Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
The emotional idea the album explores is, as far as I can tell, whether to be vulnerable in love or whether to be defiant, hard and alone. This may be connected to Marling breaking up with Marcus Mumford, the lead singer of Mumford and Sons. They went out from 2008 to 2010, then broke up, then Mumford married Carry Mulligan last year. Then again, this may be a crude biographical reading.
The first five songs are one continuous movement, all in the same chord and time register, all in the same style. The style reminds me of Qawwali, the ecstatic Sufi music. The songs have the same ascending and descending chord patterns, with a tabla drum accentuating each footstep up or down. Here’s a short film Marling made to accompany the first four songs, which give you a sense of their feel.
Their Qawwali / Sufi feel may come from a trip that Marling and Mumford and Sons took to India in 2010, where they met and recorded with some Rajastani musicians. Both she and Mumford and Sons seem to like exploring the link between Celtic folk ecstasy and Sufi ecstasy.
But these first five songs are far from declarations of spiritual harmony or unity with God. Marling apparently leaves that to Mumford, the good Christian boy (his parents are founders of the Vineyard church’s UK branch). Marling sounds more like a witch, like Circe, a woman scorned who laughs in the darkness, transforms herself into an eagle and says to her former lover, ‘you don’t leave me, I leave you!’ If these early songs are ecstatic, it is an ecstasy of the damned. The songs manage to be both uplifting but also troubling – the witch enjoying the darkness while also longing to come off the heath and find a hearth. The album gets its title from a wonderful line: ‘When we were in love, if we were, I was an eagle, and you were a dove’, which is a wonderful put-down to a Christian ex – though also hints at Marling’s own culpability in the break-up, her remoteness, her pride.
The fifth song, Master Hunter, reminds me of Dylan’s great break-up song, Tangled Up In Blue – Marling even nods to this with the line ‘it ain’t me babe’. It also reminds me a bit of Bjork’s song, Hunter, the video for which shows Bjork transforming herself into an animal like a shamanic witch (Bjork into a bear, Marling into an eagle). Marling and Bjork are both intensely vulnerable somewhat elvish creatures who’ve been a little unlucky in love, and yet who refuse to be victims and who transform themselves into strong almost mythological figures (think of Bjork transforming herself into the Hunter, or Bachelorette, or Isobel, married to herself).
But the transformation Marling achieves seems like a hollow victory. She has pulled back from the risk of love, which she depicts as a sea she nearly drowned in:
I don’t stare at water anymore,
Water doesn’t do what it did before,
It took me in into the edge of insane when I only meant to swim,
I nearly put a bullet in my brain when the water took me in.
She has become hard, separate:
I am a master hunter I cured my skin, now nothing gets in
Nothing not as hard as it tries
After the ‘interlude’ (yes, it’s an old-school album with two sides), things begin to cheer up a bit. In ‘Undine’, which has a country and western feel to it, she becomes a figure watching a beautiful sea-nymph, who is apparently capable of giving herself to the sea of love (‘love in her had not yet died’). The protagonist asks her ‘oh Undine, so sweet and pure, make me more naive’.
The style of the album shifts from here on. She stops looking backwards and looks forwards, asking ‘Where Can I Go?’ and apparently deciding…America! The B Side feels less like a midnight walpurgisnacht and more breezy, more mellow… more Californian in a word. Just to extend my clumsy biographical reading of the album, Marling moved to California recently and seems to enjoy the independence there, the anonymity, and the opportunity to try her hand at love again. ‘Where Can I Go?’ is, to my mind, the only weak song on the album, the only one that sounds a bit commercial and obvious, but maybe I’ll grow to like it.
But the album really returns to form with Pray For Me, in which some of the musical and emotional themes of the A Side – the urge to be alone, the qawwali scales – are returned to and in some way resolved. It’s a really beautiful song, that builds to a peak of strings with Marling crying ‘I can not love, I want to be alone’, and then realising ‘That’s not me a-trying, that’s the Devil and his lying’.
That realisation – that the Devil in her is the self-destructive urge to wall herself off and separate herself from others and from love – reminds me very much of Nathaniel Hawthorne (just to be a bit Lit Crit), who also has this idea that to separate yourself from the flow of humanity is a form of spiritual death.
Well, a fine album all in all and, as I said, it has the feel of a complete work of art, making you want to return to it and figure out how the songs weave together and comment on each other musically and verbally. It’s great that someone in our culture is producing good art (even if she has bunked off to America). And I can’t wait to see her perform at the Secret Cinema gigs later this month.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Collin begins by tracing the history of MDMA, from its first patenting by Merck in 1912 as a blood-clotting pharmaceutical, to its rediscovery by Russian emigre chemist Alexander Shulgin. Shulgin synthesised various psychedelic drugs in his home laboratory in California and tried them out with his friends. He tried MDMA in 1967, and introduced it to an elderly psychologist friend, Leo Zoff, a decade later. Zoff in turn introduced the drug to thousands of his fellow therapists over the course of the late 70s and 80s.
Collin writes: ‘The therapeutic community is estimated to have distributed in the region of half a million doses of the drug in a decade. Therapists would give their patients MDMA during their sessions to break down mental barriers and enhance communication and intimacy.’ It was initially known as Adam, a name ‘with subtle religious overtones’ (yes, very subtle), and then became known as Empathy or, sometimes, XTC.
The fledgling E community tried to avoid the mistakes made with LSD in the 1960s, and to heed Aldous Huxley’s advice to keep it among the intelligentsia and away from the masses. Timothy Leary, who famously ignored Huxley’s advice in the 60s, was in agreement this time: ‘Let’s face it, we’re talking about an elitist experience [for] sophisticated people…We’re talking about dedicated searchers who are entitled, who’ve earned a bit of XTC.’ But something as fun as E was always going to be hard to keep a secret. Evangelical pill-heads started to distribute the drug more widely, complete with flight manuals explaining how to take it (‘this is a toll for reaching out and touching others in soul and spirit’). And then the more business-minded started to flog it across the US.
