Saturday, 27 November 2021


Tate Britain, London

“I like to channel naturalist, abstract, ornamental, fetishist and childish images” 

- Paula Rego

Fighting Fascist Realism

Paula Rego was born in 1935, in a Portugal still under fascism. Remarkably, she painted ’Interrogation’ (1950, below) while just fifteen. The - for want of a better word - purity of those interrogator bodies is emphasised by the echoing whiteness of their symmetry, and by their headlessness throwing emphasis onto their puffed-up torsos. Which contrasts with the poor figure in the chair, so twisted and contorted. It’s a remarkably assured work for someone so young. But if you were to pin it to a label you’d pick Expressionism.

Whereas ’Salazar Vomiting the Homeland’ (1960, below) is more indicative of her future direction. Its wild reductions and distortions of the human figure, its colours so vivid it almost looks like the work vomited itself into being, these are more reminiscent of Surrealism - particularly Miro. And, not unlike Miro, at the same time it keeps up the political themes. Salazar was Portugal’s dictator.

Surrealism, we should remember, emerged in opposition to fascism - aesthetically as much as politically. Propaganda art typically aims to appeal by making easy sense out of complex subjects. So, against its neat and tidy imagery of heroic male figures rendered in almost geometric anatomy, Surrealism twisted and stretched the human body until it was barely recognisable. And fascism, let’s remember, was perfectly able to recognise this in its enemy.

By 1951 Rego had been moved by her liberal-minded parents to England, the following year enrolling at the Slade. So it’s entirely possible that, with home censorship, the Portuguese artist only saw the work of the Spanish after arriving here. And there’s no denying her most impressionable years were spent under Salazar’s controlling maw.

Nevertheless, the show perhaps makes too much of these early years. It talks about the restrictive roles fascism forced women into, accurately and understandably. But it seems needlessly narrowing to confine her art into a response to this. If patriarchy was your prison, a move to Fifties England was a sure-fire way to discover its bars didn’t end at Portugal’s borders. In fact in ’57 she moved back there to have a baby out of marriage, after undergoing several abortions. And if we’re to take abortion as a barometer of women’s freedom it wasn’t legalised in England until 1968, then Portugal in 2007. Some while after Salazar had ceased vomiting.

Besides, that was scarcely the limits of it. One exhibition refused to display ’Salazar’, not in fascist Portugal but supposedly liberal London.

Added to which, if fascism held sway in her homeland until the shockingly late date of 1974, Rego was there to witness its end. The later work ’Madame Lupscu Has Her Fortune Told’ (2004, above) features the widow of the would-be dictator of Romania, who’d fled there. She’s pictured beside a seig-heiling statuette while attempting to get a blank palm read, fascism reduced to no more than a sick form of nostalgia for atrocity. (Oh to be back in the days when it seemed something consigned to the past!)

More widely, it risks mislabelling her art at agitprop. If ’Interrogation’ could have illustrated an Amnesty leaflet, ’Salazar Vomiting The Homeland’ requires you to read the title to get the context. And this is the vein in which she continues. In the accompanying filmshow she comments art should be as much about what’s inside you as what’s outside.

We see this in her collage works, which ran through the Sixties and much of the Seventies. (Though the term’s a little misleading here, as she chiefly collaged her own drawings.) ’The Firemen of Alijo’ (1966, above) was based on a sight she witnessed, the Portuguese poor barefoot in the show and huddled around a fire. But the finished work is so far from this that it’s more impetus than basis. In Rego’s hands, the scene becomes a phantasmagoria.

That green stripe is a horizon line, or perhaps the base of a wall. And the left-most figures do stand barefoot upon it. But from there they’re arranged in a grand sweep across the canvas, which trails out just before reconnecting to the ground. And the colour scheme becomes bolder and more varied as that sweep progresses. The result is such an accumulation it becomes an assault on the senses, which takes some while to resolve. Other works follow this arrangement, such as ’Manifesto for A Lost Cause’ (1966).

The ground-as-base is reminiscent of children’s art. But it also seems employed as a thin thread to perspective, and with it the naturalistic conventions of art. It’s there largely to show what is being left behind, try to stand on that seeming solid base and you’ll soon be yanked off our feet.

Painting With Children + Animals 

In 1974, for the first time, Rego illustrated some Portuguese folk tales. And there were not just more works to come in this vein, the themes would creep into her art more generally. (Yes this was the year the dictatorship fell, for those who like to make something of such things.) Perhaps the main thing is how little she has to change them to make them hers. It’s like she isn’t twisting or making use of them, they really were this sinister all along, just without us noticing. Take for example the print of ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’ (1989), below.

Slightly earlier, but in what seems a related move, she began making what she called ‘dollies’ - soft-form creations, something like home-made children’s toys. Though the show calls them ‘sculptures’, and though no article on her is complete without a photo of her studio festooned with them (see Wikipedia for an example) unlike Dorothea Tanning she doesn’t seem to have seen then as art objects in themselves, but as props to incorporate into her artwork. They were something like a Commedia Dell’arte troupe she could have on standby. From this point on her art is regularly rooted in the ‘types’ of folk tales, fables and fairy stories.

In the early Eighties she began a series of bold, thick-lined acrylic works, often on paper, largely featuring animals. Take for example ’Red Monkey Offers Bear a Poisoned Dove’ (1981, above). It looks so stark and bold, with everything handily labelled by that descriptive title, it must surely have a straightforward meaning. A poisoned dove is admittedly an easy enough image to read. But why a monkey, why a bear? We realise we’ve been looking at it for a while, waiting for this straightforward meaning to emerge, then a little later that it won’t.

A bunch of responses suggest themselves (countries in the Cold War?, characters in Rego’s life?, psychological archetypes?), yet none stick. And in this way it reflects the simple, direct prose which fables and folk tales are told in. In a Guardian interview she confirmed: “I always need a story. Without a story, I can’t get going.” But the story is often like the witnessed scene in the earlier collages, not something to illustrate but break off from.

Other works in this era are large-scale, and built up from the baseline like the earlier collages. However now they’re more mural than collage, a series of smaller pictures with linking devices. Some you even read by following a series of ‘lines’ across, like a piece of text. ’The Raft’ (1985, above) is the only one to be arranged around a central motif. And, while that blue dragon seems to personify the sea, the girl on a raft seems more adrift amid a sea of images. And she sits dispassionately through it all, a solid central block amid the pandemonium.

And this Girl character recurs frequently, as in ’Girl And Dog’ (1986) where she shown absurdly shaving the dog’s throat. There’s a biographical reading here, this was the year in which her husband Victor got Multiple Sclerosis and she inevitably became his carer. (Something we’ll see in other works.) But more important may be that impassive expression.

The show takes her as a feminist heroine. Perhaps partly, but she never seems wild and free. More accurately, as Laura Cummings pointed out in the Guardian: “The dogs have a whole range of expressions, but the girl… has only one. She is a vision of fixed determination.” She seems what we aren’t, calmly accepting of this absurd world. We should remember a child doesn’t have the same relationship to animals as an adult. And this Girl is shown either living in a world of animals, or morphing into one herself.

She comes closest to an expression with ’The Little Murderess’ (1987, above) where a trace of a smirk crosses her face. The standard reading seems to be that this is again about her Victor, perhaps the return of the repressed part of her psyche that could do without the constraints of caring for him. The Pelican, we’re told, can be a symbol of self-sacrifice.

