On the perils of noticing everything: the urban gothic and the wandering mind of Mark E. Smith
March 14, 2012 Leave a comment
I watched Out of Control?, a BBC2 Horizon documentary last night with an increasing sense of disappointment. The show was heavily trailed as a revelation of how neuroscience could now show that we are not really in control of our lives – of what we feel and what we think, due to the amount of data that our subconscious actively blanks out. However, the parade of media savvy scientists prodding brains, playing with scanners and setting up cheeky ‘experiments’ with college kids chasing after a remote controlled helicopter left me with no sense of revelation. ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ me thinks: poets, artists and philosophers (and a fair few psychologists) have been exploring this territory for over 100 years.
It’s probably very healthy that our brains deny us the ability to notice everything around us. Whilst walking the dog this morning I was struck by the apt opening lines of The Fall’s song, The Horror in Clay. The song is classic Fall, barely listenable but with artfully collated blasts of sound, image and insight. The song seems to be something to do with the discovery of a part-made statue, and mixes narration of the story of this article’s discovery, systematic transcription of its features, and the occasional interruption of the whole event by extraneous sound. There’s something about Cornwall and Sheffield in their too. At one point an aeroplane’s passing overhead obscures the monologue, for no apparent purpose other than to (I think) underscore this ‘song’s’ attempt to depict the incoherence of noticing everything. Mark E. Smith – the embodiment of The Fall – opens this performance with the following quote, which he attributes to US horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft:
“The most merciful thing in the world is man’s inability to correlate all of his mind’s contents. But the sciences one day, some say it is already upon us, will eventually open up such terrifying vistas of reality that we will either go mad from the revelation or flee into blissful sleep, peace and safety of another new dark age. ”
The song appears to be based upon Lovecraft’s opening chapter of his 1928 first book, The Call of Cuthulu. The statue is an attempt to depict a creature encountered in the sculptor’s disturbing dreams of “great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.” (Lovecraft, 2002: 143)
The theme of immanent horror irrupting within ‘daily’ life is a recurrent feature of both horror stories and The Fall’s songs, which are rooted in telling observation of the edgelands of Smith’s Manchester. In songs like Container Drivers and Industrial Estate Smith casts the wordsmith’s gaze onto the spectacular (and the grotesque) within the mundane, valorising features of life that simply do not get a look-in in conventional aesthetics.
In City Hobgoblins Smith summons a mundane tapping sound which then irrupts into the occult: “Tap, tap, tap, tap…you think it’s the pipes….but [then] it turns on the lights, the city hobgoblins…”. The song depicts the state of being within a built environment riddled with disruptive ‘noise’ and delves grotesque causal mechanisms – ‘gremlins’ if you will – offering fanciful but potential explanations that we may chose to dismiss out-of-mind for much of our lives.
Bracewell (1997), in his analysis of the dark aesthetics of a certain northern-industrial culture – in an essay entitled Lucifer over Lancashire, attributes Smith’s warped aesthetic in part to the Manchester region’s built environment, thus:
“The industrial heritage of the north, shaping the monolithic Victorian mill towns and ports,…produced an architecture which was simultaneously mean, and dramatic with civic grandeur…The discrepancy, in architectural and political terms, between the immensity of the workplace and the terraced cottages of the workers created the image of the northern townscape, surrounded by the wilderness of moorland, that would become as predominant a cultural force in England as Edwardian Arcadia or Swinging London.” (165)
He then sketches the physical roots of the north-west’s ‘mythological darkness’ (Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’, industrial decline, heavy rainfall, bleak moorland, “the moaning factory whistle [and] the brooding terraces” (Bracewell, 1997: 172) and maps a parallel cultural passage of an attendant northern ‘cult of fatalism’ from Emily Brontë to Mark E. Smith.
Bracewell summates Smith’s craft thus: “Smith’s writing [is]peopled with social misfits, mutants and autistic enthusiasts; their first person narration, more often than not, played with lunatic conviction as cock-eyed shamanism – delivering accounts of fantastical or disturbing occurrences between the pub and the Post Office, the High Street and the hotel. Writing from the point of view of an anxious victim of hostile forces, recounting his strategies for psychic self-defence…”(184)
At his best, Smith achieves something quite remarkable – a simultaneous summoning of the mundane and the spectacular from “deliquescing precincts, portakabins, blank British countryside and lurid psychological interiors” (184). But it’s a world happily taken in small portions – you wouldn’t want to really believe in, or actually see, the city hobgoblins…
Bracewell, M. (1997) England is Mine, Harper Collins: London.
Lovecraft, H.P. (2002) The Call of Cuthulu and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Classics: London
Lyrics transcription for The Fall’s The Horror in Clay: http://www.metrolyrics.com/the-horror-in-clay-lyrics-fall.html#ixzz1p5SYRXsx
BBC (2012) Out of Control? BBC 2 Horizon documentary, 13 March http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01dlglq