It proved particularly popular in gay discos, like the Paradise Garage in New York, where DJ Larry Levan created a heady mixture of the spiritual and the profane: ‘Under the spell of Levan’s narcotic mix, people seemed to transcend human limits’ wrote journalist Frank Own. ‘Men crawled around on their hands and knees howling like dogs, while others gyrated and leapt as if they could fly.’ In Chicago, Frankie Knuckles created a similarly euphoric vibe at the Warehouse. It was a church for the unchurched: ‘It was very soulful, very spiritual”, Knuckles tells Collin. ‘For most of the people that went there it was church for them.’
Knuckles helped to develop the mechanics of acid house ecstasy: he bought a Roland TR-909 drum computer, to create layers of pounding drum and piano. A trio calling themselves Phuture used another machine, the Roland TB-303, originally intended to generate basslines for guitarists to practice with, to create alien-sounding electronic squelches that would come to typify acid house. Meanwhile, in Detroit, three musicians inspired by Kraftwerk and Alvin Toffler’s futurology – Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – developed a more robotic, emotionally-sparse electronic music, which they called techno. If house music incorporated some of the soulful and uplifting vibe of gospel, techno was more transhumanist, imagining a dystopian future of man-as-machine. Here’s what is often considered the first ‘acid techno’ track: Phuture’s Acid Tracks.
The tension between house and techno is a fissure running through ecstasy culture. Is it transcendent spiritual music re-connecting us to some childlike golden age, or machine noise pounding us into an emotionless robot future? Is the high we feel an intimation of the divine, or merely a chemical rush? There weren’t always clear battle-lines between these two philosophies – at a club, you could find yourself dancing with a robot-man on one side and a Goa trance elf on the other.
The Summer of Love as a charismatic revival
E was criminalised in the US in 1985, but by that point the drug had already gone international, in large part thanks to the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or Osho, the controversial multi-millionaire Indian guru. Many of his followers took the drug, and one devotee, Hugh Milne, wrote in his book, Bhagwan – The God That Failed – that ‘the euphoric mood-altering drug Ecstasy was discreetly slipped into rich sannyassins’ drinks just before fund-raising interviews’. By the mid-1980s, according to Arno Adellars, ‘the Dutch followers of Bhagwan were taking so much ecstasy that several supply lines were necessary to meet the demand’. E had come to Europe.
The early days of E in the UK, from 1987 to 1989, have some of the hallmarks of a charismatic religious revival, akin to, say, the Toronto Airport Blessing that would occur in Canada in 1994. In both movements, airport hangars full of devotees found themselves twitching, jerking, even barking with ecstasy. In both, there was an apocalyptic sense that the world was changing forever, that a new age of love was dawning. In both, the inhibitions and self-control of adulthood were thrown off and the innocence of infancy embraced: charismatic Christians spoke in tongues (babbling like babies in a pre-verbal Eden), while raver culture embraced teddy bears, lollipops, dummies, romper-suits, and danced to remixes of themes from kids TV shows.
Here’s some footage of the Toronto Blessing:
And here’s a Sunrise warehouse rave from the Summer of Love:
Certain clubs inspired particular religious fervour, like the Hacienda in Manchester, or Danny Rampling’s Shoom in Southwark. Collin writes: ‘One Shoomer gave away all his possessions and the following weekend was seen running naked down the Portobello Road. Others came to believe that there were supernatural forces of Good and Evil battling for the soul of the city…A few, lost in Shoom, convinced themselves that Danny Rampling was some kind of messiah: the master of the dance, the orchestrator of emotions.’
But there was one big difference between the Summer of Love and the charismatic Christian Revival. When people come down from the emotional high of the Charismatic revival, those who needed something more intellectually sound could find some support in the Bible, or social support in community groups, or a sense of civic purpose in social action. There was precious little philosophy beneath the Summer of Love, except for the music, and the chemicals.
And, as Alexander Shulgin noted, E follows the law of diminishing returns. The first times are incredible, the intensest surge of dopamine your nervous system has ever felt. The next few times are also great, but the body soon becomes accustomed to the drug. So clubbers searched for a way to get back to that peak experience, with cocktails of LSD, amphetamine, ketamine, cocaine, mushrooms, freebase. The collective euphoria of the dancefloor turned darker, uglier. People lost it, ended up in mental homes. Others ‘found solace in religion, joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Hare Krishnas, getting involved with Bahgwan Shree Rajneesh or other New Age cults.’
Many found solace in entrepreneurialism, making money from the business of secular collective ecstasy. In this, perhaps, rave culture is also akin to the mega-churches of the charismatic Christian revival. Except that, in the club scene, the business was rapidly taken over by criminal gangs, including some of the old football firms who’d by now come down from their initial high and realised they didn’t love everyone. From Sunrise raves in London to the Hacienda in Manchester, criminal gangs moved in, brandishing shotguns and machetes, giving club entrepreneurs the stark choice of either cutting them in, or being cut out. The country’s seemingly limitless demand for E and other drugs made fortunes for criminal networks, and it was this, Collin suggests, that inevitably provoked the Establishment into trying to control acid house.
The Jilted Generation
The Thatcher and Major governments’ various attempts at controlling and legislating the movement were clumsy, none more so than the Criminal Justice Bill of 1994, which outlawed ‘the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’ in outdoor ‘raves’. Collin notes: ‘Although other youth movements had inspired legal changes, never before, despite years of post-war moral panics about the activities of teddy boys, mods, hippies and punks, had a government considered young people’s music so subversive as to attempt to prohibit it.’
Playing Al-Qaeda to the Major government’s neo-cons were a techno-anarchist collective called Spiral Tribe, who travelled across England with their sound-system in the summer of 1991. For the members of Spiral Tribe, acid techno was not a weekend thrill, it was a hardcore lifestyle. The members showed their complete devotion to it by shaving their heads like monks or military recruits, and wearing black military fatigues. The Tribe’s charismatic spokesperson, Mark Harrison, says: ‘The unspoken rule or initiation with Spiral Tribe was that you had to live it, twenty-four hours a day.’
