LIFE IS A MIXTAPE: DUNCAN MARSHALL
Having previously worked as a lexicographer, a library assistant, and a radio presenter at North Highland Radio, Duncan Marshall recently added the title of author to his list of accomplishements after the publication of his musical memoir 'The Ear is a Hungry Ghost'.
When we asked Duncan to curate a 'mixtape' of songs that are meaningful to him, he responded with a compilation of ten songs relating to death & dying - along with a comprehensive description and analysis of each tune. It's a varied list with some really interesting choices in there!
"A headful of music is more than just an accumulation of tunes. It's also a private world- my story so far and its great big messy soundtrack hidden away between my ears. There's a lot of pleasure to be had in such a vast, immersive soundworld, diving and drifting; collecting, comparing and cataloguing; creating some kind of meaningful compilation that might make sense of it all, and of me"
- from The Ear is a Hungry Ghost
(Please be aware, there are mentions of suicide and dark themes throughout)
1 - HEART SHAPED BOX
Kurt Cobain died in April 1994 at the age of 27 and I heard about it on MTV, announced with all the reverence you would expect for the 'passing' of a 'legend'. It was the first and only time I've cried over the death of a musician, or any other famous person.
I still find 'Heart Shaped Box' quite hard to listen to, and not just because Courtney Love once said it was a love song about her vagina. It's hard to listen to because what it sounds like, as well as a jagged, harsh yet wondrous pop song that may or may not be about Courtney Love's vagina, is a howl of anguish. And the combination of that kind of sexual imagery with that kind of anguish, together with a video which can still give me goose pimples, even with the sound turned down, is also hard. And if you can't buy into a garish saturated nightmare that takes in the Wizard of Oz, an old man on a cross wearing a Santa hat and then a mitre, a small girl in a Klan costume, foetuses hanging from trees, a large flayed woman with wings and the old man dying in hospital, then just keep your eyes on Kurt's face.
What made me cry wasn't the music or the video though, it was a desperate sadness at the way the life of Kurt Cobain, MTV's grungy blue-eyed rock and roll darling, the scruffy blond waif whose favourite show on the channel was apparently 'Beavis And Butthead', played out. What I and everyone else watched was a troubled boy in a young man's body being eaten up in front of our eyes by the fame monster as his life careered out of control. It was a distant yet emotionally jarring train crash; an engine of flesh and bone and charity-shop clothes hurtling down the tracks towards a death that was not just futile and sordid and shocking, but, in a ghastly and heart-breaking way, inevitable. 'Heart Shaped Box' was the last song Nirvana ever performed. And it was originally going to be called 'Heart Shaped Coffin'. Kurt Cobain died in April 1994 at the age of 27, and I heard about it on MTV, announced with all the reverence you would expect for the 'passing' of a 'legend'. It wasn't the first time it had happened, and it won't be the last.
2 FRANKIE TEARDROP
The first Suicide album was called Suicide, came out in 1977 and was probably the first synth-pop album, as long as you don't include Kraftwerk.
If it wasn't the first synth-pop album, it was definitely the first album of electro-trash, or death-pop, or maybe glam-industrial-surfcore crossover. What it was, in fact, was a mouthful of bubblegum and blood from a strange girl who kissed you on the mouth while slipping in her Hubba Bubba, then punched you in the face.
Suicide were unique - and it wasn't just their choice of name, which back then seemed tasteless in a time of confrontational tastelessness and therefore made a nasty kind of sense. Now that I've been around a lot longer and experienced a lot more, it just seems horrific to call yourself that.
They were also unique because of their sound - they were primitively poppy anti-pop, the inhuman league, the ones you liked if you wanted to confuse or alienate people. There were only two of them, Martin Rev (drum machine, toytown keyboards, absurdly large shades) and Alan Vega (moans, grunts, gasps, shrieks, intermittent headband) and, although nobody knew it at the time, they were the future. After them would come duos like Sparks, Soft Cell, Yazoo, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Yello and Goldfrapp, right down the line to Sleaford Mods. Bruce Springsteen is a big fan of Suicide - he even covered one of their singles 'Dream Baby Dream'. The original can be heard, briefly, in a TV advert for a fragrance called Daisy, and once you know about that, Daisy might smell different.
