In The Last Communist Momus sang about the end of Communism being no more than an interregnum, the last Communist of the song keeping the Soviet Empire ticking over until the Western world called for its return, as if the Soviet Empire persisted in some liminal place alongside the present, a “time out of joint”. This phrase from Hamlet – exclaimed upon encountering his Father’s ghost – a moment which is the subject of a painting by Henry Fuseli – was an inspiration to another significant writer of the time. Jacques Derrida made this the focus of his 1993 work Spectres of Marx in which he sought to dismantle the triumphalism of the West in its “triumph” over Communism. He defined ten new “plagues” of mankind, and stated: “in absolute figures, (never) have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth”.

Wishing to invoke the spectres of Marx’s philosophy of responsibility and radical criticism, Derrida defined a new radical activism he called the New International, a person “without coordination, without party, without country, without national community, without co-citizenship, without common belonging to a class”. Most importantly for us, the work includes the coining of the term “hauntology” derived from “ontology”. The term describes the haunting of the present by the past, by things which seem to have no localised origin of time or space. A ghost, for instance (if you believe in ghosts), is an image of the past, but since it is seen in the present, cannot be said to belong entirely to the past, or the present, but is more complex in its origin and cycle of existence. Derrida applies such paradoxes to the study of language, but the concept has become applied to music, television and film as well as the visual arts, and is one of the influences on Momus’ 2005 release Otto Spooky.

In 2004 Momus had worked with the composer Anne Laplantine on a work called Summerisle. It is a wonderfully atmospheric album containing traditional folk songs and original compositions played on simple instrumentation and sing/spoken by Momus: by turns eerie and beautiful. The album title is derived from the 1973 British horror film The Wicker Man, in which a Scottish policeman investigating a missing child falls foul of a pagan community on an island called Summerisle. The King and Lord of Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee in quite probably his best performance, debates with the Christian policeman Neil Howie about the relative merits of their beliefs, Howie is eventually sacrificed by fire in an attempt to save the island’s crops, a martyrdom which Lord Summerisle reminds him will give him “life eternal.. you will sit with the saints among the elect”. Howie in return warns him that should this sacrifice fail, “next year no one less than the King of Summerisle himself will do…”

The Wicker Man is a classic of what became known as folk horror, an especially British genre in which pagan and outsider cultures are feared, demonic possession and sacrifice are common, and the past is seen as a dark shadow on the present. Folk horror can easily be criticised for othering rural and lower classes and outsider cultures, but its influence on British film and television cannot be underestimated. It is present in children’s television (Worzel Gummidge is an excellent example), comedy (The Detectorists for instance), obviously horror (A Field in England, Men, The Third Day), can be traced through detective fiction and drama, and is represented well in many fields of music (The Caretaker, The Advisory Circle, Concretism…). The hauntology and folk horror “movement” – for want of a better name – has spawned the magnificent creation Scarfolk – the work of writer Richard Littler – and a series of fascinating books and live events called Scarred for Life, run by Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence.

The album Summerisle was not as such intended to be hauntological or folk horror related, but was a part of the “weird folk” or “anti-folk” genres of the time, and The Wicker Man (and its soundtrack) was quite in vogue as well during the 90s and noughties. “Willow’s Song” from the soundtrack was sampled by Pulp on their 2001 album We Love Life, and the song was also covered by Sneaker Pimps in 1996. By 2005 there was much anticipation for a remake of the original film which would star Nicholas Cage. The remake is deserving of a blog of its own, much has already been said about it. Suffice to say it does not quite capture the spirit or quality of the original. (Cage seems to be enjoying himself though). Some of the folk horror spirit and Wicker-Folk influence of the original leaks through onto Otto Spooky.

The album Otto Spooky was composed entirely in Berlin in the spring and early summer of 2004 where Momus had been settled for a year or so. He was living with Ayako – a fashion student. Around this time he started writing many articles for fashion magazines including Modern Painters – in fact writing more about fashion than about music.

Technology advanced at an ever accelerated pace in the early part of the decade. The World Wide Web had advanced to Web 2.0 – responsive and interactive websites and online presences, online communities, forums and Wiki – Wikipedia itself founded in 2001. Following the advice of Franz Kafka, the album was made almost without leaving cyberspace, the world presenting itself to Momus for the unmasking. Momus described the album at the time and in his memoir Niche as “the record David Bowie would have made if he’d worked on Lodger with ex-members of The Incredible String Band instead of ex-members of Roxy Music”. The comparison to Lodger is timely, as his current 2022 album Smudger directly references Bowie’s most overlooked masterpiece.

Otto Spooky was described by Momus as a Googlepop album, with Google standing for an Aleph – a point in space which contains all other points, the infinite knowledge of everything. This comes from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called The Aleph, in which such a point provides a writer with inspiration when he views the Aleph: “Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe.” The writer aims to describe every point on earth. In describing this deranging confusion in terms of his own work, Momus says: “From Elizabethan England to Tripoli to Eritrea to Chinese immigrants in Morecambe Bay, the album melts and flows, carried along by John Talaga’s mind-warping transitions and the constant sound of water.” In fact, you could say that the album, like Smudger, contains a deliberate lack of clarity. It is also worth noting that water – inconstant, flowing, of uncertain depth, is indeed a constant theme on the album, just as a permafrost of snow and ice filled the previous album Oskar Tennis Champion. As the world emerged from the new era born by 9/11, and lurched towards the as yet unseen financial catastrophe of 2007, it flowed, ebbed, became uncertain and blurred, traditional lines of demarcation erased and rewritten.

In terms of solid state technology, Otto Spooky was the last album made by Momus using “traditional” hardware for sequencing and sampling, the last to use his faithful Akai S2800, and heralded the use of downloaded instruments, cut and paste guitar solos and samples. Momus had abandoned his traditional website and essay format and launched a LiveJournal called Click Opera, the entirety of which is still intact online. He would continue adding to Click Opera until 2010 when he would return to iMomus.com, but initiate a Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook presence instead. In 2003 Click Opera allowed Momus to develop a community of fans and critical voices outside of the increasingly outlying and ignored world of alt.fan.momus (which is still there on Google Groups) or the more humour based hi-jinx of forums such as ilxor.com. It allowed for a more refined, Momus-friendly centre of conversation, tongues firmly stapled to cheeks. The online forum allowed a Web 2.0, interactive presence. It also allowed donations, helping to finance the creation of the new album, the early days of crowdsourcing.

The initial proposed album title was The Artist Overwhelmed By The Grandeur Of Ancient Ruins inspired by Henry Fuseli’s sketch of an artist sitting with his head in his hands before a gigantic sculpture similar to the Colossus of Constantine, posibly in despair because of the impossibility of matching the skills and achievements of his predecessors, or because of the decay that creeps into the image, the impermanence of all human achievement. A track composed late on for the album bears this title and so this imagery will be further discussed there.

Otto Spooky had a CD cover designed by James Goggin of Practise design, that’s his hand on the front image, along with a variety of cables and connectors in a panoply of colours and textures. It reminds me of the nest of cables and dongles we all used to need to get our computer systems to work, not one of them compatible with any other or able to work with legacy equipment. It’s disorienting although attractive, a muddle of ideas and a patchwork of concepts. The inlay of the cd declares the album to be recorded in Berlin and includes John Talaga’s credit for “morphs between songs”.

The inlay features a black and white image of Reyner Banham, an architectural historian who popularised the concept of “New Brutalism” in a 1955 essay of the same name. He is riding a folding bicycle: a Moulton, a model also owned by James Goggin. Momus has read much of Banham’s writing about the architecture of Los Angeles, and has seen a documentary about L.A. he made for the BBC. Much later he would make Banham one of the writers contributing to his memoir Niche, representing the increasing slant in Momus’ work towards art and cultural criticism, architecture, photography and design, and away from music, at the time.

Also inside the cover is a list of available albums by Momus: from Philosophy of Momus onwards and including the Creation compilation Forbidden Software Timemachine, and the DVD documentary Man of Letters. There are additional credits to Bernhard Gal and Roddy Schrock for additional sounds on Bantam Boys and The Water Song respectively and links to their websites (Roddy’s link no longer functions, although there is an archive at thing.net, but Bernhard Gal’s site from the time remains at http://bernhardgal.com/index_old.html). There is a link to imomus.com (for the first time, the Demon address is no more) and credits to the designer James Goggin and assistant Julia Gorostidi. The UK edition I have is published by Cherry Red as Analog Baroque and distributed by Pinnacle, it was of course released on American Patchwork in the US.


