Shuffle: Ed Kuepper

I recently read that Ed Kuepper was releasing three new compilations spanning his career and as I have never met anyone who is a fan of Ed Kuepper… scratch that, I have never met anyone who has heard of Ed Kuepper… I thought I would try to do my bit to encourage people to seek these out. Kuepper has been recording since 1976 and was a founding member of the Saints whose ‘(I’m) Stranded’ was a minor punk sensation. Kuepper split with the band as he wanted to go in a more experimental direction. This bodes well; his music shows restlessness and an urge to try something different.

His next project was the Laughing Clowns, which was a heady mix of post-punk, avant jazz with a dash of krautrock. Both their full-lengths, ‘Law of Nature‘ and ‘Ghost of an Ideal Wife‘ are worth checking out, the stand out track for me being the great ‘New Bully in Town‘ (Kuepper later covered this on one of his solo records – he is one of those artists that like to cover their own work – something I wholeheartedly support).

There followed a flurry of solo albums, most of which are in the 7+ range with some hitting higher. This period of intense creativity also birthed some Aints albums (see what he did there) which are on the heavier rock end of the spectrum; they are dense and relentless and I’d only recommended them to the more effects pedal tolerant of you – think classical trios, Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr: it’s a lovely pummelling. I only have these on vinyl so they will not feature here. The first solo record ‘Electrical Storm‘ has an itchy momentum, as though standing still is a mortal sin. All of the elements that would blossom later in his career were already in place; it just needed confidence and space. Most of this record is still dense, like an Australian Moving Targets. With songs of the quality of the brooding title track, it is worth seeking out.

From the opening bars of the title track that kicks off the second solo record ‘Rooms of the Magnificent‘, there’s a lighter touch at play; there is still a denseness but some sunlight is penetrating the thickets of guitar. The excellently entitled ‘Also Sprach the King of Eurodisco‘ incorporates a brass section and the backing vocals of Melanie Oxley; Kuepper is learning how to fly. He is also learning how to leave space; ‘Sea Air‘ approaches balladry, and is as bracing as October in Skegness and ‘Nothing You Can Do’ ditches the electric guitar for acoustic with piano from Chris Abrahams (The Necks) everything is now in place. Surely, stardom beckoned. Of course, it did not; ‘Rooms of the Magnificent‘ reached number 98 in Australia.

Everybody’s Got To‘ and ‘Today Wonder Followed‘ in 1988 and 1990, the latter which was basically a set of demo’s contained the genesis of some of Kuepper’s best work, early versions of ‘Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You‘ and ‘There’s Nothing Natural‘ showing Kuepper’s continuing maturity and that he had found a rich seam of creativity. This continued with ‘Honey Steel’s Gold‘, which stands as his masterpiece. The near ten minutes of ‘King of Vice’ kicks things off – it could last another fifteen minutes and I would be happy. Then there is ‘Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You‘, which is one of my favourite love songs, not overly sentimental, warts and all, full of emotion, it swells like the flighty butterflies of feeling. All of the songs stretch out, safe from verse/chorus/verse tyranny they relax into mood and texture, remaining taut and focussed, a lovely balance between indulgence and precision. There is so much to luxuriate that it can be difficult to plunge further into the discography.

However, if you do go further you are rewarded with ‘Black Ticket Day‘, which starts with, the trademark sound of ‘It’s Lunacy‘ the stew of guitars and the percussive piano sprinkled like lemon juice into a risotto. It follows nicely on from its predecessor with its own ten-minute epic in “‘Blind Girl Stripper‘, and its own grubby romanticism in ‘There’s Nothing Natural‘. The true heart of the record is the pairing of ‘All My Ideas Turn to Crime‘ which starts like a jazz-inflected film noir with a car alarm in the background and flourishes into a slow-burning bonfire of melancholy. Followed by the title track that strides into the territory held by fellow Aussies the Triffids and sets up camp as though he owns the place.

