Graded on a Curve:
Klaus Nomi,
Klaus Nomi

Released in 1982 and featuring New Wave-era rock infused with legit elements of opera and an undisguised gay sensibility, the debut LP from German-born NYC-based singer Klaus Nomi was readymade for cult status. The record very much belonged to the fringe of its time but without being ahead of it; the man who made it endures today not as an oft-pilfered stylistic touchstone but rather as a beacon for individualistic expression. That’s cool, as is his penchant for adapting ’60s pop tunes. Klaus Nomi sees reissue June 14 on black and white cabaret smoke vinyl in an edition of 1,000 copies through Real Gone Music.

I was all of eight years old when Klaus Nomi, along with his friend Joey Arias, vocally backed-up and added performance zeal to David Bowie’s appearance on the December 15, 1979 episode of Saturday Night Live. Unsurprisingly, I missed it when aired, but have caught up with “TVC 15” and “The Man Who Sold the World” archived on the internet. Those songs blend nicely with the footage that did serve as my introduction to Nomi’s work, his entry in the 1982 various artist concert film Urgh! A Music War.

It was sometime in ’87 that I and a few friends popped the home video edition into the VCR and had a fine evening at the crossroads of punk, new wave, post-punk, and reggae. And while there’s no denying an immediate reaction of incredulousness to Nomi’s NYC club performance of “Total Eclipse,” by song’s end we’d all adjusted pretty well.

I bring up this anecdote to counteract the still occasionally extant viewpoint of Nomi as a sheer curiosity. Sure, after viewing a performance by the guy it’s unlikely he’ll be forgotten. For example, during that version of “TVC 15” on SNL he walks around the stage with an imitation pink poodle (with a TV monitor in its mouth), and yet he somehow doesn’t steal the show from Bowie. But his work, if eccentric by pop marketplace standards, holds substantial value, which means that Klaus Nomi is an album to own for reasons far beyond “Hey, get a load of this” territory.

It’s fitting that video was my point of entry into Nomi’s stuff (as it surely was for many others), for the MTV-era could’ve ended up a solid fit for Nomi’s art and just maybe provided a larger commercial breakthrough had he not died of AIDS in August of 1983. Yes, this is probably wishful thinking, but his unrealized potential goes much deeper than the calculated video making that aided a handful of ’80s pop stars, as there’s an inextricable theatricality in Nomi’s work.

One can absorb why from the sleeve photo above, which offers the striking portrait of the artist made-up in a manner clearly descended from Joel Grey’s emcee in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (a well-considered look, as Nomi was a German immigrant with his early days in NYC including cabaret work) and in a wildly oversized plastic tuxedo, a concept borrowed and adapted from Bowie’s getup for SNL’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” but with its exaggerated triangular nature combining with the B&W of the cover to exude a German Expressionist vibe with touches of art deco and futurism.

The sleeve photo gets to the core of Nomi’s art, which is adaptation so idiosyncratically inspired that it becomes unmistakable as belonging to anybody else. His most instantaneously striking borrowing is that of opera, certainly because he sings Henry Purcell’s “The Cold Song” (from the opera King Arthur) and the “Samson and Delilah” aria by Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (from his opera of the same name), but also due to Nomi’s powerful upper register being additionally foregrounded in his transmogrifications of pop tunes.

In a gesture perhaps intended to emphasize versatility while delaying the emergence of the record’s boldest maneuvers, Klaus Nomi opens with a trio of ’60s pop interpretations, placing the Purcell and Saint-Saëns as bookends on side two. This makes sense given the operatic emotionalism of “Samson and Delilah,” as it also played while the end credits rolled for Urgh! A Music War.

Those side one pop nuggets are Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes,” a smart showcase for Nomi’s pipes; a reshaping of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” underscoring this record as the byproduct of the same city that produced James Chance and the Contortions (while being nowhere near as antagonistic); and Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” with the unchanged lyrics (“Don’t say I can’t go with other boys”) a pretty clear example of gay openness-defiance from a decade where acceptance was far from a given.

Nomi has occasionally been described as an example of camp, but with the exception of this record’s hinting that it all just might be a big put-on (ultimately faking out the squares), I don’t perceive a particularly sturdy connection. By 1982, camp was (if still somewhat ineffable) a long tradition; Nomi was after something new, though what he achieved can be synopsized as broadening the possibilities of art-pop.

But does the art-pop sound good? While there are a few spots that make it clear that this was a hired band, I say yes. It’s frequently very good given the outrageousness of the endeavor, which by extension, holds the potential for grave error. But if the music hangs okay, it’s really Nomi’s show, and he pulls it off mightily here, scoring a success that largely eluded him on his follow-up Simple Man.

The problems on that one? Well, in essentially repeating the formula, with the pop tunes on side one, the opera covers on the flip, a song a side from ex-Mump Kristian Hoffman and an opening prelude-like track (one difference: no originals from Nomi), the music, in leaning toward electro but without fully embracing it (Man Parrish has a more prominent role), is just not as interesting. A much bigger issue is the record’s flirting with kitsch. But hey, this is a story for another time (what I’m saying is, if you’re thinking of buying a Klaus Nomi record, the first one is the one you want).

A high percentage of cult acts have spun off legions of imitators and shelves of records that have aided in transforming the once-neglected makers into venerable institutions (think Big Star and The Velvets). That’s most definitely, and sadly, not the case with Klaus Nomi. In terms of a recorded legacy, there’s really just this one album. Sometimes people still talk about it like it’s a joke. Fuck that. Klaus Nomi holds up as very fine listening, with its incomparable nature something to cherish.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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