But could it not also be a metaphor for growing up, the adult ‘murdering’ the child by replacing her? Look at the way she’s virtually emerging out of the picture frame, leaving her old world behind. The objects behind her, the toy cart and brightly coloured chair, look like something from a child’s room, a room she’s leaving. And we see a spectrum as if it’s a timeline. The most vivid red is in the chair to the very right, the most vivid green in the stretched-out ribbon to the left.

Into Tableaus 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because in the late Eighties Rego pulls another switch. She embarks upon large-scape acrylics, which are set in recognisable pictorial space. Colours, once almost impossibly vivid, become more muted. And while animals still appear, in this era there’s less of the human-animal hybrids.

Yet at the same time as perspective opens there’s neither movement to the work nor naturalism to the figures. They’re beyond realist, in their smoothness they’re idealised, almost hyper-real, paintings with the sharpness of line drawings. They’re tableaus, as arranged as in any diorama, their poses and gestures feel weighted with meaning. Even when we’ve no real notion what that meaning might be. They can be like looking at a nativity scene with no knowledge of the Bible.

Take for example ’The Policeman’s Daughter’ (1987, above). There’s no reason why you couldn’t re-enact the scene in real life. But that pure white dress, for example, is too pristine to exist in the real world, let alone for the messy task of boot polishing.

The title gives away whose boot is being so dutifully shone, recalling the ever on-stage synechdocheal boot in Strindberg’s play 'Miss Julie’. And the arch-backed black cat, who we can safely assume is a Tom, effectively rhymes with the boot.

Just as the wilder, free-form style went with agitational content, so this aesthetic plugs into a politics. But quite a different politics. It’s an illustration of patriarchy more than an assault on it. It seems simply too ordered to allow for change. The style dictates the tone - “this is just how it is”. And perhaps the world feels more like that as we grow older, the things we once assumed we could mould have instead moulded us.

And it should also be said that folk tales and fables, inherently common property, are inherently subversive - but they’re also fatalistic. They’re not concerned with politics, with events in the world, but with the essential state of things. Their animal figures suggest we are simply born to live out our nature.

Except, as you may have guessed, things aren’t quite as neat as they look. In ’The Family’ (1988, above) a male figure is attended by two females - this time dressing him. But he’s both obscured by and sandwiched between the two. And as they exchange a glance a third looks on with clasped hands raised, like the criminal mastermind of the enterprise.

Unsurprisingly this is another Victor picture, illustrating the way care work determines an intimacy that’s inherently not between equals. But like the Portuguese poor this is more impetus for than meaning of the work. It’s based in the ironic relationship of the servant to the master, as they make him up they simultaneously wipe him out. Look to the diorama on the chest of drawers.

And ’The Maids’ (1988, above) follows along the same lines, based on a Genet play about servants who murder their mistresses. A Maid isn’t just the central figure, her extended limbs dominate the frame, shadows splaying out from her, while her Mistress is closed up on herself. There’s still a kind of fatalism here. But it’s a fatalism in reverse to the existing order, in which the servant will inevitably rise and the master fall.

There’s also… um.. a wild boar in the room. In fact a motif of Rego’s in this period is to incorporate such an element, nromally in the lower right foreground. In the two examples above, these are entirely explicable. But it’s as often jarringly incongruous, out of scale or - as here - something of both. Earlier, her base lines kept her work semi-anchored in realism. Now it’s the reverse, she stays linked to her Surrealist roots.

To quote Laura Cummings again: “The Tate wants to make an activist of Rego… But the artist is ill-served by this reductive brief. Her gift is for the exact opposite: for the deeply ambiguous and morally disturbing scenario.”

The ink-and-watercolour work ’Island of The Light’ (1996) is part of a general return both to mural style and fable-based content. It’s based on a scene from ’Pinocchio’ where children are stolen and forced into labour, causing their transformation into donkeys. (Nicely, Rego was inspired by watching the Disney film while a child herself, rather than researching folk tales at the British Library or some such. It suggests both a personal connection to the material, and that something in these tales survives even Disneyfication.)

Rego slips between every variant of this motif: two-legged donkeys, humans riding donkeys, humans riding humans, humans with donkey heads, even a donkey mounting and biting a horse. It suggests something compelling but irresolvable about the central image.

It’s a classic child fantasy, to transform into an animal in order to roam free, unbridled by the social conventions adults try to impose on you. But the concept is double-edged, for at the same time the child’s aware that animals themselves can be made beats of burden. So what should be a means of escape here becomes a form of capture. And the jumbled nature of the composition suggests no way out.

’War’ (2003, above) is again based on something Rego witnessed, though this time at one remove. It’s based on a newspaper photo of the invasion of Iraq, which featured a screaming girl in a white dress. It’s a starker image than 'Island of the Light’, but still elusive when you try to pin it down. It’s partly inverting the folksy kid-lit image of cutesy anthropomorphised figures, with the bloodied rabbit masks. But there’s more…

There are almost as many variations as ’Island of the Light', just within two figures. The main figure has a rabbit mask, but human hands and feet, while the child she carries sports paws. The adult’s ‘mask’, dead-eyed, could equally be an enlarged rabbit skull. (And the death figure with animal skull appears elsewhere in Rego’s work, for example ‘Scarecrow and the Pig', 2005.) Yet the child’s looks bent from shape, as if papier-mache. You can’t see this as actual rabbits. But neither as people figleafed by anthropomorphism, or actors in rabbit masks. You need some combination of all of them at once.

With all the twists and turns, ’The Raft’ may well be the central image, itself depicting being at sea amid a flood of images. Rego is simultaneously compelling and inscrutable. But perhaps best of all, this is not just a retrospective of a living and working artist but one whose more recent works are still well worth seeing. And, while the content of Rego’s art may often seem less than uplifting, that seems a reason for optimism…

Saturday, 20 November 2021


Union Chapel, London, 15th Nov

This fad for playing an old album through, initially it didn’t seem in the spirit of Faust. They often feel like those re-enactment societies who restage ancient battles, diligently reproducing every move but adhering rigidly to modern Health and Safety guidelines. While Faust were a band who rarely placed the same thing the same way twice; who when I last saw them I was moved to describe as “arch-antagonists of the formulaic.” They’ve picked ’Faust IV’. And not, for example, ’The Faust Tapes’. 

But it came with the news they’d be playing as an expanded troupe, which included even yer proper classical instruments. Which suggested the aim was other than mere fidelity.

Then during the great gig interregnum we somehow got through, when dates were being bounced later and later, came the news that Zappi was no longer performing with Jean-Herve Peron. The two stalwarts I’d seen live twice and heard on countless CDs. Which made the endeavour seem still-more unguessable…

The stage is set for no less than twelve players. Much as the Can Project had replaced the irreplaceable Jaki Liebezeit by double up, there’s two drum kits. One of which turns out to be for longstanding band associate Chris Cutler.

It starts strangely. Not Faust strange, but strange. The three string players lull us with something calming and neo-classical. Naturally, we all wait to hear how Faust will mess with it. It turns out, to our perplexity, they don’t. It finishes to bemusement as the others stroll on stage. “You’re very quiet”, Peron tells us.

But from there, three things are obvious straight away. They’re not bothering with the Sacred Track Order rule of these events, a small but sure-fire sign they’re playing this the way they want. And after A Certain Ratio, this is two bands within a week who’ve taken on a transfusion of younger members. They point out at one point the line-up takes in every decade from teen to Seventies. And not least, when musicians aren’t required they don’t neatly slip off stage but loll about, reading books and sipping wine. Anti-rockism by now being a Faust tradition.

