Pearls Before Swine: “Balaklava”

50 years

front cover2

Last February, I wrote an obituary/tribute to a gentleman named Tom Rapp (see A Knowledge of Ashes). Rapp was a singer-songwriter and recording artist from 1965 to 1976 who retired from music to become a civil rights lawyer. He was a musician of uncommon intelligence, with an unyielding commitment to social justice, leavened by the unexpected humorous wink. His music was too cryptic and melancholic to ever earn a listing on the Billboard Hot 100.  So if you’re unfamiliar with him, it’s understandable.

To put it another way, James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg, Tom Rapp was not. But artistic ambiguity and professional obscurity have never prevented longitudes from recognizing someone. In fact, they often indicate a vision too luminous for most of us to process.

Fifty years ago, Rapp released his second, most ambiguous, and arguably best album, credited to his band Pearls Before Swine, on the underground label ESP-Disk.  It’s called Balaklava.

rapp photo

Tom Rapp

Scholars of European history might recognize Balaklava (also spelled with a ‘c’, “Balaclava”) as the name of the place where a famous British cavalry charge occurred in 1854 during the Crimean War. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson immortalized it in his poem about valor, The Charge of the Light Brigade. The truth was that this charge was an unnecessary military action, a suicidal maneuver that dissolved 40 percent of an entire brigade. Valor in suicide. Irony, like this, was a Tom Rapp specialty.

The year 1968 had a similarly senseless military action going on, this one in Southeast Asia. More irony: Rapp dedicated his record to WWII soldier Eddie Slovik, the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the American Civil War.

“Some people thought (my) songs were hopeless…I was being realistic about the pain that’s out there. If you say life is wonderful, people know it isn’t true, but if you talk about the pain, someone will listen.” (Crawdaddy, December 2008)

Tears are often jewel-like…

The first thing that makes Balaklava different from other records is its unusual sleeve art. Album reproductions of paintings later became popular, but Balaklava is one of the first examples, and the painting chosen partially relates to the music inside. It’s a reproduction of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 16th-century, apocalyptic oil panel “The Triumph of Death,” with typewriter characters of the band name and album title stamped across the top…as if this record is a dispatch being wired from the abyss below.

Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, Shot for Desertion 1944

Private Eddie D. Slovik, shot for desertion in 1944

The back cover features surreal illustrations by French avant-garde writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Also, a quote from American philosopher and poet George Santayana: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” And yet more irony: a photograph of a freckle-faced girl wearing a shy smile, with a daisy protruding from her plaid dress, and a button reading “Pearls Before Swine.”

(The photo was snapped at a peace rally by photographer Mel Zimmer. The girl’s button actually said “Flower Power.” Zimmer identifies his photo as “Molly Stewart.”)

So, the listener has an idea where this record is headed even before the needle strikes the wax. The packaging is deliberate and unapologetic. As Dante wrote in “The Inferno:” All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Another striking thing about Balaklava: the music is introduced by a ghost. The first “song” is titled “Trumpeter Landfrey,” and is the actual voice and bugle call of a survivor of the Light Brigade charge, a man named Martin Leonard Landfried. With brimming pride, Landfried announces, “I am now going to sound the bugle that was sounded at Waterloo, and sound the charge that was sounded at Balaklava on that very same bugle, the 25th of October, 1854.” Landfried’s scratchy voice comes from a cylinder recording from 1890 that was reissued on a vinyl record that Rapp owned.

Friends of Shoreham Fort

Martin Leonard Landfried (Photo: Friends of Shoreham Fort)

Landfried’s bugle notes smoothly segue into the strummed guitar notes of “Translucent Carriages.” Wikipedia calls this one of Rapp’s “most enduring songs,” a shivering tune whose title again harkens to yesteryear, and whose languid music includes ghostly background whisperings. One of them is the Herodotus quote “In peace, sons bury their fathers / In war, fathers bury their sons.” Another is the Rapp quote “Jesus raised the dead / But who will raise the living?”

The recurring chorus goes “Every time I see you, passing by, I have to wonder…why?” The identity of the “you” can be interpreted differently. Are they ancient carriages, perhaps Roman? Hearses? Maybe a woman? Is Rapp referring to Jesus? Or the pointlessness of war?

