Ebony and Ivory? A not quite flawless anti-racism song … Thoughts on making musical instruments and on the world’s first vegan-certified violin
Music and the animal kingdom: these are two things which, at first glance, have little to do with one another. But if you take a second look, it makes you start to think. Histori-cally, musical instruments are often made out of materials from – killed, stripped – animals: Drums are made with animal skins or covered with fur, and the tortoise shell from turtles is found in mouthpieces. Acoustic guitars use cow bones for the saddle on which the strings rest, and violin strings are made of dried gut. The bows of string players, in turn, are strung with horsehair, which is carefully harvested from live horses, but can also be painful for the animals. Not to mention the bone glue which is often used in the assembly of the instrument parts.
Against this backdrop, Ebony and Ivory, the basically well-intentioned anti-racism song by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, can begin to leave a bad aftertaste. If white ivory and black ebony can harmonize perfectly on the piano keyboard, according to the conciliatory message of the 1982 evergreen, why can’t black and white people do the same? There is a small catch: For a long period of time, the ivory for the white keys came from elephants which had also often been poached. And the ebony for the black keys may not be an animal, but it still comes from a precious tropical tree listed as an endangered species. Thus, Wonder and McCartney involuntarily invoke a questionable state of harmony. To their credit, they probably didn’t know any better at the time – like many fans who enthusiastically hummed along to the song, including the author of this post. Regulations to protect species, which at least limit the use of animal materials and endangered tropical trees, including in the manufacture of musical instruments, have only been in force since the end of the 1980s.
Since then, research into alternative materials has been conducted with a passion. And in violin making in particular, this has led to the world’s first certified cruelty-free violin. The instrument, which received an award from the Vegan Society earlier this year, was made by the renowned violin maker Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh of Hibernian Violins in Malvern, Worcestershire, England. He used steamed pears for the lining, colored the wood with the juice of wild berries, and used regional spring water, among other things, for the binding agent. During the Corona pandemic, Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh was inspired by thoughtful customers who finally wanted to play their violins free of ethical concerns. The award from the Vegan Society, however, only pertains to the body of the instrument – for bows and strings there have long been plant-based and other non-animal options available. The unique instrument retails at approximately 9,600 euros, but this may change as demand increases. And of course Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh is not the only violin maker who works according to vegan principles – his violin was merely the first to be certified accordingly. Among German specialists, the one who is most frequently mentioned is Jan Meyer in Leipzig.
It goes without saying that a key aspect of sustainable instrument making is the question of whether using other materials alters the acoustics – and if so, whether the sound is equivalent or worse. This is a subject of passionate debate among experts. But one can assume that, in light of their own high standards, specialists like Jan Meyer and Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh would not go public with substandard work on principle alone. And that, including when it comes to listening to music, many things just need getting used to.
Fanatics, populists, egotists and conspiracy theorists have highjacked the headlines. Not just in politics and society at large, but also in the field of music. I’d like to train a critical spotlight on the United States, the country of pop, where anxious bands are hastily changing their name and the debate on racism is having some bizarre outcomes. Where a rap-idiot wants to become president and even the superstars aren’t what they used to be.
Weimar/Germany, in August of 2019: An art event featuring copious amounts of toilet paper accuses Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of being a sexist. The objections center around the 18th century poet’s macho image of women and on his distasteful poem about the “Heidenröslein”. The small attack on Goethe’s garden house goes largely unnoticed in Germany and when it does attract attention, tends to be laughed off. As it happens, this prank is nothing compared to what will happen thousands of miles away just a few months later. After the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who was stopped by police in Minneapolis and killed after a policeman violently pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes, various historical figures, mainly in the US, Belgium and the UK, are knocked off their pedestals, in the literal sense of the word. “Black Lives Matter” demonstrators attack statues of colonial rulers and of politicians responsible for the oppression of people of color, defacing them, beheading them, or dumping them into rivers. Columbus and Churchill, even the most famous names aren’t spared. These are violent symbolic acts directed against state power and oppression – which want us to forget shameful periods of history.
Tear down the Colosseum. Cancel the Reformation…
The rage is totally understandable. But many people who aren’t participating in this kind of toppling of monuments are inevitably asking themselves where this is bound to lead – what comes next? In the context of the Goethe dispute in 2019, Thomas Wischnewski speculated that “For example, one day Otto Hahn will be condemned for nuclear research and Gottlieb Daimler will be knocked off his pedestal as an enabler of climate change.” Wischnewski is the author of the online portal ‘magdeburg-kompakt.de’ and talks about dangerous attempts to erase history. He warns: “Retroactively condemning the zeitgeist of a period in history smacks of fascism. (…) Those who reinterpret their own history and try to cast it off, lose the ability to deal with it in a responsible way.” The fears that he voiced then can easily be amended today: The Reformation will be cancelled because Martin Luther wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets in the 16th century. Antique statues and sites, triumphal arches, the Colosseum will be torn down – as disgraceful monuments to empires and conquerors who laid waste to continents and enslaved and slaughtered other human beings – or had them slaughtered. Masterpieces from the “Brücke” will be banned from museums since, when it comes to the painters, suspicions of pedophilia continue to crop up. And finally, the books of Karl May will be burned since his body of work is also marked by racist, colonialist thinking.
Two truisms say: People are full of contradictions, with good sides, but also with moral abysses and hidden depths. And: People are shaped by the era, the culture, and the norms in which they move, they can’t help it. The boundaries between “perfect” and “monstrous” are always fluid. Only the absolutely monstrous is clearly defined and socially ostracized – but before this stage is reached, there are countless shades of gray which we all have to deal with. Many people who have done great things have also done reprehensible things, especially from a historical perspective. Usually it is wiser to engage with the darker aspects of life, to draw conclusions from them, and to look for ways to address past injustices whenever possible. This is what happened with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which dealt with crimes from the apartheid era, with Germany’s collective reckoning with the Nazi era, and with the Protestant Church’s critical reflection on the anti-Semitic passages in Martin Luther’s work. When, in the run-up to the anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, a Protestant pastor and the church commissioner for Judaism symbolically blindfold a statue of Luther in Hanover/Germany, when even representatives of the Jewish community, despite their well-deserved criticism, can find positives in Luther’s revolutionary impulse and his successful translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew, then much has already been gained in terms of a joint reappraisal of history.
Are we still allowed to play Michael Jackson on the radio? This question was also hotly discussed recently, in light of the ongoing posthumous abuse accusations against the superstar. Daily life has already answered this question: Yes, you are still allowed to play Michael Jackson on the radio, and yes, you are also allowed to listen to him. Because his music in no way constitutes a crime, because it has given and still gives a lot to countless fans – and because ultimately, boycotting his songs would also unjustly punish all the people who contributed to Jackson’s art, e.g. musicians and producers. At the same time we need to be able to remind people about the transgressions of the “King of Pop”. Which is also why I think it would be absurd to take films with the exceptional actor Kevin Spacey, who was banned for sexual assault, out of circulation.