John “Fashion Flesh” Talaga was as stated employed once more, this time instead of remixing the tracks as on Oskar Tennis Champion, he was given free rein in creating “morphs”: interstitial spaces between the tracks, transitions which Momus described as “designed to pleasantly disorient the listeners, swinging them giddily from one carousel to the next”, with surrealist, dadaist connections and disconnections.

Sempreverde

The opening track combines ideas from various threads of Momus’ writing at the time. He had written an essay about “Pluricide”: the necessity which drives a shared ideal to eliminate all else, literally to murder the other, and within this was the idea that animals: e.g. tigers, pandas, do not share our view of their place in the world, tigers merely want to eat and do not care about the food chain or biodiversity, and pandas do not know that they are endangered, they merely want to lie around eating bamboo. This rebellion of the animal intellect is referenced within the lyrics.

That “lying around” is also an immense party, enlivened by drugs and a celebration of irrational and fucked-up lifestyles. Momus wrote that he hated the glamorisation of such self-destructive behaviour, but had some ideas about what the opposing activity could be. At a destructive party, there would be a small cube to crawl into, a miniature Japanese garden to find peace in, a Shinto shrine: but this miniature utopia would carry its own addiction: both mindfulness and mindlessness are prisons. Within this song, the release is depicted as a literal drug called Sempreverde (Evergreen).

The song features samples of work by Pauline Oliveros, the American post-war electronic music composer (and accordionist!) who developed theories of “deep listening”, the connection of musicians with their environment and the feedback loop generated, very folk related concerns in these isles full of noises. Ideas of meditation, and of “slow living” had also come from the Slow Life movement in Japan – the “Coalition of Slow Life Cities”, which rebelled against the acceleration of the economy with a manifesto including “Slow Food”, “Slow Education” and “Slow Pace”: in short, to preserve past cultures and traditions while moving into a technologically and environmentally sustainable future.

One aspect of this was to maintain aspects of ancient architectural systems, as delineated by the “semantic architect” Nold Egenter, who wrote of Japanese houses that “The Japanese dwelling is always more or less a Shinto cult precinct and a Buddhist temple.”: which is to say that whereas Western nations define cultures by “family” units and houses are practical, functional and modern, Japanese dwellings are designed in terms of ancient cultural norms, and the “house” becomes the unit of identity within the community. Writing about Japanese Gardens and Villages, and what aspects of them represent, Egenter wrote “What in separate terms we call art, philosophy and religion still form a unity in these cyclically rebuilt signs.”

So the album begins with a drone, sitar, a hurdy-gurdy, the cultural origins are blurred as an electronic voice glitches into life to the tune of Greensleeves, a tale of sexual indiscretion or rejection itself.

“The man from the north enters the tube
Wriggles his way to the perspex cube
The man from the south dissolves in his mouth
A lozenge of Sempreverde”

A gentle guitar accompanies the electronic sounds and burbling noises and samples.

“The man from the north and the man from the south
One by the brain, one by the mouth
Climb through the tube into the cube
Of the perspex Japanese garden”

The two men here could represent the difference between mental and physical aesthetics, the pleasures of the brain and the mouth being different manifestations of contrasting appetites. The guitar plays expressive and louder chords on the start of each phrase, a courtly sound. We meet the lazy panda, expressing himself in the garden, free from the tyranny of animal conservation. Only animals and jams are conserved.

“And in the pines a tiny sun shines
Birds small as insects fly through the air
The panda unzips the skin of a pig
Flops himself down in the garden”

The voice sings of fiddling, which has various meanings in English, sexual interference being one. Whether Jilly and Debbie are specific people I do not know, but they are all here for one thing, in the bizarre and surreal space in the perspex cube, free from the irrational rationality and relentless SENSE making of the outside world.

“Fiddle me blank, fiddle me blind
All the young girls fiddle their minds
Jilly and Debbie and everyone’s here
All for the Sempreverde”

“Giants and fairies and strange effigies
Sacred and artificial trees
Dragons and serpents and fish and birds
In the perspex Japanese garden”

The verse which here sounds so nihilistic is in fact a positive tone: freedom from hope is the greatest freedom: thank heaven we have no future to lose. Although that said, there is a touch of the mundane here as well, crawling to the cashpoint to secure funds for the next fix, after all this is a drug industry we are dealing with.

“Otto the rich, Otto the poor
Spilling the stuff on the party floor
The past is so sad, the present is worse
Thank heaven we haven’t a future”

“The world fills with trash and eskimo ash
Clouds of white gas floating in from the past
Crawl to the cashpoint, bring me the cash
And I’ll get you the Sempreverde”

The final verse is a word play using the nature of consent as its basis, even the individuals involved giving full consent cannot enable consent to a non-consensual act. The logical inconsistency inherent in “Okay, I won’t say okay”, is presented as a haiku, something to consider as an intellectual problem to roll around your brain, and is not intended as a genuine comment on or endorsement of the actual sexual practice called CNC (Consensual Non-Consensual). (Itself a minefield of issues). Especially given both participants are – as stated – high on double doses of a powerful hallucinogen.

“I said ‘I’m going to rape you’
She said okay
I said ‘Don’t say okay because then it’s not rape’
She said ‘Okay, I won’t say okay’
On two tabs of Sempreverde”

The voice sings out the song title once more, and the glitching fades away and transports us to a field situated in an electronic otherworld.

Life of the Fields

This is clearly the headline track on the album, the “first single”, on its first version release Momus described himself as very excited about the song, saying “I want it to fly around the world spreading its healing love and spooky country charm immediately!” It is a spooky song indeed, and also a protest song of sorts, with numerous influences and imports. Obviously there is a further influence from Summerisle, animist philosophy and open sensuality. Musically it is New Order as a folk band from the 14th Century. The lost pagan history of Britain as depicted in The Wicker Man, more recently in the work of Jez Butterworth (the play Jerusalem, the insane tv series Britannia), is the backdrop to a specific set of concerns about genetically modified food and economic genocide.

In June 2004 a song Momus sang on for the artist Hypo (French artist Anthony Keyeux) was released on the album Random Veneziano. (Perhaps the name was a play on the pop/classical cross-over group Rondo Veneziano) Called The Perfect Kill, it was an exercise in glitches, cut-up samples and surreal call and response lyrics. The opening lyric, significantly, would be reused in Life of the Fields, the nihilistic “I threw wine in the face of nothing”.

Momus had seen a documentary about Indian farmers who were staging a legal battle against American pharmaceutical companies who sought to claim copyright on the genetic structure of strains of Basmati Rice. The documentary included an advert for Bollgard, a genetically modified Boll Weevil resistant strain of cotton. The advert showed a God of nature, a green giant, running through the fields, a reflection of the Green Man of English paganism. The “Life of the Fields” promised by Bollgard seems a dim reflection of the natural harmony of the old religions, a scientific and commercial aberration, but ideal for a world in which big pharma can demand royalties whenever a subsistence farmer grows rice.

Other imagery in the song touches on the fertility rituals of Shinto, and the English folk character John Barleycorn, who represents in folk song the various stages involved in the production of alcohol from Barley. John Barleycorn is is sacrificed for this endeavour – “John Barleycorn must die” – and in some versions gains his revenge through intoxicating his tormentors. Barleycorn is an anthropomorthic personification of barley, which we reap, mash, boil and generally dismember before consuming him – you could say, drinking his blood – which allows his revenge by intoxication and sickness thereafter.

All of these ideas led to the creation of this song, a electro-pop song, but more Old than New Order. Momus mused if the old pagan festivals and traditions were mainly experienced in modern times in rock festivals. At festivals we light fires and tribally commune with music, changing our way of seeing with chemical and vegetable stimulants. Perhaps only the crowds at a football match approach a similar state, the crowd as organism, the shared experience as ritual and catharsis through highly charged emotional states, sex and violence.

