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The return of Burnin Red Ivanhoe

Burnin Red IvanhoeWhen I saw them playing with their Danish compatriot John Tchicai at the Berlin Jazz Festival in November 1969, Burnin Red Ivanhoe impressed me as the first significant contribution made to rock by a band from continental Europe. This was before Focus, Shocking Blue and Golden Earring from Holland, before the flood of German bands that included Amon Düül II, Can, Kraftwerk, Neu! and Tangerine Dream, before Wigwam from Finland, before PFM from Italy.

Basically, Burnin Red Ivanhoe had a rock rhythm section (guitarist Ole Fick, bassist Jess Stæhr and drummer Bo Thrige Andersen) and jazz horns: Kim Menzer on trombone, flute and harmonica and Karsten Vogel on alto and soprano saxophones. There was a bit of Uncle Meat-era Zappa in there, a bit of Soft Machine, maybe a bit of Who and Floyd. I was particularly taken by the eloquent, heartfelt playing of Vogel, who had also been a member of Tchicai’s Cadentia Nova Danica. Rather fashionably, they had just released a double album, titled M 144, which showcased their various dimensions: riffy rock, free blowing, the occasional burst of Scandi-whimsy.

I wrote about them a couple of times in the Melody Maker (in the days when the sub-editors were not above inventing headlines that made play with phrases such as Great Danes and Viking Invasion). John Peel played them on his programme and gave them a deal for a new album on his Dandelion label, which he co-produced (under his favourite pseudonym, Eddie Lee Beppeaux) with Tony Reeves, Colosseum’s bass guitarist, at CBS Studios in London. They toured a few times, and recorded another album in Copenhagen, called W.W.W., but eventually they disappeared from general sight.

Over the years I kept in occasional touch with Karsten. He’d give me recordings that showed his remarkable range: with his own fusion band, Secret Oyster (Straight to the Krankenhaus, CBS, 1976); on a nice solo album called Birds of Beauty (CBS, 1976), in a duo with the great Carnatic violinist Dr L Subramaniam (Meetings, Calibrated Records, 2007); playing tunes associated with Charlie Parker on a lovely quartet album called My Old Flame (Calibrated, 2010). There’s also an extraordinary album recorded with two singers, Hanne Siboni and Skye Løfvander, in Copenhagen’s vast disused underground water cisterns: Stained Glass Music (Oyster Songs, 2004) is a fascinating study in the sensitive exploration of a cathedral-like natural echo.

But the point of this post is the arrival of a new Burnin Red Ivanhoe album. Released by Sony in Denmark in artwork echoing the cover of M 144, with stencilled lettering on a plain background, the new one is called BRI and features two original members, Vogel and Menzer, with the latter’s son, Klaus, on drums, Assi Roar on bass, Aske Jacoby on guitar and Lone Selmer on voice and keyboards.

Quite often these late-life revivals don’t work. But this band — and Vogel, the chief composer, in particular — seems to have as much to say as it did 45 years ago, perhaps more. And the musicians certainly have better resources with which to say it. The mix of idioms sounds richer and much more assured as they switch from the whispered recitative and soprano/harmonica conversation over the irresistible descending sequence of “Natlig Rejse” to the folkish bluegrass strum of “Det Er Det”, the brittle power chords of “Tiden Om Tiden”, the gorgeous jangly pop of “Alting Var Bedre”, the gliding, glistening beauty of “Cafe Blåhat”, and the insistent “Mind the Gap”, whose lyric juxtaposes lines from Baudelaire and Poe with an announcement familiar to users of the London Underground (“Stand clear of the closing doors…”).

For old times’ sake, there’s also an absolute killer remake of “M 144”, with great alto from Vogel over a driving groove. But this album isn’t about the recreation of past glories. It’s about creation in real time, by real musicians who’ve made excellent use of the intervening years. What a shame Peel isn’t around to hear how good they’ve become.

* Photograph of Lone Selmer and Karsten Vogel by Mette Kramer Kristensen.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for letting us know about this Richard – exciting news! I’ve been carrying an LP of Secret Oyster’s Sea Son album around since the mid 70s…

    August 12, 2015
  2. Kevin Cheeseman #

    This is a blast from the past. I bought their eponymous 1970 album when I was 16 – if you were writing about them in MM, that’s probably down to you (thanks), though it could have been due to hearing them played on Peel’s show. I hadn’t realised Peel was the co-producer (or I’d forgotten, it’s a long time ago now). This was an exotic beast in my record collection but I loved it and now you’ve prompted me to dig it out again, it still sounds good. Gong-Gong, The Elephant Song – how could I have forgotten a title like that?
    But ….BRI. Is this really new? It’s listed as 2013 on Spotify, DIscogs, etc (?)

    August 12, 2015
    • Yes, 2013/14. New to me, though. And to you.

      August 12, 2015
      • OK, fair point!

        August 12, 2015
      • Not trying to be clever. I only found it last week because it was gathering dust on a shelf in the Berlin festival office…

        August 12, 2015
  3. Great piece, Richard. In 1970 Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe was one of those bands that made life worth living, and proof (along, especially, with the Dutch Canterbury soundalikes Supersister) that we didn’t have to rely on Germany alone for the very best European rock. I might have seen them at the Roundhouse; I definitely bought the Dandelion album, duly upgrading to CD much later. I’d forgotten about Tony Reeves’ involvement, though. Logical, really; BRI were not a million miles from Colosseum, but with much less blues and much more edge.

    August 12, 2015
  4. Jeffery Gifford #

    All of the bands you mention above from Amon Duul, Gong and Can to the more conspicuous Pink Floyd made it to the Midwest US where I grew up in the 70s. With a radio diet there more inclined to top 40 and mainstream country, those bands were a break from outside an all too familiar bubble world. Even the FM Alt-Rock radio of the time didn’t include much (if any?) of the first 3 of these bands (and the others). It was all word of mouth. Hearing, and relating to this stuff felt like deciphering some forgotten language with a message just for us. Nice to hear someone is still making hay with this music. It meant a lot to begin with.

    August 12, 2015
  5. Mark #

    Thanks for a really enjoyable piece. Glad to hear that someone’s mindful of Peel’s legacy, a much-missed champion of diversity and open-mindedness in music.

    August 14, 2015

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