first round game
(8) this mortal coil, “kangaroo”
(9) xmal deutschland, “mondlicht”
AND WILL PLAY 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.
Dance floor skeletons: A personal reading of This Mortal Coil’s “kangaroo” by ken caldwell
I still dream of that night in the club, surrounded by skeletons.
It was 80s night at the Drink in Grand Rapids, mid-winter. I was wearing an ill-fitting vintage sweater and velcro shoes—not a deviation from my usual attire at the time. Mostly I was exhausted with my own ennui and other ill-fitting trappings of undergraduate student life. But I’d made a few friends in my program and agreed to meet them downtown.
What is 80s night, 30 years removed? Revivalist celebration? Imitation culture? I suppose these themed events still happen: Some combination of nostalgia and commercialization drag the decades kicking and screaming through time as they grow more quaint with each passing day.
But in general, you know how this goes: The DJ sprays fog and spins stuff like “Thriller” and “Dancing with Myself” while Max Headroom mouths something on TV. Libations abound. A select few dance, and a majority of others peer on in fascination. Fashion’s sad anachronisms shake loose the cobwebs. Last call. “Purple Rain.” Head home. But something with more gravitas happened that night.
It was that sweet spot, around 11:30 p.m., when everyone suddenly shows up and the bartender is the most interesting person in the room. The DJ becomes more thoughtful, or the alcohol gives that impression. Dance moves loosen, emboldened. The air wafts with cheap perfume and cheaper gin.
I was swept up into the mist of the fog machine, pumping hard now, overtaken by a fervor that expanded the dance floor across the club. It was Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.” Everything connected at once: The pulse of the kick drum, the swelling synth, that plucky guitar riff. Receiving the lyric, “words are meaningless and forgettable” amid dozens of freaks reciting it in unison was like a Saturday night sermon. By then, my friends had vanished into the strobe somewhere and I was alone in this buzzing crowd.
I know this sounds unusual, but two minutes into the song, when the solo started, I witnessed a physical transformation. All of the leg warmers and Members Only jackets seemed to fade. The slick hair. The hoop earrings and Swatch watches. The on-point blue jeans. Even the spikes and studded accessories creeping along the perimeter: All of it faded and transmogrified as the people who wore them—their bones began to glow. I rubbed my eyes, bewitched. Was this right? Their skeletal frames flickered into view and juddered wildly in X-ray blue light.
How odd their bodies seemed now, decontextualized, beholden to ivory stalks of marrow and sinew bobbing in space! But there they were, ghouls of the night tapping away in rhythm, empty eye sockets staring out in space. The song’s spell soon expired, and while my visions didn’t persist, the truth remained: With each trembling breath, a skeleton awaits. The world is presently under our direct and immediate influence, and it will subsume our vessels.
The name “This Mortal Coil” sounds pretty goth because is does indeed stem from the ultimate gothic tragedy, Shakespeare's Hamlet. As for the phrase itself, it is recited to no one in particular during Hamlet’s soliloquy—the “to be, or not to be” speech—in which he clutches a human skull (or, as in the new 360-degree, abbreviated version made for VR, wallows fully clothed in a bathtub):
To die, to sleep, / To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there's the rub, / For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.
The juxtaposition of a young man with a skull is an enduring image and one that aligns with my understanding of goth as a frame of mind. Goth, I’d like to suggest, is the acute awareness of one’s own mortality and the associated sentiments and expressions that follow.
For another take, Oxford English Dictionary  made a draft addition in 1993 for “Goth” relative to music culture:
A style of rock music, and the youth culture associated with this, deriving originally from punk, and characterized by the dramatically stark appearance of its performers and followers, reminiscent of the protagonists of (esp. cinematic) gothic fantasy, and by mystical or apocalyptic lyrics.
A performer or fan of this music, or anyone who adopts a similar appearance, typically through the use of dark eye make-up and pale skin colouring, dark clothes, and bulky metallic jewellery.
Some quick facts about This Mortal Coil (hereafter TMC):
It was a rotating cast of collaborating, UK-based musicians, rather than a band.
It starred well-known artists from Cocteau Twins, Modern English, Pixies, and more.
The project was led by Ivo-Watts Russell, founder of independent record label 4AD.
They did not perform live; this was strictly a studio-based project.
They published mostly obscure cover songs (a few exceptions were original compositions).
Three studio albums were released: It'll End in Tears (1984), Filigree & Shadow (1986), and Blood (1991).
A rendition of Tim Buckley's “Song to the Siren” was the first This Mortal Coil release in 1983 and featured members of Cocteau Twins.