The past is as complicated as the present
People who, along with the questionable aspects of an oeuvre or era, simultaneously want to erase the entire oeuvre and/or era from the collective memory, are disowning themselves and may, in a hundred years, be erased from memory themselves, when people in other contexts re-evaluate them. In some cases, there have already been immediate retaliations: For example, in response to the attacks on statues of white colonialists, the graves of former slaves and monuments of African-American authors were desecrated. In Bristol/UK, a musician of color was seriously injured during a targeted car attack. A senseless spiral of violence was set in motion that might eventually lead to deaths. Is it worth it? Removing monuments was and is common practice – usually implemented during regime changes, after parliamentary resolutions (e.g. because the objects are no longer considered timely) or at the request of certain interest groups. That an initiative of self-declared cleaner-uppers is now arbitrarily tearing down monuments smacks of hubris. Media commentaries in recent weeks have made suggestions as to how things could be done better, e.g. by putting the controversial statues in museums, by discussing them and letting the public decide what to do with them, by setting up central memorial sites for the victims of colonialism and/or by creating a counter-narrative with new monuments. Monuments for pioneers of democracy and anti-racists, for courageous female politicians and outstanding peace activists, for specific victims and the “Black Lives Matter” initiative, and also for the leaders of the #metoo-campaign or the “Fridays for Future” movement. Because, according to the Spanish daily newspaper “El País”: “The past, which is just as complicated as the present and which we can neither conclusively condemn nor acquit, is also inherent in these statues, monuments, buildings.”
Instead, pop stars succumb to angry activists and unabashed “haters” by immediately changing their supposedly racist stage names. I’m referring not only to Lady Antebellum, a trio from Nashville whose country rock ballad Need You Now was a gigantic hit in 2009 and who now call themselves simply ‘Lady A’, but also to the Dixie Chicks, three fundamentally fearless Texans who mutated into The Chicks under pressure from the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Hard to believe, really. Because when you take a closer look, the allegedly offensive words are just as complex as the history of colonialism – and open to many interpretations. Of course “Antebellum”, Latin for “before the war”, is an established term which refers to the period in American history before the Civil War (1861-1865) – in other words the era in which the brutal system of slavery prevailed in the southern states. It was also the era of “southern belles”, bourgeois ladies who, because African-American slaves were doing the work, had time to pursue an education and engage in cultural activities. Antebellum is also the term for a specific architectural style characterized by the pillar- and porch-lined villas of white plantation owners, which are showcased in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, among others, but in particular in the film classic Gone with the Wind. This epic, one of the most successful movies of all time, is also being critically scrutinized because of its Southern perspective and sugarcoated depiction of slavery. Which is absolutely valid. What is less understandable, however, is that the streaming service HBO Max briefly removed the movie from its roster and re-introduced it in June with a trigger warning. Both the movie’s merits and its problematic aspects are well known, including from a broad range of secondary literature, so the viewing public should not be denied a certain degree of critical competency. And of course, despite all the justified criticism, here too the question is: What comes next? Where will this end? Will hundreds of thousands of movies, books, paintings, operas, plays now retroactively get trigger warnings? “It could be painful…” My suggestion: Best put a warning label on the entire planet Earth!
Pop = glitter + ambivalence
But that’s just a side note – back to “Antebellum”. Of course the term is linked to the subjugation of African-Americans. But that’s not all: In addition to making you think of kitsch and nostalgia, there is something morbid about the word. Because Antebellum is a historical phase of decadence that eventually ended with the victory of the northern states. Antebellum, a song by the Californian artist Vienna Teng, shows that pop music in particular is capable of playing with these kinds of concepts, of highlighting the glitter and ambivalence in distinctive words and of giving these compositions even more intensity: She uses the word to illustrate a generational conflict – and doesn’t run the slightest risk of being boycotted for this song.
Why the band, which claims to have had Antebellum architecture in mind when it named itself, bowed to the accusation of glorifying slavery and took the stage name Lady A in an almost painfully repentant way, instead of confidently letting the conflict play out, is beyond me. Just as incomprehensible as the awkward renaming of the Dixie Chicks into The Chicks. It goes without saying that some people found the word “Dixie” intolerable. Strictly speaking, it stands for the southern states during the era of slavery and for many Americans, the word has unwelcome associations. However, the issue here is even more complicated than it is with the word “Antebellum”.
Because “Dixie” is a word that was coined in the northern states, of all places, and is closely connected to a song called Dixie, also known as Dixie’s Land or I Wish I Was In Dixie. The song, written in the late 1850s by Daniel Decatur Emmett, is written from the perspective of an African-American man who is longing to return to a place called Dixie, while using every possible cliché pertaining to African-Americans. What the word “Dixie” actually stands for has never been reliably determined. Possible theories include the homestead of a farmer named John Dixie in Long Island/New York who was friendly to African-Americans, the farm of a not-so-friendly man on Manhattan Island, or the “Mason-Dixon-Line”, the former border between the North and South. What makes the issue even more complicated: The song was sung both in the northern and southern states, including as a kind of war song, with the lyrics being changed according to who was singing it. Dixie was even one of the favorite songs of Abraham Lincoln who defeated the South and abolished slavery.
But it is also true that the song belongs in the context of minstrel shows. These musical theater events of the 19th century employed the now incriminated “blackface”: Unsuspecting Northerners were fed a naïve, clichéd image of African-Americans by white artists who had painted their skin black. And that most certainly is not OK and definitely racist, especially from today’s perspective. Although 19th century Northerners largely opposed the barbarity of slavery in the South, their commitment should not be conflated with that of today’s “Black Lives Matter” activists. The North “attacked the South for the injustice of slavery and simultaneously created an idealized and romanticized world of the African-Americans on plantations,” musicologist Jochen Scheytt explains. “They developed the stereotype of the wandering ‘darky’, a former slave who can’t find his way in the free world and longs for the idyllic and carefree life on the plantation.” In other words: “The white audience, by laughing with and about the minstrel clown, expressed their ambivalence about the issue of slavery.” And Scheytt sees the minstrels fulfilling a further function: They used blackface “in the tradition of the classic jester, too. In Italian commedia dell’arte, the mask served to free the person behind it from all conventions and rules. The person could thus keep joking around without anyone stopping them and didn’t have to fear any consequences. Due to this mask, the minstrels were also able to voice criticism without having to be taken seriously.”
So the word “Dixie” ‘per se’ cannot be affixed to a barbaric tradition of the southern states. It reflects a time when the US was as divided as it is today, but operated against a completely different political and cultural backdrop. One doesn’t need to condone the ‘zeitgeist’ back then, but one can at least try to describe and understand it. Bob Dylan, who certainly can’t be suspected of harboring nationalist or misanthropic tendencies, covered the song Dixie in 2003, in the crazy music film grotesque Masked and Anonymous – without ruling out irony. Perhaps also as an allusion to The Band? Its members, who sometimes were Dylan’s sidekicks, succeeded in genuinely communicating the pain of a Southerner over the lost war and the death of his brother at the hands of a northern Yankee in the song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, without being insulted as racist rednecks. And the legendary country-jazz-rock band Little Feat from California, a Western state which sided with the northern states politically during the Civil War, named one of its most well-known songs Dixie Chicken. It is the tongue-in-cheek ode to a contemporary man-eating hard-drinking southern belle, which mixes Northern and Southern traditions in a conciliatory manner in the music.
Dixieland Jazz? Oh my goodness…
The Dixie Chicks named themselves after just this song and album title – and have been anything but politically conservative ever since. Quite the opposite: As former darlings of the country community, lionized for fusing country and mainstream pop, they had to cope with several shitstorms and a veritable career derailment in 2003 after they criticized the American president George W. Bush and the Iraq invasion at a concert in London. They initially apologized, which in turn enraged fans of the band who were critical of Bush, but they then continued to defend their stance and fought their way back to success, not without regularly expressing their opinions on controversial topics.
