Monday, May 27, 2013
International relevance: ***
Everybody loves a good mystery, and mysteries rarely come any better, or more frustrating for that matter, than this.
For me, it all started that day when I was browsing Youtube for Swedish progg rarities. Most of the time, it's the well known stuff that gets repeated outings. People who remember their youth in the 70's share their favourite symph rock och leftwing rememberances from their youth, with sound pictures to boot. It's all very nice, and every once in a while you can add some tidbits of information from folks who experienced it first hand. But it's rare that something entirely unknown surfaces among the numerous Youtube channels. That day, when I was digging through crates of wellknown material, it suddenly happened.
Someone had uploaded a whole album's worth of material by a band called Slite Cement (pronounced slee-teh), The most amazing thing was that not only one or two tracks by this mysterious outfit were good. They were all mindblowlingly fantastic! One track after the other revealed a band that was every bit as good as November or Life, or any of your favourite heavy Swedish 70's band you care to mention. How on earth could a band such as this has remained completely unknown almost four decades? I immediately went on a research path.
Only to throw myself into a labyrinth of dead ends.
I began thinking that maybe this was a hoax. The vocals were great. The guitars soared like monsters. The sound quality was top-notch. Everything was in its perfect place. Could this be recent day put-on by some jokers with a need to fabrciate a myth and a ”rarity”?
The name of one of the band members was T. Harlevi. With Harlevi being a less than common name in Sweden, I began googling for the guy, without knowing his first name. I figured Slite Cement came from Gotland, Sweden's biggest island, since Slite is a small city on Gotland. Tracks lead to Visby, the main city of Gotland, and one Thomas Harlevi, now drummer in a band called Lampljussymfonikerna. Could it be I was on my way debunking the mystery) I got hold of an email adress to one of the other members in Lampljussymfonikerna. I wrote him, and waited for a reply. And waited. And waited. And waited. Nothing happened. Obviously, it was just another dead end.
I kept googling, and in the mean time, I played Slite Cement to various people. All of them were surprised by the amazing quality of the music. Some of them are progg diehards themselves, but none of them had heard the name of the group, let alone the group itself.
Months go by, and all of a sudden, a short rather recent article comes my way, published in a local paper. I learnt that Slite Cement was quite popular locally, and that they had briefly reformed at one time. Could this be a breakthrough? I did another hunt for members on Facebook. I emailed one Anders Åström, but it seems that my message went unread. Given the information I found regarding Lampskensorkstern, Thomas Harlevi was ill, so I didn't want to bother him with his past, not knowing how he was doing.
I tried another Facebook-search for ”Slite Cement”, and since my last hunt for the truth, a Facebook group had been established, dedicated to the band; ”Cement (Slite)”! Despite the slightly anomalous
name for this Facebook group, it was obvious I had finally come to the right place. The group is administrated by Robin Johansson, the grandson of Cement member Björn Johansson, who sadly passed on years ago.
However, Robin couldn't help me with more specific details, but I learnt that ”Utmaningen” was recorded at local radio station Radio Gotland. Robin encouraged me to in fact email Thomas Harlevi, and I had a brief reply from him, telling me that he and bassist Stig Hjellström were the ones who released the recordings as a cassette tape. Then, our contact abruptly ended. According to an article published in the late 70's, also posted in the Facebook group, the original plan actually was releasing ”Utmaningen” on vinyl. Much later, they made CD-R copies of the recordings (possibly only to friends). No traces of a proper vinyl release, though. I haven't been able to confirm how many copies were made of the original release, but given that Slite Cement was a local act, not too many may have been made. Perhaps Hjellström and Harlevi made all the copies at home?
The Facebook page isn't that rich with information on the band, but reading an old paper clipping published in the Facebook group, the band came to life in 1973. The same article mentions 1977, the date of the recordings, as the band's high point, but they also say that the tracks recorded are ”tight, but rather uneven”. (I couldn't disagree more!) Members mentioned are Thomas Harlevi, drums; Stig Hjellström, bas; Tomas Jönsson, congas, and Björn Jansson vocals and guitar. The articles also says that Jansson could have used some better vocal technique, and they also slag him for writing lyrics that are too universal. Furthermore, the article do acknowledge Jansson's guitar playing, but adds that his solos are too long. Anyone who listens to the album can prove the writer wrong on all accounts.
Instrumentally, ”Utmaningen” is a tour de force, every bit as excellent as any of the better known heavy rock album from the Swedish 70's. Jansson is, at that, a better singer than many of his peers, with a powerful yet not overwrought delivery. As far as the songs go, there's not one single weak track in this collection. Had ”Utmaningen” been released as an LP in 1977, it would have fetched four digit sums today, counting in euros and dollars. The album is a true masterpiece, and it's a criminal shame that it's been kept in obscurity for all those decades. If there is one album deserving a proper reissue, then this is the one. It's unspeakably unfair that people must either go all Sherlock, or stumble upon by some weird chance to find out about it. It seems that ”Utmaningen” is stuck in an eternal loop of obscurity.
Below you'll find the entire album as Youtube links. As with most things with ”Utmaningen”, I haven't been able to find a correct track list, since most proper copies of it seems lost in the debris of time. Also, apoligies for the unsufficient covert art above. It's the only picture I've been able to find showing the album.