Here’s why you should explore the TMC discography more in depth:
The TMC aesthetic is stripped down and ethereal, yet full of vigor. These are barren, vulnerable tracks. Instrumentally, it’s stark—a constant exercise in restraint. We hear vocal, strings, and keys, primarily. Synths add texture and, on rare occasions, a beat defines the groove. What shines almost everywhere are the incredibly talented vocalists recruited for the job. “The human voice is the most important instrument to me,” said Watts-Russell in 1993. Pairing high technique with style, the intimacy of the vocals can be shocking in a visceral way, as though the singers occupy the room with you.
A fair number of hooks can be heard in the lead melodies, but pop structures emerge as quickly as they are crushed in pursuit of the next experiment. And that’s the value of TMC as a whole, I’d argue: The willingness to take considerable risk and creative liberty with source material, while maintaining shared agreement to a particular, minimal aesthetic.
There’s more reading to be done between the lines. I’m still discovering snippets of song ideas and little melodic flourishes after years of listening as they reveal themselves in the interstitials and segues between songs. Samples stitched together illustrate a multifaceted aural landscape: the still life of hushed sounds in the evening, an infant babbling, a dog barking in the distance, and a whip cracking (tell me something more goth). Elsewhere we hear phased piano solos and complex, multi-layered harmony that envelopes the ear.
Give them enough time and TMC albums will surprise you. Blood, especially, is an engrossing, sustained work of art in the sense that each song flows organically into the next. Devoting yourself to it is a big ask in 2019—an era of instantly-streaming singles and endless digital libraries. As a complete, start-to-finish experience, albums in general are simply not in vogue anymore. But let this one coax you in with the pleading eyes of its album art, molding you into its next victim.
TMC means more to other people, given its scope and breadth of musicianship. Notably, other rotating performers included Kim Deal (Pixies, The Breeders), as well as Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry (Dead Can Dance).
So, that’s the TMC project filtered through my lens, however biased. Where does “Kangaroo” fit?
The song for your consideration here does not feature the talented Elizabeth Fraser on vocals (for another TMC track with her pipes, indulge in “Another Day”). This is Cindytalk's Gordon Sharp singing, and, at least in the video, crossdressing. I cannot explicate this for you. It’s worth noting that Sharp is one of the few male vocalists on TMC recordings (Robbie Grey of Modern English being another). Elsewhere you’ll find (arguably superior) female vocal.
“Kanagaroo” was written by the late musician Alex Chilton (d. 2010) and first performed by Big Star. The Big Star original is an odd series of fits and starts, loose as can be. No getting around it. Just when you start to feel a semblance of flow, you get slapped in the face with a stray cowbell way higher than anything else in the mix. Still, without being a Big Star scholar, I recognize a visionary quality to their left-field experimentation. Lots of respect.
What’s so impressive, then, is not what TMC was able to extract from the Big Star version—but how much they were able to omit. I admire the creative decisions required to narrow the scope to just a few, key elements, like a strong bass line that carries the rhythm throughout. In an interview Watts-Russell said, “these were songs that I was really, really fond of and it was dangerous to cover them as a result because we could have ruined them.”
Lyrically, what can we do with the last, inexplicable stanza but marvel? Please contact me at any hour of the night if you have a working theory: “Like Saint Joan / Doing a cool jerk / Oh, I want you / Like a kangaroo.“
Being an undergrad is a good time to discover TMC. The whole landscape is just gothic malaise. I’m half kidding. But mine were fairly dark days, and it was a fitting soundtrack.
During one of my early creative writing final exams, the class dragged in to take our seats, wondering what poetic terms we might be quizzed on—what were double dactyls again? After the instructor fumbled with some AV equipment, it set in that we’d be watching grainy, live concert footage. A Joy Division performance. And why not? We’d studied imagist poets and formal convention and metered verse all semester. Now it was time to learn life lessons. Why not discuss Ian Curtis’ convulsions—how his epilepsy might have been mistaken for perverse dancing? “Tragic,” the instructor said, exasperated by the apparent lack of student interest. It was April 2005 and sunny. Curtis hanged himself prior to embarking on a U.S. tour in 1980. I admit, I was delighted by this exam.
Earlier that term, I got some feedback that my prose was a bit stiff: “a little too 19th century.” Well, what can you expect? I was repeatedly plumbing the catacombs of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” I even had a pocketable Dover Thrift edition for quick hits of goth glory.