So it’s genuinely surprising that the band, which has weathered many conflicts, has now bowed to the pressure of political hardliners again and removed the word “Dixie” from its name. After all, the word is, as has been shown, even more multifaceted than the word “Antebellum”. People associate the word “Dixie” with many conflicting issues, and these days the term ultimately stands for the American South ‘per se’, whose existence can hardly be denied and which can’t be erased from the map. And probably no one would now consider condemning a musical genre like Dixieland Jazz to the dustbin of history forever. Or would they? I’ve suddenly got a really bad feeling: Ultimately, is the band’s name change only due to a radical change in style, perhaps? As it happens, the brand-new album Gaslighter, released under the name The Chicks, features hardly any country elements anymore, but is clearly targeting the mainstream charts. And yet it has some combative tracks again, e.g. the song March, March, a hymn to current extra-parliamentary political activism, from the “Black Lives Matter” protests to the “Fridays for Future” movement. Is the name change just a PR move? No, that would be unworthy of these seminal musicians.
No small irony: After newly becoming the trio ‘Lady A’, Lady Antebellum promptly got embroiled in an embarrassing legal dispute – with, of all people, an African-American blues singer with the same name. Not to mention that every fan and pop expert knows what the ‘A’ once stood for. Absurd: The Dixie Chicks also had to come to an agreement with the members of a New Zealand 60s band called ‘The Chicks’ before they were able to adopt the new name. And they are now known by a word that many women worldwide find derogatory: Because “chicks” not only refers to young women ‘per se’ in a playful way, but often also to innocent young women who are seen as game by male players. So was this really a step forward? Doubtful.
Sweet home, evil flag
If you delve deeper into the subject, you will also come across the phenomenon of Southern Rock – past controversies about bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the use of the controversial Confederate flag in a rock context. Time and again, the southern states have been and are criticized as the home of racism, including in pop and rock songs: prominently in Southern Man by Neil Young (1971), a rejection of “the Southerner” who must atone for his crimes. Sweet Home Alabama, the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic from 1973, is also seen as a response to Southern Man – it moves rather ambivalently back and forth between the condemnation of racist attitudes and proud patriotism. Southern Rock is a musically exciting, but, when it comes to the lyrics, sometimes irritating mix of conservative attitudes and a bawdy rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, certainly stoked by defiance against the constant hostility from bands from “the North”, from supposedly progressive hippies and from politically correct fans. This includes flaunting the controversial Confederate flag from the Civil War era, a white-framed blue diagonal cross on a red background, covered with thirteen white stars. Molly Hatchet adorned itself with the “evil” flag – as did Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Republican sympathizer and weapons’ enthusiast Kid Rock, whose hit All Summer Long (2007) is actually an ode to Sweet Home Alabama. In 1985, Tom Petty used the Confederate flag during his Southern Accents tour, but apologized for it and believably called it a misstep. For their part, the African-American rappers Ludicrous and Lil Jon gave the Confederate flag short shrift: They denounced it as a symbol of oppression and Lil Jon proceeded to dramatically set it on fire.
And so to Kanye West: We know that one time, he just took the Confederate flag for himself – and thus symbolically cancelled it. “I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag,” he is said to have told a radio station in L.A. “It’s my flag now. Now what you gonna do?” This might be one of the wittier pranks of this otherwise slightly dim-witted, annoying artist. As a reminder: Kanye West is an African-American rapper who is married to the It-Girl Kim Kardashian and acts in a similarly blustering way to Donald Trump, except in the context of the music industry. He manages to regularly ruin his few, but definitely existing, moments of genius, such as the bizarrely multifaceted sleeper video for the song Famous, through wacky statements and acts. Weird PR stunts, like a surreal visit to Trump’s White House, rude outbursts against colleagues like Taylor Swift, and grotesque criticism of the African-American community (“400 years of slavery? That sounds like a choice.”) have been and still tend to be excused with the artist’s bipolar disorder. Nevertheless, West feels fit and suited for the American Presidency – the idea for his candidacy is said to have come to him in the shower. Oh dear. It might be a wonderfully clever pop gag, but unfortunately, I’m afraid no good will come of it.
Opponents of vaccination and abortion – as if it were the majority view
As a former Trump fan, “Ye” has long since broken with his idol and apparently wants to take over from the failed president at the upcoming election in November – even though key deadlines for entering the presidential race have long since passed. To be clear: West does NOT just want to promote his next album, as annoyed colleagues suspected. No, he really means it. Preliminary reports that he had withdrawn his candidacy weren’t confirmed. Thus, and this also ties in with the thoughts above, this little whippersnapper is acting just as arrogantly as the fanatical topplers of monuments: driven by ridiculous hubris and egomania, by bad style and by a disrespect for political office. Not to mention his strange views: As if it were the majority view, West cheerfully describes himself as anti-abortion and anti-vaccination and introduces, as a possible vice presidential candidate, the completely unknown “biblical life coach” Michelle Tidball. She has a fantastic therapeutic approach for people with psychological problems: “If you would get up every day and make your bed and do your dishes, you would be better.” That is definitely the stuff that forward-thinking political programs are made of. Anyone who looked at Trump and mused, “Things can’t get any worse,” will be disabused of that thought by Kanye West.
And so we are forced to conclude: Pop in the US is in a woeful state. Stars are either intimidated or fatuous self-promoters, and fans are going to extremes: on the one hand politically uber-correct fanatics, on the other bored entitled brats who see politically incorrect gangsta rappers as their new heroes.
What counts is populist posturing and wielding the powerful cudgel of over-the-top “political correctness”. What is missing is style, elegance and progressive power, a pop-specific “moral compass” with a strong moral stance to go with it. Bob Dylan or Neil Young might release new albums from time to time, but their former mass appeal has dissipated. Two artists who could save the day are focusing more on escapism and establishing alibis: Taylor Swift, the almost untouchable white superstar with strong opinions so far, is currently concentrating on releasing Folklore, her very own Corona album. And Beyoncé, the almost untouchable African-American superstar who, as the media often confirms, is sending a message of “Black empowerment”, has just released the 90-minute visual album Black Is King with Disney. This mythically charged, glamorous-opulent ode to “celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry” is an emotive fantasy trip which has nothing to do with everyday life in the 20th century or with “Black Lives Matter”. Black is beautiful? Without question. But didn’t we already have this once before, in the 60s? Even among African-Americans, Beyoncé’s album is being criticized as “commercialized Afro-folklore”, as a tool for her “Black Capitalism”. That too is telling.
And now even Madonna
And when even Madonna speaks up, the game can be considered over. At the start of the Corona crisis, the once inviolable star had already triggered a storm of protest when, in a video filmed from her luxury bathtub, she hallucinated that the virus makes all people equal. Now, like Donald Trump, she touts the controversial malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for Corona and claims that a proven vaccine has long been available, but is being kept under lock and key so that the rich can get richer and the poor will get poorer and sicker. She cites Texas physician Stella Immanuel, who, according to media reports, blames sex with evil spirits for gynecological problems “and believes the US government is being run by ‘reptiles’. She is also convinced that gay marriage leads to adults marrying children.”
It’s a shame that the many exciting songs and artists that still exist are hardly being heard – and that instead, populists, egotists and esoterics are hogging the headlines. Pop in the United States has turned into solipsistic meandering, has apparently lost its bearing. Is accentuating strange things. Is using and being used – and is therefore rarely much fun right now. Not only with regard to Robbie Williams, who has already outed himself as a fan of aliens and UFOs and who recently remarked that the absurd “Pizzagate” theory hasn’t been disproved yet – these findings are just as valid in Europe. Jarring things are happening in Germany, i.e. Xavier Naidoo as a conspiracy theorist, gangsta rapper Farid Bang (he actually encouraged partygoers to obey the Corona rules on behalf of Düsseldorf’s mayor), or beer tent guests bellowing an old folk song with contemporary rape lyrics. More and more people are going nuts – and pop is, too.