Collin writes: ‘Spiral Tribe began to believe that techno was the new folk music…and for it to take proper physical and psychological effect it must be played as loud and for as long as possible; they started to imagine that the Spiral Tribe was in some way connected to prehistoric tribes of nomads…that free parties were shamanic rites which…could reconnect urban youth to the earth…thus averting imminent ecological crisis.’ Harrison would sound positively Pythagorean in his vision: ‘As legend would have it, there’s a musical note that will free the people..’ Their techno-pagan antics culminated in an abortive attempt to ‘zap’ Canary Wharf with techno, thereby stripping the evil pyramid of its dark power. ‘Even though it only lasted one hour, we had to do it’, explains Harrison. ‘It was a victory for us because that pyramid doesn’t work any more, it doesn’t have that power’.
Predictably, Spiral Tribe were soon closed down, although the techno-crustie resistance continues and elements of it survived into the Occupy movement, another somewhat millenarial uprising. Meanwhile, the Criminal Justice Bill did nothing to end the popularity of electronic music. While the illegal rave scene declined, clubs became professionalised, and a new breed of superclub rose up – Gatecrasher, Cream, Renaissance, Ministry of Sound. Dance music became like disco – a brief chemical holiday from the ennui of 9 to 5 office capitalism. The sounds and visuals of dance music became ubiquitous, heard and seen in every movie or advert. It became part of the establishment, with DJ Tiesto playing the 2004 Olympic opening ceremony, and Underworld playing the 2012 Ceremony. The nation’s drug-taking has not gone down, however, so criminal gangs must presumably still be making a killing…but the trade seems to have become more organised.
Now, in the last two or three years, dance music has suddenly gone mainstream in the US. In the late noughties, people were amazed that top DJs like Paul Oakenfold could earn £750,000 a year. Now, thanks to the enormous US dance scene, DJ Tiesto earns a reported $250,000 a night, and an incredible $22 million a year. ‘Rave culture’, writes Rolling Stone this month, ‘has taken over this generation full bore’. Next month sees one of the biggest ever electronic dance festivals – the Electronic Daisy Chain in Las Vegas. To British retired ravers in their 30s and 40s, the new revival may seem garish and commercial. But to the kids on the dancefloor, on their first pill, it must seem like the Age of Love is finally dawning.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
So you live in a church, your DJ name is Sister Bliss, your first DJ gig was at Heaven, your band is called Faithless, and your hits include ‘God is a DJ’, ‘Reverence’, and ‘Salva Mea’. Clearly Faithless were riffing off the spiritual vibe of dance music in the early 1990s, as were other bands then like the Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, even The Shamen. Dance music back back then seems more spiritual and idealistic than it does now…
I guess people had experiences while out on the nascent club scene and brought them back into the studio with them. All the people I know who were involved in dance music were punters as well, they weren’t divorced from the scene. They’d obviously experienced something special on the dance-floor and were moved by it, emotionally and spiritually. They probably felt more connected to other people than they had before. A lot of people in dance music aren’t so comfortable in the social world or in their own skins. House music was a really embracing place - as one of our lyrics says ‘it’s one house, there’s room for all’. It broke down barriers of class, race, gender. And it came out of a tough political era. Very disillusioned people were seeking some kind of community.
And obviously it coincided with the price of Es coming down. Pills were really the preserve of the New York gay community in the late 80s, and finally found their way over to the UK. Very few people had that experience, then suddenly, Britain was awash with Ecstasy. It became something that everyone could partake in. So the drugs together with the lights, the music and the sense of the illicit turned raves into communal ecstatic experiences where one could forget the self. There was a palpable energy, like I imagine you would get in the middle of a really powerful religious service with the laying on of hands and the talking in tongues. People lost themselves in the music in a really primal, tribal way.
There was also something very pagan about it. I remember going round an anthropology museum in Mexico, and it had all these colourful and densely patterned artifacts from Mayan civilisation, showing dances and human sacrifices, and there were labels under them saying ‘this was made under the influence of mind-altering psychedelics like peyote or mescal’. I thought, they were off it too!
And there was also a more aggressive energy to dance music in the early days. It wasn’t all ‘Peace, Love and Happiness’, it was also about being anti-establishment as well.
Which you get a lot of in, for example, The Prodigy.
Exactly. Dance music was literally outlawed [by the Criminal Justice Bill], so it made people feel like outlaws. There’s nothing more buzzy than feeling a bit subversive.
And for uptight British people of course, it’s important to get out of their heads and their inhibitions.
Yeah, breaking out of the Puritan Reformation.
When you first went clubbing what was it like?
I was addicted to it. It was like something had clicked in my DNA, with the music, with the experience, and the fact it was quite sensory. You know, when you go to see a band, you’re looking at the stage. But at a rave, even in some shitty old warehouse, you’d be immersed in smoke and strobes.
So it’s not just a passive spectator thing.
Exactly. It’s less of a spectator sport. You can lose yourself in the rhythm of the music. This was before electronic music was on the radio, on adverts, before it became the background soundtrack to our lives. Back then it was really alien: drum machines, squelchy synths. It wasn’t a familiar landscape. Another friend of mine discovered electronic music at the same time. This was 1987, I was 17 and had just passed my driving test. I’d drive and she’s read the maps and get us to these warehouse parties. We’d wait around and then get a number, meet at a petrol station. Or you’d pick up a flyer at a record club, or your friends would tell you about parties.
Did you do E?
Of course. I remember the first time - it was extremely exciting and an incredible experience. Jane Bussman and Matthew Collins have written very well on it – almost every page of their books I was like ‘yes, that’s how it was’.
And you were also a vinyl junkie…
Yes. I had this innate belief that I could become a good DJ. I practiced my tits off and drove everyone I lived with mad, but paid them back by getting them on guest lists. I went without food and fags to buy records because I was so passionate about being up on this music. It was about finding the new sound. I’ve always described it as the weekly pilgrimage to the record shop. The record shop was a community. It was a little church where we came to worship the latest shrink-wrapped import from the New York house scene. I’d go to four or five different ones around London – Black Market, Choccy’s Tunes, TRAX, Groove Records and Pure Groove. When I was at college, they used to send me boxes of records up to Birmingham, because there was no decent record store up there. That’s how I first heard of Rollo – they sent me Felix’s Don’t You Want Me, which he’d produced. I didn’t like it at first!
So Faithless grew out of your meeting with Ben Langmaid [now one half of La Roux] in a record store in Archway. He introduced you to Rollo and Maxi.
