Jan 14

DUNBLANE – “Throw These Guns Away” / “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

Popular86 comments • 12,154 views

#754, 21st December 1996

guns In the 12 years since Band Aid, the charts have hosted a lot of charity singles – more than enough to give you a cynical familiarity with the shape of them. A terrible thing happens; the public is horrified; a number of pop stars make themselves available to help – some selflessly, some perhaps not; a sombre track is found and a dirge of a cover recorded; Number One is reached; the proceeds are (we trust) distributed; the matter is closed, and if any good is done we do not hear about it. The Dunblane single is almost completely different from any of this.

The background: in March 1996 a terrible failure of a man walked armed into a Scottish primary school and murdered sixteen children and one adult. In the aftermath of this atrocity, public disgust and general political will made some kind of handgun ban inevitable. The question was – how far would it extend? A commission made recommendations which the waning Conservative government accepted: most handguns would be banned. A petition, circulating since the massacre, argued for stricter legislation: outlaw all handguns. As of December 1996, however, this was not on the table.

If the Dunblane massacre had been the kind of tragedy to inspire a standard charity single, we can imagine what it would have been like. It would have charted in May or June, with the horror fresh in public minds. It would have involved a number of Scottish stars – Marti Pellow if available, certainly a Proclaimer or the fellow from Del Amitri. It’s entirely likely “Knockin’ On Heavens Door” would have been the song.

It sounds – and would have been – obscene. The charity single we did get is not, because Dunblane was not that kind of event. The reporting of these crimes – honed by the British press with the Hungerford massacre in 1989 – takes place first at a horribly intimate level, tracing the murderer’s movements second by second, step by step, death by death, using maps and photos to tempt the reader into imagining what the mind wants to flinch away from. After a few days of this the media zooms out, and focuses instead on the aftermath. How does a family cope with the murder of a child? Nobody wants to see or show the real answer to that (“it doesn’t”) so instead the story becomes how ‘the town’ or ‘the community’ deals with it. Mostly the community wants the media to get the hell out, and the story begins to slip away.

There is nowhere into this schema for music to fit, no celebrity response that wouldn’t seem like the most grotesque exploitation. But “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” invents a place for music, by taking the media’s prurient interest in ‘the town’ and making it tangible. The record is credited not to some one-off team, but to ‘Dunblane’ – the single is by and from the community, not just for it. This was genuine, to some degree – Ted Christopher, the musician behind the single, put together a band of Dunblane musicians to play (Mark Knopfler helps, but to lend professionalism as much as star power). The children’s choir on “Throw Those Guns Away” even includes classmates of the murdered kids. However sentimental the end result, this is an attempt at catharsis, not the kind of pat closure I’ve criticised on other event-led charity hits.

“Throw Those Guns Away” also points to the other thing that makes the Dunblane single unusual. It is an explicitly political charity record – perhaps the most focused political Number One ever. Most charity hits obscure the controversy and political wrangling that comes in tragedy’s wake: not so Dunblane. It is a specific intervention in an ongoing policy debate, a petition as much as a record: all handguns should be banned. Tony Blair adopted that policy, and it was law within six months of New Labour coming to power. Now, it’s not likely Blair adopted the policy because of this record, and the single isn’t taking a difficult or unpopular stand. In fact it was the kind of emotional open goal his opponents were regularly terrible at spotting. But the massive response to this single – nine months after the massacre – would at least have confirmed his instincts, and helped cement the policy as part of the UK political consensus. Nowadays, only Nigel Farage makes serious noises about loosening the handgun ban.

In the end almost none of the standard objections you might have to a charity single apply here. It’s no celebrity junket, it’s a genuine response by (some of) the people affected, it’s pointedly specific in its demands, and it’s about its events in a way nothing since Band Aid has been. Its very success in those areas makes it virtually unlistenable – alone in the charity hit ledger I can’t hear it without thinking of what prompted it. Really though, the only thing it has in common with other charity hits is that the music isn’t any good. For once that doesn’t matter: this is as close to an unmarkable record as I’ll see. It gets an arbitrary number: these songs did the job they set out to, and now I will never play them again.