Although David Byrnes‘ book“How Music Works” was published eight years ago, I have only just discovered and read it. Luckily, this blog allows me to cover whatever topic I want and whenever I want to, so here we go! The 2012 treatise by Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne doesn’t go into what music does to an audience (as the German title “Wie Musik wirkt” spuriously suggests), but is a collection of musings on the nature of music, on the conditions in which it is produced, on the role of the artist’s personality in its creation and on the role of music in society.
This sounds very abstract at first and, I readily admit, also aroused reservations in me. But these reservations quickly dissipated when I read the book. Why? Because David Byrne writes in a very entertaining way and periodically inserts snide remarks; because his writing is precise and to the point; because he shares fascinating facts; and – above all – because he gives really illuminating insights into his work with the Talking Heads and other world-class artists. This is not an intellectual who is pontificating from his ivory tower, nor a narcissistic self-proclaimed genius, but a creative cosmopolitan blessed with lots of humor and subtle irony who, in a completely unpretentious way, is talking about his work, his history, and his fulfilling experiences with good music, be it rock, jazz, wave or Latin, classical or pop music, ritual, improvised or AI-generated music, individual songs or songs commissioned for musical productions. Of course you can read between the lines which types of music, artistic personalities and trends in the music business he likes and dislikes – but Byrne always proves himself a gentleman and treats the phenomena and people he writes about with open-mindedness and respect, and sometimes with a meaningful wink.
Fortunately, anyone expecting pretentious post-structuralist, Marxist or other observations colored by ideology will be just as disappointed in this book as an audience hoping for sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll stories, anecdotes from the American post-punk scene or embarrassing confessions from Byrnes’ private life. Byrne is far too sceptical of rockisms or tortured geniuses and has become much too much of a musical polymath during his creative journey to concern himself with this kind of tabloid stuff. He certainly had a lot of fun in the “rock circus”, as anyone who cares to can glean from the book; but above all he was (and still is) interested in discovering and exploring, in constantly experiencing new things, in implementing ideas and in having control over his own artistic activities.
Thus we learn how music worked in archaic communities and how it developed into a product over the centuries; how the places and contexts in which music is performed determine its nature; or how artists can only ever work with the tools and resources at their disposal – from their own talent, to the technologies available to them, to the people accompanying them on their journey. Of course, Byrne does not deny that individual skills and intuition play a role in making music – and yet he makes it vividly clear that it is not we who play the music, but that to a large extent it is the music that plays us. A pleasantly realistic rejection of the romantic idea of the broken, visionary genius who creates something unique from the depths of his or her soul. His descriptions of the industry are always gripping: From the sometimes crazy development of the first successful sound recordings to the emergence of a record and music industry, to the recent upheavals that have resulted from digitalization. And smack in the middle of all this chaos: David Byrne and the Talking Heads, David Byrne and Brian Eno, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, David Byrne and the world musicians across the globe.
One of the first chapters describes the work of the
Talking Heads, and just when you think you’ve learned everything about the
topic, the big picture emerges towards the end of the book, with detailed descriptions
on occurrences in and around the legendary New York club “CBGB’s”. “How to Make
a Scene” is the title of the beautiful chapter in which Byrne describes how a
flamboyant scene began to grow in a down-and-out club in a sketchy New York
neighborhood, which ultimately birthed Tom Verlaine and Television, Blondie,
the Patti Smith Group, The Ramones and, last but not least, the Talking Heads.
Unlike the city’s traditional music clubs, which sometimes hosted three
different mainstream acts in one evening and where the clubs charged an
entrance fee for each of these concerts (!), in the 1970s the creator of CBGB’s
agreed to charge a small entrance fee which the bands of the evening were paid,
and otherwise collected the proceeds from the drinks. This not only turned the
former biker club into a goldmine for its owner, but also into an unparalleled
artistic field of experimentation, into an informal meeting place where young
bands who were disappointed by the rock gigantomania à la Eagles and Fleetwood
Mac could showcase their own ideas of contemporary pop music. There was no real
backstage area, the equipment was set up and the instruments were tuned in
front of the audience, the stage tended to be located somewhere at the edge of
the venue, the guests drank at the long bar or played billiards, and all the
inwardly passionate combos were not necessarily in solidarity with each other. Ironically,
it was essential that nobody was forced to listen with rapt attention. The
praise of a billiard player who had been knocking a few balls across the table
all evening with his back to the band was sometimes the only and most
motivating feedback you got as an artist. Byrne amends these rather down-to-earth
descriptions with unglamorous photos and self-drawn maps of the club – giving the
reader a pretty vivid impression of this location and its specific scene, which
many an expectant sightseer and rock tourist turned their back on, horrified.
It was here at CBGB’s that Byrne, who lived with his
band mates in a flat share, after years of aimless busking and nerdy noise
production in his teenage bedroom, was able to test and develop his ideas of a
new pop music as a “work in progress”. Among the up-and-coming New York bands there
were the Pop Art bands, the Expressionists and the posing romantics – whereas the
Talking Heads belonged to the conceptual artists and minimalists: They gleefully
freed their music and stage shows of all rock, baroque and art bombast, dressed
like ordinary people, sang about fear, psychoses and dysfunctional
relationships and underpinned everything rhythmically with old funk and soul
grooves. Alienation effect galore, highly artificial but still incredibly
thrilling. Thus was born the kind of pale-faced gawky dance music which drove
rock traditionalists crazy, but electrified upcoming generations. Ever eager to
explore new horizons, the Talking Heads made rapid artistic progress, and
Byrne, who had travelled far and wide, always in search of new artistic
experiences, began to diversify his conceptual framework. He discovered
parallels between the posturing of great rock stars and the stylized forms of
presentation in traditional Japanese theater, explored the ritual character of
African music and repeatedly tweaked his stage concepts.
Someone told him that on stage, everything had to be a little bit bigger than
in real life – which is why he presented himself in an oversized suit and not
only came up with the groundbreaking album Remain In Light, but also
with celebrated tours with a polyrhythmically adept funk-rock troupe. He later
incorporated information into his shows about how these shows were “made” by
having the stage and lighting elements rolled onto the stage and installed
piece by piece – a wonderful message on the meta-level that in no way
diminished the magic of the live performance. This was followed by the
discovery of Latin American music with the corresponding song and tour
concepts, and so on and so forth.
I always had a FEELING about the Talking Heads and David Byrne, but after reading How Music Works, I really understand for the first time what was behind this music and the concerts – without it destroying the fascination it holds for me. The same applies to the details outlining the creation of some of the song lyrics, for example to Once In A Lifetime: Of course David Byrne doesn’t make the mistake of explaining his lyrics down to the smallest detail and committing himself to them. But he does reveal how these partly cryptic yet compelling lyrics were created and encourages us to take a closer look at them. Here, too, it becomes clear: Apart from lyrics which were commissioned for a musical and had to fulfil certain functions within an oeuvre, song lyrics also depended on the conditions in the rehearsal room or studio when they were being created, the conditions that had been defined beforehand or that simply somehow came about. Mr. Spock, who doesn’t really belong here, would say: Fascinating!
Are there less successful passages in this book? Not really. Although I must admit that there were two chapters which I just scanned and where I even skipped a few pages. The first, “Business and Finances”, covers contract forms and cost planning for tour and studio projects in an almost book-keepingly meticulous way. The other, “Harmonia Mundi”, revolves around the essence and origin of music and the sometimes bizarre philosophical concepts which the history of mankind has generated about it. This is where it almost gets esoteric. But I’m sure that especially aspiring musicians who are working towards their breakthrough will find valuable tips for targeted economic production in “Business and Finances” and will feel strongly motivated not to entrust their career to who knows what kind of managers and/or dubious record companies, but to take their future courageously into their own hands.
