To celebrate the reopening of the Whitechapel gallery, London, I was one of five artists invited to ‘takeover’ the Guardian newspaper’s online Culture section for a day in April. My project which coincided with the 75th anniversary of the Human Rights organisation, Liberty, was about the role art plays in an increasingly restricted society.
I produced (with plenty of assistance) a podcast on the relationship between art and freedom. I spoke to the Philosopher AC Grayling, Director of the Human Rights organisation, Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti and writer and blogger Jason Horsley. You can find the podcast at : http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/audio/2009/apr/03/whitechapel-gallery-mark-titchner-liberty
I tend to listen to music quite a lot in the studio so I also produced a playlist of tracks that seemed to reflect certain aspects of liberty. An edited version also appeared on the Guardian’s website. Below is the full text I wrote including the track that got away (my ‘top ten’ had eleven tracks….)
1 ‘The Kill”, by Fugazi
(From the album “The Argument”, 2001.)
For many years Fugazi have provided a working model for self-governance and independence from the record industry. Through their own record label, Dischord, they have controlled every aspect of their artistic output whilst also supporting other bands from their native Washington DC. Their live shows also sought a level of inclusion and willingness to seek new audiences, often playing unusual venues (for instance, Young Offenders Institutions) benefit concerts, no age restrictions and low ticket prices. The band never produced merchandise. This song, from the bands final album “The Argument” (they went on hiatus in 2002) is perhaps slightly unusual within the Fugazi catalogue given its pace and measured haunting vocals by bassist Jo Lally but its lyrical concerns and dub-influenced bass line are Fugazi cornerstones. The lyrics describe the fate and psyche of a prisoner on death row and the disjunction between the songs refrain, “I’m not a citizen, I’m not a citizen” and the songs final line “it’s in my mouth, under my skin, sodium pentathol” is particularly disturbing.
2 “Yes Sir I Will”, by Crass
(From the album “Yes Sir I Will”, 1983).
This track is the first section from Crass’ penultimate album, which is actually one long continuous piece. It’s cacophonous and relentless stream of vocals weave together the male and female voices of Steve Ignorant, Joy De Vivre and Eve Libertine into a Crass manifesto on life. When I hear this song I’m always amazed and humbled by how many powerful and insightful lyrics are in one place. These are a few of my favourites all reflecting the anarcho, libertarian position of the band; “To breathe is not enough”, “Our love of life is total, everything we do is an expression of that, Everything that we write is a love song”, “Those of us who stand out against the status quo, do so against all odds. We cling so closely together because we have little other than ourselves” These concerns were a vital aspect of the band from their artwork to their organisation of political actions. Incidentally the title of the album comes from an a newspaper article reporting an exchange between Prince Charles and the badly burned Falklands War veteran Simon Weston; Prince Charles said “Get well soon” and the soldier replied “Yes Sir I will”.
3 “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III” by Godspeed You Black Emperor!
(From the album “Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada [EP], 1999)
This song is the second track of a two track EP and continues the cinematic, orchestral dynamic of the first track ‘Moya’ but with the addition of a six-minute field recording of a rant on a public street attributed to someone called Blaise Bailey Finnegan III. (Music trivia fans might note that Iron Maiden had a singer called Blaze Bayley and in fact the ‘poem’ Mr Finnegan recites around nine minutes into the song are in fact the lyrics to the Iron Maiden song “Virus”.) Mr Finnegan, who begins by saying, “I don’t like the way the country’s ran don’t you know.”, is incensed by having had to appear in court to pay a speeding ticket and complimented by the looping sweeps of the GYBE! The track swings from anger to pathos as the speaker describes his paranoid vision of the USA, his willingness to defend his freedom of expression in court and finally the large collection of fire arms that he feels necessary to protect his liberty against the state. This record was released by the Canadian label, Constellation Records, who continue to pursue their independent approach to making, packaging and promoting music and avoiding distributing their releases through chain stores.
4 “A Beast Caged” by Dälek
(From the album “Absence”, 2004”)
Dälek’s brand of Hip Hop fuses the visceral verbal assault of Public Enemy with a sonic attack that marries the expanses of My Bloody Valentine with the Melvins most impenetrable dirges. It is anw affecting, powerful combination that relentlessly take aim at racial politics, religious bigotry and social/political exploitation. The vocals of MC Dälek are offered buried below thick layers of sound from producer Octopus. “Absence” is a particularly tough and relentless album even within the Dälek catalogue and “A Beast Caged” is its centrepiece. The song takes on the themes and connections between imprisonment of all kinds; racial and economic exploitation, imperialism, surveillance, internment and corporate/governmental collusion. Anger throughout, the wail of ‘Incarcerated souls sold to build empires’. This music is a call to defiance to a world that often engenders silence and complicity, ‘Implications too heavy’.
5 “Vastness and Sorrow” by Wolves in the Throne Room
(From the album “Two Hunters”, 2007)
This song represents another kind of liberty, that of spiritual transcendence. Wolves in the Throne Room are a black metal band from Olympia, Washington USA, whose members espouse a kind of environmental paganism and a reconnection with the Earth. They are also one of the most incredible live bands that I have ever seen and have an amazing ability to distort your perception of time whilst watching them. One leaves with the feeling that the whole set lasted only a few seconds. This song is all about ascendancy and somehow, given that it begins with an intense, black metal mass of drums, guitar and screamed vocals, it manages to create a sense of constant accumulation from epiphany to epiphany, and the band crawl ever upward. The word “Cleansing” is often used to describe the band and this song powerfully illustrates that quality.
