Ginger Nuts of Horror
My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 40 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
Can You Show Me Where It Hurts?
Welcome back. It’s 2018, and I’m fast approaching my 40th year on this planet. There’s a lot to unpack around that thought, and little of it particularly pleasing - indeed, most of the observations start at melancholy and cascade swiftly downhill from there. So, fuck it - let’s go all the way back, what do you say? Let’s use our old friend, the LP, and engage the ‘back in time’ machine.
Let’s see if we can find the source.
It’s December, 1979. I am almost 18 months old. Either my mother or father (mum ended up with custody of the record, but any divorcees in the audience will know how little that means in terms of confirming parentage) brings home a double album that will form the background soundtrack to my childhood.
I will hear it before I have language. The contours of the sounds - especially the first disk, which will obviously get more play, just because of the time involved in listening to both back to back - creates grooves in my pliable gray matter that are there still. Top slice my brain when I’m gone, take a circular cast, play it - there’s a good chance this album is what you’ll hear.
It’s elemental. It’s ground zero.
And it starts oh… so… quiet. A lullaby you have to strain to hear - indeed, that you have to turn up substantially to really make sense of. I picture myself, an infant in a nappy, crawling or sitting, head turned towards the sound - likely, hearing also the faint hiss of the record underneath, overlaying the sense of broadcast, of distance. It’s haunting, delicate, beautiful, and then…
You’re going to have to take my word for it, but it just made me jump again, the guitars and keys crashing in counterpoint, startling me sympatico with the child I was/am, and the dark, falling, ponderous riff breaks into a vocal. The voice is clear, the sound cold, like an iced over lake, like the stars in a winter sky, and the words I don’t understand sing
The the riff is back, louder, more cacophonous, a voice yelling, drums clattering and crashing, and as it pounds to a climax, an aeroplane engine howls in pain, driving towards the earth, a sound that I’ll hear again and again whenever Mr Bond in the 80’s is having some aviation related hi jinx, but this, this is the first time, the birth of the noise, the big bang, this is the universe either beginning or ending, but either way, it’s an explosion of noise and fire, and when the drums finally roll to a close and the sound cuts to an infant crying, man, I feel it right down to my socks.
The first disk, especially, there’s a lot of lullabies - the intro to Thin Ice most obviously, but also in Mother, and Goodbye Blue Sky - and part of how completely it captured me was that, I think - it’s an adult terror of mortality (amongst, sure, many other things) wrapped up in a combination of gentle melodies, and riffs that are the audio equivalent of fever nightmares - beautifully played, but haunting, slightly distorted, ephemeral. The childishness extends to the lyrics, too - disk one is the story of a child, of course, losing his father in the war, brutalized by school, and injected with well meaning fears by his mother (yeah, we’ll come back to that).
Listening to it now, as Wall pt. 1 transitions into The Happiest Days Of Our Lives, I’m utterly mesmerized all over again, by the fluidity of the playing, and the incredible dynamic range of the production. I’m sure to mature ears, discovering this with a sense of history and, well, other music, it must seem hopelessly indulgent, if very well played. But for me… for me, it’s literally magic - a spell that invokes feelings that are powerful, tidal, and unnamable. Even now, I feel them moving in my chest, rolling like boulders, giant and unstoppable and featureless - powerful and mysterious.
Can we talk about the flow, here? The sound never stops, that’s the thing. It’s one continuous piece of music for all 20-odd minutes of the runtime of Side One, and the dynamics are incredible, in sync with the production, gentle, quiet, muted strings giving way to razorwire distorted chords, given back to solos that sound like the strings are bleeding as they are plucked, like they are weeping as they are held and bent.
By the time I’m really old enough to understand the fury of ‘Hey! Teachers! Leave us kids alone!’ Floyd will no longer be cool… but something in my chest knows anyway, doesn’t it? Sure. Something in my toddler blood hears the echo of future futility and humiliation, of promises made and broken, of something wonderful and joyful crushed and made broken to fit a mold that’s not really person shaped at all.
Turns out, music can take you forward it time, too. God help you. God help me.
Oh and it’s Mother. Ah, Mother. Here’s something Mindhunter taught me - it’s always Mother's fault, right? Too much love, not enough love, the wrong kind of love, too harsh, no discipline… It’s such a defining myth, we believe it, even though the key thing we know about psychopaths is that they lie and dissemble and project.
And fuck, even I’m at it. Behold! The mother who allowed her toddler to listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall endlessly on vinyl as a child! Behold the freak he has become! Who shall we burn?!?!
Yeah, put the torches down. She’s the best, my mum, you can’t have her. Thank you mum. Thank you for Tommy, and The Wall, and more importantly, for so much love that neither of them could damage me beyond repair, even though they live in the darkness of my imagination like factory machines that make infernal noise and belch dark smoke into the sky… sure, they do. But not for what they were, but rather because of what they warned me about what the world really was, the world beyond the small, warm ball of love and light you built for us and called home. This was a window into that world, and as Goodbye, Blue Sky plays and I try not to weep, I thank you, for finding a way to show us that also kept us safe. I love you.
See what I mean? I’d forgotten, but the song transitions into Empty Spaces, the soundtrack of a factory spitting fire and sparks, a foundry, industrial music a decade and more before Gary Neuman. It’s fucking exquisite, you know - even if you don’t like it, even if it’s lesser or non-Floyd in your personal cannon, you cannot deny the total vision, and commitment to that vision, that’s going on here. I had no words for any of this, no language for music, let alone production, but I knew it spoke to me the way so few other records did, knew it found a way to get through my ears right into my brain and chest and monkey around in there.
And sure, with adult ears, I can lament the lack of any spark of improvisation, any sense of anything other than total control ruthlessly executed, but let’s be real - that’s a million light years from the point isn’t it? We’re listening to the story of a man who discovers a loathing for himself and others so deep that he embraces the ultimate brutality of fascism - of course it’s overly controlled.
The phone calls - the sound effects - again, too young for language, the voices, the tones of voice, they are splashes of paint across my imagination. The discordant keyboard, that finally bleeds into a tune, aw, shit…
You can feel the violence lurking under the surface of the deranged organ tone - it’s sick, draining, cycling - of course it’s going to explode, and it does. I don’t jump this time, but I do flinch.
It’s so bleak, so cold, as it slips into Don’t Leave Me Now - bleaker and colder than it’s really possible for a child to feel, I think (or at least, a well cared for, loved child, and oh brothers and sisters, I think that’s a thought that’s going to fester). But of course, thanks to this, I felt it anyway, intuited it, somehow - or maybe travelled forward in time, to a point in my life where I could see the contours of something this hopeless, this empty. I never quite fell in, not really - too many good friends, to much love around me, too many good values instilled in me, thank you mum and dad and thank you all who saw someone worth loving and stood by me, thank you, thank you, thank you - but still… just like Springsteen broke my ten year old heart with Bobby Jean, long before I’d ever really fall in love, The Wall showed me The Cold, and what it was like to live there. It haunted me, and it haunts me still.
There but for the grace of… well, grace, I guess. Luck? Yeah, let’s call it that. Cold comfort. Lol.
Anger was my drug, for a while there - oh, hell, sometimes still is, truth be told. And I got out far enough to hit fury once or twice, and that’s a scary place to be for sure, but at the same time, it saved my life at least once, so I have to respect that fire, even as I fear its power, but hate… no, thankfully, I never got to hate. Never have, and hopefully never will.
But I’ve seen it from the hilltop. I’ve felt it’s breeze on my face, beckoning, and it’s not warm. It’s cold.
Cold, like The Wall.
END OF DISK ONE. TURN OVER FOR DISK TWO.
As I mentioned up top, this one got less play. Even back then, finding a full 90 minutes to listen was not easy, So much to do. But we got there often enough. I remember a skip in The Trial, one time, where the prosecution's down slide note into a verse kept repeating. That won’t happen tonight - I’ve cleaned up mum’s (or possibly dad’s) record, and the tone is clear as a bell, and warm as an oven.
The dynamics are amazing. I know for classical music fans, all this shit is old hat - themes that repeat with different pace or decoration, instrumentation, but I’m a rock and roller to the guts, and this stuff is, I suspect, as near as I’ll ever get to that transcendence that Ken Russell felt from his beloved composers. It sweeps me up and along, that’s all. The screaming sax in Is There Anybody Out There? Just made me shiver ,and now the acoustic guitar outro is making me feel like crying, and oh shit, here’s Nobody’s Home.
It’s desolate. And sure, he’s a rich, white rock star with the world at his feet, doing what he loves every night of his life, cry me a fucking river, I feel, you, I do… but I feel him too. I feel the yawning, gasping emptiness that owns the edges of everything, squeezing, flexing, crushing, you are alone, now and forever, welcome to the desperate hearts club, there’s only one way out and no-one ever comes back to tell you if it’s better or worse or nothing at all, and nothing might be better, but it might not, but here is now and now is fucking empty, and yes, yeah, I have felt it, I feel it, sure I do, once you’ve tasted from that river, it never entirely leaves you, it flows under everything and through you, cold and dark and mostly silent, but you’ll always feel the cold a little more than others, always want to be warm, because there’s that small part of you that will always be shivering and alone.
Critics hate Vera. Critics can kiss my arse. Twice. WWII was a gaping, bleeding, psychic wound on the landscape and minds of everyone who grew up in the immediate aftermath of it, and if your empathy is so malnourished that you can’t get to the desperate and pathetic nature of this plea… well, that’s okay, but don’t make an idiot out of yourself by decrying those of us who can, okay?
At least no-one is going to try and argue about Comfortably Numb. The only thing for me is the oddness of hearing it out of sequence, divorced from the whole. If there ever was an album that felt basically single proof, this one would have to be it - but, so it goes. It’s beautiful, and I think it’s hard to fully appreciate that beauty without (*humblebrag*) having heard it without comprehension - with no conception of the existence of words, let alone what they mean. Though, of course, then you’re left with a devastating shift as the guitar turns blue in the exquisite final section, and you might find yourself crying without knowing why, or feeling that painful swelling in your chest that has no words either.
Fitting that it fades to silence. End of side three.
I kind of marvel at my kid endurance. It just didn’t bother me, sitting and listening to 90 minutes of music in one sitting, outside forces permitting. I do remember being weirded out by the return of the albums opening riff on side four - loving it, but still, definitely thrown. Songs don’t get repeated, as a rule. And of course, the fact that the vocal doesn’t come in when it’s supposed to - something is wrong. Fever dream again - familiarity, but fractured, twisted into unfamiliarity. Am I supposed to sing along, fill in? Is it broken somehow?
And then the familiar lyric kicks in, but the drums tell you something’s gone wrong - confirmed when they build to take us back to the riff, and instead they don’t. We’re back to the strained angry vocal, and something is horribly, horribly wrong. When the riff does come back, I miss the aeroplane, the sense of explosion and chaos. This is far, far worse. The familiar rendered alien, and the crowd noise - are they cheering or screaming?
The next riff has a familiar tone and rhythm too, but it also quickly goes off program, dropping into something else. The kick of the bass drum feels like a punch, like a stomping boot. I’m somewhere between two and three years old, so obviously I have no fucking clue what’s really going on. Equally obviously to nearly-40-year-old me, I know exactly what the fuck is going on. I may not be able to articulate it, but I know where it counts.
Fuck fascism, and fuck fascists. Always and forever.
Oh, right, yeah, we’re in that 2018, aren’t we? A year where the story of a wealthy misanthrope and possible sociopath who embraces prejudice and builds a wall around himself to keep out the world of ‘undesirables’ - which basically translates to ‘anyone who doesn’t look and sound just like me, with a million or two in the bank’ - doesn’t sound so much like fictitious parable as it does presidential fucking biography.
Waiting For The Worms, infuckingdeed.
God help us.
Listening to it now, it’s skin crawling, obviously - but I think even back then, the sinister combination of the loud speaker vocal and the nightmare riff bleeding through the lullaby will have gotten to me. This is the sound I heard in my head as I watched Trump’s inauguration speech. If you ever wondered to yourself what you’d do, if you were a German in 1932… take a fucking look around. Time to shine.
Ah, The Trial.
I have a vivid memory - connected to the aforementioned skip, but that’s dangerously convenient - of pouring over the double gatefold of the album as I listened, seeing the cavorting barrister, and then looking over the others - The Mother, The Lover, my, look, all the baddies are women, how interesting - The Judge as a giant towering… well, arsehole. Literally. It seems likely my fascination with and repulsion from caricature art stems from this oft repeated moment. And then there’s the chorus about being crazy - the band still working through their seemingly endless guilt over Sid, obviously, but to my child self, was anything more horrifying than the concept of one’s own mind becoming the enemy, not to be trusted? There was not. If I’m honest, there still is not.
And then the verdict is delivered, and to the chanted demands of the crowd, The Wall is torn down.
And the lullaby from the beginning kicks in, as the rubble slowly settles.
“That’s very profound! What does it mean. Jimmy?”
“I’m fucked if I know, Terry!”