“Harmonia Mundi”, on the other hand, despite all the endless digressions, can be summed up as follows: Music is and will always be something mysterious, whose essence is unfathomable. Music somehow seems to be intrinsic to humans from the very beginning. Be that as it may: The most important thing is that music touches and moves us – nothing else matters.
Just as I was about to turn the page again, Byrne told me about the church father Augustine and his assumption that every human being would hear a divine cosmic chord at the moment of death while simultaneously having the ultimate secrets of the universe revealed to them. Deadpan comment by freethinker Byrne: “very exciting, although just a little late to be of much use.” Understandable, actually: What’s the point of knowing the secrets of the universe if I’m dead the next moment? The secrets that Augustine is said to have been privy to were then passed down through the centuries, the passage continues, but, as Renaissance philosophers conceded, were unfortunately lost at some point in time. Byrne concludes: “Oops.” It is wry comments like these that keep the reader engaged until the very end of the book. And they inspire the reader to dig out Byrnes’ later albums American Utopia or Here Lies Love again (with great singers like Roisin Murphy, Kate Pierson, Santigold and the underrated Nicole Atkins).
David Byrne, “How Music Works”,
Is there such a thing as a sustainable song? Will the music industry ‘go green’ at some point in time? And what surprises do environmental song lists have in store?
My head is full of music. My head is an inchoate, swirling archive of songs. And my inner media player likes to pick out old tracks and send them mercilessly through my consciousness – not constantly, but frighteningly often. Without being asked to. Relentlessly. They can be favourites from my youth, current hits or long forgotten one-hit-wonders that I have come across again by chance. But sometimes they are horrible earworms that I just can’t get rid of. My inner media player rarely plays these songs linearly and completely, from beginning to end. Usually it is always the same part of a stanza, always the same intro, the same chorus or the same instrumental part, again and again, sometimes combined with other parts of the same song, sometimes with parts of completely different songs, which suddenly come into play because my consciousness associatively links similar harmonies and melody arcs. Thought mash-ups, so to speak. The songs that go through my head keep me company and push me through the day. Yes, they energize me. And as songs that can’t be heard, don’t leave a CO2 footprint in the world, but still generate this kind of energy, the songs in my head are sustainable in the best sense of the word.
I like the idea – it gives the term ‘evergreen’ a whole new meaning. And yet this thought is completely absurd. Because at some point in time the songs in my head were actually heard, and they might ring out again and again in the future. And, much more importantly: At some point in time these songs were also produced in a recording studio, for hours, days, sometimes weeks and months. In the process, oh dear, power was endlessly consumed, while armies of artists, sound engineers and record company people produced all kinds of trash, from dented beer cans and plastic dishes to the plastic packaging of the fast food delivery services. Chemically powerful pressing and burning plants ran hot in order to technically reproduce the musical works of art, paper and ink was used for record covers and booklets, millions upon millions of sheets of foil were used for vinyl releases and plastic CD covers. Not to mention the CO2 emissions which the continuous streaming of these songs caused and continues to cause every day. In fact, it took me awhile to understand why streaming music, movies and series can be so damaging to the environment. It is, of course, the enormous energy consumption that goes along with the distribution of artwork in digital form via gigantic servers.
Environmental awareness is increasing in the music industry
So should less music be produced and even less music be heard? Heavens no! We need music, we need every form of art, it is an important elixir of life and democracy. But the world of music with everything that goes with it – from the production, release, and distribution of songs to the organisation of concert events and our fan behaviour – could be much more sustainable. Promising approaches have, of course, long been apparent. For example, if you enter the keywords “sustainable recording studios” into Internet search engines, you will already find some music production facilities that have designed their studios with sustainable materials, use ‘green’ electricity, conduct their business in cooperation with sustainable banks or compensate unavoidable emissions by supporting climate projects. The superstars of Coldplay, for their part, announced at the end of last year that they would not be touring around the world for the time being – and that they won’t do so until they can make this kind of tour sustainable.
Good for Coldplay, but perhaps even now the band could have asked for advice from the Green Music Initiative. The Berlin-based organisation of artists, environmental associations, research institutes and business decision-makers publishes frightening figures on the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions and has been working for a decade to make the music business greener. The use of renewable energy sources, sustainable packaging, the avoidance of paper-intensive PR work, electronic ticketing, regional catering, waste reduction strategies, sustainable merchandising, and clever mobility concepts for bands’ travel and for fans’ travel to and from concerts are just a few of the many aspects that the Green Music Initiative touts through collaborations, projects and information campaigns to significantly reduce the music industry’s CO2 emissions. Some legendary festivals, from Roskilde to Wacken, are already orienting themselves towards sustainability criteria and are being supported by initiatives and agencies with the necessary know-how.
Green music production: For example Fré
Artists are also actively helping. In addition to Coldplay, there are other acts that are committed to going green and trying to base their music on the principles of sustainability. One of these is Fré, which is taking a unique approach: The Dutch-German art-pop-jazz quartet produced their 2017 debut album Nature’s Songs in the most environmentally friendly way possible at the Fattoria Music Studios in Osnabrück, Germany, and they made sure to use recycled materials for packaging. The album’s titles – Grains of Sand, Trees, Bees, The Moon, The Sea, Raindrops, or Ice – also revolve around the beauties and idiosyncrasies of nature. Unfortunately, the idea of developing a sustainable music product together with the “Green Office” of the Dutch Wageningen University as part of a master course was not implementable. But nevertheless, the four artists continued on their journey towards sustainability. “So for our new album, WE RISE When We Lift Each Other Up, we took it into our own hands and made a couple of decisions to improve our ecological footprint while still being able to take part in the music industry”, Frederike Berendsen says. Frederike is songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist of the band. What she means is “an artwork out of 100% recycled paper that includes a download code instead of a CD or vinyl. So it is also about the shift to digital, without completely throwing out the beauty and sentiment of physical artwork. We also decided to limit the number of physical albums and to sell them ourselves to avoid the plastic wrapping that is required by distributors and marketplaces like Amazon. The same goes for our merchandise items, which are made with high quality, biodegradable/recyclable materials, and fair-trade production. We also chose to produce merch items that reduce the use of disposables such as plastic bags and bottles (refillable stainless-steel thermos flasks and organic cotton tote bags). “All in all”, Frederike says, “it is our way of raising awareness and acting responsibly in the industry we work in.” All this commitment to sustainability should, however, not distract from the fact that Fré does actually make fantastic music.
Fré also made us aware of the exciting “Green Vinyl Records” project, an association of eight Dutch companies that are developing a process for producing vinyl-like records – except that the records are not made of vinyl, but from more environmentally-friendly materials and that the injection-based manufacturing process uses much less energy. Not only Fré finds the approach promising and wishes it every success in the future.
CO2 footprints on Earth, motivating footprints on the backsides of the fans
The fact that artists, event organisers, and even industry managers are thinking about their own actions is relatively new – a development that has only come about in recent years. But rock, pop, soul, and jazz songwriters in particular have been voicing their awareness of environmental issues for decades. And so thousands of songs have left not only a substantial CO2 footprint on our planet, but also powerfully motivating footprints on the backsides of the fans. Something along the lines of: Get off your backside, do something against pollution! Save the planet! Take a stand against oil drilling and the deforestation of the rainforest, against fracking, mining, the overexploitation of natural resources, against nuclear power and plastic waste, acid rain, the pollution of the ocean!