Serene Machine‘ followed in 1994 and the next year saw ‘Character Assassination‘ where Kuepper begins to strip back the layers of sound, allow in even more of that bright sunshine. There is more reliance on strings, there is still a horn section and the use of traditional instruments such as the didgeridoo decorate the songs that lean more towards folk. He takes on ‘Ring of Fire‘ and is unscathed. It is not his strongest album but there are a few high spots like ‘By The Way‘ with his usual melancholy fatalism. ‘La Di Doh‘ starts like a dust-covered road train barrelling down the endless highways punctuated by rest stop refreshments of the (quite unusual for Kuepper) chorus.

After this period, my interactions with his catalogue become more sporadic. ‘Smile… Pacific‘ is a return to an earlier sound with the piano again at the forefront of the sound; horns also flutter, giving moments of coalescence. A cover of ‘Fever’ is admirably low-end, a ballet performed by alligators. It is not a high point and it marks a break in his recording career. I do not have anything between 2000 and 2007 when the concept album ‘Jean Lee and the Yellow Dog‘ dropped. On it, Kuepper is a man re-energized. Old friends including Chris Baily (The Saints) Warren Ellis (Bad Seeds, Dirty Three) and John Willsteed (The Go-Betweens) back him. It is a fantastic late-career renaissance powered by the story of Jean Lea the last woman to be hanged in Australia. There is an intimacy and at the same time an expansion of his normal sound, the sweet and sour, melody and dissonance are held in balance, ‘Demolition‘ being the best example. There is a lovely stripped back version of The Go-Betweens’ ‘Finding You‘ that pays tribute to Grant McLennan; it sounds like a Kuepper original.

Second Winter‘ followed a couple of years later; it is a subdued piece of work with versions of earlier songs such as ‘Car Headlights‘ and the resigned ‘Sixteen Days‘. The magnificent ‘Sea Air‘ sets the lightness of acoustic guitars against the thundering rumble of Mark Dawson’s drums; the melody is glimpsed between the heavy drumbeats. The closing double of ‘Electrical Storm‘ and ‘Rainy Night‘ put the moody percussion to good use. It is the sound of a mature artist sure of every note, reaching that point where it is possible to leave gaps and trust the audience to go with you.

There are a couple of compilation albums worth searching out if you want to start on your Kuepper journey. ‘Butterfly Net’ collects material from between 1985 and 1992. It is a good overview of his early solo work. If you do not get on with the songs here, you will not ever be a fan. The other compilation is ‘The Complete Radio Sessions, Vol. One‘, and as is the usual case with these things you get a different take on the songs. If you have made it this far in this overview, you will be familiar with Kuepper’s easily recognizable guitar sound, and it dominates on many of the songs. There is a particularly Crazy Horse like take on “Electrical Storm” and a gently rippling ‘Horse Under Water’.

I cannot recommend every Kuepper release but he really should be better known, whether that is for The Saints, The Laughing Clowns, Aints or solo work. There is always something worthwhile on every release, the golden mid-period of creativity when at least once a year there was a release was particularly fruitful. The late-career resurrection after a seven-year barren spell was impressive. With the series of compilation releases to come perhaps, his time has arrived; my column will (hopefully) not be the only archaeological excavation of his back catalogue. Get ahead of the game and do some digging now, I know some of you will be disappointed and won’t like his work but if a couple of you discover someone you’ve overlooked or rediscover that bloke who was in the Saints, then I’ll be a happy man.

About David Cowling 142 Articles
Punk rock, Go-Betweens, REM, Replacments, Husker Du, Minutemen, Will Oldham, Smog, Whiskeytown, Ass Ponys but probably most of all Howe Gelb, led me on this journey.
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… now you know another one. I too own and love the Laughing Clowns and the first two solo LPs. All on vinyl too. But hang on, not featuring ’em coz you only have the vinyl??! What? That’s the best reason to actually cover ’em. If they’re not on vinyl, they’re not proper records… sort of.