Playing in basements and lofts to widespread indifference and/or hostility since the early seventies, in 1978 Suicide ended up supporting Elvis Costello, of all people, in Brussels, of all places, and this brief performance, captured on a cassette recorder, is available with the CD reissue of the album as 23 Minutes Over Brussels. It's quite a listen. By the start of the second song, the wonderful 'Rocket USA' the crowd are booing and jeering in a way that you just know will only encourage Martin and Alan. Six songs and nineteen minutes in, a song called 'Frankie Teardrop' never really gets going, the microphone has been stolen, the audience is roaring and it's all over. I still listen to Suicide from time to time but, like Tubular Bells, I only listen to side one, because side two is mainly taken up with 'Frankie Teardrop'.
If the rest of the album is a kind of woozy, haunting dream, then 'Frankie Teardrop' is a nightmare. It's just horrible. It begins abruptly with a drum machine thudding away like a migraine only faster, accompanied by a droning pulse from a cheap fuzzy organ. Over this, a swooning unhinged voice close, very close to the microphone, starts muttering, moaning and gasping right inside your head, interspersed with abrupt, terrifyingly loud screams, as Frankie, who's not feeling too great, looks at his wife and doesn't know what to do, so he shoots her
then he puts the gun to his head
and Frankie's dead
The song is almost 10 ½ minutes long, and after five minutes Frankie has already shot himself. It's ghastly yet strangely compelling, a drawn-out, brutal assault on the ears, the mind and the soul.
Nick Hornby wrote a book called 31 Songs, and one of them was 'Frankie Teardrop', which he hates but thinks that everyone ought to hear once, which is probably about right. But he doesn't say anything about how great the rest of the album sounds, which I don't suppose will come as a surprise because the book is about songs rather than albums. But, still, he should have said.
And I thought, well, maybe we just have different tastes. And that's probably him offering people a chance to become part of his personal pop community, an extended family of fellow fans that he's reaching out to for a great big group hug, and bonding with over these 31 songs.
(That I only knew seven of. And what's more, as a hostile mixed-up teenager I used to listen to 'Frankie Teardrop' and similar tunes for kicks, just like some folk would go on a ghost train or watch a horror film. This kind of naive perversity also embraced tunes such as
· 'Reality Asylum' and 'Shaved Women' by Crass
· 'Beautiful Gardens' and 'Surfin' Bird' by the Cramps
· 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene' by Pink Floyd
· 'European Son' and 'Sister Ray' by the Velvet Underground
· 'Dum Dum Boys' and 'Mass Production' by Iggy Pop.
Nowadays, that kind of savagery and darkness is more than I want in my music, or in my life. I don't feel the need to visit places like that any more, and if I do, then there's always the news.)
Nick Hornby also annoyed me because he said that the Sex Pistols were just the Stooges with bad teeth, which is lazy and untrue. Even though they covered 'No Fun' on the B-side of 'Pretty Vacant', they actually sounded more like the Faces playing songs by the New York Dolls.
And anyway, maybe his Suicide is just my Throbbing Gristle.
3 I'LL FLY AWAY
'Heart Shaped Box' is by Nirvana from 1993, 'Frankie Teardrop' is by Suicide from 1978, and both of these are pop songs of some kind or other. 'I'll Fly Away' is a hymn, written by Albert E Brumley in 1929, and probably the most recorded gospel song ever. Where the other two songs view death with an annihilating sense of despair and terror, this joyous, uplifting song radiates an almost ecstatic feeling of anticipation.
This isn't the Jim Reeves version. The first time I heard 'I'll Fly Away' was listening to the soundtrack of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where it's performed by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. The harmonies of their combined voices together with the song itself really do make death seem like something to look forward to because of what comes after.
You don't need Christian belief to love this version of this song, or any other version of it, or any version of any other gospel song, or any hymn for that matter. Like a lot of pop music or popular music, what you respond to first of all is the emotional power of an accessible, engaging tune, which here is anchored by a heavy, immovable, cast-iron sense of certainty - everything is going to be okay. The pleasure of the tune, and the joy of that certainty are made more intense, more sweet in a bittersweet kind of way, by the close, high harmonies of Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, that keening, almost dissonant 'high lonesome sound' of bluegrass that I find incredibly moving. For a male equivalent, maybe try listening to the Louvin Brothers.
