Ginger Nuts of Horror
It's 22nd October, 1997, and my life has officially completely turned to shit. Having flunked out of the foundation theatre course I had been attending until July (which I only managed to beg my way onto in the first place by promising to also complete the BTEC in Performing Arts which I had flunked out of the previous academic year by the simple expedient of doing no work whatsoever beyond the performance related exercises – and try if you can to contemplate how supremely lazy someone would have to be to actually fail a BTEC in Performing Arts), I am no longer an unemployed A-Level-equivalent student. Merely unemployed. For three years. With no qualifications beyond GCSE's, in an area of the country where youth unemployment is scary high, the wages for what shitty menial work does exist is scary low, and where beating the shit out of long haired unemployed youngsters in the town centre of a weekend lingers in that grey area between recreation and amateur sport.
Basically, I am fucked.
Also, profoundly miserable. In all my conversations since, whenever someone (usually a member of the working poor, living for the overtime and pay check to pay check) starts talking about the 'lifestyle choice' of living on benefits, I think back to this time. I think about how, after my top up for housing benefit and food and yeah, okay, tobacco was paid for, I had just over £10 a week disposable income. That's for everything: Clothes, toiletries, any drink that isn't tap water, books. Music. I think about how to this day, some of my most valuable-to-me albums and comics are the ones I bought during that period, where every single purchase was agonised over. And I think that it's no more a lifestyle choice than working two jobs because neither pay enough to feed your family is.
No less depressing. No less soul crushing.
No less grinding.
I'm not just broke – I'm now broke with almost no prospect of ever getting unbroke. I am basically unemployable, I have awful sleeping habits, no self-discipline at all, and the distinct impression that my existence is basically a waste of carbon. I never quite get to suicidal, but I surely bump along the bottom pretty good. No escape route from the hole I've dug myself, no clue what to do to get out. Trapped.
In holes like this, you cling on to the familiar. To anything that brings you comfort. For me, that's mainly music. I listen endlessly to the LP's and cassettes that I've hoarded to date, adding carefully to the collections when I spy a bargain, or one of those must-have bands puts out a new release.
The Wildhearts are one of those bands.
I bought Earth Vs. The Wildhearts on cassette in 1993 when I was 15, and it's been on heavy rotation ever since. In my own personal pantheon of albums, it is absolutely as seminal as Appetite For Destruction – as classic, as vital – and I've picked up and devoured everything they've put out since, including the singles (back when £2.99 would by you the single plus three exclusive tracks, so, you know, value for money). Looking back, their latest single sent out some warning signs – different songs on each format was a departure, but I figured they'd gotten stuck with it by a new record label. Anyway, they were still exclusive B-sides, so worth having. But the single was Anthem, and, erm, I didn't get it.
On a fairly epic scale. And the rest of the B-sides, whilst more clearly songs as opposed to walls of noise, were similarly red line distorted almost beyond being listenable to. 'Oops', remarked one of my friends upon first listen. No longer living at home, that lifeline to new music discovery that was Kerrang! Magazine was closed to me, so I had no way of reading any advance reviews.
But it was The Wildhearts. Clearly the single was a goof.
There's no way they'd do a whole album like that.
So when 'Endless Nameless' arrived at Our Price, I plunked down my money for the week with very little hesitation. By God, I could do with a new Wildhearts record in my life, those poppy punky angry happy tunes and lyrics. Bring it on.
And, I mean, fuck. I knew there were problems before I even got home. Opening up the cassette box on the way back, the inlay card had the lyrics printed in it. This was a massive departure for The Wildhearts – prior releases just had artwork and band info, never the words. My mind skipped back to the wall of noise that was 'Anthem', and my heart sank. I looked up the words, figuring I'd at least understand what they were singing in that fucking chorus. “I'm in love with the rock and roll world”. What the fuck does that mean?
By the time I got it home, I was really, really nervous. I played the tape. It was the same distorted noise, and also too quiet, the levels way down. I turned it up, way up.
I listened to the whole album.
I went and got my friend – another Wildhearts fanatic.
