Tarot by Walter Wegmüller is one of those wonderful, dotty follies of vinyl packaging that transcend normal expectations with bravura wackiness. Released on the Cosmic Couriers label ((Die Kosmischen Kuriere, for those who do Deutsch) in 1973, it hovers near the very peak of my LP Grail list. I’ve never held a copy, never even seen one with my own eyes; I’d probably faint from excitement if I ever found one—as Vinyl Hunter-Gatherers say—‘in the wild’ and would without doubt have a coronary episode when I clocked the asking price, yet I live in deluded hope. Perhaps, one day, on the turn of a friendly card, the cosmic magician will place a copy in my path. A copy of the two-LP set in it’s shiny silver-clad purple-edged box, Walter starting moodily out from the B&W photo—part Blackbeard Pirate, part Mad Monk Rasputin. Inside the box are the complete musician postcards and Wegmüller’s painted Tarot images still intact in the sheet they were printed on almost half a century ago. Holy Hanged Man! What history and mystery this crazy album has.
Back in the misty sixties, Walter Wegmüller was a wanderer, story-teller, space-seer and gypsy mystic. He painted his own version of the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana over a number of years beginning in 1968, and was somehow enjoined by producer Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser to make an album to soundtrack his Tarot deck. So the krautrock svengali gathered together the cream of the German alt-music scene and set them loose in a studio with the bearded mystic. The sprawling, screwy double album Tarot was the result.
The cover notes lay out the trip in the first sentence: The travel starts with the madman (aka The Fool). Musically, it’s a psychedelic calling-on with a demented ringmaster bellowing an introduction to each player. Manuel Göttsching of Ash Ra Temple, Jürgen Dollase from symphonic rockers Wallenstein, synthesiser pioneer Klaus Schulze, krautrock drummer-in-demand Harald Grosskopf, and more. The man in charge of this cosmic circus proclaims his words of mystical wisdom over the top of the largely improvised music. Walter’s oratory fragments are, of course, in German, but as they are relatively brief and (unless your Deutsch is up to speed) unintelligible, it’s the music that dominates. I could understand snippets, such as the opening exhortation, ‘You are the Magician’, but mostly it drifts by as another colour in the musical kaleidoscope.And what a shifting, vibrantly colourful set of slides Tarot projects. Imagine any style of music and some strange mutation of it is to be found here. Churning psychedelic space grooves give way to gently mournful synthesiser meditations, European folk-rock meanderings led astray by experimental guitars over funk rhythms. It is, to quote Julian Cope, ‘as though the Mothers, the Velvets, the Doors, the Stones, the Fugs, the freerock and free jazz of Detroit, and the experimentalism of Germany could all be thrown into some Kosmische pot. They truly proved that it could’ [Krautrocksampler, p.138].
If you love the German 70s scene, it is utterly entrancing to hear, say, a segment of rhapsodic Wallenstein piano from Jürgen Dollase, a Göttsching guitar solo that’s pure Cosmic Couriers or an acoustic interlude that yodels up Witthuser and Westrupp. But what is really remarkable is how the album flows so beautifully. The concept is loopy, the narrations sound unhinged, yet somehow this off-the-planet magnum opus works magnificently. The variety, far from fragmenting like a splintered mind, is more like a wondrous trip through a magic land where the internal logic—though quite barking in terms of the everyday—simply works because it does.
As I write, ‘Der Wagen’ is barreling along in a sublime krautrock groove absolutely the equal of Neu!’s ‘Hallogallo’ when suddenly we are in the court of Ming the Merciless as he hands down a sentence of death (‘Die Gerechtigkeit’ / ‘Justice’). After that, a different voice narrates a gentle introduction to ‘The Weise’ over romantic piano.
The odyssey continues of the second disc… Opener ‘Die Prüfung’ (The Exam) comes on like proto-electro; squeaky Casio-sounding keyboard and primitive electronic drums, over which Walter intones and moans. This is one of the most loco tracks on a totally out-to-lunch album. But within the psychonautic excursions there is humour too. ‘Temperance’ is ga-ga freaky, ‘The Devil’ a gentle acoustic piece with whispered vocals over flute and Spanish guitar. That Walter, such a cosmic joker.
It would be a fool’s errand to attempt descriptions of every piece on the double album; The Fool would end up as deranged as the music itself. Suffice to say, you could immerse yourself in Walter Wegmüller’s Tarot and learn everything you need to know about krautrock. Exaggeration? Sure, but only a little. It really is a lunatic mind-meld of rock history played with subtlety and exuberance by artists willing to put aside their egos and let their creativity flow into a mesmerizing, utterly bonkers solar stew.
It is hard not to give the last word to Saint Julian so I’ll just bow my head to the Kosmische Wunder of Tarot and to the Arch Drude, who finishes his review thus: ‘I’ll leave now, I’m gibbering’. Or as Walter Wegmüller himself might have said, ‘Wahnsinn, Mann’.