You hear those soaring spiritual harmonies in bluegrass, in gospel music and in choral music more generally where singing becomes a communal act of celebration performed with breath and voices, celebrating a triumphant victory over sadness, wickedness and death itself, either briefly for the duration of the song and its after-effect on the brain, or reaching into eternity.
4 MY DEATH
Belgian singer-songwriter and poet Jacques Brel recorded an awful version of this song - fast, jaunty and melodramatic, with an insistently off-kilter brass accompaniment that builds to a dramatic end suggesting death by an abrupt and undignified seizure of some kind.
It's an awful version of an amazing song, and it was Jacques Brel who wrote it. In French. It's been translated numerous times, but the version I know and love is by David Bowie. Where Brel's version is less than three minutes long, Bowie's lasts for around six. There's a sparse background accompaniment that you barely notice, and the lack of instrumentation apart from Bowie's slowly strummed twelve-string guitar give his crooning, operatic, reverberating cabaret voice plenty of room to fill. It's beautiful, sombre and artistic, it builds to become almost as dark and massive as death itself, then fades to almost nothing. Chillingly, in the version I know, the last line tails off so instead of the line 'In front of that door, there is you', we have 'In front of that door, there is...' then, after a pause, hundreds of young girls shouting 'Me! Me! Me!'
It's a beautiful, sombre, artistic contemplation of death, a personal meditation performed in front of thousands. Bowie fought for and achieved fame as a flamboyantly public figure, but in later years lived an intensely private life and died an intensely private death. He sang many, many songs about death - public music dealing with the most private of experiences - but I think this is his most memorable. Lit by a single spotlight, in the video he is surrounded by crowds but, sitting alone in the dark, he sings of his own inevitable extinction to a woman who isn't there - to himself, in fact.
There are no studio versions of 'My Death', though it was recorded live a few times in the early 1970s, and he revisited it in the 1990s. It's a kind of companion piece to 'Blackstar', another song about death on an album about death that was released about 40 years later on his 69th birthday, two days before he died. There was no funeral, and his body was privately cremated. That album with its blank cover and dark, disturbing music seems like the place all the other death songs were leading to, and in the absence of any other monument, it's what his headstone sounds like.
5 TIE ME KANGAROO DOWN, SPORT
This 1957 novelty song was inspired by the topical calypsos of Harry Belafonte. It's a very dark song, as many songs about death are. But this song is dark for a number of other reasons.
Firstly, it's written and performed by disgraced former national treasure Rolf Harris, who in 2014 was found guilty on numerous counts of indecent assault against young girls. Rolf Harris, that lovable, bumbling Aussie artist with his great big paintings done live on TV, his weird beatboxing before it was called beatboxing, his wobble board, his stylophone and his commissioned portrait of the Queen.
Another reason: it draws on the musical influence of Harry Belafonte, the Jamaican-American political activist who was a close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr, yet one verse humorously refers to Aboriginal Australians as 'Abos'. Here, native Australians are the property of a farmer who can do what he likes with them. Rolf later expressed regret for this.
And, it's a song about death, which is dark enough, but there's also a sting in the tail. An old Australian stockman, or livestock farmer, is on his deathbed and asks his friends to dispose of his property for him once he's gone - his wallabies, cockatoo, koala, Aborigines, platypus and digeridoo. His animals, his native musical instrument, and his native Australians, who he wants to be set loose. Even with all of the above in mind, the throwaway, bleak humour of the payoff in the final verse might still get to you: 'Tan me hide when I'm dead, Fred, Tan me hide when I'm dead. So we tanned his hide when he died, Clyde, and that's it hanging on the shed.' The logistics of actually complying with this might be hard to imagine, but at least he got what he wanted.
There are many songs about the last words of dying people, many of which date from a time when we were less squeamish about death and dying. There's 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' by Blind Lemon Jefferson. There's 'The Streets Of Laredo', which goes all the way back to English ballads and was sung by Johnny Cash. There's 'House Of The Rising Sun', another folk song. There's 'Seasons In The Sun' by Terry Jacks, originally written by Jacques Brel. There's even 'Stan' by Eminem. But Rolf Harris as well? Yes, Rolf Harris as well.
