first round game
(1) sisters of mercy, “lucretia my reflection”
(16) a certain ratio, “flight”
AND WILL PLAY 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 9.
i hear your empire down: ander monson on “lucretia my reflection”
I have a lot of things I want to tell you about the Sisters of Mercy—a band that I’ve been preparing to write about my whole life, it feels like—but the most important thing is that their entry in March Vladness, “Lucretia My Reflection” is a near-perfect song. It occurs right at the ideal point in the band’s trajectory—where Andrew Eldritch is most full of his own ideas and ambition and before he loses touch with whatever once fueled him and wanders off into the wilderness, where he still is (arguably) today. “Lucretia” is dramatic, grand but not grandiose (actually maybe it’s grandiose too, but I believe it earns its grandiosity). Full but not overstuffed, and fun as hell, “Lucretia” captivates. It rules. It makes a great argument for what Goth is/was capable of and what it still can mean, even decades later.
“Lucretia” sums up the perfect balance between what’s great about the Sisters of Mercy (and goth as a whole) and what some see as stupid about the Sisters of Mercy (and goth as a whole), which is the same thing: it’s the commitment (overcommitment?) to an idea, and a willingness to follow it as far as it’ll go. Never mind how good the idea is: good is for chumps, for things that never get made. Is it a good idea to name your band after a Leonard Cohen song? To call yourself not just Andrew William Harvey Taylor but Andrew Eldritch? To name-check your own band in an early single (“Adrenochrome”)? To beef with the best iteration of your band just after dropping your first—and most excellent always—album, then to get pissed and kick everyone else out of the band except your drum machine, which you name not just Doctor Avalanche but Doktor Avalanche? To then troll those former bandmates in an epic fashion by releasing an album as the Sisterhood that you recorded over the weekend in order to stop them from legally performing as the Sisterhood and claim a record company’s bounty, and begin it by taunting them about the money you stopped them from getting, followed by “JIHAD!!!”? To inexplicably record a solo piano number about the sadness of 1959? To title your third album Vision Thing after a George H W Bush talking point and in so doing yoke your star inexorably to his, and what’s more to take this whole goth thing you’ve basically mastered in a BIG ROCK direction and try to out-Axl Axl Rose to the point where your guitarist in the “More” video even looks like Slash? To collaborate with Jim Steinman (of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Meat Loaf fame) on what can only be termed hyper bombastic rock operas? To write a song called “Doctor Jeep”? To write another called “Detonation Boulevard”? To get in a for-the-ages pissing match with your record label (the same record label that you once so assiduously courted) that poisons your ability to ever release new music (which you claim you’ve written but will only release for millions of dollars, which you will certainly not receive after having outkicked the coverage and the shadow of your own fame)? To henceforth live like a lonely wizard in the empty forest of your own making?
No, these are probably not good ideas, but yet Eldritch had them, and did them, and pulled most of them off (I’m a particular fan of the Steinmanization of Eldritch, or the Eldritchization of Steinman, but that’s another essay). As a result, the Sisters of Mercy end up being responsible for some of the most gloriously over-the-top songs in the most gloriously over-the-top genre, and damn if their whole discography, best summed up in Lucretia, probably its peak, doesn’t make me feel filled with so much darkness that I can run through a wall or blow up a star with it, and that’s why “Lucretia” ought to win this tournament (assuming it gets past “Flight,” which also rules).
And if Eldritch won’t accept the black crown, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it to him anyway. We don’t give it to him for him; we give it to him for us, because of how this song makes us feel, because of the spell it casts, and what it does to us.
Maybe I just mean what “Lucretia” does to me: I’m not ashamed of it. It still ensorcels me, even 32 years later. It gives me confidence to use the word ensorcels in an essay, even.
Sadly I too wasn’t as goth then as I would like to claim now. Oh I more than flirted with it: I had my net.goth t-shirts; I discussed the particulars of goth furiously on the BBS forums; I had a lot of tapes; I listened to them constantly; I even had my dad monogram my black Land’s End bag TGR (for The Grim Reaper, my kool hacker handle), and if dad didn’t know what that meant, all the better; I lived too far away from anything remotely approaching a goth show to go to a goth show until the whole scene had gone and went (along with Eldritch’s acceptance of the moniker); and in the time before the internet and total availability I worked for it, my hard-won point of entry into darkness, and even if it was Vision Thing rather than the cooler Floodland and the even cooler First and Last and Always, not even to get into the hard early singles and EPs, I worked for it and I let it define me. I did some shit. I was some shit. I was a shit. I liked Eldritch a great deal: he was the shit and knew it.
What I want to know now is: what’s wrong with goth? I love my good goth feelings; I slip into them way too easily. So why do I have more anxiety about feeling them now? Why does it fill me with anxiety to betray my black heart to one of my students, let’s call him James, when he asks me what kind of music do I listen to really? I mean, you seem like a 69 Love Songs guy, he says, and that’s right on, but beyond that—before that—well, I say, goth, obviously, and he says, wait, what? I say, you know, Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie, Alien Sex Fiend, Christian Death. He’s never heard of any of these bands; his mouth makes a little O. I say what do you think that means? He thinks it means Hot Topic and I guess, whatever, maybe Linkin Park? Evanescence? He can’t picture me with eyeliner. And if I do harbor some love for Evanescence, even against my better judgment, I can still feel it rising in me, my purist fury, not that Sisters of Mercy were every particularly pure (see also Jim fucking Steinman). James, I want to say: I have a whole world to show you. Open up your Midwest heart. This essay is for you.
I discovered the Sisters in reverse order, beginning with Vision Thing (1990), then going back to Floodland (1987), and then to First and Last and Always (1985), with a brief detour into the Sisterhood’s hilarious and surprisingly good troll-gift Gift (also in this tournament). And listening to them this way they get more instrumentally interesting as, aside from Doktor Avalanche and Eldritch, we see Andreas Bruhn and Adam Pearson join and leave the band, and Patricia Morrison joins and leaves, and then Wayne Hussey and Ben Gunn and Craig Adams are there for a while, and then eventually even Doktor Avalanche leaves the band, and it’s just Eldritch and Gary Marx (also instrumental in Ghost Dance’s entry in this tournament), reportedly writing and recording songs because they wanted to hear themselves on the radio. (This is a pure origin story, and one that should speak to all of us.)