The song begins with the main repeated motif, a medieval riff, both pastoral and slightly eerie. This is followed by a strummed guitar, a skittering beat and a sung-spoken voice, a pagan incantation. There is a contrast made between the “barren system” of the modern city and the fields, where we throw our suggestive seed, and our wine.

“Your eyes are flat, the city’s hot
Night falls over the barren system
Leave the cracked city block
Come back to the old religion
Throw your seed behind the plough
Throw your wine in the face of nothing”

Momus accepts himself that the song is indebted to the kind of imagery used by Marc Bolan, the reference to pagan freedoms is emphasised in the second verse:

“Feel the sea anemone
Children play in the rockery garden
We’re all John Barleycorn
We’re all one in the old religion
Meet me by the waving rye
The question mark in the scarecrow’s eye”

The brass instrumentation playing now is more portentous, Baroque and stately in contrast to the assumed chaos of the old ways, and foreshadowing the use of instrumentation to come on the album’s final track. Shinto does have a festival: Kanamara Matsuri: which celebrates the penis as a symbol and literally as a metal object, a weapon used to defeat a vagina teethed demon. The lyrics are more explicitly sexual now, pumping and hammering under the lemon tree.

“Gaelic runes and harvest moons
Shinto dogs at the phallic symbol
Mustard seed and dandelion
A time to live, a time to die
Meet me in the waving leaves
The question mark in the scarecrow summer
Meet me out by the lemon trees
Pull me down, and pump me dry
Lie back now and think of rain
In the blossom of the willow
Mastering the morning pain
Gorgeous on your petal pillow
Mustard seed and dandelion
Treading wine for the old religion”

The following verse references Pink Floyd (Piper at the Gates of Dawn), itself a reference to country set children’s novel The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graeme. It touches on the hammer god, which exists in Shinto.

“The high priest and the artisan
Piping at the gates of knowledge
Saturnine as the hammer god
Hammering, getting it on
Meet me by the waving rye
The question mark in the scarecrow’s eye”

The music builds, with its gentle acoustic backing matched with choral and organ sounds. But ultimately, it is the time to die that ends things, and where the cycle ends.

“Gaelic runes and harvest moons
Shinto dogs at the phallic symbol
Mustard seed and dandelion
A time to live, a time to die
Meet me in the waving summer
The question mark in the scarecrow’s eye
Making out by the rhodedendron
Pull me down, and pump me dry
Lie back now and think of sorrow
The question mark in the scarecrow’s eye
Mustard seed and dandelion
A time to live, a time to die”

Corkscrew King

A disarmingly personal take one imagines, on a number of themes. Principally, it is about impotence, virility and the lack of these things in an older man.

W.B.Yeats, Irish poet and dramatist, was during the 1930s very interested in Hinduism, particularly aspects of the religion which link creative powers with virility, sexuality and masculinity. He visited Shri Purohit Swami, a Yogi and teacher of many disciplines including the tantric, and translated his work into English. Yeat’s own virility was flagging, and he suffered from impotence. This led him to seek the help of a surgeon, Norman Haire, to be “Steinached”. (A procedure developed by Dr. Eugen Steinach). This was essentially a partial vasectomy, performed with the belief that it would promote production of male hormones, increasing virility, potency and creative powers. Haire performed this on Yeats, and the poet was delighted with the results, although reports of his actual sexual prowess thereafter are mixed.

Another influence here is Ayako, who in comparing Momus to the Japanese comic character Bakatono, brought the piece together. The Japanese comedian Ken Shimura played Bakatono as a Feudal lord and King, who in this guise could satirise powerful figures in Japanese culture. He also played a character called Henna Ojisan, who misbehaves with young girls: Momus describes the character thus delineated as practising sekuhara – harrassment. These characters are merged into one impotent old King in the song.

The song is slow, stately and combines Japanese melody and instrumentation with Ayako’s silly background noises. Momus opens with lines from Ken Shimura’s characters, identifying themselves. The lyrics describe the King’s behaviour with the girls in his power, failing to penetrate them, playing with food, playing with the idea of being both all powerful and sexually powerless.

Bakatono bakemono henna ojisan
Gamushara sekuhara henna ojisan

The king is in the winter, in the winter of his prime
Welcome to the kingdom of the Corkscrew King
See him pour a jet of wine across a concubine
See him try in vain to plunge the corkscrew in
See him eat sashimi from a naked woman’s breast
See him drink wakame sake from her sex
Send in all the dancing girls and send in all the wine
He’s impotent, omnipotent, and only 69″

The King uses the resources at his disposal to solve his problems. Momus lists various metaphors for impotence, leading to a synthesized shamisen solo.

“Send in Dr Mojo who can turn back time
Send in more Viagra to halt the decline
When you’re 69 the sky is overcast
The castle flag is flying… half mast
The gate is shut, the canon blocked
The flower they fire at one o’clock half-cocked
The tower flops, the blossom drops
The king will play the shamisen”

The next verse introduces the Swami known to W.B. Yeats and very little helps…

Bakatono bakemono henna ojisan
Gamushara sekuhara henna ojisan

The Yogi Dr Swami with his hand upon his thing
Guru by appointment to the Corkscrew King
Says ‘A badger in the hand is worth a badger in the bush
A badger down your pants, you’ve got to push push push’
An aged man, the poet says, is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless he sing
So clap your hands for every wrinkle in your mortal dress
Join the throng and dance along with the Corkscrew King”

This is a fairly short piece, quite simple and rather obvious in its use of metaphor, and leads into the first extended interlude from John Talaga. Sounds from the song mix with effects similar to those we have heard on Oskar Tennis Champion, a fairground swirl leading into the next song, Klaxon. It’s a very appropriate transition.

Klaxon

A song set in Tripoli and written in French. The hustle of this crowded, hot, busy city is transmitted via a melody written to an Islamic scale, with instruments improvised and sampled. Momus describes this as somewhere close to Yassassin from Bowie’s Lodger album, a fair comparison, given that he clearly wants to widen his musical palette and to take us somewhere new. However, it is rather repetitive and, being in French, not the easiest to listen to. Talaga’s transition at the end is interesting, phasing the vocals and instrumentation into a sinister blur, a buzzing at a low frequency, reverberating away with blasts of radio interference before the medieval riff of Robin Hood appears, taking us back to jolly old England whether we like it or not.

The lyrics try to convey the ridiculously violent masculinity of the young men, an almost comic intensity in the way they simply slap and punch everything for any and every reason. Sadistic in a way, masochistic in a way, homoerotic inevitably. The local and general atmosphere of the song allow for a call back to the song Monsters of Love (In this siesta of reason), a mutant sensuality hovering over everything like the heat haze.

Je suis conducteur de taxi
(Je vais te claquer)
Dans les ruelles de Tripoli
(Tu va me claquer)

I am a taxi driver, I will hit you
In the streets of Tripoli, You will hit me.

Klaxon, klaxon
Dans ce cloaque de la passion

Klaxon, Klaxon,
In a cesspool of passion.

Tu es ma femme, moi ton mari
(Je vais te claquer)
Et comme tu partage mes avis
(Tu va me claquer)

You are my wife, I am your husband
I will hit you.
Since you share my opinions,
You will hit me.

Claque moi, claque moi
Chacun qui claque doit frapper fort

Hit me, Hit me
Everyone who hits must strike hard.

Klaxon klaxon
Dans ce sieste de la raison

Klaxon, Klaxon
In this siesta of reason.

Comme je t’ai toujours bien aime
Je vais te claquer
Si tu m’aime bien, ah, ma cherie
Tu va le payer

As I have always liked you well,
I will hit you
If you like me, ah, my cherie
You are going to pay.


Parce que claqueses
Claquent que ceux dont elles sont amoureuse
N’aie pas de peur, n’aie pas le trac
(Viens te faire claquer)
Il y a de l’amour, pas d’attaque
(Viens vite t’faire claquer)

Because those who hit
Hit those that they are in love with
Don’t be afraid, don’t be nervous
Come and be slapped
It’s a sign of love, not an attack
Come quickly to be hit

Je ne veux plus conduire mon taxi
(Je vais te claquer)
Toute la journee et toute la nuit
(Je vais te claquer)

I don’t want to drive the taxi anymore
I’m going to hit you
All day and all night
I’m going to hit you

Un jour la chair
Que je claque fort ne sera plus que poussiere
Klaxon, klaxon
C’est un peu glauque, mais il y a de la passion

One day the flesh that I hit will be no more than dust
Klaxon, Klaxon
It’s a little bleak, but there is passion.