6 HEY JOE
I first heard 'Hey Joe' as performed by Jimi Hendrix, and its mournful tune, intense arrangement and nasty words shocked my young ears. The question and answer format it uses is common in ballads and folk songs, and here in three succinct verses Joe tells us he's caught his old lady messing around with another man, he's shot her, and he's heading for Mexico.
Angry men killing women is the subject of hundreds of tunes, and although there are some murder songs like 'Frankie and Johnny' that reverse the roles, there aren't very many. Olivia Newton John did a version of 'Banks Of The Ohio' and it got to number 6 in 1971, but it was originally sung from the point of view of a man stabbing a woman.
'Delilah' - she got stabbed because she was unfaithful, and Tom Jones just couldn't take any more. The words won an Ivor Novello award. 'Delia's Gone' - she got shot, and shot again, tied to a chair. There are several versions of this song, some as sung by her killer, some by a loved one. And Jimmie Rodgers is just the most famous of all those men who want to shoot their Thelma just to see her jump and fall. The ones who use a gun loaded with 32-20 or 22-20 bullets to cut their woman in two include blues musicians Robert Johnson and Skip James. Now look what you made me do, I went and killed you.
7 WARM LEATHERETTE
This single from 1978 made punk old-fashioned, if it didn't seem that way already. Looking back, it now seems clear that what we needed wasn't punk; it was the likes of this. Although not referred to as post-punk at the time, that's what it became.
Like Suicide, 'Warm Leatherette' was the future - electronic music, in this case by the Normal. It was just one man called Daniel Miller who, disappointed that you had to learn three chords to be in a punk band, bought a synthesiser so he only had to press one key. With just one key, just one finger, what this inspired, compelling, chugging, wheezing piece of punk-primitive instrumental and vocal monotony gives us, along with the future of popular music, is a three-and-a-half minute distillation of a disturbing, dreamlike novel called Crash by JG Ballard. And this in turn is distilled into just a few lines that appear towards the end of the song: a tear of petrol - is in your eye - the handbrake - penetrates your thigh - quick, let's make love - before you die - on warm - leatherette (the phrase 'warm -leatherette' is then repeated seven times, with the song ending: 'join - the car-crash set').
Published a few years previously in 1973, Crash tells of a group of people who become sexually aroused by staging and taking part in car crashes. It has deeply unsettling things to say about the ways that violence, sexuality, technology, and death intertwine in our culture, and when David Cronenberg made a movie of it in 1996, the Daily Mail tried to get it banned, so you have to assume he got it right. JG Ballard certainly thought so; he described it as 'terrific'.
Many have covered 'Warm Leatherette', from Trent Reznor (predictable) to Duran (not). Perhaps the most well-known version is by Grace Jones on her 1980 album of the same name, though it's flat, uninvolving, overly sleek and goes on too long, a bit like the woman herself. What I really want to hear, though, is the version that's apparently included on the 2014 4-CD box set The Girl From Detroit City, because it's by Suzi Quatro.
8 LONG BLACK VEIL
Some songs are sung from beyond the grave, messages from dead people to the living. The bleak, mesmerising country song 'Long Black Veil' from 1959 is such a tale, told by a dead man executed after being falsely accused of murder. He failed to provide an alibi because on the night of the murder he was with his best friend's wife. The chorus describes the woman secretly visiting his grave wearing a long black veil. It has been covered dozens of times, but the version I first heard was by Johnny Cash from his amazing live album recorded at Folsom Prison.
An earlier ghost song is the Irish folk tune 'She Moved Through the Fair', in which a young man is visited at night by the ghost of his lover and, rather unsettlingly, told that it will not be long till their wedding day. Again, there are many versions, though my favourite is the haunting Fairport Convention cover from 1969, with its sparse echoing arrangement and a high lonesome vocal by Sandy Denny. The band learned it from an Irish Traveller, Margaret Berry, who had in turn learned it off a record by the tenor singer John McCormack.
More recently, 'I Come And Stand At Every Door' is a translation of a quite shocking Turkish anti-war poem by Nazim Hikmet, in which a seven-year-old girl relates her death at Hiroshima and her hope for world peace in years to come. You can hear a great version of it on the Byrds album Fifth Dimension.
