For most of their career, Savage Rose have remained a primarily Scandinavian phenomenon, although at one time they were poised to become one of the few rock groups from a non-English-speaking country to gain wide international success. A rave review in Rolling Stone in the early '70s was not enough, however, to market a band that combined classical composition, gospel, psychedelic rock, jazz, soul, radical politics, and European folk music into a sound that eluded easy description. On top of all that were the woman-child vocals of lead singer Annisette. Her style—a bridge between Aretha Franklin and Kate Bush—was described by critics of the day as a "seven-year-old hung up on Edith Piaf and Janis Joplin," "a child-whore crooning in the street of a liberated village," and "Minnie Mouse on belladonna." She inspired either devotion or distaste, but was never forgotten by those who heard her.
Savage Rose were distinguished from most other psychedelic rock bands at the very beginning by their keyboard-dominated sound. On top of the piano-organ blend that had been pioneered by Procol Harum was a harpsichord, played by Thomas's wife of the time, Ilse Maria (who would leave after the group's first few albums). On all of Savage Rose's records in the late '60s and early '70s, the most distinguishing instrumental feature would be Anders Koppel's ghostly, eerie organ sounds, which made the instrument sound as though it was being filtered through an aquarium tank.
Disillusionment with the music business, and an increased commitment to social activism, found Savage Rose withdrawing from major-labeldom by the end of the 1970s. Although the group, now based around husband and wife Thomas and Annisette Koppel, continued, they spent much of their time playing benefits and free concerts in Europe and the Middle East. They even accepted an invitation from the P.L.O. to play at hospitals, schools, and refugee camps in Lebanon. In the 1990s they returned to high visibility in Denmark, again releasing widely distributed albums in their native land. The Koppels were interviewed in early 1997, the session divided between separate conversations with Thomas and Annisette.
PART ONE: INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS KOPPEL
You were a classically trained musician before you started playing rock music in the late 1960s. What was behind that switch?
I didn't feel [it] as a switch from my background. But of course, a lot of things were happening in the streets. I was at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, and I was fighting those big black grand pianos to make them play like Beethoven and Chopin and so on in the modern way. I was trying all the limits. I was doing classical compositions too from when I was a child, and I did do a lot of big strange symphonic pieces to the limit of what was acceptable, even at that time.
Then a felt a little lonely, because I saw on the streets all the youngsters were on the move. They were occupying houses in the slums, and they were protesting the wars and weapons and everything. They were heading for a new lifestyle. So after a while I felt lonely that way. Because it was obvious that the new thing happening [was] not to be alone with the big grand piano, but to be together with the other young people. That's why I felt stronger and stronger all the time that I had to move down to the street.
At that time, everybody was discovering that the Beatles were not only a popular band, but very creative. Some of my first band experiences were, like, when they started combining pop music with classical things, like in "Yesterday" with the string arrangements and things like that. But also from my childhood, my father was a composer too, and he was very interested in popular music too. We had a lot of records from Billie Holiday, and also rock and roll actually, when it started in the '50s. That was my way to [rock] too.
At the time I think, besides, the Rolling Stones were important to me, and Bob Dylan was extremely important to me at that time of Highway 61 Revisited and those kind of very innovative and very creative albums, with content that I felt very close to myself. Very important, "It's Alright Ma" and those kind of songs. At the same time, Annisette, she was maybe the first singer in Denmark that brought Aretha Franklin and all those songs from the beat/soul era to the young people here in the dancehalls.
Was it strange or awkward, singing and writing in English, which wasn't your native tongue?
Nobody was thinking about that. Because everybody felt international at that time. So it felt very natural to choose the language that everybody was speaking at the time. You didn't want to be like segregated into a nation, you know? You wanted to be something worldwide. I think that's why it felt very natural and very obvious, that everybody was singing in English at that time. Later on, after maybe some ten years or so, we found out that there were some things that we could say in Danish language that we couldn't express the same way in English. That's why we spent another 10 or 15 years solely singing in Danish. Now we feel that we can handle both.
One thing that set you apart was using many keyboard parts, particularly piano and organ, as well as some harpsichord. Why did you develop such a keyboard-oriented sound?
I think it had something to do with the fact that we didn't want to limit ourselves into a known style. We wanted to combine rock and roll with what we had learned from the classical and from folk music too, from folklore from all over the world that we were very interested in too. We wanted to integrate all kinds of music in our music. It made it more open to have all those keyboards. You were not confined to the typical rock and roll sound with two guitars and a bass. With all those keyboards, we could [go] far away from that, and still get back sometimes.
