Over twenty years ago, when I was fifteen, I would pin posters and articles to my bedroom wall. In the spring of 1980, I read an interview with the bass player, Jah Wobble, who was at that time playing in my favourite group, John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band, Public Image Ltd. I filleted the interview and tacked it to the wallpaper.
Wobble had been overwhelmed by a composition from a German musician with the magical name of Holger Czukay. He talked of a piece of music called ‘Persian Love’, on Czukay’s recent album, Movies, which EMI had just released. What struck me so forcibly was his comment, ‘The voices on it are so beautiful, I thought to myself, I will never, never try to sing again!’
In those days, in the Highlands of Scotland, the only way to obtain unusual music was through mail order. The album arrived packed in brown cardboard one sun-filled morning and before I caught the school bus, I’d directed the needle of my bedroom record player directly to ‘Persian Love’.
Twenty-one years on and, as I write, I’m still listening to this same record. Often, when dark times rob me of my taste for beauty, I’ve walked away from it for months on end. But, in between the Messiaen and the Gagaku court music, the punk rock and the Puccini; like all art that has touched you deeply, and to which your heart first opens, I keep returning to ‘Persian Love’. In many ways, this record and this musician remain my touchstone, in all arts. Literature as well. I subsequently dedicated my first novel, Morvern Callar, to Holger; we became friends and I am undergoing proceedings to have him adopt me, so I will inherit his vast wealth.
Holger, a former student of Karlheinz Stockhausen, is a master of unorthodox studio technique. He invented sampling, through 1976-78, taping down thousands of hours of high-resolution sounds from shortwave radio on to large, old magnetic tape spools. One late night in his Cologne laboratory he picked up the compelling and erotic voices of two Radio Tehran singers performing a love duet. One male and one female, seductive undertones and lisps, and those soaring minaret vocalizings.
Holger is also a wonderful guitar player, technically brilliant but he underplays in a style that’s something between Kenyan ‘high life’ and jazzer Barney Kessel. It reminds me of Miles Davis’s concept: ‘Play like you don’t know how to play’! Holger’s guitar plays through warm-sounding valve amplifiers that produce a honeyed tone and date from the Third Reich. He used to purchase them from the basement of his local undertaker! He added spangling guitar lines in counterpoint to the keening, unearthly voices, at first sounding in ecstasy, then in heartbreak.
Holger edited the album by hand; months of work, splicing individual guitar notes from the master tape and adding others: a kind of movie editing (hence the title) and also a time travel of single notes. He manipulated the tape speeds to send his shimmering guitar sound far up into the high register of the love singers. Finally, with the virtuoso drummer Jaki Liebezeit, he added live rock drums and his own darting bass. A skipping, sinuous, waltz tempo of a song, ‘Persian Love’ has none of the seriousness or angularity associated with the avant garde. It is 6:22 of what beauty and life’s joy there is to extract, tempered by consequential sadness, lover’s caution and also the whole album’s atmosphere of compressed mystery, suggestive in the found tape snatches of old movies, a bebop saxophone bursting out over an old operetta singer, a tuba soloing up in the mountains, ascending guitars that glint like suns breasting ridges.
In May, I was staying in Claridges’ hotel, that historic pile which Patrick Kavanagh once described as the most expensive nursing home in London. At Onassis’s old alcove table, Holger, an amiable Dr Who, was explaining how he was a childhood refugee of ruined Danzig, like his then neighbour, Gunter Grass. And how he danced at Rio in a (stolen) Brazilian admiral’s uniform. And how his lifelong search for an exceedingly wealthy wife led him, direct from Herr Stockhausen, to teaching music in an exclusive Swiss girls’ school; Beethoven’s Seventh, mainly!
Holger and I were celebrating. Lynne Ramsay’s movie of Morvern Callar was going to use Holger’s music on the soundtrack. It felt very strange: all those years since I was a schoolboy and now we had his music in this movie. ‘Not so strange,’ said Holger, ‘Like those voices on “Persian Love”: I did not find them, they came to me! It’s destiny. And destiny, dear Alan, is never strange.’
Photograph by Gavin St. Ours