9 GALLIS POLE
This 1930s recording is a powerful performance by Huddie Leadbetter, a former prisoner with a big voice and a large guitar, better known as Lead Belly. Here, a man about to be hanged pleads with the hangman to delay his death so that money can be brought to save him, then desperately asks various last-minute visitors if they have brought him the necessary silver or gold. Led Zeppelin recorded a version called 'Gallows Pole' on their third album, although the heavy, dramatic instrumentation is unfortunately undermined by Robert Plant's squawking and vocal improvisations - the likes of 'See Saw Marjorie Daw' and 'keep swingin', keep swingin'' don't really add anything useful. An imposingly slow, relentlessly heavy version by Plant and Page later appeared on the 1994 album Unledded, performed with a backing band that included a hurdy-gurdy and an Egyptian orchestra. They also performed it on BBC2's Later, where its power was unleashed and sustained without any of the previous vocal tomfoolery.
'Gallows Pole has a centuries-long history and versions exist in many languages. Similar in some ways, yet wildly different in others, is '25 Minutes To Go', an uncomfortable, quite horrifically jaunty Johnny Cash song about a condemned man counting down the minutes to his hanging. It's uncomfortable not only because it ends with the line 'Now I'm swingin' and here I go-o-o-o-o', which you might think is bad enough, but it's made even worse because it was recorded live at Folsom Prison, and was greeted with wild applause. Literally gallows humour.
One of the most harrowing songs about execution, though, is 'The Mercy Seat' by Nick Cave, originally recorded in 1988 and still performed live. It's basically the last fevered moments of a man in the electric chair, weighing up thoughts about vengeance, truth and judgement as he fries and dies. As well as referring ironically to the electric chair, the phrase 'mercy seat' is also a name used for the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, a gold-plated wooden chest in which in the Old Testament contained the tablets with the ten commandments on them. On the lid of this holy relic were carved of two golden angels and Jehovah, the Jewish God, was believed to appear between their outstretched wings when he addressed the Children of Israel.
The chorus, repeated with variations fifteen times during the song with increasing agitation, includes the Old Testament quotation about vengeance 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth', and ends with the line 'And I'm not afraid to die'. Cage has since said he wrote the song when he was a lot younger, and no longer feels as cocky about death as he used to.
10 MY GENERATION
Being cocky about death is what this song is all about. Released in 1965, it captures the defiance, frustration, alienation and arrogance of youth in a way that few other songs have in the intervening 57 years. I used to love it and still do, but my attitude to it has changed.
Ironically, the song's success at expressing these feelings and its brilliance as a pop song have allowed it to endure, grow in stature, and become a Pop Classic, with capital letters. Those stroppy young tearaways the Who have also endured, or at least two of them have; so in 2022 Pete Townshend is 77 and Roger Daltrey is 78. And a further irony comes, as both of them will be tired of hearing, from the most quoted line in the song, line four: 'hope I die before I get old'. It's all very well writing or singing that when you're twenty, but as the years pass and life does what it does to everyone, hoping to die before you get old loses its attraction as a way of appearing fashionable.
Twenty years before the single came out, before the idea of teenagers existed, young men of Pete Townshend's age were getting blown to pieces on the beaches at Normandy, experiencing a level of trauma we can't imagine, then during the sixties many of those young men became the establishment that was being rebelled against. I bet they never hoped they died before they got old.
One of their number appears in the Beatles film A Hard Day's Night, which came out in 1964, the year before 'My Generation' and 19 years after World War 2 ended. In one memorable scene from the film - memorable to me, anyway - the Beatle boys cram into a railway carriage compartment and irritate a fusty-looking gent with their lively banter and fooling about. He gets annoyed, and splutters 'I fought two world wars for the likes of you', to which one of them, possibly Ringo, replies, 'I bet you're sorry you won'.
Just 12 years after that, another bunch of stroppy young tearaways gave us 'Anarchy In The UK'. That's now 46 years ago, I was a teenager then, and now I'm not. I remember Generation X's response to 'My Generation', which was a single called 'Your Generation', and part of the chorus was 'your generation don't mean thing to me'. You can't help wondering what the old gent would have thought about that.
Me, I hope I get old before I die.
Duncan's book is available from many retailers. Check out his website for more information!