The set’s bookended by the titans ’Just a Second’ and ’Krautrock.’ But perhaps the test isn’t the trance-out riff tracks, which lend themselves to reworking, but the songs. And this is after all their most song-based album, the one they recorded here in Britain with Richard Branson peering nosily over their shoulders. They often feel treated as if they were folk standards, things everybody knows and now exist only to be amended. Peron and his daughter do most of the singing, normally undertaken with mock theatricality, as if saying “we’re here to have some fun with this old stuff.” A band so irreverent about everything should surely take that attitude to their own back catalogue. And they do.

What’s essentially the backing vocals of ’Bit Of A Pain’ are magnified and extended to the point they become mesmeric, like a remix artist seizing on one element to rearrange everything else around. Even if getting the audience to hum along ran into the English reserve. Over the top, this being a Faust event and full of chance collisions, someone then read out a story in Japanese.

’Sad Skinhead’, nobody’s favourite Faust song, slighted by Julian Cope in ’Krautrocksampler’, doesn’t just work better here but even works well, lurching to it’s own off-kilter rhythm, somehow out of time and keeping to it’s own time. Perhaps because the sinuous violin line provided such a counterpoint. Dada Ska finally achieved after only fifty years!

It doesn’t all work. At times it meanders, at others feels self-indulgent. At one point Peron broke off into a ditty about not selling out, when they should be above such stock notions. At others he seemed intent on livening the ensemble up, with the others not quite sure how to respond.

Overall, though it was the better of the two gigs, it did feel reminiscent of the Can Project. Not just the expanded line-up, the presence of just one original member or the double drums. Carelessly left on for a softer number they then trampled, ’Thief’ and ’Jennifer’ respectively. But because, by the very design of it, there cannot help but feel something commemorative about proceedings.

Of course, by the time of the Can Project it couldn’t be other than a tribute to a band already gone. But the other Faust gigs I’ve seen had faced forwards, like they were the radioactive particle that had no half-life. Hopefully this won’t mark the point where their relentlessly creative/destructive spirit finally started to relent.

Just to prove I wasn’t making it up about ’Sad Skinhead’… (The camera does stop careering so much after a bit.) There’s also a fuller, if still not quite complete, film here.

Saturday, 13 November 2021


Chalk, Brighton, 11th Nov

A Certain Ratio effectively personified the chance encounter between post-punk’s arch dourness and funk’s infectious energy, the moment grey raincoats were paired with dancing shoes. Which meant that the mid-Eighties, for so many in music a slamming set of dividing doors, was to them an opening drawbridge. A Factory band, they often played the label’s in-house venue the Hacienda, which equally segued neatly into the siren beats of Acid House. So much so that to this day the whistle is an on-stage instrument. 

Except for me… well, call me an old grey raincoat but there was something compelling about that initial ice-and-flame combination, foregrounded in album titles like ’The Graveyard and the Ballroom’. Perhaps what made it compelling also made it unsustainable. But what came after sounded more assimilatable, more regular.

And as the gig gets going I wonder if they’ll spend the night crossing and re-crossing that dividing line, like an explorer finding the equator and excitedly hopping back and forth between Northern and Southern hemispheres. There’s tracks which, while there’s nothing wrong with them, just aren’t going to lodge themselves in the memory. At least, not mine.

Though things turn out to be much more unpredictable. One instrumental number, for example, is based around a Balaeric beat so regular it could have come out a tin. But the players sinew around it like Miles Davis had discovered Acid House and pledged to make it his own.

What this band do best, at least in this incarnation, is combine the insistency of repetitive beats with the free flow of jamming, getting in a groove and soaring off simultaneously. It’s a shame they don’t just do that, but you don’t want to miss it when they do. I’d rate this gig above their last showing three years ago, in fact it’s the best I’ve seen them. (Admittedly, only of three. Don't spoil it.)

Which could be to do with the release of a new album, ‘Loca Remezclada’, the first in twelve years. And I was later to read the album’s blurb boldly asserting they were “revitalised by their most successful tour in over two decades” and so made an album which “distils the different directions and styles that have run throughout the band’s career.” 

Alternately, or perhaps additionally, there’s the enlivening presence of two new, much younger members, on vocals and keyboards respectively. Though the presence of the new second singer, Ellen Beth Abdi, has a somewhat tragic cause. Longstanding vocalist Denise Johnson unfortunately died last year, with a track dedicated to her memory. Still, virtue springs from adversity.

Same tour, from London… 

Saturday, 6 November 2021


Reader beware, serious PLOT SPOILERS ahead!

Edgar Wright’s new film (he of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘The World’s End’) could be described less as good than as bravura. It’s a whirlygig of experiences, but unlike many films which go into psychological horror territory it holds them within a perfectly structured story. And the two leads, Thomasin McKenzie as Ellie and Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie, are well cast.

Stuffed with so many hallucinogenic scenes, the film has the wit to work out any kind of heightened dialogue would overegg things. So it devises regular-sounding speech which still has a way of working on you. The repeated line about London being “a bit much”, it’s one of those phrases whose oxymoronic oddness only becomes apparent when you strip it of its familiarity.

Similarly, the boyfriend’s line about being a stranger too in London because he’s from south London… it’s one of those funny-because-it’s true moments. Or egocentric posh student Jocasta announcing she’s only to be known by her first name, in order to make herself a brand, the character helpfully nailing herself for us on first meeting.

Though widely compared to ‘Repulsion’ (1965), even by its own director, in a sense it’s more an anti-‘Repulsion’. The challenging thing about the Polanski is that its masterfully inventive and entirely unsurprising it was made by a rapist, making its subject matter out of female hysteria. (A challenge so larger that most seem only able to see one or the other of these things.)

True enough, there’s a similar creative tension here over whether what protagonist Ellie sees is real or vision, and consequently over whether she’s cracking up or not. But while this works moment-to-moment we know, in fact we’re told very early on, that she has some sort of psychic ability.

And the film would simply not function without this; we know she’s witnessing something, even if we - and her - aren’t always sure what. She calls this a “gift”. And though of course it becomes part-curse this inevitably steers her towards being a more pro-active character, even if she does spend a fair amount of time screaming and running.

She sees, at first through dreams, the unfolding life of another young woman, Sandie, from Sixties Soho. In fact, rather than ‘Repulsion’ this is an English ‘Mulholland Drive’, with the central character is essentially split into two roles. In fact we see the split as it happens…

Sandie sometimes reflects Ellie (literally, in mirrors), sometimes observes her. As Sandie’s introduced she sashays into a club, radiating confidence, intent upon stardom. As she descends the stairs Ellie’s reflected in a wall mirror. But while Sandie sports a glamorous dress, Ellie’s still in her night clothes. We then see her deliberately dressing more like Sandie, as if she has an imaginary role model.

But Sandie’s route to stardom is derailed by dodgy ‘boyfriend’ Jack, who’s soon domineeringly pimping her. At one point, meeting one of many prospective clients in a club he suggests this is not the life for her, and that she should look in the mirror. She refuses, not wanting to see what she now is. Which of course means she won’t look at Ellie, who responds by flailing hopelessly at the separating glass.

As all this might suggest the film goes to some pretty dark places. We see Sandie trapped not just in prostitution but its inevitable bedfellow, abuse and violence. Now, films are entitled to go to dark places. Provided they don’t treat the material salaciously. (Which this doesn’t.) But also, there needs to be some pressing purpose to take them there, an end to justify those means. And I confess I’m not quite sure what the point of all this is.

