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Off the Beaten Tracks: Super Cooper

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A GUIDED tour of my record shelves will discover nestling between Ry Cooder and Elvis Costello a musician who, while hardly a household name, rightly belongs in such illustrious company. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mike Cooper, a singer and guitarist who as a young man lit up the British blues scene and was responsible for one of my all-time favourite albums, Do I Know You?, along with more than 40 others.

The story begins in Reading, Berkshire, where Michael Cooper was born on August 24, 1942. At the age of eleven he emigrated with his family to Australia where, he told M Magazine,  he listened to a lot of radio, ‘had a reputation for climbing extremely high trees and singing at the top of my voice from the top of the tree. My favourite song at that time was Rose Marie by Slim Whitman who released it in 1954. It was at number one on the UK singles chart that year’.

Returning to Reading in the late Fifties, Cooper took up the guitar and played with skiffle groups before gravitating to the jazz and blues scene. He formed an R & B group, the Blues Committee, who played alongside visiting Americans including Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson and John Lee Hooker.

He also appeared as a solo act and ran a folk club. I have seen it stated as fact that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards hung out there and asked him to join their band but he refused and the job went to Brian Jones. Mike assures me that this is completely untrue.

In 1965 he recorded an independently released EP, Out of the Shades, with guitarist Derek Hall. One of the few who bought it was record producer Peter Eden, who made it his business to have Cooper sign for Pye Records.

In 1968 Cooper released an acoustic blues album, Oh Really?, which includes covers of Son House’s Death Letter, Bad Luck Blues by Blind Boy Fuller and Bessie Smith’s Send Me To The Electric Chair. More importantly it comprises several original compositions. Heavily featured is Cooper’s much-loved 1930s National Tricone steel guitar.

Round about the same time he was recording Oh Really?, Mike put down several tracks with Ian Anderson (who later became Ian A Anderson to differentiate him from the Jethro Tull frontman). Some appeared on a compilation album, Blues Like Showers of Rain, others on an LP named The Inverted World. 

Cooper’s writing and singing blossomed in the ensuing year or so. Released on Pye’s new progressive label Dawn, 1970’s Do I Know You has been a treasured possession for half a century. Amazing that it was recorded in only two days while Cooper had a streaming cold, which gave a nasal tinge to his vocal performances. He handled all the guitar work himself, the only other musicians involved being the South African jazz double bass player Harry Miller and a backing singer billed on the cover as Poor Little Anne. As on all Cooper’s Pye/Dawn releases, Peter Eden handled the production and very well too.

The first thing that strikes you about the album is the joyous, pounding energy of the opening instrumental, The Link. I have seen this described as a ‘modal piece which uses open tunings and drones, full of driving power and fluency’. I have been unable to find an individual YouTube link to this track but here is the whole album. 

Next up is the mournful Journey to the East and then it’s back to muscular guitar work on the excellent First Song. In an early taste of ambient recording, this is followed by an interlude of mainly curlew-based birdsong which blends into another vocal highlight, Thinking Back. Further favourites include Too Late Now, the lovely title track, which is introduced by church bells, and the closing selection, Looking Back, with sterling work from Harry Miller, who would become an increasing influence on Cooper.

After hearing Mike on John Peel’s radio programme I was lucky to happen upon a cheap second-hand copy of Do I Know You at my local record shop and played it to death. It was on particularly heavy vinyl which managed to withstand everything thrown at it. Eventually, in a drunken moment of madness, I sold it to my friend Steve and instantly regretted it. He refused to sell it back to me at any price and by then it had been deleted so I was mightily relieved to find another used copy some months later. It’s one of those special records that never lose their charm.

Buoyed by enthusiastic reviews, with Cooper inspired to great creativity by long visits to Andalusia, Peter Eden managed to secure an increased budget for subsequent records. Your Lovely Ways Parts 1 and 2, also released in 1970, was described as a maxi-single; in another words an EP. (On the same day Dawn released In The Summertime, by Mungo Jerry, which proved a lot more successful. Heaven knows what the reaction to its lyrics If her daddy’s rich take her out for a meal, if her daddy’s poor just do what you feel would be today.)

Part 1 of Your Lovely Ways is a gentle love song which would not be out of place on Do I Know You while on Part 2 Harry Miller and his jazzer mates cut loose on an instrumental whose highlight is an amazing saxophone note at around the 6min 15sec mark.

