Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Non-Stop Idiotic Disintegration: Five Years Of Musical Subversion

subvert [verb]: to undermine, overthrow, destroy
nihilism [noun]: the rejection of everything
decadence [noun]: new sensation arising from decay

[source: my head]

David Bowie spent so much money on drugs that he 
had to sell his shoes and travel third class to Berlin to 
record "The Idiot" and "Lust For Life" with Iggy Pop. 

"Every pleasure which emancipates itself from the exchange-value [of a capitalist society] takes on subversive features."
Theodore Adorno [1903-1969]

A questing intellect requires both diurnal and nocturnal stimulation, all the more an artistic one. Here are three key albums which to me at least exhibit a dark cocktail of psychological emotion.

1. IGGY POP: The Idiot [1977]

The legendary four albums recorded in Germany in the mid 1970s by David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno began with the issue of this landmark work. Described by Bowie as "a guinea-pig for what I wanted to do with sound", The Idiot features material which was both productively innovative and hugely influential. The impact of punk has often been exaggerated; in contrast, the influence of The Idiot is evident in the work of many important bands and musicians, including Joy Division, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Human League, Sisters Of Mercy, Death In Vegas et al.

The Idiot stands out from the other three Berlin albums [Low, Heroes and Lust For Life] because of its dark, hypnotic, cerebrally-corrupting nature. It is dirty, highly-crafted subversion, evoking a sulphurous, poisonous atmosphere, not dissimilar to the nightmarish horrors of Poe's 'The Masque Of The Red Death', or the decadent eroticism of Baudelaire's 'Les Fleurs du mal'.

 'Les Fleus du mal' [Paris, 1857]

To quote Nick Kent from the NME:

"[The Idiot] is totally riveted and fettered to a thoroughly unhealthy aroma of evil and twilight zone zombie-time unease....[the album is] damn unhealthy, perverse, harrowing and...strangely addictive."

Track Listing:

Side one    
 1.     "Sister Midnight"  
2.     "Nightclubbing"  
3.     "Funtime"
4.     "Baby"
5.     "China Girl"

Side two
6.     "Dum Dum Boys"
7.     "Tiny Girls"
8.     "Mass Production"

'I stumble into town
Just like a sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
And plans for everyone
It's in the white of my eyes

My little China Girl
You shouldn't mess with me
I'll ruin everything you are
I'll give you television
I'll give you eyes of blue
I'll give you men who want to rule the world

And when I get excited
My little China Girl says,
"Oh Jimmy, just you shut your mouth."
She says, "Shhhh..."'

2. SOFT CELL: Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret [1981]


1.     "Frustration"
2.     "Tainted Love"
3.     "Seedy Films"
4.     "Youth"
5.     "Sex Dwarf"
6.     "Entertain Me"
7.     "Chips on My Shoulder"
8.     "Bedsitter"
9.     "Secret Life"
10.     "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" 

It is a constant source of amazement to me that this album is not more highly revered. It was recorded very cheaply and very quickly; it features some striking and memorable songs; and the sheer vocal ability of Marc Almond is at times astonishing. Perhaps Soft Cell pitched its subversive context too mischievously, as exemplified by the bizarre and disturbing tracks 'Sex Dwarf' and 'Seedy Films', both of which feature dangerous, arguably irresponsible lyrics, poisonous ideas which nevertheless flow through the mind with an evil, seductive charm.

The cynical and knowing references to the seamy underbelly of urban life in Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret was undoubtedly too unpalatable for the mainstream public in the Thatcherite 80s, no matter how popular 'Tainted Love' was to become. Indeed, I suspect that many purchasers of the album bought it on the strength of that phenomenally-successful hit single, but were appalled at what they found. Yet in songs such as 'Youth' and 'Say Hello Wave Goodbye' [and later, 'Torch'], Almond proved that he was supremely talented in both composition and delivery.

"Why do you hate me so much? What did I ever do except leave you?"
[Lyrics from 'Secret Life']

'Frustration' is an angst-ridden rant upon middle-aged repression. 'Bedsitter' is a grim 'kitchen-sink' glimpse into the shallow and empty life of the disenfranchised working-class youth seeking escapism via heavy partying.