Wright has given a personal motivation, that he felt seduced by the supposed innocence of the Sixties and wanted to show their underbelly. He’s said: "Something that I find truly nightmarish… is the danger of being overly nostalgic about previous decades. In a way, the film is about romanticising the past and why it's ... wrong to do that.” The scene where Sandie first enters the club is essentially a filmic scene inserted into a film, after which we see more of the reality.

And I can sympathise with this, it’s the decade I missed too and so held a similar fascination with it through most of my teens. (Though I was more about the Beatles and the Doors than Petula Clarke.) But this doesn’t seem enough. It more explains the setting than justifies the film.

In the end, Sandie tells Ellie she can’t save her but only herself. So is the point how much things have changed for the better since then? The first sign we’re back in the Sixties is literally a sign, the ‘Thunderball’ poster with Connery adorned by bikini babes like accessories. And it may well be the differences to ‘Repulsion’ are those between a film set in the Sixties and one made then.

But overall the film goes out of its way to tell us the opposite. A leery taxi driver tells Ellie the old London’s still there underneath, a point proven when she starts finding landmarks from her dreams in her waking surroundings.

Ellie can only see Sandie as a victim. Trying to research her murder she scrolls past newspaper headlines of disappeared men, oblivious to the fact it’s Sandie who killed all of them. But, with the exception of Jack, she doesn’t kill them in self-defence but out of revenge. (Again, somewhat disappointingly, prostitution is seen as coming through another’s individual malevolence and a moral fall, rather than economic pressures.) So they’re traditional ghosts, hanging around this place because they’ve been wronged. Their haunting of Ellie suggests a displaced haunting of Sandie. The film gestures at the moral complexity of this, but ultimately seems unsure how to deal with it.

Is the point that Sandie’s life reached a point where she could only be consumed by revenge? She continues living in the same house, stacked with bodies of her murdered 'clients', and when it burns down she has to burn with it too. Of course ‘let the dead be dead’ is a familiar moral of ghost stories. But what are we supposed to do with this here? If anything it seems to lead back to where we were, that she inhabited a time which offered her no escape. A point that the film raises to dispel. It all seems something of a circle.

As said, the film excels in terms of structure. But there are two big weaknesses. Mostly it doesn’t just maintain consistency but is deft at foreshadowing. Ellie’s landlady tells her she’ll need to keep the plugs in the sinks to stop the smell, and only lately do we discover this is Sandie with her dead bodies and join the dots. 

But the Terrence Stamp character is originally described to Ellie warningly by someone from the pub as an “octopus”, a sexual predator. Then, once he has died, someone else from the pub says he was a cop who tried to help victimised women. Which feels like cheap misdirection. (And anyone who knows anything about the Met’s Vice Squad of the era knows being a cop from then is less alibi than evidence of guilt.)

And the putative boyfriend, John, really doesn’t have much character beyond well-meaning. He’s essentially a plot function, someone Ellie can talk to, can try doing normal things with, masquerading as a character. There’s one brief line about him having an Aunt who “believes in weird stuff”, which isn’t exactly sufficient.

This does seem symptomatic of a tendency in ‘women’s issue’ films to have one male character who’s unfailingly nice, as if to counter any objections the film has an anti-male agenda. Even ‘Repulsion’ had one! But it’s scarcely going to quiet the Men’s Rights Advocate mob who are not exactly coming from a position of good faith, and should really be resisted.

Saturday, 30 October 2021


Open here for sonic reduction

Down these dark streets a band must go… Punk was born in the big, bad cities of America’s east cost. The more those urban centres fell apart, the more weeds flowered in the cracks.

This was when Punk was still underground, not yet packaged or commodified. So it wasn’t a style you kept to, but a totemic term for all the freaks, losers and outsiders to gather under. As Patti Smith said: “To me, punk rock is freedom”.

(The illo’s the Velvet Underground against a magnificently shabby New York backdrop. You probably already guessed that…)

Suicide: Ghost Rider
Richard Hell: Blank Generation
New York Dolls: Personality Crisis
The Modern Lovers: She Cracked
Dead Boys: Sonic Reducer
Ramones: Blitzkrieg Bop
Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers: One Track Mind
MC5: Kick Out the Jams
Television: Foxhole
The Stooges: I Need Somebody
The Cramps: Strychnine
The Velvet Underground: The Black Angel’s Death Song
Glenn Branca: Structure
Theoretical Girls: Computer Dating
Ut: Confidential
Mars: Helen Forsdale
UI: Out
James Chance & the Contortions: Contort Yourself
Pere Ubu: Laughing
Talking Heads: Memories Can’t Wait
Patti Smith: Free Money

Coming soon!
What Punk did next…

Saturday, 16 October 2021


De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Thurs 14th Oct

“Scotland my dreaming head” sings main main Mike Scott, during a rare live outing for ‘Islandman’. And this particular Scotsman has indeed been our dreaming head these past forty years. Partly because he’s just kept a-dreamin’ all that time.

For some reason, only when they play ‘Ladbroke Grove Symphony’ (note: not an actual symphony) it hits me that these past few years reflection has crept into his repertoire. Though even here the point of the song seems to lie in the ending, his failed attempt to move back and re-connect with the area. (“I was just in the way/ I was way out of time.”) Life has to be lived in forward gear.

Unusually for most longstanding bands, but usually for the Waterboys, the two-hour-plus set isn’t all your favourite songs from back in the day sprinkled with a few new numbers, but instead drawn from about every era of their long career. However, there’s surprisingly little of the hard funk that’s populated recent releases. And and the last album, ‘Good Luck, Seeker’ gets only two tracks by my counting. Perhaps because it’s now over a year old, and a whole new release is already planned for the Spring.

And, compared with the last time they trod the De La Warr stage, there’s a surprisingly high number of tracks from the classic ‘This is The Sea’. (Eulogised by some sycophant here.) Though the tracks have often been transformed over the intervening years of playing. The set opens with the now-established new version of ‘Don’t Bang The Drum’, played by a sparse but expansive trio, like looking over a mist-covered landscape visible via only a few peaks. But it’s the Big Music sound, the thing which for most he still embodies, which is consigned to the past. 'This Is the Sea' itself is closer to a singer-songwriter number. Though the state-of-the-nation ‘Old England’ only needs a few lyrical updates to stay pertinent.

Like Patti Smith, in many ways his musical mentor, Scott brought a more literary sensibility to rock ’n’ roll. But like Patti Smith… possibly more than Patti Smith, he’s stayed wedded to the primal power of rock ’n’ roll as a transformative force, in which songs have special healing powers. Which might seem harder to hold to in recent decades. Yet, against all the odds, he makes that work.

Brother Paul, by now a semi-permanent member, has his own on-stage tribute song which he gets to play along with - ‘Nashville Tennessee’. During which Scott goads and encourages him into more and more flamboyantly frenzied keyboard solos.

So the band will happily indulge the stage theatrics of rock ’n’ roll, but then switch in a second to the heady punch of something like ‘In My Time On Earth’. Which is the only way to play rock ’n’ roll, to realise that one side of the coin cannot exist without the other, that it must always be heartfelt cry and absurd showmanship soldered together.

