New Musical Express, May 11, 1985

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Rovers return

Mat Snow

The strangest LP of the year? Father's Lying Dead On The Ironing Board by Agnes Bernelle brings a lost generation of Berlin cabaret artists back to life for British ears today. Producer Philip Chevron says so; IMP record boss Elvis Costello says so. Mat Snow sings the ballad of Johnny, Vicky and Rudi.

"Hello. Mat? It's Albert."

Albert who?

"No, no. Not Albert, Elvis..."

Whoops. My first conversation with the bespectacled boss of IMP records had not got off to a flying start.

My second conversation with the colourful vinyl supremo found him tired and tetchy, squeezing in an hour's lunchtime interview in Soho's busiest cafe before rushing off with Pogues bassist Cott O'Riordan to the studio where the boys (and girl) from County Hell are recording their second album, with Elvis at the controls.

"You know my new slogan for IMP?" he enquired between forkfuls, eyes narrowing pointedly behind Dr Strangelove dark-glasses. "'Music is the opium of the pencil: IMP isn't'."

Huh? Pencil?

"Well, read your own newspaper. Or any of them, and tell me that music isn't the opium of the pencil." Er, something to do with lazy writers.

"It makes for boring writing because the music itself isn't very inspiring. God! It's a really good slogan if you have to explain it that much!" Elvis laughed mirthlessly.

Well, I wasn't going to let myself be intimidated by a man in a straw hat...

Point taken, however. Times are tiresome, just as they were a decade or so ago, when the second and third characters in our tale, Agnes Bernelle and Philip Chevron, first met in Dublin.

"There wasn't much happening at the time," recalls Philip. "I'd bought the new David Bowie album and it was incredible wank. Even the new Horslips album turned out to be a turkey. In '74, '75, there wasn't anything happening, so of course anybody with half a brain was going to look for pastures new where there might be excitement to be had."

Agnes takes up the story...

"Dublin Radio did a week of me doing quarter of an hour every day singing songs and telling anecdotes, and Philip heard this. Philip had always wanted to go into music but had never come across these kind of songs before. He decided I was the person he had to meet. So he mitched from school and borrowed his father's clothes without him knowing and bought himself a pair of sunglasses.."

Continues Philip...

"I came up to her in the middle of a very fraught rehearsal of the play she was directing and said my name is Johnny Duke, and I'm a pop journalist and a record producer and a pop star, and please can I interview you? She was surrounded by aghast actors — who is this geezer? I must have been 15, 16 at the time, spotty, absolutely ridiculous.

"I'd seen her before the radio show, in the RTE production of Brecht On Brecht in which she played the Lotte Lenya part. I'd started getting into Brecht and Weill, and couldn't believe that RTE of all people were doing Brecht. Agnes stood out a mile from the cast, she was splendid . Because of their limited budget RTE shot it all with one camera; it was very Brectian, ha ha! And I was converted.

Bertold Brecht's achievements as a playwright, drama theorist and novelist are too considerable to list here. But as a lyricist — partnering musicians Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler — Brecht seems now to typify the sardonic humour and lowlife romance of Germany's Weimar Republic in such numbers as Mack The Knife', 'The Alabama Whiskey Song', 'The Bilbao Song' and 'Surabaya Jdhnny'.

Many of these are available sung by Agnes Bernelle on a 1976 Irish-release LP titled 'Bernelle On Brecht And.....' compiled by the 19-year-old Philip Chevron.

Subsequently Philip formed Dublin's premier punk band The Radiators (From Space), releasing two excellent LPs, TV Tube Heart ('77) and Ghostown ('79). And as a soloist Philip recorded a mini-LP of Brecht-Weill songs in 1981, Songs From Bill's Dancehall, followed two years later by his version of Irish playwright Brendan Behan's The Captains And The Kings. That tremendous single was produced by Elvis Costello, and furthermore released on Elvis' IMP label, created some months before to release "Pills And Soap" to time with the June '83 General Election when Elvis was temporarily without a major label record deal.

Meanwhile Philip had not lost contact with Agnes, despite his moving to London. Philip had brought to Elvis' attention The Men They Couldn't Hang: their Chevron-produced "Green Fields Of France" became IMP's second single proper last year, to wide acclaim. Thus encouraged, Philip played Elvis a demo tape of songs written by a variety of obscurish, long-dead Germans and sung by a Dublin-based Berliner in her 60s. Was he out of his mind?

Now, lavishly produced by Philip, Agnes Bernelle's Father's Lying Dead On The Ironing Board is to be the first LP made for IMP records. And with their track record of every release some sort of classic, that fact alone demands you listen.