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  1. 31
    Weej on 29 Jan 2014 #

    MikeMCSG @ #21 – Yes, I’m perfectly aware that it isn’t applicable in this case, that’s why I said it would need “a different kind of narrative.” – but the conversation has come around to the same point anyway, that if the purpose of a song is to use emotions (I don’t like the term “sob story” and it seems quite inappropriate in this case) to put forward a political message then your response depends on whether you agree with that message rather than whether you like the song – that’s why it’s basically ungradable. Of course we could also object entirely to the use of emotion in politics, or the intrusion of politics into music, and on the other hand there’s the argument that everything is political, and that being open about it is healthier than hiding it – but the point remains that the music itself is here reduced to a side-story – the context and the message are basically everything.

  2. 32
    AMZ1981 on 29 Jan 2014 #

    A very hard song to review and a near impossible one to rate. Viewed dispassionately it does have some interesting chart markers – Mark Knopler’s only involvement with a number one singles and (I think) the first Bob Dylan composition to hit the top since The Mighty Quinn in 1968 and the last direct cover to do so (KOHD would return as a sample but I bunny).

    A few recent threads have touched on Toni Braxton’s massive American chart-topper Unbreak My Heart which had spent a good few weeks touring the top five and, during Dunblane’s week at the top finally rose to number two – it would return there two weeks later on the dead end of year chart.

    During the chart run down Mark Goodier always used to play the dance remix of Unbreak My Heart which annoyed me and I remember a contributor to The Vibe on Ceefax (God I’m showing my age) accusing him of `inflicting his narrow minded musical tastes on the rest of us`. Goodier once commented – possibly defending himself against similar complaints – that the remix was the version selling the record. I’ve wondered if this was fair comment.

  3. 33
    Chelovek na lune on 29 Jan 2014 #

    I don’t agree that this is “ungradeable” (for all that I did in fact give it a, pretty decent, grade) because of the use of emotions to put forward a political message, as such: would, for example, “Strange Fruit” be ungradeable on those grounds? (I think one can still draw a line between “manipulation” – to be deprecated – and a more measured use of emotion – to engender fellow-feeling – , regardless of whether one agrees with the message being conveyed or not: the (post-Internationale) Soviet national anthem was a cracking composition, even if the uses to which it was put were often more to do with…well, cracking heads, be that, less frequently, physically, or, more commonly, psychologically.). And one can readily enjoy or approve of some totalitarian architecture (oh! for the square Colosseum at EUR on the edge of Rome) without being necessarily converted to the ideology behind the aesthetics…

    It is rather the rawness, the closeness to the horrific event, that the record commemorates, that makes it such.

  4. 34
    Cumbrian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    For me, it’s ungradeable on the basis that despite looking like, sounding like and having the trappings of a pop record, it’s actually the de facto petition that Tom refers to his review, just one that is more easily able to go viral in the specific period that this happened. I don’t think a record specifically like this would exist in this day and age – more likely someone would start an epetition at the relevant website and things would go from there.

    I don’t think other charity records behave in the same way. Yes, the money from this went to charity, like the others, but I don’t think that was the point. It was to say “this many people bought this record, which is explicitly arguing for this specific action. Count them too”. Other charity records make, imo, some play at being entertaining. This isn’t making that play, I would argue. As such, it shouldn’t be graded on entertainment, which, in my view, is largely what the mark scheme for Popular is about.

  5. 35
    Chelovek na lune on 29 Jan 2014 #

    No, it’s certainly not “entertainment”. I was wondering further if it should even be categorised as any relative of “art” (which label I think is perfectly fitting of the more high quality outposts of popular culture that we occasionally get to discuss here) – – because of the implication in “art” of “artifice”, playfulness, pretence, even intellectual detachment (which cleverly done can even strengthen the expression of an intended message – as our shiny suited totalitarian antecedents knew too well) : there are absolutely none of these things here, and no room for them here.