“Images of April” burrows deeper into the murky surreal. It features vocal echoes, flute, bird songs, and even frog croaks to paint a world of desolation, where springtime exists in fleeting images that only memory can summon. If you’re open to something strange, hypnotic, and completely different:

As unconventional as is “Images of April,” the next song, “There Was a Man,” is totally conventional—the guitar/vocal music, that is. The words, maybe less so. They relate a story about a stranger who one day arrives in a village. The stranger has a scar on his head, “where there used to be a crown.” He amazes the people by doing wonderful, magical things. Then the stranger leaves, sadly, suddenly. He has heard “the news from the war.”

“I Saw the World” is maybe the most passionate song on Balaklava. Rapp pleads, with palpable emotion in his voice, that he’s seen the world “spinning like a toy,” and “hate seems so small compared to it all.” A melodious cello and piano passage helps boost this song to another plane.

Rapp was an admirer of songwriter Leonard Cohen, and the “Swine” honor him with a rendition of Cohen’s “Suzanne.” They supposedly recorded this song in one take, while sitting on the studio floor, in the dark, with candles burning. (Yes, very Sixties.) The hushed ambience they created must have succeeded, since this is one of the most respectfully rendered versions of this acclaimed song.


Florence Nightingale

Other titles include “Guardian Angels” and “Lepers and Roses,” both of which further the odd, time-frozen quality of Balaklava. At the end of the record, there’s another vintage 1890 recording, this one of Florence Nightingale, who oversaw the nurses during the Crimean War. She prays that her Balaklava “comrades” will all return “safe to shore.” The record trails off with Trumpeter Landfried’s opening again. It’s a reminder that everything is a circle, that everything “comes back again,” both love and hate.


While not a perfect record, and certainly not for every ear, Balaklava’s best moments overflow with a perceptiveness, mystery, and beauty not usually occurring in rock music. Today, we hear the word “alternative”—which means “different” or “unconventional”—applied to a certain style of music (for the sake of convenience, branding, and marketing).  But Pearls Before Swine’s Balaklava defines the word alternative.  There’s not another record like it.

Even more, the record is a unique and fervent indictment of the idea that warfare is some kind of glorious endeavor. It is music with meaning. But unlike most anti-war artists of the Sixties—idealistic and well-meaning, but who relied on anthems or derivative platitudes about peace and love—Tom Rapp used irony, surrealism, and religious and historical allusions to present his worldview. He drew from a war in 1854 to indict a war of 1968, which still resonates in 2018.

We’re all familiar with that line in Tennyson’s famous poem…that universal expression of blind patriotic duty, which goes “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.” Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine question that sentiment with Balaklava. And, I think they’re also saying…shouldn’t everybody?

molly stewart by mel zimmer

Photo by Mel Zimmer



16 thoughts on “Pearls Before Swine: “Balaklava”

  1. Wow, much to unpack here. Talk about an obscurity. I recall there being a band called Pearls Before Swine, knew no one who was into them, knew nothing about them. I recall a TV movie starring Martin Sheen about Eddie Slovik and lo and behold, there it is on that Wikipedia page. This is back when Sheen was a hot new young turk on the scene, hadn’t even done ‘Apocalypse Now’ yet. Anyway, this sounds like an interesting listen. Monday nights tend to be my “listen to new music night” so I’ll give at least some of it a spin.

    • Cool, Jim, thanks for giving this a listen. I remember the Sheen movie, too. Yes, PBS was very, very obscure. A few ’60s heads and record collectors like me are the only ones who remember them (him), and keep the flame burning. But like a Russian novel, or that other guy from Minnesota, Rapp is rewarding if one takes the time to examine.

      • Ok. Just finished listening to the whole thing. Now THAT was odd. It is definitely not my typical listening fare. But I found myself strangely compelled to listen to it all the way through. And I must admit, I dug it. I like an album that establishes a mood, like Dark Side, and then preserves it all the way through. If I had to pick one word, it would be haunting. Especially framed by the Light Brigade guy and Florence Nightingale. Quite unusual and I will definitely give it another spin at some point. Thanks.