“Environmental songs”, “climate change songs”, “Earth Day songs” or “environmental playlist” – the keywords under which they can be found are numerous: best-of- and near-complete-lists of songs that deal with or purport to deal with environmental and sustainability issues. Sometimes these songs are not clear cut, mixing eco-topics with social criticism and a general tirade against capitalism and human greed. But often they formulate simple appeals like ‘Save the Planet’ (Edgar Winter’s White Trash, 1971) or focus on a specific environmental issue (Crosby and Nash, To the Last Whale, 1975).
Here are a few peculiarities that caught my
attention while browsing through the lists:
Early environmental songs in a pop context can be
found in the blues as early as 1927, for example with Bessie Smith (Backwater
Blues) and Blind Lemon Jefferson (Rising High Water Blues). They
lament what happens when the Mississippi River overflows its banks after heavy
rains and makes many people, especially poor people, homeless. Southern blues
interpreters of the 1920s to 40s also sing about the boll weevil, a pest that
became a real plague and caused major economic crises.
There is a nice anecdote about Motown label boss Berry Gordy, who thought Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), a song by soul superstar Marvin Gaye from 1971, was not marketable. At that time, the meaning of the word ‘ecology’ had to be painstakingly explained to Gordy. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) became one of Marvin Gaye’s greatest successes, despite all the prophecies of doom.
‘Repeat offenders’ when it comes to environmental song writing are Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, Adrian Belew, Bruce Cockburn, Midnight Oil, or Neil Young, to name only the most well-known.
Artists one wouldn’t expect “environmental songs” from are the surf icons The Beach Boys (Don’t Go Near the Water, 1971), heavy metal icon Ozzy Osbourne (Revelation/Mother Earth, 1980) or pop princess Miley Cyrus (Wake Up America, 2008).
One of the most bizarre environmental songs surely is The Return of the Giant Hogweed. The song by the British art-rock band Genesis, once again from 1971, tells the story of the giant hogweed, a plant species that a Victorian researcher is said to have brought back from Russia to England, where it overgrew everything and threatened the native flora and fauna. In the best tradition of Brit-Goth-oddballs, Genesis turn the “ecological damage caused by introduced species” narrative into a tale of revenge and horror which also gets out of hand musically.
Perhaps the largest subgenre of environmental songs, and almost a genre of its very own, the anti-nuclear songs extend from the effects of nuclear power all the way to the danger and consequences of a nuclear war. The grotesque piece Burli, published in 1987 by the Austrian satire band Erste Allgemeine Verunsicherung, revolves around a disabled boy whose deformities result from the proximity of his home to a nuclear power plant. In Red Skies Over Paradise, the British band Fischer Z describes the outbreak of a nuclear war in 1981. Two of many examples from the “No Nukes” universe.
One of my favourite environmental songs, I’m embarrassed to admit, is Karl der Käfer (Karl the Beetle), published in 1983 by Gänsehaut. The band originated from the Cologne German rock formation Satin Whale. Their protagonists, who looked like progressive headteachers, were music editors. So they actually knew how to write. And yet lines like these seem a bit awkward, especially with hindsight: “Karl hasn’t been here for a long time / There’s no place for animals anymore / Where Karl used to be at home / Beetles made of sheet metal and steel are now driving / Karl the beetle wasn’t asked / He was simply chased away.”
One of the most visionary environmental songs is … Karl the Beetle by Gänsehaut! Of all the endangered species, the band focused their attention on the beetle in 1983. Today, almost 40 years later, everyone is talking about The Great Insect Dying.
One environmental song people debate about is Love
Song to the Earth from 2015, released for the Paris Climate Change
Conference, which brings together superstars such as Paul McCartney, Sheryl
Crow, Bon Jovi, Natasha Bedingfield, Fergie, and Leona Lewis to sing about the
beauty of nature in a catchy power ballad. In the accompanying glossy video,
some of the stars pose in white clothing (white = peace?) on dream beaches and
in idyllic natural settings – the proceeds went to the UN Foundation and
Friends of the Earth. What some people celebrated as successfully addressing mainstream
audiences, others found very corny and hardly convincing. If you ask around
among your friends today, who still remembers the song, you’ll get more
furrowed brows and shoulder shrugs than nods and sparkling eyes.
Environmental songs that are easily misunderstood are Vamos a la playa (1983) by Righeira and The Future’s So Bright (1986) by Timbuk 3. Vamos a la playa isn’t actually celebrating a relaxed holiday mood, but is conjuring up a nuclear war scenario on the beach; and The Future’s So Bright isn’t really describing rosy prospects, but a nuclear-irradiated future in which you have to protect more than just your eyes (“The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades”).
The most direct lin to the “Fridays for Future” movement was made in 2019 by the indie rockers of The 1975: In the track by the same name (The 1975), they underlaid a stirring monologue by climate activist Greta Thunberg with hypnotic ambient sounds and promised to donate the proceeds from the song to the organisation Extinction Rebellion. It was quite counterproductive that their co-founder Roger Hallam had recently shocked the supporters of the movement that relies on civil disobedience by relativising the Holocaust and spouting other radical views.
Converting well-known songs into environmental songs can often backfire. The old partisan- and antifa tune Bella ciao has already had to endure some musical abuse, most recently its senseless reprocessing as a dancefloor favourite for urban partygoers. The climate protection version Do It Now – Sing for the Climate, which was realized in 2012 with people from 180 Belgian cities, gave the melody a little more gravitas, but came across as very heavy-handed and, in its collective sentimentalism, it bore the marks of mass manipulation. As the environmental song Etwas tun (Doing something), marketed primarily in the context of childcare facilities, Bella ciao leaves many a music fan at a loss: Is this really still pedagogically valuable education or is it already a coldly calculated, soulless business transaction?
At the end of last year, the rewriting of the classic German children’s song Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad (My grandma rides a motorbike in the henhouse) within the framework of a production with the WDR children’s choir was a fatal error. Before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’, the team from the WDR (a public broadcasting institution) had turned the quirky grandmother of the original song, who boasts the funniest and smartest inventions but above all invites you to light-heartedly sing along, into an “environmental sow”. The whole thing was intended to be satirical – but whether it was aimed at an older generation that was supposedly resistant to advice, or even at the young “Fridays for Future” movement, which for its part had made unfortunate and disparaging remarks about this older generation, wasn’t entirely clear. The totally unsuccessful song project mobilised understandably offended senior citizens, but also angry right-wingers and propagandists against the WDR, which promptly distanced itself from the song and from its own staff, which in turn led to massive criticism from media experts. A communications meltdown of the first order.
In contrast, how cool and casual is the British primary school project during which, in the summer of 2019, a teacher from West Suffolk and his pupils re-wrote the lyrics to Gil Scott-Heron’s classic protest song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which revolves around the topic of sustainability. The original, a poem set to music from around 1970, calls on African Americans to rebel against a consumer- and media world dominated by white people. The school project applied the basic ideas to topics such as global warming, fast fashion companies, plastic waste, extinction of species, and disenchantment with politics – all in the context of social media. Even the famous filmmaker and naturalist Sir David Attenborough was impressed with the result, The Extinction Will Not Be Televised.
Environmental songs which – when you listen carefully – aren’t environmental songs at all, turn up even in the best-curated lists. Michael Jackson’s Earth Song stands out most prominently in this context: The lyrics revolve around a crying earth, but the reasons for this are battlefields and “killing fields”, “the blood we shed” and “children dead from war”. It is about “apathy drowning in the seas” and the Promised Land that you will not reach. That really sounds more like an anti-war song than an environmental song.