But first, some history.

Agnes Bernelle is the daughter of the Berlin theatre owner and entrepreneur Rudolph Bernauer. Her childhood was spent in the atmosphere of stage and success, and all was going well until the rise to power of the Nazis...

"My father left first, and he came to London. Of course, he wasn't allowed to take any money out so he brought out a gold cigarette case which he pawned and lived off for a year until he got into the film business. "He would never have left actually if I hadn't have decided to go onstage, which was lucky. He had also written a lot of plays and musicals, for instance the libretto of The Chocolate Soldier which was then very popular. He got the royalties although they took his name off, so there was no financial hardship. So I suppose he would never have left — or too late. He was Jewish, although my mother wasn't.

"I went to him and said, Look, I'm going to be an actress but, being half-Jewish, they won't allow me to work in Germany. So he decided to come to England and I came over a year later.

"When I was about 15 I joined a group here in London called Cabaret In Exile. They had many of the famous cabaret people who were by then exiles or refugees — Jewish or Communists or something. They were given the Little Theatre in Hampstead by the Bishop of Chichester where they put on cabarets. And of course they had no juveniles.. They found me and I was the juvenile.

Every night I listened to all these lovely cabaret performers doing all these lovely cabaret songs. I learnt it there, here in London as a teenager."

Agnes' wartime story is told in Philip's excellent sleevenotes to her new LP "Agnes also joined the American OSS and, as 'Vicky', became a jazz singer and announcer on the 'black radio' station Radio Atlantik. 'Vicky' was popular with the German Forces, and her counter-propaganda between songs made a significant contribution to the war effort.

"She was, for example, directly responsible for the surrender of a U-boat commander (she played a request for him, congratulating him on the birth of his son — the unfortunate man hadn't been home for two years and in his confusion he gave himself up), And on one occasion Agnes caused havoc in the German postal system by announcing that the Fuehrer had requested all good citizens to send urine samples to the Ministry of Health in Berlin."

After the war Agnes found her cabaret repertoire was not in demand, but she remained in England and secured a successful acting career. (In the title role of Oscar Wilde's Salome, Agnes broke the Lord Chamberlain's censorship rule by becoming the first non-stationary nude on the West End stage.)

Meanwhile, though her Berlin cabaret repertoire was lying dormant, Agnes was modifying its inspiration to her new situation.

"In the war, whenever I read in the paper that Berlin had been bombed, I said Good! I was delighted. I never mentioned the fact that I was German, I never admitted it to anybody.

"And then, soon after the war, I went over to Berlin for a day or two with a girlfriend who had a play. She insisted that I came back; I didn't want to. When I got to Berlin it was very badly destroyed. And it did something terrible to me — I cried for three hours nonstop.

"It was then that I realised my roots were there, and you cannot live and cut yourself off from your roots. And you certainly can't work. Your work is meaningless, like a tree cut off from the earth.

"So when I came back from that very illuminating trip, I started to work again. I had the background but l am now English. And I can translate this into the language and culture l am now working in.

"It's recognising that basically in every culture there are the same social and human problems, and you can translate them if you know both well enough. An adaptation."

The absurdity, surrealism and cocksnooking of German cabaret was eventually to find its counterpart in Britain. With the advent of the Satire Boom in 1960-1, Agnes Bernelle started a one-woman show of Brecht-Weill songs titled Savagery And Delight at Beyond The Fringe star Peter Cook's Establishment club. Though she landed her original Sunday evening slot through a combination of recklessness and experiment, Agnes developed the show, constantly introducing new material, and was rewarded by widening popularity.

Crucially for us, though, it was in this period that Agnes Bernelle met a fellow ex-Berliner also living in London. Michael Dress was a classically trained composer who for some time had been setting to music the poems of Joachim Ringelnatz, born Hans Boetticher in 1883...

"Joachim Ringelnatz was a sailor, a cigarette vendor.., he had hundreds and hundreds of jobs. He was a fantastic little man with a huge nose. He wasn't Jewish but he killed himself in 1935.

"He had a character called Kuttel-Daddeldu who l am sure was a forerunner of Popeye the Sailor Man. You see, Ringelnatz never wrote any songs, he wrote poems and occasionally he would sing these poems accompanying himself on a lute and guitar. The music was never written down, they were never considered as songs. They were considered as poems and published as such.

"He cocks his nose and snipes at things but he is not straight forwardly attacking or making tremendous social statements. He makes people and things totally absurd — a sort of Germanic Edward Lear."

Of the 11 songs on Father's Lying Dead On The Ironing Board, eight are from poems by Ringelnatz. "Tootsies," the A-side of the 45-from-the-33, is by Klabund (born Alfred Henschke, 1890-1928), poet, novelist, playwright and friend of Brecht.

