BY RON HART
The first time I ever heard of Mike Cooper was on a mixtape made for me by Jason Meagher of NoNeck Blues Band/Suntanma/Coach Fingers/Black Dirt Studios fame. It was part of my earliest introduction to the world of British folk, taking me on a path that led me to the musics of Bert Jansch, John Martyn, the Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band and Roy Harper while simultaneously helping me reassess the genius of Led Zeppelin III.
But it was the work of this underrated Englishman, who had turned down a spot in the Rolling Stones that would soon be filled (albeit briefly and tragically) by Brian Jones in the early ‘60s, that resonated with me the deepest. His fearlessness in moving away from the standard trappings of folk and blues by embracing the direction of such avant-jazz greats as Pharaoh Sanders and Sonny Sharrock as well as early electronic sound architects as Steve Reich and Terry Riley have also made his long out-of-print early ‘70s albums very much in demand amongst a niche market of young sonic adventurers.
And after four long decades, Cooper’s greatest recorded accomplishments are made available once again thanks to the excellent North Carolina indie label Paradise of Bachelors, primarily known these days for their releases by such new school gurus of the art form as Steve Gunn and Nathan Bowles. 1970’s Trout Steel, produced by the great Peter Eden, is a heady mix of traditional songwriting and bold improvisation that served as a more conventional take on the shape of things to come for Cooper. A shape, mind you, that would take its permanent form over the course of his next two works, 1971’s Places I Know and 1972’s The Machine Gun Co., a pair of LPs originally intended to be a double album.
“Those two records were conceived as a double album aimed at covering the wide range of music,” Cooper explains in the album’s liner notes. “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.”
Paradise of Bachelors, in all of their scholarly wisdom, has now righted the oversight commissioned by the guitarist’s previous label, Dawn Records, and conjoined these separated twin classics in order to tell the entire story arc. And when you sit down and listen to the totality of the set as it was originally intended by the artist, with the lush orchestral arrangements of Gibbs–known primarily back then as the musical director of the popular BBC TV comedy The Goodies–giving way to the non-linear electric dadaism of The Machine Gun Co. that very much lives up to the 1968 album from German free-jazz reedist Peter Brötzmann record of the same name.
Many thanks to PoB for bringing these two long overdue milestones in British folk back into the spotlight where they so richly belong.