first round game
(3) Echo & the Bunnymen, “the killing moon”
(14) Rosetta Stone, “an eye for the main chance”
and play on in round 2
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 7.
patri hadad on “the killing moon”
“I’ve always said that ‘The Killing Moon’ is the greatest song ever written.” —Ian McCulloch, lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen, Guardian 2015
Grandiosity is so goth.
The media used to call him Mac the Mouth. Not only is “Killing Moon” the greatest song but Mac himself proclaimed to be the best singer in the history of time (Q Magazine, 2018). Echo and the Bunnymen were the best group in the world (XS Noise, 2018)—a line that beat out his previous quote that they were top ten greatest bands of all time (Exclaim.ca, 2009). And the band ran ads for Ocean Rain with the slogan “The Greatest Album Ever Made.” Give yourself to his words and we can close the book on this Vladness contest and possibly all Xness brackets forever and ever amen.
At BookPeople recently, it only took those first four twisted notes and hand-slide on the guitar for me to recognize the greatest song ever written. Few songs evoke this immediate recognition for me. Billy Idol’s slide intro to “White Wedding” or Keith Richards’s three-note riff (you know the one) that prompts me to either turn the volume up or change the station. I put Samin Nosrat down and found myself levitating toward the sea of blue book covers in the spirituality section on the second floor.
What is that makes it the greatest song? Because it reached UK’s Top Ten and stayed there for six weeks? Because it is ubiquitous and a mainstay of 80s goth rock? Is it the experimental instrumentation? Will Sergeant’s manic strumming of his Vox Teardrop 12-string mimics the folkloric balalaika that brings to mind some exotic fantasy? A sweeping cello keeping harmony with Les Pattinson’s suspended chords, where a note is missing in a musical chord that causing disjointed dissonance? Then we have the melodramatic story of a stargazer who forfeits himself to a murderous celestial body. Romance crooned from thick British lips and fly-away hair.
Full disclosure: I’m not Goth. That is, this is not another Goth-cred essay. My goth music collection was very small. The closest I came to becoming Goth was in the 10th grade when my best friend came back from summer break with jet-black spiky hair, neck wrapped in a velvet choker, and delineated makeup that came out of a black and white graphic novel. My first question was how anyone could dress goth in the humidity of Houston. I tried searching for her on Facebook recently but the closest profile I could find resembling her was a black circle, with a black cover photo. I missed watching her crossing the field over to my house from the picture window in my bedroom.
Echo and the Bunnymen aren’t really the pale face of somber goth either. Ian’s singing brings to mind so many other New Wave of 80s sentimentality—Mac would likely think it heresy to be compared to Morrissey but also his voice follows low Brit-tones of Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Marc Almond. Band members wore a lot of black but then again they were British.
We all have our romantic darkness. At night when I couldn’t sleep, I would raise the blinds to that picture window, which was less than a foot off the floor and lay in the light of the moon. The cover for the “Killing Moon” single is that of the moon from my memory, a perfect white circle and sterling clouds of a coastal city. The Echo decided to use a popular photographer, Brian Griffin, to lead all the photography for Ocean Rain, the “Killing Moon” single, and accompanying music video.
On the album cover of Ocean Rain where Killing Moon appears we see the band awaiting in a wooden dinghy against an indigo cavern, as if taking a detour of the River Styx. Ian McCulloch leaning over to touch the magnificence of his own reflection. Griffin even directed the music video, though he doesn’t boast about it on his website.
It’s a particularly Gothy-80s music video—full with streamers, a lunar eclipse reflected in undulating water, a fog machine, crepuscular lighting (with blood red light on splashing water!), unsmiling band members who peekaboo with camera rotation, and of course a figure like the Grim Reaper shot from below to show the magnitude of her ruffles. A 25-year-old Ian sings under a swinging light, bringing out in a blue mood those plump lips, thick eyebrows, and blown-out raven hair. Abandonment to your emotions, sincere eye-shutting so crucial to exhibiting a metaphorical stabbing of the heart, and a lyric that I used to think said “up against your wall,” is the epitome of goth and so fucking sexy.
