‘Cafe Exil – New Adventures In European Music 1972-1980’

If you care to trace the echoes of the past, and indeed the future, they’re all here.

In recent years Bob Stanley’s bespoke compilation albums for Ace Records, often co-curated by his St Etienne mucker Pete Wiggs, have become reliable delights.  A regular trick Stanley and Wiggs have played is to assemble these albums as soundtracks for sort-of real venues – supposedly to be played in the background in a Carnegie deli, say, or a Lyons Cornerhouse, or the Dog & Duck boozer. This time out, Stanley, in cohorts with HOME arts centre’s creative director Jason Wood, has done the same but for a very real and specific place and time, namely a counter-culture hang-out in West Berlin during the late 70s, back when Bowie and Iggy Pop were punters.

Across sixteen tracks, Cafe Exil – New Adventures In European Music 1972-1980 conjures up a full-on mood, but does so by assembling an intriguing melting pot rather than a carbon copy procession. There is, as in only proper, a generous helping of what we might as well call Krautrock here – Faust, Popol Vuh, Amon Düül II, Cluster – but the track selections are canny and well-judged, and elsewhere the compilation heads off to mine other, rather different areas, such as library music, prog, jazz, folk and electronica. The compare ‘n’ contrast sequencing is expertly done, too, drawing a pretty diverse assemblage of tracks together by highlighting similarities or ringing the changes at the appropriate juncture.

The prevailing vibe that emerges from this stew of songs is supremely laid-back and ruminative. All told it’s a spaced-out cavalcade of guitars, vintage keyboards, ocean-deep yet minimal bass, loping grooves and curious percussion-a-go-go – a sampler’s goldmine, in fact. Only a small smattering of tracks feel the need to include vocals. Often the vibe is unapologetic sky-strafing 70s rock, but very much the interesting end of it. Opener Waystar by Rubba is operating not a million miles away from Hergest Ridge-era Mike Oldfield and Octave Doctors sees Steve Hillage rein in the woolly-hatted excesses to deliver something relatively compact and straight-ahead.

It’s striking that the album is notionally meant for consumption in public, when a lot of these artists would more obviously considered headphone (or else just plain head) music. There’s no shortage of experimentation here – that’s half the joy of it – but you could never call it unlistenable. Far from it, in fact. The album dreams up a physical space where all of these weird musical tendrils can emerge into the light and intertwine. There’s an accessibility at play throughout, and it’s not hard to imagine Cafe Exil working well in company, even if it is the very stoned kind. There are singles and love songs here, though admittedly pretty weird ones.

If you care to trace the echoes of the past, and indeed the future, they’re all here: the way that the vaguely Eastern keyboard groove of Popol Vuh’s Hüter Der Schwelle harks back to Syd-era Pink Floyd, for instance, or that the spare poly-rhythms of Brian Eno’s No One Receiving anticipate Talking Heads and the 80s. On the other hand, the accessible funky electronica of Don’t You Know by the Jan Hammer Group isn’t exactly a forerunner of Mr Hammer’s smash hit Miami Vice theme, while the unhurried, evocative Penny Hitch by the Soft Machine couldn’t sound more mid-70s if it walked in and painted your front room beige.

Overall highlights include L’Eroe Di Plastica (‘The Plastic Hero’) by Italian percussion don Toni Esposito, which rocks up as a highly rhythmic and uncommonly upbeat gear-change. Amon Düül II’s A Morning Excuse is less obviously perverse than some of their output, but still has plenty of strangeness ticking away under the tuneful surface. Pony by Annette Peacock isn’t messing about at all, hitting a jazzy stride arrayed with electronic effects and a heavily treated, cooing vocal, coming on like I Feel Love‘s nuttier, funkier auntie.

Perhaps best of all though is the closer, Cluster’s Sowiesoso, which works just perfectly, a barely-there, feather-light cyclical, melodic groove that emerges slowly from an electronic mist and levitates, enveloping the listener. Its calming effect is just as welcome in 2020 as it was in 1976 – if not more so, in fact.

Neatly encapsulating a period of assorted musical possibilities, Cafe Exil opens up any number of wormholes worthy of further exploration. All told it’s an impressive, carefully-balanced compilation with a real sense of scope that could appeal equally to Julian Cope, Kevin Ayers, Louis ‘Great!’ Balfour off The Fast Show and – hey, just possibly – you too.

‘Cafe Exil – New Adventures In European Music 1972-1980’ is available on CD and LP from Ace Records from 11 December 2020: https://acerecords.co.uk/cafe-exil-new-adventures-in-european-music-1972-1980-1

 Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for TelevisionHe’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

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