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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, October 16, 2006
    Speak to the spectre
    Fascinating article in this month's edition of The Wire, on the topic of Haunted music. Ghosts, writes Simon Reynolds, are everywhere in music. Some new musicians are revisiting such influential pieces as Japan's Ghosts and The Specials' Ghost Town, others creating new pieces with titles such as Haunted Science and - very telling, this - Music is a Hungry Ghost. The article makes the case that this is no fad, that ghosts are a 'primordial notion.. something that spans all cultures and goes back to the dawn of human history' and that ghosts have been ever-present in music, perhaps because of music's very nature:

    It could be argued that music is inherently phantasmal. Partly that is a matter of the immateriality of sound, its insubstantial and evanescent quality; the way certain melodies haunt our days whether we wish it or not; the madeleine-like capacity of particular harmionies or sound-textures to unlock our memories.

    Reynolds proceds to point up the 'spookiness of recording' - 'Edison originally conceived the phonograph as a way of preserving the voices of the dearly beloved after their demise,' and concludes this introductory section by asserting that,

    Records have habituated us to living with ghosts. We keep company with absent presences, the immortal but dead voices of the phonographic pantheon, from Caruso to Cobain.

    This raised two questions in my tiny mind, first, is there a holy ghost to be found in this somewhere, and secondly, as ghosts are so ubiquitous, and the ghosts in the (iPod / radio / TV) machine so much part of our daily lives, then is all this offering clues towards more deeply understanding life in the ordinary, the spirit of the everyday?

    I suspect so. And was encouraged by the meat of the article which is an investigation into a number of British groups who are working in similar areas as Martin Parr, Saint Etienne and Adrian Maddox's Classic Cafes (all fondly featured from time to time in these web pages) - ie, they're expressing an 'elegaic sensibility' about aspects of post-war British life.

    Prime movers seem to be Belbury Poly, whose 'ghostly' music they describe as "by turns joyous, bucolic and naive; and at times shot through with panic terror. Imagine soundtracks to televised versions of Arthur Machen tales, beautifully filmed in grainy day for night lighting, yet too disturbing and explicit ever to be broadcast. These are people inspired by the first series of Pogle's Wood, which was pulled by the BBC for its disturbingly witchy atmosphere.

    In their caringly-produced cd package for The Owl's Map Belbury Poly provide a 'field guide to Belbury' - a fictional town but one which strongly evokes a very English sense of place, post-war reconstruction version.

    All of this could of course be dismissed as silly nostalgia. But for me at least, growing up (and into music) in those very post-war years (defined in the article as 'more or less 1958-78'), it seems another 'in' into investigating the everyday, with its ghosts. As one of my contemporaries, Paul Morley rock journalist and member of the group Infantjoy, sings,

    "It is necessary to speak of the ghost... Speak to the spectre, engage it, encounter it... We are always haunted by ghosts but we cannot freely choose what we will be haunted by."