Yes. You just meet people and talk about music you love. That’s how I started making music. Ben didn’t play an instrument, but the sampler revolution meant it didn’t matter, as long as you had a sampler or an Atari. It undermined the monopoly of the studios, which were wildly expensive, and opened the floodgates. It was a very DIY scene, very egalitarian. I’ve worked with lots of people who can’t play a bloody note. And it wasn’t image-based like so much of pop music. It didn’t matter what you looked like. The punter and the DJ were one. It was much more about the connection with the ordinariness of life. Faithless was a lot about that.
Were you consciously exploring the idea of dance as a secular religion in Faithless? I mean, with songs like Reverence, Salva Mea, God is a DJ and so on. Even your DJ name was quasi-religious – Sister Bliss.
Well, that bit was kind of coincidental. Sister Bliss was the least rude DJ name I could come up with, for my first gig. Rollo had studied philosophy at university, although he only got a 2.2, cos he was busy chasing girls and partying. Then, after Ben brought me down to Rollo’s studio, and we had made a few dance records together, he and I met Maxi through Ben. Maxi was a Buddhist rapper – we’d never met one of them before. So we sat talking in the studio, long into the night, asking him what his philosophy meant to him, and what it meant in everyday life.
Maxi’s a Nichiren Daishonin Buddhist. Nichiren was a 12th-century Japanese monk who came up with his own interpretation of the Buddha Gautama’s ideas. He said the Buddha is present in every one, and we ourselves are the Buddha. All you need to do is call out the Buddha name to raise the Buddhahood inherent within you. The idea that anyone could be a Buddha was a radical idea in Japanese society, where there was a huge hierarchical priesthood. Maxi put a lot of his philosophy into his lyrics. For example, the song Reverence is Maxi’s blueprint for philosophy:
I ain’t a Christian, sometimes I feel like dissin’ ‘em
But listen, I’m just tryin’ to tell you, what I know
If you could, once relax
Chill to the max, these words on wax
Would cause sweet bells to ring in your soul
If I say God is alive I know you wanna know why
Babies die, food don’t grow, why trains smash, planes crash
Situation mash and slam bam your fellow man
Money’s in fashion, huh, it ain’t rational,
Because damn it, he didn’t just give us the planet
And its wealth, deep inside your soul he left a piece of himself
The lord is in here.
Faithless was not purely escapist or mindless hedonism. It was about being fallible and human, and that’s why it’s touched people’s lives. It’s not just about Las Vegas pool parties. Though of course, then there came the era of people worshipping the DJ. There was a cover of Mixmag, it said ‘Sasha: son of God?’. Our song ‘God is a DJ’ was kind of a provocative nod to that, although really, God is a DJ is a metaphor for the beauty inherent in life itself: ‘it’s in minor keys, solutions and remedies, enemies becoming friends, when bitterness ends…. this is my church’.
Faithless quickly evolved into an eight-piece live band, which would play some of the biggest rock festivals in the world – for example, you twice played the main stage at Glastonbury. Did it give you an incredible sense of power to see that enormous Glastonbury crowd bouncing up and down to your songs?
I wouldn’t say it gives you a big sense of power. I think Maxi would say the same: it’s humbling. We’d come off stage and say, I can’t believe it. Ten years ago we couldn’t get arrested, and now we’re playing the main stage and Stevie Wonder’s on after us. We never got over the feeling that we’re fairly ordinary people that love what we do, and believe in what we do…but to feel that you’re among luminaries, and a huge crowd that’s just giving you love…It’s like a tantric energy – they give it to you, and you give it to them. I’ve never had a religious experience, but I imagine that’s as close to religion as it bloody gets. Because you’re seeing the most beautiful and the best part of people. You’re seeing people who have pain, and troubles in everyday life, and they’re feeling unadulterated joy. They’re being the best they can be, and you’re being the best you can be. That’s God-like. It’s beyond ego.
You and Maxi are obviously humble people with good relationships, so you didn’t get lost in that. Do you know musicians who did?
Yes, very much so. We worked a bit with Robbie Williams, who was obviously idolized by millions. He did a load of festivals with us, and used to come and sit in our dressing room. And he’d say ‘God, you guys talk to each other’. It’s like he was so famous that his band couldn’t really connect to him, maybe the management had told them what they could and couldn’t say to Robbie. He was a young man, hugely egotistical in one sense yet utterly crushed by it. And he was so anxious about performing live, despite being brilliant at it. He couldn’t really believe in himself and felt fraudulent. He was just battling with it at all times. Playing live is hugely energising and exhausting simultaneously – you take all that adrenalin off the stage after the show. But then you crash, and need something to keep you going. That’s why some people get mired in drink and drugs, because you’re so fucking high when you come off stage you want that feeling to never end.
But is it dangerous if the crowd is your main source of love?
Yes. You don’t want to depend too much on that adoration. Music fans can be fickle and every band has its day. I had a friend who got into music for different reasons to me. He always dreamt of the love of the crowd. And it’s hollow. I mean, it’s real in the moment, but you need other stuff to sustain you – a philosophy, or faith, or a belief in yourself. If you’re going out there to fill a hole in your soul with love…the hole isn’t going to go away. You can act the big star, then just be a mess the moment you walk off stage. It becomes a rather schizophrenic existence.
What are the imperfections of dance music as a religion?
I’ve never said that dance music is perfect. But there can be a perfection in it, in the moment, when the DJ drops that tune, and the crowd all feel it at the same time, and you get that connection. It’s very special.
But there is a dark side to it too isn’t there? I had quite a few raver friends who messed themselves up on drugs.
Yeah of course. I got really depressed in the late 90s and laid off everything, because I started feeling really paranoid. But I was also working in a scene where there were some quite envious people, and when you start to do well, there’s envy. But of course there’s a dark side – sometimes people make friends, but they’re just disco friendships. They’re not there to support you, they’re there for the good times. I feel blessed that the friends I made in those formative times are still my friends. We made deep loving connections, partly because we had profound shared experiences. There were some epic times that we had carousing, that we all remember very fondly. We share collective memories. I imagine religion feeds on that as well.
Yes, peak moments. Tell me about a favourite peak moment.
