We Will Never Give It Up
I have never really made mix tapes or discs or things like that for myself. For others, yes, sometimes due to love, other times due to, well, education (starting in 1994 or so, after a complaint from my mom that all my generation apparently listened to was evil dark music or the like, I decided to win her over to modern stuff by judiciously chosen selections from certain bands – and now she likes Kraftwerk, Mojave 3 and In the Nursery, go figure). Not really for myself per se, though – I am a fan of albums as such and still am, even with CD players’ easy propensity to mix things up as desired and mp3s’ complete busting down of structural doors. The idea of listening to anything like What Does Anything Mean? Basically or Satisfied Mind out of sequence as I know it just seems wrong and strange to me, so I don’t do it.
So I decided to approach this subject fairly cold-bloodedly. I initially thought of complete chaos, just this and that and the other. A good follow-up disc might be nothing but minute-long songs, I’ll have to look into that – and also make the challenge one of not including any Wire or Minutemen tracks. But I remembered a wonderfully silly Onion article a while back about a guy and his homemade CDR and the absurd care he took in making it, so I decided to operate in a weird homage/parody of that. I even gave the disc a name, something I’ve never once done before beyond maybe a quick scribbled “Songs for Whoever” type thing. Ridiculous, I thought – but then other folks in this semi-series give names to theirs, I guess. So I can’t mock, but it’s another thing that’s a touch alien to me.
And I steered away from chaos. I started obsessing over a stereotypical year and scene that I’m allegedly defined by – 1981, UK, post-punk/new romantic as very broadly described. Not that I’m not actually defined by that, though I really am in many different ways. Certainly not in appearance, granted – I can’t imagine me looking as I am fitting in to any of those scenes. But I’m a fanatic of that time and location and always am searching out for more from those times, thus my recent scrounging of the LTM catalogue and its near endless run of early Factory reissues and Josef K compilations and things like that.
So I created a mix disc of the time, and I became even more self-consciously rockist about it, for all that I included something like Depeche Mode’s “Photographic” on the disc. I made a pledge I kept – all the tracks chosen were album cuts, not singles (honorable exceptions: “Tell Me Easter’s on Friday” by the Associates, which was just too darn good not to include, not to mention too darn weird, and “Mask” by Bauhaus, for about the same reasons), the type of things the ‘true’ fan knows about. Even as I type this I realize that perhaps the most rockist thing to do would have been just B-sides or something, but hey.
The bands had to be from the UK, so a couple of Scots acts turn up (the Associates, as mentioned, and Simple Minds). I considered a world-wide 1981 portrait, but that would be impossible – and the whole thing was already artificially limited anyway. It’s almost a caricatured snapshot of some dour young character in a raincoat who occasionally dances around and flirts with mascara, which might make a difference if the character was male. And admittedly, most of the comp is pathetically male, Siouxsie Sioux and Gillian Gilbert aside, but pathetically straight I don’t entirely know about.
Nobody in Britain was listening to just this without a fair bit of effort, I’m guessing – too limited to encompass everything going on, too broad from a total obsessive point of view about a particular sound (did New Order fans as such then get down to Depeche Mode like most American alt teens did in the mid-eighties? Were Comsat Angels freaks dismissing Cure nutters as saddoes? Were PIL fans distinctly contemptuous of anything and everything Soft Cell and Simple Minds?). Time makes this part of a scene, sort of, but surely it was anything but.
But I don’t know, I have no idea – maybe they were. Still, I can’t think of this as anyone’s soundtrack, just a strange skip through sounds and styles as described by a small arc. The various oppositions set up as a result are bemusing and unintentional – PIL’s bassless “Under the House” has a drum clatter worthy of Killing Joke’s “The Fall of Because,” but the distorted orchestral swells that turn Lydon and company’s cut into a weird, unexpected dream – not to mention the flamenco claps – seems to have no place into the realm of Jaz Coleman’s abstract rage and Geordie’s feedback. Of course, another weird thing about this compilation is how time changes a person – Coleman now regularly releases odd, overblown orchestral classic rock interpretations, whereas Lydon maybe just listens to white noise now.