As if further proof was needed there’s life in the old band yet, my favourite track of the night may well have been new number ‘My Wanderings In the Weary Land’. (In which Scott recites the prose sleeve notes he wrote for the earlier often-overlooked ‘A Rock In the Weary Land’, for those who like to know that sort of thing…)

Saturday, 9 October 2021


“The one rock star that makes me know I’m shit is Polly Harvey. I’m nothing next to the purity that she experiences.”
- Courtney Love

”You Showed Me Just What I Could Do”

Polly Jean Harvey’s fifth album, ’Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’ (2000) features her singing “is this love, is this love that I’m feeling?” like trying to hit on a name for some unfamiliar taste. It was described by Caroline Sullivan as her “wild-love-in-New York record… that bubble[s] over with adoration for a significant other, with the city as its backdrop.”

All of which made for a contrast to the earlier darker, more bluesy mood, particularly on her first two albums. Back then weightier tracks seemed to thicken the air around them, as characters entangled themselves in their own follies and desires. Tracks were called things like ’Water, ‘Hair’, ‘Legs’, ‘Snake’ and ’Man-Size’. Imagery was mostly bodily, nature-based or elemental. (’Kamikaze’ is perhaps the only number here which kept up the old ways. Listen for example to her high-register voice on the chorus.) Yet she broke up her original trio to embark on exploits new.

We’ve grown so used to love songs we tend to tune out the words as soon as we glean that’s what’s going on. They’re like politicians promising prosperity. Yet despite all the dead weight of overspent cliches, sometimes a record comes along which genuinely seems to bottle the feeling, the euphoria, the sense of daily life transformed into something thrilling. To cite the old Situationist saying: “Being in love means really wanting to live in a different world.”

There’s a tradition more often found in Latin arts (for example in the films ’Les Amants Dans Pont Neuf’ (1991) and ’Betty Blue’) (1986) where the lovers are counterposed to society. They just want to be together but the demands, possibly the very presence, of others inevitably insinuates its way between them. In this tradition the lovers’ desire to be together is tantamount to their fusing into one.

“When we walked through
“Little Italy
“I saw my reflection
“Come right off your face”

And isn’t the city the perfect backdrop to a love affair? A burst of endless energy passing around and through you, streets to discover just as you discover each other.

Remember how being out on the town would be demonstrated by old films? With a whirling montage of bright neon lights, careering traffic, dancing girls and spouting champagne? Tracks such as ’Good Fortune’ feel like those sequences looked, erupting in a euphoric rush. And rock music itself seems to belong with the city, as much as it does with electricity.

So the album’s shot through with parallels between big and small, between the vast and the immediate. “Do you remember the first kiss?/ Stars shooting across the sky.”

And Harvey pointedly sings “from England to America”. British artists have long had a tradition of the American album, the hit-and-rush of being plunged into the States on their first tour. Except it meant something simultaneously narrower and broader than that suggests. The American album was often really the New York album. And sure enough all those landmarks show up here, Brooklyn, Little Italy, the Empire State Building.

But at the same time it was the city album, the reaction to metropolitan life. Because even if they existed elsewhere New York was still the ur-city, the city of cities. (For later generations this may well become somewhere in China.) And notably this album titles itself not after New York but the more archetypal “the City.” (Harvey herself said that many songs were written during a long stay in New York, but it shouldn’t be seen as her New York album.)

Like rock music cities can feel liberating. You can throw off the weight of custom, of social expectation, to finally become yourself. Partly, their mass nature offers anonymity. But it’s a feeling which gets fused with the geography of a city, boulevards to stride along, rooftops to scale and look down from. That’s a feeling caught in art and literature aplenty. So the open streets of the city enables the affair, letting the lovers run down them past a sea of strangers. (“Threw my bad fortune/ Off the top of/ A tall building.”) It’s cities which have freeways, after all. 

”Just Give Me Something I Can Believe” 

Exhilarating, but perhaps not sufficient. For an album with so many love songs, only one’s a duet. (‘The Place We’re In’.) And both the album cover and video for ‘Good Fortune’ show her amid the whirlygig of a night out on the town, but adventuring alone.

Or maybe not? What if in that opening quote Sullivan had it right, but wrongside-up? What if the city’s not background but foreground?

You sometimes entertain theories about art not because you want them to be right, for the internet to unite in agreement with you, but because you just want them to work for you - and only in that moment. Even terms like ‘headcannon’ are too strong to describe this, for you need to be free to dump your own theory as soon as it stops working for you, and move on to entertain something else - even if it formally contradicts. It’s not about them being right, but useful.

It’s like placing a filter over a photo. It allows you to see that photo in a certain way, it brings out some elements and diminishes others. And you can take it away again when you’re finished with it.

And as one such theory, what if the love affair doesn’t just take place within the City but with it? The never-named lover is a personalisation of the place, its liberating force jolting through you like the sensation of being in love. ’You Said Something’ keeps coming back to that “something” you said (without ever saying it, naturally enough). What if it isn’t said before that Manhattan view but by it - by the flashing lights, the colours and the five bridges. All of that stretching vista seen as a message just for you. Me-into-you morphs into me-into-City.

Harvey has been dismissive of the notion her music should be taken as displaced autobiography, and understandably so. Too many confuse the impetus of a song with its meaning. But it’s perhaps notable that she was brought up in the scarcely-more-rural location of a Dorset farmhouse. (While I may love the album so much having grown up in a small town. As a child my intention was to move to America, and change my name to something more befitting this new land. At the time Fred seemed a good choice. And naturally by America I meant New York.)

”When You Got Lost Into the City”

On release, most concentrated on the album’s bright and striking new tone. But if this is about a love story with the city its a torrid and tempestuous affair, not one solely spent watching sunsets. Just like getting lost in the city, it has another face. Which is, to quote another lyric, “sharp as knives”.

It opens, after all with declamatory guitar and the lines “Look out ahead/ See danger come/ I want a pistol/ I want a gun”. And more knives and guns ensue than are found in your normal love story. Because the overpowering city cannot but cast its shadow over you, dominating you and rendering you anonymous. From the Bible via Brecht and punk (all three lyrical or musical influences) comes the longstanding tradition of the City as Babylon, the centre of all that’s corrupt and oppressive. And this shadow spreads over numbers like (the near-Brechtian titled) ’The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore’. (“Too many people out of love”).

The tracks here often sound just as energised but by a different kind of energy, one not bestowed upon you but generated by necessity. The link’s reversed, the City doesn’t enable you but comes down upon you. It becomes a battlefield, its “universal laws” set against your “inner charm”. You’re in a constant state of agitation, if not outright war, just to keep hold of your own self. (“This world’s crazy/ Give me the gun”). The line “Little people at the amusement park” always reminds me of Harry Lime’s infamous cuckoo clock speech in ’The Third Man’, delivered looking down at human dots from a Ferris wheel.

In fact it comes to feel so Babylonian it’s inherently apocalyptic, as if set somewhere so mighty the only possible next step will be a fall. Though written long before the terrorist attacks on New York on September 11th, it now seems almost impossible not to hear the album in that context.

"Sometimes it rains so hard…
“And in my heart
“Feels like the end of the world”

But, and should there be any regular readers they’ll doubtless be ahead of me here, the magic happens when these misfitting pieces are put together regardless. There’s no absolute division between the themes, more the feeling that as two sides of the same coin one bleeds into the other. The album starts with ’Big Exit’, running into ’Good Fortune’. The in-your-eyes lovers morph before your eyes into the folk staple of the outlaw couple, living not just outside of but against society.

Because when seen from a distance, the City isn’t just where the good stuff happens, or even the bad stuff. It’s where the stuff happens, while the small-town backwater you inhabit is a featureless, event-free purgatory.