It should be said that the general sense of the song is not so much about domestic violence, but a situation whereby such violence is the norm, not a perceived crime, an entirely twisted freak of culture where violence is as much an expression of passion as passion itself.

Apologies of course for the translation there, but hopefully gets the general gist across. Or if not, just imagine being slapped a lot.

Robin Hood

Momus’ tale of Robin Hood is of course cynical, political and of no comfort to any of our downtrodden. It extends the theme of a fallen and realistic hero from Beowulf on the previous album. Here, we have our warts and all Robin Hood, doomed to be destroyed by a more powerful and motivated nemesis. Momus was also influenced by the German artist Christina Rebet whose 2004 video work Robin Hood discards gender notions and casts Robin as a woman falling through space, inspired by early versions of the legend in which May Day festivities are marked by the throwing away of normal cultural roles.

A medieval riff plays as the story is spun, spoken by Momus softly.

“This is the tale of Robin Hood
Kind and fair, brave and good
This is the tale of Robin Hood
How the guy got shafted”

The following section, faster, accompanied by staccato keyboard chords outlines the standard myth.

“Robin Hood, Robin Hood
Robbing from the rich, giving to the good
Robin Hood, Robin Hood
Happy ever after”

But on the scene we now have his exact opposite and literal reverse, Dooh Nibor, who is a gangster running a protection racket and operating solely for money. A Conservative, essentially. The music is now sinister music hall.

“But driving down from Nottingham, here comes Dooh Nibor
His motto is ‘Protection’ and his motto is ‘Screw the poor’
Dooh Nibor, Dooh Nibor
Serve the rich, screw the poor
Don’t let the bastard grind you down”

An emphatic bass drum beat accompanies the more violent imagery we get now, minor key and discordant. Robin Hood is kidnapped and taken for a beating.

“He drags you to the granary out among the cranes
At the end of the runway underneath the planes
In a big black suit that looks a little strange
With the gold crash hat in the rays of the sun
With the visor black and the baseball bat and the…”

Delightfully, Hood is shoved in the back of a car boot and taken to be disposed of, like poor doomed Glenda in Mike Hodge’s Get Carter.

“Robin Hood, Robin Hood
You’re not dead yet, it’s just some blood
Robin Hood, Robin Hood
Get back and show the bastard!”

“Robin Hood, Robin Hood
Bound and gagged in the nude
Robin Hood, in the boot
Of an Opel Corsa”

Hood is taken to a place with pylons, a reservoir and a dam, all typical locations for execution in gangster films. Forced to walk around on scaffolding, Robin falls.

“As the pylons glisten in the sun of Dooh Nibor
The world below him listens, there’s no place for you here any more
We pull our golden helmets on and turn to face the sun
Don’t let the bastards grind you down

He’s got you cuffed at the reservoir up above the dam
With a gag and a blindfold shitting in your pants
Clambering on scaffolding, stumbling on planks
Look out, Robin! (Too late!)”

Interestingly, Robin is now paralysed and breathes through a tube while in a wheelchair. Like Beowulf, like the narrator of Sex for the Disabled, he is disabled and now a victim after being destroyed by a political force, just as in Sex for the Disabled, it is a force driven by greed and capitalism which has led to the main character – who is you and I – being crippled and trapped. Once under that slavery, we are made to feel grateful when given our bread and circuses, or entertained by meaningless nonsense such as football matches, Sherwood Forest here standing in for Nottingham Forest. Robin Hood is “feeling good” which no-one in his situation could do unless they were “mentally retarded”: a state which the current political status-quo seek to keep us in.

“Robin Hood, Robin Hood
Breathing through a rubber tube
Sherwood Forest is your club
Sherwood Forest for the cup

Robin Hood, Robin Hood
In a wheelchair buying food
Paralysed but feeling good
Mentally retarded”

The final chorus ends with a sampled guitar solo and ends with a last repetition of the final line, saracastic and cynical, as quite simply they couldn’t grind us down much more than they have.

“Pull your golden helmet on and take a golden ride
Kidney dialysis colostomy bag by your side
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, breathing through your rubber tube
Don’t let the bastards grind you down!”

The next song may be more cheerful.

Lady Fancy Knickers

A song recorded in 2002 and originally for the Oskar Tennis Champion album, this has a lo-fi, 8-bit feel which is bolstered by samples from Haruomi Hosono (a legendary Japanese musician, leader of the band Yellow Magic Orchestra). The lyrics are drawn partly from magazine reviews of art work: an attempt to describe the joy of trying to configure an image in your head of a work of art you only have a written description of. In this way – and elsewhere on the album – Momus draws upon ideas of cut-up lyrics and Oblique Strategies in the random construction of his vocals. Not everything has to make sense anymore.

The song opens with a cheerful synth line, and a bouncy beat to accompany our Geeing-up. Does Momus see himself as the grandpa here? There are a lot of songs about ageing on this and subsequent albums, after all.

“Lady Fancy Knickers
Gee up, ya ya!
Dressed in your post-office skirt
Ditch the lifeswitch grandpa
Gee up, ya ya!
And his long, long evenings at the carpet warehouse”

In addressing his Lady Fancy Knickers, the narrator is beset by a head filled with critically acclaimed artwork, and the tools to make more.

“I wish that I could say to you
The things I’ve got to say to you
Instead I find my head is filled for hours
With wooden sweets and sellotape
With Scotch tape and electric tape
And insulating tape made out of flowers”

The theory of everything which Momus quite sinisterly demands now must include and explain all the items requested. Junior Soleil – a Japanese teen art/lifestyle magazine – must rub shoulders with Erhard Schön’s 1530 woodcut which does indeed show Martin Luther being played by the Devil as a set of bagpipes.

“I want a new theory of everything
A tub of custard, a manky carpet and a piece of string
Junior Soleil’s code of honour
Self-Portrait of Luther being played by the devil as a pair of bagpipes”

The statements in the next verse reflect a belief Momus outlined in a blog post from June 2005 about doing things for fun:

“We live in a culture that’s obsessed with selling things (shops), and obsessed with recording and archiving things (museums and universities). When you’re not doing any of those things, well, I won’t get all rockist and say you’re “for real”, it’s nothing to do with “keepin’ it real”, but it is something mysterious. Since “new games prefigure new societies”, a non-saleable game suggests a society in which money no longer exists and play is everything.”

“Lady Fancy Knickers
Gee up, ya ya
Spooky foxgloves at the pink pine igloo
The etiquette of public information display
New games prefigure new societies
I wish I could I could be liege to you
Instead of laying siege to you
You know that you’re outnumbered, on the run
In the locker at the train station
I read your letter ending
‘If you love me, love me totally for fun'”

The “malleability” of reality arrives with the distortions applied by John Talaga: once we have reached the horsemen we hear the horses, and the final verse is a little disorienting, the whole piece being Dali-esque in imagery and outlook. Momus talks about “regurgitation” and “distortion” with some of these songs, as if they are melted into unrecognisable shapes.

“Claytones on Sun Mountain ring for you
A culture critic with a pot of glue
Make a cup of tea
Listen to the three
Lefthanded mongol horsemen on the radio

The first day of the siege
We dressed the men in white
The second day we made scarlet costumes in the night
If you resist the third the city’s going to fall
Black is what we’ll wear when we come to kill you all”

Lute Score

We open with a tune taken from a German children’s song from a vinyl, played via a sampled Oud. A ringing bell chimes as Momus speaks quickly, almost in the background of the piece, more stringed instruments sampled in alongside. The lyrics are fragmentary, from a notebook, describing imaginary computer games, inspired by the paintings of Philip Guston.

Another theme is a love of isolation which the narrator has, a tendency towards being on the sidelines. Although in the first verse he has been rejected, the narrator is happy drinking and playing the absurdist computer game he describes.

