add to cart

First wooden guitar, circa 1958

First promo photo, 1965

The Blues Committee

At Holland Blues Fest

At Holland Blues Fest

Derek Hall, 1969

Oh Really!? cover art, 1969

Your Lovely Ways cover art, 1970. Regular (top) and misprint (bottom)

Mike Cooper, Bill Boazman, Stefan Grossman – Trout Steel session, 1970

Machine Gun Company at 100 Club

Machine Gun Company

With Joanna Pyne

The Recedents

Mississippi Delta Blues/Live from Papa Madeo, 1982

Uptown Hawaiians

Truth In the Abstract Blues, in Austria

Truth In the Abstract Blues, in Austria

White Shadows in the South Seas installation

White Shadows in the South Seas installation

With Steve Gunn

Following the Vinyl Trail of Mike "Drivin' Wheel" Cooper
by Byron Coley, July 2017

That there is a great new Mike Cooper album in 2017 is no surprise. Actually, Raft is something like the fourth great Mike Cooper album in the last year. And that's no real surprise either. As time itself has unwound, it is a rare cold bastard of an annum in which Mr. Cooper has not offered us a few beautiful slugs of his muse, a muse that knows more guises than your average cop knows donuts.

Of course, I claim no supreme knowledge of Cooper's oeuvre. The guy's got something like 65 albums out there, more than half of which were issued only on CD (or via his own CDR label, Hipshot). And while I have always been fond-as-hell of Mike Cooper's sound... man, there is a lotta stuff out there, and I haven't had a real job since the 1980s, so keeping up with everything is as tough on me as it is for the next guy and/or gal. Regardless, the powers-that-be felt I was sufficiently well-versed to provide some context on the vinyl portion of your inevitable Mike Cooper fandom. So here it goes.

Like most of the great names to emerge from the British folk boom, Cooper was born during the Second World War and grew up amidst a physical and psychic landscape marked by the wreckage of those years. As with many other hipsters, Mike was a trad jazz fan in the late '50s, and was turned onto R&B in the early '60s by Alexis Korner, and the American musicians who began touring the Isles at that time. He formed an electric combo, The Blues Committee, who got a lot of good gigs in the pre-Beat Boom era, and also performed solo folk and blues shows. While the band continued 'til '65, Cooper solidified his blues bonafides when he bought a National Steel guitar at the end of '63. He learned the Blind Boy Fuller songbook tout de suite, and had an epiphanic meeting with an itinerant Texan named Walker who taught him how to play slide with a miniature whiskey bottle. The combination of these elements created Cooper's early signature sound, which combined a very aggressive guitar attack with a more subtle Piedmont ragtime underlay.

“Like most of the great names to emerge from the British folk boom, Cooper was born during the Second World War and grew up amidst a physical and psychic landscape marked by the wreckage of those years.”

Cooper's first record was an EP recorded with fellow guitarist, Derek Hall, both of whom had a residency at a Reading folk club called The Shades. Issued on Kennett, the music on Out of the Shades is less overt bluesy than expected, with flashes of Wizz Jones, Davy Graham, and even Lonnie Donegan. A rare one, it was recently reissued by Paradise of Bachelors and is definitely of interest to fans of early UK folk moves. Cooper moved to London after this and began hanging and playing with local blues hounds like Dave and Jo Ann Kelly. Soon after, Cooper met Ian A. Anderson when Ian opened his legendary Folk Blues Bristol and West Club. Anderson was in cahoots with local label, SayDisc, which resulted in Cooper recording four songs for an EP called Up the Country Blues for the label. The EP is pretty scarce, and if anyone has an extra picture sleeve for it, contact me c/o FE. Thankfully, this material surfaced in a more graspable way when Ian convinced SayDisc to start the Matchbox sub-label in 1968. This resulted in a Cooper/Anderson split LP, Inverted World (which combined EP tracks with newly recorded material), and two volumes of the Blues Like Showers of Rain compilation LPs (the first of which also has some Cooper material). The SayDisc recordings are all in a trad blues vein and beautifully played and sung (if a bit straight).

At the end of '68, Cooper was signed by Pye Records producer, Peter Eden (best known as the guy who discovered Donovan). Eden took Mike into the studio to record his first solo album, Oh Really!?, which was a genuine blast of progressive acoustic blues, mostly solo and strong as hell. This was followed by Cooper's 1970 LP, Do I Know You?, which was (along with Trader Horne and Man) among the first batch of releases on Pye's new “progressive” sub-label, Dawn. Cooper had dropped his National Steel in favor of a big Gibson he bought off of Michael Chapman. He had also started writing his own songs, and this, combined with the presence of South African master bassist, Harry Miller, gives the album a flow recalling Van Morrison's Astral Weeks (which Cooper admits was a big influence). This is also the first time Cooper worked field recordings into the sonic mix — birdsong, church bells, and the sound of the sea all appear as musical elements. Additionally, the guy pictured with Cooper inside the gatefold is G.T. Moore, then a member of fellow Dawn artists, Heron. Cooper later guested on their second album Twice As Nice, and was in later Moore band in the '80s.

After Do I Know You?, Cooper took a writing break. He visited a friend in Spain, and decided he wanted to head in a new direction. He had met other members of Chris McGregor’s band through Harry Miller, and since Peter Eden was also producing John Surman’s early work (as well as that of Mike Westbrook’s band), Cooper had access to a great array of jazz musicians. The first real fruit of this was a 7” 33 RPM record, Your Lovely Ways, credited to Mike Cooper & Friends. A large ensemble (including Chris Spedding) backed Cooper for two long non-LP tracks that manage to evoke both Phil Ochs (ca. Greatest Hits), and early Mike Nesmith, with some very cool left-field instrumental arrangements. The experiment must have been dubbed a success. Trout Steel, recorded later in 1970 included many of the same players — Mike Osbourne, Roy Babbington, Alan Jackson, John Taylor, and many more, including Cooper's old pal from The Blues Committee, reed player Geoff Hawkins (who would be an important part of subsequent live bands). For this session, Cooper began to incorporate improvisation as an important element of his sound. Trout Steel's music ranges from a loose take on Tumbleweed-era Elton John to a glorious Pharoah Sanders tribute. It's a pretty interesting ride for an ostensible “folk” album. A couple of presumed out-takes from this session were released as another Dawn Maxi Single, Too Late Now. A new recording of a tune from Do I Know You?, a great Blind Boy Fuller tribute and a South Africa style horn instrumental. Hep!

Cooper's next band had its germ planted when he and Bill Boazman (another guitarist from Reading) were in Ghent Belgium. By pure serendipity, they walked in on a show by Peter Brotzmann's octet and had their brains melted. Mike bought a copy of Brotzmann's second LP, Machine Gun, and a new idea began to take hold. With Geoff Hawkins, Cooper assembled a sextet called Machine Gun Company. After gigging for a while (notably at the 1970 Hollywood Festival in Newcastle, which was the Dead’s UK debut), they went into the studio to cut a pair of LPs, Places I Know and Machine Gun Company. These were supposed to be released as a double album, but they were split into separate single LPs, screwing Cooper in the process, since the second part didn't come out until the band had split (this was rectified by Paradise of Bachelors recent reissue, which recast them as a double LP). Still, even singly, they're remarkable records. 1971's Places is a song suite (with guest players and Michael Gibbs's arrangements) taking a vaguely West Coast route that reminds me in spots of Terry Reid’s '73 classic, The River. Machine Gun (not released til '72) vibes a bit more like Tim Buckley’s Lorca, if it had free jazz and reggae touches. Heard as a pair, they would have been overwhelming, but even separate they still kill. That would be the end of Cooper's run with Peter Eden and Dawn, however, as the label was beginning to be wound down in late 1974. By which time, Cooper had split in disgust for Spain, where he was reportedly working as a fisherman.

“There are flashes of extreme whatsis in terms of arrangements, sproings of superb post-Canterbury freak-blow, and an edge that can get very frantic (in an almost glam/coke-saturated way) at times. But the overall heft is just beautiful, fucked-up mid-70s rock that’s really not like anything else.”