Well, I don’t want to talk about them too much. One was The Eclipse in Coventry. My God, what a mess that was. It had the latest licence in the Midlands. You could stay there til 8 or 9 in the morning. I remember they built a replica of Stonehenge on the stage for the summer solstice. We used to make a regular pilgrimage to The Eclipse in a convoy…rave disciples!
Do you think music’s power over us is spiritual and transcendent, or mechanistic? What I mean is, you could see music’s power as mechanical, in that you just work out the mechanical formula to manipulate people’s emotions.
There is some music that is manipulative, for sure. I feel Faithless discovered a structure or arrangement, which we spent ages honing that has become much aped and contrived.
For example, there’s a particular sort of suspense and build-up in Faithless songs.
Yes,that was very much Rollo’s ethos with dance music – that the best records had a real sense of tension and drama, and then a subsequent release. We experimented for ages with our arrangements, and we really listened to the structure of the best records. Then after we had huge global success with ‘Insomnia’, it became a standard blueprint which was copied a lot in a derivative way by lots of producers. There are some very commercial dance records now that are so manipulative. They attempt to do what Faithless did but in a really crass way, without taking you on a journey along the way, and without any lyrical integrity. Rollo said to me ‘You can hear them buying a private jet with these records’. On the surface, it’s very attractive – who wouldn’t want to go to Vegas and get $300,000 for just standing there playing your own music. But the other side of that is, you’re making it lowest common denominator, which we always wanted to avoid.
But your songs had an amazing power over people’s emotions, so there were manipulative in a way…
You’re right, maybe we were just more artful. I like to thing it was less crass. We avoided doing the less obvious and cheesy. I like to think our music was never made with an eye to the charts. It was made for the dance music community, for ourselves and without compromise.
What do you think of contemporary electronic music?
What’s happening now is America has recently got into it. It’s very interesting – one of the most religious societies, and they’re now falling for dance music – which previously they probably would have seen as a black, gay, Satanic music – as passionately as we did in the 1990s. It’s become a massive industry. Contemporaries of mine are making huge sums, like Tiesto, who’s a year older than me, and who’s now making $40 million a year.
Me and Rollo have long discussions about dance music becoming this insane industry. What’s it standing for? Something really vacuous and absolutely not spiritual. It’s about table-service and pool parties in Vegas. It’s become less subversive and counter-cultural, and is now organised into these mega-rave productions, like fun-fairs for children. That’s when the real underground grows stronger, because some people don’t want the Guetta-isation of dance, they want to go to some really mad, unregulated place, some dirty jackin’ warehouse with quality music.
Has dance music lost its soul?
There’s always been the flossy side of dance music. But then if you dig deeper, there are people making more interesting stuff, expressing their actual lives. Like grime, that’s a real counterculture, people expressing and finding a way out of a pretty shit life-situation. But even that changes over time as it becomes more successful, like Dizzee Rascal, who started out as the most antagonistic rapper, then eventually he goes to Calvin Harris and makes the biggest record of his career. Who’s going to knock it?
Do you think, after 25 years of dance music, that we’ve become so familiar to the ‘build up / drop’ dynamic that we’ve become numb to it, so it has to be done in ever larger and more ridiculous proportions, like on a Skrillex song? Music can become worn out, can’t it?
Well, this is where music and technology meet. Suddenly there’s a new plug-in, or a new keyboard will come out. Or someone will make a mistake, which is Brian Eno’s big thing, like someone will play a bassline and it gets put through a keyboard amp. Weird things happen. From those mistakes come a whole new set of techniques. What I love about electronic music is there are no rules. Some people are making really complex busy-sounding music, the whole Complextro scene, while others are going so back to basics that it’s skeletal, like The XX. There are people still seeking, still on a journey. The best dance music is a journey – through technology, through consciousness. There must be something in it – you’ve gone somewhere and arrived somewhere new. At its best takes you on a journey as a person, into love and blissfulness.
Though it could just be you’re getting your thrills from the music rather than from genuine relationships.
Well, Maxi would say it’s about the people you’re with. Your experience will be better if it’s collective than if you’re on your own…unless you’re sitting there with a bucket of pills and your favourite Grooverider tape.
Sister Bliss and Rollo are now working on a new project with the award-winning performance poet, Kate Tempest.
If you enjoyed this, check out this interview I did with James Kennaway, a historian who has explored the history of moral-medical panics around music, from Wagner to heavy metal.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
‘Er…I had depression and anxiety about a decade ago…and I think perhaps the Holy Spirit helped me…’
‘but funny thing is, haha, it…er….led me to Greek philosophy.’
‘…and…I became interested in how Greek philosophy inspired modern therapy…’
Get to the Jesus bit!
‘…but I’m also interested in Christianity, so I came on Alpha…’
‘…and it was fun. I met some nice people…’
CUT! Cue a shepherd’s crook yanking me off from the side of the stage.
Not really, but the audience cheered every other testimonial, while I felt my more nuanced message failed to hit home. I sloped off stage feeling like a rapper at a country and western festival. And then I got driven off to another church, and had to do it all over again.
Anyway, this newsletter is not about that. It’s about this. While I was waiting to go on stage at HTB, the service began. The video screens around the church flickered to life, and various uplifting images came on, of people finding transcendence in the outdoors, mothers hugging their children, the stars twinkling and so on, with big lettering superimposed saying ‘Come to find MEANING’ and ‘God is MASSIVE’. The music got louder and faster, and then suddenly the band came on stage and started playing, the lead-singer was this girl with an amazing voice, and everyone got to their feet to sing along, and I swear, I nearly cried. My heart swelled with emotion. I was tired, no doubt, somewhat frazzled. Yet a few chords of Christian rock, some lights and video, and the floodgates almost opened.
And what better proof of the Holy Spirit would there be than that? All around me, the Spirit was filling people. The second service was even more full on – it was the student service, for teenagers. Well, you can imagine. They were crying, laughing, shaking, hands aloft, on their knees, eyes closed in ecstasy. Feeling it. It reminded me of the Whirligig, the club my friends had gone to when we were 16, where we’d all taken ecstasy for the first time, except these kids were just on Jesus. Still, some of them seemed just as strung out as my friends and I back then – one kid was giggling away to himself, and I thought, in the scientific materialist paradigm of the DSM, that young fellow might be considered to have mental health issues, but here, at this church, he is loved and his eccentricity is seen as a sign of grace. (I later found out that this sort of laughter is actually quite typical of charismatic worship, so I was perhaps being a bit judgmental in thinking the boy had mental problems!)