The video leaves little room for interpretation but the people have their opinions: werewolves, Jesus in the Garden of Geshemene, date rape, a serial killer, God… and, of course, the play Bodas De Sangre (Blood Weddings) by Federico Garcia Lorca. “It is an overwhelming coincidence if not,” said one commenter.
For many, the song evokes a young Jake Gyllenhaal with that familiar wind-blown hair wearing plaid pajama pants cycling down a smooth hilly road rubbing his sleepy eyes foretelling his own fall down a rabbit hole. I’m so behind on goth that I only just watched Donnie Darko last month. (Told you I wasn’t very goth.) Immediately, I recognized glorious synchronization between our 1984 song and the film set in 1984 makes it seem like Echo and The Bunnymen wrote it just for this foreboding rabbit.
Both embody a pop version of gloom entwined with angst. Both are obsessed with destiny. Both make sardonic use of rabbits. Both have central characters who struggle with debilitating mental illnesses.
Although Donnie’s issues are pyro-phrenic, Ian wrestles with OCD. It started out with his washing his hands very thoroughly. Then touching solid objects, needing to touch the floor, the walls, the table because if he didn’t something terrible would happen. When everything is at stake, it’s no wonder Ian wrote powerful lyrics about surrendering to what he can’t control.
In the span of a year and a half, the earth danced with the sun and the moon. It started with a solar eclipse in 2017. People everywhere in jet-black sunglasses stared upward while the moon placed itself over the sun, a Charon’s obol. For one brief moment, we were all goth. We stood around making fists trying to create crescents with our hands on the sidewalk. Six months later, we experienced the Super Blood Moon, for which I got up at 5 a.m. to see. It ended up being the worst day of my life. A few months later, on a trip to Puerto Peñasco, we learned that the tide crashed into the coast that night, breaking up construction, piers, and leaving the water by houses. Over the summer, the moon watched me as I cleansed and skinny-dipped. In January, we saw our last total eclipse for the next two years, laying to rest major tidal changes for a while.
At least half of the glory of the song’s lyrics goes to God. Gospel according to Ian: “I had the chords and the verse and melody, then one day I woke up, and it was sunny, and I sat bolt upright—if you can sit bolt upright—with the words to the chorus, which I hadn’t known any of before. I think it was the Lord himself saying, ‘It would be fantastic if you said these words.’”
This is the part of the KM story that I love the most. After listening to “Space Oddity” backward, “The rest of the lyrics came quickly, almost as if I knew them already. The title and a lot of the astronomical imagery, such as ‘your sky all hung with jewels,’ came about because, as a kid, I’d always loved The Sky at Night and Star Trek, and I remembered the moon landing. I was up all night wishing I had a telescope.”
On his 13th birthday, Ziggy Stardust singing “Starman” on Top of the Pops, changing young Ian’s life forever. What he experienced was otherworldly, stunned by the glitter of this androgynous majesty. He became obsessed with becoming a musician like Bowie. It became about an ethereal lifestyle—he’d walk down the street and have moments where he perceived astral projections that he described as “seeing the light.” I wonder if he’d giggle the way Donnie Darko did when he saw liquid spears bubbling out of people’s chests.
If the theory is accurate, this whole film 17 years after the song came out is an entire homage to “Killing Moon.” From the blues and purples in the first scene to a shot of the back of Roberta Sparrow and the back of the woman underneath death’s cloak at the end of the video. The only thing Ian had left to say about Donnie Darko’s writer-director Richard Kelly: “Cheeky bastard.”
