By The Landlord
With a deafening roar, rumbling, ripping and tearing, half of the entire planet suddenly lifted up, high into the skies, exposing blinding light and extreme cold. Masses of mud clumps and debris plummeted down, watery matter fell in relentless streams, and with it came a thousand tiny screams. And then as everyone ran, two giant eyes blinked like dumb suns, huge fingers swung open like broken peninsulas, and the rock of the world thudded down again like a colossal bomb exploding. Boom! The end of the world had come, surely.
This was a guilty and terrifying vision that suddenly occurred to me, when, aged six, I went to the bottom of the garden, lifted up a big rock, and saw masses of creepy crawlies scuttling away. With horror, in my own universe too, I realised that I'd disturbed their tiny world and then, simply dropped it again back on them. What had I done? What were they doing under that rock? Had I utterly destroyed a special occasion? Had I ruined their version of the FA Cup or World Cup Final in an earthy amphitheatre, when their entire world suddenly caved in with my curiosity? Well, every apocalypse is relative after all.
The word apocalypse comes from the ancient Greek ἀποκάλυψις or apokálypsis, from ἀπό and καλύπτω meaning “uncovering", translated literally as “through the concealed”. An apocalypse is revealed knowledge, a lifting of the veil for all to see. And so, whether in songs, psalms, stories or painterly visions, in religious or other contexts it means disclosure or the apparition of something hidden, “a vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities”. So, that could apply rather well if you find out that a world leader is a trigger-happy war criminal or sexual predator, or even that our daily routines are causing the planet to die. And it applies whether you’re a small kid messing around at the bottom of the garden, or perhaps a sandwich board prophet on a nudists’ beach, where exposure of earthly reality is the bottom line.
A few weeks ago we looked at the topic of fear, but mostly that was all about personal fears and phobias, but this week it’s about a bigger disaster, and how we perceive or predict it. So what kind of apocalypse comes up in song? That could be a micro or macro perspective. Back in the early 1980s, the culture of armageddon centred heavily around fear of a nuclear war, with east and west arms races, and TV dramas such as the excellent Threads, set in Sheffield, or, for children the rather chilling When The Wind Blows, animating drawings by Raymond Briggs, about a innocent retired couple trying to deal with nuclear aftermath. Tearfully touching and painful, and based on Briggs's parents.
Somehow, and crazily, that culture all seems to be returning again, with cold war-style Putin leadership, Russian puppet-string pulling and Trumpeting, cyberwar, all with the prospect of the forthcoming US election. Madness and amnesia are close bedfellows, where one hand never knows what the other is doing. It makes me think of Stanley Kubrick’s 60s satire Dr Strangelove:
Far-fetched? Well, look at it this way, there are two candidates. One is hawkish and aggressive in foreign policy and careless with emails. Perhaps she is lesser of two evils. Why? There's the other. Well, check out this interview, where Donald Trump is described as asking a foreign policy adviser, not once, but three times, about when he can use nuclear weapons. Now that is really, really scary, and it's not a movie.
Incredibly, in just a couple of decades at the current rate of warming, ocean levels are set to rise seven metres. Seven metres! And the next US president might even renounced the Paris climate agreement So all of this could be irrelevant. Unless we do something about it. And in my lifetime, in fact since 1970, by 2020, an average of two-thirds, yes two-fucking-thirds of populations of many animal species will have died out. Three years from now. Holy fuck. And meanwhile the Daily Mail gets up in arms about two dozen child refugees coming to the UK.
Flood myths have been a huge part of global culture for thousands of years, and they are increasingly turning from myth to reality, and they may also feature in your song suggestions. The Noah story, for example, was pre-dated considerably by the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic stories and tablet XI from at least 2700BC, in which the character Utnapishtim built a great boat and where boarded "all the beasts and animals of the field" before the great waters came to wash across the land.
So with the human race track record, it’s no wonder that so many artists have depicted the apocalypse. John Martin's The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822), for example, pulls no punches, even though it depicts a natural disaster. Ironically it was damaged by its own armageddon – floods at the Tate gallery in 1928 before restoration brought it back to the gallery just five years ago. Or there’s Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath, or The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel, or Joseph Heintz the Younger’s Allegory of the Apocalypse, 1674. All powerful works that have no doubt inspired songs too.
Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights is a work that captured my imagination at a very young age, in its triptych of Eden innocence, sexy pleasure, then violent hellish destruction. I pointed it out in songs about fear with a terrific video, and five years ago, when setting up, I even put it on my Twitter page, where perhaps the only useful thing I’ve ever said there is that life is sweeter for the rarer tweeter. The painting also clearly also made an impression on actor and activist Leonardo Di Caprio, who is one of the latest to look at the environmental disaster we are perched precariously upon, in Before The Flood:
So your song suggestions might refer to predicted disasters or prophetic events of the apocalypse, including, the most famous of them all, Michel de Nostredame - French apothecary, seer, philosopher, plague doctor, also known as Nostradamus (1503-66). Author of The Prophecies, whose work has prompted endless interpretations and reinterpretations, depending on what's on your plate, political or otherwise.
Nostradamus saw plenty of death and destruction, so no wonder he didn’t see the future with a huge amount of enthusiasm. His world ended in 1566 thanks to gout and dropsy. So, has what others saw he predicted all come true, such as the Holocaust to 9/11 and er, the death of Diana? That’s all very subjective indeed. Suffice it to say that gloom and doom is always far sexier and controversial than fluffy bunnies and rosy gardens. Everything was going to end in 1999, and 21 December 2012 was the last big apocalypse date, but who's to say the world hasn't already set on remorseless course as we know it? 2016 has been pretty shitty. Prince and Bowie have died. And now there’s no Marmite in the shops, surely a sign of an impending apocalypse if ever I saw one.
So another approach you might want to take is songs that highlight a particular year, such as 1914, 1939, or 2001. Here’s an example. Jimi Hendrix chose 1983 as a future year of disaster (well, Kajagoogoo were in the charts), with his beautifully odd A Merman I Should Turn To Be, a vision of war and, in reversal of evolution, wanting to go back to the sea:
“Hurray, I awake from yesterday
Alive, but the war is here to stay
So my love, Catherina and me,
Decide to take our last walk through the noise to the sea …
Oh say can you see it’s really such a mess
Every inch of Earth is a fighting nest
Giant pencil and lip-stick tube-shaped things
Continue to rain and cause screaming pain
And the Arctic stains from silver blue to bloody red
As our feet find the sand,
And the sea is straight ahead, straight up ahead.”
So while, metaphorically speaking, Rome burns, or at least we allow ourselves to fiddle carelessly with matches around it, there’s plenty of opportunity to still to amuse ourselves with various entertainment and stupid discussion, including of course, watching another form of the apocalypse genre, the zombie movie.
George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is probably the king of all of these, and set around a shopping mall, where people wander around aimlessly, what’s the difference between that and what’s already going on for decades? It has inspired many subsequent films of, from 28 Days Later to the amusing but too-often repeated parody Shawn of the Dead. But one of the best I’ve seen recently is the South Korean film Train to Busan, about an infection that spreads across moving rail carriages with very exciting results. It not unlike an average Tube journey in rush hour, really, bar some extra biting. So, er, brace yourselves ...
It centres around a selfish hedge fund manager who only thinks about number one, but in the course of this chaos, begins to realise that, as well as protecting his daughter, you have to work together to survive. Perhaps then, instead of eating each other, or otherwise, we can at least go down with some fabulously tasty playlists.
So whether this might comprise a life raft of protest songs about how to stop armageddon, one alternative, if at least positive approach, is to face our impending disaster with humour. And who did this with more caustic wit than the great Tom Lehrer?
So let’s all go together on a journey into the apocalypse, and hopefully out of it again, better informed, musically at least. And helping lead us down this path, like a benignly smiling grim reaper pointing the way, I welcome back the wonderful EnglishOutlaw as our guest guru, who will, post-US elections and any other impending disasters, bring us solace in the form of superb playlists published next Wednesday. Doomsday? As far as nominations on this topic are concerned, it is Monday evening, when an ominous gong will sound for puns to begin. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
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