What HTB gets is the power of music. It’s a non-cognitive form of persuasion. There I was, all ready to deliver my nuanced message of liberal ambivalence, and the music nearly swept me away. Plato best understood the power of music, how it works not by persuading our reason, but by side-stepping it, and connecting directly with our feelings. Before you know it, you’re tapping your foot, singing along, and you realise the words are ‘I Love Jesus’. Sing it enough times, and a belief or attitude is formed in your character, without you ever necessarily considering it. This is the power of music. That’s why Plato thought music should be carefully controlled in his Republic – it was too important to the formation of national character to be left to musicians, those mad prophets of ecstasy.
When I was growing up, pop music meant far more to me than anything I heard or sang in church. I had to go to church every day at school, and it left me cold. But when I listened to Otis Redding, or Public Enemy, or the Happy Mondays, or Primal Scream, then I felt something. When I played drums with my band, that meant something. The beat and the melody convinced me of the whole ideology of pop: don’t fight it, feel it, as Bobby Gillespie told me. Come together, get loaded, get higher than the sun. And when, a few weeks ago, I first saw a Christian rock band on stage at HTB, I thought: you apostates! You heretics! How dare you exploit my music to spread your religion. Stick to Onward Christian Soldiers and leave rock and roll alone!
Sweet Soul Music
What I’m belatedly realising is this is a slightly upside-down way of looking at it. Pop music – rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll, dance – came from the church. It took the melodies and the emotions of gospel, and secularised them. It created a secular faith, an experience, a feeling, which brought people together, pink and brown, believers and non-believers, and gave us an emotional outlet and a brief feeling of unity, transcendence and power.
I’m reading a great book about this. It’s called Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick, and it’s about the rise of Southern Soul in the 1960s. It starts off by looking at three pioneers of soul music – Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Solomon Burke – all of whom took music from the gospel church into the realm of the secular and the profane. Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’, released in 1954, was a cover of a gospel song called ‘It Must Be Jesus’. Charles used the same wails, shouts, calls and response as you would find in any Pentecostal church, re-packaged it, and brought it into the white, secular mainstream. That opened the floodgates for a whole litany of other shakers and shouters, from the angelic Sam Cooke, to the screaming James Brown, to the pitiful Otis Redding.
In their trembling voices is a plea – they’re begging, they’re pleading, they’re yearning. It’s like a Sufi singer, crying for their spiritual home. Except in soul music, it’s usually about a woman, ostensibly. But in that plea, we are all re-connected to a much older religious emotion, a longing for God, a longing for deliverance. The best soul songs show what Guralnick, quoting Hitchock, calls ‘knowledgeable apprehension’: they build, then fall back, then build again, then finally reach a moment of ecstasy, a wail, like the arch of a gothic cathedral – and just for a moment, you’re in the realm of the sacred. That’s how I feel, anyway, when Al Green wails 2 minutes 42 seconds into ‘Tired of Being Alone’. My favourite songs all have a moment of ecstasy, like when, 3 minutes 22 seconds into ‘Heroes’, David Bowie goes up an octave and cries ‘I…I will be king’.
The leap from the church to R&B was seen as scandalous in the 1950s. Singers like Sam Cooke were inspiring powerful, uncontrollable emotions in their female audience, but directing them not to God but to…sex! And when the music swept away white teenagers too through radio and TV, it provoked even more moral panic. One friend described the first time Sam Cooke played the white-only nightclub, the Copacabana: ‘man, those chicks were popping, it was almost like a sex act man, like he was beating up on them to get an orgasm’.
When Cooke was shot dead by a motel owner in 1964, apparently after trying to rape a girl, it was taken by many in the gospel community as divine judgement on his decision to leave the church and move into R&B. There was even a gospel song about the danger of being lured away from the church into pop music, for the money and power and sex, called ‘He Gained the World (But Lost His Soul)’:
He started out in church
Singing in the gospel choir
Every Sunday he sang a solo
That made the sisters shout and cry
The children danced the Holy Ghost
When he sang and played his tambourine
After church he’d tell the preacher
All about his plans and dreams…
It hurt the congregation when they found out the news
That he’d stopped singing for the Lord
And started singing that rhythm and blues…
Now he gained the world, but he lost his soul…
Some pop icons would repent, abandon rock and roll and go back to the church to become ministers: Al Green, Little Richard, Alice Cooper, even Richard Coles from the Communards. But most stayed where the party was, using music to try and get rich and get laid. Over the years, pop music perfected the mechanics of ecstasy – the art of driving a crowd wild with the beat, the break, the call and response, the dance moves, the histrionics, the lights, the props, the pageantry. For 50 years, from 1950 to 2000, pop music was the unofficial cult of western industrial societies (now it’s been replaced by the cult of technology and we’re mainly left with nostalgia).
Popular music provided a temporary community through dancefloors, moshpits, festival sing-alongs. It also provided community through being in a band. Bands are mini ethical communities, where you learn about obligations and commitments to one another – the commitment to show up to practice, to work on getting tight. This is what Roddy Doyle, was getting at in The Commitments: how bands are a form of spiritual community, albeit an incredibly fragile one, constantly on the verge of falling apart.
Well, of course there are all kinds of problems with pop music as a secular religion. It inspired and channeled religious emotions not towards God but towards the Pop Star, and this messed people up – particularly the pop stars. The drugs which fueled the religious exaltation also messed many people up – out of the four people in my first band, fatefully named Lunatic Fringe, three of us developed mental illnesses because of drugs. And, finally, something that was meant to be about community and transcendence ended up, in gangsta rap, in the glorification of money, power and violence. Hip hop has more power than any other contemporary music, but now you listen to the lyrics and think, my God, this is hateful. But at its best, soul and rock and roll gave us an outlet for emotions that were often left out of the rationalised world of modern capitalism. It let us feel broken, lost, hurt, lonely, longing for release, and let us know other people felt the same – like prisoners communicating with each other by tapping on the pipes in their cell.
