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.
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.
First belated fame, then the award-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” – and now a book is out on the search for the legendary 70s songwriter Rodriguez. Does the “Sugar Man” deserve that? And: Aren’t a few self-promoters just repeatedly fuelling the myth they have created?
Just to be clear: I think the long-forgotten 1970s
singer-songwriter Rodriguez and his songs are really extraordinary. And also
extraordinarily good. But I belong to the growing number of sceptics who have
been uncovering more and more holes and weak spots in the hype surrounding
Rodriguez that has prevailed for the last several years. This criticism is
directed less against the artist, whose demeanour has certainly been reserved,
if not downright modest, than against those who have capitalised on his
miraculous rediscovery and are still capitalising on it. These include South
African record store owner Stephen Segerman, journalist Craig Bartholomew
Strydom, also from South Africa, and Swedish documentary filmmaker Malik
Bendjelloul. Segerman and Bartholomew Strydom have recently published their
book Sugar Man – The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez. In
it, they describe once again how they set out in the 1990s to search for the
songwriter – who was believed to be dead – finally tracking him down and
helping him to his well-deserved fame after a quarter century’s delay.
This search and Rodriguez’s incredible
subsequent success are also at the heart of the film Searching for Sugar Man,
released by Malik Bendjelloul in 2012, which in 2013 earned him the most
prestigious award a director can receive: an Oscar. Bendjelloul committed
suicide in May of this year, allegedly he was depressed. Not least because of the
publication of Segerman and Bartholomew Strydom’s book, I was motivated to finally
watch the highly acclaimed film, the DVD of which I had put on my 2014
Christmas wish list. At first glance, it is a really beautiful, touching film.
It tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American songwriter who
released Cold Fact and Coming from Reality in the early 1970s,
two fantastic psychedelic folk albums with great melodies and unusually
profound lyrics. The tragedy: Both albums, although praised by the critics,
were total flops. Which is why, the film continues, Rodriguez withdrew
completely – unaware of the fact that in the 1970s and 80s his music became
extremely popular in South Africa, of all places. Via audio cassettes brought
into the country by tourists, as well as through bootlegs and later re-releases, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality became the soundtrack of the
South African anti-apartheid movement and were sold hundreds of thousands of
times. But also because of apartheid, established facts about dissident artists
were rare on the ground and at some point, rumours spread that Rodriguez had committed
suicide on stage at one of his concerts.
Some people said he had set himself on fire,
others that he had shot himself. Which of course strengthened his mythological
status. Until two South American fans, the aforementioned Segerman and
Bartholomew Strydom, laboriously tracked down Sixto Rodriguez in the late 1990s
and brought him to South Africa for a highly acclaimed concert tour. So in the
end, the film concludes, the whole world got a chance to hear about this
According to the film, the two protagonists
took three paths, among other things, in their tear-jerking search for
Rodriguez. Firstly: They tried to follow the flow of money. Because, they
reasoned correctly, whoever has sold that many records must have been paid some
kind of royalties. But the two men quickly reached the limits of this line of
enquiry and met dodgy ex-label bosses who stonewalled them. Hmmmm, very
suspicious! Secondly: They used the emerging internet and created a website
called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt” where they encouraged people to hunt for Rodriguez
and asked fans all over the world to help them. And thirdly: They carefully listened
to Rodriguez’s songs again. Where, in the piece Inner City Blues, they
came across the magic line “Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o’clock this
morn / A cold fact”. The film revels in once again setting the scene where one
of the two heroes, as if electrified, reaches for the atlas to find out where
Dearborn is. And – what a surprise! – Dearborn turns out to be a small town
southwest of Detroit! Which finally leads to a turn of events. Eventually – the
film implies that the search took several years – all the different paths
finally converge: Our South African heroes find one of the producers of
Rodriguez’ first album, and the singer’s daughter actually gets in touch via
the website. Rodriguez is said to be alive; he lives right next door in
Detroit. And one day, this moment is also recapitulated in a highly dramatic
way, Bartholomew Strydom and Segerman finally get to talk to the man himself on
Gosh, golly, gee, goose bumps!!!!!
But this is the point, if not sooner, at which
I began to have doubts. Not about whether the two had even contacted Rodriguez,
because that was indisputable. No, I had doubts about the way they said they
had tracked Rodriguez down – about the supposed detective work, about all the
crime-story elements that the film presents in such a compelling way; about the
glorification of these two fans who purport to have done something amazing in
order to look behind the myth, in order to help their idol to his deserved
fame. One aspect in particular made me wonder: Every record contains
information about the authors of the songs and about the producers in the
studio. And even the most obscure records are listed in telephone book-like
directories with every label number, which applies both to the original
releases and to re-releases, even when the labels switch. How was it possible
that a record store owner and an investigative journalist of all people, even
if they worked in restrictive South Africa, shouldn’t have been able to take
the simplest path in such a case? To consult catalogues or simply search directly
for the producers listed on the record covers? Mind you: The process of liberalisation
and the transition from apartheid to legal equality for blacks in South Africa
had already begun in the late 1980s, with Nelson Mandela elected president in
1994. Therefore, the country was no longer isolated during the search for “Sugar
Man”. And in the meantime, the internet had also been born and was available!
Plus: At least one of Rodriguez’ producers was a known entity.
