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The Stinking Rose -the epic concept album completed in 1992.

Starring Tara Newley on Vocals
with
Lyrics by Noel Rooney.


The Stinking Rose is a celebration of garlic in all its aspects, from creation to myth, to death cult and even beyond the grave. Magical music and mystical words, gathering up the rich harvest of garlic lore into a single sublime tapestry.

Garlic: it’s a food for all seasons, a medicine for all ills, and a guard against multifarious evils, even a God. Cultivated everywhere on Earth, garlic is the subject of more mythical, magical speculation than any other plant - it’s the herb of the whole system.

The ‘refined essence of this mystically attractive bulb’ has excited the curiosity of the greatest writers of antiquity and aroused heady passions: it was equally revered and reviled. Pliny the Elder notes its invocation as a deity among the Egyptians for whom it was a symbol of the cosmos: he also believed its juice would rob a magnet of its powers.
Egyptian history records garlic, or the lack of it, as a cause of the world’s first strike among the pyramid builders. Horace, who thought garlic ‘ more poisonous than hemlock’ tells us that garlic eaters were not allowed to enter certain temples, for instance, that of Cybele, because garlic is inimical to magical processes.

Devotes of Hecate, to whom garlic is dedicated, placed it on special pillars – hekatiades – at three-way crossroads, on the night of a full moon.

Grave robbers in the plague years claimed that the same garlic potion that protected Ulysses from Circe’s enchantment kept them free from infection.

As late as 1939, a travel writer in Transylvania saw the mouth of a corpse stuffed with garlic before burial to prevent its theft and use by vampires.


BACKGROUND TO THE STINKING ROSE

Camberwell Groovers
When I moved to Camberwell , South London in ’88 it was populated by musicians; there was Morris Gould (Mixmaster Morris), Dave Howard , The High Llamas, The House of Love and Stereolab, to name but a few. I’d leave our flat at the top of Camberwell Grove, walk down the hill and stop to talk to half a dozen people on the way down to the pub. It was a great place to live!

It also had a well stocked, completely free music library (before the council closed it down) and I would go and raid it regularly for samples. In this respect, I was no different from other samplerists of the time– this sort of behaviour was a popular pastime - the only difference I had from most of them was that I wasn’t looking for breakbeats. There was fierce competition amongst those who had samplers, and we would all try and outdo each other, saying ‘ bet you can’t guess where this is from!’ We’d all gather around Morris’ flat and at times we all took it too far and I remember becoming more and more irritated by the librarian-like approach to collecting samples; it was just like collecting train numbers. I even wrote a song about it; We Haul in the Booty, from Stolen Jewels.

Never the less, I was passionate about sampling, spending hours hunched over the computer juggling the sounds. Although the manner in which I work and arrive at the final product has changed now, the primary objective was the same then as it is now: to create an interesting sound world while still retaining elements of pop music.

Music I was listening to at the time
Although I would occasionally sample specific kinds of music with cool detachment, my first approach was always that of a music lover – listening intensely to a whole piece rather than just sample-sized bites of it. I would book the cheap seats at the South Bank and Barbican and go by myself to see 2 or 3 concerts of new music a week. I was listening to a lot of British composers - people like Jonathan Harvey, Brian Ferneyhough, Harrison Bertwistle, George Benjamin , and Trevor Wishhart simply, because they were likely to be on the programme. Of course, there was plenty of international stuff as well: I went to see everything by Messiaen and was present at a jaw-dropping performance of Chronochromie conducted by Boulez, that had me shaking with awe! It was totally inspiring.

Some of my favourite recordings included Harvey’s IRCAM work – in particular, Mortous Plango Vivo Vocos and Ritual Melodies, Takemitsu’s Seasons (performed by Stomu Yamash’ta), Penderecki’s Threnody, Varese’s Deserts and Ameriques, Boulez’s Eclat, Henry’s Mouvement, Rythme, Etude, the l’oeuvre Musicale collection of Schaeffer’s music and an opera by Ligeti called Le Grand Macabre.

