For the first time the other Friday, I took /amodelofcontrol.com on the road. Sure, I’ve done a semi-regular podcast for the past year or so (next one before Infest, it was recorded last night), and I present (in smaller rooms, and in front of much smaller audiences) in my day job fairly regularly. But until someone suggested that I did this, I’d not even considered doing a talk at a Con before.
That said, I didn’t really expect to have my talk submission accepted for Nine Worlds [9W], but that it was, and so I did a fair amount of preparation to ensure that I was good to go, and this included the assistance beforehand and also on-stage of Dr Simon Trafford, who assisted greatly on the section about Norse history and interpretation.
/First Presented at Nine Worlds 2018
I’d not actually been to a Con before, either. At least at 9W I wasn’t alone – a great many friends (including my wife) are regulars and so that meant at least I’d have some familiar faces in the audience, but also to my surprise there were quite a number of people who came along that I didn’t know at all. Needless to say, I did suffer from tech problems, which were entirely my own fault (overestimating how much my laptop could cope with, basically), and next time I’ll not be embedding music into powerpoint files, no matter how much simpler that seems. A lesson learned, that.
Before I get on with the actual content, a big thanks to the Nine Worlds people for putting me on in the first place, all those who attended, put the word out about my talk, asked questions, and indeed talked about it with me afterward either in person or online, and finally to the excellent tech crew at the Con who couldn’t have been more helpful in accommodating what I needed to make this work.
Will there be another? Well, there’s certainly enough to do a few more, so potentially, yes – but that requires taking it to Nine Worlds again next year (if it happens again, bearing in mind the likely changes pending, of course), or another Con somewhere else (which I might consider – hit me up if you think there’s somewhere else I could submit this to!).
In the meantime? Here is a version of what I went through on the day, with some text amended and/or updated to take account of it being read online rather than presented.
That sound embedded here (go on, push the button)? That was Ash, with the intro to their debut album 1977 (released in May 1996). Lose Control opens with the sound of a TIE Fighter, of course, and the title of the album refers to the year that they were born, and of course the year Star Wars was released. The original members of Ash were all about a year older than I was, and in some ways, they inspired me to write about music. If someone else my age could get involved, why couldn’t I?
I guess, in many ways, though, I’m a crap geek. I was a casual gamer in my younger days, and indeed still have an XBOX 360 at home – that I rarely play. I cut my teeth on Games Workshop games as a teen (Bloodbowl and Warhammer 40,000 in the main, and exclusively I fought with Dark Eldar – to the extent of even having a fully painted Harlequin troupe), and occasionally played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay with my two step-brothers, and a lot of paper and pens. I’ve long left that behind too. I’ve even participated in a couple of LARP events in the past, but I’ve very sketchy memories of that at all – I can’t even remember when and where. The broad extent of my gaming nowadays is Pokémon Go.
My main geekery, then, is music. I’ve written about music – and the varying shades of alternative music, from post-rock to death metal, from industrial electronics to ambient, from the dying throes of Britpop to the current North London Indie scene, and much more besides – since the very first week of my first year at University – ahem, very nearly twenty-two years ago, and I still do now, mainly for my own damned self (having written for various other publications along the way).
Today, then, is about the links between those two realms. Where alternative music and geekery meet. Where some artists “out” themselves as geeks of the highest order, where others use their experience in various fields of geekery to influence the music they produce, or where others still simply use something from the world of geekery to sell more records.
It is a potted and subjective history, jumps around a bit, and will invariably miss out on an artist you think I should have mentioned, and indeed a couple of entire genres, simply by a lack of time. That’s where – if they happen – parts two and three will fill the gaps.
/The Battle of Evermore
/Led Zeppelin IV
I’m not totally sure when bands started writing songs about more than just “boy meets girl”, but obviously the Civil Rights Movement had begun the transition to more serious subjects, and as the sixties ended, there was increasing evidence that rock bands were casting the net wider for song inspiration. Robert Plant’s lyrics in his songs with Led Zeppelin were certainly early examples of this, with a number of songs seemingly referencing his interest in The Lord of the Rings, perhaps most notably Battle of Evermore – and he apparently even named his dog Strider!
Elsewhere, Rush were also geeks of the highest order – with their various sci-fi epics across their career, including the twenty-plus-minute, multi-part 2112 that I’ll save you from for now, and I’ll also save you from the astral excesses of Yes, The Soft Machine and most of the seventies prog movement, too… (Note: although going on the questions at the end of the talk on Friday, prog and Power Metal may well feature in part two!).
More remarkably, though, I only discovered last week that Marc Bolan loved his comics, going so far as to interview Stan Lee himself in 1975, and if you look a bit deeper, such as in Mambo Sun, he even references Doctor Strange in the song. Which is not a reference I’d expect, that’s for sure…
/The Greatest Band of All Time
In the eighties and nineties, as technology advanced (particularly for special effects, which had been risible much before the late Seventies for the most part), sci-fi in particular on film and television became much more of a thing. This bounced off many and resulted in a great many musical inspirations, too, be it themes, mentions in song or just straight-up tributes, and there are a great many songs to talk about here.
A few to mention in passing: Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip’s I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper was an early sci-fi-themed hit, and something of a cash-in on the Star Wars mania of the time, while Duran Duran’s name originates in the film Barbarella. There was, also, a London-based band called The Potentials – all their songs were about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Then there is the Oakland-based band Arnocorps, who sing about the “Austrian Folk Tales” that Hollywood so cruelly repackaged out of their correct context. Or, in short, their songs are generally about Arnold Schwarzenegger films – often to glorious, comic effect. Even better, experience them live, where they are an utter (and very inclusive) hoot.
They have even more recently covered the, uh, less explored parts of the Arnie canon – yes, you too can now listen to, among others, songs about Twins and Kindergarten Cop. But here, I’m featuring one of their greatest moments, appropriately enough about one of his greatest films. “Get Your Ass to Mars!”
/Another Piece of the Action – The Best of…
Another band to have taken significant influence from sci-fi are Swedish synthpop band S.P.O.C.K., who remarkably have been going for thirty years (and some members have history in earlier bands than that). Best-known – as their name suggests – for their Star Trek influenced songs (best ones – Dr McCoy and Never Trust A Klingon, but there are more!), it is easily forgotten that they have spread their wings well beyond the much-loved space series, into other films of a similar ilk. But, they’ll forever be remembered for songs about that one show.
That, and they are all rather better than The Firm’s novelty hit Star Trekkin’…
One of the earliest popular sci-fi shows, of course, was Doctor Who, a BBC institution for over fifty years, even if it disappeared from TV for some years and not all of it has always been brilliant. But that said, it has left an indelible mark on British culture, particularly the theme song which was developed by the legendary early-electronic music pioneers the Radiophonic Workshop, and in particular Delia Derbyshire. What is interesting is that not only have there been a number of covers of the theme (one of the most notable being the Timelords – or, if you prefer, the KLF – who mashed it up with a Glitter Band track in the late eighties), it has also developed over time, keeping the famous core but tweaking it around the edges. Easily the best of the covers, though, comes from Orbital, and it remains a fixture of their live set even now.
I asked – entirely unscientifically – on Facebook recently, the following question: “Have you played roleplaying games (Live-Action (LARP) or tabletop (RPG), and/or tabletop wargames (e.g. Warhammer 40k etc)? (now or in the past)”. Of 322 votes, 78% said yes, and my wife has drily noted in the past that despite her never playing these games, every single partner in her past has done…
Bolt Thrower was not far off the Games Workshop house band for a while. After their origins in Coventry in the mid-80s, they got signed to the extreme metal label Earache Records – and remarkably, as the story goes, their forthcoming album at the time (Reign of Chaos) was similar to a 40K storyline of the time, this band of keen GW gamers found themselves with GW doing the artwork for the album! Probably a route into extreme metal for a great many teenagers – and this includes me, I guess – but despite their nerdy beginnings, the band eventually called it a day a few years back, after a near three-decade career and a reputation as one of the most influential bands in British Death Metal.
One of a long-list of rather great Glasgow-based indie bands of the nineties, Urusei Yatsura took their name from a long-running Manga series, but more importantly wrote at least one song about roleplaying (Slain By Elf) that was surprisingly catchy – as well as the gloriously bitchy Super-Fi, about nerdery and elitism in music (and I know nothing about that, honest guv), and Exidor, which appears to reference a side character in the Sci-Fi comedy Mork & Mindy…
/Dark Dance (Medievalfloor)
On the flipside, there are a number of bands who have taken the fantasy (and to some extent, their role-playing/LARP origins) a whole lot further, and have created immersive worlds for their music to live within, both on record and in the live environment.
One such band is the German industrial-medieval band Heimatærde, who I first came across by way of their spectacular live show at Infest 2008 (see also Memory of a Festival: 005). Dubbed “Crusader EBM” by one wag at the time, they are as I understand it re-enactors as well, and it shows in their amazing stage
outfits (modelled on the Knights Templar), not to mention the entire stories (in German) in the liner notes for each album that link all the songs and the intriguing, melodic motifs from quasi-medieval instruments that weave through otherwise pounding industrial dance music.
Needless to say, there isn’t really another band like them.
/Runaljod – Ragnarok
That said, one artist who has come to great prominence in recent years comes from the extreme metal scene. Wardruna have effectively made their name with a sound very much influenced by Old Norse culture, and very much a logical progression from the origins of “Viking Metal” that came from the early work by Bathory in the eighties and nineties, and then later Enslaved, who both stood apart from their peers by avoiding much of the violent nihilism that characterised most of the Black Metal scene.
The core of Wardruna nowadays is Einar Selvik (a one-time drummer of black metal band Gorgoroth, themselves a band with a lengthy and complicated history) and Lindy Fay Hella, while fellow ex-member of Gorgoroth, Gaahl left the project a few years back. Their sound is at points rather unexpectedly pastoral, and from their own Twitter bio, they describe themselves as “…a Norwegian music group that makes music based on various themes from Norse mythology and culture.”
Which is fair enough (and has been deemed “authentic” enough to soundtrack the popular TV show Vikings), but as my learned friend Dr Simon Trafford noted, there isn’t actually any record of what their music sounded like, save one rather dismissive comment:
“I have never heard any more awful singing then the singing of the people in Schleswig (Hedeby). It is a groan that comes out of their throats, similar to the bark of the dogs but even more like a wild animal.” [source]
Another friend put it that we know more about Norse dick jokes than we do Norse music, but that hasn’t stopped Wardruna, in particular, making an effective interpretation of what they think the music sounded like, and indeed as Dr Trafford pointed out, all-but becoming the accepted idea of what it sounded like!
It has been taken even further, perhaps, by the awesome, ritual pummelling of Heilung, who add in throat singing, human bones and an awe-inspiring live show to another interpretation of Norse rituals. Seriously, watch this from Castlefest 2017, and it’s easy to see why their forthcoming London show sold out in an instant.
For this section, I am hugely grateful to both Dr Simon Trafford (onstage and with additional information) and also Karen for her additional research.
/Megablast – Hip Hop on Precinct 13 [7″ Mix]
/Into The Dragon
I was by no means an early gamer – we got a PC in our house (a 386-based machine, with 4MB Hard Drive!) around 1988, and so I was ten by the time I was playing computer games – and it took a couple more years before my step-brothers picked up a Sega Megadrive. Friends had Amigas, and so we all ended up playing the lot.
Particular favourites early on were some of the games by The Bitmap Brothers, the legendary game developers who had a knack of releasing exceptional, addictive games that were all really sodding hard. One particular classic was Xenon 2 Megablast (from 1989), which was a) scorchingly hard (I never finished it without cheat codes) and b) more relevant here, was an early pioneer in licensing music. That iconic intro music? A 16-bit version of Bomb the Bass’ early single Megablast, and when you compare it to the actual song, it’s remarkable how good a job they did with what was still limited means.
Less than a decade later, there was no need for 8-bit/16-bit versions of songs, as we’d got to the point where existing music could be used with no loss in quality on platforms like the Sony Playstation. Indeed, Wipeout, a launch game for the Playstation in 1995, had the likes of Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers on the soundtrack.
That said, the smash-hit follow-up Wipeout 2097 the following year took it even further, and arguably raised the profile of artists like Fluke The Chemical Brothers and Leftfield in the mainstream as the game sold by the million – certainly the reclusive group Fluke benefitted no end, with Atom Bomb in particular appearing in a number of blockbuster films in subsequent years.
Fast forward to 2012, and the soundtrack for Max Payne 3 was composed by relatively unknown (outside “hip” music circles, anyway) noise-rock band HEALTH, and the game sold 3 million copies in its first week, suggesting that it was a lucrative and canny move by the band.
/Konami Code IV
Even with the commonality of computer gaming in popular culture, not too many artists choose to write songs about gaming (as opposed to re-writing computer game themes), but Brian Graupner’s Gothsicles are one such band. Remarkably, they’ve been going for two decades now, and he still has loads of material to mine from. One of his best-known songs – and recently re-released with new remixes to celebrate the s twentieth anniversary (!) – references the iconic Konami Code cheat (and I was overjoyed that when I asked the audience at 9W if they knew it, an awful lot did!). But crucially, Graupner has fun while celebrating video games in song – this is no po-faced critique.
I asked him in a recent interview (Talk Show Host: 048), whether he thought some people took gaming too seriously.
“It’s hard to define what that might considered too serious because video games have become such an inexorable part of modern culture. Once almost synonymous with thick glasses and a pocket protector for the mark of a nerd, “What games do you play?” is now as universal a question as “What kind of movies do you like?”. Moreso, often.
To that end, if it’s okay to make both insane horror movies and sugary sweet kids’ movies, yeah, make all grimdark video games you want. It’s all good.”
The internet is such an integral part of our lives nowadays that it is easy to forget that just a generation ago, it was only just making inroads, the majority didn’t have an internet connection – and go back a few years before that, it was still the preserve of research scientists…and hackers.
Which brings me to Clock DVA. This Sheffield band had undergone a revolution of their own in the eighties – initially a post-punk band, they drastically reinvented themselves into a dark, shadowy industrial band by this point, and The Hacker remains their most iconic track. It dates from 1989 and is one of the very first – if not the first – song released about the internet and internet culture. The video dedicates the song to Karl Koch, a young German hacker who died in mysterious circumstances aged just 23, his burned body found in the woods near the town of Celle. There are many unanswered questions about his death, but his hacking was part of the Chaos Computer Club, who were reputedly selling US Military secrets to the KGB…
A warning, though – the video for this has extreme flashing images (I’m really not kidding)…