A year earlier, producer Tony Hall (known for his work with Hendrix and Black Sabbath) had started up a new label called Fresh Air, as a subsidiary of Phonogram. Tony lured Mike back to record his sixth LP, Life & Death in Paradise (long ago scheduled for reissue by New World of Sound, but still o/p). The basic band on this recording (referred to by Cooper as “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World”) is Mike Osbourne, Harry Miller and Louis Moholo — three of the best improv motherfuckers then resident in the UK. Still, the music here is usually far more “inside” than you might expect. There are flashes of extreme whatsis in terms of arrangements, sproings of superb post-Canterbury freak-blow, and an edge that can get very frantic (in an almost glam/coke-saturated way) at times. But the overall heft is just beautiful, fucked-up mid-70s rock that’s really not like anything else. A mélange of mersh/avant/blues/folk/rock/jazz shiteroo, Life & Death in Paradise is a most splendid anomaly with hints of everyone from Gram Parsons to Michael Hurley to the Welfare State.

Life & Death was, apart from some comp tracks, Cooper's last record released in the '70s. From this point, Cooper's adventures became ever more exotic. He moved to Heidelberg Germany for some time, reportedly hanging mostly with poets and actors. Eventually he returned to the UK in the latter part of the decade. And while he continued to perform his own version of folk-blues, his next record was a duet with dancer Joanna Pyne called 'ave They Started Yet? on Eddie Prévost’s Matchless label. As on Derek Bailey’s collaboration with Min Tanaka, Music And Dance, Pyne's sonic presence is often felt more than heard (although she does add some cool vocal blats, as does Mike). Cooper's playing here is in the table-top style, using his National Steel on one side and his Gibson SJM on the flip. The sound is beautifully abstract and noisy (as well as being quite percussive on the A-side), and it's clear Cooper has interests and techniques beyond the ken of his peers. The album was recorded on tour in early 1980. During this period, Cooper began to form friendships with many of the players who were involved with the newly formed London Musician's Collective. Which took him ever deeper into the forests of improvisation.

His next LP was FMP's Johnny Rondo Duo with Mike Cooper. The Johnny Rondo outfit was originally a trio with cellist Colin Wood, but by May 1980 it had devolved to the duo of soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill and pianist David Holland. Recorded live in Berlin, the album's tone seems to be set by Lol, whose brilliant balance between high art, low art, folk invention, free improv and sheer camp will never be equaled. Holland's piano matches Coxhill's sax moves, and Cooper's playing here has a definite Derek Bailey cast to it. A sort of plink-plonk seriousness mixed with riff jockeying that works very well in the context of the whole. Still, he shoulda been mixed a little louder. Nonetheless, this album also marks the beginning of Mike's long and fruitful relationship with Coxhill.

“Mike's work shines on drum box and coat rack as much as on his distinctive slide guitar, which is beginning to display a certain slack key vibration.”

Cooper would play alongside the Bald Soprano live and on various records, and together with British master drummer, Roger Turner, they would form The Recedents. The trio's name referred to their collective hairline. During their lifespan (from 1982 until Coxhill's death in 2012) they'd get together for tours when they felt like it and always seemed to have a good time. They released two albums on Nato, Barbecue Strut and the CD only Zombie Bloodbath on the Isle of Dogs. After they were gone, the Polish Freeform Association label issued an expansive five CD box called Wishing You Were Here, which I am very tempted to buy despite its format. Like many of the best UK and Dutch improvising units, the Recedents mixed rigorously intellectual material with a more cartoonish approach, creating hypnotically compelling music with both regular instruments and off-bits of all types. Mike's work shines on drum box and coat rack as much as on his distinctive slide guitar, which is beginning to display a certain slack key vibration.

But we've gotten out of order. After the Johnny Rondo album, Cooper's next two LP releases were blues-based. Recorded in May 1982, Mississippi Delta Blues/Live from Papa Madeo on the German LTR label, documents a solo set at a blues bar in Cologne. Playing and singing tunes by Fred McDowell, Son House, and Robert Johnson it's a beautiful — if very traditional — program. And 1985 saw the release of a full-on blues band collaboration with old friend, Ian A. Anderson, Continuous Preaching Blues on the Italian Appaloosa label. This was an electric blues quintet with Maggie Holland (Anderson's partner from Hot Vultures), British guitarist Michael Messer, and drummer Geoff Nichols (who had turned to blues after his days with Principal Edwards). For an electric blues record of the modern era, it kicks total ass with a great slide-heavy sound. Crazy.