'I was born
One day I'll die
There was something in between
I....I don't know what or why
I'm a man
I want to break a rule
I am a no, no, no, no, no, no, nobody
Everybody's fool
I am so ordinary

I'm so tired of endless hard luck stories
I'm beginning to not give a damn
I wish I could reach right out for the untouchable
Film starring Bruce, John Wayne, Elvis Presley
Experiment with cocaine, LSD and set a bad, bad example
Live a little, run a harem, be a tiger
Meet Bo Derek and be her Tarzan
Reach, REACH out, out, out, out!
Live, live, live!'

[Lyrics for 'Frustration'.]

Later versions of the album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret include the club classic 'Memorabilia'. For me, the Cindy Ecstasy mix is one of the highlights of early electronic music, surely on a par with Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love' and Kraftwerk's 'The Model'.

And I don't care if you disagree with me, because you are wrong, wrong, wrong; so very wrong, wrong, wrong.

3. THE CURE: Porngraphy [1982]

"Arguably the album that invented goth, Pornography was the first of The Cure's 'Trilogy of Doom' that would suck Disintegration and Bloodflowers into its vampiric cataclysms of sound."
[Source: NME]

"It's downhill all the way, into ever-darkening shadows...passing through chilly marbled archways to the final rendezvous with the cold comfort of the slab."
[Melody Maker]

"..a masterpiece of claustrophobic self-loathing."

Track Listing: 

"One Hundred Years"
"A Short Term Effect"
"The Hanging Garden"
"Siamese Twins"
"The Figurehead"
"A Strange Day"

Pornography was the album that first wounded The Cure. Fiction Records were concerned about both the title and the hallucinatory, nightmarish wall of sound, which was compared to "Phil Spector in Hell" by NME commentator Dave Hill. The recording process had been an intense, substance-abusing torment, culminating in a surreal nightclub fight between Robert Smith and Simon Gallup, which led to the band's first major split. 

The album cover artwork reflects the music within, featuring a distorted, expressionistic photograph of Tolhurst, Gallup and Smith, who resemble embryonic, malevolent clowns shimmering in a blurry, electric womb. Smith holds up his hand, perhaps by way of warning, perhaps in an attempt to connect with a reality beyond his reach. 

The creative depth of Pornography is firmly rooted in its lyrical power. Smith's disturbing stream-of-consciousness narratives are liberally splattered with vivid imagery. Here are some random quotes, all of which demonstrate Smith's literary capabilities: 

"Sour yellow sounds inside my head."

"Like an old painted doll in the throes of dance I think about tomorrow."

"Catching haloes on the moon gives my hands the shapes of angels."

"Cover me with earth, draped in black, static white sound."

"Move slowly through the drowning waves, going away on a strange day."

These are images that would not be out of place in fiction by J.G. Ballard or William Burroughs. 

The tumultuous and crashing sound of Pornography was created during the intense production phase. Apparently the band slept in the studio for three weeks to save money, consuming vast amounts of drugs and alcohol, with tension escalating accordingly. This explains claustrophobic lyrics such as: 

"It doesn't matter if we all die,
Ambition in the back of a black car,
In a high building there is so much to do,
Going home time,
A story on the radio."

It's all there in the opening verse, if you look hard enough, and think obliquely: a coruscating castigation of the record company, together with a bitter and sarcastic reflection upon their claustrophobic experiences making the album. They say that to 'write about what you know' is a maxim for writers, and in these lines Smith does exactly that. 

It is a perverse quirk of nature that in order to produce a nihilistic and introspective work steeped in dark emotion, the artist must plunge him or herself into that psychologically-wounding environment, and suffer the creative process for our viewing and listening delectation. However, some of us in the audience also suffer, at least those of with sensitive and artistic temperaments do. If Pornography fails to evoke any emotion in you - whether it be horror or despair - then you are either a psychopath or a Conservative [as much as the two can be separated]. 

Lol Tolhurst's drums on 'The Figurehead' and 'Hanging Garden' resonate in the black night air like demonic bells from the underworld. Simon Gallup's mesmerising bass lines pump alternately with arrhythmic, sluggish unease and frenetic, adrenaline-spurting mania. As usual, Robert Smith plays several of the instruments himself, including the foghorn-like cello on 'A Short-Term Effect'.  