Meanwhile, the church has moved from its initial condemnation of rock and roll, towards embracing its spirit and its music. In the 1960s and 70s, the Charismatic Renewal movement swept through western churches, with intense services accompanied by signs, wonders and ecstasies, and often powered by joyous rock music. In the 1970s, a musician called John Wimber left the Righteous Brothers, found Jesus and started the Vineyard Movement, which briefly converted Bob Dylan, and from which Mumford and Sons originate. The Vineyard Movement emphasised the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and rock music played a big part in its services. Wimber came over to the UK in the 1990s, and helped to inspire the ill-fated 9 O’Clock Service in Sheffield (the so-called ‘rave church’), and spread the charismatic embrace of rock to the affluent kids of HTB in Knightsbridge. HTB and Alpha is soaked in rock references: the first sermon I saw there, the preacher played a clip from Pink Floyd in the sermon! And from HTB, the rock-infused charismatic movement is gradually spreading into the entire Church of England. Who’d have thought it: the staid old Anglican Church has picked up the mechanics of ecstasy from rock and roll.
Check it out: this is a video from HillSong, a massive charismatic rock church in Australia. If you find it a bit too, er, plain vanilla, try this playlist I made of some great 60s soul tracks. Way more uplifting! And you know why? Because the soul songs go lower. They go down into the pain in a way this ultra-white preppie Christian rock never does. It’s so upbeat and chirpy, it doesn’t have any room for the possibility of failure. It has no blues.
In other news:
The journalist Miranda Sawyer has been exploring similar themes to this piece in a series for Radio 6 on music and emotions. In this episode, she considers the emotion of Jubilation, and interviews Sister Bliss – who hopefully I’ll be interviewing next week!
Interesting Prospect review of Antony Pagden’s new book on the Enlightenment, which argues it was based not so much on reason as on sympathy. But did it fatally lack sympathy for the majority of the world who believed in God?
Here’s an interview I did with the Irish Times.
Nice piece by Juliet Michaelson of new economics foundation, critiquing the Justin Wolfers paper on income and well-being that I linked to last week.
This is well interesting: a cultural history of exhaustion, from the Medical Humanities Centre in Durham.
The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) in the US, which is the main funder of mental health research in the US, has shaken up the world of psychology by rejecting DSM 5, the so-called ‘bible of psychiatric diagnosis’, as too inaccurate – before it’s even been published. Its director says NIMH is building its own new diagnostic criteria, which are alas likely to be even more biomedical than DSM.
Meanwhile, a new art show in New York is called DSM V. Can the musical be far behind?
A novelist with MS says she has a new lease of life thanks to the ‘brain enhancing drug’, Modafinil.
Look, we did a philosophy picnic on Hampstead Heath! It was fun.
That’s all for this week. Buy the book and give it to a friend!
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
With this in mind, I want to examine the love-hate battle between two cults in the last 60 years: the cult of nationalism, and the cult of rock and roll.
First we need to look at the role of music in the cult of nationalism. During the Enlightenment, rationalist philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and and the Baron de Montesquieu challenged the supernatural authority of monarchs and the Church, and instead put forward a social contract model of the state, in which people join together in a state through rational self-interest and the desire for safety and profit. Music played no role in these philosophers’ understanding of politics.
To Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the first philosopher of Romanticism, the rationalist account of politics seemed an incredibly tepid and unheroic vision of community. Rousseau put forward an alternative vision of the state, in which citizens would be magically fused together through their heroic and self-sacrificing passions. The passionate cult of Christianity would be replaced by the passionate cult of the nation. He tentatively imagined that music could play a role in this, by shaping the public consciousness and rousing patriotic sentiments.
In 1789, the year after Rousseau’s death, the French Revolution seemed to offer a practical example of this sort of passionate politics, with the French populace joined together in a common sense of Romantic nationalism, symbolised by their Roman salutes. And that Romantic nationalism was in part fostered by a ditty composed by a young army engineer called Roger de Lisle, called La Marseillaise.
At the same time, in Prussia, the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder was researching the folk myths of various cultures, and suggesting that folk stories and ballads helped to create the volksgeist or genius of a nation. This idea elevated the artist and composer to the exalted position of national spirit-channeler. “A poet”, he wrote in 1767, “is the creator of the nation around him, he gives them a world to see and has their souls in his hand to lead them to that world.” Over the next 150 years, many composers would take up Herder’s challenge, and try to create national folk epics for their nations, such as Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies (1847), Sibelius’ Finlandia (1899), Grieg’s Peer Gynt (1875), Mussogorsky’s Boris Godunov (1873) and, above all, the Ring-Cycle of Richard Wagner (1869).
Such pieces were unofficial national anthems, though national governments also started to create official anthems, to be played and sung when large crowds were gathered together, at the theatre, at sport, even for large dinners (in the City of London, the national anthem is still sung at the end of big dinners), and especially to be sung during war-time. Such anthems, repeated over and over, would help to inspire patriotic passions and forge a national identity, just as the repetition of Christian psalms and hymns helped to forge a Christian identity.
But nationalist songs, rather than glorifying God, would glorify the nation’s leader or the nation itself. They would define the national identity and defend it against foreign invasions – in this famous scene from Casablanca, for example, a group of German soldiers singing their anthem is drowned out by the crowd singing La Marseillaise. Note how La Marseillaise also defends the tribe’s women from the risk of breeding with the alien species – the woman being chatted up by the Nazis resists their advances once she starts singing the anthem.
The new cult
After World War II, a new cult emerged to challenge the cult of nationalism: rock and roll. It took rhythms that had emerged from African-American jazz, gospel and blues, and the emotional expressiveness and intensity connected with those musics, and electrified it, making it louder, and spreading it further through record-players, radio and TV. The impact on young people was intense and somatic: the first rock and roll concert, organised by radio DJ Alan Freed in 1952, turned into a riot. The mass hysteria shown by teenage female audiences at shows by teen idols like Elvis Presley or Ricky Nelson struck some disapproving adults as close to the emotional excesses of fascism.
