Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tony Roman R.I.P.

I was in the middle of writing my second Michel Pagliaro post when I read that Tony Roman had died.

Tony Roman had a successful singing career in the mid 60’s as “Mr. Ye Ye” of
Quebec, a dubious honor perhaps. He covered American and British pop hits in the manner of Johnny Hallyday, which is to say adequately but invariably inferior to the original. He was immensely popular, but his records are not quite up my alley. However, he was to make a bigger splash as a producer, label owner, and discoverer of talent. On a trip to New York City, he heard Nannette Workman sing in a nightclub and convinced her to move to Montreal, despite her inability to speak a word of French. She still lives in Quebec today and has had a long and successful career there singing in French.
In addition to scouting talent, Roman was also keeping his ears open to new sounds, specifically the productions of George Martin and Shadow Morton, as well as the more outré sounds emanating from the underground. On his CANUSA and Revolution labels he began putting out some mind-numbing records, most with little information on them, save the words “FREAK OUT TOTAL” printed on the rear cover. There was the Les Malidictus Sound record, a record that offers a funky, freaky take on the type of sounds Pierre Henry was making at the time. The artist behind the record is Jean-Pierre Massiera, a recent arrival to Montreal from France. The record production is credited to Tony Roman and Jean-Pierre Massiera, but I’ve read that Massiera recorded the album in Nice before leaving France and brought the tapes to Montreal. Regardless, even if he had nothing to do with the sound of the record, Roman had the watermelon-sized balls to put it out, as it was not a commercial project by anyone’s standards. Not only that, but he put it out twice, once as “Les Maledictus Sound” on the CANUSA label and once as “Revolution 9” (with the “Freak Out Total!” tag on the back) on his Revolution label.
The record is indeed a tad weird. Massiera uses a sonic palette that contains both inhuman screams of the damned (really!) and pleasant whistling and kazoo melodies, yet somehow never reveals if he prefers one to the other. His work is peppered with enough breakbeats and fuzz guitar to appeal to rare funk and psych collectors (famed New York City cratedigger Dan the Beat Man put “Kriminal Theme” on one of his Dusty Fingers compilations) but his biggest following is probably among fans of exotica and international pop. For every funky or fuzzy track, there are a couple library jazz themes or string laden mood pieces (and don’t forget that kazoo!). However, all of it is done well, and it certainly compares with France Lai or Quincy Jones’ film scoring work from the same time period.
The next records to bear the Freak Out Total badge were all definitely homegrown product. They were the Ouba album and Reels Psychadeliques volumes 1 and 2. All three records were products of jam sessions with the same basic group of musicians: Michel Pagliaro, Tony Roman, Denis Lepage, and Andy Shorter. I would assume Pagliaro played guitar, Lepage was on keyboards and Shorter played drums. I suppose this means Roman played bass, but that still doesn’t explain who’s playing violin on all the reels!
The Ouba record is freeform weirdness from end to end, sounding like a more primitive version of “Interstellar Overdrive” era Pink Floyd or the more rockist moments of early Can. It is also one of the most expensive Montreal psych records and I don’t own it! It has been reissued on CD, for those of you like that sort of thing. The Reels records have moments of genuine gaga freakiness mixed with relatively placid Quebecois violin reels; a truly strange juxtaposition. Besides Pagliaro and Roman, the other half of the ensemble are no slouches. Denis Lepage went on to riches and a sort of fame as one half (along with his wife) of the faceless international disco sensation, Lime. They recorded almost all of their worldwide hits in their home studio in their Montreal house. Andy Shorter still plays drums in jazz combos in Montreal to this day (a recent tribute to Montreal born and bred Oscar Peterson here in New York reminded me of Montreal’s rep as a jazz town as well).


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