I was very fortunate to spend a good deal of my late teens, twenties and early thirties holidaying and working in Scandinavia. Of course, I had travelled overseas before, but the opportunity to spend extended periods of time living among and working with ‘the locals’ gave me an appreciation of some different cultures that undoubtedly had a profound and lasting effect on me and still colours my attitudes to this day, although I have paid only one brief return visit (to Denmark & Sweden) since the end of the 80’s.
My first ‘port of call’ was Denmark – and specifically Copenhagen – where I spent many happy summers in company with my half-Danish girlfriend. Copenhagen is a great town for lovers and although my girlfriend and I were to part company by the end of the 70’s, I had fallen in love with the whole package; the girl, the country, the food, the egalitarianism of the culture – and the music.
Well, not all of it. The languages were a problem, for sure. I’ve heard Swedes dismiss Danish as a throat disease and it was many years before my English palate could wrap itself around the three extra vowels ( å, æ & ø in Danish & Norwegian) and the somewhat ‘smeared’ pronunciation of Danish, with so much of it emanating from the throat. My girlfriend’s little cousins used to bait me mercilessly by getting me to try to pronounce the name of that most Danish of desserts – rød grød med fløde – literally, red porridge with cream; a summer fruit compote, often made with redcurrants and served with a swirl of cream. Delicious to eat, hell to pronounce.
And so to to Scandinavian music…. I first visited Copenhagen in 1972 and was collected from the airport at Kastrup by my girlfriend and her Uncle. It was late evening and as we had to travel through the heart of the city to get to Valby where the family lived, he detoured along Istedgade, the main artery of Copenhagen’s red-light area. I’m not sure if he was testing me out to see if I was the usual bumptious Brit obsessed with Danish porn, but I think he was encouraged by my indifference. We got on very well in fact; away from his day job, he was a very competent jazz pianist in the John Taylor/Bill Evans mould and he introduced me to a lot of music that I still listen to now – the aforementioned Bill Evans, Taj Mahal, Dollar Brand and a number of Scandinavian bands, foremost among which were Culpeper’s Orchard.
There was a connection here. Several floors below in the functionally pleasant tower block where the family lived was the apartment of a young Danish singer/songwriter called Jørgen Thomsen. He was looking for musicians to work on his repertoire of songs and a chance meeting in the lift and a series of subsequent conversations with the girlfriend’s Uncle led to him joining the band (Kashmir) and playing electric piano on Jørgen’s first album for Sonet.
Kashmir even played at the Roskilde Festival in 1971, but Uncle was finding it hard to reconcile the demands of being a rockstar with his day job, so he left. However another member of that band – a guitarist and pedal steel player called Nils Tuxen had stayed in touch. He and drummer Ken Gudman had also left Kashmir and joined another local band – Culpeper’s Orchard. My first visit coincided with Culpeper playing some gigs in and around the city and we caught up with them at a gig at Copenhagen University. I was transfixed because they were great – and I will freely confess that my snobby English attitudes hadn’t anticipated that. Nils Tuxen’s country-ish style blended wonderfully with the blues influences of the other guitarist (probably Nils Henriksen) bassist Michael Friis played a fretless with real panache and Cy Nicklin was a strong frontman with a great voice that echoed Family’s Roger Chapman, except without that weird warbling thing he used to do. The songs were excellent, too and what’s more the lyrics were in English – because lyricist Cy was (and is) English. Before relocating to Denmark, he had even done some recording with an early version of English folk-rockers The Strawbs. Musically, it would be hard to say that Culpeper sounded exactly like anyone, but influences as diverse as Jefferson Airplane, Peter Green-era but post-blues Fleetwood Mac, early Genesis and the aforementioned Family all spring to mind. They mixed hard-hitting bluesy rock with more pastoral acoustic stuff and made it work brilliantly. Seized with enthusiasm, I rushed out to Fona in the city centre and bought a copy of the band’s most recent album, ‘Second Sight’.
I should really have pushed the boat out and bought a copy of the band’s eponymous first album as well and my failure to do so was to haunt me for the next 20 years. The first album was really a good deal more impressive than ‘Second Sight’ but it never occurred to me that I would have any problem picking up a copy at some point. Culpeper were recording for the German Polydor label who were well-known in the UK and with other European bands like Focus, PFM and Can now getting UK releases for their albums, I figured it would only be a question of time before Culpeper made a similar transition. For whatever reason, that never happened. I saw them play live again that summer at a Sunday afternoon free concert in the city’s Fælledparken, but Culpeper’s star was already on the wane. By the time I returned to Denmark 2 years later, they had released a third Polydor album ‘Going for a Song’ , which I have yet to hear all of , but which got pretty lukewarm reviews and sold poorly. Polydor dropped the band and issued a single disc ‘Best of’ album and that seemed to be that. But Culpeper were to have one final last hurrah.
