silly Boys' does not define the "filler" concept, I refuse to even use the word anymore. Most probably, though, they were just looking for something to pad out the second side, and eventually settled on the dubious idea of playing 'Anus Of Uranus' backwards and using it as the basis for this "entity" - something in between a song, a jam, and a psychedelic sound collage. Oh I'm sure somebody likes the track, but I belong to the camp that would view a thing like this, coming after nine well-written, well-performed pop tunes, as anti-climactic. And I probably don't even need to mention that its aimless, plodding run occupies five minutes, which is forty five seconds longer than the lengthiest song out of the remaining nine. (And since we're on that topic, I might as well mention that the second longest song is 'Mister Manson' and it is 4:16 and its final forty seconds constitute a pointless repetitive coda - lop 'em off and nobody would even blink. No, Klaatu and song length definitely do not see eye to eye).

Nevertheless - in 1978, nothing generally sounded like Sir Army Suit, and this conscious going-against-the-grain is practically the main driving force behind the album, and a powerful driving force it was, well comparable to the "feast among the plague" concept of old. Even the album sleeve can be taken as an allegory: a bunch of people, most of which look like old hipsters, walking out into a mystical Klaatu-sun-lighted hillland - to take a "holiday", I presume? - and then walking back with the sun setting behind them on the back cover, relatively pleased smiles on their faces. (Rumours have it that some of these guys represented actual Klaatu associates, or even the band members themselves, but I'm not overtly concerned with that aspect). Yep, Sir Army Suit is indeed a holiday in a land that's part village green past, part sci-fi future, and doesn't everybody need a holiday every once in a while?


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