    (This is separate from another, but related discussion, that would remove the record from all context and discuss it on purely musical terms – is it “craft” rather than “art”? Or does one have to be irredeemably lost in the 19th century to make such distinctions? And do they apply to subsequent, say, seemingly mass-produced items of dance music that we will encounter in years ahead, too….it’s a long way from William Morris to those bunnies, but maybe it’s a journey worthy of consideration)

  6. 36
    wichitalineman on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Personally, I think ‘grading’ is a lot less interesting than the conversations usually generated by Tom’s posts.

    This is arguably the most successful protest record in history – that’s a real achievement. Craft rather than art… that a renowned guitarist has been drafted in, and that an appropriate and moving fiddle line gives Throw These Guns Away its flow and emotional feel, that surely makes it art.

    Chelovek’s point about Strange Fruit is a very good one – and I’d have given Robert Wyatt’s Strange Fruit/At Last I Am Free a 10 if it had troubled Popular.

  7. 37
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Re Kinitawowi@30: “if it’s not new material (which, you know, “posthumous”…) then it’s serving no purpose.”

    No purpose for whom? Surely it is new material to the audience making it a hit. Few if any people who already owned “Imagine” would have bought the single after John Lennon’s death, and few of Michael Jackson’s original fans would have bought the compilations of his hits after his. It’s being bought by a new audience hearing the music for the first time, thanks to the exposure it gets from stories about the artist’s death or some other event that brings it to everyone’s attention.

    I’ve done it myself. When Elliott Smith died I read a lot about him, got curious about the albums I hadn’t heard beyond XO and Figure 8, and ended up purchasing his entire back catalogue. You might say those purchases served no purpose, but they did for me; for a start, my favourite Elliott Smith albums are no longer XO and Figure 8. If he had been a Madonna-level star instead of an Elliott Smith-level star, those same purchases might have helped create some posthumous hits.

    This effect will surely only increase in the digital download era, as every individual track is now immediately available for the newly curious to buy, and (to put it bluntly) there are a lot of big music stars yet to die. No need now for a record company to press up a new run of singles to meet demand.

    Or maybe some of Jackson’s old ’80s fans had lost their copies of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”, and picked up a Best Of after he died out of nostalgia, having been reminded how good they were. That’s not “serving no purpose”, either. That effect is likely to diminish, though, once all music collections are digital – our old loves are likely to linger in our mp3 libraries, because who has the time to weed them out, and they’ll be waiting for us when we want that nostalgic fix in future.

  8. 38
    thefatgit on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Yesterday, I felt unable to contribute anything useful to this thread. Today, I’ve given it some thought…

    Was it a couple of years back, Tom posted something on FT re: difficult listening? In that context, this #1 is excruciating, precisely because of the emotional heft of TTGA and being invited to remember the children of Dunblane were slain for no reason. Additionally Port Arthur, Columbine and Sandy Hook when they happen, the media usually only asks us to view these events in isolation from each other. What TTGA does now is bring all these events and ones I have failed to mention, into sharp focus and it’s message is far too powerful a message for me at least, who was profoundly humbled by listening to 2 songs on a YouTube clip. Dunblane is the very essence of difficult listening.

  9. 39
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    [Shifted my comment into my one above.]

  10. 40
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #35 Well this is kind of the whole background concept of Popular – in creating a chart of top-selling records, the NME (and subsequently everyone else) accidentally invented a space where a whole lot of different uses for music could overlap (and sometimes clash) – dissolving any art/craft etc binary, or at least making it not-that-useful as a filter. So as well as a tour of genres, generations etc. it’s a set of answers to the question “why might people buy music?” as well as “why might artists want people to buy it?” (sometimes less interesting, sometimes more).

    Re. “manipulation” – the main reason I don’t think it’s that useful is that it tends to be something that only happens to other people – it’s like how people tut-tut over other people’s ‘irrationality’ and don’t really think about their own biases.

    This particular record doesn’t strike me as ‘manipulative’ or ‘artificial’ at all but to some extent its intentions are suborned anyway to the wider media coverage of both the tragedy and its aftermath, which it’s hard to argue isn’t on some level detached or created in a sense of artifice (to use Chelovek’s definitions), just because that kind of selectivity is what media and news DO.