I sat him down, and we smoked and listened to it, not talking.
When it finished playing, I turned to him. I remember feeling almost choked up, like I'd been mugged by someone I thought was a friend. Thinking about the money I'd spent, could not unspend.
He looked at me.
“I think that was fucking awful. And fucking brilliant.”
We sat, looking at each other. Then he said
“Play it again”.
I basically haven't stopped.
I listened. With the words, without the words. Soaking it in. Straining to hear through the distortion to the songs, the lyrics. And gradually, it opened up to me, started to speak. And once it started, it was like a light bulb flickering into life.
This was a horror album.
It was everything The Wildhearts had been to date, with all the polish, the varnish, the love of melody and crispness blistered off by sheer blazing fury and despair. The whole album was basically like 'Greetings from Shitsville' from Earth Vs. Except this time, there was no escape, no way out. It was the sound of someone utterly trapped, entombed by the weight of their own crushing poverty and misery, howling into the sky. It was the sound of despair so total that it didn't even give a fuck if you could hear it or not. It wasn't a cry for help so much as a primal scream of fuck you to a world turned irredeemably hostile.
It was one of the best fucking rock and roll albums of the nineties, maybe the best. And nobody has fucking heard it, and of those that have, most hate it. That's fine. It's even fitting. But I'm here to tell you that from where I was, at the lowest point of my life, seeing no bright stars anywhere, starting to suspect the light at the end of the tunnel was actually an oncoming train, this album saved my life. It's not the record that got me back on my feet, or the one that I heard the day I realised that not only could I leave town, but I had to, if I was going to have any kind of shot at happiness – but it saved me from the darkest moments, with the simplest possible message.
You are not alone.
Out there, somewhere, a man you respect and admire and hero worship a bit, a man who is living the rock star life you have only ever, will only ever dream of, somewhere that man is hurting every bit as bad as you and more. He's feeling every inch of the despair and hopelessness and impotent rage that you are. And he's poured it all out into a wall of sound, and that sound is now in the room with you, and you are not alone.
You can keep ‘Everybody Hurts’. THIS is my fucking faith.
Later, I'd learn all about the horrific biographical problems that lead to the recording of this record. But really, it's all there on the tracks. You don't need a translator.
An album named after the secret track on a record made by a heroin addict rock star who would later blow his own brains out with a shotgun. Not exactly subtle. Except it is, somehow. It's excesses are so violent, so near-total, that it requires an act of endurance to listen past the noise and hear the raw beating heart underneath.
Make that effort, though, focus hard, really fucking listen, and the rewards are there in spades, and all the sweeter for the trying. For starters, as dark as it is, it’s also hilarious.
Start with the song titles – ‘Junkenstien’, ‘Nurse Maximum’, ‘Pissjoy’. ‘Thunderfuck’, for heaven’s sake. And it’s not just wry, surface level gags either, this is a rich vein that runs through the whole record. ‘Junkenstien’, for example, starts with levels recorded intentionally too quiet, and then gradually steps up each pattern change, so it’s at normal volume by the time you get to the second verse. Which means if you’re anything like me, you’re actually listening to it at blistering volume, because you turned it up to hear the opening. It’s actually kind of a genius way to get you to listen to the record at the volume intended by the artist, but it’s also kind of a practical joke, too.
‘Nurse Maximum’ comes off as a love song to Nurse Ratchet from Cookoo’s Nest. ‘Anthem’ is a bitter, blistering assault on the notion of the Big Rock Song, but it’s also a pisstake of same, what with the distortion turned up to 15, and that chorus. The gaggle of children delightedly scream/singing ‘Piss! Joy! Na na na na na!” during the chorus of that song is just glorious, a reminder of how joyful it is to be a child and swearing. The section of SoundDog Babylon that drops into a sub-Stone Roses limp grove, before revving back up to that hyper chorus is similarly humorous, in a just-because-we-can kind of way.
And then there is Now Is The Colour.