Recorded For: Ned Raggett
Killing Joke – “The Fall of Because”
Depeche Mode – “Photographic”
Associates – “Tell Me Easter’s On Friday”
PIL – “Under the House”
Japan – “Canton”
Simple Minds – “70 Cities As Love Brings the Fall”
The Psychedelic Furs – “All of This And Nothing”
Gary Numan – “Cry the Clock Said”
Echo and the Bunnymen – “Over the Wall”
The Comsat Angels – “Our Secret”
New Order – “Doubts Even Here”
Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Night Shift”
The Cure – “The Drowning Man”
Bauhaus – “Mask”
Soft Cell – “Youth”
The chosen focus was also on a mostly dark, sometimes dour sound for the disc – which sometimes made it a challenge, since I wanted a Japan song on here but most of Tin Drum is fairly active. “Canton,” the one instrumental from the album, is a bit more downbeat, but not entirely, capturing a sense of processional majesty through the region of the name. Or as much as I can imagine it through my Western-skewed eyes and brain, knowing what I know of Chinese music and culture through a combination of history books, bizarre and wonderful movies and strange, nagging stereotypes. Maybe Japan (the name alone, after all!) fell victim to that as well, though there was at least the sense that the quartet knew something about their sources of inspiration. Or were they just faking it as well?
I tried to somehow sort of sequence the disc – in a way. I shoved the (maybe?) overtly gloomier stuff, or so it seemed, to the end, wanting everything to end on a tragically over-the-top note thanks to Soft Cell’s “Youth.” Though admittedly that’s a weirdly successful song for me, the more so because for a young guy Marc Almond conjured up an image that stuck, of lost time, regrets and eternal reflections on the past. This works well for me, considering I was once young enough to read Peanuts strips with the characters wondering about why their parents might flip through their old yearbooks and sigh with regret, and now have come to the point – though I still feel like I’m 19, somehow, somewhere – where I’m in the shoes of those parents. The song is slathered in a strange atmosphere, Almond’s voice double-tracked here and there perhaps, the clatter of the drum machine what many would call demo-quality now, the slurring keyboards a drugged-out reverie from a strange dream, Suicide gone cabaret and beamed down from on high. It’s a past long gone for the performers, long gone for the original listeners, long gone for me, who was only discovering American top 40 radio at the time and would only start to hear of even a couple of these names the following year if that – Soft Cell in particular for a rather obvious track. Yet the weird thing about time is how “Tainted Love” and its omnipresence instead becomes part of the continuum if one investigates and considers more after initial exposure, if one is a Soft Cell fan now. It happens all the time – look at the Cure’s “The Drowning Man” and the Comsat Angels’ “Our Secret,” the latter of which contributed the title of the compilation, and both of which are only known by those who really get into the respective bands in a big way. I’m so addicted to Faith that choosing something from it was a dead giveaway, and it was either going to be “The Drowning Man” or “All Cats Are Grey.” But the Misery Loves Co. cover from a couple of years back settled the matter, obsessed as I am with it. It’s something that theoretically should be too ridiculous to survive, but I don’t like theory. I also don’t like Stabbing Westward, who seem like they could have done the cover easy, but Misery Loves Co. somehow do it right, meaning there’s shrill but hoarse vocals, a slow burn feedback buildup that turns into rock-of-gods industrial stormfront Gotterdammerung this is it Armageddon at the track’s end. All of which is very much not the original with its layered vocal wails as textures, Robert Smith’s spindly guitar chug or the punctuated but not crush-your-skull rhythms, yet through it all the Swedes keep the same sense of suffocating desperation, not to mention that same nagging guitar figure.
As for the Comsats, Silkworm turned “Our Secret” into a cruel, agonized howl as well, not Black Sabbath-gone-tech, more American indie of a sort finding a way to take things to a limit circa 1992, Stephen Fellows’ deliberate guitar lines turning into surging rough crunch, the passionate but restrained singing evolved into defiant scream. Odd how quiet really is the new loud, or becomes that – are the originals being given the power they might have lacked or are they being ground unnecessarily into the ground, and is there a right answer?
But for all that some sounds inspire, some others are put to bed, which is exactly what New Order was doing with a tune like “Doubts Even Here.” The Joy Division nightmare was ending audibly here, the crushed windpipe and cold hands and epileptic fits of Ian Curtis possibly sublimated into the hollowly recorded, martially-paced cut from Movement. If anything it’s Gillian Gilbert’s synths that provide the real heart of the track – Technique is eight years, a million miles and a sonic revolution or three away. Here they’re compressed, mournful, orchestral, seemingly endlessly rising in homage to an unknown spirit of something, even while the survivors create familiar enough rhythm or guitar noises, voices (including, indeed, Gilbert herself) aiming for a sense of Curtis’ maniacal focus but not quite there and not really trying to be in the end. None more goth – and though “Elegia” may well have been the final homage a little while later, this feels like the last pagan ceremony over the grave. I somehow doubt the band even think about this song now, if they do – twenty years plus is a long time.
