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Illuminations and Ghosts

Friday, 29th August, 2003

A strange bunch I've been listening to today. Not that that's anything strange for me but at least some of these artists have been heard of outside the readership of The Wire magazine.

I'm still on the song poem kick, and have started to explore sideways from the wonderful set of links provided by the ASPMA. My most successful jaunt sideways thus far was to John Fitzpatrick's The Oddball Auditorium which covers a wide range of weirdness, much of which is available for free download.

I'm not taken too much by his current selection but there's plenty more in the Oddball Archives, which boasts some nationalistic Zionist songs along with a children's song from a Jewish Creation musical. This is the cream of the crop, a bizarre outing where various children take the part of birds tweeting and chirping to their piano and flute accompaniment in a song called 'Tra-La-La (Birds)'. Suddenly all these Outsider musicians like Wesley Willis and Shooby Taylor, the Human Horn seem like corporate RIAA fodder. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration...

Writing about it naturally prompted me to experience ('listen' just doesn't quite cut it) 'Tra-La-La' again, which really didn't fit as an interval to the soundtrack to the outstanding Australian film, Ghosts... of the Civil Dead, composed by Nick Cave and a couple of his Bad Seeds, Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld (also of the bizarre German proto-industrial deconstructionists Einsturzende Neubauten). 'Ghosts' is a bleak and haunting soundtrack, interspersed with spoken word sections from the film's dialogue, usually placed above a drone.

I saw 'Ghosts... of the Civil Dead' years ago, on a late night Channel 4 broadcast and was both bright enough to record it and dumb enough to strip myself of any means of playback. It's a truly scary movie, not in any traditional horror sense but in a postmodern treatment of violence. It deals with a state of the art prison mismanaged by the powers that be to violent results. There are only a very few violent incidents in the film but the whole thing resonates with violence. On top of his score composition, Nick Cave also wrote the script and appeared as a particularly insane new inmate. The film stayed with me over the years and so did the soundtrack. There's something so right about a beautiful childlike female vocal tra-la-la-ing over an evil droning guitar.

Before 'Ghosts', which I'd heard before, I worked my way through the startling 'Illuminations' album by Canadian folk songstress Buffy Sainte-Marie. I knew of her, of course, but until very recently had never heard her outside of Eva Cassidy's truly stunning cover of her 'Tall Trees in Georgia'. I got to hear the original a couple of days ago on the 'I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again' album but wasn't impressed.

However, 'Illumination' has been acknowledged as a truly groundbreaking release, experimenting with electronic sound manipulation on a 1970 folk album of all things! It kicks off with a looping and improvised setting of a Leonard Cohen poem to music, and then proceeds through mostly original compositions, all warped and touched up beyond anything done at the time. Most of the sound is distortions of Buffy's voice or guitar with very little accompaniment. AMG's review is even more fascinating than usual and I'm spending more and more time at that site every day.

The 33-year old 'Illuminations' sounds good today and certainly stands out and screams to be heard. Background music it isn't. In comparison, Frankie Goes to Hollywood's debut, 'Welcome to the Pleasuredome' is only half as old, but is far more in touch with my own youth. It was released back in 1984, at the point where I was starting to give up on pop music after discovering heavy metal courtesy of Kerrang! magazine and Tommy Vance's 'Friday Rock Show', and that year was Frankie fever in England.

Much of this was manufactured very cleverly, just like Tony Blair's first election victory, only Frankie went away quickly and Blair lingers on like a fart in an elevator, only more toxic. They really shouldn't have been a quality act, given all the shenanigans they got up to, both commercially and personally, but they were. They helped in no small way to change pop music.

While I'd heard the singles, of course, as had everyone else in England at that time, I'd not heard the full album. I was surprised to realise that it begins with a short intro and then a thirteen and a half minute long album track. Hardly standard procedure for a pop band. The entire first half of the album works superbly, building very well and tying various themes and sonic elements neatly together. The title track is followed by 'Relax', the single that launched them to stardom, mostly on the basis that it was banned by everyone. There's nothing like a good bit of controversy to build public attention, especially on the back of the t-shirt campaigns and the slogan circulation.

After 'Relax' is a new version of the classic 'War', which segues perfectly into the second single, Two Tribes', which is famed for one of the most inventive and memorable videos of all time. It's the one that features Reagan and Gorbachev fighting it out. Definitely one to rewatch at some point. It must be online somewhere. After that, it's a Frankiefied version of Springsteen's 'Born to Run' which is where the album starts to fall down, but it does end with the excellent ballad, 'The Power of Love', which was one of three (different) songs of that title in the English charts at the same time. Highly confusing.

And I can't be bothered to write any more, so Cryptic Wintermoon will have to wait for another day, as will Iggy and the Stooges and Everon and Amalia Rodriguez and everyone else I've been listening to today. Night, y'all.


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