Doctor, My Eyes by Jackson Browne is also frequently mentioned, but here too one must look for a specific reference to climate protection issues. The lyrics of the song, which was released in 1972, deal very generally with a desperate person who confides in a doctor because he has seen too many bad things in his life. In short: a song about the feeling of being totally burnt out. No trace of environmental destruction.
Godzilla is the name of a 1977 hit by the US rockers Blue Öyster Cult. Sure, the lyrics say: “History shows again and again / How nature points up the folly of man”, but that’s due more to the Godzilla myth, which characterises the monster as an atomic mutation. Blue Öyster Cult essentially relish describing how the giant lizard rages in the streets of Tokyo and, in the best of moods, pay homage to a fantasy film icon. So with all due respect to their many great songs, it would be a bit much to assume that the musicians were highlighting their commitment to climate protection with this song.
Look at the person in the mirror!
Speaking of Michael Jackson and supposed environmental songs: Man in the Mirror, the 1988 hit of the “King of Pop”, sometimes also appears in “environmental playlists”. It’s not at all about climate protection, but specifically about humanitarian commitment – about working for the poor and the hungry of the world, the homeless in the streets of the big cities. The video expands the subject matter to include racism and dictatorship. Nevertheless, the song formulates a message that can easily be applied to the climate problem: “I’m gonna make a change … I’m starting with the man in the mirror.” In other words, commitment doesn’t mean pointing the finger at others or just getting politicians to act. No, commitment means starting with yourself on a small scale. In short: with the person you see in the mirror every day.
The Grim Reaper is the perfect salesman – that became obvious not only with David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister or Glenn Frey, but might come true for Dr. John as well. It’s a strange dynamic that once inspired Bill Drummond, former KLF mastermind and manager of the Teardrop Explodes, to write a very sarcastic song.
You get a strange feeling when stars who provided the soundtrack to a substantial part of your life (either as idols or objects of contempt) suddenly die, usually too soon. Of course I know: The death of a VIP can’t compare to the death of a close relative or good friend. But even a star who has passed means that you lose something central to your daily life. The world will never be the same again, memories of your youth re-surface, long-forgotten hopes and desires, wonderful moments, perhaps some broken dreams. If nothing else, you become aware of your own mortality.
Collective grief, a uniting consolatory event Even more disconcerting than the death of a VIP is the PR surrounding it. Especially impressive was what happened after Mr. Motörhead Lemmy Kilmister died at the end of December 2015. It was rather bizarre to see all the people who suddenly claimed to be hardcore fans and sang songs of praise about brute rock. Very nice and decent folks, whom you would rather think would be part of the Roxette universe, wrote weepy social media posts and demonstrated a toughness and wickedness they obviously had hidden for a long time. Conservative newspapers honoured Kilmister as a ”noble savage“. Even public service broadcasting celebrated the heavy metal pioneer and his sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll-lifestyle almost as passionately as former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who had died a few weeks before. Everybody was on first name terms with ”Lemmy“ – as if this Lemmy had always been his or her best mate. Against the backdrop of horrible daily news from the fields of economics and politics, the collective grief for a deceased star, whom many people had rejected during his lifetime, seemed to become a uniting consolatory event.
The fuss about David Bowie was similarly strange. Of course his death was very bad news for pop music, i.e. for fans and fellow musicians around the world. But the way radio hosts uttered their distress for hours and hours (and then managed to play only the two more than obvious Bowie hits Space Oddity and Let’s Dance) was kind of embarrassing. Posing is an art David Bowie himself mastered much better. The almost biblical exaltation columnists around the world voiced was just as cringey, as were the relentless posts on social media. These took on a life of their own as sheer nerd competitions, according to the motto: Who can post an even more obscure Bowie song or an even more bizarre cover version?
The reactions to the death of Eagles cofounder Glenn Frey were a bit more restrained. Nothing more than friendly words – although there was a time when the Eagles were considered the epitome of rock star decadence. It’s always the same: A star dies – and a pseudo-community comes together to celebrate itself.
I never cared much for Lemmy Kilmister and Motörhead. All the stories about vast amounts of alcohol and drugs or about the women Lemmy had “traded” with his own son didn’t do it for me. The same is true of Mr. Kilmister’s singing style, his songs, and of the extremely high volume at which he played them live. But I was impressed by one or two of the interviews he gave, e.g. to the German magazine ”GALORE“: To my surprise, Kilmister turned out to be incredibly astute and cynical, and he took a clear stand about current events. What the fans loved, of course, was this nonconformism, the aura of danger surrounding him, and his ”Kiss my ass!“ attitude. He represented a boldness that ordinary fans lacked. His open machismo, his irresponsibility, and a certain amount of self-destructive behaviour, that is: the personal tragedies behind the mask, were things these fans ignored. I was much more into Bowie, although in my opinion he had released too many mediocre albums with only a few highlights. No hard feelings, of course, for Bowie had recorded many epochal songs and exerted a huge influence on rock music during the first decades of his career.
Becoming Nr. 1 with impenetrable songs
Now I would never think of buying a rock star’s CD just because s/he died recently – let alone that star’s complete back catalogue. That’s why it never fails to astonish me that the Grim Reaper always turns out to be the perfect salesman. A case in point: Bowie’s rather impenetrable album Blackstar, which was released at almost the same time as his death, made it to Nr. 1 on the US album charts – the first Bowie album ever to do so. And after Lemmy Kilmister died, three of Motörhead’s albums even entered the German charts, while Ace of Spades, Motörhead’s signature song, entered the Top 100 of the German singles charts for the first time ever.
And there are more examples. In its Elvis Presley biography, the internet platform ‘laut.de’ sums it up: ”The king is dead – long live the king! That was the melancholy media cry on August 16, 1977. Elvis had already sold 600 million sound carriers with his voice till then. After his death, 200 million sound carriers were added to this within a short period of time, and in the year 2002 their number had reached 1.6 billion.“ About another king, the ”King of Pop“, Wikipedia writes: ”Due to his death, 29 million Michael Jackson albums were sold in less than six months.“ The same internet encyclopedia writes about Austria’s biggest popstar: „Only a few weeks after Falco’s death, his album Out of the Dark (Into the Light) was released and became a huge commercial success. The album entered the Austrian charts at Nr. 1 and remained in the charts for the following three months. In Germany, the album maintained its position in the Top 100 for almost a year. In Germany and Austria alone, the album sold two million copies, the single Out of the Dark sold more than 3.5 million copies”. But did the same apply to rock group Queen and their frontman Freddie Mercury? It sure did, according to the web platform ”SPIEGEL Online“: ”After Mercury’s death, the turnover from Queen CDs quadrupled. Bohemian Rhapsody again reached the Nr. 1 position in the charts. And even a remixed Mercury solo album, featuring old flops pimped with a disco beat, became a moneymaker.“ The Grim Reaper as the perfect salesman – this is also true in the field of independent and alternative rock: In the year 1980, after Joy Division singer Ian Curtis had committed suicide, their Single Love Will Tear Us Apart was rereleased and became a worldwide hit. It follows the same principle every time: Unknown acts become famous – famous acts become legends.
Where were all the posthumous fans when their stars were still alive?
Which leads us to the question: Where were all these fans when their stars were still alive and could have personally profited from their enormous affection? And I’m asking myself: What is it that makes deceased stars so irresistible? Is it their morbid charm? The alarming insight that even idols are only human beings and that we are still alive? Do we celebrate an early death as the inevitable dramatic climax of this almost mythical game of “sex and drugs and rock and roll“, as a supreme discipline, so to speak? Or is it the feeling of holding a great legacy in one’s hands? Do fans suddenly feel the breath of history when the works of a deceased artist begin to transition into their museal state?