Writing and recording the album
I had realised that Stolen Jewels had been a bit patchy and had featured too many singers and I was determined the next thing I did would be more consistant and perhaps have a common theme linking the songs - in short, I was thinking about …gulp… a concept album!

I had met the poet, Noel Rooney in the Hermits Cave pub in Camberwell and we were talking about something we were both very curious about: Garlic. When we began researching some of the folk tales surrounding the herb, it turned out to be a real treasure trove of myth and legend and an great source of material for songs. I gave him endless cassettes of the music and like two Broadway musical writers we started work (without a piano in sight).

The tunes were written for a female voice and in 1991 I was introduced to Tara Newley by a friend of mine, Simon Mundey who had met her on the club scene. Simon knew I was looking for a singer and although she had sung on his stuff, he thought her voice might be more suited to my material. Indeed, it was; I loved her voice from the moment I first heard it. She was an excellent musician and obviously influenced by the music hall/showtime background of her family, but she also listened to Joni Mitchell records and had picked up a melancholy pop edge. To my surprise, she was intrigued by the project and agreed to have a go.

Despite growing up in the shadow of her famous family, Tara was certainly no snob and was eager to do her own thing. There was an obvious contrast between her world and ours: she hung out with Boy George at celebrity parties, and Hello magazine took an interest in her boyfriends. She was also busy pursuing a pop career of her own. Secretly, I wondered how long it would be before she’d tire of traveling down to south London to work on an obscure project that offered no financial or career advantage for her whatsoever.

The first recording sessions in Mark Pringle’s 16-track studio in his cramped council flat in Bow went very well and the album started taking shape. It had quite an ‘epic’feel to it from an early stage. But the project began to take longer than we anticipated and the later sessions proved more problematic – some of the vocal parts were demanding and required much longer to complete. Also, Noel and I did not always present a united, cohesive front to Tara; we dithered, changed our mind, argued about stuff and rewrote lyrics at the last minute: that also slowed things down and frustrated her.

However, after working together sporadically over a few weeks or so, we had finished most of the album. I had to break off the recording to rewrite the final song, Ozmaterium, but when we were ready to record it, Tara would not return phone calls and I accepted she had had enough and the project was over as far as she was concerned. In the end I did my best Noel Coward impression and sang the song myself and the album was finished.

I never understood why Tara’s career as a singer didn’t take off because she had everything she needed and more. Perhaps she relied too much on her trendy ‘cutting–edge producers’ to shape her songs – I really don’t know. She could have had a huge career singing in shows and musicals – there was no doubt about that. She was an immensely gifted singer and was much better looking than most of the big stars of the genre.

Frustration!
If the recording had been difficult and frustrating at times, it was nothing compared to what followed.

I had had a good relationship with Ghetto records and if they hadn’t folded they would probably have supported me and released the album, but with all my record company contacts effectively severed for the past two years while I had worked on the album, I had no option but to send out a speculative demo to all the usual suspects. As you can imagine, trying to sell a concept album about garlic to a dance music-obsessed industry in the middle of a deep recession was an absolutely, hopeless state of affairs. In desperation, I even wrote to drug companies marketing garlic products asking for sponsorship. I also contacted the Stinking Rose restaurant in San Francisco as I had been there and knew they marketed garlic themed products – even they turned it down! I tried to be creative selling the bloody thing and nothing came off.

Of course, I knew, I had put myself in a ridiculous position, but it didn’t stop me feeling deeply hurt by the rejection. After a couple of months, I completely gave up on ever getting the album released – in fact I gave up music altogether in anger and frustration. I had had enough of the garlic album – it symbolised personal failure to me and it could go to hell. It quite literally STUNK!

My depression was also compounded by difficulties in my private life and 1993 saw me selling my sampler to pay off debts. I didn’t know what to do with myself for a few months and wondered around like a lost puppy. The old Camberwell scene had begun to crumble away as well – I wasn’t the only one finding it hard: Dave Howard returned to Canada in frustration with the music business.