“You locked me in the bathroom long ago, you bloody bastard
But sadness never floods a house where wine flows, I’m here playing
Lute Score, the video game where you hit the high score by composing
Lute Scores, and shooting off the pop up panda’s head
Shooting off the pop up panda’s head”

The song continues with apparently random, amusing situations described by the narrator, childishly talking more and more quickly. After this, Talaga warps the content, taking us to the next, somewhat more narrative piece.

Belvedere

Belvedere is a look at an imagined fascist state, in which Children are prisoners and property of the state, run by a benevolent child-figure called Belvedere who encourages sexual abuse and paedophilia, and instructs children to turn their parents over to the authorities should they question anything.
Some might say that this is only a fantasy in its details, after all, children are prey to state propaganda the world over, and dictated to by the media as well. The song was written in Berlin, which gives more historical weight to the narrative as well and the weapons grade irony it thus bears.

Both this and the next song were partly inspired by imagery from the creepy French cartoon character Barbapappa, and the music from the albums inspired by the character, who is described thusly on his website:

“Barbapapa was born in a garden, just like a flower.
He can take any form. He is very nice, everybody likes him.”

Everybody probably HAS to like him, or end up imagined into something dreadful underneath the cornfield.

Musically the song is about boyhood, childhood, a kind of Boys Keep Swinging Police Batons. Momus had a short stint as a Scout, and in his own words remembers

“the little fascist I became when, influenced no doubt by all sorts of ‘police television’, I formed a gang called the ‘Law Enforcement Helpers’ and ran around Edinburgh parks trying to stop people breaking bylaws.”

But mostly the song is a reversal of the way in which children’s songs are normally written by adults: enforcing current cultural norms and relative values. This song destroys any form of morality which the little ones might be suffering from. Belvedere hates goodness and purity, and wants everyone corrupt…

Belvedere begins with relentless cheer, a jolly tune on steel drums. Momus’ perfectly reasonable voice of Middle England not from Middle England outlines the completely unreasonable.

“Children of the New Republic all revere
Belvedere the children’s pioneer
Everything that children do Belvedere does too
And everything he does, he does because he loves you
Children of the New Republic all revere
Belvedere the children’s pioneer”

The bridge is jolly as well, listing the pleasurable activities Belvedere wants you to do, and that he does too. For us, the message “Never say never” is a total reversal and perversion of the advice we give to children.

“What fun it is to do the things he shows you how to do!
Report the conversations of your parents to the Guard
Sleep naked with a member of the Inner High Elite
Touch other children’s genitals for pleasure
For Belvedere and children it’s ‘Never say never’!”

The chorus is of course catchy and jolly, with that tingle being the fear and delight of persecution disguised as freedom.

“O Belvedere, Belvedere, Belvedere
With his helpers Stevedore, Tigris and Fingal
Just to hear their names — you tingle!
Belvedere the children’s pioneer”

The second verse implies that Belvedere, like Big Brother, is probably not real and more of a figurehead, being “something more” than a person. Just like our Royal Family in the UK, what you would be if you were “more perfect than you are”.

“Children of the New Republic all revere
Belvedere the children’s pioneer
He looks just like a child, but he’s really something more
He’s what you’d be if you were more perfect than you are
Children of the New Republic all revere
Belvedere the children’s pioneer”

We are now shown “this week’s episode”, the TV indoctrination which the children must presumably watch and carry out in person. It isn’t clear if all parents are to be exterminated or just those who disobey in some way. There is certainly a Children of the Corn feel to proceedings. It also reminds me a little of the 2008 film The Children by Tom Shankland, in which children violently turn on their parents, although there is no propaganda to explain it, parents are certainly the main enemy and “traitor” of children.

“What fun it is to do the things in this week’s episode!
To take your parents, struggling, to the Great Mountain of Death
To sing the party anthem as you throw them off the edge
To speak the children’s language and to shoot the children’s gun
Round up the children’s traitors, to kill them one by one!

O Belvedere, Belvedere, Belvedere
When your friend is by your side nothing can harm you
If danger creeps up while you sleep he sounds the alarm!”

After a final chorus ends, reversed vocals play, pulsing bass notes are used to literally spin the song away. A final muttered “pioneer” bleeds into the next song, a paean to the unacceptable.

Your Fat Friend

This track is murky, gloopy and something of a mess sonically and ideologically. Momus’ attitude to fat humour was always un-PC and designed to incite arousing arguments. “Maybe you’re the more than slightly overweight girl..”

In 2011 it was amongst his most popular songs on YouTube, probably thanks to an amusing Flash animation featuring a certain Hippopotamomus, made by LadyPat and still viewable here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YC2xCkItF-o

The song features elements of Schubert, voices from Indian music, a style borrowed from a poster of BarbaPappa and friends performing their theme song, a bouncy stylised cabaret piece illustrated with surreal imagery of Barbapappa and friends morphing into musical instruments, blowing into each other, hitting and fingering each other and themselves to make the joyful sounds.

“She’s so fabulous
She’s so ludicrous
She’s so dangerous
Your fat friend

She’s intelligent
An experiment
She’s an elephant
Your fat friend”

The song deliberately mutates and will not settle, the piano and instrumentation are stretched and pitch shifted, disorienting us. Why is this friend so dangerous? Because she is fabulous, ludicrous and outside some normal expectations we have. The second section brings Jesus into our discussion, the martyr, sea-walker and piscine diet expert. The dangerous fat friend is an extrovert, a flirt, her fumbling is less cute and more menacing, like the triptych imagery of Jenny Saville’s Strategy when applied to The Holy Bible.

“Will you run away with me?
Let’s go walking on the sea
Just Jesus Christ and you and me and
Your fat friend

See her fumble, see her flirt
In her massive mini-skirt
She is quite the extrovert
Here comes your fat girlfriend”

Interesting that in the next verse Jim cannot love the friend because he is “too thin” for her, as if she needs to consume in order to survive. Perhaps this friend is not “fat” in the literal sense, but avaricious and all-consuming.

“I love Coco, you love Jim
Your fat friend she loves him
But he can’t love her, he’s too thin
For your fat friend”

But in the end Momus refers to her as being so fat she makes a mockery of basic mathematics, carrying enough weight to be two people: but retaining an undefined sense of psychic danger.

“One and one makes three not two
She will stick to you like glue
Don’t fuck around with you-know-who
Here comes your fat girlfriend

She’s intelligent
An experiment
She’s an elephant
Your fat friend”

If this song represents an actual attitude to fat people, it makes that representation rather disturbing, but can certainly be seen a blast at conspicuous consumption. The conflicting meanings of consumption: to be full, to consume, and also to waste away, may be a key to the message here. Being too much is dangerous: being not enough is dangerous. Remember you are your own experiment in researching methods of living.

Failing all that, maybe just run away from her. Probably be fine: they’re always so jolly, aren’t they?

The glitched transition from Your Fat Friend sounds like the scratching of insects avoiding falling pianos, becoming nonsense words and language which itself introduces the next song perfectly.

Mr Ulysses

The song bubbles into stuttering life, twanging guitar murkily mixed, a deliberately ugly bass line. The vocals mark this out as a Blind Lemon Momus special, a blues song reminiscent of similar efforts on the Philosophy of Momus album. Something of the Beck influence remains on this, as phased reversed guitars push the vocals back into the mix.

When he made Another Green World in 1975, Brian Eno sought to remove the listener’s focus from the lead vocal and enable it to simply add to the texture of the music instead. To do this, he used random and nonsensical lyrics and statements and made the vocal as uncentral as possible. This leads to a whimsical, addled and humourous experience.

With Momus, similar methods lack the necessary humour, and this song and the following track became somewhat tiresome for me. I remember skipping the middle section of this album entirely at the time, and it must be said that the following album, Ocky Milk, was the last Momus album I bought on CD for ten years. That lessening of interest was certainly to some extent caused by an insistence on tracks like this, which buried the vocal line and removed coherence. Relistening now I am more generous, and can see the meaning of lines and references more clearly, while not enjoying the production style at all.

The lyrics are almost like automatic writing, and describe a desolate lifestyle with mood rather than detail.

“Porcupine razor
Palatine Mill
Garbage on a laser
Monkey on the hill

Dive me through the bottom
Climb me through the chill
Got a gabardine sausage
Platinum pill”

The collision of the sacred and profane is common in blues music, prayers to God being issued from the depths of depravity.