On the very first album, [Anders Koppel] used a Farfisa, a small red wonderful little Farfisa organ. We liked that very much. From the second album In the Plain, he had a Hammond, I think it was an 800, and then he switched to a B-3 later on. Also I think that the sound he was producing, that I loved at that time, is also because of the classical thing that was humming in our heads too. That opened the gates from the traditional way of using a Hammond organ to something opened towards classical too, I think.
From the very beginning, Savage Rose's songs and records weren't easy to classify, or to compare with other rock bands. It's not easy to tell where your specific influences might have come from.
We just had the sound in our minds, you know. From listening to all the new stuff coming from all over the place, from Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix and Beatles, Stones, all of them, you know? And at the same time, it was an explosion that brought along a lot of other things. Because we started listening to the old blues and the old gospel, and all kinds of things, from John Lee Hooker and Bessie Smith and up to what was happening right now. And at the same time, people started to get interested in what we had already been interested in for a long time, the folk music. People started to listen to all the Andes flutes and Indian music and all kinds of stuff. It was like an explosion that opened horizons, and fit very well with the way we were thinking. Because we had all these backgrounds at the same time, you know?
And in the band, we combined, my brother and I, who had actually a pretty wide background musically, with the classical and the jazz and all the stuff that was in our homes since we were little kids. And the folklore music. And Annisette, who had been singing everything from Italian serenades to Aretha Franklin and Sam & Dave and all the old soul styles. Then Alex, who was the drummer, he had just been awarded the drummer of the year award in Denmark. He was a very well-known and very good and talented jazz drummer. He was bringing in the whole jazz scene too. So it was like a mix of everything, and it fit well with what was happening in the world, and fit well with what we wanted to [do].
We were struggling, because we wanted to get to a place where we could stay in one style, our own style, and still include everything. And in the beginning, maybe we were restless, and wanted to do it all. So we moved from one place to another place all the time, restlessly. But I think, with all the experience we got from the music and particularly all the experience we got later on from life, we had been able then to maybe really make a new kind of music that has it all. That has elements from classical and folk and jazz and rock and soul and all of it in one go, as one style, not as a mix of a lot of styles.
You did a single with Giorgio Gomelsky [producer for the Yardbirds, Soft Machine, Magma, Blossom Toes, and numerous others] in London the late 1960s that's not very well known. Why didn't you work with him more?
It didn't work out very bad, but it didn't work out very well [either]. It was not...we didn't really get inspired from that. So what came out of that was just two songs, two recordings. Those two recordings, we didn't think they were too important. Later on they found Jimmy Miller [producer for the Rolling Stones] for us, and we made an album with him.
We were never really the typical kind of artists that wanted a producer at all, you know? Because we felt pretty creative, and every time we tried to have a producer in the studio, we felt that we had something now to get around, instead of just working. He [Gomelsky] was nice to us and he was very friendly. We felt like pals, you know. But in the studio, we just didn't get to the place where our kind of creativity started. We felt like the road was blocked somehow. We didn't go the same way. It didn't work out. In situations like that, we became anarchists. We wanted to do anything else all the time. We went out in London, we made little scandals in the clubs, because we felt that we couldn't do that, simply. We had to do something else.
Unlike a lot of the bands from the Continent in the late 1960s, you were able to tour in the States and release some records there. I was interested to find out that you shared a bill with James Brown at the Newport Festival.
The Newport Festival was a big experience to us. We were very young, and felt new in the business. They put us at the Newport Festival, I think it was the first year with big electrical acts. We were put between Sly and the Family Stone at the summit of their career—they were really powerful at that time—and then James Brown afterwards. And then us in between. So we felt like a very small hot dog in a very big hamburger.
It so happened that when Sly and the Family Stone played, there were huge crowds even outside the fences. They broke through the fences during their show, and it was very dramatic, and it was a big fight between the police and thousands and thousands of intruders. It was very interesting and very dramatic. The only thing that stopped this thing was a giant tropical shower came from the skies suddenly, and that cooled down everybody. So they stopped the whole show for that day, so we didn't play after Sly & the Family Stone. But we were set to start the next day before James Brown.
The next day was a beautiful, sunny day, and the crowd was so nice, and we felt so good. Annisette actually made the front [newspaper] page with James Brown next day. So we felt very good about that. But we knew, we could feel from the whole thing, that we were young, and there was a lot for us to learn in the world.
Although some of the Savage Rose LPs were released in the States, you didn't become that big here. Why do you think your music wasn't exposed more in the U.S.?
I don't think anyone really tried hard, the way record companies sometimes try hard. We were actually offered a very, very big contract from, I think. RCA at a certain time through some American managers. They wanted us to go and play for the soldiers in Vietnam on the bases. We couldn't do it. We just couldn't do it. I mean, who could, at the time? All the bands were against the war, and they wanted the war to stop. We felt like everybody else. We felt like we would be supporting the war, just like we would ourselves be among the killers. So we couldn't go there.
The business people were very disappointed with us about that. It felt like they wanted...that this could be kind of an oath, you know, to be true to the system at that time or something. That's the way it felt. But we couldn't do it, so we refused, and then they refused to give us a big contract, and they gave us a very small contract instead. After that, I don't think anyone really tried hard.
The times were different. They didn't spend those huge amounts of money that they do today. They didn't do that on very many...But we were traveling in Germany, France, recorded in Italy, Rome, and all of Scandinavia. We had a pretty good following there.
Then, while in America, we had some very very strong experiences, and strong new inspirations, even from [the] streets. Because we saw the black freedom movement, with the Black Panthers and all those kind of movements happening against apartheid. We were very inspired from that. We went directly home, and we made an album, because we felt that we could contribute and make a new kind of gospel with the life on earth, instead of the life in heaven. We got very friendly with these movements, actually. They wanted to bring us over to play at mass meetings, mass rallies. But it didn't happen.
But we did play at a lot of mass meetings in Europe, trying to help. And this record, the record company absolutely didn't want to release internationally at all. That was Babylon. It was only released in Denmark, and even there it sold poorly. But there's still something good about that record. We used one of the songs, actually, on our new album, Black Angel, "What Do You Do Now?" was the title of the song. We played that again because we felt that song needed to reach people once more.
It's sometimes been written that you were involved with the Black Panthers around that time.
We were actually to play at a mass meeting in Oakland. Bobby Seale was running for mayor, and there would be a big mass rally. He had a very good chance to win. But a week before the meeting was to happen, they canceled it, because they were afraid of fighting and violence. So the Panthers themselves stopped the meeting. We never went. But instead some of those people went to Europe on tours to speak about these things, and we followed some of those.
One of your most creative and important albums was Dodens Triumf, which was done as the soundtrack to a ballet, and was mostly instrumental. How was that composed?
The first version was in 1970. We felt like it was a big chance to open all the gates and to make a real true fusion. Not just a mix, but a fusion. It actually became a giant success, even as a ballet. The Royal Ballet danced this ballet for, I think, seven years. And only full houses all the time. The record company didn't believe in the record, because it was only one vocal track, and the music was different. They had 500 in stock in the first pressing. But now in Denmark alone, they sold more than 200,000, which is [a lot] for [a country with] five million people. In Denmark, it has been the best-selling record of our records, although The Black Angel, the new one, is approaching.
There's a rare edition of Dodens Triumf which is about twice as long as the more common one. Why did two different versions get made?
That's because it's two different situations: if you're in the theater and you see the ballet, and if you are at home with your gramophone. We made an edition to give people the same kind of experience as in the theater, but we only did some of the stuff that could not be that obvious, if you didn't see the ballet.
Of the records you did in the 1960s and 1970s, which were your favorites?
We had a lot of favorites. We were trying a lot of things; we had favorites on all of those ones. They still feel like beautiful children that we want to take care of. Actually, we are picking up some of those old songs and doing them again, and they work very well with the modern audience, and we still have a lot to say through those songs. We did that with [the songs] "Your Daily Gift," "What Do You Do Now?," [and] "Dear Little Mother," [which] concludes the very first album. We play that in concert too. "Long Before I Was Born," which is from [the second] album, In The Plain—we have done that on our tour last summer, played that for 200,000 people. They come back to us, those old songs. But not as nostalgia. They just come up to the surface again, and we see that some of these things, they still have something that we can use to tell the people something today. Of course they change a little bit when we play them now, but basically they're the same songs.
Savage Rose went through a number of lineup changes in its career, and didn't record much for quite some time starting in the mid-1970s. How do you think that affected the music?