Rock and roll often challenged nationalism, at least in its militaristic and jingoistic incarnation. The most obvious example is the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, released on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, which got to number one despite being banned from airplay. In that song, the punk subcult declared its independence from the ubiquitous nationalist propaganda. Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, with the Stars and Stripes on the cover, was a dark reflection of an America torn apart by race riots, and African-Americans’ desire to escape somewhere else – to Africa, or one’s drugged-out inner space.
Sometimes, rock and roll involved a contestation over what the nation stood for, like Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Our Land’, which was written in response to Irving Berlin’s jingoistic ‘God Save America’, and which later became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. Likewise, when Jimi Hendrix played the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock, he wasn’t necessarily ridiculing America, but rather declaring (as he later explained) ‘we’re all Americans’, even hippies opposed to the Vietnam War. Sometimes rock and roll expressed a simple celebration of national pride, as in Chuck Berry’s Back in the USA or the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA, or local pride as in Tupac’s California Love or Lily Allen’s LDN.
A band’s devoted following could be a sort of mini-nation, with its own flags, symbols, anthems and heroes – and thus a rival to the cult of the nation. Two examples from the 1970s would be the cult of Ziggy Stardust, the tour for which ended with the national anthem clearly played ironically, or the cult of Queen, who also played the national anthem at their tours, not for the glorification of the monarch, but of themselves and their fans. If you watch Queen perform at Live Aid – to my mind one of the best live rock performances – you see the audience waving banners saying ‘Queen Works’ and putting their hands up in the Roman salute to Freddie Mercury as he sings ‘We Are The Champions’. It is a rival to the nation-cult, and a much less toxic one than militaristic nationalism.
The new cult is absorbed into the old
The guardians of the nation-state responded, initially, with deep alarm. Critics of rock and roll often used the language of infection and invasion – the invasion of the white nation’s psyche by alien rhythms from the African jungle. Racist critics were also often terrified by the prospect of interbreeding or ‘miscegenation’ – in the old cult, the ‘nation’ was often defined racially, while in the new cult, all the races seemed to mingle together. In 1956, Nat King Cole was attacked on stage in Alabama by a group of white supremacists who claimed he slept with his white teenage fans. What particularly worried the Establishment was the cultural power wielded by rock and roll stars. Through radio, they seemed to have a direct line straight into the psyche of the nation’s youth, and thus exerted far more power and influence than monarchs or politicians. Presidents came and went, while Elvis remained the King.
Politicians, the press and the church tried to protect the nation’s youth initially by going after radio DJs like Alan Freed, the pioneer of rock and roll (and inventor of the term) who was driven to an early grave by political campaigns against him. Then they went after the musicians themselves, for sex offences (Chuck Berry), for drug offences (Keith Richards), for tax offences (James Brown), for weapon offences (Lil Wayne). In the 1980s, churches and ethical campaigners went after pop for its Satanic influences and its obscenity. In the 1990s, the British government went after rave music by passing the Criminal Justice Bill, outlawing any outdoor parties playing repetitive beats. But rock and roll always managed to escape, like Dionysus escaping the prison of King Pentheus.
The smarter members of the Establishment, however, recognised that the new cult could be a new form of power for the nation-state, as shown by a reception for the Beatles held at the British Embassy in Washington on their first, epoch-making visit to the US in 1964. ‘Come now and do your stuff’, a young embassy official told John Lennon on that occasion. ‘I’m not going back through that crowd – I want a drink!’ Lennon replied. ‘Oh yes you are’, said the official. And he did. The Beatles and later British bands like Bowie, the Stones and Led Zeppelin did more to forge a ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK than any post-war politician. Capitalism, unlike communism, managed to absorb rock and roll, and turn it into a commodity like any other. A new generation arose of LSD-popping rock and roll entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Steve Jobs.
By the 1990s, the cult of rock and roll had become successfully absorbed into the cult of the nation-state, just as Christianity eventually became the official cult of the Roman Empire. Tony Blair strummed an electric guitar for the cameras and welcomed Oasis to Number 10. Bill Clinton played sax during his campaign and helped to make a 1997 documentary for VH-1 called Bill Clinton: rock and roll president (he even named his daughter after the Joni Mitchell song Chelsea Morning). Now, at major national events like the Super-Bowl, the Olympics opening ceremony or the funeral of Princess Diana, we don’t play Elgar or Haydn or Aaron Copeland, we play Elton John, Paul McCartney or Underworld. While the Queen’s silver jubilee may have been a battle between patriotism and punk, by her diamond jubilee thirty years later, rock was all-conquering, and the Queen was forced to attend a rock concert. Supposedly it was in her honour, but really, the honour was all rock’s.
Of course, once the cult of rock has become the official religion of the establishment, some might say the cult has lost something, just as Christianity lost something when Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. It is no longer the music of poor outsiders. It is the music of the rich and powerful. What strange new cult is bubbling to birth in the underground?
In other news:
Here is a new podcast I did for Aeon Magazine, all about empathy, featuring interviews with Roman Krznaric, Maria Konnikova and Tobias Jones. Check it out, it’s good – and if you like it, please share it etc.
Here’s something I wrote on Stoicism for the Guardian this week.
My boss at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Thomas Dixon, presented a cultural history of weeping on Radio 3 this week, which you can listen to here.
Next Tuesday I am starting to teach a free six-week evening course in practical philosophy at Queen Mary in London, which is open to the public. Details here .
On Wednesday next week at the School of Life, I’m interviewing the philosopher Havi Carel about how philosophy can help us through illness. Still a few tickets left, here.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’s new book on Scientology has been dropped by its publisher in the UK for fear of legal battles, but it’s out in the US. Here’s a podcast interview with him.
Here’s Ross Andersen writing in the Atlantic about those crazy Oxford bioethicists’ latest claim: that we have a moral obligation to take ‘love drugs’.
A programme from Wales whereby GPs prescribe self-help books is being rolled out in England. Pity the government has closed thousands of libraries.
I’m doing the Alpha course at the moment, and enjoying it (although I don’t feel massively changed). Here is Jon Ronson’s excellent article about it, including the dreaded ‘Alpha weekend’ where everyone starts speaking in tongues (I’m going on it in two weeks…).
That’s all for this week. Here, after a week of crappy weather, are some springboks pronking.
See you next week,
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>