Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Disco Ball's a Globe - pt. 10

Footage from the funeral of Austrian disco legend Kurt Hauenstein shows a massive turnout of Hell’s Angels and bikers alongside the music business greats the Supermax leader had worked with like Frank Farian of Boney M fame. Rockers Revenge was always an interesting choice of name for Arthur Baker’s activities given the image he cultivated. And yet his story is rather more straightforward than those of many of the people who were involved in the disco scene. I keep hoping to come across a definitive history of the German disco scene because I am particularly interested in the backgrounds of those involved and the different roads they’d taken to get there. How many were refugees from the Krautrock world? How many had been members of the German big bands playing interpretations of funk and jazz? And so on.

I would admit that I know very little about the pop music of Austria. I had to make a conscious effort to do some investigative work for the Anywhere But Here Today project, and fortunately I stumbled across the strange world of ‘Austropop’ which was wonderfully disorientating. Along the way I came across clips of the (Goethe-inspired?) Austrian disco group Ganymed which made me laugh out in delight. The music was great, in what would inevitably now be described as a ‘space disco’ way, but the performances were even better, complete with outlandish alien costumes which reminded me of the KLF. Despite the daft adopted names like Kroonk and Pulsaria the songs stand up really well, poised somewhere between prog and Eurovision, and the existence of Ganymed was enough to make Austropop worth celebrating.

But then I discovered Supermax. I really had never come across Supermax or Kurt Hauenstein until recently. And I’m sure it’s not just an allergy to groups called Super-this-or-that. It’s just that our paths never crossed. The cruel irony is that I only discovered the pleasures of Supermax shortly after Kurt Hauenstein died in March 2011. Oh the shame of it, as I bet all the cosmic disco hipsters were well up-to-speed on the Supermax legend. But I was blissfully unaware of the genius of King Kurt until I saw YouTube clips of the group performing its hits Love Machine and World of Today which set me off on a quest to find out more.

I was particularly intrigued because while it was not that unusual to have someone looking like an unreconstructed rocker on keyboards as part of a Euro disco group line-up, Supermax in contrast had such a guy stage centre looking and sounding like a refugee from Humble Pie, surrounded by some seriously funky souls, and seemingly singing about the world being full of pollution and kids taking pills and that the world’s a mess ‘cos the police are doing it too. This was clearly not your average disco fodderstomp, and I’ve been having a ball playing catch up with the Supermax catalogue. It just makes me smile that apparently the whole of eastern Europe was 30 years ahead of me.

Kurt Hauenstein may have been from Austria but like most of the greats he was a true internationalist. He moved to Germany while still young to play bass, and yes he was in Krautrock/prog outfits (e.g. Rigoni/Schoenherz) and then got involved with Frank Farian in Frankfurt where he was setting up his Boney M project which is where Kurt learned his studio skills. In 1976 he started his own Supermax project, with the Don’t Stop The Music LP from which the title track gives a wonderful indication of the mad mix of elements swirling around in the Supermax sound with a particular emphasis on African and reggae influences counterbalancing the synths and the more prog rock traits. This, and other Supermax titles, was produced by Peter Hauke, who was from a similar prog background. The Supermax reggae influences became more pronounced in the early ‘80s, and Kurt being a bass player by trade perhaps helped this manifest itself in some very deep dubby excursions. Indeed any biog will mention Supermax were the first white group to play at the legendary Sunsplash festival.

Beyond Supermax Kurt did get involved in some extra-curricular activity. He helped out on Bernt Mohrles’ Chilly project, but best of all was his work on the Bamboo LP which he masterminded for WEA in 1979 which is simply astonishing. He had the opportunity to produce a trio of singers from Suriname, and let his imagination run riot. He came up with an outlandish creation that’s up there with the best of Chic and Ze Records’ output. Cosmic disco exoticists no doubt drool over this LP, but it’s the slower, dubby track Hustlers of Life Will Never Survive that gets me everytime. One other project of Kurt’s that I am aware of is the London Aircraaft one from 1984, with Supermax backing singer Larry London out front, which has some wonderful electro tracks on and the rather more characteristic reggae driven Rocket in my Pocket. I guess it should also be mentioned that in more recent years Supermax collaborated with Buddha Monk of the Wu Tang Clan, which seems just about perfect really.

I do wonder what my teenage punk self would have made of Supermax if I had been aware of their work in the late ‘70s. I suspect I might have struggled with Kurt’s image, which would have been pretty daft as the guy was infinitely cooler than I could ever hope to be. And Kurt would have been pretty contemptuous of ridiculous engrained prejudices. On a more meaningful note, for example, even the first Supermax LP has the outstanding Watch Out South Africa, Here We Come. It’s not just a striking piece of anti-apartheid disco stomp, there’s real menace in the delivery. And it wasn’t just an empty threat, as Supermax did tour South Africa in 1981 where controversially Kurt took the full racially-mixed entourage, defiantly becoming the first group to do so, I believe, ruffling many feathers along the way and attracting all sorts of hostility and threats. A true rocker's revenge.

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