The first break, or the first real change, already happened in I think '71. That was after the long U.S. tour that we had across the States. That was due to those political problems. Became some of the guys in the band, they wanted their career to continue whatever happened. So even if we had to go to Vietnam or something, they wanted to do that. And some of us didn't want to do that. So that was the reason for the first real change. The Savage Rose shrank to a trio doing this Babylon album; that is basically a gospel-jazz-like album, with piano and organ, and then some guests like [jazz great] Ben Webster and other wonderful musicians. Some of them are dead now, like Ben Webster. Later on, we started a new Savage Rose, and we went back to continue rock and roll. We made a bigger band, and made the album called Wild Child, which has also some very nice songs on it that we might redo again.
After that, we had a major break in the career. Because the record company had a lot of ideas; that was Polydor International in Hamburg. They had a lot of ideas what they wanted us to do, but we didn't feel creative anymore under those circumstances, conditions. So we knew that we had to make a major break in everything, almost like starting anew. It had something to do about our development as human beings too. Because we could never separate our musical life from our real lives. And we could never separate the songs from the reality of our lives, and the reality of the world. We couldn't get there through [to] this record company at this time. We had to free ourselves, somehow. We had to move out of the business, actually, and we did that. Out of everything—canceled our contract, canceled tours, and everything.
Some of the articles on you infer that you dropped out of the business to devote yourselves to more political activities and playing music for benefits and social causes. What was actually happening during that time?
For a lot of years, we lived in the slums of Copenhagen actually. And we were very happy. We were doing a lot of music, but in a different way, of course. Because we were on street level now. I think this was very healthy to us at the time, and we needed to do that. We learned so much from those years that we can never forget, from those people we were among. The love...a lot of beautiful things, in the middle of all that. Very dramatic too. We were becoming well known as kind of representatives of those dark streets, and we were invited everywhere in Europe and in Turkey, Lebanon, the Middle East, Greenland, you name it. We were traveling a lot, actually, and becoming pretty well known again, in a new way.
So you stopped recording, for the most part, so you could do things your way?
You could plainly put it like that. They wanted us to do things, and we couldn't do it, because we knew that this would separate...we make two lives for ourselves. A professional life separated from our real lives, like we would have two kind[s] of [ways of thinking]. Thinking that we would present onstage or on the television, and then our real truth thinking that would be secret, would have to be secret. We couldn't live with that.
We've seen a lot of artists with the same problem. A lot of them died or had very bad, poor lives, because they couldn't solve that problem. I think a lot of those artists that were killed by drugs...in the time after 1968, a lot of the heroes that died from drugs or from alcohol or from suicides and things like that. I think that the basis for this mainly actually was that they couldn't find a way to be a whole person, between business and life. Because most of these guys were actually pretty faithful to life, to the real people. But on the other hand, there were the business people, and the demands of the business. It was very hard for an artist to try to serve both at the same time. That's what I think killed a lot of these guys.
We just had to take a step back, and get out of the business to get back to what it was really about in the first place from the beginning: to make music and find new ways and be with people, and make stories into songs to tell people, and see all those youngsters, that were filled with happiness or tears or whatever when you were singing a song. That's what it was about for us, you know? So to tell people something and to see how they receive this, and then all the inspiration and all the warmth and all the feelings we got back from them—in the street, or on the stage, or on the festivals. It was just a matter of people and music and us. So that was what we had to get back to. And we couldn't get there, as long as we had all those business ties on us.
It's sometimes implied that you spent most of your time playing non-commercial venues or for political causes.
We felt this was very important. But it's not quite true, that we only did things like that. Because we played a lot of concert halls, and we played all the big festivals of Northern Europe, which was like ordinary musical events, with music in focus. We had a very nice musical life [in] those places too. The other thing [less commercial benefits and concerts] was pretty unusual, so it's very natural that many people focused on that, and don't remember the whole of it. We did absolutely both, and we're happy about that. And we were singing in Danish language wherever we were in the world, and that didn't make any problem at all. Like when we have musical visitors here from the East or from Latin America or whatever, and people don't understand the words. But I mean, they express something, people understand anyway. That's what we found out too.
To go back a bit, how did you end up doing some recording with Ben Webster?
He was wonderful, but at that time, he was an old man in a way that he was feeling old. He was one of the great musicians of the whole era, and he was living in a backyard apartment in Copenhagen. No one was really using him anymore, because he was...everybody was doing fusion jazz, all those kinds of things. So we were thinking of Ben Webster. He was a beautiful man to work with. He was completely confused about the songs sometimes, because he'd say..."What? This song all the time goes another way than I think. It surprises me all the time. It goes a different way than I'm expecting." But he was so faithful, and he stayed on it until he was satisfied. He's one of the great musicians of all time, and we were very happy that we were with him, and worked with him.