6 “Paranoid Chant”, by Minutemen
(From the EP “Paranoid Time”, 1980)
Rather like Fugazi, I feel that I could have chosen pretty much any song by the Minutemen, so infused was everything they did with their humanism and politics. Minutemen embody the DIY aesthetic of hardcore and as label mates and contemporaries of Hardcore legends Black Flag, brought their brand of finesse funk/hardcore to perplexed punk audiences all over the US until the tragic death of singer D Boon in a car accident in 1986. This is the last track from their debut EP 1980, “Paranoid Time”, and typically for a Minutemen track it comes in at 1 minute 19 seconds. Whilst their music would become more complex, often within the framework of one minute songs, this is one of my favourite of theirs, possibly because as a child of the 80’s I can relate very strongly with the lyrics “ I try to work and I keep thinking of World War 3. I’m trying to talk to girls, I keep thinking of World War 3”.
7. “Thief”, by Can
(From the LP “Delay 1968”, recorded 1968, released 1981).
This song can be found on a compilation album that documents some of the bands early work with the vocalist Malcolm Mooney, predating what is normally seen as their ‘Classic’ period with vocalist Damo Suzuki. I read this song as a melancholic, lamentation on mans fate, destined always to be profane and degraded in order to survive in the world: the crucified thief to the crucified Christ. This idea is crystallised in the lyric “The thief was drawn to the cross, To share that other’s fate. But the Jesus man said “Not now my brother not now, it’s far too late”. The line “Do what you must, take what you can” seems to do a pretty good job of summing up the subtext for modern living. This probably all sounds pretty bleak but it is a great and beautiful song.
8. “Hypnotised”, by Mark Stewart
(From the LP “As The Veneer of Democracy Begins to Fade”, 1985)
Whilst I’m thinking about the bleak side of liberty here is a track from Mark Stewart’s classic 1985 album “As The Veneer of Democracy Begins to Fade”. The album as a whole documents Stewart’s on-going concern with the Control State and oppression. Lyrically this is made unequivocal on the title track, and tracks like ‘Pacification Program’ and ‘Bastards’. This content is still there, but perhaps a little less apparent with the albums single, ‘Hypnotised’, which fuses electro, the funk of Stewart’s long standing band The Maffia, and the Dub production of Adrian Sherwood. Most of the lyrics for the song are obscured by heavily distorted samples with Stewart’s screams of “Obey” or “Soldiers, soldiers, soldiers” occasionally penetrating through. Only the spoken refrain” 7% of the population, 94% of the wealth” is entirely and purposefully audible. Rather like Crass, I think it seems possible to interpret this depiction of corruption and control as being entirely negative, but I think that it is instead an attempt to clearly acknowledge a certain state of affairs – to understand is the first defence. To quote Stewart from a text from 1987, “The first taste of hope is fear”
“The Anvil Will Fall”, by Harvey Milk
(From the Album “My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be”, 1994)
A band from Athens, Georgia, not the openly gay, assassinated politician recently portrayed by Sean Penn. Musically this song has pretty much everything from Creston Spier’s abject vocals, jazz like descents, crushing heaviness, screams and most bizarrely a very long sample of the patriotic favourite ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country”. This is a dark story of fate and maternal love overcoming paternal violence. The opening line, ‘My Mama’s first love was a vile ex-marine, but the blood and guts in her heart could have washed the blood from Pilate’s hands” sets the tone for the rest of the song. It is rousing stuff, but qualified by a sense of unavoidable fate, as the mother pronounces ‘And today on your 13th birthday, I can see through these tears, that my son you’ll be a soldier before 5 more years. Then your love will be like a lantern that guides your ship through the night”. There is every sense that despite the desperate, pride and pomp, the cycle will begin again.
10. “You shouldn’t do that”, by Hawkwind,
(From the Album “In Search of Space”, 1971.)
And so to finish……Although part of me would like to choose something like the vile, catharsis of ‘Cut Hands Has The Solution’ by Whitehouse (2003) instead let us finish with something unmistakably joyous. Hawkwind are an undervalued national treasure whose early sound, chaotic songs and constant presence at Free Festivals helped to usher both Punk and Rave into being. This epic fifteen minute track, which opens one of their finest albums, begins appropriately like a ship blasting off into space. A simple repetitive guitar riff, complimented by whines of space sax and a wave oscillator. The vocals, when they do arrive, offer two interwoven mantras, the first simply “Shouldn’t do that, shouldn’t do that…”. The second, railing against the injustices that the elite perpetrated against the counterculture that Hawkwind embodied for most of the 70’s until the arrival of Punk. “You try so hard to get somewhere, they put you down and cut your hair”, “You’re getting aware, you get nowhere, you get no air”. The effect of the repetition is that at certain points “Shouldn’t do that” transforms itself simply into “Do that” and the music rolls on towards space.
11. “Farewell”, by Boris
(From the Album “Pink”, 2006.)
More joy! Japanese trio Boris have a prodigious catalogue of releases that ranges from hi-energy garage rock to lo-frequency drone. They have collaborated over the last few years with artists such as Merzbow, Sunn o))) and Ghost’s Michio Kurihara. They also seem to be constantly on tour. A Japanese journalist flicking through CD’s in my studio translated the Japanese title of this song as “Like an explosion but bigger.” When the album was given its American release the title became ‘Farewell’. The translated title seems to me perfectly evocative of a song that is the audio equivalent of staring at the sun. It makes me smile and forget myself every time I hear it. If you like this song you might want to check out the excellent “You were holding an umbrella” from last year’s ‘Smile’ album. That’s about all I’d like to say about that ……….farewell.