International relevance: **(*)
Any creator with a famous parent or two must have known it at some point in his or her career: the pressure of history heavy on the shoulders. Ask the Lennon kids, Jakob Dylan, or the entire clan of Wainwright siblings.
Mikael Ramel felt it too, being the son of Povel Ramel, the genius of words and music and a Swedish national treasure. Just about everyone in Sweden knows who Povel Ramel is. Most Swedes can hum a Povel tune. Povel entertained listeners, viewers and readers for an astonishing 70 years!
Mikael himself made his vinyl debut as a 16 year old in 1965, releasing a seven inch together with his dad, the elusive ”En ren familjeprodukt”. The following year, the equally rare ”Förvånansvärt” EP appeared. Around this time, Mikael became a member of Steampacket, an outfit that released a handful of singles, including the evocative ”Bara ett par dar” and the freakbeat classic ”Take Her Anytime”, as Steampacket II. Steampacket faced a bit of a hassle in the UK, as there was another band with the very same name active in Great Britain. A band that included, among others, a young Rod Stewart, why our beloved Swedes had to change their name to The Longboatmen before eventually settling for Steampacket II.
It wasn't until 1972 that Mikael Ramel burst loose as a solo performer. ”Till dej” was his first album bearing his own name in large latters on the cover. An album which is a major achievement in every way. He finally demonstrated what a genius he was in his own right, after being a talented team worker for years. ”I never thought about it”, says Mikael when I ask him about the transition from a group member to a solo artist. ”It probably felt just natural, since Steampacket broke up,” he speculates.
”Till dej” is everything that retro-progger Dungen tries to be. It's full of melodic twists, inventive arrangements, jammy portions and, most strikingly, lyrics pondering on man's place in society and in the world. That's not to say Mikael was, or is, a political writer in the same sense that many of his peers were. On the contrary, he's an unpolitical spectator of the world around him, reflecting on nature, drugs, the modern society and relations between people, often in a playful way. For instance, there are few songs with an anti-drug stance as rocking and captivating as ”Artifical Prana”. On recording the album, Mikael says that ”I remember the sessions to be full of curiousity, endless joy of playing and joy in general, plus persistence and purpose.” As for the burgeoning progg movement, he says ”I didn't care. It's time that made the phenomenon.”
With a keen sense of words and word play, it was obvious that parallells were to be drawn between Mikael and his dad. ”Yes, the older generation in particular – perhaps not that surprising... Sometimes, it was bothering. 'The man himself' really liked my solo debut. That, of course, was a kick.”
I can't help but wonder if Mikael was pushed in a certain direction when he was a kid; if he and his siblings felt any pressure to develop a strain of language similar to his father. ”Not at all!” he states. ”We were fashioned by our environment just like anybody else. Language was something obvious and natural to us. Nothing strange.”
Unfortunately, with the lyrics being in Swedish, foreign listeners miss out on many of ”Till dej's” excellent shadings. True, the songs, the playing and the production are top notch so there's still a whole lot to enjoy, but it's a pity that the linguistical shine is lost on listeners not familiar with the Swedish language. However, the CD reissues of ”Till dej” and subsequent albums feature some translated versions of a couple of Mikael's best early solo songs. There were plans to launch Mikael Ramel on the international market, but those plans eventually fell through. Even if these translations might be useful to foreign fans, truth is that they lose some of Ramel's natural flow and excellence in Swedish. They simply sound better in his native language.
”Till dej” was in the making for a year and a half, an amount of time which, back in the day, were close to an eternity. The seeds of the album were sown in the late 60's, and – according to Mikael Ramel's website – a little time behind bars got in the way of the album's completion. So what seems like a big gap between the last Steampacket II single in 1968, and ”Till dej” in 1972 isn't that huge after all when you think about it.
The line-up features some prominent players, such as Bengan Dahlén, Eric Dahbäck and Per Bruun from Fläsket Brinner, as well as Mats Glenngård and Bella Linnarsson of Kebnekajse fame. Not to mention Turid Lindquist, Bobo Stenson and Slim Notini. A solid bunch, perfectly suited to match the songs themselves. Just about every track on the album is a winner. The songs are so thoroughly written, so meticulously executed, that it's no wonder that the album still is as fresh as a vernal breeze. This is music that simply can't grow old, or ever lose its grace. The efforts put into ”Till dej” still pay off. ”I know,” Mikael assures, ”that younger generations assimilate the product as a 'holy' thing. That is, to understand 'future' you need to look into the 'past', and 'Till dej' is part of that, as an example of 'teaching'. It's certainly a kick to me to know that my music has staying power. I sometimes listen to 'Till dej', to compare it to what others say and think about it... I know in my very nails exactly how the record was made. What an effort it was. And how long it took to make it!”
If you can ignore the fact that the lyrics are part of the excellence, then this album is, just like the title translates, for you. When all is said and done, it will remain one of the finest Swedish efforts of the 70's. One of the finest Swedish efforts in general, actually.
Many kind thanks to Mikael Ramel for taking my time to reply to my questions!
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