After two years of tireless work to liberate these long out-of-print masterpieces from the vaults, Paradise of Bachelors is proud to present the first artist-sanctioned reissues—and first-ever vinyl reissues—of iconoclastic English-born, Rome-based folk and experimental music legend Mike Cooper’s classic trio of early 1970s avant-folk-rock records: Trout Steel (1970), Places I Know (1971), and The Machine Gun Co. with Mike Cooper(1972). The latter two titles are presented for the very first time as the definitive double album, as Cooper originally intended them to be released.
With the oddly evocative choice of his third solo album’s title, appropriated from Richard Brautigan’s 1967 surrealist-pastoral novel Trout Fishing in America, Mike Cooper might very well have been describing his own mercurial musical practice. “Trout Steel” suggests a reflective, highly mutable, quicksilver riverine element, an apt metaphor for the lap steel runs summoned from his trademark National resophonic guitars and his restless, constantly evolving development as a singer, composer, interpreter, and improviser. Listening to Cooper’s recordings retrospectively in sequence reveals a rangy narrative of perennial reinvention from document to document through a playful approach to the deconstruction of “folk” musics and all that gross genre signifier implies and denies. Because of his staunch refusal to settle on any single sonic palette, his career has maintained a slippery, elusive, and multihued character—troutlike, eddying—full of permutations, sudden departures and transformations, and unexpected articulations and detours.
By the time the Rolling Stones invited him to join the band in the early ’60s, and he politely declined (true story; Brian Jones took the gig), he had already progressed far beyond the circumscribed bounds of their early, hip-histrionic Albionic blues. By the time he was rumored to have retired from music in the mid ’70s, disappearing from his home in Southern England into Southern Spain to become a fisherman (an amusing fiction; he suffers from seasickness), he had already moved beyond his heady homebrew of progressive, free jazz-framed songcraft into increasingly less conventionally structured frontiers of open improvisation and later, electronic composition.
The molting began in 1970 with Trout Steel, on which Cooper took a decisive step away from the folk and blues scenes in which he was well-known—he had toured with Michael Chapman and traveled in the same circles as Bert Jansch, Wizz Jones, and Davey Graham, among others—toward the New Thing jazz of Pharaoh Sanders, Sonny Sharrock, and Derek Bailey, without sacrificing any of his lyrical songwriting or forsaking his established roots in the soil of the American Southern vernacular. Producer Peter Eden (Donovan, Bill Fay, Clive Palmer) assembled a crack team of English and South African jazz and folk musicians (including Mike Osborne, Harry Miller, Geoff Hawkins, Stefan Grossman, and Heron) to record these remarkable sessions, and the results are absolutely sui generis, a compelling mix of tradition, group improvisations, and unfettered studio explorations that presaged Cooper’s adventurous work for decades to come.
The Machine Gun Co. band (named for the 1968 Peter Brötzmann album) coalesced around Cooper’s desire to continue the improvisatory path forged on Trout Steel in a more sustainable manner, with a steady core group of likeminded musicians able to buttress its daring, long-form improvisatory vaults with a bedrock foundation. Once again, Peter Eden produced the historic sessions, which veered from the impeccable conceptual folk-rock artistry of Places I Know (as Cooper explains, “the secret of the title of this record is that it was meant as a kind of covers record, or an homage to some musicians and songwriters that I liked at the time, the ‘places’ in the title—I was interested in seeing if I could emulate some other people without actually sounding like them”) to the utterly singular “songmaking” deconstructions of the more radical The Machine Gun Co., wherein the band erects lapidary arrangements reminiscent of Tim Buckley, only to dismantle them into virtuosic passages of Beefheartian free-jazz scree and skronk. According to Cooper:
What was initially planned was a double album, with one record played by the Machine Gun Co. and the other with arrangements by Mike Gibbs and his orchestra. Those two records were conceived as a double album aimed at covering the wide range of music I was interested in and gently leading the listener from the more accessible Places I Know, with its Mike Gibbs arrangements, into the more (for the times) extreme areas of The Machine Gun Co. That never happened, and they were released as two separate records a year apart.
Places I Know/The Machine Gun Co. with Mike Cooper is Paradise of Bachelors’ attempt, two years in the making, to correct this historical oversight and offer this masterpiece as it was designed to be experienced, as an extraordinarily ambitious document spanning Cooper’s song-based and improvisation-based styles of the early 1970s.
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