The aforementioned Coxhill was also a presence on Cooper's first recordings of Hawaiian music. 1987's Aveklei Uptowns Hawaiians was a 10” on Nato, credited to Cooper and French string player, Cyril Lefebvre (founder of French underground legends Maajun), but the musicians included Steve Beresford , Max Eastley, and Frank Ricotti among others. The record is a somewhat antic approach to a vision of Hawaiian/South Pacific music that seems equally informed by Exotica, kitschy budget Tropical Sounds-type records, and actual slack-key guitar. The group started calling themselves the Uptown Hawaiians and actually played a few shows. But this would be Cooper's last vinyl issue for a good long while.

For the rest of the '80s and the early '90s, Cooper didn't record, but played with a wide variety of people, most of whom were drawn from the improvisational scene. Many of these groups reportedly played music other than free improv, but infused whatever style they happened to be doing with a free improv aesthetic. Be cool if some of it came out on vinyl some time.

In 1988, Cooper moved to Rome. And in the mid '90s, he made his first trip to the Pacific — a journey that made a deep impression on him and his work. In Rome, convinced no one else gave a hoot, Cooper began his own label, Hipshot, which has released a vast array of CDRs in the intervening decades. Most of these are outside my purview here. But the very first Hipshot CDR from 1999, Kiribati, was vinylized by the British Discrepant label as New Kiribati in 2016. I am not familiar with the original version, except in small bits. But this seems to be a very similar but not an exact reissue, since the timings of the tunes are variant. Regardless, this album was an important one for Cooper. It was his first serious attempt at defining his love for the Pacific. Dedicated to the residents of Kiribati (aka the Gilbert Islands) whose country is disappearing as sea levels rise, there is a bit of slack key style guitar here, but the vast bulk of the music is a collage of field recordings from the Pacific region, and what I assume to be electronics. Cooper considers this the first volume of a trilogy (which includes Globe Notes and Rayon Hula), dedicated to exploring the region's cultures. I remember reading a UK interview somewhere accusing Mike of cultural imperialism when this came out, but as I recall they were unable to make much of a case.

“Less overtly ‘Pacific’ in style, the playing is a bit more wobbly and open-ended, hanging from tree branches like a lonely python, flexing aimlessly amidst the clamor of birds and tropical storms, above an undergrowth of electronic percussion and kuck.”

The next vinyl Cooper issued was 2000's World Slide 12” on the UK Ethbo label. Recorded in his kitchen in Rome, the three tracks are pretty nuts. Using some sort of DIY looping set-up, he layers slack-key slide guitar with strange rhythm tracks and lots of grit. There's also a re-imagination of Skip James's “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” that's pretty great. It's far from the original in tone and content, but that is the very nature of the völk tradition, neh?

The conceptual follow-up to Kribati was Globe Notes, released as a Hipshot CDR in 2003 and reissued on LP as New Globe Notes with a nice booklet by the Italian No-Fi label in 2014. Again, the mix is guitar, electronics and samples, but this time the weight is canted more towards the guitar. Less overtly “Pacific” in style, the playing is a bit more wobbly and open-ended, hanging from tree branches like a lonely python, flexing aimlessly amidst the clamor of birds and tropical storms, above an undergrowth of electronic percussion and kuck. The booklet has fine essays by David Toop, Cooper and Valerio Mannucci, explaining the context in which the music was created. Of particular note is its relationship to “ghost islands,” a concept I'd not run into before, but which I find immensely appealing.

Rayon Hula is a double 10” on Cabin Records, originally issued in 2004 as a Hipshot CDR. Subtitled “A Tribute to Arthur Lyman and Ellery Chun,” it completes the original Ambient Electronic Exotica trilogy. The music here is based on samples of Lyman's Exotica LPs, layered and trigged by Cooper's lap steel guitar playing, purportedly based on patterns he has discerned amidst his very impressive collection of Hawaiian shirts. This is where Mr. Chun comes in — Chun was the popularizer of the Hawaiian shirt, a creation without which, Cooper would need to stride around half naked. The music is strange and lovely. Guitar music drifts around in the air, up through the surface noise of the sampled Lyman discs, with field recordings of birds stirred into the mix, often focused more on creating ambience than overt melodies. There are distinct melodies present. They're just fractured and put back together in collage patterns that make them less than immediately apparent. It's a lovely outing, and rightfully considered one of the classics in Cooper's discography.