      • I think “haunting” might work. I deliberately avoided the word “psychedelic,” which is how most critics describe the record (and the band). That word has become so cliché, and it’s also misleading, since Rapp is on record saying the strongest substance he indulged in at this time were Winston cigarettes, and you don’t have to be high to absorb what’s in the grooves. In fact, a clear head is probably better.

      • Yeah, “haunting,” “hypnotic.” – very interesting. “Psychedelic” doesn’t seem to quite fit. We’ll save that for Iron Butterfly. 🙂

  2. Hey there, Pete. I admit to being pretty ignorant of Rapp/Pearls music. But I’m very familiar with many ESP-Disk albums. The label, as you know, was farsighted. It issued music by little-known and far-out artists. I’ve read that ESP treated its artists badly when it came to money. Wouldn’t surprise me.

    • Since you’re an aficionado of free jazz, I can understand how you would know ESP-Disk, Neil. I remember the label from my college days, when I was seeking old Fugs albums. They were out of print and hard to get. Rapp has several funny stories about owner Bernard Stollman’s creative ways to avoid paying his artists, something I’ve heard wasn’t uncommon at the time.

  3. Love your bits on people and artists like this. The only reason I know Rapp is because of you. Lots of cool artists on that label (I’ve been in a Sun Ra groove lately). The cut you posted has a similar sound to Pete Sinfield’s ‘Still’

      • I went to the link you posted ESP. So many artists I like which makes me curious for the ones I haven’t heard. Stollman sounds like an interesting character. Not a lot of residuals coming in from that stable but lots of great music.

  4. Hi Pete
    first let me wish you a Merry Christmas / Hanukah, et al.
    I will let the esteemed Robert Christgau speak for me –

    Pearls Before Swine/Tom Rapp:” I never understood who they/he thought they/he were/was throwing their/his accretions at/before.”

    Realizing that this time period included the Fugs, The Mothers, Lord Buckley and Pink Floyd (Piper At The Gates…) someone either had to be a Hippie Poser or influenced by the latest blotter to sit through 30 minutes of side 1. 😉

    Aside from the Beatles, Stones, Rascals when I looked to expand my listening tastes at that time, Miles “Sketches of Spain” was my listening challenge.


    • Hi Rob…sounds like you don’t care much for “Balaklava”! That’s ok, it’s not for everyone. Just a few things: I once owned “Sketches of Spain,” but disliked the Gil Evans arrangements, so I sold the CD (although I love 50s-era Miles). Also, I never heard of Lord Buckley (Tim Buckley, maybe?). Last…Robert Christgau is a pompous ass and is at the bottom of my list of rock critics. Sorry to be so blunt!

      All that being said, I LOVE when someone takes issue with something I’ve written, so I truly appreciate your comment!

      • Thinking of Tom Rapp today for no particular reason, and ran into your fine posts on him. I agree, the kind of thing he did, the Alternative Rock that was actually alternative is not for everybody. How many would be it be good for? Hell if I know! More though than have heard him is my guess.

        Lord Buckley was a man who did monologues, usually short-format narratives in deep “hep-cat” jazz lingo in the post WWII era (he died in 1960). Sometimes the stories would be familiar ones retold, others would be accounts of history, and some were original tales. He double-framed his act: not only did he appropriate jazz-culture argot (largely Afro-American in origin) but he presented it as if he was an English aristocrat (he was born in California). Bob Dylan used to perform one of his pieces in his coffee-house days, and like Lenny Bruce Buckley was a forerunner of the revolution in stand-up comedy a decade or so later. Recordings are out there to sample him.

      • Thank you for commenting. I’ll check out Lord Buckley. I’m familiar with the usual beat poets/writers, but he’s new to me.

        Much of Rapp’s music is obtuse and jagged, but the gems in the rough truly shine, in my opinion. Unlike so many pie-eyed “Now is Wow” hippies of that era, he carried his ideals into post-music life, and he also appreciated how the past informs the present, and that if you want to change things, you have to first know from where you came. I’m reading Wallace Stegner now, a writer who was devoted to that belief, and a liberal devoted to traditional ideas of discipline and craft.

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