Graded on a Curve:
Red Square,
Rare and Lost 70s Recordings

The second half of the 1970s is accurately regarded as a time of tumult; in musical terms this typically pertains to the global punk uprising, but there were other surges of discontent against the period’s norms, and a highly interesting example has just received reissue. Rare and Lost 70s Recordings by the free improvising UK trio Red Square pairs a ’76 live set with a ‘78 studio session; considerably ahead of their time, the group expanded upon free jazz at its wildest and predicted the often uncompromising nature of underground experimental rock to come. The album is out now on vinyl and compact disc through Mental Experience, a subsidiary of the Spanish Guerssen label.

From ’74 to ’78 Red Square specialized in a merger of Fire Music and avant-rock so massive it basically insured a response dominated by ambivalence and drifts into hostility. Consisting of Jon Seagroatt on saxophones and bass clarinet, Ian Staples on guitars, and Roger Telford on drums and percussion, as related in Seagroatt’s liners for this archival release they were a byproduct of a healthy Brit underground scene where psychedelia, prog, and experimentalism were known to overlap.

The notes describe Staples’ guitar as drawing on the influence of Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, British avant string bender Derek Bailey, and German experimental titan Karlheinz Stockhausen, a combination that’s not as unusual as it might seem given the late ’60s pairing of pioneering free improvisational unit AMM and Pink Floyd at the UFO Club. Seagroatt lists his inspirations as Soft Machine, Faust, and Can alongside heavy doses of outside jazz.

That means Coltrane obviously but also Albert Ayler, countryman Evan Parker, and the now somewhat undersung Danish saxophonist John Tchicai; broadening beyond fire-breathers is the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Weather Report. Initially a duo determined to improvise all of their music, their arsenal included prepared guitar, tape, multi-tracking, and toys in combo with standard instrumentation, voice, violin, and percussion; the arrival of Telford, referred to by Seagroatt as an early adopter of the free drum styles of Milford Graves and Sunny Murray, completed the lineup and refined their direction.

It was Telford who suggested the name Red Square in tribute to the early Soviet Constructivists, in particular the graphic artist El Lissitzky. By now it should be clear that rock ‘n’ roll hedonism was far from the goal for this bunch; backing this up is participation in a festival organized by Music for Socialism, with its flyer reproduced in this disc’s insert. But if touring in support of Slade wasn’t in the cards they did get to play with Lol Coxhill, David Toop & Paul Burwell, and National Health.

Side two of Rare and Lost 70s Recordings offers a live set opening for Henry Cow at Lindisfarne Hall on August 26, 1976, with Red Square in the midst of what Seagroatt calls their “classic period”; the hornman further elaborates that this serving of the group underscores their control of dynamics. Presented in three parts named “Circuitry” with the numerals 2, 3, and 4 appended (meaning it might not be the complete performance), the tracks were originally released on a long gone cassette in ’76.

Listening to this evidence, Seagroatt’s description of the work is pretty astute. But please understand this is still very potent stuff, beginning with a blend of clatter and finesse at the drums as amplified bass clarinet enters shortly thereafter; although Seagroatt’s execution moves gradually toward the mighty German reed gnawer Peter Brötzmann, a touch of Dolphy is also discernible.

Upon entrance of guitar the stage seems primed for a collective eruption, but in short order Telford is back out front and moving lithely around his kit. First Seagroatt and then Staples provide appropriate counterpoint to his rhythmic abstraction, the triumvirate deftly rising from a relatively meditative zone to a raucous finale.

Red Square was reportedly met with antagonism on a regular basis, a situation contributing to their breakup in ’78, but here they are rewarded with applause, an unsurprising reaction considering they were playing with Henry Cow. Additionally, at this juncture the trio’s orientation remained graspable as an extension of free jazz, with Telford’s lengthier opening to the second piece highlighting the relationship to Graves as the shakers and gongs nod to the Art Ensemble.

The bass clarinet is an extremely difficult axe to master, but the use of amplification here intensifies the instrument’s serrated edge with a minimum of tangible lung heave, though Seagroatt tangles quite righteously with Staples on the final and most clamorous of the ’76 selections. Its brevity foreshadows the increasingly formidable heft of the later material.

The first side of Rare and Lost 70s Recordings holds four tracks, all named “Nakamichi” after the studio that hosted their creation. Immediately revealing increased rhythmic energy merging Graves and Rashied Ali, the whole presents a gripping foray into power-improv. If not as paint stripping as Borbetomagus, they do produce impressive levels of skronk, and Seagroatt’s management of the soprano is admirably gutsy.

Last Exit spring to mind as does The Thing to a lesser extent, but from this writer’s perspective the most suitable comparison is Blue Humans, the free jazz-no wave outfit guitarist Rudolph Grey formed after the demise of Red Transistor. This is largely due to Staples, who really comes into his own on these ’78 recordings, inspiring thoughts of Grey, Sonny Sharrock, early John McLaughlin, and indeed even Hendrix.

Altogether these individuals formulated a wild blend of soul-purge and sonic disruption; while deeply informed by precedent they were ultimately so ahead of the curve that a premature dissolution was all but inevitable. All three stayed musically active, with Seagroatt part of Current 93 and the reformed avant-folk act Comus while Telford was a member of the Oxford Improvisers.

Red Square reunited in 2008 at the suggestion of the FMR label and have since issued a handful of CDs. But for those of a free-avant-experimental disposition, the sounds uncovered on Rare and Lost 70s Recordings are the place to start.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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