Smith has been something of a pioneer in his experimentation with vocal sound, a thirst which was vividly evident on the first Cure album Three Imaginary Boys, an album which served as a palette board that Smith has consistently returned to. In particular, the track 'Three Imaginary Boys' laid down the template for what would quickly become known as the trademark Cure sound. In Pornography his voice is subjected to numerous distortion effects on the mixing desk, as evidenced by the dark watery wobble and sharp concert-hall echo in 'A Short-Term Effect'. 

Pornography is a dangerously good album. Smith's waspish lyrics pierce the darker regions of the subconscious mind with poisonous vampire intent. It is probably advisable to avoid it if you are feeling even slightly depressed or suicidal, because it could be the catalyst that will tip you over that fatal slippery edge. Pornography is the artistic equivalent of a deranged, musical collaboration between youthful versions of Edvard Munch, J.G. Ballard and Dylan Thomas, were said individuals to be incarcerated in a studio together for three weeks, with naught but LSD and red wine for nourishment. 

Here is the one single that was released from Pornography. If you hate this then do not under any circumstances listen to the rest of the album. 


[I hereby promise to write about something nice next time. Well, try.] 

Friday, 21 February 2014

While You Sleep

I hold a knife to your throat
My eyes glint like black fireflies
My broken teeth gleam red
For the pestilent rise and fall of your chest
Symbolises little except poisonous unfulfilment.

I dream of ways to stop you waking
Imaginary guides whisper advice
Offering implements and opinions
Reality distorted so really untrue
I will wake satiated, but then, then I see you.

I yearn cruelly for your death
And live in hope that one summer's day
You never shall wake, and instead will
Choke, choke, choke, choke, choke
On your sickening guile. 

Words: CRB
Artwork: Harry Clarke [Out of copyright]

[Untitled #1]

I am trapped inside my construct
No key out and words, clumsy words fail
Immobile and silent, colourless, worse:
Empty, devoid, disappearing, cursed.

Scattering words, scattering brain
An abundance of choice
Yet [long pause]
Words all the same.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Horror Is No Longer Harmless

When I were a nipper, the approach of the weekend raised one key concern: would my Dad let me stay up to watch both films in the BBC2 Horror Double Bill series? 

It was a serious issue. The Horror Double Bill represented a glimpse into a dark adult world I desperately wanted part of, a world which seemed to promise fear, thrills and excitement. Later I would tap literature and music for these visceral and psychological delights, but on the cusp of teenagehood, I lived for horror. Well, horror and fishing. And perhaps Toffos. 

Atmosphere accounted for much. As a youngster I was lucky. I spent most weekends at a place called Turweston House, formerly the family residence of the people who owned Church's Shoes. My Dad had a 'wing' in exchange for looking after the place when the family were away. Turweston House had a gritty tennis court, a freezing cold swimming pool, a lake stuffed full of perch and roach, a gnarled orchard of apple trees, and a huge basement full of wooden shoe moulds that reminded me of the haunting storage rooms at Auschwitz. At that gullible age, the difference between 'souls' and 'soles' seemed a plausible and sinister coincidence. 

Turweston House [centre] with church immediately behind

Turweston Church is located very close to the House, sharing a wall along two perimeters. Not only did we use the churchyard and the house grounds as a huge rambling playground, but the windows of our 'wing' looked out across the churchyard. This is important because I was supremely aware of this unnerving fact when sitting transfixed in my chair watching such films as 'Dracula Has Risen From The Grave' and 'The Reptile', for the rooms were large and chilly, with real open fires and high ceilings, and spectral shadows would leap malicious and unfettered behind the chairs we had pulled up close to the hearth. Outside, the wild English countryside would lay silently quivering under the cloaking dark, as the despising moon would coldly gild the jaundiced tombstones and craven gargoyle faces with dirty white sepulchral tinctures which seemed to me unholy and cancerous. My father would pack my younger siblings off to bed and begin to roll a succession of cigarettes, before succumbing to his reliable habit of quickly falling asleep with a copy of the Daily Mail collapsed upon his lap. Even at that naive age, I knew enough about the world to know that the Daily Mail was enough to send anyone to sleep. 

The first film was usually a black and white feature. The range was extraordinary, varying between expressionist horror such as 'The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari' and 'Carnival Of Souls', through the various 'Dracula'/'Frankenstein'/'Werewolf' mainstays which introduced me to legendary stalwarts such as Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, and then on to the weird series of 1950/60s films which seemed to blend horror with science-fiction, including the mighty 'The Man With X-Ray Eyes'. 

