“The Elephant Table Album: A Compilation of Difficult Music” (1983)

What do we mean when we describe music as “difficult”? I know I’ve done it before here on the blog, but I suspect it means different things to different people. Is it music with unusual timing signatures? Disturbing lyrics? Experimental work with sound that doesn’t fall into any kind of recognizable pattern or framework? Genres you don’t personally care for? Something that creates an unsettled mood in the listener? Or maybe all of the above… or none… I don’t know. When I use the term difficult, I usually mean something I find musically well outside of the norm, something I can’t quite wrap my mind around. This includes non-music and noise, as well as experimental and avantgarde. It’s music that challenges my preconceptions of what actually constitutes “music”, and I find it valuable in that it expands my mind. I don’t always like it, and often I only listen to a given album once, but that doesn’t mean the listening experience wasn’t valuable.

So I was intrigued when I ran across this record yesterday over at Easy Street Records, because it says right on the cover that it’s “a compilation of difficult music”. I wondered what that meant to the label, and the first artist name my eyes fell upon was Chris and Cosey. Hmm… I don’t normally think of them as difficult. Is that because I’ve listened to them a bunch over the last few months? A little further down is Coil. OK, I sort of get that, at least some of their stuff. Nurse With Wound. Now this is making a bit more sense. I only know a few of the other 17 performers (♠), specifically SPK, Muslimgauze, and Legendary Pink Dots. That gave me enough context to know that this was an album I needed to buy.

The genesis of The Elephant Table Album was an article Dave Henderson wrote for the May 7, 1983 issue of Sounds entitled “Wild Planet!” (the text of which can be found HERE). It was a survey of the more extreme music being made at the time, a listing of dozens of bands with blurbs on each. Four months after that article appeared this double album came out. I’m not sure how it was received at the time, nor do I know how I would have reacted to it back in 1983 (probably badly), but rough 36 years later in my living room it’s tremendous. 400 Blows’ “Beat the Devil” is a high point, along with the Chris and Cosey jam.

Styles mix on this album, though there’s still a general cohesion. The Elephant Table Album opens with an industrial dance track, Portion Control’s “Chew You to Bits”, then takes a sharp left turn to Chris and Cosey, though their “Raining Tears of Love” is less poppy than their later sound, a methodical electro dystopian dream sequence. From there we take another sudden swerve and find ourselves listening to horns and synths and piano and disconnectedly haunting vocals in the very avantgarde “Musak from Hawthorne Court” by Metamorphosis. And it just keeps going on like that, song after song, surprise after surprise.

I can’t say enough good things about The Elephant Table Album. It was re-released on vinyl in 1989 with a different set of liner notes, and that same year a CD version came out, though the CD only has 17 tracks. It also sounds like the CD version was actually recorded directly from a vinyl copy and not from the masters, so buyer beware.

(♠) The track listing on the reverse of the record goes up to 21. However, Muslimgauze is listed twice, both times numbered 9. So what’s the deal? Looking at the grooves on that side it looks like the record only has five tracks, which would mean that despite Muslimgauze being listed twice there is in fact only one track devoted to him on the record.