“Get a new lover
Spiritual lie
Shining on cable
Cussing all the time
Stink brown cupboard
Guinea pig’s eye
A skinny old lover
Porcupine pie”

Momus plays with imagery related to the epic voyage of Ulysses, the encounters of Leopold Bloom and the plays of Shakespeare. But there is no deep revelation to this, the stream of thoughts mimics that of Molly Bloom as well as Leadbelly. It passes as if unbidden from brain to recording.

“I’ve been weeping on a sleeper
I’m a skiving on the raise
Skeeting like a cheater
Looking hunger in the face

Mr Ulysses
Tell me where you been
I stole some kisses
From your dark-eyed queen”

Finally the narrator makes love to God, literally, metaphorically, atheistically.

“Take off your clothes, Lord
Lay down on the bed
Answer all my prayers
Like the Bible said

I’ve been riding on a tiger
Only go the way
Old pale fire
Never fade”

Ulysses journey is quietly continued into 8-bit land by John Talaga, fading away as the world of water comes to meet us.

Water Song

The slap bass sound we know from Japan, Talking Heads, the early 80s art rock in general, draws us into a soundscape of water flowing, resolving and dissolving, no doubt at the bottom of the ocean. This track is a reflection of the world music trend, popularised by artists like Peter Gabriel with his WOMAD festival. The track has Momus delivering nonsense words, multi-tracked and self-harmonising. That nonsense language is intended to ensure the song sounds alien to any audience, doubly foreign and inimical. Tedious to me at the time, I find it more soothing to listen to now. The transition, sounding like sci-fi film effects of the 50s, is quite jarring in fact, as it is intended to be.

Jesus in Furs

My favourite track from this particular collection is a controlled and precisely directed protest against a certain type of masoschistic Christianity, a worship of the pain and torment of Christ and his crucifixion. A belief that to truly serve and worship God one must suffer.

Mel Gibson had released his version of the Easter story in 2004, The Passion of the Christ, directed by Gibson and starring Jim Caviezel with Monica Belluci. The film concentrates on the final 12 hours of Christ’s life, and revels in his torture and execution. The film was controversial for its portrayal of Christ, its reliance on shock effects and its perceived anti-semitism.

Momus’ first album, Circus Maximus, had addressed a similar theme: in Lucky Like St. Sebastian the narrator enjoys and derives pleasure from pain, “preferring the ache to the aspirin”: the martyrs are described in terms of desiring scarification, “swooning as they shoot the arrows through your narrow chest”. The album as a whole bore a slogan: “One man’s martyrdom is another man’s matinee”.

The song title is of course a reference to the Velvet Underground song Venus in Furs, itself drawn from the story by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Both story and song feature the image of the Goddess Venus wearing furs, and both also feature imagery of sadism and masochism.

A slow, stately held organ chord and strummed guitar begin the song, wobbling electronics behind the music emphasise the ridiculous aspects of the story. Momus speaks the words with his own voice backing him in chorus. He begins by mocking Gibson’s film, which was, as he states, very tedious. He explains that it is the sexual deviance which is being celebrated rather then the story of Christ.

“The tragedy is
The audience is getting bored
And up on the cross
Is Sacher Masoch, not the Lord
It’s starting to rain
This isn’t very entertaining
Mel please explain
Your vision for the world”

In the second verse Mel is compared to a tub of lard, quite rightly, and also to the Romans, who seemed to see torture and violence as an entertainment in much the way that Mel Gibson seems to in his film.

“You’re trying to act hard
By showing us His dying moments
Big tub of lard
In fact you’re much more like the Romans
Jesus in furs
Mohammed was a businessman
But you’re just a perve
We’re getting bored again”

Plucked notes introduce the next verse, with more percussion added. Momus pleads for Jesus to return as a girl, or as a perve like Mel, and to do so with as little fuss as possible, and as little unnecessary spectacle as possible, this time. “Sacrifice as entertainment” being the motto of the Church, it seems, as well as the Romans and Mel.

“Come back as a girl
Or come back as a filthy letcher
Please save the world
Without too much tomato ketchup

Jesus in furs
Sacrifice as entertainment
All these martyrs
And all these matinees”

The final verse repeats the main accusation and throws in another Velvet Underground reference, as Mel “waits” for Jesus to return and pleasure him just as Lou Reed was “Waiting for the man”.

“So this was your plan
You’re gland in glove with execution
Waiting for the man
And murder is the big connection

God is in pain
This isn’t very entertaining
Mel please explain
Your vision for the world

We’re all in pain
This isn’t very entertaining
God please explain
Your vision for the world”

The final pedal note is held and an almost choir like effect is set up by Talaga. This is replaced by a really funky, fuzzy bass line which gains percussion and effects as it repeats. It is abruptly ended and replaced by the medieval music of the Bantam Boys.

Bantam Boys

Although ostensibly medieval, the lyrics and sensibility of this song derive from Shakespearean verse. There is also an influence via Henry Purcell, in the Baroque styling. We are in a world of eunuchs – boys who are castrated before puberty to retain their high singing voices. As such the song is also influenced by the performance artist / singer Klaus Nomi, whose extraordinary vocal range and stylisation would be at home here.

Another influence is the artist and director Matthew Barney, who was at the time Bjork’s partner and whose Cremaster Cycle concerned itself with depictions of the Creative process, starting from the Cremaster muscle which controls male testicular contractions, and its development during the process of embryonic sexual differentiation. The song also features a drone created by the artist and musician Bernhard Gal, with whom a collaboration had been long overdue.

The whole piece is imbued with anachronistic talk of synths, and filters, as Momus sings partly about the modern world. The internet was in the process of bringing the world, new, exotic and deadly, into everyone’s lives, and this is mapped to the explorations which were taking place during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The exotic goods and people who were coming back to England via its colonial conquests are akin to the type of exotic people Momus met during his work as an artist and scenester.

In particular, he says the song refers to  “a certain green-robed queen with a train of bantam boys holding up her dress (who) was too proud to deign to acknowledge my existence”, but also describes her as “the Franco-Japanese art-fag hipster-scenester girl I was enamoured with at the time”. Such jealousy breeds the kind of descriptions which haunt the text which resulted.

The medieval guitar is joined by Momus’ attempt at a falsetto, with somewhat lower pitched backing vocals. The song manages to sound very darkly sinister, just as Shakespeare’s poetry could be concerned with the decay and maggots beneath the soil. The glitches, pitch shifts and minor discordancies add to the discomfort.

“O Africa and orient bring gifts
Spigot weed and egg of the teal
Master baker bring me eel
O your legs were lovely
The synth, bring the synth
Bring the rickety raggedy synth”

“You harlequins you play such shit
The colour is clean
But you pollute the ballet shoes
You are trying to keep them new
I’m sorry for you”

When it comes to describing the inspiration for the song, she becomes once more our Fat Friend, like a Queen insect, “fat” and obscene and attended by sexless flunkies.

“Here comes the queen
Fat and obscene
See her a-staggering
Bringing her bantam boys along
In a line behind her”

The refrain talks about “ringing in” the filters and the eunuchs, announcing them to the audience and to the world.

“Walk, walk with a bassoon in the rain
Ringing the filters, ringing the filters
Ringing the summer in”

“Walk, walk with a bassoon in the rain
Ringing the eunuch, ringing the eunuch
Ringing the eunuch in”

Walford Bodie of Aberdeen was a magician, with the self-styled Shakespearean title “Lord of Macduff”. His act included static electricity: a fake electric chair, and he also offered “electric cures” later in his career in the early 20th Century. He was a great friend of Harry Houdini, who gifted him the first real electric chair once used at Sing Sing Prison. He was castigated for calling himself an M.D., and his act caused literally the worst student riots in Scotland when medical students tried to storm the stage he performed on.

“Dr Walford Bodie dragging along on a string
A spaniel made of tin
Arise, arise
O Phoebus shall arise”

After the god of the sun has risen, the refrain is repeated several times, and the piece ends with a further drone note and fade as the refrain is messed with and glitched by John Talaga.

Cockle Pickers

On 5th February 2004 a group of Chinese immigrant labourers, working as cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay, England, were cut off by the tide and drowned. 21 people were killed. The victims had come illegally to England to work and send money back to their families. Their families, crucially, had borrowed large sums to pay the traffickers. This increased the urgency in sending money back home, making immigrants take dangerous and exploitative jobs. The cockle pickers worked for gangmasters who had somehow received a licence to pick cockles and the workers were more or less treated as slaves.

The deaths became a matter of international interest. Celebrated documentarian Nick Broomfield made a film about the events called Ghosts (2006), as did Isaac Julien, with Ten Thousand Waves (2010).

Momus through-composed what is essentially a mini-opera about the deaths, from the point of view of one of the victimes, a man called Yu Hui. His full story is on the Guardian website here https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/feb/20/china.ukcrime. Reading this demonstrates just how good Momus is at telling a story – you can see how he has taken the essential facts and also identified particular details that flesh out the story in the most effective way.

The piece is Brechtian, but presented as Chinese Opera and as a horspiel. Samples are re-used from Oskar Tennis Champion‘s first few tracks, and it is clear that some form of performance was intended eventually to accompany it. In fact Momus worked on another theatre piece later that year, with artist Kaori Mitsushima, then a student, and Cockle Pickers never made the stage.

The lyrics are a script, moving between a narrator and Yu Hui himself.
A drone opens the piece, accordion and violin initially accompanying the narrator.

Narrator: Yu Hui came from Yangbian, a village in the north of Fujian, opposite Taiwan
Government requisitions left him with just one mu of land
Not enough to pay for his family’s outgoings
It was humiliating
Yu Hui thought of emigrating

A piano plays as Yu Hui explains his reasons for attempting the crossing to Europe. Staccato chords emphasise the inescapable truth of his points made. Samples are looped and glitch in the background.

Yu hui: A man working in a bakery in Britain
Can send enough money home
To build a big six storey mansion in Yangbian
Abroad I could save each month
More than I make here in a year

“Snakehead” Gangs are Chinese gangs that specialise in illegally transporting individuals across borders in exchange for large sums of money.

Narrator: And so Yu Hui made a deal with the Snakehead Gang

The refrain foreshadows what will happen later in the story, quietly sung.

Both: The wind is strong, the tide is high
In darkness no-one can see the sky

Narrator: On a forged Korean passport Yu Hui flew from Hong Kong to Europe
He dyed his hair to better resemble the man in the picture
In Paris he tried to find work, but failed
An illegal Chinese with no skills

More gentle chords back Yu Hui as we hear how his relatives sacrificed themselves financially to get him to England.

Yu hui: I went sightseeing, called my family
Told them to pay the snakeheads £7000
This they did, with the help of loans
Secured by relatives and friends

Narrator: In England Yu Hui thought he would have better luck, a chance to earn more money
He came stowed away in a lorry
Through the channel tunnel

In June 2000 58 dead bodies (and two survivors) were found in a lorry in Dover, Kent. They were illegal immigrants from China who had paid the equivalent of £20000 each to a Snakehead Gang. They had asphyxiated in the truck during temperatures of 32C / 90F.
Further deaths occur every year, only noticed when a lorry happens to be checked and opened. In 2019, for example, 39 Vietnamese immigrants were found dead in a lorry in Essex.

Yu hui: I heard that some who do this suffocate
I was afraid
It was hot in the truck
I ate a bar of chocolate

Narrator: In London he worked in the kitchen of a takeaway
The boss was hard, and the chef, although from Yu Hui’s own village
Required £200 to give him the job

Yu hui: I slept on a mattress I found on the street
Lived with four others above a takeaway
Had to distribute 500 leaflets every day
Then work eight to ten hours in the kitchen
For two meals, and low pay

Morecambe Bay is in the east of England. It is north of Blackpool, off the town of Morecambe and surrounded by areas of natural beauty. It is also treacherously dangerous. The tide goes out far enough to allow “cockling” – fishing for cockles in the shallow pools left behind. The cockles are picked out of the sand using a three pronged fork called a craam. They must be picked one by one in order not to remove any young cockles, i.e. juveniles, or “tiddlers”, to preserve fishing stock. Because the area is used by many wading birds, some rare, disturbance to the Bay is limited. Therefore there are times when cockling is not allowed, and at all times a licence is required for fishing more than 5 kilos of cockles.

Because the sand shifts and channels seawater differently every day, it is possible to become stranded out in the bay when the tide comes in, with water flowing in both in front of you and behind you. There is quicksand, and the geography changes daily. It is very dangerous to go across Morecambe Bay without a guide with local knowledge. It does not help, of course, if the warning signs telling you this are in a language you do not read.

Narrator: When he heard about the cockling work up north
Yu Hui assumed it could not be worse than life in London
He packed a case and went to Morecambe Bay

Yu hui: This work is very hard
It is cold and hurts my back
I live in a room with forty others, we eat only rice
I am depressed
I want to quit, but because I’m illegal
I have no freedom and no choice

Narrator: Five different Chinese teams, all under the control of a gangmaster
Work different sections of the bay
They work according to the tides, sometimes by day
But mostly at night
In groups of twenty to thirty

Yu Hui and his group worked over two miles from shore, at a place called Red Bank. He and his fellow workers were paid one-fifth of a fair price for the cockles, and undercut local cockle-pickers were incensed. Nothing could be done to simply arrest, or remove the Chinese gangs because they were in the middle of asylum claims. Warnings made by a local MP to the then Labour Government Home Office Minister had been ignored. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2004/feb/12/immigration.immigrationpolicy?CMP=gu_com

Yu hui: The English cockling teams felt threatened
Because we sieve the tiddlers out, clean our cockles better
They poured diesel on our catch to warn us
They hate us because we are foreigners
So now we work at night, although it is much more dangerous

Narrator: They lay the wooden planks on the sand
And shake them to bring the cockles to the surface
Harvest them with rakes, clean them up, and drop them in a sack

Both: The wind is strong, the tide is high
In darkness no-one can see the sea

Yu Hui sings in a rising panic as the tide closes in. Some of the cockle-pickers were able to phone for help, and called loved ones to tell them they were drowning. By then no rescue was possible.

Yu hui: And we knew that the tide was rising
Only when it touched our feet
By that time our only escape was blocked

Yu hui: If I die, who will pay off the Snakeheads?
My family will drown in endless tears
They cannot pay, not in fifty years

Priest Skear is a sandbank in the bay. One of the cockle-pickers was rescued after he managed to reach the bank. In 2013 a sculpture called The Praying Shell by Anthony Padgett was unveiled overlooking Priest Skear, the figure of a kneeling, praying person resembling opening cockle shells. Although not intended as such initially, the sculpture has become a memorial to the tragedy.

Narrator: The hovercraft sent by the lifeguard was beaten back by two metre waves
Twenty bodies were recovered, only one was saved, clinging to Priest Skear
It was not Yu Hui

Both: The wind is strong, the tide is high
In darkness

Bird-like sounds twitch and fly overhead, as the funereally-slowed classicism of the final song takes us over.

The Artist Overwhelmed

Romanticism as a movement is subjective, concerned with the individual’s thoughts and feelings, and reactions. Grand gestures and expressions, explosions of temperament are treated as a natural reaction to the objective precision and logical reasoning of the previous Enlightenment. Momus enjoys the effects of Romanticism, its link to the revolutions which occurred in the 18th Century, the natural path to Dadaism and Surrealism, but dislikes the darker nature of Romanticism in its modern affect:

“Goth, punk, Hollywood. David Lynch films, for instance (I just watched ‘Lost Highway’ the other night), strike me as somewhat ridiculous in their emphasis on ‘the dark side’. I see nothing politically hopeful or helpful in this emphasis on all that’s evil and irrational and inexplicable.” Momus at the time of Otto Spooky wants a return to Classicism, to a time of “reason, harmony, proportion, restraint, good manners, poise, wit”.

As I stated in the introduction, Henry Fuseli’s sketch of an artist sitting with his head in his hands before a gigantic sculpture similar to the Colossus of Constantine bears with it a common theme of Romanticism, which is ruin. The work of the ancients lies in ruins, taken apart by time and decay. When we begin to create we are also working with fragments, but hoping to mould these together into an expression of our art. But for the artist in Fuseli’s sketch, how could his own fragments ever build into anything greater than the ancients wrought, when the fragments he has to work with are inferior to the ruins he sits before? As 19th Century poet and writer Friedrich Schlegel says, “Many works of the ancients have become fragments. Many works of the moderns are fragments at the time of their origin”.