Other suggestions on how time provides new answers seem to crop up every time I listen – sometimes in the most beautifully unexpected of ways. When I first heard “All of This and Nothing” by the Psychedelic Furs all those years ago – must have been 1989 or so – I focused on the acoustic guitar start and end, the sax additions, the propulsive punch, Richard Butler’s wonderful rasp, still one of the best and most underrated voices of its time and place. But I listen to it now, and oddly one of the first things that hits me is how it’s a perfect emo song. My god, the number of bands that could cover this! Just imagine a strained, higher voice, perhaps screaming the chorus line – “You didn’t leave me anything I could understand/Hey I never meant that stuff I want to turn you round!” Same pace even, all the conversational details of the song and its portrait of romance ended (is it? I can’t really tell) – totally emo! Just needs to sound louder and more ‘intense,’ I suppose, even when I love this blend of odd not-riff riffing and sort-of texture – what is the lead instrument, anyway? Anything?
Of course, things can go other directions as well – like Echo and the Bunnymen, who are supposed to be nothing but Doors fans. Even my dad said that Ian McCulloch sounded like Jim Morrison, but I have never heard it, that one cover aside. Morrison came across as more, well, brutish, McCulloch louche and lost in his own dream – and it also didn’t hurt any that Pete DeFreitas and Will Sargent aren’t John Densmore and Robbie Krieger, frankly. But that’s something else that gets to me, as a larger question – how do musicians like this draw their inspirations and escape their traps to find something new, how does “Over the Wall” not sound like “LA Woman” or whatever, at all? Or for all that Peter Murphy loves his Bowie and his Iggy, how does the thick rhythmic mud and his attendant theatricality on “Mask” – suddenly, beautifully textured by the addition of Daniel Ash’s acoustic guitar, the equivalent just the right sample or noise in the mix – not really remind me of either of them? Of course, one might as well ask why Timbaland doesn’t sound like Prince per se, and that’s part of the weird joy and mystery, sensing when and how and where something new is actually happening no matter if the lines can be drawn, a shudder of convulsive ‘what the hell?’
At the center of it all, though, is something else entirely – a song by possibly the most hated person in UK music at the time, at least among the musicians featured here. Actually Gary Numan had to be the most famous, with a slew of hits, including of course his two number ones “Are Friends Electric?” and “Cars” and the attendant albums, already behind him. I gather, perhaps wrongly and perhaps due to his sense of wounded drama that permeates both his comments at the time and the music he created, that he felt pretty put upon as a result, and likely everyone who labeled him sub-Bowie didn’t help matters.
And so he does something not many people would have the guts, knack or desire to in his particular position, I’m guessing – maybe. He records a nearly ten-minute long song, slow, deliberate, exquisitely arranged and paced, and debuts it for a fanatical crowd at Wembley Arena well before actual release in the middle of playing punchier hits and familiar album cuts. And then he releases it on Dance, which is where “Cry the Clock Said” comes from. If anyone wants to beat Numan with the lyrical stick here, well, go right ahead, but the robots and aliens aren’t here from what I can tell. In fact he only has about twelve lines throughout the entire song, not counting the buried spoken word part around six minutes in that sounds impossibly, strangely fragile.
In fact the whole song is impossibly fragile, and the more I listen to it the more I think it’s his best song ever. The rhythm is little more than a soft, unsettled drum machine (?) pulse and clatter that betrays his strong fascination with Japan (them again!) at the time – it doesn’t alter much, but it isn’t straightforward, at all, it never punches, it just sort of…materializes, like raindrops dripping down from roofs. E-bay guitar swirls out of nowhere to slide around the background like a lost ghost, unsure and wailing, keyboard sparkles and chimes swell up and down and around, shimmering, beautiful, near impossibly elegant but damn, there it is. It’s nearly ten minutes of love that isn’t that lovely.
Will I listen to all these songs again in quite this way? Not really sure yet – perhaps I like to keep myself guessing, or there’s a secret I have that I couldn’t give up if I tried, even to myself.