By the time I heard “Song to the Siren” and “Kangaroo” I was falling pretty deep into solipsism—and their sound only coaxed me further. My entry point, probably like most, was Cocteau Twins. I became enamored by multiple bands hailing from what my late father referred to as the Scottish “homeland” (DNA test pending), including The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Incidentally, Fraser’s lyrical-vocal combinations are astounding specimens for a creative writing major to examine. They are rich with mellifluous, multisyllabic phrases—sometimes composed of unintelligible words, but often simply sounds—blanketed in northern Scottish dialect and veiled in introvertedness. Deciphering meaning is often beside the point—Cocteau Twins stay on the cusp of curiosity, creating space for listeners to fill the gaps.
In 2016, I raged against how TMC didn’t go further in the inaugural tournament, March Sadness. In competition was “Song to the Siren” a cover of Tim Buckley’s song, which made it to the Sweet 16, but lost out to Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” a respectable opponent at least.
Interestingly, the “winner” of that bracket was Jeff Buckley for his song “Hallelujah.” That was Tim’s son. Look them up: Both died tragically young but occupied a similar place as troubled crooners with successful careers. Jeff Buckley also did a sloppy, live rendition of “Kangaroo” that is more akin to Big Star’s rock-and-roll original. It gets very lame at the end as the band seemingly improvises with a bonkers riff Jeff dreamt up. And, unfortunately, his shirt is unbuttoned all the way during the whole clip. In short, don’t watch. I mention it because I suspect he was continuing the musical tradition, knowing TMC helped to boost his father’s posthumous sales in the mid-80s for “Song to the Siren” and hoped to have the same effect for TMC / Big Star.
Intertwining things further: Elizabeth Fraser went on record in a 2003 BBC documentary to describe an “intense, personal relationship” with Jeff Buckley in the mid-90s, and an unfinished duet of theirs later emerged, to Fraser’s chagrin. This whole scene apparently got very comfortable.
As the March Sadness writers reflected on their picks and should-been winners, I also said TMC’s “Song to the Siren” will be somehow etched into my gravestone, a remark I still endorse (albeit they would be Buckley’s lyrics). I may also consider ways to incorporate some kind of multimedia experience—say, a hologram of a dark figure rotating on a platform in the fog. That’s Robin Guthrie, by the way, the Cocteau Twins guitarist who has gone on to have an accomplished solo career in songwriting and production. Of his sparse guitar work in that best-known TMC song, Watts-Russell described how it was intended to serve as a guide for Fraser’s vocal line as they entertained an acapella rendition: “He wasn’t remotely interested or enthusiastic about doing it, and to me that speaks to his genius, the fact that he could come up with something as subtle and beautiful as that when he wasn’t bothered at all (Laughs). He was literally leaning up against the wall and yawning.”
 "Goth, n.". OED Online. December 2018. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/view/Entry/80221 (accessed February 10, 2019).
tammy oler on “mondlicht”
I became a goth in 1989. I was fourteen, a wad of feelings jutting out of ripped stockings, a girl plugged into her headphones and huddling deep into the moodiest of music.
1989. That was the year The Cure made a return to goth. Bauhaus’ In the Flat Field turned a decade old. I savored every new bit of new music made by the gloomy icons I had just discovered – Disintegration, Peter Murphy’s Deep, The Creatures’ Boomerang – but I knew how much of goth was already looking back. During all-ages nights at the new wave dance club, I would sometimes look at the people in the bar, the over-21 crowd swaying behind the chain link fence separating them from the teenagers on the dance floor, and I would think: they’ve been dancing to these songs for years. It made the music feel enigmatic and powerful to me, and all the more melancholic.
I watched 120 Minutes and Teletunes, the Denver alternative rock video show that aired on Colorado Public Television, and I lurked around record stores downtown, but most of my music was hand-me-downs. I cherished every second- or third-generation copy I was given, and it didn’t matter to me if high-speed dubbing made the sound quality total shit.
Fourteen years old, living in Colorado Springs, a town known for its evangelical churches and military bases: how on how on Earth could I have found my way to a band like Xmal Deutschland were it not for the grace of a boyfriend’s older sister? The song “Mondlicht” was handed to me, a half-decade after the song was first released. A perfect little piece of the goth arcane.
“Mondlicht” is the opening track on Xmal Deutschland’s 1984 album Tocsin. It’s a song that feels like something coming to life: it opens with a pounding heartbeat of drums, accrues its shape from mournful keyboards, a thrumming bass line, a raspy guitar. And finally, it speaks:
Flüsterst du im Mondlicht
When Anja Huwe sings, it sounds like an incantation. The words are German, but they’re so close to being English cognates that it’s easy to understand what she’s saying, easy to sing along:
You whisper in the moonlight
When I heard “Mondlicht,” it cast a spell on me. What is this beckoning? Who (or what) is she talking to? Is she leading us to love or to death, to the clutches of a dreamy vampire, or to some swirling abyss? Who even was this band that could make goth sound so good in German?
Xmal Deutschland hailed from Hamburg, a hotspot for German underground music in the early 1980s. Their original line-up was all women: Anja Huwe on vocals, Manuela Rickers on guitar, Fiona Sangster on keyboards, Caro May on drums, and Rita Simon on bass guitar. They recorded their first single "Schwarze Welt” (“Black World”) in 1981 on Zickzack Records, an underground label run by the music journalist Alfred Hilsberg, who helped popularize the term Neue Deutsche Welle for underground music coming out of Germany at the time.
"Schwarze Welt” has peculiar charms: foreboding lyrics about a deathly black fog on top of a sprightly beat and keyboards that sound like an 8-bit arcade game. It’s clear that Xmal Deutschland is still working it out. But the record sleeve for that first single is where the band truly makes a statement: it’s all black, except for the band’s name and a tightly cropped photo of the band from the shoulders up, their heads turned away from the camera. Five heads of pink, blonde, and black teased hair like post-punk fireworks lighting up the sky. Five German women, refusing our gaze, subverting band hierarchy, declining performance.
Put this image on a t-shirt and I will wear that t-shirt until it falls apart.
In 1982 Xmal released a second single on Zickzack, “Incubus Succubus.” (They were no longer an all-female band at this point: Wolfgang Ellerbrock replaced Rita Simon on the bass guitar, and he would become the longest-running member of the band besides Huwe.) It’s a batshit awesome track. For many goth-inclined folks, it’s the essential Xmal Deutschland song, with its scritchy-scratchy guitar, demonic howls, and lyrics about a “witches Sabbath ruling the night.” (“Hexensabbat regiert die nacht!”) The band found an audience outside of Germany: John Peel featured them on his show; Ivo Watts-Russell invited them to London to record for 4AD. And when they joined the roster of 4AD, it brought them to the attention of goths everywhere.
Their first full-length album was Fetisch, released by 4AD in 1983. The record is a dense wall of sound with a few great tracks, but it’s also quite middling: nothing on the album is as unhinged as “Incubus Succubus,” yet the songs are far from distinct and polished.
Anja Huwe has always spoken candidly about the creative differences the band had with Watts-Russell. In her telling of it, the band wanted to develop their craft as songwriters and musicians, while Watts-Russell wanted them to stay more raw, dissonant, and noncommercial. The band’s 1984 album, Tocsin, sounds like it’s hovering in this tension: it has the same sonic sensibilities as their previous records, but the songs are richer, more melodic and proportioned. Even if you can’t understand the language, the songs are compellingly emotional.
Tocsin is the band’s creative peak, and “Mondlicht” sits at the top of it.
Once you’re in “Mondlicht,” you’re IN it. It’s a breathless song, the guitar buried way down in the mix, breaking through just often enough to let the song come up for air. Huwe’s beckoning “Folge mir” keeps bringing you back, long after you’ve stopped understanding the words. And even if you do understand the words, the song remains obscure:
Mit deinem Licht
Mit deinem Schein
Und umarme mich
Für die Finsternis
Hast du mir dein Licht geschickt
With your light
With your shine
And hug me
For the darkness
Did you send me your light?
She asks it twice: did you send me your light?
There’s confusion in this song, a lack of certainty about what this someone or something is doing in this embrace. Is it bringing light or darkness? What if the lightness feels like darkness? Or, scarier still, what if the darkness feels like light?
“Mondlicht” is a song about wanting, and uncertainly, and the pleasures of vulnerability. It’s a big mood. It’s a perfect goth song.
I didn’t drift towards goth. I hurled myself towards it. Goth music was a license to explore murky internal spaces, a tuning fork for harrowing feelings. Sadness that often felt unspeakable. The fear of being invisible and unloved. Anger folded in on itself. The fact that I found so much of this music though people who were older than me made it feel even more validating.
Being a goth was a way to brandish all those feelings like armor, to send out a beacon to find other people who felt the same way. I pierced my nose, sprayed my hair into a voluminous Aqua Net tease, went heavy on the Wet n Wild black eyeliner and lipstick, and donned vast amounts of silver jewelry and crystals.
To be a goth, to dress the part, to dance the part, is a performance, but it’s totally sincere. Goth may well be the most performative music identity one can embrace, yet there’s nothing ironic or phony about it.
But goth was an exacting identity at the time. The ideal goth aesthetic was about being pale, willowy, and withdrawn. It privileged a kind of white, delicate femininity, which felt impossible to live up to, especially for my friends who were goths of color. And the scene was no safe haven from teenage bullshit. My goth friends and I compared ourselves endlessly, always aware of how we stacked up against each other: our bands, our clothes, our bodies, our traumas.
I found myself at odds with my goth identity almost as soon as I claimed it. I loved school, and teams, and activities. I was a good student, a deeply ambitious kid. Being a goth made me feel like I had to disclaim parts of myself that were too energetic, too people pleasing, and too successful. Looking back, it seems so clear to me that my driving ambition and my gothiness—two things that felt irreconcilable at the time—stemmed from precisely the same set of achingly vulnerable feelings.
I drifted away from the goths, but I kept the music close. It’s never very far away.
Getting reacquainted with Xmal Deutschland and their history, I’ve been struck by how early and how often they were compared to Siouxsie and the Banshees. They’re still compared to Siouxsie and the Banshees, and they suffer by comparison.
There’s a frustratingly obvious reason why this is so persistent, and it’s not really because of the music each band was making. It’s because Xmal Deutschland was also fronted by an intense and mysterious woman, and people just can’t get enough of comparing Anja Huwe and Siouxsie Sioux—and finding all the ways that Anja Huwe is not Siouxsie Sioux.
Goth is lousy with iconic male figures. There’s a veritable pantheon of goth gods. Why, then, is there room for only one exceptional woman, one goddess of goth—and Siouxsie Sioux certainly carries that mantle – to whom all others must be compared and rated against?
(I laughed out loud when I came across a Spin magazine write-up from 1985 that said of Huwe that she “looks a lot like Blondie and sings a lot like Siouxsie.” It seems that nothing about Huwe, even her hair color, could be understood without pitting her against some existing rock goddess.)
I think of how stifling these endless comparisons must have been for Xmal Deutschland. And not just Huwe, but also for the other women who played in the band—Manuela Rickers, Fiona Sangster, Rita Simon, Caro May, and Manuela Zwingmann—seeing themselves reduced or erased entirely because we can’t seem to fathom that they should simply exist or create music on their own terms.
I think of this, the endless pitting of women against each other in music (and art and life) and I wonder: who does this serve? We know the answer, of course, and it’s certainly not the women making the music, or the women listening to it, or the young women aspiring to make it themselves. Or any women at all.
Xmal Deutschland left 4AD after Tocsin and made two more albums: Viva in 1987 and Devils in 1989. The band had trouble getting the records distributed in the US, despite the fact that they sounded far more commercial than their earlier albums—more pop, more lyrics in English, smoother edges all around. At the same time I was becoming a goth, Xmal Deutschland was calling it quits.
In a Peak Time radio interview last fall, Anja Huwe describes starting the band as a fixed path she had to choose: “Today it’s different: you can make art and music, and and and. At those days you had to make a decision, you know. Art was arty and . . . we were more from the other side . . . I had to make a decision: to go into art or into music.”
And she’s right: The present is so much more fluid now than when Huwe started Xmal Deutschland and when I encountered them, those two events bookending a whole decade.
These days, Anja Huwe is an artist. She makes giant, colorful abstract paintings. I stumbled across a short video posted online several years ago of her in her studio, talking about her work. Her hair is still a shock of blonde, and she’s wearing all black with a couple of colorful scarves around her neck. Her intensity, the way she stands and reflects on her paintings, a flourish of an arm here, a curl of her wrist there, all reminiscent of her performances on stage. At the end of the video, she says, “I came to the point that this is much more interesting to me than making music, you know.”
She turns to the camera and begins removing her scarves. “This is my music, and I feel really comfortable with doing this. And much more comfortable than like being onstage and singing, you know,” she says. And by now she’s removed both scarves. “That’s really, that’s me, you know. Actually me.” And then she lets out this big exhale of a laugh. The kind of laugh you can’t imagine a young Anja Huwe of Xmal Deutschland ever letting herself enjoy.
I feel that laugh inside of me. What a victory to finally be comfortable in your own skin, all your irreconcilable parts. Finally. Three decades later.
I don’t have nostalgia for my teenage years, and I don’t long for things I missed the first time around. But goth music still moves me: it’s a gloomy girl cave, a balm for these relentlessly happy and healthy lives we’re all supposed to be living. Thirty years later, “Mondlicht” feels like a big hug. I’m going to see Peter Murphy and David J perform the entirety of In the Flat Field later this week. I will join the aging Trad Goths in the audience and we will be the most acute version of the people I gazed at behind the chain link fence at the new wave club. We’ve been dancing to the same songs for four decades now. It will be a big mood. I can’t wait.
Tammy Oler is a Brooklyn-based writer who has written about books, film, and pop culture for Slate, Bitch, Quartz, and Vulture, among others. This is her 8th grade school photo.