By The Landlord
When I was small, I would hide behind the sofa when Tom & Jerry cartoons got too violent, or when a monster made of plaster of Paris and plastic sheeting stepped out of shadows onto a wobbly set to face Dr Who in the 1970s. Fear is all relative, after all, and while fearing the dark is understandable in the young, our ancestors probably had good reason, spending much of their lives feeling frightened to death at night, of being murdered, robbed or even eaten. Now people are more likely to habitually fear their internet connection going down, or batteries running out. As Plato put it: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” So to kick things off, let’s lurk into the depths of the past, when people really had death and hell on their minds all the time, all captured in the feverish imagination of that devilish genius Hieronymus Bosch, now here brought to life, rather brilliantly, by the animation of Syd Baron and Eric Henry for Buckethead’s Spokes for the Wheel of Torment. It evokes, with humour and gore, the terrible and frightening world of the original fall.
So when it comes to thinking up songs about fear, yes, it’s a huge topic, and comes in all forms, whether that fear comes in phobias, rational or not. Writing a song might be a form of facing fears in the first place, fears about not being loved, or being misunderstood, or fear of being lonely. But as well as being fired by the imagination, fear is necessary. We must live and breathe fear at times to survive. That’s where phobias come from. Arachnophobia, for example, isn’t necessarily irrational - it’s a trigger instinct from our African past, where spiders were perhaps more likely to be poisonous, as opposed to being a "daddy long legs" or harvestman (no problem for me), or an English garden, house or wolf spider (OK, well it depends how big). Of course our Song Bar friends in hotter countries no doubt have some bigger spiders to contend with.
A very current fear across the US, Australia and the UK is coulrophobia, fear of clowns, brought on originally perhaps, by Stephen King’s book and film It, and the trend of pranksters (hopefully) jumping out in streets with knives and baseball bats. How very amusing for them. And for those who like to make prank films about them inspiring revenge. Alongside this someone might have samhainophobia (fear of Halloween), if you live in certain trendy inner city areas inhabited by hipsters, pogonophobia (fear of beards), a general panophobia (fear of everything), or simply of phobias (phobophobia), or annoying know-it-all sesquipedalophobia (fear of long words).
Hopefully all those scary clowns are just idiots messing about, but even when you know they are, it seems reasonable to step away from one if they are holding an offensive weapon, even if that weapon is only their sense of humour. In 2009 I went to see an immersive theatre production by the company Punchdrunk, called It Felt Like a Kiss, inspired by the Crystals song He Hit Me:
This expresses the darker side, the undercurrent of fear and violence in an abusive relationship. It echoes of another famous song, also produced by Phil Spector. So it's worth thinking about what is happening behind, or in the subtext of a song, as well as in key words in title, lyrics or subject matter:
In the theatre production, all about the culture of fear in 50s and 60s America, from horror films to the activities of the CIA, the audience is small groups of six people set to wander through sets based on houses and streets from the period, uncovering clues, and having strange experiences. But as you progress through this murky world, you then you become part of a horror experience yourself. Turning a corner, we suddenly encountered a man with a mask and a chainsaw. Of course we knew, deep down, it was an actor, but in the process of suspended disbelief, that didn’t stop us all legging it like crazy through trees and corridors as he chased us. It was fucking frightening. No wonder tickets came with a warning for people with any kind of heart condition. Fear is an amazing process in mind and body, leaping between heart and head. And when you’re through with nominating songs about fear, it’s worth watching production’s accompanying brilliant film, including superb musical references (did you know Lou Reed underwent electricshock therapy treatment?) by documentary maker Adam Curtis:
So beside spiders, clowns and leather-faced men with weapons, there are other, more important concerns in life. There are 16 million people in Britain living on £100 a week or less, for example. That's pretty frightening. There's the terrible trauma of migrants escaping conflict. People fearing or experiencing hunger all over the world. Climate change, international conflict, civil war, and the impending election of one or more lunatic as US president. And the biggest fear, naturally, is for one's children, and the future. But at the same time, the media, especially the likes of the tabloids, Daily Mail and trashy TV channels, love to whip up a climate of fear, anger and hate by inflammatory headlines and distorted facts. So it’s important to get fears into perspective too. So how to we deal with fear?
As well as for playing music, the Song Bar is a place to face and express your fears, and as usual, more famous visitors have wheeled themselves in, first, literally: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” says the great Franklin D Roosevelt, taking a black coffee. “Yeah,” says the straight-talking, beer-drinking writer Chuck Palahniuk, “find out what you're afraid of and go live there.”
Now a figure from the frightening, dark past glides in. “Ah, señor, perhaps, but it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both,” responds a rather dapper Niccolo Machiavelli, carefully sipping a wine (it’s not poisoned, Niccolo, I assure him), all in pantaloons and plotting his next remark. “Guys,” pipes up the Doors’ Jim Morrison now, after a few Jack Daniels, “Listen. We fear violence less than our own feelings. Personal, private, solitary pain is more terrifying than what anyone else can inflict.” Machiavelli arches an eyebrow. “Yes, but have you no fear of the thumbscrew, my friend?”
Now Jeff Bridges ambles in, orders a white Russian – he is the Dude from The Big Lebowski, after all – and invites all his fellow drinkers to find out something about facing your fears from his 1993 film Fearless. Fear isn’t just in the imagination, but the imagination certainly does take flight:
For some, by contrast, there simply isn’t enough fear in their lives, perhaps because a modern environment doesn’t kickstart the essentials of flight or fight, hardwired into us from the past. So if you’re a soap salesman but don’t want to join a Fight Club, there is also the option of blowing shedloads of money by risking your life doing some wingsuit base jumping. Fear is the only thing that keeps you alive in these activities. “Fear is the mother of foresight,” said Thomas Hardy, and another author who I can’t imagine getting into a wingsuit sums it up rather nicely – Salman Rushdie: “Vertigo is the conflict between the fear of falling and the desire to fall.”
So then, gather up your fears in musical form, search long and hard in the dark and scary corners of your collections, and suggest songs about this subject, whether this is about scary feelings, physical phobias, or everything in our feverish imagination, and put them in comments below. But do not fear, you are in good hands. A friendly DiscoMonster is on hand to help safe passage, and bring your suggestions into fearfully good playlists next Wednesday. Deadline for suggestions? Remember, the bell will toll by 11pm UK on Monday. And it tolls for thee.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.