This was a hint of what was to come on the 1971 album Trout Steel. The website cooparia.com says: ‘Although he only appears on a couple of tracks on Do I Know You the experience of recording with a musician of Harry Miller’s calibre and ability to improvise was a revelation to Cooper and would influence his musical direction in the future and his approach to recording. Cooper realised that if you came with an idea of a song and had musicians who could improvise they could decide the final result and you ended up with a more spontaneous piece of music than if you attempted to impose arrangements. Cooper couldn’t (and still doesn’t) read or write music and didn’t have the ability to come in with arrangements anyway. As long as you were prepared to “go with the flow” and didn’t have too many pre-conceived ideas about where it was all going to go things would be interesting and you would end up in some pleasantly surprising places.’ 

Trout Steel was recorded in London in the late summer of 1970. Cooper said: ‘It plunged right into the ideas for using the jazz musicians while continuing the songwriting project. I wanted a lot of variety on that one. I went in with just the songs and my guitar, and the arrangements were created in the studio by the other people playing. It’s a very, very spontaneous recording, done in less than a week.’

The first track, That’s How, is a wistful performance again underpinned by Miller’s string bass. Sitting Here Watching keeps up the good work while I’ve Got Mine is a 12-minute epic which sometimes seems to be wandering but comes back together in brilliant moments. Sadly, the only other Trout Steel track I can find on YouTube is this, Hope You See

The 1972 LP Places I Know was represented even less on YT. When I began researching this column there was just the one track available, the long and dreamy Time to Time. However, thanks to our techie genius son Jim, and with Mike’s permission, I was able to add two of his finest songs, the lovely title track and Now I Know. Cooper described Places as ‘my singer/songwriter LP, reflecting all the things I had been listening to at the time’. These included Randy Newman, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Tim Buckley, not a bad set of influences.

He had intended this to be a double album, with the second disc concentrating on the type of music he performed live. This eventually emerged as a separate release, The Machine Gun Company, which rapidly sank without trace. In a long and helpful email, Mike told me: ‘Machine Gun Company was my performing band at that time; all musicians from Reading where I lived. They were not connected to the “jazzers” on Trout Steel and only Geoff Hawkins the saxophone player was a “jazz musician” for want of a label. The others came from folk, rock and soul backgrounds. That is an important album for me again because of the way it was constructed – a very improvisational method of trying to make a rock record that didn’t sound like other rock records not least because it didn’t have guitar solos and the dominant lead solo is a very free saxophone played by Geoff. Musically it had some very complex ideas in it as well. Alan Cooke plays a whole tone scale intro at one point. There are also some early attempts at “dub” mixing in it – not a common thing at the time. There is no “rock drumming” on it either. We went out of our way to find the drummer who didn’t play generic rock drums and who also wasn’t averse to us “preparing” his snare drum with gaffer tape and towels for instance so it couldn’t sound like a rock drum kit.’ 

Cooper’s first five albums are now available on a highly recommended three-CD set from Beat Goes On records. It’s worth the money for Do I Know You alone.

In 1975 came Life and Death in Paradise. According to Mike, this ‘has its own story and marked for me a reunion with some of my “jazz pals” from the Trout Steel sessions – Harry Miller, Mike Osborne and Louis Moholo amongst them. That was a dream trio for me. Unfortunately that record suffered from a limited budget leading to a less than perfect sounding record but it has some strong and funky stuff on it and my songs are strong and the musicians play some wicked stuff on it. There is a story about its afterlife which is much more interesting than talking about the Rolling Stones . . . which I won’t go into here but it’s available on my Bandcamp site.’

And that marked the end of Cooper’s mainstream (!) work. He moved into the experimental music field, working with Lol Coxhill among others, but became increasingly interested in the sounds of the Pacific, on which he is now a world-renowned expert. Here is an example, the delightful Rayon Hula.

Mike tells me: ‘Rayon Hula is the third in a series of records which come under the generic title of what I like to call Ambient/Electronic/Exotica. The first two are Kiribati and then Globenotes. They all appeared first of all on my own Hipshot CDR label starting in 1999. I closed Hipshot in 2009. They all stem partially from my interest in Hawaiian and Pacific Island music and culture. There is only one record where I actually play Hawaiian music and that is Avec Lei Uptown Hawaiians which came out on the French Chabada label and it features some of my 80s jazz and improvised music friends that I managed to get to play on it. Friends with musically open minds similar to my own. The Ambient/Electronic/Exotica series now number six – all of which are released by Room40 Records from Australia and number seven will be out this month titled Playing With Water. The complete set are Kiribati; Globe Notes; Rayon Hula; White Shadows In The South Seas; Fratello Mare; Raft and then Playing With Water. Some of those are on YouTube, here, hereherehere and here.’

And that, I think, brings us up to date. After three decades based in Rome, Cooper returned last year to his beloved Spain where he is now living in Valencia. Best wishes, Mike, and thanks.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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