Living on the Hill – A Danish Underground Trip 1967-1974
And what of Denmark in the 1960s? Before the arrival of this new three-disc set, my thoughts on the matter were somewhat flimsy it must be said – clean; organised; polite; earthy colours; chalets; fishermen; the odd tour-guide. Y’know, ill-informed guesses, the usual. What has never really sprung to mind is its underground music scene, which, at a push, I would have pitched centred around folky pop, earnest side-burned blues rock and Val Doonican-type affairs. In this respect I might be a little nearer, as the opening songs on Living on the Hill do indeed lean towards studious blues ramblings, not so much psychedelic as forgetting when to stop. Thankfully, I am a patient man and the thirsty ears of the world can rejoice in some of the wonders of this set, an unexpected delight of musical and cultural importance.
Disc one does a tremendous job of making you think you’ve made a terrible mistake in buying this collection, a terrific trick which I assume they did on purpose and not because they genuinely think the early tracks are very good. What they are are excellent pointers as to where the psychedelic music in Denmark emerged from: the smoky beat clubs and blues cafes and the Euro-travelling students who had stopped off either at acid parties in San Francisco, Munich and London and had lucked upon some record parlour stuffed to the gills with fine trippy platters. Either way, it’s true to say that rather free-form blues and instrumental work-outs which had audiences nodding politely were the forerunners to other bands who pushed the envelope rather more spectacularly, some artists taking Pop to new neon marigold-filled pastures, others to honking Prog vistas and then onto those who had simply taken a shit-load of superb drugs and were playing whatever they thought was in front of them until they collapsed.
The journey is laid out very conveniently for you, in fact even on one disc, artist show flip sides of the same coin – a gentle introduction via the feet-dragging R&B of Young Flowers’ “Overture/Take Warning”, which at four and a half minutes feels like a good hour, leading into a second track by the band, “Kragerne Vender”, which has the effect of a fairground waltzer, such is the combination of almost ceremonial chanting and flutey battery; Burning Red Ivanhoe’s eleven-minute fucked-up jazz séance, “Ksilioy”, which definitely startles is only a primer before they assail you with “Jingle Jangle Man”, a dirty Prog miscreant which is unapologetically steeped in mushroom juice.
Disc two is even more blatant in its mixing of Prog with Psych, which is fine, the choices are flighty enough that it doesn’t come across as jarring nor misrepresentation. If you are of a delicate disposition, track one will finish you off – at 19-odd ODD minutes Ache’s “De Homine Urbano” is very much what the band threatened when they released it – a rock ballet. It’s well-played, daft, repulsive, entertaining and confusing, rather like somebody playing ‘My First Hammond Songbook” on merciless repeat with someone next door playing the guitar in the bath. The absolute wags who put together the compilation even have the temerity to finish the disc off with another Ache track, though rest assured this is only a fraction of the length and only features gypsies, hymnal chorusing and one trumpet fanfare.
There is, it has to be said, an awful lot of flute on show. Rainbow Band’s “Rainbow Song” especially guilty, indulging in some ear-piercing trilling and faffing about. The Old Man and the Sea’s “The Living Dead” has elements of The Who but is more tangled up in foaming organ solos than it is in pulling off copycat posturing. If there’s a recurring feature across the three discs it’s that you never feel you’re very far away from a full-on Focus “Hocus Pocus” mugging All well and good, just so long as you’re prepared. My first listen-through of Living on the Hill was during car journeys when I couldn’t see who was playing. More interestingly, I was also unaware of when one song finished and another started, which is both tribute to how well-curated this set is, how fluid the music is and how bad at driving and listening I am.
Disc three sees the return of our now good friends – Ache; The Old Man and the Sea and Burning Red Ivanhoe (as well as several others, let’s not turn this into space-filling lists). You might think this is quite piss-taking – not so much a sprawling look at the Danish underground music scene as much as a raid on select bands’ discographies but I assure you this is not the case. Indeed, this kind of thinking may have steered you away from listening to the final disc which would be a crime against all sorts of things. There is some beautiful things going on here; silly, uncalled-for, brilliant things. Burning Red Ivanhoe’s “Avez-vous Kaskelainen” is an outrageous jam gone mad which almost breaks the barrier between audience and artist at the end of the track as it self-consciously ends with abrupt embarrassment.
Day of Phoenix’s “Paradox” takes a Krautrock route, a surprisingly rare instance of this occurring on this collection, driven by a pounding rhythm which becomes almost ecstatic. Midnight Sun‘s “A La Turca” is gently reverential to the altar of Zappa but it’s Blast Furnace’s “Ginger Cake” which takes the grand prize of psychedelic genius, possibly worth the price of admission alone. It’s agonisingly close to Spinal Tap in places, both in the musical delivery which is all “Stonehenge” and “Heavy Duty” and the lyrics which are straight-faced deliveries of such treats as, “I’ve saved a piece ’til Sunday/A long long time to wait/wrapped it up in silver paper/see the trouble I take”. Glorious, simply glorious.
Living on the Hill is a welcome addition to the never-ending world of psychedelia compilations, giving you enough to pique your interest without leaving you feeling all you need is this one box-set and you need never look further.