How heavily were you involved with Christiania, the alternative self-contained community in Copenhagen? You contributed to an album benefiting it.
Christiania started out like something like Haight-Ashbury or something, and was a liberated area that was an old military ground. It was taken by the people of the streets, a lot of youngsters. It became a very important cultural center of Copenhagen. Even still today, there are a lot of things going on out there. At that time, it was absolutely, for 10 or 15 years it was so important that all kinds of music, theater, and inventions and architecture and ecological things and a lot of different things [happened there]. Of course, all the Danish musicians had something to do with Christiania. We were pretty close with them, and we were helping them when they had problems with the State, because of course somebody always tried to close that place. So they needed support.
It was all connected with our development in general. We were in a period where we needed to get back to the roots somehow, our own roots. We had to get away from business and money, and get back to what it was all about. At that time also, we found out that there were actually things that we could say in Danish that couldn't be said in any other way. 'Cause there's something different about the language that you had first, while you were a baby. And there are some colors of the words that cannot be expressed. You can't explain that in other words. You had to feel that. And of course, every people on earth knows about that. There are some words, some colors, some things, that give you a feeling that cannot be explained at all. It's very difficult to get to that point with another language. We wanted to get down deep back, so we concentrated on the Danish language. For almost 15 years, we [were] singing in Danish. Now we started again to use the English language, but that's only because we feel that now we have power, if you want, and the experience and everything, so we can do it in English too now.
Was it a source of frustration, continuing to make music but not recording it and distributing it on albums?
We wanted to make records all the time. We didn't feel like we had hidden away. We didn't feel that we stopped. We felt like the other ones stopped. We wanted to do it all the time. But at that time, the first couple of years I think, we had to get accustomed to what was happening to us. Also, the business really had to get accustomed to what was happening to us. They didn't know how to use us in any way in the first years.
[After withdrawing from mainstream record companies], we started to make records with record companies that are not record companies, actually. Because a lot of people, they felt that we ought to make records, because they liked what we were doing, and they felt that it was important. So they started to collect money and do whatever necessary to make that happened. We made, I think, four or five records that way. We can happily say now that those records are important too, and are regarded as important by people here in Scandinavia. And they are very expensive now to get. It was not in vain.
We had a very big popular following at that time. And it grew extremely fast. The musical world and the record business and everybody had to face that. That's why we were in the middle of the '80s, about '88, '89, we were beginning to get contract offers again. And we had some big hits here, and they had to do something about it. So the business got back to us, and in the meantime we felt strong, and we felt now that we could handle this situation, and it seems like we could actually.
What was the distribution like for those records you did in the 1980s? They're very hard to find, I've never seen copies.
Very small. It was almost passed around from hand to hand. But they sold quite many copies in their own way. They are regarded as important albums now. But it was very difficult at that time to get them out and to get them to the people—in the beginning. But then people got accustomed to—it's a little bit like a fairytale, because it shouldn't be able to happen, things like that. But it actually happened. That's when the business found out that they had to do something about it.
If you look at it that way, the business is actually pretty slow. They're thinking in a slow way. They're always just a little bit behind. Because when something new happens, who believes in it? Nobody believes in it when something new happens. They all need to see somebody else doing it first. They need some of the other companies to do it first. Then it's a trend. When it's successful, then they all want to do the same thing. I think that means that there is a lot of waste of good talent, and a lot of waste of good songs and beautiful artists and all, that don't fit in right now.
How is your recent solo work different from Savage Rose?
I'm writing for symphony orchestras at the same time. In the last couple of years more than before. I had to do it, because it's in me, and I had to get it out. I've written soloists concertos. One of them is called Moonshine 3, it's actually pretty successful. There's a CD with it now with a famous Danish recorder soloist, Nicola Petrie. And it's doing very well, in Germany and the States and a lot of places. Last year, I wrote a big symphony with a symphony orchestra and a big choir, [with] Annisette as the soloist, in connection with the 50 years anniversary of the liberation of Denmark from the German armies. I'm doing that simultaneously, and I had to do it, because it's a kind of instrument that I love very dearly too. There are some things that I can do with a symphony orchestra that can't be done in any other way.
But it's also that I am a broad-minded kind of artist. I do also theatrical music that I do on computer and synthesizers and things like that. I'm a photographer too, and do a lot of things.
CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO OF THE SAVAGE ROSE INTERVIEWS, WITH ANNISETTE KOPPEL
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