”Bill Drummond said …“
Whatever the case may be: Artists themselves are more or less aware of the sales- and fame-propelling power the sudden death of a VIP can have. Among the rock masters who explicitly and creatively adressed this mechanism is Bill Drummond. He was at the center of that Liverpool scene which caused a sensation during the late 1970s and during the 1980s. Post Punk and New Wave were happening, and Echo & The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes were the biggest Liverpool bands. Members of both outfits had been playing together in other bands before. For example, Julian Cope, singer with Teardrop Explodes, and Ian McCulloch, his counterpart in Echo & The Bunnymen, had been members of The Crucial Three. The ”Bunnymen“ and the ”Teardrops“ were signed by Zoo, an indie label owned by David Balfe and, yes, Bill Drummond. Balfe and Drummond, in turn, knew each other from playing together in the relatively unsuccessful band Big In Japan and contributed substantially to the fortunes of their Zoo label fosterlings: Balfe was an occasional member of Teardrop Explodes, and Drummond worked as a manager for Teardrop Explodes as well as for the Bunnymen. During the first years of both bands, so the story goes, all participants were said to have constantly quarreled about which band should get the most promotional power – they were all friends, of course, but they were also jealous of each other. Whereas Ian McCulloch and his bandmates are still active today, Teardrop Explodes broke up in 1983 – because of these oft-quoted ”differences of opinion and taste in music“. Bill Drummond would later team up with Jimmy Cauty to realise art and music projects like The Timelords, The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu and, most notably, The KLF – a step that earned him world fame. David Balfe, lastly, founded record label Food which also released some KLF records, of course.
Avantgarde art and marketing strategies
Legend has it that, back when Drummond was managing Teardrop Explodes, he and singer Julian Cope were constantly quarreling. Some people claim it was a downright feud. That may very well be true, because Cope was an egomaniac and eccentric who experimented with drugs, whereas Drummond had a passion for avantgarde art and marketing strategies. Drummond proved how seriously he took his idiosyncratic ideas in e.g. 1992, when he awarded Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread the „Worst Artist of the Year“ award of his K Foundation, including prize money of 40,000 GBP. A year later he participated in the public burning of – believe it or not – one million GBP. Although Teardrop Explodes started out well, they never made it to stardom, and one can assume that Drummond blamed their failure on poor musical and marketing decisions.
No wonder that one of the songs Julian Cope released on his 1984 solo album Fried was called Bill Drummond Said. It’s a catchy song that featured cryptic lyrics. But even if you don’t get the whole picture, you can pick up on the fact that Julian Cope blames the Teardrops’ failure on manager Bill Drummond. And that’s not all: He even suggests that Drummond ruined the band on purpose. The song characterizes him as a stone-cold manager who positively destroyed the delicate structure of the band by pushing the artists too hard towards success and maximum turnover. But did Julian Cope’s song really offend Bill Drummond? Probably not, because it is neither particularly pithy nor aggressive. On the contrary, it fuels the Liverpool scene myth of the 1980s, celebrating its creative masterminds, its libertines and eccentrics, its ”larger than life“ characters.
Why Julian Cope had to die
You can draw the same conclusion from Julian Cope Is Dead, a song that was released two years later, in 1986, by – guess who – Bill Drummond. The charismatic heavy hitter had been working as an A&R manager for the record company WEA for some time. Now he returned as an artist with his solo album The Man. Julian Cope Is Dead is everything but a deadly serious retaliation song about the former Teardrop Explodes singer. Music and vocal style echo the good old folksong genre, and born Scotsman Bill Drummond sings with a strong Scottish accent. It comes across like a rude drinking song from ancient times, author unknown. Everything we hear sounds just like a fairytale, whispering: No need to worry, it’s only folklore.
The lyrics also don’t sound very trustworthy: ”Julian Cope is dead, / I shot him in the head“, Drummond cheerfully sings, ”if he moves some more, / I’ll kill him for sure. / Now, Julian Cope is dead”. In contrast to Bill Drummond Said,the narrator’s perspective in this song is clear. InJulian Cope Is Dead, only one single person is singing, who turns out to be Julian Cope’s former manager, Bill Drummond. “I shot Julian Cope”, the manager claims, but the singer doesn’t seem to be dead because he can still move. However, and that’s what counts: The public thinks that Julian Cope is no longer alive. In the further course of the song we learn what happened in detail and what the manager has in mind. In short: The Teardrop Explodes was a a superb band, no question, and had some very good songs in their repertoire, but they never managed to leave their mark on rock history. They were just a footnote. Which is why the manager – for the band’s sake as well – came up with a smart plan: Let’s fake the frontman’s death and make the band bigger than the Beatles, let’s create a cult around the Teardrops, which will help to massively increase their record sales: ”Jules C. just follow me, / have your interests at heart. / Now take this knife, / And write to your wife. / Tell her it had to be. / Now Julian said no, / He didn’t want to go …“
An excellent idea: Kill the frontman, then you’re ”bigger than the Beatles“
But the singer, who according to this plan would have had to lie to his wife, didn’t want to join in. So the manager reached for a gun and wounded Julian Cope to keep him from sabotaging the plan: ”Now, Julian Cope is dead, / I shot him in the head, / He didn’t understand / The glory of the plan, / Now, Julian Cope is dead.“ Towards the end of the song the speaker imagines his future success and how he shows off to the neighbours: ”We’ll have platinum records, not gold / To hang on our walls at home. / When the neighbours come round, / I’ll always break down, / repeating the stories of old.“ We can assume that the singer is being hidden somewhere, because the song addresses him again during the finale. That’s when Drummond ridicules Cope’s posing as a martyr, but he also makes fun of the media who are constantly looking for savior figures: ”But who is this man / With holes in his hands, / A halo round his head. / That Arab smock, / And golden locks, / It can’t be, it could be, it is!“ The fact that the initials J. C. apply to Julian Cope as well as to Jesus Christ, plays into Drummond’s hands: ”J. C., please, you’ve got to see, / I was doing what a manager ought. / The records weren’t selling, / And Balfie was drooping, / And Gary had a mortgage to pay.“ The bottom line is that the manager just did his job.
From mate to saint
Aside from the suggestion that Julian Cope just lacked the necessary savvy for generating commercial success, Drummond uses his song as a vehicle to explain a ridiculous marketing strategy. At the center lies the insight outlined at the beginning of this article: The death of a rock star sets an unbelievable process in motion: Record, CD, and DVD sales skyrocket. In an interview Drummond himself reminds the readers of Ian Curtis, whose suicide turned indie heroes Joy Division into global superstars – and helped launch New Order, the subsequent project formed by his ex bandmates. In November 1998 Drummond talked to the internet platform ‘intro.de’ about his song Julian Cope Is Dead and said: “Do you remember Ian Curtis? Joy Division was friends with us, and when Ian died, the media stylised him into something like a Messiah. Of course I knew that death can turn pop musicians into something special, but to watch someone I knew quite well being transformed into a saint was a very intense experience. I then suggested to Mac (= Ian McCulloch) to fake his death. I told him to stay away from the public for two months to see what happened. But he didn’t want to lie to his family. So in the song I replaced Mac with Julian Cope.“
We can’t be sure if this story about Bill Drummond and Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch really happened – but it’s a very nice story for sure, contributing perfectly to the myth around the Liverpool scene of the early eighties. Drummond achieves the same thing with his song Julian Cope Is Dead: It turns the (not authenticated) conflict between the Teardrop Explodes singer and his manager into a legendary anecdote. As a sideline, Drummond puts forward an ironic commentary about the mechanisms at work in the rock business. And who knows what will happen when Drummond himself bites the dust some day.