Patri Hadad is a huggable writer, editor, and painter with an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Arizona and the former managing editor of New Ohio Review. She lives in Tucson and is currently working on a series of visual essays.
matt bell on “an eye for the main chance”
Rosetta Stone, a band whose defunct website now redirects to the popular language training software’s website instead of their once-upon-a-time dot-UK home, was founded in the late eighties by Porl King on vocals and guitar, Karl North on bass—and Madame Razor, a non-human band member who was either a Casio RZ1 drum machine [i] or an entire rack of drum machines and synthesizers. Before being assigned this essay, I’d never heard of them.
Likely that’s my fault, not theirs: there are so many things I have never heard of before.
As I began listening over and over to Rosetta Stone’s “An Eye for a Main Chance,” the title track of their 1991 full-length debut, I became interested enough in Porl King and Karl North to chase down all the details about them that I could find online. Along the way, I become especially enthralled with the excellently-named Madame Razor, who seems to always be listed as a full member of the band, credited (for instance) on Rosetta Stone’s later compilation album Adrenaline with “playing” strings, pianos, and drums.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track down a single digital image of Madame Razor. I tried in vain to glimpse in the band’s grainy videos uploaded by fans to Youtube, but to no avail: I’ve been wondering if it was just an era when showing someone manipulating a synthesizer on stage would have seemed ridiculous. If that was the case, then that’s a moment that’s long ago passed: even though I can still remember the first time I skeptically watched someone “play” a Macbook onstage, a few years later that feels completely normalized. In any case, I love the idea that the band treated this drum machine as a person, that this person played the instruments contained inside her plastic body on her own, rather than acting as a programmable tool for the other musicians. Already, she’s my favorite member of the band, and it seems clear that King and North must have felt affectionately toward her as well.
In every essay I’ve ever written, there appear traces of the other essays that might have happened instead, if conditions had been different. Let me surface one of those here by saying that if I’d been able to succeed with the research, I would have written this entire essay about Madame Razor, her combination of devices, her programming, her contributions to “An Eye for the Main Chance” specifically and Rosetta Stone’s discography in general.
Why? Because I don’t know enough about goth music, honestly, but I do get the joy of having a machine for a collaborator or a companion, especially in the late eighties and early nineties era when Rosetta Stone seems to have been most active, in the age before we were all permanently attached to our phones and other devices. I still wouldn’t know what to do with a drum machine, but for many years I probably had more sincere relationships with my personal computers than I did with other people, during a time when most of the people I knew in my rural Michigan town didn’t own a PC or know what to do with one.
This was, of course, also all pre-internet, pre-CD-R, pre-Napster and Winamp and all the easy music discovery that came along with those devices and services.
I was eleven years old when “An Eye for the Main Chance” released in the UK, and my guess is that my chance of hearing it on local radio where I grew up was approximately zero. I might have liked it if I had—I like it quite a bit now, at least—but I wouldn’t have known what to do with it: music didn’t yet have history for me, didn’t yet relate to anything already existing in my own life. I was really just starting to listen, so that a Beatles song my dad loved was essentially contemporaneous with the newest single released on the radio, all broadly categorized to me as things I heard when I was a kid.
Additionally, one of the interesting parts of my contemplating a movement like goth rock now is realizing how bad I was for most of my life about even recognizing individual bits of fashion or music or makeup as belonging to a distinct subculture: I was just too isolated, too introvertedly nerdy to participate in most of what’s happening culturally around me. I was doing my own thing not out of any streak of fierce individualism but just out of not really understanding that there were other options.
I mean, the only possible goth subcultures I could have joined, which probably never existed in 1991 or any other time, were likely: D&D Goth. Pentium 386 Goth. Sweatpant Goth.
That was about it. I was a long way from cool.
My aesthetic was intensely strong, but seems to me even now to have been intensely mine—most of the things I loved most were things I didn’t really share with anyone outside of my household. I didn’t necessarily feel lonely about it, although I probably was, and I know that if I’d even understood it was something I could have tried to make happen, I would have loved to have joined up with any subculture that would have had me. But at eleven, I just wouldn’t have even understood what I would have been joining.