Reluctant Swimmer/Virtual Surfer, newly released on the UK Discrepant label, reissues a 2005 Hipshot release. Recorded live at the 2003 Controindicazioni Festival in Rome, the music is guitar-based, but completely soaked in real time sampling of the guitar itself, field-recordings and various flotsam. It's very much a live evocation of the mix Cooper did so beautifully on Rayon Hula, stripped of some Pacific musical references, although thoroughly aquatic. Two of the four pieces are covers — the sentimental “Movies Is Magic” (which Van Dyke Parks wrote for the Orange Crate Art LP he did with Brian Wilson) and the sublime “Dolphins” (the Fred Neil classic, perfected by Tim Buckley long before he finally recorded it on Sefronia) — both of which Cooper approaches with an equal measure of melodicism and dissonance. His technique vis-a-vis solo improvisation is rich and unique, comparable to a few contempo electronics guys (fennesz, O'Rourke, etc.), and quite wonderful.

“It's a boss, low-key piece of weird-air, not really like anything else in the discog. I particularly like how upset the dog gets by the sampled birdsong.”

While Hipshot continued to spit out CDRs, Cooper's next pair of LPs came to us courtesy of Emanuelle Pinotti's QBICO label. 2006's Tu Fuego was recorded in Wellington New Zealand a year earlier, with NZ-based improvisers in sax (Jeff Henderson), bass (Tom Callwood), and drums (Anthony Donaldson). Cooper plays lap steel and electronics, and while every copy I've had of this has surface noise, the music is pretty cool. Imagined in the spirit of Ayler’s “Ghosts,” Sanders's “Lower Egypt”, and Ornette’s “Storyteller,” the one improvised piece that fills the album is scruffy and a bit lop-sided. Cooper's guitar, when it pops up, provides something of tonal center, but the way everything else skitters around has a certain charm. And hey, it's always good to hear free improv from New Zealand. There's not enough of it on record! 2009's Live @ The Hint House was recorded in 2000, during Cooper's first American tour. On this tour he'd do one set of acoustic country blues material to satisfy the oldsters in the audience, and follow that with a table-top set for the youngsters. On this particular night, at No Neck's space up on 131st St. in Harlem, Cooper was having technical problems with his set-up for the second portion, so he just plays a sampler and some pedals and soaks up the ambience of the night. It's a boss, low-key piece of weird-air, not really like anything else in the discog. I particularly like how upset the dog gets by the sampled birdsong. Listen closely and you can hear FE's own Kristin Anderson breathing it all in.

Originally released by Hipshot in 2010, Blue Guitar has just been treated to vinyl existence by Idea. This album marks a certain return to Cooper's roots, in as much as he is playing the guitar in a “standard” way, and also singing. But the music and lyrics are both the result of “cut-up” collaging. Using techniques pioneered by Burroughs, Gysin, and Sommerville, unrelated, seemingly-random elements are tossed together, to see what kind of frisson results. The approach can take you in a lot of unexpected directions, as the songs do here. The base musical material is guitar played in a variety of traditional Mediterranean styles, although full advantage is taken of many “extended techniques.” These include not only Bailey-esque tone-clucks, but electronics as well. The lyrics draw on Thomas Pynchon, Michael Ondaatje, and others, as well as incorporating Tom Phillips's palimpsestic “cut through” approach to word organization. The results are bracingly intellectual, and also manage to sound fucking great.

Recorded live in Rome during February 2010, Tell Me, by Truth In the Abstract Blues, was released by Ethbo in 2014. At this juncture the band (which still exists, often as a quartet) was trio with Cooper, bassist Roberto Bellatalla (an active free jazz player since the mid '70s) and drummer Fabrizio Spera (a younger player with roots in all forms of Musique Actuel). The explicit concept of the band is to blend traditional blues material with free rock and free jazz vocabularies. This may call to mind efforts by Capt. Beefheart or Loren Connors, but the actual sound is crazier. Cooper often starts things by playing basic blues classics while the rhythm section explodes around him in all directions. Then, at a certain point, his guitar lines (but not vocals) start freaking out as well. It is a hell of a bodacious sound, and the cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” is more messed-up than John Cale’s.

