“Ramases: Complete Discography” is truth in advertising, unfortunately. A house fire claimed demo tapes for what was to be the third album by the eccentric British singer-songwriter. Otherwise, it’s all here.
The release of this six-CD box set is found treasure for the cult of Ramases, such as it is. Only a thousand physical copies are being produced of “Ramases: Complete Discography,” reflecting the artist’s deep obscurity.
Yet this is no rote kitchen-sink project. The record label owner, actor Peter Stormare, whose fandom goes back to Ramases’ 1971 debut album, has crafted two outstanding and unique discs from the limited catalog:
One, a significant sonic restoration of Ramases’ troubled second album; the other an unusually viable tribute album from contemporary artists. Both reveal the extent to which the late Ramases’ music transcended its space and time.
Who? Let’s back up a bit. Back to the dawn of the 1970s.
Barrington Frost, a British central-heating contractor, one day proclaimed himself the reincarnation of Egyptian Ramesses II. A big man with big ambitions, he took on the music business cloaked in the robes of a pharaoh. Along for the ride was his wife, also a singer who took the name of an Egyptian goddess.
First, there were some strange singles in the late Sixties. Then “Space Hymns,” the first complete work, emerged in 1971, in the dimming of the original psychedelic era.
Looking back, “Space Hymns” serves as one bridge between the folk-tinged psychedelia of the 1960s and the space rock/prog rock of the 1970s. Maybe a cross between the Incredible String Band and Hawkwind. It anticipates the late-century mash-ups of Arabic music and rock, as well as the neo-psychedelic folk movement of the new century. Ramases’ background as a jazz singer added a layer of sophistication unusual to his era and genres.
Hardcore 10cc fans know the album as an early group effort from Lol Creme, Kevin Godley, Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, all of whom backed Ramases. (The record marked the debut of the bandleaders’ Gizmotron effects device.)
Background vocals came from Ramases’ wife, now known as Selket. Decades later, she provided the producers of the Ramases collection with invaluable assistance, starting with providing the true birth name of Ramases.
A young Stormare (“Fargo”) was one of the few reached by the music and message of “Space Hymns”:
Stormare says he was “a young kid growing up with a strong belief in Cosmic, Eternal Almighty. … With the arrival of ‘Space Hymns,’ I fully come out of the closet (as a spiritual being). I loved it and I lived it. For me it was a platform I could stand on to trampoline myself into this world without any more fears. I was finally me.”
The second coming of Ramases proved far more problematic. “Glass Top Coffin” couldn’t obscure the talent of its artist, but producer Barry Kirsch and orchestral arranger Rob Young tried their best. The 1975 album plays, at times, like a space-hippie musical, awash in strings and pretensions — good songs ambushed by bad taste and bad musical fashion. The work proved too big for the duo to perform live, a career killer.
The title “Glass Top Coffin” was sadly prophetic, as Ramases/Frost took his own life the following year. “He was a beautiful, beautiful soul who wanted something maybe that was a little bit too early for his time,” Stormare says. “Maybe today he would have fitted in better.”
“Ramases: Complete Discography” includes both albums, originally released on the Verigo label, with contemporary sonic upgrades.
The bonus disc for “Glass Top Coffin” is a revelation, however, along the lines of the Beatles’ “Let It Be … Naked.” Michael Vail Blum‘s remixes strip away or bury much of the excess instrumentation and “things that were done without the band’s knowledge,” leaving behind a second breathtaking Ramases work. (The studio communications are spell-breakers, unfortunately.)
There’s a bonus track, the wonderful “This Was the World,” included at the end. We hear an engineer quickly dismiss Ramases’ performance as “a little bit shaky,” offering a clue as to the vibes in the studio.
“Space Hymns” gets its own bonus disc, but as fans know the original album needed little help. The vocals and instruments have plenty of room to breathe with this new presentation. Selket’s harmonies benefit greatly, and can be appreciated along the lines of Wendy Smith’s work in Prefab Sprout.
The tribute album includes no name brands — mostly talented MySpace dwellers of the Millennial vintage. They include Leaf Peeper (Matt Brown), Nick Eberhardt, State and Madison, Duvestar, Julia Othmer and one Blonde From Fargo (Stormare, a musician).
Stormare’s label, Stormvox, did ace work with the packaging, providing extensive “notes and commentary” and fine artwork from “devoted fan” David Tibet. (Here’s hoping the Grammy voters will somehow get a chance to weigh in on this project.)
Liner notes: Selket (Dorothy Laflin) emerged from obscurity in connection with this collection. Stormvox recorded a detailed interview with her that’s a must-listen for those intrigued by the Ramases music and story. Topics include the “very disturbing” outcome of the duo’s relationship with 10cc and manager Harvey Liberg (Herman’s Hermits); the never-to-be third album; and Ramases’ depressions and suicidal tendencies. “It was a strange life” but “there was always something happening,” recalls Selket, who says she’s gladly do it all over again. The videos follow: