Five Songs: Oli Spleen (Pink Narcissus)
This first edition of Five Songs, a new series in which we ask talented songwriters to pick five songs that influence them, features Brighton/Hasting artist Oli Spleen (pictured above) of Pink Narcissus, The Flesh Happening, and various other projects. Find him on Facebook by clicking this sentence.
We recently filmed Oli and his band Pink Narcissus performing their track Home at Hobo Bill’s Tattoo Parlour in Eastbourne. Watch it below.
I have been asked to write about five songs and artists that have had an impact on me. I’ve been chosen for this task on the assumption that I will make some choices that may guide the reader toward something that they aren’t aware of. I therefore apologise in advance if you are already familiar with my choices.
I can only write with a passion about that which I am passionate about and though I’m not always up to date with current trends I have a wide love of music that stretches back beyond the recording era.
However, here I am limited to five songs out of millions and therefore I will focus on a small selection of songs and lyrics that hold a particular resonance and significance to me. It’s hard for me to have to leave out so many great songs and artists who I also love.
If you’re looking for shallow feel-good music you’ve come to the wrong place. Powerful, heartfelt and often dark lyrics are the area where my enthusiasm lies.
Here are my choices in alphabetical order by artist:
Artists who transform their deepest pain into art are of particular interest to me, undoubtedly because I find simply listening to them to be cathartic and healing. The expression of a singer’s pain in song is as much a part of the French Chanson tradition as American Blues music, though Chanson tends to lean toward a more literary poetic influence. Barbara, like Edith Piaf before her, is a great example of someone who took the agony of her existence and made something beautiful and mesmerizing from it. Her music – as with the songs of all of the artists I hold most dear – takes a few more listens than your average pop music does for it to sink in and resonate, but this type of music is the most rewarding as it tends to stay with the listener for a much longer time. I now can’t get enough of her, I find her work compellingly hypnotic and haunting.
As a young French Jewish girl, Barbara and her family spent the war in hiding from the Nazis who would have killed them. As a child she was raped by her father, an ordeal which she describes in her song “L’aigle Noir” using the metaphor of a black eagle descending on her, its prey.
In her song “Gottingen” Barbara reaches out to the Germans after the war with a healing message of forgiveness and the words “But children are the same in Paris and Gottingen / May we never return to the time of blood and hatred”.
Whilst other songs of hers such as the devastating “Perlimpinpin” contain a similar powerful anti-war message, this one was particularly significant in contributing to the process of France healing relations with Germany post World War Two. Only a Jewish woman who had survived the Nazi occupation of France could sing this song with such a depth of compassion and sorrow. Subsequently it was a big hit in Germany as well as France.
Jacques Brel-Au Suivant (Next)
To anyone who (like me) doesn’t speak fluent French, these first choices may seem annoying as Brel, like Barbara, also chose not to sing his songs in English. However, whilst I would highly recommend checking out his own performance of this song (and many others) as I feel no one else does Brel better than Brel; Mort Shuman’s translations are true to the spirit of the originals. Shuman’s translation of Brel’s song “Next” has been recorded by many artists including Scott Walker and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
Before Bowie became Major Tom or Ziggy Stardust, Brel was playing around with character based songs. In this one he is a soldier, recounting his loss of innocence in a mobile army whorehouse where he is made to wait in line, half naked with the other cadets for a chance to lose his virginity to a prostitute.
Whilst waiting in line he gets slapped on the arse by a queer lieutenant who calls out the word “next” to the soldiers to move the line along, a word which will not leave this soldier’s mind (the following lyrics are taken from Mort Shuman’s translation) – “I swear on the wet head of my first case of gonorrhoea / It is his ugly voice that I forever hear”.
Ultimately the experience so traumatises the poor soldier that he is driven to madness; “And since then each woman I’ve taken to bed / Seems to laugh in my arms, to whisper through my head / …Next! …Next!”. The song ends with a depiction of utter desperation and psychological meltdown – “One day I’ll cut my legs off, I’ll burn myself alive / Anything, I’ll do anything to get out of line to survive / Not ever to be next.”
I’m a fan of all of Cohen’s work including the much derided Phil Spector album and “Songs of Love and Hate” which was described at the time as music to slit your wrists to. In fact I feel strangely comforted and uplifted by even his bleakest songs and my initial first choice for this list was his devastatingly hopeless “Dress Rehearsal Rag”, then I considered reviewing “You Want It Darker” before finally settling on this one.
“Anthem” is perhaps the most spiritually uplifting of all of Cohen’s songs. Beautifully produced with the help of his then lover, actress Rebecca De Mornay, the song offers the listener hope in our darkest hour with the chorus “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”. This quote was used in many rehab clinics as an aphorism to aid recovery, though I’m not sure if it’s sensible to even mention the word “crack” to some recovering addicts, regardless of its context.