White Shadows in the South Seas was originally issued on CD in 2013, then re-made as a double LP by the British Sacred Summits label in 2015. In a way, the music here is the most direct follow-up to Rayon Hula. It was inspired by a movie of same name which Cooper used to present as part of his silent film/live music series. Later, he created a sound installation using the same title at Rome's Teatro In Scatola as part of an international exhibit in 2014. The installation included South Pacific items, a super 8 film Cooper made which was projected through layers of mosquito netting, Hawaiian shirts, and some of this music. The overall heft is less dreamy and Lyman-damaged than Rayon Hula, but the music revolves around many of the same types of lap steel motifs. This time, however, the ambience is mixed with lazily aggressive rhythm patterns in as many places as it's accompanied by recordings of tropical birdsong and insect buzz. Maybe they're supposed to represent waves.

In 2014 the RVNG INTL label released Cantos de Lisboa as Volume 11 in its FRKWYS series (which pairs younger musicians with more experienced ones). It was an inspired choice. The session, recorded in Lisbon over the course of a week or so in 2013, is great. Steve Gunn, who first surfaced as part of GHQ with Marcia Bassett and Pete Nolan, has really come into his own as a player. Both his cleanly picked notes and vocals have a wonderful clarity for much of this set. And Cooper weaves his slide and sluff through every loop Steve leaves open. A very organic pairing, although the best parts may well be where they both head into freak-noise terrain and you really can't tell them apart.

“The guitar playing here has very few touches of the South Pacific. The lines roll more continuously, like waves emanating from a central point, headed for the infinite horizon.”

Back in the South Pacific mode, Cooper's first LP for 2015 was Fratello Mare (“Brother Wind”) on Lawrence English’s Room40 label. The album was named in tribute not to Sun Ra’s My Brother the Wind, but to the 1975 documentary by Italian filmmaker, Folco Quilici, a pioneer in the realm of underwater cinematography. Growing out of the style explored on White Shadows, the music here mixes gamelanic passages and percussion samples with a slide guitar approach that combines dreamy anti-gravity with some of the angularity displayed on Blue Guitar. The overall mood reminds me of some of the better jazzily ambient electronica I've heard, but I would be a goddamn liar if I claimed I could name names in that area.

Also released in 2015 was Light On a Wall on the Italian Backwards label. This is another album of “spirit songs,” the form first realized on Blue Guitar. Recorded for Radio Lebanon in August 2012, the music here is much less settled than on that earlier album. Cooper plays his Vietnamese lap steel through noisily heavy effects, and there's a very ominous vibe to the whole set, capped by a cover of Dylan's “Masters of War.” I'm currently voting this one the loudest record in his catalog.

All of which leads up to Cooper's new LP, Raft, on Room 40. The concept of this album is to celebrate the lives and legends of people who took to the water in rafts, in the manner of the first people to populate his beloved Oceania. Noted are the Spanish economics professor, Vital Alsar, the late German-American adventurer William Wills, and an old English friend named Jim Sale. The pieces are titled after routes explored by the first two of these men, and the music is a meditation on the travails and wonderments of solitude amidst vast expanses. The guitar playing here has very few touches of the South Pacific. The lines roll more continuously, like waves emanating from a central point, headed for the infinite horizon. Some other tracks mix noisier elements with a mock gamelan approach he's tried out a few times in the past, and while there's not the massive avian element that's present in much of his recent work, I swear I catch hints of it in spots.

Having spent the last fortnight submerged in the sounds of Mike Cooper, I'm feeling a bit sad I didn't make the effort to attack all the CDRs and cassettes and whatnot, 'cause I have the distinct impression that all this stuff fits together pretty seamlessly, especially if you explore the music made by those '80s bands that never cut records, other projects that were one-offs (or short-lived), and so on. Knowing Mike Cooper's music in a scattershot way was pretty goddamn rewarding in itself, but spending some time observing its weird evolutions and paths is kinda mind-blowing. Start your collection today.

Related Products: