first round game
(3) depeche mode, “fly on the windscreen”
(14) the grinning plowman, “koo-ka”
and plays on in the second round
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 3.
janine annett on “fly on the windscreen”
Death is everywhere
There are flies on the windscreen
For a start
Death IS everywhere, all the time. It could come for you at any moment, like a fly being squashed by a windshield wiper. So why not:
Oh, that’s a good one. We could all die at any moment, so, you know, let’s make out. We might as well. That’s a classic. That’s the essence of this song, right there.
Teenagers—particularly goth-y ones—can be pretty obsessed with sex and death, especially where the two meet (hence the eternal popularity of vampires. Vampires never die, they just come back as new franchises. The Vampire Chronicles simply becomes Twilight, and the whole cycle repeats itself). Depeche Mode could be dark at times, and poppy at others, or sometimes both at once. Like dark chocolate or black licorice, they’re both dark and sweet, a little sexy, a little bitter. A little accessible (hit songs, anthemic sing-alongs), a little bit inscrutable (were they gay? straight? What were those lyrics about?)
Black Celebration, the album on which “Fly on the Windscreen” appears, was released in 1986 on Mute records. I was not yet old enough to know about Depeche Mode when this album was first released. I became aware of, and a fan of, Depeche Mode as a teenager, around the time Violator came out. They were just one of those bands you knew about—maybe you saw someone wearing a Depeche Mode t-shirt or you saw them on the cover of some magazine, probably one from the UK. You took a chance and bought one of their albums based on hearing good things about them. You heard them on a mix tape, or in someone’s car, or maybe you saw a video on MTV’s 120 Minutes. “I’m Dave Kendall,” the host would intone in his British accent.
Teenage me would have been thrilled to know that as an adult (barely) I would go on to actually work at Mute Records for several years. I would meet Daniel Miller, who produced Black Celebration and founded Mute (and recorded the classic song “Warm Leatherette” as The Normal). I would get free tickets to see Depeche Mode play a concert at Madison Square Garden. I would get Depeche Mode CDs, a tote bag, a commemorative digital watch (aka “swag”), in celebration of the release of The Singles: 86–98. Then I would quit that job, move to another city, embark upon a relationship that would fall apart, move back to New York, start over. I would never again work in the “music business”. The music business as I knew it was gone, anyway. There were no more phone calls to make to buyers at record stores to convince them to purchase CDs to sell to people. That was literally my job. I know. I know. It seems as strange as saying I sold buggy whips. For these efforts, I was paid not very handsomely. Then again, I was getting paid to schmooze with people, more or less. I guess that’s work. I put in long hours, anyway. I lived in a sixth-floor walkup with two roommates. I struggled to make rent every month. But I got free CDs. My tiny little bedroom, which could barely fit my bed and a small dresser, had piles of CDs everywhere. I often got free drinks, free dinners, got on the guest list for shows. Right now I’m listening to Depeche Mode on shuffle on Spotify; a remix came on by Plastikman, another Mute artist. To be honest, I had kind of forgotten about Plastikman (no offense, Plastikman). I once got sent out on tour with another Mute DJ (Wikipedia calls him “one of the first true superstar DJs”) for the West Coast leg of his tour. I flew out with him and his girlfriend to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle. I met with people from the corporate offices of a now-defunct chain of record stores. It was a different time.
Death is everywhere
There are lambs for the slaughter
Waiting to die
And I can sense
The hours slipping by
I found out somewhat recently that a friend of mine from my teenage years died. Naturally, I found out via social media. It had happened years ago. I couldn’t find an obituary, which I knew meant one of two things. I didn’t want to know, because I knew. Finally, I did ask our mutual friend. It turned out I was right.
My friend was very kind. He was a few years older than me. I was a dorky kid compared to him—a cool musician who had lots of friends. But he was always nice to me. He looked out for me. If I was out seeing a band or hanging out at a party, and he was there, I knew he had my back. He was a good listener. He was silly—avuncular, almost. He had a goofy nickname that everyone called him. I was probably naïve about certain things he did. I was naïve, in general, back then. He was in a local band that I loved. They almost caught their big break. They got signed to a major label, recorded an album. It never came out. The band broke up. I lost touch with my friend. He moved to the other side of the country. I never heard from him again. How could this funny, goofy person have had such a dark side? One that I knew nothing about? It’s true that the last time I saw him he seemed a little down. I didn’t know it would be the last time I’d see him. He gave me a huge hug, as he always did. He was very affectionate, always hugging and kissing people with genuine enthusiasm. It’s hard to believe I’m old enough to have had a friend who’s now been dead for nearly 20 years, a distant but fond memory.
Our mutual friend just sent me a photo he found that my friend took of me. I don’t have many photos from that era. We didn’t grow up with tiny cameras in our pockets. We didn’t document every moment and share our photos with hundreds of people in an instant. In fact, I hated being in photos. Why? I don’t know. I felt awkward. I’m making a goofy face in this photo (admittedly, I still don’t know how to pose for a photo). It’s very 90s. I’m wearing a bomber jacket and a choker and I have long, maroon-tinted hair (undoubtedly courtesy of Manic Panic). Now I look at myself in old photos and think to myself, What exactly did you think was wrong with you? I wish I had more photos from that era. I wish I had a photo of me and my friend. Maybe we’re right today to document so many things. Even the mundane. Maybe one day we’ll look back and be so grateful for all these documents we have—the photos, the videos, the words.
Death is everywhere
The more I look
The more I see
The more I feel
A sense of urgency
Janine Annett is a writer who lives in New York. She previously wrote about hair metal for March Shredness. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, the Rumpus, Real Simple, and many other places. Janine's website is www.janineannett.com.
aaron burch on “koo-ka”
Three and a half minutes into The Grinning Plowman’s “Koo-Ka,”just as it sounds like the song is winding down and almost over, a guitar chord wobbles its way into the silence. It’s a little tinny; it sounds like it’s echoing through and filling up a huge, empty space. I’m picturing a church, personally. A sanctuary, a cathedral. It feels like a classic outro, the recorded song version of the live song that keeps going, feedback pinging back and forth between amp and guitar, stretching itself out beyond its own end.
Some percussion joins in, sneaking into the background while you weren’t really paying attention. It sounds a little like thunder, a little like that movie thunder sound effect of bending and shaking steel is being piped into the the cathedral from up in the steeple or the bell tower (or, wait, are those two the same thing?).
Finally, a voice comes in, somewhere between singing and speaking:
All faceless children play
I walk across your dreams
It’s moody, atmospheric, a little haunting. It’s all those adjectives for filling in the blanks on your all black, a little bit scary, Goth Mad Libs.
Then the crack of a whip—snap!—and then the song is back. Another minute and a half of actual outro, of noddling guitars and full force drums and what I guess is the chorus, a whip-crack of a rallying cry—“Koo-ka! Koo-ka!!”
This week, in my Introductory English classes, we’re segueing from our first unit—Literacy Narratives—into our second: Rhetorical Analyses. What this means is an initial discussion of that classic comp class triangle of ethos, pathos, and logos. I don’t focus on them in my classes too much because I don’t think I’ve ever used any of those words outside the classroom and I usually focus my classes much more around the writing itself than an ability to apply English class vocab to that writing, but the discussion gives us a nice introduction into rhetoric, into being persuasive.
Today, specifically, we talked the most about ethos. Ethos being the ethical appeal, convincing an audience of something with the help of the author’s credibility or character. We talked about various ways the authors of pieces we’ve read have used this, their different strategies for displaying to us their credibility.
Which is all just an unnecessarily preambly way of getting to where I tell you this: I’d never heard this song before I was assigned to write about it. I’d never heard of the band The Grinning Plowman, period.
I Play Jupiter, the album on which “Koo-Ka” appears, was released on October 10, 1989. I’ve actually recently been writing about 1989, specifically about how I was eleven years old and, throughout that year and the couple of years after, I loved listening Casey’s Top 40 on the radio in my bedroom. I listened and, every week, I wrote down the top ten songs of the week for myself in a small, spiral bound notebook. I don’t know why exactly. I liked notekeeping. There was something about it that appealed to the part of me that liked organization, but it was also like I was trying to figure out how to be a kid, what was popular. Like I was trying to mathematically figure out how to be cool.
The number one song on Casey’s Top 40 the week I Play Jupiter was released was Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much.” My favorite songs in the top 40 that week would have been by Roxette, New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul, and Gloria Estefan. That’s who I was listening to in 1989.
That said, I didn’t just miss The Grinning Plowman because of age, because my 1989, 11-year-old tastes favored straight up the middle, pop Top 40. I never listened to goth at all. That was for the kids I assumed everyone made fun of. The self-selected outsiders, the kids who seemed too dark for me. And I didn’t understand why anyone would purposefully be an outsider.. Didn’t everyone want to fit in? Didn’t we all want to be insiders, the cool kids, the most popular? I didn’t get made fun of, mostly because most people didn’t even know who I was. I moved through junior high and high school feeling like I was watching from the sidelines.
The gothiest thing I ever loved was probably The Crow. The gothiest thing I ever did was probably when I went to Brandon Lee’s grave. This was when I was fifteen, sixteen years old. I was in Taekwondo, a blackbelt. I went to the movie with a bunch of Taekwondo friends, and then we took a kind of field trip to Seattle, an hour north of where we all lived and went to school and learned Taekwondo. We went because we’d loved the movie, and because it was only an hour away, and because he was buried next to his dad, Bruce Lee, and it felt like the kind of appreciation and pilgramage a bunch of Pacific Northwest Taekwondo kids should make.
Which is all to say: yes, you’re right, I’m no goth expert. I never really listened to goth, I don’t totally know what goth is.
I bought The Crow soundtrack in 1994, and I loved it, but actual goth fans will point out that everything on it is more metal and industrial and alternative than goth. And, even still, I loved those songs that were the most metal and industrial and alternative. I bought and loved and listened to the album all the time because of Stone Temple Pilots and Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine and Helmet. I’d often skip the songs by The Cure and My Life With the Thrill Kill Cult and The Jesus and Mary Chain. I didn’t know the NIN song was a Joy Division cover. Hell, I didn’t even know who or what Joy Division was.
Is The Grinning Plowman’s “Koo-Ka” the best goth song? The most goth song? The best song that’s also an example of goth? I don’t know.
That whip-snap sound effect that reintroduces the song, four minutes in, reminds me of the radio edit of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” and I love it.
I don’t know if he really sings “All faceless children play,” because it’s not quite distinguishable, but I love that it’s not quite distinguishable. I love having to listen close, trying to decipher. I love, too, that I couldn’t find the lyrics anywhere online, here in 2019 where it sometimes seems like you can find anything online.
I love this idea of “faceless children” and my dreams being walked across. It’s the kind of weird and creepy that I would have found too weird and creepy in 1989 when I was only 11, and probably still in 1994 when I was 16, which is maybe why I so love it now.
I love that the chorus is this weird, almost military chant—“Koo-ka! Koo-ka!!”—that I also have no idea what it means but somehow feels the perfect counterpoint to the rest of the song’s moody, hypnotic, dirgey, dark, dramatic, atmospheric gothiness.
Aaron Burch is the Founding Editor of the literary journal Hobart and author of the memoir / cultural-appreciation Stephen King's The Body and the story collection Backswing. He is currently working on a book of essays, THIS WAS ALL BEFORE THE INTERNET, about growing up and religion and music (like, among other things, keeping a notebook of the Casey's Top 40 top ten songs of the week).