It starts off so innocently with a simple melody, but soon it turns into an accusation against the simple fact that humans need sleep – or reversely, that we seem to be inclined to live it up to the max (see “Sitting Targets” a few days ago).
The “Paradox Drive” (click on pic) – both a movement and a residential street, how brilliant – always steers us in the wrong direction.
I’ve been there, living la vida loca on gallons of coffee, going at it for 18 hours a day: job, family, pasttimes, parties, travelling, paradoxically working mostly to help others lead a more meaningful life.
I’ve checked the twenty-four hours
I’ve done the stay-up-all-night;
In a certain way that’s power
But it’s not wired up right
No, sir, the wires were wrongly connected – you either reconnect or replace the device (I’m – among others – a technical translator now, so I get these hidden messages all the time).
“Up for the pleasure or dead to the world”. Finding the middle way is the real art of life: “…surely measured by the unconscious third…”. The ego, the unconscious third PH is referring to, can actually decide about that third way. It’s a matter of autonomy.
The 1980s were a bit like the roaring 1920s: the glam and glitter showered over the land and a substantial part of young people were living it to the max. Disco, extravagant clothes and art provided all the ingredients for a perfect numbing game. And we needed the numbing more than ever: after Lehman and the mortgage crash we have forgotten that the economic crisis of 1981-82 shook the world’s economy at least as badly. Youth unemployment rose to unprecedented levels (I was among those) and there wasn’t much to look forward to, except for the weekend.
“Jeunesse dorée” (click on pic) (gilded youth, “gilding the lily of living” another of PH’s brilliant puns) could be seen everywhere between Friday night and Sunday morning. Those were the days of Spandau Ballet’s “Gold”.
Compare this 1983 track to yesterday’s Bunsho: the intensity has not changed. PH is passionate about every aspect of life, always with a difficult question.
Today we see the next jeunesse dorée, trying to party the difficult questions of life away. The entertainment industry, now fueled by the unlimited possibilities of the internet, is having the time of their life. But…
The youth are voting themselves in…
but the wheel takes a fresh spin
and they find, tomorrow,
gaudy garments worn thin, all at best rent…
and the worst are borrowed.
A wonderful game of mirrors: who determines the genius of a work of art? The maker or the public? And what a great contemporary VdGG song to illustrate this dilemma. It totally smacks of the days of “Godbluff” and “World Record” but is that not totally unfair to say?
“What I thought was perfect
What I thought was polished
No-one thought it worth much
And they made that clear
What I thought was worthless
Somehow tugged the heartstrings
Brought them all to tears”
“Bunsho” (the Japanese word for ‘sentence’) (click on pic) was recorded 35 years after VdGG’s classical period, but would PH newbies be able to tell the difference? Well except for the lyrics.
Is this the perfect, polished version of what happened back in the days or is this “merely repetition” but very touching?
“No-one can ever know
What of their own’s their very best”
In times when everyone is trying to expose their very best version (especially online), it is an important message. And the music is neither perfect (because VdGG was about anything but perfection) nor worthless because of the obvious nostalgic analogy. It’s a great asset in an immensly rich collection. Condensed genius.
The perfect sequel (or prequel, for that matter) to “Sitting Targets”: being so proccupied with being part of the movement we tend to forget the meaning of what is already there. Taking relationships for granted while developing yourself to all the next levels (“too busy scrabbling for each moment”) is one of the most obvious traps when you’re young. PH was about 28 when he wrote this song, I was 25 when this happened to me. She was going to see a friend for the weekend and she never returned. We’d been together for 5 years and while she was still studying, I had started on my first real job and really keen on getting my career under way. There was no yoga involved when she left but there was when we met.
(On Tuesdays she used to do) Yoga (click on pic) could well have been the soundtrack to Irvin Yalom’s novel Lying on the Couch, if it hadn’t been published 20 years after “Over”. It is one of those Hammill songs carrying so much honesty and vulnerability it forces you to explore your own acts, memories, emotions, reasonings. “Over” is of course one big confession and marks the transition to a new start.
In my life, I needed several new starts, several “Overs” before I finally got the point…
When I was about 16 years old I would write letters all the time, snail mail was the standard. One of many penpals shared her motto: “I want to be part of the movement”. To move or not to move, that was the question. Never to stand still, rust, die standing.
