Saturday, June 27, 2020

Reprint by Claire Thomas & Susan Vezey 40th Anniversary

Continuing the series of blog entries about the 40thanniversary of 1980 the ‘golden year’ for all things Snatch Tapes and Storm Bugs brings us to the Reprint cassette by Claire Thomas & Susan Vezey. The tale of Thomas & Vezey has been told a number of times and is a good yarn, indeed such a good yarn that it often threatens to eclipse the music on the tape so in this retelling I shall try to balance the two.  

Claire Thomas & Susan Vezey fist appeared on Snatch 1 in 1979, and were one of many pseudonyms/band names under which I released music at the time. Along with Claire and Susan there was Vote Police, Vivien Devoy, and Ice yacht. Quite where the idea came from for a female alter ego or egos I can't recall - possibly it was a nod to Duchamp’s Rrose SÈlavy? The names were plucked from a page in a newspaper with the two surnames being swapped over.

The Thomas and Vezey track on Snatch 1 was entitled “Under Press of Sail” and was the first of a number of occasions when sailing terminology has been used for my track titles - despite having always being resolutely land bound. The piece was recorded using two VCS3s. One being triggered by a 32-step sequencer to provide the main propulsive rhythm and the other self-triggering something akin to a backward string sound. A few have commented that “Under Press of Sail” is like an early precedent for techno music. I don’t really know enough about Techno to comment in an informed fashion, but it does share the idea of a music based primarily not around chord progression or melody, but rhythmical patters that change tonally with parts dropping in and out. The track was recorded, as was most of Reprint in one take direct to tape.  

“Under Press of Sail” might have been the first and last we heard of Vezey and Thomas but in 1980 I recorded two long VCS3 tracks again using the sequencer, however this time with the output fed into a tape delay system using two Revox tape recorders. On machine one the signal is recorded before the tape then passes across the room to a second machine where it plays back. The distance between the machines determines the length of the delay. If the signal is fed back to the first machine long echoes of 2-5 seconds are created.  

The tape delay system entered into the fringes of the mainstream rock music consciousness with the two Fripp & Eno LPs No Pussyfooting (1973) and Evening Star (1975) along with Eno's Discrete Music (1975).  Tape delay systems had however been around for well over a decade originally pioneered by Terry Riley (amongst others) who christened the apparatus as a “time-lag accumulator”. Unlike contemporary digital loop pedals in which it is relatively easy to set up snappy rhythmical loops (as used by any number of contemporary pop acts), the tape delay system is by its nature far less precise and lends itself to the building up of long languid evolving passages - adding single note or phrases that gradually fade away. This fading is aided not just by the signal becoming quieter on each repeat but that it in a sense decays having been recorded and played back several times. The tape and the circuitry apply a kind of filtration. Characteristically on a two Revox set-up the bottom or bass end frequencies gradually roll off so the audio becomes progressively thinner as it becomes quieter. Use domestic reel-to-reels and the sound turns quite quickly into white noise.         

My intention on Reprint was to use much faster sequencer patterns than Fripp and Eno so as to build up a chattering and more percussive interplay. To highlight the colouring of the sound that takes place on each repeat a graphic equaliser was placed on the return signal between the second machine and the first so as to emphasise different frequency bands. The result is more akin to polyrhythmic electronic tap dancing than the soothing sounds often associated with tape delay.

The music was almost more of an academic study than the usual Storm Bugs sound and so the fictitious female knob twiddles were once more called into action as authors. Somewhat parodying the materialist approaches being used during the 70's in a number of art forms the short description on the sleeve of the cassette refers to the tracks as "a study in repetition and change using two different sources and two different treatments".

Credence to the existence of Claire and Susan was given by the fourth track on the tape “Bright Waves”. Over the summer of 1980 a friend of a friend Nancy Slessinger came to stay at the Snatch Tapes basement HQ in Paddington. Nancy’s musical tastes were more mainstream but one evening she talked about being in a choir and her love of Thomas Tallis, and I suggested we record a few phrases of her singing onto my old valve Revox. The next week I took the tape into the studio and put it through the tape delay set-up resulting in the layered drifting vocals one hears on “Bright Waves”. In contrast to the two “Reprint” tracks this was far more in keeping with how tape delay systems were traditionally used. The title was meant as part-celebration part-pastiche of the more ambient tape delay. One can see hear an early manifestation of the Sanderson desire to be both post-modernist and anti-illusory.

With all four tracks completed the tape was released in the late summer of 1980. The sleeve design made in collaboration with Steven Ball shows an ink drawing by him that has a floating wistful feel.  To accompany the release a press release was conjured which cast the pair as a Pre-Raethelite synthesizer duo with robes flowing as they strode across Blackheath. It was intended that the whole thing be a fairly transparent spoof. A small display board made by David Jackman with three Snatch Tapes cases was mounted on the wall in the Rough Trade shop in Notting Hill where it came to the attention of a young A & R man from Cherry Red. 

I received a letter from Cherry Red and it was suggested that 'Bright Waves' be included on a proposed  forthcoming compilation LP - Perspectives and Distortion with an LP by Claire and Susan to follow. I really should have come clean at this point but kept up the pretence. The A & R man became keen to meet Claire and Susan and I had to come up with ever taller tales of them being on a theatre tour in America and so on. Eventually it became clear that Claire and Susan would need to show themselves and as Nancy was still living in the flat it was suggested to her that she meet with the A & R man - after all she was singing on one of the tracks so there was some small slither of truth. I don’t remember if Nancy was Claire or Susan but one thing followed another and she found herself being invited by Cherry Red to tea with Quentin Crisp and meals out in Notting Hill. Interestingly I was excluded from these trips and it became clear that the A & R man intended to lure Thomas and Vezey away from Snatch Tapes. However one evening and after a glass of wine or two Nancy understandably couldn’t keep the pretence up any longer and broke the truth.  The next day I had a rather fractious phone call with Cherry Red, the LP was not surprisingly off though the inclusion of Bright Waves on Perspectives and Distortion was so far advanced that it went ahead and indeed “Bright Waves” opens the LP.  Technically it should be “Bright Waves 2” as those with keen ears will note it is a different mix to that on the original Reprint cassette.  

A small number of copies of Reprint included a fifth track; a ring modulator cassette tape loop piece by Philip Sanderson and Steven Ball entitled "Nein Nein Nein". This was included on the CD re-issue of the Reprint cassette by Anomalous in 2003 (NOM23). “Bright Waves” is the opening track on the On One Of These Bends LP released by Séance Centre in 2018. "Under Press of Sail" was included on Snatch 3 (1981) and the Vinyl on Demand Snatch tape compilation LP Snatch Paste (2006).  

As mentioned at the outset the Claire Thomas and Susan Vezey story threatens to overshadow the music on the tape and I still get the odd message outlining somebody’s disappointment on discovering after 40 years that they don’t exist. “Bright Waves” intended as part parody is of course the most popular track from the tape. You can hear the original Reprint tape in digital format here. 

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