My love affair with the place finally ended one week before I left SE5 altogether. I was pulled to the ground and very nearly had my throat slashed by 3 muggers at the bottom of Camberwell Grove. 1993 was a shitty year for me: everything had gone wrong.

After 1993
As time passed, my anger and frustration subsided and I became more philosophical about the failures of that period. As I stared at the little DAT tapes of the album on my shelf, I realised that I had made a serious mistake in isolating myself in a corner with the sampler, ignoring one of the biggest things that had attracted me to music in the first place: the sociability of the whole process. I had become too centred on the recording aspect and this had damaged my self-confidence. Also, I didn’t really know what scene I fitted in to anymore – I didn’t want to join another rock band, for instance – that would have bored me to tears and I was realistic enough to realise that the modern classical music I was listening to at the time was far too elitist for any cut’n’paste merchant (as I was at the time).

In 1994 I decided to set myself two simple limitations:

1. No recording for 3 years.
2. No use of computers or samplers for 3 years.

And two simple goals:

1. Pick up my bass again and find something new on it.
2. Centre my musical life round gigs and collaborations.

It wasn’t long after that I renewed my acquaintance with Phil Durrant and I began playing with free improvisers.

Kev Hopper © Jan 2002


What urge sets universes in motion? Was there some sort of transformative groan as a beginning, or are we stuck with the big Bang – that plaintive retrospeculative coitus we are told cranked this universe into being? Somewhere in the testicular ambitions of the perennially dumb demiurge, everything existed as an idea, waited until the universe contained complexity adequate to its appearance.

So, a redolence in the senseless process that gulls us into deifying it, our herb, the herb of the whole system, lay virtual until the process got around to reifying it, substance derived, as the prophet writes, from mere heaven. How that one original greedy molecule must have struggled among the jostling prototypes in the primaeval pond until one instant of sunshine through the murk, gestalt gave way to germination, capricious evolution gave way to the first tenuous appearance of a skinny green wand.

What shambling semi-human creature first grubbed for the pearl at the wand’s root? What slime-caked nostril flared the unfamiliar, adult aroma, traced it to its angel-skin core? What inarticulate palate, muddied by the remnants of bruised fruits, cantankerous seeds and half-raw half immolated flesh, was first illuminated by a taste so resolutely complex and profound it may have inspired the will to utter, a strangled cry from nascent muscles – that stupid glottal and the angry awestruck vowel propelled a first gagging compliment from a pre-lapsarian gourmet.

And in that first garden, the innocent paradise where even magic could not enter, was a corner reserved for ‘the refined essence of this mystically attractive bulb’? perhaps not, for the serpent beguiled them and they did eat, some fruit of the not-quite earth forbidden by a jealous patriarch, something that marked them indelibly, fruit of a curious knowledge. What prospered under the demon’s hoof was a spoor so compelling, humanity’s path has always strayed unfortunately close to him. And just as the golden age of history is the sunlight of the child’s first garden so, like childhood’s buried pains, somewhere in the shadow under the rock, Pandora’s box lay quietly open.

Death wore the face of a fever or a chill. So, from the rich profusion of plants around them, an intuitive few began to experiment, to harness the bounty of the earth against its bale. Valerian for pain, feverfew for the ague, lily of the valley for the weakened heart. And one herb proved a cure for so many of nature’s fickle maladies, it seemed universal, a cure-all. For strength, to cleanse the blood, to calm the stomach, or eject parasites, to steady the pulse, to predict infertility, to tame the chill, abate the fever. And yet the enemies of the herb (and there were many) indicted it as a poison; it would sour the lymph, curdle the blood – and if it could rob a magnet of its powers, surely it would sap the strength from a human soul.

Here lies the kernel of the age-old war between the natural as a cure, and the technologies of intervention we have come to believe in as medicine. If the old woman of the village knew her herbs, she was taught by the devil, and must be burned as a witch. Meanwhile the mountebank armed with leech and forceps grew fat on the blood of her erstwhile patients.