That the only continuity in the band is Eldritch aside from the programmable and non-royalty-check collecting Doktor Avalanche tells you almost all you need to know about what makes the Sisters of Mercy great: that they named the fucking drum machine, and that Eldritch then kicked everyone else out of the band its Avalanche’s programmable ass is a testament to the power of Eldritch’s own self-belief (also to his sense of humor, which one imagines must be extremely wicked, dry, and deep).
But then Goth is about self-belief. You have to have some self-witchery in you to reveal yourself as so obviously other, to deviate from the norm as Goths do. That is, if you revealed yourself at all (plenty of us did so only in secret) aside from literary tournaments.
What redeems this self-belief is that Eldritch actually is a genius. Or maybe “was”: because he hasn’t released anything new in decades aside from occasional songs in live shows and website screeds and forum screeds and bitchy interviews and threats to drop a new album if Americans did something so stupid as to elect Trump president (to which I and many others respond: yo, we did our part; ACIDIC ALBUM PLEASE). Because of all of this it’s hard to really take the measure of where he’s at. But one thing’s clear to me: Dude had ideas. He had the ego to know he could pull them off, and the drive to do it. He knew what the sound would be like, and what the look would be like, and it was all driven by a desire to say something fucked about the fucked world he saw and felt. He was probably a total asshole to work with, much less to date, but as listeners we don’t have to do either.
Unlike a lot of goth lyrics that rely on familiar tropes, Eldritch is making arguments. He’s into Subject Matter, too: American politics, the cold war, “the prostitution of Europe by the Americans,” Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” and the Great Depression, and Lucretia Borgia, and Russia Russia Russia, among other things (and these subjects seem to have aged right back into relevance, have they not?). He’s also obviously having a hell of a time dungeonmastering this adventure for himself and for us.
In fact I got so obsessed at one point with the SoM that as Dungeon Master for my group of friends I insisted on soundtracking whole adventures —
—with Floodland on repeat, particularly the moodier numbers like “Neverland” (particularly the superior full version), “Driven Like the Snow,” “Flood I,” “Flood II,” and “Torch.”
I have no clue know how this came off to my friends but they were my friends so they let me get away with it (and thanks for that, y’all, a couple decades on, and to reward you, YOU ENCOUNTER:
Well, I know what listening to the Sisters of Mercy has felt like for me, and what’s it done and meant to me, but listening to “Lucretia My Reflection” (and their discography in general, particularly Floodland) thirty-two years later, I can’t stop wondering:
Can listening to goth (which is a kind of being goth)—or can listening to a song like “Lucretia My Reflection”—bring down or halt the progress of an empire?
I have my doubts, but but but but but but but but yet, when I turn the song on now something happens to me. It’s not the same thing that happened to me then, but it’s related.
Goth songs are songs of dissent, of disconnection, of spectral self-involvement, of opting out from one culture and into another. Goth dance songs like “Lucretia” do something else: If they don’t quite get us to collective action, they can get us to collectivity, if only on the dance floor.
That is what Goth is: a summoning, an opting out, a turning inward, and a performing outward, out there with other bodies, moving. That summoning / that turning doesn’t have to be public, though it’s dramatic when it is (the eyeliner and the white face paint sure signifies something—something terrifying, a reminder of our own mortality and the long game of time, which as the Silver Jews remind us, only children play well). It can be a private opting out too that we do when we listen to a song, when we let ourselves get caught up in a song. In doing so we choose to live in another’s world, let it articulate emotions that we otherwise can’t or won’t or haven’t thought of yet until we hear it, and we let it hold us as long as it will.
This kind of submission remains rare.
Thank god we have access to it—and at the click of a button or a needle on a record!
Our lives flatten us, push down a little bit every day on who we used to be. We build ourselves by repetition, by performing and re-performing one of the many roles we play. But when I get caught unawares and hear a song like “Lucretia,” something old and yawning, something outside of rationality opens in me.
Lucretia and these other songs are songs of opting out of big chunks of mainstream culture, or at least feeling like we are. At the extreme end of things, a good (goth) song casts a spell so powerful that it can take a person over. It can possess you, even if it just summons you (who never dances) for the first time to the floor (even if it’s just your own) and gives you that moment of abandon, free among others, present or imagined.
We fear and covet and revere these spells and those who cast them because they are powerful. It is easy to make fun of those we do not understand, and even easier to mock those we do. These spellcasters push beyond the rational, the sensible, the predictable. We persecute them when we can.
So when Eldritch sings that he hears your empire down, I imagine he means to tell you that he witnesses your empire crashing down. He’s singing to you from the ruins, but in listening and singing back, we’re singing to us from the ruins (as many in this tournament have noted, the notes on general ruination that goth offers continue to age well as we descend further into environmental and political and human rights nightmares, and as the circumstances of “Lucretia My Reflection” do not seem to have changed all that much, except for the worse).
But I like to think, and every time I listen to this song I become more convinced, if just for the 4 minutes and 20 seconds on the 7” version or the 9 minutes and 51 seconds on the 12” / CD version, that it casts a spell so powerful as to suspend time. It hears your empire down.
While we’re in the bubble of it “Lucretia My Reflection” actually halts the progress of empire—on me at least it does, or maybe I just think it does (there is no way to know for sure). I mean that hearing the song itself is a bewitching, and that hearing takes me somewhere outside of empire, and not just that but that hearing is contra to empire.
What empire wants is for you—for me—to produce and to reproduce, and to not pay too much attention to the roar of the big machines.