“Sitting Targets” (click on pic) elaborates on this increasingly popular philosophy. People accuse me of being one of its followers too. I always counter that in my case it is not a question of choice but of the default option. For some reason I seem to be unable to act as a sitting target. So although I don’t sense the “obsessional interest in moving, just to prove that [I’m] there”, I do feel that “to stay sitting targets is surely no better than living a dream.” Dreams propel us and I can’t stop dreaming.
But PH is right that by driving all the time, you get this “positional state of affairs”. When everything moves all the time, there can be no real close observation of what you are moving in. That’s the price you pay.
The track has an exquisite groove and it’s one of the most upbeat Hammill songs. Another hit single, although – as far as I know – it was not released as such. I was lucky to see PH perform much of the Sitting Targets album during his Melkweg solo concert in 1981. A great song to start the day with – and then move along.
Who said PH couldn’t write hit singles? There’s going to be a lot more in the next 50 days… Re-awakening (click on pic) sounds like a typical early 70s flick, but of course with a Hammill twist. A summer hit with the kind of sneer Frank Zappa gave on “Camarillo Brillo“: what do you mean we need to be taught self-expression and self-development? Can’t we just go for a run along the beach?
If you’re tired (of the stress of life), you don’t really need people telling you how to heal yourself. Nevertheless this was a very common approach in those days: the whole “if you’re unhappy it’s your own fault, because there is so much you can do”-movement was just starting. Not until recently we discovered that it’s much more efficient to give people time to find out themselves.
“The best way to be is to sleep” – don’t be pushed and don’t push yourself!
We talk about “Fake News” all the time but PH sang about this a long time ago, some 30 years ago. His political 1980s (which were generally regarded as less political than the 60s and 70s, but here you go) at their height. “The earth is flat, and pigs can fly, if you swallow hard, you’ll believe the lie” – today we’re seeing even more outrageous statements that people actually believe, and it’s coming from every direction.
The “Hemlock” (click on pic) metaphor is well chosen here: even if it the potion is bitter, we swallow it in order to keep our world view coherent. This is called the avoidance of cognitive dissonance and fake news producers just rely on it. Peter hammers away on this with the groove we already know from “A Black Box”, and “Hemlock” sounds like a real ‘dance macabre‘.
“In a Foreign Town” may not be the most iconic Hammill album, but remember that in the 1980s these drums were all the fashion. And all the songs still sound great when played live!
Most PH love songs are breakup songs. This one doesn’t bother to pretend. It is about breakup and the boredom that goes with relationships going into repetition mode: into a game (click on pic).
The songs smacks of the 1960s psychedelic Britpop scene. It reminds us that all of this started on LSD and tequila. Listening to “Into a Game” I can’t help drifting back to “A Clockwork Orange” and of course “Blow-Up” (partly because PH mentions David Hemmings on “Pushing Thirty”).
The jazzy improv which finishes the song sounds a bit like the repetition theme in the lyrics. Is it a prequel to “Losing Faith in Words”? The issue of bad communication is recurring as well. And haven’t we all struggled with it, perhaps even today? Humans are gifted with language, but what use do we make of it?
Most of the “Love Songs” (an intriguing project that was, I must say) are actually breakup songs. “Again” (click on pic) is really heartbreaking. The message is simple:
I am me, I was so before you
But afterwards I am not the same
There is no way of honoring this addition the other person has brought into you life, if contact has broken off after a relationship gone bad. The “change you gave me, it will never come again”, you have to struggle ahead on your own. It happened to me three times in a row. Gone for ever, no contact, no forwarding address.
I can totally relate to this song. Nailed it.
Mean, menacing, magnificent! This is how to condense a protest to 3 1/2 minutes of terror. The link with Mr. X is obvious. The ominous groove that goes with it slashes like a samurai sword and Jackson’s sax cuts like a torch. And who said the reverse talkback drum sound was discovered by Phil Collins? There seems to be some here.
“Porton Down” (click on pic) is one of my favourite short Hammill songs. The lyrics point at what a wave of disaster movies would not touch until at least a decade later: lethal chemical weapons. With all attention turned to the use of it in the middle East we shouldn’t forget Europe and US researched into these substances intensely and probably still are. All hidden away from the public, because officially we have banned the stuff.
“It begins with the mustard gas
It proceeds to Hiroshima
The culture moves on –
Now it’s bacterial, truly insane
Porton Down waits to fever the brain”
After a decade of more or less accepting the fact that the human race keeps on preparing for its downfall (“Lemmings” &c.), Peter is starting to feel uncomfortable and shifts to resistance. The songs will become more and more explicit in the next years, but always with that phenomenal base of reflection woven into.