  11. 41
    Cumbrian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #35: I feel I am on very shaky ground when discussing these sorts of philosophical questions (I’ve done just enough study of Philosophy when at uni to feel really uncomfortable about saying stuff in these broad areas without having a bloody good think about what I am saying and why I am saying it), which is principally why I grounded my thinking on this in terms of “is the point of this to be entertaining?” My initial reaction is probably closer to Lino’s that it is art, inasmuch as, to pick only one of the things you’ve mentioned, there is some intellectual detachment to the making of the point – getting Knopfler in to help add form being one expression of this, rather than just bashing it out and hoping for the best.

    As I said though, my thoughts on this are very far from fully formed and I could be easily swayed by persuasive argument one way or the other.

    #36: I would agree that the conversation is more interesting than the mark.

  12. 42
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Excellent point, thefatgit @38 – it’s a cumulative effect. But even in 1996, Dunblane and Port Arthur built on earlier examples (in Australia, we had the Hoddle Street massacre in 1987, which messed with my head when I lived briefly in Melbourne because it’s a major arterial road I needed to drive on all the time). If the 1996 events in the UK and Australia had been isolated ones, I’m not sure the moves to greater gun control would have been as swift.

  13. 43
    Cumbrian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #40: I’ve said elsewhere and repeat here that manipulation is not that useful a word. Quite a lot of the best art is manipulative, in that it is designed to try to make you feel a certain way about things. The question is whether you mind being manipulated in that way or not. I don’t see many people minding being encouraged to care about what happens to George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” for instance, but it is surely still manipulative. Frankly, in my view, it’s a loaded word that is only really used when people mean “I can see what this is trying to make me feel and I don’t like it”.

  14. 44
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    It’s a crap word, but the “I don’t like the sense of being expected to feel something” vs “I am happy to be carried along” is a reaction worth exploring – so it’s a crap word because it reduces the reaction to a word rather than encouraging people to dig in a bit more.

  15. 45
    Cumbrian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    I would agree with that and why the word is crap. More efficiently and elegantly expressed than I managed, which is probably why you’re the writer and I am the commenter.

  16. 46
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #35: if the high quality stuff is art then surely so is the low – bad art is still art.

    #37: While I agree with disagreeing with #30 (by any standards, any record that pops up here serves a purpose for a lot of people), I’m not entirely sure about the examples you’ve picked: there’s a lot of different ways to be a Michael Jackson fan: not a lot of people who’d have bought Ben, quite a lot of people who bought Thriller, an awful lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily have thought of buying his albums simply because he was so omnipresent in pop culture. To be a little ghoulish, the posthumous hits compilation is generally the definitive one – no “we stuck their new single in to get them back in the charts”, no “oh he’ll have one more big hit after this from a duff album”.

  17. 47
    Chelovek na lune on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #46 Perhaps, but surely a distinction can be made (even on something approaching objective grounds – rather than purely on grounds of “taste”? – and even in material that is intended to be part of popular culture) between something that constitutes “art”, something that constitutes “entertainment”, and something that combines elements of the two?

    (I think this is something that recent, and especially New Labour-supported approaches to art and the role of culture in public life have tended to get wrong, precisely by overplaying the “entertainment” aspect – familiarity being emphasised over the cerebral or potentially challenging – this is seen above all in works of “public art” that have no real meaning or substance but are intended to distract or raise a smile but no deeper engagement – I cannot be the only person here to be familiar with the Giant Fish of Erith (http://www.drostle.com/erith.html) : the debacle of the short-lived “The Public” art gallery in West Bromwich (which in reality, IMVHO, contained little stuff that might actually be reasonably defined as art – interesting artefacts, yes), is another example, but there are countless others. (probably the first incarnation of the Millennium Dome, too…) The idea of art as a focus of state-directed societal regeneration being reduced to a promotion of a kind of safe and comfortable feel-good factor…..the X-factorisation of culture, if you like?: and the rejection or downplaying of the highbrow or complex – or of aspiration to being either of those things…..

    (I think, like many things – and indeed the art/craft , the distinction makes more sense understood as a continuum, rather than a binary either-or, but I still think it is a purposeful and real distinction.)

    [apologies for the slightly incoherent nature of some of these ramblings. Not sure quite how we got here from Dunblane, but still.]

  18. 48
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #46 I don’t think we’re disagreeing here – there are many different reasons for wanting to buy posthumous releases, so they serve plenty of purposes. The posthumous hit compilation is valuable for being definitive, as you say. But the posthumous hits Kinitawowi objects to aren’t exactly that, are they? Those hits can happen before the definitive collections are compiled – they might be the most recent compilation (missing the artist’s more recent hits), or their most famous album, or (most relevant to Popular) one of their old songs becoming a posthumous hit single.

    And in the case of singles, I really can’t see them being bought by people who already own the song; such hits must be driven by people who don’t, whether they were too young to hear it the first time round, or didn’t buy it first time round but have decided they like it, or bought it first time round but lost or disposed of it and now want it again. Whatever the reason, they don’t have the song, they want the song, they buy the song, it becomes a hit. I don’t see learning about an artist’s death as an inherently objectionable reason for wanting to buy a song or an album (or a book, or a DVD). On the contrary, the career retrospectives that follow an artist’s death can be a helpful guide to what’s worth getting. I’ve bought many singles and albums unheard just because a favourite living artist released them, and my strike rate with those has probably been a lot worse; I might even have helped a few dud albums to number one that way. (Sorry about that, punctum. )

  19. 49
    wichitalineman on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Re 37: “our old loves are likely to linger in our mp3 libraries, because who has the time to weed them out…” I’ve got to the stage where I’m having to ‘weed them out’ because my laptop is starting to crawl to a snail’s pace. There’s not much stored in it apart from music. Rockabilly and Toytown Psych have now been heavily edited. Technology is failing me.

    There have, of course, already been several Popular entries which were posthumous. That Eddie Cochran’s Three Steps To Heaven was his only number one, possibly as a ‘tribute’ soon after his death, doesn’t diminish the song’s worth, or make the reasons people bought it at the time “objectionable”. Forty-odd years on, few people other than pop nerds will know that it was a posthumous number one (or even that it was a number one, for that matter).

  20. 50
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #48 No, I think we are largely agreeing, I was just raising an eye at the tying of “is a fan” with “owns a previously released single” – particularly for big popstars, there’s a lot of people in the first category but not the second. “a new audience hearing the music for the first time” – surely there can’t have been enough of these on the planet to fill a phonebox by the time of MJ’s death?

    I am amused though by the fannish completion of the loop as regards exposure to music – the two highest level of fans being those who have heard the music for months before they buy it and those that have never heard a note.

    #37/49 – of course there is also the tendency towards moving towards music as a service, Spotify being the big name, where simple curiousity can be answered without having to actually buy anything.

  21. 51
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #47 attacks on the idea of art tend to be disguised attacks on the gatekeepers of art – which can come from several different angles, some sympathetic and some not (market-driven assaults on “elitism” vs attempts by the marginalised to rewrite the ‘canon’, to name two obvious ones). And successful attacks motivated by one cause will often have the unintended consequence of helping other causes, even if the people supporting those causes really hate each other. Again, it’s a hidden underpinning of Popular: when I euphemistically call the charts a ‘space’ in which all sorts of ideas can mix, I’m covering up their explicit identity as a market. “Let’s show the highest-sellers every week” is market logic: X-Factorisation 50 years before the fact! But it’s market logic which had the unforeseen effect of helping to open up popular culture to massively wider representation, voices from a range of backgrounds which a more curatorial approach simply would never have managed.

  22. 52
    James BC on 29 Jan 2014 #

    I remember wondering at the time this was released whether it would get the sales needed to be number 1. Between Band Aid and this, had there been any big charity singles that didn’t make number 1?

  23. 53
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #52 Wikipedia suggests loads of Comic Relief and Sport Aid ones, but those don’t necessarily count – they aren’t in the Band Aid multi-artist bespoke-group genre (but nor is this really) (the next No.1 that IS is the weirdest).

  24. 54
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #52: Sun City didn’t. Another “charity” record that was first and foremost a protest record.