We are talking about Dennis Coffey, a session guitarist of those Funk Brothers who worked for the famous soul label Motown. It was Coffey and his partner Mike Theodore who produced the first Rodriguez album, Cold Fact, in the heart of America’s music industry! They had discovered the artist in his native Detroit, and, looking at the issue today, it seems like a bad joke that the two South African master researchers, after a long and arduous search, finally, well, tracked Rodriguez down exactly there: in his hometown Detroit!
To put it simply: Why didn’t they go through the labels and recording studios? Why didn’t they just call the Detroit city council and/or Dennis Coffey or write a letter or an e-mail and inquire about Sixto Rodriguez?The Swedish documentary filmmaker Bendjelloul only appeared on the scene in 2006, when the whole thing had actually been over for years. Rodriguez had already performed in South Africa in 1998 after his rediscovery. But now a really big spotlight was trained on everything that was happening. After all, there were still a lot of music lovers all over the world who had never heard of Rodriguez before. The film’s enormous impact seems even more grotesque the more you find out about Rodriguez and his career afterwards, quite simply through various newspaper articles. Because in all those years, the artist had by no means been as obscure and forgotten as Searching for Sugar Man so strenuously implies to cinema and DVD audiences. Apart from the fact that Rodriguez had even campaigned to become mayor in his hometown of Detroit in the late 1980s, he had also had some success as an artist beyond the 1970s. A household name not only in American and European indie circles for several decades, he was also a veritable star in New Zealand and Australia. Down Under one of his records had reached gold status, and in 1981 he toured there with superstars like Midnight Oil. Of course he was somewhat forgotten in the 1990s – but someone who was really interested in him, especially if he was a record store owner or an investigative journalist, should have found it easy to quickly discover the basic facts. Even from South Africa.
And let’s be honest: A rock star who self-immolates
or shoots himself with a gun on stage – is anyone really supposed to believe that? If
something like that had actually happened, wouldn’t it have become one of the global
stories of the century? It’s a bit silly to build something up that big and
then spectacularly prove the unbelievable opposite against all rumours… So all
those years it must have been crystal clear that Rodriguez was leading a pretty
normal life somewhere. The whole fuss might have been totally unnecessary. Against
this backdrop and in hindsight, the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man
seems increasingly annoying to me. I’m joined here by a number of journalists
and film critics, especially from the English-speaking world, who have expanded
on the film’s gaps and inconsistencies. A typical example is Bill Cody’s
January 21, 2013 article on ‘comingsoon.net’, in which he sceptically asks
whether Bartholomew Strydom and Segerman really seriously searched for
Rodriguez and how much artistic freedom is allowed in a documentary film that is
supposed to reflect something like the truth: “Is it okay to bend the truth in
order to make the story better than it really is?”
One of the movie’s weak points, apart from all
the facts being withheld and the dramatizations, is that it asks the right
question about the unpaid royalties and implies many heinous things, but doesn’t
ultimately offer satisfying answers. The same way that the film actually raises
more questions than it answers. Because it focuses on all sorts of narrative
strands and hardly ever finishes any of them. Least of all about Rodriguez himself.
Highly mysterious smokescreens are created, and complicated explanations touted
in view of the different names “Sixto Rodriguez” and “Jesus Rodriguez” in the
song writing credits, which can somehow be explained at the (long-winded) end. People
from the music business talk, the feverish seekers talk, then the daughters of
Rodriguez, one of whom – yet another touching story – fell in love with a crew
member and promptly started a family, and also two incredibly eloquent
Rodriguez colleagues and friends from Detroit, who describe their buddy “Sugar
Man” as a noble hero. Were they the only two people from the artist’s circle of
friends that the filmmakers could find? Rodriguez himself only speaks in a few
scenes – in other words, it is ironic that we learn least about the main
If we really needed another book on the subject at the moment, then it should be an (auto-)biography about the artist or the true story from Rodriguez’ point of view. Or an investigative report that really uncovers where the money went, so that the songs’ author can finally get his well-deserved royalties. But instead, Messrs. Bartholomew Strydom/Segerman go centre stage again, with the same old story. And if you glance into the book, you’ll be amazed at the style: the two authors write about themselves in the third person! That leaves an impression not only of extreme self-absorption and artificiality, but also of blatant profiteering.
The site ‘sugarman.org’, which calls itself
the official Rodriguez website, is also significant in this context. It starts with
movie posters and record covers, followed by a 360-degree view of “Mabu Vinyl”,
Segerman’s book and record store in Cape Town, as well as announcements,
interviews, and reviews of the new book by Segerman and Bartholmew Strydom.
Other questions arise, e.g.: What does ‘sugarman.org’ say about the legal
disputes that have arisen in recent months, because after the success of the
film all sorts of people suddenly came out of the woodwork to find out whether
they too could earn some money? And what does the artist himself say about all of
this? Here, too, it’s striking: It’s all about the researchers presenting
themselves – if you want to discover anything new about Rodriguez, you have to
click through for quite a while to learn just a little bit. It almost reminds
you of the brilliant but psychologically unstable Beach Boy Brian Wilson, whose
career was steered by psychotherapist Eugene Landy for a few years. It seems as
if the movers and shakers have primarily created their own profitable myth.
Whether any of this ties in with Bendjelloul’s suicide is not known.