Hendrix, Tolkien, and the Watership
Photo from the Bo Hansson website
Bo Hansson's Musical Journeys
by Mark S. Tucker
Long before Peter Jackson ever conceived his brilliant film adaptation, hippies and college students everywhere were going gaga over Prof. Tolkein's creations. Many a smoke-ensorcelled room filled with blissed-out cannibinol connoisseurs grabbed hold of anything with hobbits, wizards, or gigantic personified trees on it: varathaned table-tops with inlaid paintings, blacklight posters, bound tomes, and whatever music might reference or allude to the story-cycle's characters or events... except, bizarrely, when keyboardist Bo Hansson's very worthy first LP, Music Inspired by the Lord of the Rings emerged in 1972. Though it hit gold status in several parts of the world, the album went curiously unremarked in the States. It still does.
Part of the reason may be the profound mellifluity and arcane quasi-Mideast rhythms and sonorities, which had a hard time getting traction in that era. The exotic opiate atmospheres were simultaneously spacey and earthen and could be reminiscent of many things, not merely Tolkein's universe, though they fit that quite well once one ignored the fact that the written trilogy had tremendous pace and vigor. Hansson settled instead for pure period ambientalism. The depth of his musicianship and compositional skills may be seen in the fact that Jimi Hendrix was powerfully drawn to the work, and there yet remains languishing a legendary 4-hour tape of a jam 'twixt he, Hansson, a drummer, and George Wadenius on rhythm guitar. As well, the unproven story continues, Jimi even recorded a couple of extraneous takes on a couple of cuts from Hansson's repertoire.
Hansson started as an axehandler and was reckoned a sure thing. His residency in Slim's Blues Gang, a Mayall-ish Swedish ensemble, tipped him over into the Merrymen, who supported the Stones on a tour (to what extent is not readily findable), then signed to Polydor. But Hansson, as can be seen from numerous incidents in his history, was a mercurial cat and jumped ship. In fact, the entire reason for his inability to claim a rightful place in a deserving spotlight is, from all accounts many times over, his own fault- a psychlogical curiosity that may have arisen from a bizarre period of actual physical parental abandonment in his youth. Hard to tell. One night though, watching Jack McDuff at a club, he became enraptured by the possibilities of the organ, notching down his affinity for guitar on the spot. He later met Janne Karlsson, sometimes called Rune Carlsson, a drummer, and started a long on-again off-again relationship, first collaborating on the duet LP Monument and two others before going on to pair under Hansson's name.
Lord of the Rings was the first LP under his own sobriquet, and it bore many similarities to the first LP by Long Hello (composed of Van Der Graaf Generator members), as well as touches of Peter Michael Hamel's work, the mellow side of Jade Warrior, and so on. Hugely progressive, on the jazzy side of world-y fusion, the song cycle is engrossing, a narcotic ghostflow through decadent and pastoral realms, lazily conducted but intelligent, peaceful, and literate. Though Hansson and Karlsson form the core of the outpouring, a sax and flute are added, as well as, according to the mysterious liner reference, "a few anonymous friends." Who they might have been, though, none have yet disgorged.
The LP went gold and that sort of thing tends to inspire more product, so the keyboardist trotted out Magician's Hat the next year. From the start, it was brasher, only lightly following Rings' lead, forming a winding garden path through varying musical environments much less spacy than the predecessor and, indeed, not nearly as deep or textured. The LP's well-stocked cupboard even included ECM's Bobo Stenson, but the transition from gorgeous tapestry to splashy travel catalogue - as jazz stylings were much more prominent - was a trifle hard to take; the audience had held entirely different expectations. The disc didn't achieve chart success (as no Hansson LP ever would again) but was still quite worthy as swirling fusion, much in line with Weather Report and other units, retaining a distinctly European flavor. If it can be said that the LP marked Hansson's fall from grace, it would be because he sank down to settle in amongst the ilk of later work by fellow fusioneers like Joachim Kuhn and Jasper van't Hoff- good musicians also failing to mark distinct territory and defend it.
To try to give the impression of another Rings though, at least visually, Jan Ternald turned out a highly Gilbert Williams-ish canvas of a very Gandalf-ish wizard in fairyland. It was the correct portraiture for sell-through even though that slab wasn't faithful. Hansson's trademark would forever be Rings. Realizing it, he'd return sonically homewards, attempting a recapture of his brief place in the firmament.
That's why Attic Thoughts commenced by treading strongly backwards. The title cut could in fact have slipped in seamlessly with the earlier Bilbo/Frodo/Gandalf saga music, only a skosh more lively than most of Rings but beautifully contrasty in restrained manner. The cuts followed one another in similar fashion, not given to sifting theme and structure every two minutes, as Hat had. While that former LP hadn't been an album to avoid, Attic was vastly more germane. Unfortunately, Hat forced a gun-shy attitude on the public, thus Attic didn't even vaguely approach the charts. A shame that, as it's extremely worthwhile. Several times, Hansson got into small jams which pulsed and sang as righteous sidebars to the colorful main activities. Once again, a dream-state was achieved and carried through. The closing cut, "The Title Prank," even became Paul Brett-ish, a la InterLife, and, this time, Ternald's cover art stole from Paul Whitehead, one-upping him (not a difficult feat, actually). Progheads even only glancing at the LP had no doubt where the timbre would lie.
Choosing another well-known fantasy novel seemed right for a 1977 release, so Richard Adams' Watership Down became the setpiece for a sextet of tunes. Thankfully, the keyboardist hadn't lapsed back to Hat, which would've been commercial and artistic suicide - one jazz foray had been more than enough - but neither was he extending the foggy atmospheres of Rings. Watership contained much more to commend itself in tempo, rock-ish edges, and snappier Oz-land tunes, not to mention pastelled somnolent milieus. Yet the more dramatic meat of the central exposition almost puts it in a Toney Carey-ish position, a la Planet P. The entire release showed more vim and kinetics than anything he'd ever done, suited to the lapine nature of the subjects of the book, providing livelier ear candy, yet still didn't sell in numbers impressive enough to suit either the musician or the label.
With a mind already tending to musing and solipsism, Hansson let the entire music experiment go, retiring. Some sites show a later LP released in Sweden and entitled El-Ahraihah, which, because it's a salient name in Watership Down, may be a reprint of the original LP. From that point on, though, all the world would thenceafter see and hear would be re-releases and re-re-releases. Hopefully, that practice will continue, as Hansson's work has aged not a moment since the '70's and should easily carry forward for quite a few decades yet to come.
BO HANSSON'S MAIN CATALOGUE
Music Inspired by the Lord of the Rings (Charisma, 1972)
Magician's Hat (Charisma, 1973)
Attic Thoughts (Sire, 1976)
Music Inspired by Watership Down (Charisma, 1977)
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