“Everyone grows out of their Morrissey phase. Except Morrissey”
“If you must write prose and poems, the words you use should be your own, don’t plagiarise or take on loan…”
Some other fool
Frankly Mr Morrissey, these positions you hold, they grab and devour, and lead us headlong into harm.
It’s time I settle the score – I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday, and I would like to give you this gift, in which I re-issue, re-package, and re-evaluate your words…
Well, there are some bad people on the rise – the Newsworld hands them stardom. They’re saving their own skins by ruining other people’s lives. They creep into my thoughts like a bad debt that I can’t pay, and in the wasteland of my head I hear the shrill cry of:
“you still don’t belong to anywhere.”
And as evil people prosper, you, the one who claims to care, what do YOU do? You say “shelve your western plans…life is hard enough when you belong here.” There is no one but yourself to blame – guilt by implication, by association.
But nobody minds.
The fawning give you every opportunity. They are half-ashamed of your meat-is-murder radical views but nothing else leaves a disenchanted taste in their mealy mouths. They’d sacrifice all of their principles for you, or else they’re too jaded to question stagnation.
“The songs we sing, they’re not supposed to mean a thing.”
They’d rather not get involved – they ignore all the new songs, and cling to the old. But my patience is stretched. These words you use – they’re too close to home and they’re too near the bone.
You don’t know a thing about us, our loves and hates and passions, yet you look into our eyes, and still you think that we’re faceless, with no right to take our place in the human race. The land that we stand on is ours, as well!
My man, get your vile soul dry-cleaned
“What became of you?” they hoarsely cry, “why did you change?” But have you changed? Really? The hate hangs too freely on your lips, like a dulling wine, to be something new.
You royalties brought you luxuries, but the squalor of the mind…oh, how the boy next door turned out. “Used to be a sweet boy!” they hoarsely cry, as they are shocked and ashamed to discover…but they should have known where you’d gone because again and again you’ve explained –
“England for the English!”
Somewhere deep in the cell of your heart, (amid concrete and clay and general decay) you’ve always needed to cling to something – to the old dreams, miserable lies, to an afternoon nostalgia, to an England hemmed in like a boar between arches. Further into the fog you fell, hiding from The Bomb, Hindley, belligerent ghouls, the unholy stench of murder…
There once lay behind the hatred a gentle tone of kindness, a fumbling politeness, and some hope! I am remembering the time when I was 16, clumsy and shy. I spent warm summer days indoors writing frightening verse (that’s nothing, you should have heard me play piano). Back at the old grey school – I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible. I was prematurely sad, equally dour, I walked a pace behind you, (very closely, like a moth to a flame) for I thought that you knew the full extent of my distress. You asked me to get along with myself and say – “if I seem a little strange, that’s because I am.” You claimed that whilst scavenging through life’s very constant lulls, all that a tremulous heart required was a devout faith in love – a light that never goes out.
Except then you let your juvenile influences sway, you took the easy way and gave in – who did you turn to when you were backstage? To a grown man who said he’d cure your ills?
Vile frustration rendered you hateful – you can’t see the good things anymore, just the bad things. Gripped with the romance of crime, you stay with your own kind – spineless swines, cemented minds, jealous of youth – these are the last “truly British” people you’ll ever know? (please keep them). Try living in the real world, instead of a shell.
The person underneath – where did he go – did he slide by the wayside, or did he just die?
Entwined in the midst of this, I just can’t find my place in this world, and there’s nowhere to go but down. But to give up would be a bad mistake. I’m older now, and a clever swine. I had just about scraped through, but now, I’ll fight to the last breath – I’ll boot the grime of this world in the crotch, dear. Yes I KNOW it’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, and it takes guts to be gentle and kind. Yes I KNOW Heavy words are so lightly thrown, but I’m too tired.
Now, I’m so sick and tired because anything is hard to find – for heaven’s sake – because enough is too much! The critics make me feel so ashamed because I’ve only got two hands – how can they say I go about things the wrong way, for having rejected being gentle and kind?
Show me a barrel and watch me scrape it…
Politely, at first. I’m so sick and tired of this land’s cheerless marches – fifteen miles of shit. But when they try to break my spirit – it won’t work, nor will they infiltrate my mind.
Until the earth that wants me finally has me, I will be brash, outrageous and free – at ease – fighting ignorance, dust and disease, until darkness lifts and the room is bright from a sun shining on a better world – not in the next world or another world – this world.
So now you. People said you were virtually dead but they were so wrong. Your name still conjures up deadly deeds. Your songs – more songs than I can stand – are just any excuse to write more lies.
Here you are, just another who has maddening views, you poor, freezingly cold soul, just another lock-jawed pop star thicker than pig shit, nothing to convey, too scared to show intelligence (it might smear your lovely career).
In the days when you were hopelessly poor, I just liked you more…
Old friend, your prejudice won’t keep you warm tonight. An inbuilt guilt catches up with you…at 5am – wakes you up, and you wonder why the love you long for eludes you…can you see (the) answer in your heart? Can you delve so low?
Full of fear, you cling to the old songs that once made me laugh, the songs that once made me cry, and you ask me “when you’re dancing and laughing and finally living, will you hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly?” –
Frankly? Thank you, but no. You frame of useless limbs, I don’t owe you anything. What can make good all the bad that’s been done?
I must leave you behind me tonight. Please put your tongue away, good and proper, forever.
Punk nostalgia is back. This age is ripe for it, as there’s a whole host of reasons for people to be frustrated and angry, particularly for the young among us, as opportunities diminish. There’s something very punk, after all, about tearing down a goading monument to those who wished you in shackles.
There’s something very ’76 about now, and it makes a lot of sense for people to draw from a moment where people were moved by art, music and fashion to stand up for themselves. In 2017 I’ve often kept London Calling in my earphones, blasting out Clampdown for inspiration, for strength.
But there’s also something in punk that embodies the mass appeal of manifest right-wing hate, which is once again loose, having bubbled for years. There’s something “punk” about donning a swastika, for shock or for awe.
Nostalgia observed through blinders can be a dangerous thing. Young(er) punks like me came to the culture at its nadir, and knew it as a scene that welcomed anyone and everyone so long as you shared its passion, its strip-it-down catharsis, and its tolerance. Its British origin story is dominated by the memory of the Pistols and the Clash – between anarchy and socialism – between the expression of ‘70s working class feeling and those who tried to channel that anger into a revolutionary riot.
Something’s missing here. The memory of this spirit of ’76 is incomplete. Punk is (and was) polarisation writ loud, a centrifugal splattering of all things, an explosion of possibilities and frustrations. It was the creation of a new voice, but it was also in its founding moments a REACTION against the tame, the overblown, and the delusionary. Sometimes wonderful things can be produced, when the centre fails to hold. You talk to the old punks now, and their recollections lack the political romance us third-gen Clash disciples ascribe to that moment.
There always was in punk a leftist appeal, and the movement quickly developed an activist wing, exemplified by the famous Rock Against Racism carnivals of ’78. Yet so much more washed through the maelstrom of punk. No punk would have been even slightly surprised when John Lydon backed Trump and Brexit.
Many of the old guard insist that punk was not a political event. I’ve seen this often in response to accusations from Johnny-come-lately historian types that punk “didn’t do enough” to oppose racism and the rising fascist tide of the late ‘70s.
Were they supposed to?
As it turned out, due to the movement’s initial actions and the turmoil of the late-70s, punk rockers had to deal with the Nazis within, whether they wanted to or not.
So declared Strummer in the 1977 reggae-inspired track “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”, which railed at both the punk and pop reggae scenes for ignoring the racial inequality and bubbling white supremacy in the streets of late-70s London. Its iconoclasm is a sign that Strummer felt isolated in his views within the scene, rather than an embodiment of punk ethics. Indeed, the Clash’s political articulation was inspired as much by the activist reggae – the roots, rock, rebel – of Marley, Cliff, Tosh and Marvin than elsewhere. More than anything, Strummer was moved by black activism in West London embodied in the scorched streets of the ’76 summer and the Notting Hill carnivaliants’ response to police abuse that year. In (White Man), he took aim at his punk contemporaries –
– and particularly targeted The Jam, who famously worked to tear down the established order by encouraging their fans to vote Conservative (a call Paul Weller later regretted).
Upon whose shoulders falls the responsibility to take on the fascists?
It’s another weird quirk of history to remember that Thatcher cast herself as the “change” candidate in late-70s Britain- when the lights were going out, in millions of homes and thousands of flats, guarded by the growing garbage monuments of discontent.
Then as now, the Tory presses spammed the notion that the turmoil was caused by Jack Jones and the corrupt trade unionists, and an overblown public sector protected by Jim Callaghan’s faltering government (ignore Callaghan’s significant and pioneering privatisation, that’s just Fake News). Thatcher would return order, trim the fat, get Britain working again (three million would soon be unemployed). It was a lucrative line of attack for the Tories, to paint Labour as luddites, clinging on to an overgrown, stagnant way of life, whilst suggesting that turning the clock back to Victorian England was somehow a path to progress (wonder if they’ll try that trick again). To Weller’s comparative moddish-punk mind, the Tory claim sat neatly to what punk meant to many – back to basics, to chord and melody, away from the inaccessible self-indulgence of prog’s excesses. The stars aligned.
The Conservatives of course baulked at punk’s brashness. It was too unstable an element, made of too many unreliable parts, to conform to any confined ideology, let alone the sensitive prudishness of old-school Toryism. The Pistols had already taken good care of that before punk really took off.
The Pistols were delirious gunmen, shooting wildly into a crowd at anything they could take down a notch. What politics you might gauge from this manufactured nihilism depends entirely on when you freeze the frame.
But there was plenty political about the Pistols, and the Ramones and the Dolls and this strip it down approach. Punk is challenging at its very core. It insists on denying anybody authority on knowledge. It hates lecturers, soapboxers and pedants – punk’s orators are instead conduits of feeling and frustration. It’s dimed out, all in. Like reggae, punk is a small axe. Ready to cut you down.
But first up, it was about marketing shock factor. Malcolm Maclaren, Bernie Rhodes and proto-punk’s executive vice-presidents saw fame and fortune in tearing it up in a blitzkrieg of taboo. Sid Vicious and Siouxie Sioux painted themselves in swastikas – and they were not alone. At this point, Mick Jones and Tony James had formed a proto-punk band, managed by Bernie Rhodes. Their Jewish manager sat the kids round the table, and opened an envelope full of red armbands, white circles and clockwise gammadian crosses. The band were to be called the “London SS”, declared Rhodes.
Stylish indeed. Fascism was the contemporary look of innovative, chameleonic trend-catalyser and punk inspiration David Bowie, then posing as the Thin White Duke. His Duchy was cocaine-driven ramblings, “theatrical” Nazi salutes and Hitler-loving commentaries. The Duke claimed he was “clowning”, holding up a mirror to English society. There was plenty of fascism in ’76 to reflect back upon him, after all.
Nowadays, we know Bowie was not a well man during this phase. Regardless, Nazi chique was IN, and infectiously marketed. Like teenage shoplifters, punks quickly tried to see just how much they could get away with. In the North, a band called “The Moors Murderers” came together. It is said that Chrissie Hynde briefly played guitar for them. They tried to release a song called “Free Hindley” but, thankfully, punk had found its limits on the opposing side of serial killer apologism. They were ostracised, and soon disbanded.
Soon after the Pistols triggered the Big Bang of British Punk, sub-cultures began to solidify underneath the hollow shells of the Pistols’ anarchic edgelordic imagery. The Clash took the lead as Britain’s foremost socialist rockers, whilst bands such as The Slits and X-Ray Specs carved out a forthright women’s voice in punk, joined by Crass (who usually mixed genders on vocals), especially on their 1981 LP Penis Envy (banned by HMV, and confiscated from shops by Greater Manchester Police).
Crass became pioneers of the burgeoning anarcho-punk set, drawing from, of all things, hippie counter-culture (the traitors) to make their brand of anarchy into something more than just a chaotic veneer. Anarcho-punk then fired itself back across the Atlantic, especially finding voice in the Dead Kennedys (note the name), who mixed up Southparkian college-boy shock humour with sophisticated leftist critiques and infectious hardcore energy, resulting in classic tracks like “Holiday in Cambodia” and “Let’s Lynch the Landlord.”
There is something essentially egalitarian about punk, and it rapidly drew in left-wing spirit with every breath. “When I saw the Pistols I suddenly realised I wasn’t alone in the fact that I couldn’t play…I felt inferior, but when I saw the Pistols I thought it was great, because it just suddenly struck me that it didn’t have to matter.” Punk is participatory, punk is democratic. Punk is a leveller.
Lefty punk was in full swing, but it was not alone, and was severely tangled up in punk’s other fan clubs. Although Weller quickly binned his braindead Thatcherism, and Jones and Rhodes threw out their swastikas, right-wing punk was, and still is, a massive thing. Longstanding punk rockers Misfits make no secret of their conservativism, though their efforts to organise online through conservativepunk.com (in response to Fat Mike’s 2004 punkvoter.com and Rock Against Bush) was about as successful as Moggmentum – may it never zombify.
Nazi-sympathisers quickly latched on to punk’s anger and energy and correctly saw it as a useful conduit of hate. Fascist punk was born quickly and grew quickly, its path to the off-limits nuked by punk’s pioneers. Lefty punks were guilty too – Strummer’s early celebration of black activism in London, in which he called for an extension of its spirit across Britain, was very unfortunately given the name “White Riot” (Joe would get better). Punk’s roots in whiteness were solidified by such statements, as well as those such as Elvis Costello and Jello Biafra who liberally used the n-word (I don’t fucking care how ironic you are, keep that word off your tongues). White punks still do it – nothing is off-limits, remember.
Fascism was in vogue in politics as well as in style. Enoch Powell’s shadow cast itself across the nation, and NF boots were marching in earnest. Thatcher would later herself tap into this manifestation, driven above all by the pursuit of votes. This rise was reflected in the fears and angers of leftish punk voices – Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces record was obsessed, fascinated and terrified by fascism.
Punk went centrifugal. It’s a movement that resists organisation, and embraces forceful contradiction. As the winter grew discontented, gigs increasingly saw violence overwhelmingly instigated by stormtrooper wannabes. Crass – blinded by flower power – decried the violence “on both sides” against evidence to the contrary, and with it sold much of their punk ethic down river.
The fighting at Crass gigs was happening in dive bars and music halls across the nation. The NF targeted the punk movement early on. The white working classes were finding their voice, and the fascists wished them to speak in time with the march of their boots. The way in, they decided, was Oi! – the punk of punk – a rebellion to the art school anarchists of the first wave. Oi! and its pioneers were less interested in statements, whether out of ideology or image, and more in talking about the things that went on in their daily lives. They were Saturday’s Kids, and in some ways, a punk by fans for fans.
Oi! was pretty masculine, and it went hand in hand with football factionalism and the resurgent skinhead movements – gigs were often a violent crossroads between punks, skins and rival firms. That’s when the NF got involved in a big way. The fascists had already started infiltrating football firms, and next stop were the skins and the punks. Oi! was their target, but for the large part failed miserably in their attempts to recruit any bands, with the latter exception of Blackpool flops Skrewdriver, who reformed in the ‘80s under the banner of White Power. Instead, they formed their own groups (household names like The Dentists and The Ventz) with the express wish to draw punks and skins into their circle of hell.
This didn’t go too well, either, so they instead tried to recruit existing fan groups. Sham 69, for a short time Britain’s biggest punk band, were top of their list. The Hersham Boys, bursting out of the deprived part of Surrey that nobody ever talks about, were distilled male youth, rage and joy wrapped in a southern snarl. Frontman Jimmy Pursey commanded great loyalty amongst his fans, and in turn he valued them dearly. They were huge among football kids, especially Hammers fans, and Sham gigs soon found themselves swamped by Nazis, seig heiling in the cauldron of noise.
This was different to Siouxie’s swastika.
The art-punk’s Nazi imagery created the initial association between punk and fascism, and the idea that the scene could be fertile terrain for NF recruitment. Now the Nazis had succeeded in wrapping Sham in far-right rhetoric, never espoused by the band or their music. Pursey himself was soon tarred with the fascist brush. He was loathe to condemn his fans, many adoring, for any dabbling in fascism. Not all Sham fans went this way, and he was to an extent sympathetic with those who found false solace in hate.
Pursey’s initial inaction led him to be seen by some as a poster boy of Nazi punk. In an interview, Joy Division (whose name originates from Nazism) defended the band’s etymology by pointing the finger at Pursey – “Everyone calls us Nazis…but compared to Jimmy Pursey, who is an out-and-out racist…Nobody can remember the beginning of Sham 69 and the things he said then.” (PS I can’t find any quotes that support this. @ me if you have some).
Others, such as Gareth Holder of the Shapes, hated him for failing to protect his fansfrom the fascists. “That idiot Pursey had his head so far up his own arse it wasn’t true. He just didn’t want to deal with it. He’d be singing “If the Kids are United” and the whole fucking place would be a war zone while he was doing it.”
This tactic was not shared by some of the Oi! Bands. The Cockney Rejects took matters into their own hands, by beating the shit out of the Nazis who threatened them. “We weren’t going to have it,” remembered Stinky Turner. “We just went down and absolutely slaughtered them. We declared to them that if they ever set foot where we were again, we’d decimate them.” Pursey, like Crass, wasn’t into violence. But things were getting serious at Sham gigs. Nazis were rushing the stage.
Jimmy had a choice to make, as did the whole punk movement. Where did it stand? Decision time came when Red Saunders approached him to be the face of Rock Against Racism. RAR was formed after Eric Clapton, who made millions out of covering Bob Marley, declared that Enoch Powell “was right.” RARs founders could see the infiltration of far-right ideas into pop music, they could see the Thin White Duke, Sid’s gammadia, and Costello’s n-bombs, and they saw the connection between these incidents and the trouble at Sham gigs.
Saunders knew exactly what he was doing. There was no point headlining with The Clash, that wouldn’t surprise anyone. Saunders had to get to the core of the power of the anger, the essence of punk’s loud expression of strip-it-down radicalism.
It had to be Sham, it had to be Pursey. If we could get Sham to take the stage and denounce racism, it could mortally wound the NF’s entrance into the punk scene.
Pursey agreed. He took the stage at Victoria Park with the Reggae band Steel Pulse, at the end of the festival, which was preceded by a massive march through London, protesting the threat of the far-right. For this, Sham got death threats, and Pursey lost his nerve. He pulled out of the RAR sequel at Brockwell – that was, until some kid approached him on the tube and told him he’d got no balls. This one finally landed. The next day, Pursey stood up to be counted.
RAR was a big success. It was so far removed from the overblown Bono-infected live aid shite. This was a rally with direct action at its heart – a mission to root out racism from Rock & Roll, an art form rooted in African-American expression, and take on the far right in London and elsewhere. RAR went on tour to the provincial towns. From then on, the NF were never able to grasp hold of punk, retreating into the scene’s darkest corners. It held a foothold among the skins, but was barely able to transmit its voice through song.
RAR could not, however, undermine the association between punk and fascism. Perhaps punk will always house fascists, doomed by its initial “artistic choices”, or its amplification of white working-class anger, too often misinterpreted as, or reduced to, fascistic. Perhaps because punk exists essentially in tension, dancing on the volcano of human emotion and expression.
For my part, escaping to (often terrible, often class) punk gigs as a kid, I felt I was going somewhere where no-one could ever hurt me, where the well of human hatred ran shallow and dry. A place that valued thinking for yourself. For me, punk remains a place of catharsis and a source of strength to hold firm against the 2017-vintage fascists. But in this place, as within any temple of inclusion, there is a line to be drawn quickly and decisively against the creeping hatred of our age. As Jimmy Pursey discovered, there’s no time to equivocate, and no valour in it either.
Better to deal with those who wish you dead the way the Cockney Rejects did,
“See this watch she gave me, it still ticks away, the days I’m claiming back for me.”
Eels, The Medication is Wearing Off
Into the Royal Albert Hall on a sticky Tuesday evening, to watch the Manic Street Preachers play Everything Must Go, 20 years after it was first released. This was their second anniversary tour in as many years. Last time out they reprised The Holy Bible, to commemorate the two decades that had passed since Richey James Edwards had disappeared, his car abandoned near the Severn Bridge.
I’m suspicious about bands playing albums live – usually it’s a money-spinning, pusheaded indulgence into their past – buttheManics, as I wrote of the Holy Bible tour, are not the sort of band to partake in such hollow reprisals of now-irrelevant back catalogues. Instead, The Holy Bible’s resurrection was a scathing reminder of how Richey’s rebuke of End of History triumphalism remains dishearteningly pertinent.
My first reaction to hearing about the EMG tour was excitement – it’s one of my favourite albums, and I have often turned to it in moments of grief. I gave my ticket in knowing I was in for a great show, but I wasn’t quite sure why the Manics were dragging their 1996 kicking and screaming back into the present. It made sense, somehow, that if you bring back the Holy Bible you have to follow it up with Everything Must Go. But whereas the Holy Bible externalises anger to rip down the hypocrisy of those who benefit from a violent society, Everything Must Go is an internal struggle that finds the band wrestling with the pain of Richey’s decline and disappearance. After a twenty-year journey in which the bereft Manics have marked a new path as a trio, why had Nicky, James and Sean decided to revisit the raw emotion of this schism? Surely, it wasn’t just to go through the motions, in a pale sequel to last years’ tour?
Far from it.
There was a (very) small part of me afraid that without the enduring pertinence of the Holy Bible Tour, and the album’s association with mid-90s Britpop nostalgia, the EMG reprisal could fall short and end up an overweight, out-of-date impersonation of a moment that was no longer there. At the NEC in Birmingham (yes, I was there too – long story), there was a sense that the band themselves were concerned that it would be read this way, and on more than one occasion James thanked the crowd for coming to listen to them, and hoped that “this hasn’t ruined the memory of the album for them.” This uneasiness was itself an echo of last year, where the Manics were hedging themselves, eager to explain that to play the Holy Bible was a personal (and difficult) necessity, but still far removed from self-indulgence.
However, in the Royal Albert Hall, I found this fear to be grossly misplaced. Everything Must Go was, in 1996, a journey taken by the trio downwards toward the darkness that had enveloped their friend, alongside the upward steps toward the sun within which is held the strength to live in grief. In this way, it is the thematic as well as the chronological successor to the Holy Bible.
Richey posthumously provides five lyrics to Everything Must Go. His words in the Holy Bible were fuelled by anger – railing against the violence of humanity, the music and the lyrics jettisoned his anguish. But there were warnings, noticeably in Die in the Summertime (“scratch myself with a rusty nail, sadly it heals”), that this was only a temporary solution, the last flares of a dying star before it collapses in upon itself. The EMG songs that come from Richey’s pen find the lyricist in a concerning empathy with the victims of the societal cruelty he documented in the previous album. What unites his characters on EMG is their fate – they are trapped, consumed by their own hand or by that of others. If “man kills everything,” these are its victims, the Removables, or those who are caved in by the reality that surrounds them. The Elvis Impersonator who opens the album with limited face paint can rise no further from his life as a Blackpool sideshow, existing only in the drunken eyes of Lancashire nightlife.
“It’s so fucking funny, it’s absurd.”
Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky, seeing through the bars of the decrepit, caged zoo, sympathises with the captive chimpanzee, who has nothing but a tyre swing to entertain the masses that rattle her cage, the Simian cousin of the Blackpool impersonator. The Girl Who Wanted to be God nods to Sylvia Plath, “spat out” by Faster’s protagonist, but now a touchstone for our tortured lyricist in his final moments. Track 3 talks of the life of photographer Kevin Carter – a true storyof the man who won a Pulitzer Prize for his voyeuristic photograph of a malnourished black child being stalked by a vulture, who took his own life – unable to live with the terrible things he had sat and watched, like an ecologist, waiting for the right moment to capture for his fortune. Richey’s characters are trapped in a cycle of pain, and death forms the only escape.
For Nicky Wire, staring at a blank piece of paper in 1995, his friend vanished, he had to attempt to grasp the darkness that had taken Richey, and from there forge a path for himself and his band out of their grief. How do you comprehend a suicide? To attempt to empathise with this agony is to plot a journey toward the pain that overwhelmed a loved one. In his songs Nicky is often his own protagonist. In Australia, Nicky finds himself subsumed by a rising tide of depression as he tries to make sense of the past few months – “I don’t know if I’m tired, I don’t know if I’m ill” – and he responds by fleeing, as far away from everything as he can possibly get, to recover. Live in Birmingham, he confessed that while he was writing this lyric, he only made it as far as Torquay.
Nicky’s songs are filled with determination in the face of this pain – there is a growing understanding that he cannot run forever, and an acceptance that if he is to be alive, he must live with the chronic pain of losing his friend to suicide. In Enola/Alone, he concentrates on the comfort provided by the simplest of actions, walking on the grass, and taking in every moment of being alive, finding the strength to look at an image of his lost friend and hold on to a better memory. The title track has James screaming the line – “Just need to be happy” – like a tortured mantra, if he sings it with enough feeling, it *might* just come true.
Interiors gives us the story of the artist Willem de Koonig, who continued to paint as Alzheimer’s overtook him. It is the keystone of the album, of a man who, through all his suffering, held on to the very fabric of being alive for as long as he possibly could. As the final solo of the album rang out through the hall, a ticker tape explosion fell upon us. Red, white and green. On the screen appeared the Stanley Kubrick quote “however vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” James later appeared with his acoustic guitar, and played his cover of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, the first thing he recorded after Richey vanished, in a final act of defiant existence. The crowd all knew what this meant.
“What’s the point of always looking back?”
In some ways, the Manics were, this night, once again replenishing an old album from the past into the present. “We’ve brought it back from the brink,” James explained, by which he meant from the brink of falling into the dustbin of Britpop history. Nicky recalled in the Guardian that Richey used to love the confusion of it all. And he of all people would have appreciated the contradiction of the Manics finding mainstream success with this record. It wasn’t the intention to sound like Britpop’s cousin – A Design for Life was in fact a response to songs like Parklife that hollowed out and vulgarised British working class life. Yet for a band attempting to confront a friend’s suicide head on, to be “co-opted into Britpop,” placed into the same bracket as nonsensical Noel Gallagher lyrics must have smarted. Bringing EMG “back from the brink” is a personal necessity for the Manics, so that the grief they express in this record is not diluted or whitewashed.
Everything Must Go did not need salvage in the same way the Holy Bible did – there is no social criticism it provides more scathing than was given in 1996. But it needed to be played this night, and played in full, all the same. In many respects this is the true anniversary of Richey’s passing, the moment when the band accepted his disappearance, and to wrench open the scars left by the nihilism of the Holy Bible requires Everything Must Go to restart the process of patching up old wounds.
Everything Must Go is a triumph – for Nicky, James and Sean – and for all of us who have been wrought by bereavement and ploughed on nonetheless. But this album is not a moment of happiness, and it is not only Britpop association that threatens its meaning. To scream that “everything must go” is not to heal yourself of grief, rather it is to accept that time cannot heal old wounds, it only numbs. Further Away – “feel it fade into your childhood,” was this night adorned with images of Big Pit, eroded Welsh beaches, and eroding colliery towns. “The further away I get from you…the harder it gets.”
This acceptance that grief never disappears, but only fades, adds to the tragedy of the record with each passing anniversary. This is why they bring Everything Must Go into the 21st Century. To reprise the immediacy of bereavement is to defy the numbing of time, and to recall the pain they felt in losing a friend is to recall why they loved him in the first place.
“I’ve been here for much too long. This is the past that’s mine.”
Strangely, there was comfort in this message. This was not misery tourism, but healing. Many in the audience empathised with this pain – I don’t mean those old enough to miss Richey too – but those who knew you carry grief with you, wherever you go, and in some form this is a way you can keep the love you had for that person alive. There is comfort in sound, as another Welsh band – Feeder – proclaimed when they lost a band member to suicide. That night, there were lighter moments too – in the joy of Show Me the Wonder, and Nicky’s eccentric liner notes between songs. “This is not the only anniversary we are celebrating. Ten years ago, I Killed the Zeitgeist.”
In the Albert Hall, the music rolled through the floor, bounced off the roof of the auditorium, as, after the album was played and passed, we all belted out Roses in the Hospital, in tribute to Richey and to David Bowie, in a punk rock Last Night of the Proms, where the Welsh dragon was draped over the balcony in lieu of the Union flag.
That night, the chords were loud and simple, the melodies catchy yet plain, not in mimicry of Britpop, but in contrast to the nuance of the Holy Bible – it is raw, emotive music, contradictory yet plain – no surface and all feeling. Catharsis needs simplicity.
This blogpost is about a Performance by Tayo Aluko in Call Mr Robeson that I saw at UCLAN’s Media Innovation Centre on the 14th April 2016 (but this isn’t a review). More info of Aluko’s shows can be found here. GO SEE IT!
Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen. Nobody Knows My Sorrow.
Most people know of Paul Robeson in passing. They know the actor, the singer – Paul Robeson the performer. But less is said of Paul Robeson the socialist and the activist. This is a huge part of the story of this most famous of American early-20th Century performers, and it is this element of Robeson’s story that has seen the legacy of this artist erased from our collective historical memory.
Tayo Aluko is working to correct this. From Carnegie Hall, to this little Conference room in Preston where I watched him perform, Aluko has taken his one-man show, Call Mr Robeson, across the world.
“Call Mr Robeson” – the announcement blares from the back of the room, as the voice of McCarthy’s cronies call us to attention in the courthouse pews. Mr Robeson stands in front of us, proud once more, to defend himself against the charges of communism and un-American activities.
We are with him, adopted Welsh miners, trade unionists, forerunners of civil rights, fans of his music – we witness this trial alongside him with a solidarity Robeson sorely lacked in his own life. For over an hour we watched Robeson take us through his life, in a scene that became his living room, decorated by portraits, trinkets, records, a flag of the International Brigade, the Stars and Stripes, and a Welsh flag reminding him of the Valleys where he felt most loved. We nod along as Robeson answers each silly charge with blissful defiance, because we now know where he had come from, and why he stood before us today in the courthouse.
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night, Alive as You and Me
Aluko isn’t a diminutive man, but on this makeshift stage he grew into the mighty stature of Robeson, the son of a Minister born into (and escaped from) the chattels of slavery, the only black footballer at Rutgers, sacked on his first start by both sides, who stood up and carried on.
Robeson, the star of Show Boat, the Emperor Jones, Othello and Toussaint Louverture, fell afoul of those who saw him as coalescing with the enemy as well as those who wished to keep him down. Marcus Garvey saw him as little more than a minstrel, but Aluko crafts a different figure, too subversive in his patriotic turns and too captivating upon the stage to be regarded as anything less than a powerful exponent of black excellence.
Offside, stage right, stood the imagined presence of Eslanda Robeson (née Goode), Paul’s manager and wife. Essie had no lines in the one man show, but she stood over Paul at all times, initially supporting him financially, reminding him where he had come from, urging him to stay firm, challenging him to be more than just Paul Robeson, the performer. It was a tumultuous relationship, and Aluko refused to shy away from Paul’s frequent affairs and troubles within his marriage. Essie’s journey, although silent, was very much a part of the performance – the peaks and turmoils of this tale were, after all, felt and moulded by Essie as much as by Paul.
Robeson performed Ol’ Man River throughout his career – and he and Essie tinkered with the lyrics as they slowly divorced the song’s association from Show Boat and made it a Robeson standard. As Todd Decker has written, the lyrical alterations change the feel of the song from resignation to defiance, from a song of longing to a call to action.
“You get a little drunk and you land in Jail” becomes “You show a little grit and you land in jail,”
“I must keep on struggling until I’m dyin’” becomes “I must keep on fighting until I’m dyin’.”
Sing it Loud, Sing it Proud
Where did you hear of Paul Robeson? Was it in the booming rendition of Ol’ Man River? In echoes of his celebrated turn as Othello that shook through London theatrical circles? Unless you are of mining stock, you are less likely to be familiar with Robeson the socialist and tireless, unapologetic activist for global equality, and for dignity for black Americans. Aluko was asked, after the event, how he came to create Call Mr Robeson. He tells us that as a younger man he sung in front of a Merseyside audience in his powerful baritone, reminding one audience member of the star of Show Boat. The listener approached Aluko, asking him if Robeson had influenced him and if he sung any of his numbers. This, Aluko tells us, was the first he’d heard of the man. Later on, a book on the life of Paul Robeson found its way into Aluko’s hands at Liverpool Library, and that was that.
Myself, I knew of Robeson from a young age, mainly because my dad would occasionally break out spontaneous renditions of Ol’ Man River. I knew nothing of his social activism until my friend sent me an mp3 of “Let Robeson Sing” by the Manic Street Preachers. It’s the best song by a long way on a pretty terrible album, and quickly tells the story of Robeson’s “voice and vision” and his suppression by the House Commission for Un-American Activities, who confiscated his passport, placed FBI agents within his shadow at all times, and embarked upon a campaign of ostracism until Robeson became all-but-forgotten.
It may seem a strange way for someone to learn of Robeson, but as Aluko told us, among groups such as the Welsh miners and trade unionists, for whom Robeson did so much, he was never forgotten.
The Freedom Train
Back in Preston, we cannot turn away from any moment of Robeson’s life – we are there in the front row of his performances, and we are there with the marooned performer in the years of his lowest ebbs. Aluko takes us through the most difficult moments of Robeson’s existence, his exclusion, his attempted suicide, and the loss of Essie to cancer, with visceral intensity. On a rainy evening in Preston, we are witness to the tragedy of Robeson’s life as we are to his spine-tingling vocals and world-conquering successes. We watch as the ageing Robeson comes to terms with his anonymity as the Civil Rights Movement accelerates in the 1960s. Malcolm X is gunned down, and Dr. King follows. A young reporter traipses around Harlem asking the “man on the street” for their thoughts of their activism, and in this moment Robeson becomes just another black New Yorker.
“Looks like I’ve been assassinated too,” the old singer quips.
Aluko later tells us of the theory that Malcolm was assassinated just as he began to consider international socialist ideas. As Martin’s dream increasingly took on notions of black liberation through economic redistribution alongside cultural anti-racism, he was taken out too. As the great pillars of American civil rights began to speak back at the infiltration of institutional racism within every aspect of American society, they became more dangerous than ever before. “In a way, they became too much like Paul Robeson,” Aluko explains. The McCarthyists had already taken care of the old singer – gagged by passport restrictions, discredited to his allies, dogged by the disintegration of his mental health in the face of this ubiquitous ostracism, Robeson had been silenced.
But in Call Mr Robeson, he takes his place as one figure in the pantheon of anti-racist activists.The Freedom Train comes zooming along the track, gleaming in the sunshine for white and black, not stopping at no stations marked colored nor white, just stopping in the fields in the broad daylight. It’s a journey that has been carried part of the way by Toussaint, by Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Rosa Parks, Medgar, Malcolm and Martin and so many more. In this moment, Paul and Essie Robeson became once again a part of this great tradition.
The Ol’ Man River, Just Keeps Rolling Along
Robeson’s most (in)famous concert performance was at Peekskill, New York, on the 4th September 1949. The event had been cancelled the previous week, as gangs of white supremacists and anti-Semites had laid siege to the venue, tormenting concert-goers and lynching effigies of Robeson from nearby branches. The following week, Robeson arrived, himself protected by one human chain composed of trade unionists of all races, the crowd perimetered by a second ring. Years ago, Aluko recalls Paul Robeson Jr. was asked, of all his father’s renditions of Ol’ Man River, which was his favourite. It was here, he said, as the police helicopter that had hovered on the horizon approached toward the concert stage, whirring ever nearer as the song kicked into its concluding crescendo. As the drone grew louder, so did Robeson’s voice. The Ol’ Man River kept rolling along, not to be dammed.
This night, as I watched this concert performed in front of me, as the helicopter came closer through some unseen speaker behind me, I sat on the edge of my seat (and I was not the only one.) Robeson watched above him nervously – I knew that this concert was not Robeson’s end, but would a sniper in the helicopter take a shot at him? Maybe there was some gap in my knowledge on his life, maybe he was shot once and recovered. I suddenly didn’t know how this moment played out. The helicopter grew so loud, but so did Aluko’s voice, and like Robeson’s son all those decades ago, I was captivated.
Paul Robeson, it is said, was the first to perform at the Sydney Opera House. Before construction was complete, Robeson stood beside the site and sung for the construction workers as they slowly pieced together this Australian icon. Aluko dreams of one day being able to perform Call Mr Robeson within the Opera House. It would be some event to hear Robeson sing once again on the shores of Sydney Harbour.
“The court has come. The court of the nations. And into the courtroom will come the martyrs of Majdanek and Oswiecim. From the ditch of Kersh the dead will rise, they will arise from the graves, they will arise from flames bringing with them the acrid smoke and the deathly odour of scorched and martyred Europe…”
..so speaks a documentary reporter from the Nuremburg Trials throughout the Wolverhampton Civic as the Manic Street Preachers start track 11 of their third album, The Holy Bible, an album they are currently performing in full, from start to finish, in recognition of its 20th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of its prime lyricist, Richey Edwards.
Bands who have been around too long have recently gained a tendency to dig up full albums from their back catalogue. It’s usually a mixture of reliving old glories, either for the fans or the band, evoking the memory of days now gone when things were more exciting and their music actually meant something. (If the band stick an extra tenner on the ticket price, as they usually do, then they can finally buy that second kitchen they always wanted through the rehash.)
In that sense, it’s a work of history, and it’s the same type of history of those guys who were born in the 70’s but love to talk to you about D-Day or 1966. It’s history for nostalgia’s sake; it’s Village Green Preservation. And when you see it live, it feels the same as if you’re seeing a tribute act; it’s not quite the real thing, as a song used to mean something different when it was first released, to you as a fan, and to the band as performer.
With the Manics, and with The Holy Bible as source material, this would never be the case. The Observer’s Dorian Lynskywrote of the December leg of the tour, that, “too thorny for mere nostalgia”, it felt “neither lazy nor exploitative but a serious, even necessary, reckoning with the past.” The Manics are not, nor have they ever been, a band who tour out of decadence; they aren’t a Rolling Stones or U2 who reform endlessly to furnish their luxury, but a band that follows in the tradition of The Clash or of Public Enemy. They are certainly nostalgic, but in the desire of not forgetting their musical or social origins. They are definitely not a band that likes to repeat themselves.
The biggest feeling of walking down Memory Lane was in the obvious absence of Richey, who disappeared on 1st February 1995, and is now presumed dead. They lined up, just the three of them, as they would have done 20 years ago, James Dean Bradfield in the middle, Nicky Wire on the right, and a big hole on the left, where Nicky pointed as he acknowledged his absence. (In New York, he said, “we know Richey is here”.)
The Holy Bible is Richey’s album, lyrically, a stark window into a troubled mind that was losing a battle. There are some deeply personal moments; everyone in the crowd knows that 4st. 7lb is rooted in Richey’s anorexia, and the fans are band historians too – James belts out “self-disgust is self-obsession honey” and we all know what it evokes. But this isn’t a ritual of denial, the band have moved on from 1995, as have many of the fans.
And on the whole, this is music that takes on society as a whole, and only rarely is autobiographical. It is a scathing assessment of 20th Century European history and the political outlook of the 1990s that it bred. It presents a view of the European 20th Century as one of massive human cruelty and destruction.
The taught narrative in British schools is one of Euro-America rising up to defeat fascism, heroic figures of Churchill, Montgomery, de Gaulle et al vanquishing the evils of Mussolini and Hitler. These European heroes are removed from the historical canon of The Holy Bible, replaced by the serial killers Hindley, Brady and Sutcliffe, mixed with ex-FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and Slobodan Milosovic. With them, the fascists remain; in Of Walking Abortion Mussolini remains only “hanging from a butcher’s hook”, but Hitler has become “reprised, in the worm of your soul.” Churchill remains only to join the pantheon, as “no different” for his attitude towards the British working class.
Unfair? Maybe. Discomforting? Certainly. It’s all to argue that 20th Century Europe was, and remains, a cruel and unforgiving place. The Holocaust features strongly as source material, notably on the tracks The Intense Humming of Evil and Mausoleum; the former struggling to come to terms with the horror, whilst the latter rages against the silence that followed (“obliterates your meaning”). But much like Arendt, its significance lies in that the cruelty was mass-sponsored, and not the work of a few fanatical psychopaths.
“Everyone is guilty” screeches James in Of Walking Abortion. The thesis of Archives of Pain is that the capacity for cruelty lies in humanity and its institutions, written jarringly from the perspective of a torture and death-penalty advocate. “If hospitals cure, then prisons must bring their pain,” it opens. “If god makes death that makes man tear up the corpse with horses and chains.”
As the title suggests, in Archives and the entire album history is the evidence, to sit alongside the sickening triumphalism of the Euro-American 1990s. As Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history”, Richey baulked. He saw no triumph anywhere. In response, and in clear desperation, he, following the words of J. G. Ballard(who speaks over Mauseleum) aimed to “rub the human race in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” The songs are difficult and head-first descents into the agony of 1990s society, furious at sexual violence and exploitation (Yes), body-shaming and self-harm (4st 7lb, Faster), and what in Greece has recently been called “the extremism of the centre” (PCP).
But somehow it never descends into pure nihilism, hinted to in the rueful conclusion of Mauseleum, “life can be as important as death, but [it’s] so mediocre.” I would not go nearly as far as the Sunday Timesin saying it’s “an album that celebrates life as much as it details despair”, but there is hope in tiny doses, although that is not the point of The HolyBible. Instead, it aims to stand in stark contrast to the conservative celebration of the 1990s, of American and European exceptionalism, and to constantly remind us of its lies.
And therein lies the point of its reprisal. In 2015, those who still listen to the record can’t help but feel that parts of the album hit even harder than they used to. Revol is undeniably a ridiculous song, a weird upbeat track that decides that all of history’s autocrats were influenced by some simplistic Freudian nonsense. I think it’s Richey’s attempt at being light-hearted. But underneath is the resignation that history has the tendency to repeat itself, over and over, for the same reasons. These days, that is a feeling that is hard to escape.
Take Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwillfallapart, the Manics’ razor-sharp takedown of ‘90s triumphalism, dismantling American hypocrisy under the guise of a pseudo-positive punk-pop. The first verse deals with foreign affairs.
“Images of perfection, suntan and napalm, Grenada, Haiti, Poland Nicaragua”
Slip Iraq and Afghanistan into that. Haiti twice more. Colombia and the War on Drugs, Cuba and Guantanamo Bay…
The second verse moved to the domestic, following decades of urban decline, the LAPD assault of Rodney King in 1991 and the subsequent outrage.
“Vital stats: how white was his skin? Unimportant just another inner-city drive-by thing”
Live, James and Nicky were almost apologetic at subjecting the fans to The Holy Bible in its entirety. They felt it necessary to perform, simultaneously to honour Richey’s memory and resurrect the power of its music. But this is music that isn’t for everybody, and they were aware that it can be difficult. Sometimes, like in Archives of Pain, it goes too far, and the metaphor becomes so lost it reads as a hawkish revenge fantasy. Some of it, like PCP is politically all over the shop; it comes across (part-intentionally, perhaps) as a series of mad ramblings.
James and Sean gave Richey’s work a backing track to suit the music; strange changes from minor to major, screeching guitar solos on top of simple bass, adrenaline-fueled tempo mixed with slow moments where some fans felt so confused they tried to wave their arms, before realising that this was 4st 7lb, not Coldplay. It is visceral, immediate stuff, and as such only gains power live. You could hear every note and twang of James’ guitar, nothing sounds like the studio.
The fans, of course, knew exactly what they were in for. Some were misery tourists; I could not quite work out how one girl found the urge to groove to The Intense Humming of Evil when most of the crowd were stunned in silence. But it was “enjoyable”. In this left-leaning audience there was a catharsis in belting out the lyrics to ifwhiteamerica after feeling so helpless for so long. To collectively chant “so damn easy to cave in, man kills everything” at the end of Faster was to articulate and release so much frustration.
It didn’t end there – the second half of the set, the “party songs” as James put it, is not devoid of this feeling. Nicky, taking over lyric duty, writes in a more diluted way (and can be occasionally dreadful) but the message remains. James first sung The Everlasting (that song of strange pronunciation), that begins with “the gap that grows between our lives, the gap our parents never had.” Depression remains a topic; the cheerful-on-the-surface number You Stole the Sun from my Heart concludes with “I have got to stop smiling, if gives the wrong impression…” The set concludes with the searing 1996 eulogy to a dead welfare state, A Design for Life, as moving as ever nearly twenty years on as the Chancellor of the Exchequer sells off the public sector.
David Nicholls (this one) once wrote that each generation needs to write its own histories. Twenty years later, The Holy Bible resurrected live is something new in itself; part-tribute, part-protest, with a bit of group therapy thrown in. There are newer radical artists about, with new things to say, but none can claim the following of this Gwent rock trio. It’s a tougher musical landscape nowadays, this band’s first No. 1 was the Spanish Civil War track If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next, and it’s hard to imagine something so with the line “if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists” topping the charts today.
The Manics are not trying to be the voice of 2015 with material from 1994. Nor are they stuck in the past. Instead, like the album itself, they are using history to make an impassioned comment on the present. Twenty years later, European and American society is still masquerading under the guise of a post-racist, post-sexist “end of history” triumphalism, whilst social inequality grows, and racial and sexual violence persists.
Or, to show “houses as ruins and gardens as weeds” (quoting This is Yesterday) is to push for greater awareness of the past, and greater urgency in changing the present.