    #50: I dunno, almost eight years since Invincible by the time of his death, and that was hardly his biggest album – a lot of young pop fans could have been oblivious to his music by then, depending on where they were, what radio stations they listened to, etc. The point isn’t so much that they would never have heard of the man, just that they might not have heard the music, or more than a song or two – or might not have been prompted to listen to it closely enough to want to acquire it. Even old fans of an artist who know perfectly well who they are can fall out of touch with what they’ve done in the interim.

  25. 55
    mapman132 on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Broadening the discussion a bit, I’ve long noticed a fundamental difference between the UK and the US wrt the cultural position of the pop singles chart, or perhaps pop music in general. By following the Hot 100, you basically get one thing: what music is popular in America at a given time, and arguably it doesn’t even do a great job at that. Politically oriented singles, charity records, and posthumous hits occasionally show up, but rarely, and when they do, they almost never make #1. Related to this is the fact that following the Hot 100, or any music chart, closely is very much a geeky niche thing. The average American music fan is almost proud that they have no idea what the number one song is at a given time.

    The UK chart by contrast seems, to my eyes at least, to be a much more mainstream interest to the point where it’s almost a national sounding board. Therefore we get #1’s related to recent tragedies, charities, (attempts at) comedy, advertisements, sports (Man U), random cultural trends, political commentary (both direct and indirect), etc.

    I’m not sure why this is entirely. Certainly part of it is difference between a sales/airplay vs. a sales only chart. The relative geographic compactness of the UK may also play a part. But these things exist in other countries whose charts, which admittedly I don’t follow closely, don’t seem to reflect their overall culture quite as strongly. Or maybe I’m totally wrong about this. Thoughts?

  26. 56
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    This is really Bob’s wheelhouse. The charts don’t play that public role any more really – though I’d argue they still *work* in mostly the same way as they did then. (many would disagree – this is likely to be a running discussion across a lot of entries)

    The difference in terms of the freak cultural significance of the UK singles chart is Top Of The Pops, though. A 30-year run of show devoted to something and watched by millions each week is a good way to make that something seem important.

  27. 57
    Cumbrian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #55: What I am about to say is only one component of this (and I will bet others will chuck in their views on it) but I would wager that a large measure of this is to do with the fact that Top Of The Pops ran weekly in a prime time slot on first one of only 3, then 4, then 5 TV channels available to all in the UK – which meant that there were large swathes of the UK population seeing what was #1 every single week, just by virtue of switching the TV on at the relevant time – even people who were not that interested but wanted to watch the following programme (because the #1 was always right near the end of the show) might well turn on the TV early and see what the UK’s #1 pop record was.

    Edit: Tom ninja’d me.

  28. 58
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    The Australian Countdown functioned the same way (Sunday night viewing on the national broadcaster), but its reign was much shorter, only 13 years from 1974 to 1987. The alignment of that reign with my childhood and teen years is probably what made me interested in Popular.

  29. 59
    TriffidFarm on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #57: Definitely – during my early childhood, the programme that followed Top of the Pops was Tomorrow’s World, and 8pm on a Thursday came to represent the divide between my sister’s interests and my own. So even though standard sibling-rivalry meant I had a principled rejection of pop music for a while, even I knew what was at number one from one week to another.

  30. 60
    Erithian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    I remember a piece published by the NME circa 1973 which commented “there’s nowhere you can escape the current Top 20 except perhaps a nunnery” – in a tone which suggested the writer wished it were otherwise. You certainly wouldn’t say that today, it’s a lot more of a niche market except with the biggest hits.

    Mapman #55 – I forget which thread this cropped up in recently, but I was amazed to read about YouTube views of tribute or spoof videos counting towards a Hot 100 position, which meant that a daft spoof of the Wrecking Ball video was enough for Miley Cyrus to deny Lorde a 10-week run at number one. Time for a rethink there, I reckon.

    Back to the topic in hand, Mapman – the Newtown shooting was shortly after Andy Murray won the US Open to break his Grand Slam duck, and many parts of the US press made the connections referred to above. Murray himself sent a message of sorrow and support to the Sandy Hook families.

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