To open up a hole in empire’s desires, to point to the machinery, to reveal the spell you are—we all are—under, well, you need a powerful spell to break that other spell. “Lucretia” isn’t the only one, but it’s a big one, and it’s good enough for me. It embiggens me when I listen to it, when it operates on me as it does. That’s because it pairs pretty complex (at least by rock song standards) lyrics with an all-time-great bass line, a heck of a rhythmic strut, Eldritch’s roar of a voice, and even Doktor Avalanche does its part (overly so on the later remastered versions that overemphasize the drums) to get us on the floor. And once we’re on the floor (and maybe we haven’t ever even been on the floor before) we find ourselves dancing there to the fall of empire, and I think that weakens empire, or the empire we’ve consumed by a nonzero amount.
And if Eldritch looks the part, and the witchy Patricia Morrison, ostensibly the bassist, does even moreso, all the better. Half the experience the Sisters offer is visual anyway, and the video sure delivers. I love the brief intercuts of the machinery that visually track Avalanche’s digital snare. I love the empty buildings and then Eldritch gesticulating in a sweatshop and swinging what looks like a long thin pipe or maybe an extendable majorette’s baton like the savior he means to be. He doesn’t interact with the workers of the factory: they’re here to illustrate (which maybe isn’t great by 2019 standards but you can’t have everything all of the time). It’s all mood, and I’m its mode. Either it’s awesome or it sucks, and I’m all in for awesome.
Could Eldritch be doing more to dismantle the machinery of empire—maybe that same machinery that prints his tour merch cheaply? Sure. And could this song push a little harder against cultural norms (a la Christian Death or even “Exterminating Angel”)? Definitely. But it knows its limitations too: “We got the empire, now as then / we don’t doubt, we don’t take reflection” (itself, I want to note, a reflection: oh Eldritch, you tricky mistress). We can acknowledge the contradictions we’re dancing to and still enjoy the dance and all the electricity we generate doing it and be changed a tiny bit.
“Lucretia” also freaking slaps. The bigness of the song and its lack of anxiety about its bigness makes it easier for more of us to get carried away by it, if we’re willing, and whether we wore black then and painted our faces or if we just listened to it in secret, or shared it with a select few, that’s fine too. You’re welcome here, Eldritch says, gesticulating.
And listening to it now in 2019, I want to do all these things. So take the invitation when it’s offered. Sing it with me now: Lucretia, my direction, dance the ghost with me.
Ander Monson is a member of the Official March Vladness Selection Committee. He would like to note that he waited incredulously as at least 20 Vladness contributors chose to snap up songs other than “Lucretia My Reflection” before his draft # came up and he would have been a fool to have passed it up and in fact he could not do it when he cares about it so.
Ignore the Gloom: Martin Seay on “Flight”
1 / Winter of Discontent
For a couple of weeks in early 1979, it looked as though Manchester might be in danger of getting overrun by the dead.
In the midst of the harshest winter Britain had seen in years—ground frozen solid under a foot of snow—gravediggers in the Greater Manchester borough of Tameside had gone on strike, as had others elsewhere in the UK. In an attempt to curb runaway inflation, Prime Minister James Callaghan’s Labour-led government had set limits on wage increases for public employees, and the gravediggers, frustrated at working under harsh conditions for what amounted to a cut in pay, decided that they had had enough.
Among the many strikes called during what came to be known as the Winter of Discontent—rail workers, waste collectors, ambulance drivers—the gravediggers’ actions were hardly the most impactful on Britons’ everyday lives, but they lent themselves to sensationalism, as my opening line demonstrates. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives were quick to exploit the alarming if mostly fictitious image of unburied bodies stacking up in warehouses in order to make the case that “Labour Isn’t Working.”
In late March, Thatcher called a no-confidence vote, which Callaghan’s government narrowly lost. In early May, her party won the resulting general election, inaugurating eighteen unbroken years of Tory rule and permanently disrupting both the balance of power and the consensus on economic policy that British trade unions, industry, and the state had maintained since the end of the Second World War.
Then, four months later, at Graveyard Studios in Prestwich, a Mancunian band called A Certain Ratio recorded a song called “Flight.”
2 / Anything Can Be Gothed
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat (as it were): A Certain Ratio is not a goth band. It didn’t start as a goth band, it’s not a goth band now, and it hasn’t been a goth band at any point during its forty-two-year history. Sartorially speaking, its members have generally favored nothing more theatrical than cropped hair and Oxfam-crate duds; their only real attempt to cultivate a “look” involved khaki shorts that earned them comparisons to Boy Scouts or to Afrika Korps troops depending on the concerns of the heckler. The group recruited its most technically proficient member via an ad seeking, and I quote, “the funkiest drummer in Manchester.” A Certain Ratio is not a goth band.
But here’s a funny thing: any attempt to talk about what does or doesn’t qualify as goth is apt to stumble over goth’s inbuilt tendency to transgress categories. Goth opposes purity, and therefore doesn’t manifest in pure forms. Its interactions with other music never occur on an equal basis; they don’t produce the sorts of hyphenated Apollo–Soyuz dockings that spangle the generic firmament of pop: folk-rock, ska-punk, rap-metal, and so forth. In concept, goth can be a noun; in practice, it always insists on its adjectival status. While one might identify oneself as “a goth,” and one might play in “a goth band,” one would probably never say that one’s band “plays goth.”
Although it’s easy enough to identify when we encounter it, goth is not a standalone genre, or even a cohesive style. No consistent set of formal characteristics tells us that we’re listening to it—not in the way that flatted intervals announce the blues, or clave patterns signal salsa, or a four-on-the-floor beat says it’s time to disco. Goth is more like an attitude, or a set of concerns, or even an approach to applying and expressing those concerns. As such, it’s free to sprawl across musical genres, overlaying them like a filter, infecting them like a virus, warping them in whatever manner suits its purposes.
Anything can be gothed: folk, country, classical, ambient, house, surf. Just about every music that supplies a particular subculture with its fight songs functions by drawing lines in the sand; goth doesn’t. It seeks out and embraces apparent contradictions, complicates dichotomies by expanding the field, stakes out third positions off the continuum: not A, not B, and not any point between, either.
Of the many thwarted binaries that goth evokes, the big one, obviously, is its rejection of both life and death. This is the seductive menace posed by the undead: not annihilation but change, the incursion of unlife. It can happen to anything, even what’s most familiar and comforting. It can happen to you.
3 / I Am an Antichrist
The origins of A Certain Ratio—like those of a startlingly large proportion of the rest of postwar British popular culture—are entangled with the June 4, 1976 Sex Pistols concert at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.
No evidence suggests that the concert’s organizers deliberately set out to engineer a perfect punk inversion of Woodstock, but if they had, it’s hard to imagine how they could have done a better job. The event resembled the gathering at Yasgur’s Farm in much the same way that the Black Mass resembles the Catholic one: instead of a celebration of peace and love for an audience of half a million, it was a confrontational barrage of aggression and spite that almost nobody showed up for.
Attendance estimates range between twenty and a hundred, with the canonical number being around forty. In the relatively sparse crowd were the founders of bands that included Buzzcocks, Magazine, the Fall, Joy Division, New Order, the Smiths, Ludus, Crispy Ambulance, the Frantic Elevators, Simply Red, and, of course, A Certain Ratio.
As any catalogue that contains both the Fall and Simply Red cannot help but show, different audience members took different lessons away from that June 4 concert. But from their accounts a couple of common themes emerge.
First, the Sex Pistols were scary as hell. They played with no apparent regard for the crowd’s entertainment, or for its safety. The presumed theatrical fourth wall was gone—had never been there, in fact—and the audience was downrange, no longer spectators. Johnny Rotten seemed like he might be capable of anything. He commanded attention the way a mountain lion loose in a daycare commands attention.
Second, the Sex Pistols constituted a challenge. They did not, as is often alleged, demonstrate through sheer ineptitude that anyone could play in a band—they were good—but they did show that the major qualification for doing so was confidence, not chops. The concertgoers walked out, ears ringing, into the warm Mancunian night asking themselves not Could I ever do that? but rather Why am I not doing that? Peter Hook—a founding member of Joy Division, and later of New Order—describes entering a shop on Manchester Piccadilly the next day and buying a bass guitar with no clear understanding of why he wanted it, except that it seemed like the logical next step.
The key point here is that a significant portion—the significant portion—of the audience at that gig was frightened, and almost immediately sought to emulate what had frightened them, the better to identify with it.
That’s goth summed up in a sentence, pretty much.
4 / New Dawn Fades
Two other people who attended the Lesser Free Trade Hall show play major roles in our tale, though they didn’t form bands, per se.
The first person was a local television presenter named Anthony H. Wilson, who was impressed enough by the Pistols and the possibilities they suggested to co-found a record label, Factory, and later a nightclub, the Haçienda, to support the burst of creative activity that followed; both became vital resources and catalysts for the postpunk innovations of the next few years, as well as the ecstasy-amplified “Madchester” scene that arose a decade later. Energetic, visionary, and notoriously full of shit, Tony Wilson became something of a folk hero, eventually featuring as the subject of the popular 2002 bio-pic 24 Hour Party People. He took a particular interest in the pursuits of A Certain Ratio, serving as the band’s manager and most forceful early advocate.
The second person was a record producer named Martin Hannett.
Hannett’s tempestuous involvement with A Certain Ratio is somewhere between the main reason and the only reason that it makes any sense to talk about “Flight” in the context of goth. He was one of Wilson’s partners at Factory, and he handled production duties on the majority of the label’s early releases, imparting their enormously influential signature sound. With tasting notes such as gloomy, stark, icy, tense, and alienating, these recordings stand in approximately the same relation to goth music as The Lord of the Rings does to the fantasy section of your local bookstore.
Hindsight makes it easy to recognize Hannett as a genius, but it’s worth noting that his approach was out of step with contemporary trends, particularly those that many of the early Factory bands and their peers sought to emulate. Punk records usually tried to convey the feeling of hearing a band in a club: loud and crowded in the treble range, they burst from speakers like their contents are under pressure. Hannett and Wilson were both a decade older than the punk kids, and their avant-garde points of reference were different: May ’68, The Society of the Spectacle, psychedelic rock, musique concrète. They thought—with justification—that using studio techniques to suggest the presence of a band and the authenticity of a performance was intrinsically conservative, and to some degree fraudulent. Hannett in particular understood the studio as a technology that produced recordings, as opposed to a place where bands were recorded, and he used it as such, to the extent that he seemed to regard musicians as little more than sound sources.
His was by all accounts a difficult personality: gnomic, mercurial, often overtly hostile or downright bizarre. His working methods involved odd hours and massive quantities of not-especially-compatible narcotics. Whenever possible he seemed to avoid the people he was recording, or to deliberately run them off, in order to free himself to experiment on their material without interference. Many of the musicians who worked with Hannett hated him at first. The rest seemed to hate him on a more sustained basis.
With the telling exception of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis—whose sensibilities turned out to be closely aligned with the producer’s aesthetics—almost everyone whom Hannett recorded in the early days of Factory was not thrilled by the results. They came out sounding nothing like themselves.
Some of those bands—Section 25, Crispy Ambulance, the Names, A Certain Ratio—took drubbings from critics as Joy Division sound-alikes, particularly after Curtis’s suicide enshrined him as a kind of negative saint, and one wonders about the extent to which this was simply because they had all been produced by Hannett. After all, left to their own devices, apparently even Joy Division didn’t sound like Joy Division.
5 / Ignore the Gloom
If Hannett’s collaborations with Ian Curtis are remarkable as the products of a shared vision, then his work with A Certain Ratio—particularly on “Flight”—is fascinating because it succeeds despite the fundamental incompatibility of their aims.
This is best heard not on the first version of “Flight” to be released—the one recorded in the fall of 1979, which appears on The Graveyard and the Ballroom, a peculiar cassette-only collection of demos and concert performances—but rather on the twelve-inch single version that Factory released in October of 1980. Hannett produced both, but even at two and a half minutes longer the latter comes off as the more focused affair, each moment the result of delicate negotiations between the band and the zonked weirdo at the mixing console.
The first time A Certain Ratio faced off against Hannett they were still learning the rock-band ropes. In a manner somewhat akin to Kurosawa’s seven samurai, the band had come together gradually, originating as a duo of vocalist Simon Topping and guitarist Peter Terrell, then adding bassist Jeremy “Jez” Kerr, followed by guitar and trumpet player Martin Moscrop. The first ACR track that Hannett produced—the misleadingly-titled “All Night Party,” a seven-inch that was Factory’s first-ever single-artist release—has no drums on it at all; Donald Johnson, the aforementioned funkiest drummer in Manchester, joined up shortly thereafter. If the band sounded at all tentative during the Graveyard sessions, things had clicked into place by the time they reunited with Hannett to record the longer version of “Flight.”
Hannett was hell on drummers. Tony Wilson famously described his approach to production as using studio treatments to create “an imaginary room” in which the musicians would seem to be playing; this description understates the case somewhat. On a typical Hannett-produced track, instruments sound as if they’re being played in several different rooms, each with distinctive acoustic properties; sometimes these rooms seem to change size and shape. Hannett extended this practice even, indeed especially, to individual drums, creating rhythm tracks the way Victor Frankenstein made his monster: by stitching together parts. Each drum would be recorded on a separate audio channel in order to be subjected to a different set of filters and delays, which facilitated extremely cool panning effects like the one we hear about eight seconds into “Flight” as Johnson rolls from his snare to his toms. The sharp and careful spatialization strongly suggests that this fill was composited from several performances during which Johnson was required to play only one drum at a time; it’s a testament to his skill that they still maintain a viscous continuity, and sound like they’re being played by a living person.
While Johnson’s maneuvers through Hannett’s obstacle course may be the most notable of the band’s studio feats, “Flight” gives the sense that his fellow musicians felt similarly restricted. Topping’s lyrics seem to testify to this, as if narrating the band’s struggle against the production:
A rose blooms
You move your legs
Ignore the gloom
Defy your head
Open both eyes
Draw in air
Survey the space
There’s no space here
As the song switches from second person to first person plural it starts to sound like an open letter, respectfully laying out terms. The need for flight (a word that evokes both a desire to be aloft and a desire for escape) to feel the light (and/or delight) might refer most immediately to the band’s frustrated attempts to just play, to create and sustain a groove without impediments.
More generally, it bespeaks a longing to be fully present, temporarily free of the intellectual burden of selfhood. “Flight” is, among other things, an especially morose entry in the tradition of dance music about dancing, a lineage that stretches from “Stompin’ at the Savoy” to “The Twist” to “Footloose” to “Twerk.” Hannett and ACR share an interest in using rhythm to achieve ecstasy, in the etymologically specific sense of getting outside of oneself. For the band, this means defying one’s head in an experience of carefree embodiment; for Hannett, it’s the reverse: the depiction of an alert and anxious consciousness estranged from its traitorous flesh. If Hannett’s production has a representative dance, it’s the uncanny convulsions of Ian Curtis fronting Joy Division, gestures that comment on the limits of self-control by alluding to the singer’s epilepsy.
“Ignore the gloom,” Topping entreats us, and his very mention of it conspires with Hannett’s production to make the gloom impossible to ignore. (While you’re at it, don’t think of an elephant.) This is the tension that imparts “Flight” with its static-electric buzz: even as it evokes the notion of soaring free over a darkened landscape, it sounds like somebody twitching in a cubicle.
6 / Faster but Slower
Among the treasury of confounding directives that Hannett issued to musicians during his relatively brief career, arguably the most infamous was a request to play a particular part “faster, but slower.”
Presumably for the sake of narrative efficiency, 24 Hour Party People has Hannett deliver this line to Joy Division; according to the historical record, its perplexed recipient was in fact Martin Moscrop of A Certain Ratio. (Moscrop was the music supervisor for the film, and thus implicitly blessed the shortcut.)
I’m not going to argue that Hannett’s contradictory command is clearer than it seems—it’s not—but it does resonate in interesting ways with some roughly contemporaneous goings-on in the realm of modern composition. Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams and other minimalists had been writing music made up of short melodic phrases that reiterate against a steady pulse with infrequent chord changes, or what music theorists sometimes call “slow harmonic rhythm.” If we’re being charitable, we could take “faster, but slower” as a very compressed description of such compositions: bubbling busily on the surface, with big tectonic shifts emerging occasionally from the depths. Whether that’s what Hannett was getting at or not, it’s a description that fits a lot of his productions pretty well, particularly his work with ACR: take, for example, the way the band’s tangle of riffs hangs in the air before shaking out and evaporating in the caught-breath moment just before Kerr’s massive bassline brings in the second verse.
It’s not a stretch to think that ACR and Hannett would have been aware of minimalist techniques—they were points of reference for psychedelia, as well as for the Velvet Underground and Kraftwerk, both avowed ACR influences—but it’s also likely that minimalist composers and postpunk musicians just happened to arrive at similar solutions to the same perceived problem, specifically the suspicion that a longstanding emphasis on melodic richness and harmonic complexity at the expense of timbre and rhythm had led to dead ends in both the rock club and the concert hall.
We should note, as ACR certainly did, that sophisticated rhythmic interplay really only qualifies as cutting-edge in Western art- and folk-music traditions; throughout the rest of the world it’s pretty standard stuff. The minimalists borrowed techniques from all over, with Carnatic and Javanese music being particular favorites. Perhaps in keeping with rock’s roots in R&B, punk-era bands tended to look toward the music of the African diaspora: reggae, funk, and early rock ’n’ roll.
I have now gone as far as I can, and perhaps farther than I should have, without mentioning race. A Certain Ratio is one of the very few biracial postpunk bands: Johnson is black, and Topping, Terrell, Kerr, and Moscrop are white.
7 / The Funkiest Drummer in Manchester
Furthermore, the band’s recordings and biographical particulars strongly suggest that, at least in the beginning, the five musicians’ roles sorted along racialized lines.
When Topping and Terrell started A Certain Ratio, their most immediate benchmarks were other English musicians like Brian Eno, Wire, Throbbing Gristle, and the Pop Group; their band name is lifted from Eno’s song “The True Wheel.” Of these influences, it was ultimately the Pop Group—under-heralded to this day—that suggested their path forward, in that it employed elements of funk and reggae without quite being imitative of them.
This was a path that ACR could not traverse without a drummer. They might have chosen to recruit someone from the Manchester punk scene whose tastes and points of reference were similar to their own, under the expectation that this person would then figure out how to play the kind of music that they wanted to make, much as they themselves were figuring this out. But that’s not what they did. Instead, they made the fateful decision to bring in an experienced funk drummer, and to reshape their sound around him. “‘What the fuck is this?’” Kerr recalls Johnson wondering upon hearing ACR’s sinister, lugubrious material at their first rehearsal as a five-piece. “But when he played over it, it sounded great.”
Like rock ’n’ roll twenty years before it, punk valued immediacy and authenticity, and found both sorely lacking in the AOR, glam, and progressive rock that then dominated the cultural landscape. Just as rock ’n’ roll had, punk tended to locate this immediacy and authenticity—I’m gonna drop a big “problematically” here—in black music. For British punks this usually meant reggae, which in addition to being stylistically exciting and easily encountered (civil unrest in Jamaica had prompted many artists to emigrate to the UK) was politically engaged, robustly anti-institutional, and uncompromisingly self-contained, all characteristics that punk wanted for itself.
But while many white punks became enthusiastic fans of reggae, and some went on to freely appropriate its sonic signatures for their own use, most seemed to understand that their cultural and historical circumstances were not meaningfully comparable to those of West Indian immigrants, and that the most profound and compelling aspects of this music were therefore not available to them. As Dick Hebdige writes in his oft-cited 1978 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, punks experience:
a condition of unmitigated exile, voluntarily assumed. But whereas exile had a specific meaning, implied a specific (albeit magical) solution in the context of Rastafarianism and Negro history, when applied metaphorically to British white youth it could only delineate a hopeless condition. It could neither promise a future nor explain a past.
While white working-class punks were alienated and disenfranchised—increasingly so, as the new Conservative government chipped at the UK’s social safety net—many also understood themselves to be beneficiaries of, and implicated in, the evil deeds of an atrophied empire. As Hebdige writes, “the punks turned towards the world a dead white face”—an accusatory, confrontational blankness reminding spectators that they were “bound to a Britain which had no foreseeable future.”
This is probably the point at which punk begins to open—or descend—toward goth, in a refinement of and a doubling down on that dead white face. The death being evoked is less personal (and still less biological) than cultural: the sense that the industrialized West is in a terminal spiral, stuck in a runout groove and/or approaching a hard landing.
Although its roots lie unquestionably in punk, goth diverges from it in significant ways. Where punk rejects the past with contempt, goth dwells on the darker chapters of its cultural heritage with morbid fascination; where punk makes a fetish of the authentic, goth embraces performance and artifice. This theatricality is mostly its own reward, but it also constitutes a swerve around the persistent association of authenticity with blackness—an association that, as Paul Gilroy and any number of Afrofuturist theorists have pointed out, always serves to stifle what it purports to celebrate, in that it implicitly discredits African diasporic arts that are syncretic, or heterodox, or high-tech, or simply new.
Goth is rarely explicit on the topic of race, but its fondness for overloaded, ambiguous gestures enables it to keep this and other difficult subjects in play, haunting the shadows, visible without being fully present. The white foundation makeup that many goths wear, for instance, evokes lifelessness and bloodlessness, but there’s also a tricky sense in which it reads as whiteface, analogous to the blackface that many African-American minstrel performers wore before both white and black audiences as a way of positioning their acts in an explicitly racial context. “In thus employing various techniques to lighten complexions that a mainstream culture already regards as white,” Lauren M. E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby write in the introduction to their 2007 anthology Goth: Undead Subculture,
white goths seem to reject the transparent status of whiteness—making skin tone a site of theatrics rather than nature. The subculture thus encourages those who might otherwise take their whiteness for granted to experience this key aspect of race as mutable and constructed.
And of course this reading of the whiteness of goth augments the more obvious interpretations without displacing them, suggesting without ever quite declaring an association between ethnic and/or cultural whiteness and (un)death.
It is, of course, super-important to note that because white artists have historically had access to rhetorical escape routes and benefits of the doubt that black performers haven’t, the whiteface/blackface analogy can only be pushed so far. It’s also worth considering in a similar context the often blithe or provocative references to Nazism and the Holocaust made during punk’s early days by the Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Siouxie and the Banshees, and others; these tend to be interpreted, perhaps too generously, as an indictment rather than an endorsement, a reminder that European culture had permanently lost all its claims on moral authority.
The downside of richly ambiguous gestures is that they tend to be mis- or under-interpreted, accidentally or maliciously. Goth music that subtly offers whiteness as its subject in order to make it available for critique is always in danger of being hijacked by enthusiasts who gloss over the critique part, taking it simply as music made for white people by white people. This tension simmers below the surface of goth for much of its history. The Batcave—the London nightclub where goth qua goth became established as a subculture between 1982 and 1985—had a strict “no funk / no disco” policy, and posted signage to that effect; while this was almost certainly an aesthetic consideration prompted by the desire to keep music with an unconflicted attitude toward embodiment off the premises, it had racial implications too, however unintended. A paucity of explicit discussion on the topic enabled assertions like journalist Simon Price’s, in a 1993 Melody Maker piece on Sisters of Mercy, that goth “was the first form of rock which couldn’t be traced back to rhythm and blues”—a statement that can only be true if R&B has no connection to reggae, the direct source of the heavily-reverbed and bass-melody-driven sonics exhibited by a ton of goth songs.
Goth approached black music by borrowing from it carefully and selectively, and otherwise keeping a respectful distance; meanwhile, other white postpunk artists evinced little hesitation in opportunistically adopting it as their own. A Certain Ratio did neither. Their attitude was collaborative, not appropriative: rather than imitating these styles, or borrowing them as superficial ornaments for their own material, they incorporated them with humility and changed their practices to accommodate them.
As a result, ACR gradually ceased to be a baleful Joy-Division-esque postpunk project with an unusually good drummer and became something else—something that increasingly came to resemble a straight-up jazz-funk dance band.
8 / Imaginary Rooms
Even as early as “Flight,” A Certain Ratio’s references to African diasporic music are broad and sophisticated, citing funk with Johnson’s drumming and Moscrop’s chicken-scratch guitar, reggae with Kerr’s foregrounded bassline, electric Miles Davis in the dynamics of their ensemble playing, and even samba. (Check out the whistle buried in the mix starting at about 4:10.) Moscrop has talked about how envious the band was of the Pop Group for having the opportunity to work with famed reggae producer Dennis Bovell while they were stuck with Martin Hannett.
Hannett, of course, was borrowing from African diasporic music too, though his appropriation was more targeted: the vast majority of his signature studio treatments are sourced from dub.
In the 1960s and ’70s a small group of Jamaican producers, King Tubby foremost among them, recognized the degree to which the mixing board of a recording studio itself constitutes a musical instrument, able to disassemble and alter musicians’ performances so thoroughly as to yield entirely new results. A dub producer typically has a huge arsenal of effects that might be applied to a particular drum or guitar or vocal part—phasers, flangers, equalizers—but dub’s signature sound usually involves some type of echo, delivered by a spring reverb unit, or a bucket-brigade delay, or some digital successor technology.
Echoes vastly multiply the information that our ears receive from any given piece of music, in straightforward and not-so-straightforward ways. They’re what produces the “imaginary rooms” that Tony Wilson heard in Hannett’s productions; they also have their own rhythms and tempos, which emerge as the original sound travels, bounces, and returns, establishing a pulse that cuts against whatever the musicians are actually playing even as it decays and is superseded by other echoes. On “Flight,” for instance, the rhythmic lattice of the song—already complicated by the drum pattern, the busy guitar, and syncopated accents from electric piano and bass—becomes exponentially crazier when Hannett’s effects kick in.
It’s Hannett’s dub techniques that make “Flight” relevant to a discussion about goth, because dub techniques have been employed to a greater or lesser degree in just about every piece of music to which the goth label has been affixed, even when that music contains nary a discernable note of reggae. The reason for this, one imagines, is that dub techniques are scary. It’s worthwhile to consider what makes this the case.
Echoes happen in reverberant spaces, and reverberant spaces must be large enough to allow an audible gap between the sound and its return. They also have to be delimited by surfaces that reflect sound: smooth and hard, not softened by plush rugs and comfy couches. Such large, empty spaces—think high school gymnasiums—can be fairly mundane when we’re standing in them. Provided we know where we are, that is.
It’s a far more unsettling experience when the lights are out. In such cases, the brain tends to conjure images of caverns, catacombs, ancient sewers, bottomless pits—big, dark, cold spaces in which anything might be lurking. And in a recording, the lights are always out.
But echo is not the most frightening effect that we find in “Flight,” or in dub generally. As “Flight” progresses, we hear two guitars: Moscrop’s funky skronk in the left channel, Terrell’s more abstract washes of sound in the right. At a couple of points—about twenty seconds in, then more prominently from about 4:10 on—Terrell’s instrument ceases to be identifiable as a guitar, or as any kind of musical sound at all. With this intrusion the song seems to split into pieces, drift apart, lose its mind.
Dub can add, as it does with reverb; more unsettlingly, it can also subtract. In “Flight,” Hannett and Terrell are doing both to the guitar: building new sounds from it, then erasing the source of those sounds. The experience of being haunted is precisely the experience of encountering something that’s simultaneously present and absent, of finding weird traces where the familiar once was; in that sense, every recording is a haunting. Dub makes this intrinsic ghostliness apparent, exposing uncanny processes normally kept hidden, opening fissures in surfaces that listeners had taken to be continuous and natural.
What’s most thrilling and upsetting about the sound that Hannett and Terrell have wrung from the guitar is its status as noise, its refusal to disclose its source. To identify it as a guitar requires extrapolation; the sound has been so worked over—rendered as pure signal, then as impure signal—that its origin is beside the point. Our brains literally do not know what to do with it.
“The subliminal message of most music,” Simon Reynolds has written, “is that the universe is essentially benign, that if there is sadness or tragedy, this is resolved at the level of some higher harmony. Noise troubles this worldview.” The noise that erupts through the surface of “Flight”—formless and malevolent, like bubbles from the viscera of an unseen beast—calls the rest of the song into question, making us wonder how much we can trust anything we’ve heard, or trust ourselves as listeners.
Being haunted is scary, but it’s scarier by far when the haunting resides inside us, conspiring to render us porous, susceptible to the influence of dark forces. “Noise/horror undoes the self by confronting it with the other that dwells within it,” Reynolds writes, “the monstrous potential latent in us all, waiting to be catalyzed by an extreme predicament.” Noise reminds us of the possibility that we’ll embark on projects with enthusiasm and good intentions only to end with a result that horrifies us, a result in which we will be able to detect no traces of ourselves, leading inevitably to the suspicion that we are not ourselves, and have never been.
An experience, as it happens, not entirely dissimilar to that of many Factory bands upon hearing Hannett’s completed versions of their recordings.
Just as Hannett and A Certain Ratio seem to share a fascination with ecstasy but to differ profoundly on its implications, both seem to be in agreement about the presence in the world of oppressive, alienating, invisible forces that shape our behaviors and lead us to betray ourselves. The band clearly declares its intention to escape these forces, while Hannett seems bent on conjuring them, on morbidly luxuriating in their presence. When ACR’s and Hannett’s paths diverge, it’s Hannett’s that leads toward goth.
9 / Zero the Desk
Following the successful session for “Flight,” Tony Wilson decided to send A Certain Ratio to New York to play gigs; he also booked them time with Hannett at EARS Studio in East Orange, New Jersey to record their first proper album.
The recording did not go well, but the gigs did. Even better, being in New York gave the five musicians direct exposure to a multicultural megacity milieu that until then they had known only from records and films and magazines. They caught performances by Afrika Bambaataa, the Rock Steady Crew, James Brown, and Chick Corea. They played shows with ESG, sisters from the South Bronx who—along with their downtown peers Liquid Liquid—were a much closer fit with A Certain Ratio’s burgeoning aesthetic than any of the Manchester postpunk crowd. They heard fantastic salsa and samba combos that encouraged the originally drummerless band to spend a small fortune on Latin percussion instruments of which they’d never suspected the existence. Shortly before returning to Manchester they played a show at the Danceteria for a bunch of industry types and agreed to allow a young singer whom they’d never met to open for them, though they were suspicious of the fact that she had no band and sang over prerecorded backing tracks. Her name was Madonna; she was signed immediately.
Hannett, who had been even more insufferable than usual in East Orange, announced that the album was done, and the band went out for a celebratory night on the town. The next morning Hannett reported that a well-meaning engineer at EARS had zeroed the mixing desk settings, wiping out everything but the band’s raw tracks. Hannett ended up finishing the mix of the album, called To Each…, in his customary studio haunts in Manchester. (It has been plausibly alleged that Hannett wasn’t able to work with the unfamiliar equipment at EARS and zeroed the desk himself.) Upon the album’s release, nobody was pleased with the results, and A Certain Ratio was done with Hannett. New Order jumped ship at about the same time, lengthening a list of bands—which would ultimately include the Psychedelic Furs, Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark, the Stone Roses, and U2—that worked with Hannett briefly and then decided to steer clear. Hannett died in 1991, at the age of 42.
A Certain Ratio continued to pursue its intensified enthusiasm for dance music of various types, producing excellent work that was mostly ignored by a public that still thought of them as Joy Division knockoffs. Their funk and jazz and salsa chops got very good. They added and lost members, tried and failed to sell out with a pop hit, got day jobs. The two original members, Topping and Terrell, departed. They hired a keyboardist who left and formed Swing Out Sister. Donald Johnson rapped on Liza Minnelli’s Pet-Shop-Boys-produced comeback album, which is a thing that exists in the world. ACR never broke up, but began to take extremely long breaks.
Around the turn of the millennium a group of bands began to emerge—the Rapture, !!!, LCD Soundsystem—that avidly namechecked ACR as an influence. Around the same time, emergent dubstep producers in the UK also began to cite the band’s early recordings as important inspirations. People started inviting them to play gigs again.
In 2008 ACR went back into the studio for the first time in a decade and recorded Mind Made Up. It’s a good album. It sounds a lot like “Flight.”
10 / We’ll Give Our Minds to You
As big a deal as it was, the June 4, 1976 Sex Pistols concert was probably not the most historically significant event ever to take place at the Lesser Free Trade Hall.
At a concert on May 17, 1966, in what may be the most famous instance of heckling in music history, a member of the audience shouted “Judas” at Bob Dylan. The fan’s identity—and therefore the reason for his displeasure—remain in doubt; the insult has been attributed to Dylan’s then-recent decision to “go electric,” but also to dissatisfaction with the clarity of the sound. (These may amount to the same thing.) In any event, this marked an era when Dylan had decisively moved away from the Guthrie-esque protest music of his youth and toward more hermetic, surreal, personal work. He had gotten darker, weirder, more isolated, and he has stayed that way.
The Lesser Free Trade Hall is constructed on the site of—and in commemoration of—the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, and the subsequent repeal of the Corn Laws. The massacre occurred when English cavalry charged tens of thousands of protestors who had gathered to demand broader parliamentary representation and relief from high grain prices caused by restrictions on imports; fifteen people died, hundreds were injured, and public outcry was immediate and widespread. The end of the Corn Laws has been called the beginning of free trade in Britain.
On April 3, 1872, once and future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli gave an address at the Free Trade Hall known as the “One Nation” speech, in which he laid out his Conservative Party’s vision for governance. The role of the state, he argued, is to maintain a stable and prosperous status quo by balancing the interests of all classes, from landowners to laborers. The Peterloo Massacre served as a cautionary backdrop for what happens when government does not heed this duty.
One-nation conservatism remained the guiding doctrine of the Tories until Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, when she begin to implement policies under which economic activity would proceed largely without intervention by the government—without intervention to reduce inequality and safeguard working-class interests, at any rate. One-nation conservatism has recently reemerged as a talking point for pro-Brexit Tories in a conspicuously altered form: long on the national interest, somewhat fuzzy on the general welfare.
Today the Manchester Free Trade Hall is a Radisson hotel.
On October 6, 1979—less than a month after A Certain Ratio and Martin Hannett met up at Graveyard Studios and recorded the first version of “Flight”—the board of governors of the United States Federal Reserve announced that in an effort to combat the runaway inflation that then beset both the US and the UK, it would abandon its practice of maintaining stability in the Federal Funds rate. Shortly thereafter interest on loans in the US jumped by about twenty points, vastly increasing the cost of buying homes and vehicles, triggering a recession. Some economic and political theorists have identified this as the beginning of the neoliberal, or post-Fordist, era: the moment when the economies of industrialized nations ceased to be managed through regulation and fiscal policy in favor of the indirect mechanisms of monetary policy. The results have included sweeping deregulation, the collapse of organized labor, and decreased employment security, and steep declines in the growth of real wages. One of the most striking aspects of the post-10/6/79 era is that many major changes have been effected outside of political channels, without public discussion. It has become difficult to be sure who is really doing anything, or the extent to which—out of some perverse impulse that arose within us, or that was placed there—we are doing it to ourselves.
Apologists for this new economic orientation have tended to argue for their approach with reassurances that the balancing of competing interests that used to be accomplished by the state will instead be achieved by unseen forces already active in the population, magical incentive structures that will safeguard the vulnerable and inspire the altruism of the privileged. Dusting off a metaphor from the Eighteenth Century and vastly extending its implications, they tend to describe these forces as an “invisible hand,” shaping our behavior without our knowledge, steering us toward unknown ends.
Sounds like a ghost story to me.
Martin Seay’s novel The Mirror Thief was published by Melville House in 2016. Originally from Texas, he lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.