"The Ballad Of The Poor Child" was written a century ago by Frank Wedekind (1864—1918), hugely influential on Brecht and best known as playwright of Lulu, Spring Awakening, Franziska and Der Marquis Von Keith. The third non-Ringelnatz song is "The Hurdy Gurdy" by French poet Jacques Prévert, renowned for the song "Autumn Leaves" and as film director Marcel Came's script-collaborator on such as Les Enfants Du Paradis, LeJourSe Leve and Drôle De Drame.

Strikingly, all three exceptions seem to fit the Ringelnatz rule. In his review of "Tootsies"/"Chansonette" Barney Hoskyns referred to '20s German artist of bourgeois grotesquerie George Grosz. He might also have mentioned the Brothers Grimm, or Hogarth or Mervyn Peake or...

Almost every song here depicts absurdly exaggerated humanity writhing in vice and stupidity towards a laconic, often morbid moral. Undercutting the macabre caricatures, a childish sweetness of story-telling intensifies our sickly discomfort yet fascination.

Michael Dress, who died in 1975, drew his musical settings from contemporary folk and theatrical sources, stressing the stately balladeering tones which evoke a fairy tale simplicity, whilst accenting them with discordant atmospheres to make sure you are not sitting comfortably.

Dress' settings have been remarkably arranged for up to 14 acoustic instruments by classical composer, sometime Chuck Berry pianist and Bernelle/Chevron collaborator Charles Barber. He has created combinations the like of which I have never heard. For instance, my favourite song, "Night Elegy," overlays the early 20th Century Viennese melancholia of Alban Berg with a splintery cornet jazz-wail redolent of late-'60s Miles Davis.

But at the centre, Agnes Bernelle. Running the gamut from cracked to girlish, her voice is utterly magnetic. Yet it never revels in the squalor and horror it describes. Ultimately she radiates a quirky but humane warmth.

"I think I was born satirising things. Even as a child I liked absurdities, they please me. I don't know if this is anything to do with one's weltanschauung, ha ha! It may be a basic rejection of certain things; in order to live with them you make them funny. We all tend to do that if we're lucky."

And Agnes makes an unsettling connection between the Britain of today and the zeitgeistof the '20s and '30s that produced not only her songs but also the German soul-sickness that drove them underground..

"I had great difficulties when I was young pretending I didn't know them (Germans), I didn't want to know them, and then having to face the fact that I had to acknowledge them. From that on I have lived quite happily in England. I'm glad they've changed and I think they have.

"I used to get quite nervous if I met Germans, because I used to think to myself, Where were you? What were you doing? Now, of course, when you meet them, none of them had been born, just like poor Princess what's-her-name; I can't hold any of that against her. But there is something strange in their makeup.

"But would you ever have thought people would march here and have portraits of Hitler in their bedrooms? It was never like that when I was young and came to England..

I'm thinking of going around with a sandwich-board like that guy, 'Less Protein, Less Lust'.

Says Cott: You could be the Rudy Vallee of the blank cheque generation."

Says I: Who?

Sings Elvis: "Buddy, can you spare me a di-i-i-ime???'

No, Elvis Costello doesn't have much in common with, say, Richard Branson. For one thing, I bet you wouldn't find the bearded teenage tycoon enjoying a magnificent £3 lunch at IPC's expense to promote the hot new waxing by Simple Minds. Nor would you catch the youthful publican, publisher and airline-prop being so undiplomatic as to describe RCA records as "a bunch of fucking bastards'.

Flash back to "Peace In Our Time," Elvis' single released last year on the Imposter label, appropriately enough a front for RCA...

"It was too complicated with the length of time. I just wanted it out, the same sort of thing as "Pills And Soap," I just wanted it out quickly.

"It came out on Imposter so it didn't have the RCA logo on it. I didn't want it to be promoted as an Elvis Costello And The Attractions record because they just tell lies about the records.

"It's just a protest song; I thought it had been a long time since anybody had written a naked, painfully sincere song. People are always trying to be arch. It's not my fault if people think I'm being clever sometimes. I don't think l am, over that. Sometimes I'm guilty of it, but I think sometimes people can't be bothered to use their intelligence. I refuse to be penalised because I use mine.

"So I didn't think the record was really commercial, it was a personal thing to release it, and it would stand or fall on whether people felt any sympathy with it. didn't want them hyping it or doing peace-sign picture-discs like the kind of crap they're doing now with "Green Shirt." It just devalues the song. The song is sincere, whether people like it or not.

"It was put out that way deliberately and that's the basis behind IMP: the motivation behind putting out a record is more important than whether it sells."

So there is an ideology to IMP?

"No, not really, no. There is a sense of rightness, a personal feeling, you know. There's no ideological blanket thrown over everything, that's why I can afford to sign my press releases to the BBC or something El Presidente or the Pope of Pop, simply because it's sarcastic. It's just the opposite of the dictatorial attitude of the majors and even some of the well-intentioned but I think misguided, over-zealous types who have their own record labels, not mentioning any names

The capuccinos arrive but Elvis brushes aside a name I happen to mention, Paul Weller...

"He's sincere about it and I don't think he deserves people like me sniping at him when there are people who are much less sincere doing it on a scale of grand larceny. He might make mistakes, but how else would you learn?"

No, Elvis is right. IMP is no ordinary record label, nor is it a rock star's pet project. And the practical difference is money. Though Philip Chevron is the "unofficial, unspoken" A&R man, IMP has no staff or premises. With no regular overheads, IMP has no need to release any records at all. And when it does, it's Demon records that handles the practicalities.

As Elvis says of IMP: "It's just there. It's like a photo-copier or inflatable doll: you just get it out when you need it.

"I had a vague idea it might be there to use again as an identity for things I might want to do aside from with the band. I had no idea what else might happen on it. One is surprised and blushes at some of the things that I refused to put out on IMP...

Or got away. The Pogues, for instance, went to Stiff before Elvis could approach what he sees now as an ideal IMP signing.

"It's timing that's important. With Philip, that made it a label, once it had two releases. Some of the tapes I received were by good bands, but it seemed more in keeping to be a one-off thing because I don't have the machinery to sustain a career, the money to pay advances, wages, bills for this and that.

"A band like Personal Column, they sent me a really good tape. There was a song there I really liked and would have liked to put out. But it would have been like creaming off their very best material and hoping to springboard into ... would have been coming like yet another independent. There's other people do that job better and have the machinery to do it.

"Cos we did it at Demon early on, Nick Kent put out a single as The Subterraneans, the first Bananarama single, Department S. A few of them get picked up by the majors, but it's a very laborious, unrewarding process.

You don't get any satisfaction out of it, let alone any money. The pay-off that you get from the major just pays for the next project which goes the same way, so there's no point.

"So I'd rather keep things on a more one-off basis and if the relationship works well, then do something else beyond that. Like, The Men They Couldn't Hang are doing an album for IMP simply because no major will touch them with a bargepole."

Philip Chevron is producing that LP, and their next single, "The Iron Masters." Furthermore, the follow-up to Philip's own The Captains And The Kings is scheduled for later this year. An album of Brendan Behan songs, it will feature "Captains" as well as renditions by Elvis, The Pogues, The Men They Couldn't Hang, Christy Moore doing "The Auld Triangle," and several other artists currently awaiting their record companies' clearance.

So what have we got? Elvis: a Liverpool Irishman periodically prone to addressing the state of the nation. Philip: a London-based Dubliner whose love of Behan and Brecht has inspired satirical broadsides against both Britain and Ireland. Agnes: a London and Dublin based Berliner who has adapted German cabaret songs and poems to strike an absurdist chord in British culture. The Men They Couldn't Hang: London-Celts who delve into their folk roots to voice their dissent about Britain today.

Folk. Satire. Dissent. Outsiderdom?

"No, it's a nice theory but I was born in London and only half of my family is Irish," says Elvis. "I know the way I feel personally about my relationship with this country, my sense of nationality. It's done in a much less earnest fashion than that theory would suggest."

"In as much as I've never thought of it that way, I'd have to agree with Elvis," says Philip. "It's not a conscious thing, but it is an intriguing theory. It is purely accidental only inasmuch as Elvis and I understand instinctively what is an IMP record. We don't have a policy, we make records because they need to be made.

"It was I think Adrian Thrills, when he reviewed 'The Green Fields Of France', who said that the IMP label represented 'unfettered excellence', and that gave us our tag.

"If we exercise such high quality control, then that's the closest we can get to a policy. We put out records that other people wouldn't touch with a bargepole and in so doing we're tapping a need in a certain constituency of the record-buying public that other people wouldn't understand in a million years."

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New Musical Express, May 11, 1985

Mat Snow interviews EC, Philip Chevron and Agnes Bernelle.

A half page ad for the single for "Green Shirt" runs on page 11.

The Best Of Elvis Costello is No. 18 on the album chart; "Green Shirt" is No. 42 on the singles chart (page 4).


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Cover photo by Derek Ridgers.

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Photo by Derek Ridgers.
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