”One Day There’ll be a Place For Us”

And there’s one other aspect to the album, which I suspect is more (if not entirely) personal to me…

Part and parcel of my leaving that afore-mentioned small town was my ability to enmesh myself in political activism. Which I was soon pursuing with the fervour of a love affair; the exhilarating feeling of being transformed and being able to transform, the desire to be everywhere at once, the belief you could punch your way out of consensus reality into a better one by force of will alone. You told yourself everything was heading towards a mighty conflagration, during which the future would be hammered out.

It was heady stuff, and inevitably it made you headstrong. It came with a tendency to fetishise conflict beyond any context, and a romanticisation of crime as some inherently Robin Hood affair. We indulged all that, in the words of the song, “until nothing was enough/ Until my middle name was excess.”

This being Britain, none of us actually had guns. Thankfully, as in our befuddled hands they’d have less likely to shot down the lackeys of the klepto-imperialist hegemonic order, and more likely taken our own toes out. But “this world’s crazy, give me the gun”, that sentiment captures how it all felt.

Remember the Funkadelic line “freedom is free of the need to be free”? We were the very opposite, enslaved to the need to be free, all-consumed by the burning desire to keep activism ever-aflame lest it splutter and all be lost. Like the song says “we just kind of lost our way/ But we were trying to be free.” 

Set against the slow, measured piano and virtually sprechgesang vocals are those agitated cymbals. It sounds like dry kindling, one of those tracks that smoulders so much it constantly threatens to self-ignite. But it sets expectations to defy them, breaking into a more serene chorus, and the promise “one day… we’ll take life as it comes”.

Harvey proved keen to keep her sound moving. She took to pinning up a sign in the studio asking ‘Too PJH?’, a warning against repeating herself. And this was really the album that cemented all that, the freeway that always took you somewhere new.

Saturday, 2 October 2021


Previous part here

Gone To the Devil

Like any band, Black Sabbath were first and foremost the combination of their individual characters, granted a generous dose of serendipity. Which we’ve hopefully seen by now. But there’s a less immediate element, the milieu of their times. Fish need the right tide to swim with. And to get that we need to look at three things…

Let’s start out with the elephant in the room, which in this case is more a horned, pointy-bearded bloke. Of course, a career-launching song which name-checked Satan soon proved to be smoking from a poisoned chillum. On top of the critical opprobrium which met their music, they soon found themselves accused of following the guy they wrote about.

Originally, this may well have been part of the plan. Steve Ignorant once said of ‘So What (in many ways as much Crass’s inaugural track as ‘Black Sabbath’) “I wrote [it] to see if there’d be a bolt of lightning… in a funny way, it was daring.” And it’s easy to imagine ’Black Sabbath’ being written on such a dare, out of the devilish delight a young mind takes from dwelling on dark things. After all, that first album was pointedly released on Friday 13th.

Yet quoting the line about Satan out of context is like taking the Tempter’s speech to John the Baptist, then claiming the Bible to be the devil’s work. After all, Osborne responds to Satan’s presence by saying (and I quote) “Oh no! Please, God help me!”

With the already-seen ’NIB’ the one exception, their songs followed orthodox theology so closely it would make much more sense to call them a Christian band. ’War Pigs’ for example brings on the day of judgement, where God punishes the wrong-doers. It’s true that the lyrics reverse things around, with the supposedly socially respectable judged, the once-mighty Generals reduced to begging God for forgiveness.

Butler has said (not unreasonably): "Warmongers. That's who the real Satanists are, all these people who are running the banks and the world and trying to get the working class to fight the wars for them.” But then Christianity can claim a history of such things.

Butler confirmed his interest in this imagery stemmed partly from being “raised Catholic”. The band all wore crucifixes not out of some ironic gesture but because they’d been given them by Osborne’s father, as good luck charms.

And as they went on they became still more assertive about this. Their third album (1971’s ’Master of Reality’), often sounds like a cross between goads and ripostes in their insistence upon a belief in “God above.” “Well I have seen the truth, yes I've seen the light and I've changed my ways/ And I'll be prepared when you're lonely and scared at the end of our days”. (Though that still didn’t stop them titling their 1976 compilation the Robert Johnson-inspired ’We Sold Our Soul For Rock’n’Roll’.)

Because, somewhat bizarrely, the Satan tag had been affixed to them via fan and foe alike. The band’s cover interview in the catchily titled ’Disc And Music Echo’ (Oct.1970) went under the now infamous header ’Fans We Don’t Want’, so sick had they become of the association. Fans would make the sign of the devil to Osborne, thinking this would make them look cool, but the habit only irked him.

True, bands which came later did go for the gormless horned-hands gesture, just as bands who came after the Sex Pistols affected the bozo nihilism. But no-one should be held responsible for the stupidity of others.

Whereas another track off the album, ’Sweet Leaf’, seems a more spontaneous expression of where the band were at. And it’s not just a love song to a joint, it’s one where the expression gets to religious levels in and of itself. (“You gave to me a new belief/ And soon the world will love you, sweet leaf.”)

The band had come out of the hippie era. They were Jesus freaks first, even if they were Jesus lover second. ’War Pigs’ is that hippie stand-by, an anti-war number, soon followed by the ban-the-bomb ’Electric Funeral.’ And the power of love? Already covered.

Except there’s two twists to this. First, with a first album released in 1970, they were well-placed to witness the Age of Aquarius’ non-arrival. By that point it was becoming obvious to all but the most terminally stoned that playing bongo drums in the park was not proving an effective means to oppose the military-industrial complex. The same year saw the release of ’Plastic Ono Band’, with Lennon announcing “the dream is over”.

But more, those who dream most sweetly are those who sleep in the softest beds. The band all had working class backgrounds, born to be factory fodder, counter to a hippie culture which primarily came from the indolence of privilege.

Osborne would recall: "It was me and five kids living in a two bedroom house. My father worked nights, my mother worked days, we had no money, we never had a car, we very rarely went on holiday ... And suddenly, you know, we hear about 'If you're going to San Francisco be sure to wear a flower in your hair'. And we're thinking, (contemptuously) "...What's all this flower shit? I've got no shoes on my feet.”

As one telling example, in Country Joe and the Fish’s ’I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin'-to-Die Rag’ (1967) it’s the parents who send their sons to war. In ’War Pigs’ its generals who sacrifice the poor. And those getting shipped off to Vietnam weren’t the college kids of Berkley, they were the construction workers of Cleveland - with who the band had a stronger affinity.

And in the end, their sound… the thing they’re most famous for… is an expression of all this. Darker music with darker themes simply reflected darker times from those well-placed to see the tunnel at the end of the light. Butler recalled “you could see there was a lot of things going wrong in the world and no-one was talking about it.”

Yet it’s as important to say that if Sabbath took an almost perverse glee in decrying hippy optimism, they never actually broke from the bedrock of those values. The Man was still out to get you. Long hair was still good, short hair bad. In short, they bore the same love/hate relationship to hippie ideology as Dark Romanticism had to Romanticism. (Bowie, another significant figure of the early Seventies, had pretty much the same relationship to hippiness.)

And if hippies had stuck it to The Man, then Satan was perhaps the perfect father figure. As Mark Fisher said of the era:

“The Protest impulse of the 60s posited a Malevolent Father, the harbinger of a Reality Principle that (supposedly) cruelly and arbitrarily denies the 'right' to total enjoyment. This Father has unlimited access to resources, but he selfishly - and senselessly - hoards them... 