But nature’s retreat is never absolute. Our urbanity is ruptured by dark dreams of magic. Demons still unsettle our civility – the vampires creeps under our window, blood singing under the murderer’s moon. Only nature’s noxious deterrent will keep him at bay, soothe us to sleep in safety.

And what of our shambling hominid? From grubbing scavenger to pyramid builder is a leap as great as that from the original universe of heat to the grand tapestry of the elements. The upright ape learned the use of tools, and weapons: from atom to Adam, the proto-murderer with an ass’s jawbone.

Murderer and master: for the slaves who laboured under the relentless African sun to realise , reluctantly, the grand schemes of their megalomaniacal masters, each day of toil was a day nearer to undocumented death, building the monstrous tombs of the elite – the birth of civilization founded on the death of its builders. What gave them the strength to endure? The answer lies in the records of the pyramid builders, who tell us that when supplies of the strength-giving clove ran out the slaves, braving the admonitions of their masters, went on strike. Here is the root integral to the megalith, the golden mean, vegetally patient, binding the great and small. And here too, the beginnings of collective action, the humble bound in aromatic brotherhood to the clause of the clove.

 

Reader, history’s corridors are dank and doom-laden. In every corner lurks a monster or a saint, and little light to tell one from the other. Like the good plague doctor, elevated for his cures yet excoriated for his prophecies. His secrets (and he had many secrets) came from the ancients, and pointed to the future. How to defend oneself against the plague? Consider the potion given to brave Ulysses to guard him from Circe’s charms, a gift from Hecate – she who helps from afar; and passed from hero to hero, hero to villain, to turn up in the hands of scavengers in the charnel houses of the Black Death, thieves who claimed their noxious pickle kept them safe from infection, free to rob the scabrous cadavers of the unfortunate, unburied dead. How to clear time’s mists and truly see? Let the good doctor speak:

Estrait alli de nuict secret estude,
Seul repose sur le bel air d’ail;
Flambé exigue sortant de solitude,
Fait prosperer qui n’est a croire vain.

In the hermetic ferment of Europe’s rebirth, the ancients’ lore was rediscovered, the logos exhumed, a treasure trove for seekers of esoteric knowledge; Galen, Hippocrates, Pliny, Aristotle, divine Plato. Here was the stuff of the secret world too; Hermes Trismestigus, Valentinus, Mani. Europe burned, wars of conviction raged. The propagandists of imperial religion were faced by the curators of the arcane. Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Illuminati; the world was full of secret places again. many were burnt at the stake for their new-found beliefs, like Giordano Bruno, erudite and adamant, and other like him. Even Descartes, most rational of sceptics, was accused of collusion with the forces of retrograde belief. And our fraternity too, harassed and harried, betrayed by the heady aroma of our binding secret, we too struggled against the machinery of oppression. We knew, in our secret lairs, in our souls, our day would come, despite technology’s cold steel grip on the human imagination. For look, even though the hearse may run on an internal combustion engine, who would forget to stuff the corpse’s mouth with nature’s old charm to keep the body free from corruption, and to warn off those creatures which sidle into the last place on earth, and wake the dead.

Our goal is to liberate the soul from its dark meat, free the imagination to take its place in the true, symbolic universe. Mathematics does not rule the stars, it merely measures, tells us how distant they are from us, but we need not obey their defeated calibrations. For the pyramid builders, the herb was the symbol of the cosmos, and of our relationship to it; the layers of skin represented the spheres of heaven, the cloves the planets clustered around the sun. and who is to say that they were wrong? Now, as history makes its excuses and leaves, we look forward and outward, forward from the detritus of our grandiloquent mistakes, outward from our ravaged planet. Somewhere in the careless drift of stars, a new paradise may await our new-found innocence, nature’s new haven nestling in the great gargantuan imperious arms of the universe. Look upwards; there, the elongated body of the universal person bends slightly forwards, the world at its feet, savouring the aroma . . .

Noel Rooney ©1993

Illustrations by Theresa Pateman © 1993