The same would probably be true of me at fifteen or twenty. It’s probably still a little true, although I’m sure I’ve settled into at least loose relation with a few more recognizable broad bands of subculture by now. And a lot of what used to keep me isolated is now just pop culture, which for a while was weird on its own—but I know I’m not even alone in having had that experience, which probably also happened to most of the people who were into goth, in its earliest days.
But all that came later, of course.
In 2001 or so, I moved in with my high school best friend’s older cousin and that cousin’s girlfriend, who I now understand might have been members of a half-dozen recognizable subcultures at once, inhabiting the spaces where they overlapped: they were simultaneously metalheads, goths, punks, New Age spiritualists, addicts in recovery, possibly part-time vegetarians. Their closet contained nothing but black band t-shirts, which were notably organized alphabetically by band name, a quirk I remember more fondly than perhaps anything else from our time living together. But I do remember listening to a lot of their music, much of which was goth rock, much of which they had strong articulatable positions about: I’d obviously heard Depeche Mode before I moved in with them, but I’d maybe never really contemplated them particularly deeply before hearing that cousin’s long take on the band.
Notably, the cousin had, years before at some family party of my friend’s that I also attended, shown me early issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, years before I’d read the series in trade paperback. To this day, Sandman is still probably the most goth piece of pop culture I’ve ever loved—but I’ll admit I only think of it that way if someone else points it out, or if I encounter something that visually reminds me of Sandman in another obviously goth-labeled context.
One of the signs of having been too young when a movement came along is that you primarily encounter it secondhand. When you see the source material later, it’s easy to misunderstand the lineage: what matters more, the order ideas appeared in the world, or the order they appeared in your life?
I'm willing to bet that at least a few other writers in this tournament will reference Sandman, and protagonist Dream's obvious goth looks, which were supposedly based on those of Peter Murphy and Robert Smith and others. But for me, Peter Murphy and Robert Smith look like Dream, not the other way around. Because I met Dream first.
Porl King, the aforementioned singer of Rosetta Stone, was obviously working inside that same visual tradition. But it’s absolutely impossible for me to know, on my own, where on the goth timeline he fits, to see whose look he’s working off of in the early Rosetta Stone days, or how he might have been advancing or subverting goth tropes. All I can say is that for me, he’s post-Sandman, post-Bauhaus, post-Cure—and, auditorily, post-Depeche Mode, which is probably the band that “An Eye for the Main Chance” reminds me of most strongly, even though I feel they’re not the most “goth” band either. Whatever that means!
But again, this all probably just leads back to that same best-friend’s-cousin-turned-roommate: without him, I might not have any personal connection to this at all. I’m picturing him now, reading this as he was in 2002—we haven’t talked since, so I have no idea what he’s like now—dressed in his black t-shirts, his cut off pants, his black army boots, covered in tattoos, chainsmoking (but always on the porch, because his mother owned the house we rented and wouldn’t have approved of our smoking inside), speaking in the nearly timeless monologue/lecture-style of the intelligent but down-on-his-luck artistic dude.
I don’t remember the content of any of those conversations: I absolutely remember the style. It would probably be called mansplaining now, because he had a strong opinion about everything and would share at great length, but I remember being grateful for those talks: I didn’t know any of the stuff he told me about, and I was so eager to learn; and also, despite the pontificating style he sometimes employed, he also took me really seriously in my own pursuits, which then were my first attempts at writing fiction, my own explorations of spirituality, aesthetics, and what kind of life it was I actually wanted to lead.
You can put up with a lot from someone who takes you as seriously as you’re dying to be taken. Or at least I always have.
I suppose that all sounds a little melodramatic, and probably it is. But I think that’s the other thing I always liked about goth music: it is melodramatic, and to my ear often sentimental, and there were so few part of late-nineties teenage life that were similarly stanced. For better or worse, I’m very bad at irony—I remember reading somewhere when I was a young writer that it was the deft use of irony that made writers brilliant, and despairing that I was doomed—because I can often be overly earnest, perhaps sometimes too sincere—and I probably too often believe other people are as sincere as I am.
My favorite lyrics in “An Eye for the Main Chance” come in the second verse: “You know deep down things never change / They coincide, they rearrange.” I doubt Porl King was thinking about the same issues I am here when he wrote that song, but that seems like such an excellent evocation of what pop music is, what most subcultures of music are: only rarely whole invention, more often a new combination of influence and intellect and emotion, a new evocation of fashion and style and sexuality.
I was prepared to like “An Eye for the Main Chance” not only by what preceded its moment in time, but by what came after it: the coincidings, the rearrangings of all the overlapping bits of culture Rosetta Stone was influenced by that I can recognize, and by all that came later, in the years the band existed, in the years after it broke up and everyone else went their own way.
Before listening to the song, I’d never heard the title idiom before, perhaps because it’s seemingly more commonly used in the UK than in the US. But I get its sentiment: the phrase apparently describes a person who is always looking to better their own situation, no matter their cost. In the song, it sounds like an accusation—"Am I wrong? / Am I wrong? / Because you have an eye / an eye for the main chance” and “the atmosphere is hard to hide / The hatred that I feel for one so close / Who coldly lied to me”—but I can’t help thinking how the phrase is also a statement of recognizing ambition: How many bands have been formed in pursuit of such ambitions, such bettered situations? How many artists’ have sacrificed too much in an attempt at lasting fame?
I already said I don’t know what happened to my friend’s cousin, who with his girlfriend was my last roommate before I moved in with my soon-to-be wife. I can’t remember us ever speaking again after I moved out, although probably we did, since we lived in the same city for another five years, haunted the same coffee shops and so on. I know he had his own ambitions: he’d been in bands too, although I never saw him play any music in the time we lived together. He was one of the smartest people I’d known, a good person who had gotten a little sidetracked somewhere. We didn’t part on the best of terms, maybe—we were all too young, too poor, too lost to be living together well—but I’ve always hoped he got what he wanted, whatever he did next.
He was always a guy with a project. My guess is he still is, whatever it is he’s doing now. It could literally be anything, I think. He was that smart, and I think that talented. But talent isn’t everything, and neither are smarts. It’s hard out there. It’s easy to get lost.
Rosetta Stone officially broke up in 1998, and since then Porl King seems to have been making most of his music as a solo artist under the name miserylab.
Karl North has played in a few other bands too: A Ring of Thorns, The Dream Disciples.
What happened to Madame Razor is a complete mystery to me. I cannot tell you how much time I spent trying to figure it out. I hope to eventually hear the tale.
But like whatever happened to my old roommate, there’s only so much out there to find, at least if I’m not willing to pick up the phone or otherwise ask around.
Hopefully, Madame Razor’s at least still in King’s closet somewhere, whatever her actual makeup, whether she’s a Cazio RZ1 or some grander Frankenstein of a synth rack.
Hopefully, she came to a better end than all the computers I loved in those already long ago days when Rosetta Stone was recording, when I moved on time and time again from all my old electronic friends, devices that were more like portals than people, ways of accessing worlds I remember better than the machines I accessed them through, because the machines were almost always replaced by something I always thought would surely be something better.
Better yet, though, would be if Madame Razor and King still made some music together. Even just once in a while. And if that can’t happen, then I admit: I hope King got rid of her long ago, and that she’s been found by some other young musician, someone as young as he was when he formed Rosetta Stone, someone just as enthralled by her possibilities, some young goth with his own eye for the next main chance, someone who gives Madame Razor a new name and sets her to new purpose.
Whatever her name becomes, I hope the drum parts of those Rosetta Stone songs she played on are still there, at least a little while longer. That those beats are still saved in her databanks, as easy for her to recall as any lyric or guitar riff any mere human ever learned, ever shaped into their own best shot.
Matt Bell is the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, and a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur's Gate II. A native of Michigan, he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University.