The first features usually offered innocent thrills. According to Christopher Lee in a 1958 edition of 'Picturegoer', "Horror is pure escapism and rattling good entertainment."

The first features were often unintentionally funny, as exemplified by the cover for the same magazine:

Skeletonism was rampant in the 1950s

As these neon nightmares ended, I would cast an anxious eye upon the dozing form of my father as he sloped ever further downwards into his chair, hoping beyond reason that the closing music would not rouse him from his torpor. My father was a fireman, and because this involved shift work, he took sleep were he could get it, a habit I have since inherited. I knew that once the credits had begun rolling on the second film, I had passed 'Go', and that I was safe. My father may have been a working-class Tory who liked Jim Davidson, but he was also a musician whose band had appeared on Jukebox Jury, so he understood the importance of frivolous cerebral stimulation. 

I preferred to watch the second films on my own because they would often feature darker, more disturbing themes, and as an emerging teenager, I felt a marked discomfort in sharing that experience with an adult. I wanted to experience these things by myself, and to make my own mind up about the fantasy world of violence, sex and horror that they portrayed. Having said that, the existence of a sleeping adult close by, who would be available to shut up the house and tuck me up safely in bed afterwards, was not something I objected to. 

The second films represented a gateway into an alternate dark promised land. School sought to qualify me for the future daytime routines that would seek to map out the duller path of my life, but the second film in the BBC2 Horror Double Bill offered a tantalising glimpse into a more alluring nocturnal world, where imagination and intellect could be truly liberated, where Edgar Allen Poe, Roger Corman and Bram Stoker reigned sublime. Although I never really understood why at the time, films such as 'The Wicker Man', 'Blood On Satan's Claw' and 'Rosemary's Baby' spoke profoundly to me, stirring complex and often disturbing sensations that went beyond mere visual reality. 

"This isn't a dream, this is really happening!"
Mia Farrow in 'Rosemary's Baby'

Of course, at that age I wasn't particularly enlightened about such seemingly trifling matters as sexual politics - and in particular, the rampant misogyny that I now know to be pandemic in the horror genre - but I quickly formed an instinctive dislike of gratuity and cruelty. I found the former repellent, and the latter fascinating, but only by virtue of the dark psychology which accompanied it. Years later, I would chance across this quote at the beginning of Robert Aickman's short-story collection 'Dark Entries', and I still find it interesting:  

"I am still of the opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a studious and serious mind - sex and the dead."
W.B. Yeats

Having said that, Aickman also quoted something elsewhere about it being the secret fantasy of every woman to be raped, so his views should be taken with a large pinch of salt.  

With the benefit of age and experience, I now view the difference between the first and second features in the Horror Double Bill to be of far greater significance. At the time, I myself existed in this watershed; I occupied the brief space between the two slots without consciously realising it. I was both fondly nostalgic for the black-and-white simplicity of childhood, and viscerally excited by the dangerous and colourful prospect of adult life. 

Now....now I just don't know anymore. But I do know this: horror is no longer harmless. There is too much irresponsible, gratuitous horror in the world. 

To quote from 'The Man With X-Ray Eyes' [this time the Bauhaus song]:

"I have seen too much, wipe away my eyes, wipe away my eyes". 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Childhood Memories

Igor: It's times like this that I remember what my old dad used to say. 

Dr. Von Frankenstein: What was that? 

Igor: "What the hell are you doing in the bathroom all day and night? Why don't you get out of there and give someone else a chance?"

SOURCE: "Young Frankenstein" [1974]

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Unpleasant Demons: Violence & Cruelty in The Jamesian Tale

This is a ten-year old piece which sought to analyse the role of violence [or more specifically, the role of sexual violence] in the work of M.R. James, the noted author of ghost-stories. It originally appeared in the journal "Weirdly Supernatural". 

Personally, I find the posthumous deification given to James a little uncomfortable, given the rather obvious undercurrents in much of his work. Critics and scholars appear to be engaged in a strange game of denial, presumably in order to keep James' image wholesome to the undiscerning public. 

James' work is powerful yet disturbing. It would help to know why. 

NB. Apologies for the original error in uploading these pages in the wrong order. The article should now be in the correct running order.