“It goes without saying that the psychological origins of this imagery lie in the earliest phases of infancy. The hippies' bucolic imagery and 'dirty Protest' - filth as a rejection of adult grooming - both originate in the 'unlimited demands' of the infant. A consequence of the infant's belief in the Father's omnipotence is the conviction that all suffering could be eliminated if only the Father wished it.”

(Yes, as said earlier, at the same time he could represent the egotistical self. Symbols are slippery things.)

But to complete our trinity let’s go back to that Butler quote, and this time take it in full: “I was raised Catholic, so I totally believed in the Devil”. True, the physical existence of the Devil is more part of Catholic doctrine than Protestant. But that last word still sounds like something of a switch.

And the era often felt just like that. Though the film they named themselves after dated back to 1963 their day saw many Satan-centred horror films - among them ’Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968), ’The Exorcist’ (1973), ’The Omen’ (1976), ’To The Devil a Daughter’ (also 1976) - you wonder if he’d got himself a new agent. Butler’s quote is reminiscent of the title character’s line in ’Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968): “I was brought up a Catholic... now, I don't know.” It’s a film which has little to no mention of God, yet is saturated by his antagonist. While in music Sabbath’s contemporaries King Crimson (formed in the same year) were named after one of the many terms for the Devil.

And this rise of Satan as movie star, once too ‘hot’ a figure for mere entertainment, went alongside the slow decline of the Church as an institution. Social upheavals led people to demand stronger meat from their movies, as a way of working through their anxieties in a newly uncertain world. It was the clash of these opposites that threw up the Devil to exemplify them. ’The Exorcist’ sums up this clash with a torn protagonist who is half priest half psychiatrist.

It became routine for horror films to be set not at a safe distance but in the modern, everyday world. Even Hammer abandoning their patented Victoriana with ’Dracula AD 1972’. (You can guess when that one was made.) Things unthinkable only a few years before became almost routine. Redemptive endings were no longer insisted on and the forces of darkness could even win, as if the world really had gone to the devil.

Sabbath instinctively tapped into that feeling through being part of it, having been brought up with a Christian moralism they now saw as falling into decline. Their dirge-like music worked as a soundtrack to the era, as if we were all transfixed by some strange new figure no-one could comprehend. But lyrically they were forever torn between the sense of falling into the blackness, of giving in to the beckoning devil and a residual hope that the kids might somehow win out. Their music became a battleground between Romanticism and Dark Romanticism. “Soundtrack to an era” might seem a cliche. But really, there’s no better term.

Saturday, 25 September 2021


(First part here)

”Has he thoughts within his head?”

’Iron Man’, on Sabbath’s second album released later in 1970, was another song built around a riff that represented a figure. Famously, on first hearing the riff Osborne commented it sounded “like a big iron bloke walking about”. (And legend has it ’Iron Bloke’ very nearly became the title.) So this time the music comes to convey his ponderous pace, crushing all before him. (“Heavy boots of lead/ Fills his victims full of dread.”) The vocals so closely match the guitar it sounds almost double-tracked. Solitary figures tend to stalk Sabbath songs, but perhaps never more than here. 

Butler was later to explain:

“It was about a guy who had gone into space and had seen the future of the world. He came back to warn everyone about what was going to happen to the world, and he got caught up in a magnetic storm when he was entering the Earth’s atmosphere and got turned into iron – but his brain was still working. he’s trying to warn everyone about the future of the world, but he can’t speak so everyone is taking the mickey out of him all the time.”

…and there’s one thing we can be sure of here. That’s not got anything to do with what ’Iron Man’ is about. The third verse kind of takes a vague stab at it, but it’s still not something you could glean from listening to the song alone. This feels like the foot being changed to fit the shoe, a story made up around the song.

Let’s try a more literary quote. In Mary Shelley’s ’Frankenstein’, the Creature rages:

“I have love in me the like of which you can scarcely imagine. A rage the like of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one I would indulge the other.”

So the mocking misunderstanding words of the humans around him (“has he lost his mind?/ can he see or is he blind?) is the words of parents and teachers magnified. Iron Man’s destructive rage at being shunned by humanity (“Nobody wants him/ He just stares at the world/Planning his vengeance/That will soon unfurl”) equates to the more familiar “then they’ll be sorry.”

After all, rock and roll is rooted in the articulation of adolescence, in the understanding that electricity and amplifiers were invented solely to magnify your strop, when slamming doors no longer seemed enough. You don’t just get what’s in your head out into the world, but the way you feel it - turned up to eleven. Volume is one method to convey that. Grandiose metaphors is another.

So by the same token Hawkwind’s ’Orgone Accumulator’ was a science-fictional, Reichian means of describing the not entirely prepossessing subject of hippies getting stoned. (“It’s no social integrator/ It’s a one-man isolator/ It’s a back-brain stimulator/ It’s a cerebral vibrator.”) Genesis’ ’The Musical Box’ is a surrealist fairy tale about a boy murdered by a girl, whose amorous spirit then resides in a musical box, while ageing rapidly. But at root it’s a boy-loses-girl number.

…which may come across as a belittling of the track, pricking its pomposity. But it’s the opposite. Sometimes hyperbole works just by relabelling itself as metaphor. Art is not about what happened, we have the news for that. Art is about how it felt. And art less often shows us something new, and more often reframes the familiar so it appears to us anew.

”Some people say my love cannot be true…” 

...which makes ’NIB’ a sort of sequel song, even if it was written first. (Time travel, right?) Ostensibly, it might seem about the Devil getting himself another disciple. Well, selective quotation can prove most things. This time let's listen to the guy who wrote it, who said "the song was about the devil falling in love and totally changing.”

And yes, far from being some black mass hymn, this is Sabbath’s one love song. (The next nearest contender, 'Sweet Leaf', is after all sung not to a person but a joint.) In fact, it may be the consummate love song. In the greatest triumph of hippie values possible, Satan himself is redeemed by the overwhelming power of love, and becomes one of the good guys. He’s portrayed as master of creation (“the sun, the moon, the stars/ All bear my seal”) yet until now held outside of it, as if stuck in solitary.

In short its ‘Black Sabbath’ the other way up. She does not become like him, he becomes like her. The payoff line “my name is Lucifer” line is, I suspect, the Devil hanging up his title and reverting to his Christian name. (And while Satan was the Antagonist, Lucifer was a fallen angel so remained at some level redeemable.)

And there is something both glorious and endearing about this reading. Nevertheless, I think it is only the surface reading – it’s not what’s really going on. Instead imagine the crazy Iron Man trampling the whole world underfoot, then spotting one pretty young face in the crowd and pausing…

The Devil can be used to represent the point where the infantile ego runs into more adult drives, where sentences still normally start with “I want…” but no longer necessarily end with a toy being named. And so Satanism can appeal to the young because it seems a philosophical justification for playing your music as loud as you want to. As Rationalwiki have correctly commented “LaVeyan Satanism... is essentially Ayn Rand in a goat mask.”

’NIB’ presupposes this (if mostly likely instinctively), and smartly moves the story on a step. The adolescent boy’s first crush, when everything stops being about his establishing his difference to his parents and becomes about making a connection to someone else, that sudden burst of unfamiliar feelings, at the time it feels monumental. Of course it’s not “what if the devil fell in love?” That sounds more like a theology paper. It’s “what if I fell in love?” That’s what makes it such a classic song.

The line “you are the first to have this love of mine” sounds suspiciously virginal, while “some people say my love cannot be true” conjures up disapproving in-laws more than orthodox Churchmen. But it’s the extended, repeated “I’m going to feel”, throwing that feeling business into the future tense, which really gives the game away. The imagery is about the old world being over, and the bonding of the new world being love. (“Leaving the life you led before we met.”) Now, suddenly, it’s all about the sharing.

Final part of our unholy trinity coming soon...

Saturday, 18 September 2021


”Figure In Black Which Points At Me”

Any band’s first task is to sound like themselves. That’s if they want to climb out of the footnotes of music history. Which is not as easy as it sounds, in fact arguably they’ll face no harder task. But it’s like shaking a six. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the game, that’s the point everything actually starts.

And with Black Sabbath we can pin the moment quite precisely. In 1969, then still a heavy blues band called Earth, they wrote a track the decided to call… well, ’Black Sabbath’. Later described by guitarist Tommy Iommi as “the first time I knew we had something different.” Their contemporaries Led Zeppelin continued with the blues covers, which they were able to adapt. Whereas for Sabbath to be Sabbath, they needed to abandon them.

We fans can fixate on lyrics. But bands normally come up with the music first then devise words to fit. Rather than developing some philosophical point, lyrics come to be about evoking and amplifying the music’s mood. Sabbath were no exception, Iommi normally finding a riff on guitar, Ozzy Osborne then scatting lyrics over it which would be later worked up into actual strung-together words by bassist Geezer Butler.

Except this time everything, even the riff itself, seems devoted to the sound, so ominous as to be almost droney. While the words ostensibly describe some malevolent apparition (“what is this which stands before me?”), what the dread figure mostly seems to manifest is the power of the music. There’s an almost brazen lack of context, in which the nightmarish figure just appears in order to evoke the mood which powers the song.

The mood’s set in the opening seconds with the tolling of a bell - doleful, intonatory, resounding. When the guitar breaks in it’s more powerful, but it takes up all those elements. (They’d later play a similar trick by starting ’War Pigs’ with a siren.) Brian Eno was later to compare hard rock to (yes, really) bellringing, pointing out both evoked the feeling of “immersion in solid, thick, dense sound.” In other words, where sound stops being intangible and becomes almost a physical presence, something you feel as much as hear.

Where the song has the line “turn round quick and start to run”, the ominous music has quite the opposite effect. Chords don’t make their point and leave; once struck they hang around ponderously, thickening the air. There’s a terrible stasis to it. The drums do most of the work, but rather than drive the track along they cycle and shuffle. The oppressive, momentum-less sludge of sound adds to the (in about ever sense) heavy notion that time has stopped for you just when you needed it most. It’s reminiscent of the way horror fiction can used stopped clocks as a sign of the supernatural.

The ‘poem’ on the sleeve, mostly an overblown emulation of Edgar Allen Poe, refers to “the silence that surrounds and threatens to engulf all those that would listen”. And that silence seems pretty close to their sound.

Butler has claimed the song came from a dream he had, of a black-hooded figure appearing at the foot of his bed. And the track conveys that fever-dream feeling of immobility, of being in the presence of danger but unable to run from it.

And Osborne’s vocal performance adds to this notion. He was, to use a much-misused term, a natural. He never seemed to be performing the songs so much as living them, and here he sounds a mixture of mesmerised and petrified. Hard rock singers tended to be either Teutonically heroic or sexually frustrated. Ozzy, conversely, is a powerless protagonist. Imagine Robert Plant singing about meeting Satan. He’d either strike a deal or strike ol’ red down. Ozzy emits a high-register wail. (And frankly, so would I.) Typically his voice often works in counterpoint to Iommi’s riff, sitting above it and offering a more melodic line.

The feeling is so funereal it almost becomes liturgical. Is our narrator transfixed, unable to escape the pull of this malevolent power, or does some part of him want to stay where he is?

It epitomises this music’s predilection for Dark Romanticism. It’s a self-styled ‘black’ number whose darkness is strangely ambiguous. The creeping dread, the fear of dark forces is combined with a feeling of sublimation which is almost comforting. Our narrator seems simultaneously marked man and “the chosen one”.

In Dark Romanticism, the supernatural is often a means of conveying the natural, reframing it as an incomprehensible and overwhelming force. Being overcome by the ominous presence is akin to the surrender of being swept up by a raging storm, a sense of rejoining the all just as you’re obliterated.

A subject on which Wikipedia quotes GR Thompson: “Fallen man's inability fully to comprehend haunting reminders of another, supernatural realm that yet seemed not to exist, the constant perplexity of inexplicable and vastly metaphysical phenomena, a propensity for seemingly perverse or evil moral choices that had no firm or fixed measure or rule, and a sense of nameless guilt combined with a suspicion the external world was a delusive projection of the mind - these were major elements in the vision of man the Dark Romantics opposed to the mainstream of Romantic thought.”

Most people know how the track and the quickly renamed band got their name, a phrase which shows up nowhere in the lyrics. It was from a poster they saw for a Mario Bravo film. And horror films rely more on evoking a mood than ostensibly similar genres such as thrillers. They can be cliched or even ludicrous but if they can succeed at tingling your nerve-endings you’ll carry on watching. And they can rely heavily upon music for that effect. For fear is almost the opposite of reason. Unlike words or plot, music can bypass the brain and provide a short-cut to the senses.

Horror worked for Sabbath the way science fiction worked for Hawkwind. It was more than just a gimmick or handy tag, it was a perfect analogy for their sound.

Most people also know that impetus for this sound came largely by accident. Literally so, Iommi injured his fingers and adapted by tuning his strings more loosely. Yet just as importantly there’s something reductive about it, taking a hard rock sound that most had thought simplistic in the first place and condensing it further. And this is precisely where the genius lies. Taking something out can add to the overall picture, just as adding too much starts to take away. And Sabbath were consummately creatively reductive, boiling music down to some primordial essence.

The track also demonstrates how much the band were masters of dynamics, with an unerring instinct for just when to break it up. Each section of a Sabbath song can be in itself bone-crushingly simple, yet as it arrives it takes things into a surprising turn. Their talent lies in putting the pieces together. (It’s only really the singles which follow the straight verse/chorus structure.)

It’s bizarre now to think how derided the band were by the contemporary music press. But this stripping-down, combined with their working class origins, goes a long way to explain it. In the early days of Prog this was proof positive these Brummie oiks were know-nothing numbskulls!

What gets written about is often not what deserves to get written about, but what is easiest to write about. And Sabbath weren’t like a jewelled mechanism composed of a thousand intricate and glistening parts, something which requires an expert to explain to you how it works. They were more a simple implement such as a Neolithic hand axe, something that wasn't altered much over millennia because it couldn't really be improved on. They defy analysis the way Homer Simpson defied brainwashing by the Planetariains, by sheer dumb insolence.

Of course as we all know now it was the critics who were cretins and Sabbath created a whole new style of music. (More than one if we were to count black metal, sludge metal and stoner rock as different things.) But they also had a huge influence outside of all that. In his seminal treatise on post punk ’Rip It Up And Start Again’ Simon Reynolds compares Sabbath to… deep breath… early Pere Ubu, early Joy Division, Wire, Black Flag, Killing Joke and Tubeway Army! And I say, why no Throbbing Gristle while we’re at it?

Alas however, first drafts of history are most commonly messy and that first album caught them too soon, mid-transition. ‘Wicked World’ is the only song to survive from the Earth days, but more than a few plodding blues numbers cleave to that earlier time. It’s a bit like if tracks from Warsaw had made it onto the first Joy Division album. Luckily for us, they went on to do five further albums where none of that would be a problem…

Second part incoming…