This in mind, the music we hear at the end of Cockle Pickers and through this track is fragmented, broken apart and distorted. It is a classical piece, Handel’s ‘Concerto Grosso in D Major, Opus 6, Number 5. This has been run through Macromedia’s SoundEdit 16 suite, which as Momus says, “got its distinctive flavour, that year, from its complete incapacity to do what it claimed it could”. The lyrics are also about the passage of time, distortion of memory, the way that recording can work. On the surface, there is a gay couple on holiday in Italy, listening to opera composer Gluck. The spoken song is accompanied by the glitched classical music, acoustic guitar stings and the murkiness that generally accompanies the album.

“The artist overwhelmed by the grandeur of ancient ruins
The ruins of life
The passing of time
Like bodies, like minds
We pass”

The metallic quality to the timbre of the voice now is quite eerie, as if some robotic future self is begging to be held, in the shadow of muscular statuary.

“Hold me
Converse with me
In Italy
Intelligently
Drinking coffee
In the shadow of muscular statuary
Kiss me eternally
On the iPod Christoph Willibald Gluck”

Momus continues, describing fragments of statues and art. The decay of death itself is inescapable, and yet when he comes to say it, the note and word are held and drawn out as long as possible, holding of the end as much as can be achieved.

“The white face and the mime
The pierrot and the queen
Plaster dust is on your face
Clasp me in your marble grasp
In the midst of life there is death”

The distorted music returns now to accompany the words of a demonstration disc that came with early Edison Phonographs. This has also been distorted, but is in itself a fragment, a relic of the earliest 20th Century recording devices. It might also be a stand-in for death itself, especially in the final line.

“I give pleasure to all
I will go wherever you want me
If you sing or talk to me I will retain your songs or words
And repeat them to you at your pleasure
I can enable you to always play the voices of your loved ones
Even though they are far away
I talk in every language
I can help you to learn other languages
The more you become acquainted with me, the better you will like me”

With the final line, the disjointed chords clatter to a finish along with the album.
This is a strangely moving track, the excellent and beautiful chord sequence from Handel’s work becomes more significant when linked to lyrics related to death and decay, the fragements shored against our ruin and our own decline.

Conclusion

Whilst I certainly enjoy several songs on the album, Life of the Fields, Belvedere, Jesus in Furs, The Artist Overwhelmed standing out, the album as a whole suffers from – I use the word again – a muddiness, both in terms of sound quality and theme. There is a determination at times in Momus work of this period to not make sense, to flex against a reputation as an eloquent wordsmith, which is quite perverse given just how many stories remain to be told. That confusion is intentional, and fits many of the themes of the album. It also fits into the theory that Momus is intending to move into other forms of expression at this time, away from music and towards more writing and art. It doesn’t really happen that way. Many musical projects follow between now and 2015, but quite a lot of them are collaborations.

I listen to this album less than Oskar Tennis Champion, which remains one of my favourite Momus albums, but probably I have heard it more than Ocky Milk, the third big O that Momus released in the noughties. That is an album I need to return to and properly assess for the next blog entry.

Certainly Ocky Milk would be a warmer, friendlier album, perhaps because of Momus’ own relatively settled domestic life at the time with Hisae and a rabbit called (amongst other things) Baker. The Ocky Milk project was described by Momus in the following way: “It will be a feminine record and a friendly record… The values of pleasure and friendliness, modesty and elegance seem more important than ever to me right now… “. Intended to represent Japanese, feminine qualities and feelings of connectedness, the “friendly” album will be more pop oriented.

In fact, Ocky Milk was the last Momus album I bought a physical copy of for the next ten years, part of the problem being just how proflic he became. I lost touch, in fact. In terms of number-of-releases, Ocky Milk is only the half way point of his general discography, mainly because of all those collaborations I mentioned above.

Momus’ work even on Otto Spooky remains cinematic, widescreen, and thematically rich, especially in the final tracks of the album. With Kate Bush’s work successfully utilised for Netflix’s Stranger Things I wonder again whether there is a Momus fan sufficiently well placed to use his music in some genre-defying film or series. The closest this seems to have come to fruition is when HBO considered using a song in Westworld. Surely there is someone! (Although by definition they have better things to do than read this blog I imagine).

3 thoughts on “Bring the rickety raggedy synth … #25 Otto Spooky

  1. A lot to think about here.

    Similar to you, I’ve tended to think of this as my “least favourite” Momus album. And often derided it as one of the worst. (Of course, it’s all relative, the worst Momus album still knocks most artists into a cocked hat)

    That’s partly because it feels like Momus indulges his most cynical, misogynist and misanthropic impulses here, without balancing them with the wit, tunes and innovation that saves something like Hippopotamomus.

    Instead it reminded me of Philosophy of Momus. Kind of “tired”; the left-over odds and ends from earlier experiments. Except this time with extra gratuitous nastiness.

    It also suffers from being sandwiched between the spectacularly great Momus reboot that is Oskar. And Ocky Milk, which I love for being pure hedonism: great tunes and even quite danceable beats. “Oskar->Otto->Ocky” is kinda like Voyager->Philosophy->Vodka Jellies

    But I hadn’t really made the hauntology connection. For me, Life of the Fields was nice enough, but felt like a last gasp of the Folktronica phase. (Bibliotek is where Momus really seems to engage with musical hauntology)

    And reading this, now, and thinking about it more, I can see there is a lot of ambition and experimentation in this album. It doesn’t all work, or work together, as nicely as it did on Oskar. But you can’t fault Momus for not trying.

    The two tracks that have always impressed me are Cockle Pickers and Bantam Boys. Even though I can’t say I listen to Cockle Pickers for pleasure very often, it’s remarkable for wanting to do something so serious, and doing it so well. And in this case, Momus’s empathy and political awareness really are pitch perfect. It’s beautiful, tragic and profound.

    Bantam Boys is pure analogue baroque. It should have been on Little Red Songbook, if Momus had only thought of it at the time. For this reason, on this album it does contribute to the impression of Momus repeating himself. But I LOVE it because of the way he commits himself and just goes all out with the falsetto “eunuch” singing. Actually, it’s one of his best analogue baroque songs. IMHO LRSB would have been even better if it had had Bantom Boys on it, and perhaps some of the other songs had been done in this campier, Klaus Nomi style.

    Recently I started liking a couple of the other tracks more. Lady Fancy Knickers is a nice tune. I totally see that it’s an out-take from Oskar. But it also annoyed me for seemingly very arbitrary and meaningless doggerel lyrics. And while I never liked Robin Hood (more gratuitous nastiness), certain lines and hooks from it have haunted me. I accept it’s more profound than I initially gave it credit for.

    Other tracks though I found fairly meh. Belvedere and Jesus in Furs seems a bit “obvious”. (Though Belvedere now reminds me of Black Mirror’s Waldo which itself is something that gets more meaningful as time goes on. God help us if Belvedere proves so prescient.)

    And Your Fat Friend is without doubt the worst song Momus ever wrote. A blight on his entire catalogue and legacy. 😉

    But I should probably reassess some of the others. Particularly The Artist Overwhelmed, Sempreverde and maybe even Water Song / Mr. Ulysses. And there’s nothing really wrong with Corkscrew King.

    So, yep. Back to listening to this. Cheers

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  2. Contrariwise, this is one of my favourites of his albums. Interesting to think of it as part of a classicist period since it is mired in a gothic gloom, all of its talk of sex and festivities hold intimations of death. Like other artistic degenerates Momus is regularly concerned with morality and mortality and the relationship between the two. I think that’s more present here than on other albums, which means it’s less fun, but I find it more nourishing than the more flippant affairs like ‘Ping Pong’.

    Anyway, thank you for writing this. I was really stoked to see the update.

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  3. I’m not going to try to defend ‘Your Fat Friend’, mind! ‘Robin Hood’ is brilliant though and necessarily nasty. It helps reconnect me with the rage I felt against Atos’s murderous work for the DWP in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

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