Cy Nicklin on stage with Culpeper in the early 70’s
In 1976, I moved to Copenhagen permanently – or so I thought – and to my delight I discovered that the band were active again. They had shortened their name to simply ‘Culpeper’ (which was what everyone called them anyway) and had signed a deal with Sonet. The fourth (and to date, final) Culpeper album duly appeared in early 1977. Titled ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go’ it was a much more polished affair than any of the Polydor stuff. New guitarist Thomas Pugaard- Møller was a bit of an ‘effects wizard’, using synths and pedals to spritz up his sound and the whole album was much better produced – someone had been paying attention to what the likes of Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder had been up to in the studio. By any reckoning, ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go’ was a cracking album, but it proved to be the end of the road for Culpeper. Since then, all we’ve had are some bootlegged copies of the first two albums (of which more in a moment) and the proper re-release-with-extra-tracks job done on the same two albums by Karma Records of Copenhagen a few years back.
There was however one last bittersweet night in the winter of 76/77, when we saw the band play live on what was probably their final tour. The gig was at Saltlageret (The Salt Warehouse), an old building in the centre of town that had been converted into a delightful venue. As far as I can tell, it’s now been demolished and replaced with a Planetarium….. There I was introduced to Culpeper’s new drummer – another Brit – who, just like me, originated from Northamptonshire. His name was Tom McEwan and he had a day job as a presenter of children’s TV shows on Danish TV. He has since gone on to fame and fortune in Denmark as a stand-up comedian. Anyway, the band played up a storm that night, playing two lengthy sets and much of the new album, but also many old favourites, as well.
Talk of those ‘old favourites’ brings me back to the first (and probably the best) Culpeper album. I had recorded a copy of the album on to a cassette – one of the first cassettes I ever owned, assuming that I could and would pick up a copy of the vinyl album in due course. Yet, when I moved to Copenhagen in 1976 and tried to buy a copy, I was told that all of Culpeper’s Polydor albums had been deleted except for the ‘Best of’ collection. From that point onwards, I scoured second-hand record shops across the city and even junk shops in what proved a fruitless search for the album.
Equally fruitless were my attempts to settle in Denmark; the girlfriend and I were approaching the end of our long road together and I moved back to the UK in 1977. I thought that my Scandinavian adventures were over, but in fact I was to return within 4 years to a new country (Norway) and a whole new set of adventures. Think I’ll save that saga for another time….
As for the album, once the internet began to become a factor in everyone’s lives, I felt sure that I would eventually track down a copy. Sure enough, I would occasionally find some obscure website – often German in origin – where copies of the vinyl album would be advertised at ludicrous prices – over £100 in some cases. I nursed along my now geriatric cassette and waited. In reality, by the end of the 80’s, I was busily unloading my vinyl collection as fast as possible and moving over to CD. I am very unsentimental about vinyl and think the people who sing its praises these days need to get out more. From my point of view, CD’s are more economical in terms of storage, less easy to damage and have the possibility of a far longer playing time.
I know, I know; I’ve heard all the arguments about the alleged ‘warmth’ of the sound of vinyl compared to CD, but in all honesty, that stuff is for hi-fi nerds only in my opinion. Like most people of my age, I listen to music far less actively than I used to in my teens and twenties. Often music is on whilst I am writing or cooking or reading and as long as the reproduction has clarity, I am usually content. In point of fact, I don’t really think I heard Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Electric Ladyland‘ in the way he probably intended until I bought a remastered CD version. That had so much more depth than my old vinyl version, it was almost like listening to a totally different album.
Anyway, I blocked out the major items in my CD collection fairly early on, but there were (and still are, ‘Going for a Song’ for example) obscurities that continue to elude me. In those days (the early 90’s), there were 2 extremely good secondhand record shops in Birmingham City Centre – Swordfish and The Plastic Factory, of which only Swordfish remains. I was in The Plastic Factory one day when I had a moment of near epiphany as I came across both Culpeper’s first and second albums on CD. I won’t dwell on the moment but if you’ve ever finally tracked down something you’ve been looking for over a 20 year period, you may have an inkling of how I felt.
Of course, I was delighted to have both albums on CD and my wonderment only increased when I realised from the packaging that the label releasing the album (Progressive Line) were Australian…
Now, I am fairly sure that Progressive Line were bootleggers and whilst they may or may not have been based in Australia, another thing quickly became clear – the cd’s were actually vinyl transfers with all the associated clicks, pops and turntable rumble you get with vinyl. To make matters worse, the version of ‘Second Sight’ had a big scratch running through the central part of the album’s best track. Only once Karma Records released digital versions transcribed from the master tapes a few years back was this problem resolved.
My near 40-year obsession with this obscure but memorable Danish band is an itch that is still only three-quarters scratched. I have yet to hear ‘Going for a Song ‘ in its entirety and neither that or ‘All dressed up…’ are currently available on CD, though I do have an acceptable CD-R of the latter. The guy from Karma Records told me that he has no plans to release either, so that could well be it unless some kindly soul with a copy of ‘Going for a Song’ reads this and decides to take pity on an ageing vinyl junkie. If that person is you, my e-mail address is on the Front Page of the site. And I will be nominating you for sainthood, an Oscar and the Nobel Peace Prize….