This is the one where it all comes together, for me. Because it’s all in here, in the lyric and the pile driver repeated riff, the teeth-gritting percussion and the screaming chorus. It’s furious, and ugly, and desperate, and bleak, but it’s also a joke, a goof, a punchline;
“Hey there sweet thing, cop a class A,
You’ve got to keep illegal while the kids are away,
It tastes a lot better when you know it’s a crime,
Now is the Colour, and Blue is the Time…”
And so on. It’s relentless, raging, the energy borne of desperation and fever. It’s mesmerising. It’s transcendent. It’s the clearest illustration I can immediately think of for the gulf between representation of music as notes on a page, and the reality of what a performance can sound like, what it can make you feel. Every time I get to that collapsing end, as the guitar crashes to silence and the sirens wail and the news reporter rattles on incoherently, I’m just left fucking stunned. Every single time.
Just over a year before, Marilyn Manson's seminal Antichrist Superstar had been released. I'd initially resisted it, but was eventually won over – inevitably, really. It's intelligent, extraordinary well produced, apparent unhinged noise actually perfectly performed and managed, structurally smart, lyrically dense, and pleasingly nihilistic. It's the soundtrack to the end of the world. Or more accurately, the soundtrack to a slick Hollywood movie about the end of the world. That's not so much a bug as a feature, mind – Manson has always had one eye on the mainstream, and his place in pop culture, and he's as much in love with the American culture that he interrogates as he is perplexed by it – as much a product as a producer of product. And Antichrist Superstar remains a superb, superlative metal album.
But Endless Nameless shits all over it from a great height.
There's several important reasons why, but they in essence all boil down to the same related factors – authenticity and class.
Because Ginger Wildheart didn't have, or aspire to, a house on the Hollywood hills. He was just an almost supernaturally gifted songwriter with mental health issues that went, as with so many of his peers, untreated and undiagnosed. A man living life at the bleeding edge, not because it was cool, or edgy, or to be the next big thing, but because he really had no fucking choice. He was born to work this job, born to make music – anyone who’s spent any time with Earth Vs. can tell you that as a moral certainty. But turns out the music industry in the 90's is actually kind of a desolate and dangerous place for someone gifted but vulnerable – I know, shocker, right?
See, Manson's angst and misery is that of a middle class kid, ultimately. By which I mean, it's the ennui of someone who had all material needs met, but still feels a gaping hole in his life, one that can't be filled by drugs or God or sex. It's music written by someone who is smart enough to know they've won the genetic lottery, being born to the country and class and race that he has, but is also smart enough to realise it's still a crock of shit, and also feel the roaring emptiness at the heart of that existence.
And I say that not to denigrate. That's a real thing – the feeling that you should be grateful, but you're still the ugliest and most awkward kid in the class, the one nobody can relate to, the disconnect and alienation – people get killed over that feeling. To have the courage to put that into words and sound for all us misfits is a good thing. As fellow Gingernutter Duncan Ralston reminded me on Facebook, similar things are also true of The Downward Spiral – another fine, bleak album of the nineties.
But it doesn't touch the sides of the misery and despair of Endless Nameless. Endless Nameless is the sound of a man choking on his own ambitions. It's the sound of a man who’s just fallen in love with crack cocaine, knows it is likely to kill him, and cannot stop. It is the sound of a man who has lived the dream, only to find it to be a waking nightmare from which there is no escape. It is the sound of that man screaming into the darkness, howling into the void, doing the only thing that makes sense to him, as pained and broken as he is. Doing the one thing he can do, must do, the one thing that even the smack can't quite kill.
Making music. Turning feelings into sounds.
Endless Nameless is the sound of the abyss. No more, no less. It's not for everyone. It's ragged and distorted, and yeah, in places even broken.
It's also a fucking spectacular album. A work of art.
In a way, I'm glad it's obscure, even hated by many diehard fans. It should be. It's hard to listen to, and it does not give a fuck if you like it.
But if this record does speak to you, then sister, brother, I feel you.
I feel you.
PS – If you only listen to one track from the album, make it ‘Now Is The Colour’. I can't promise it will change your life. But it's not impossible.