All of Cohen’s songs contain a depth of literary skill, wit and insight that few if any other artists have. He draws influence from a great many diverse sources from the poetry of Garcia Lorca to the religious texts and practices of virtually all of the world’s religions. Many of his words are born out of a desire for spiritual meaning and enlightenment, though they also question the existence of a god. A great wealth of his imagery derives from Jewish and Christian mythology, though the religious imagery is often subverted with lines that allude to sexual desire and longing.
Anthem however is Cohen at his most reassuringly spiritual, surprisingly as the song appeared alongside apocalyptic visions on his 1992 album “The Future” and appeared on the soundtrack to the film Natural Born Killers. It opens with the words “The birds they sang at the break of day / Start again I heard them say / Don’t dwell on what has passed away / Or what is yet to be / Yeah the wars they will be fought again / The holy dove she will be caught again / Bought and sold and bought again / the dove is never free”. Whilst his song “The Future” depicts that the world as spiralling into ever greater chaos and confusion, “Anthem” reassures us that, although the chaos, disorder and imperfection of the world is inescapable, there is light in that darkness and imperfections are what gives our work its character. Also we all have a voice, broken though it may be.
To me it is ultimately a song of hope, Cohen could see into the darkness clearly but he also had the vision to find ways to move us toward the light.
Nina Simone-Four Women
As a songwriter Nina Simone was up there with Bob Dylan as being crucial to the civil rights and protest movement of the 1960’s. She was all too aware of the injustice that her people faced. When, after years of study to become the first black classical pianist, she was rejected by the academy she had trained for. It was some time before she realised that this rejection was due to the fact she was black. As a result of this she turned to playing jazz music in nightclubs to make a living.
In 1963 she marched on Washington with Martin Luther King where she performed her song “Mississippi Goddamn” which was a scathing attack on the racism of the south as well as that of America in general. She made it clear to her audiences that, unlike King (who advocated nonviolent resistance when protesting against inequality) – she was “not nonviolent” and would fight for the rights of her people by any means necessary.
In her song “Four Women” she tells of four stories and perspectives that had until then not been given a voice, let alone in song.
The first woman is a slave who the white slave owners call “Aunt Sarah” she has a back that is “Strong enough to take the pain, inflicted again and again”.
The second woman “Saffronia” is of mixed race, “My father was rich and white, he forced my mother late one night”.
The third woman is finding work as a prostitute “Whose little girl am I? Anyone with money to buy / What do they call me? They call me sweet thing”.
Finally the last woman “Peaches” is so hardened by her experiences that she’ll “kill the first mother” she sees; “I’m awfully bitter these days, because my parents were slaves”.
To my mind Nina Simone was the most fearless singer songwriter and performer of them all and she got away with saying a great deal more than many of her black male contemporaries could have at that time.
The following clip starts with an astoundingly confrontational performance in Holland in 1965 of which “Four Women” is the second track. This isn’t feel-good entertainment at all, instead she seems to get off on making her predominantly white audience squirm uncomfortably. It’s almost punk. I thoroughly recommend watching the entire concert.
Kate Tempest-Europe Is Lost
I wanted to include something contemporary and this one is from a friend of mine but she’s getting no special favours from me (nor does she need any) as she is already the voice of her generation. I chose this track as it is possibly the most searing denouncement of our capitalist culture that has ever been put to music, a “civilisation” which seems hell bent on its own total destruction.
I first met Kate years ago at a poetry night which was run by my close friend and long-time mentor Salena Godden. It was an LGBT+ special for one week only and before show-time Kate seemed shy and nervous. As we chatted she explained that no one on the spoken word and rap scene knew that she was into girls, she also said that she hadn’t written anything about it yet (she has made up for this in much of her recent work). That night became Kate’s official “outing”, when she took to the stage I was blown away by her words.
Europe Is Lost could be described as a protest song, though unlike those of Nina Simone, Kate’s epic tirade rails against the system at the root of our capitalist society and the manifold problems it creates. Among these are escalating climate change and the scapegoating of immigrants, all of which seems strikingly current subject matter for a track which was composed well before Brexit and the rise of Trump.
The album on which the track appears, “Let Them Eat Chaos” is a concept album of sorts which focuses on the nocturnal lives and perspectives of seven inhabitants of a south London street over the course of one night. In “Europe Is Lost” the song is presented as the worries of a professional carer called Esther, though this individual’s thought narrative seems to be interspersed with Kate’s own insights as well, which expose humanity’s flaws and the fragility of our ailing world.
This kind of subject matter could come across as outdated and preachy coming from any lesser writer. However Kate writes and speaks with such supreme eloquence and sincerity that her words come across as genuine and heartfelt. “All that is meaningless rules / Have we learned nothing from history […] It’s big business baby and it’s smile is hideous […] Massacres massacres massacres / New shoes […] It’s the bored of it all generation / The product of product placement and manipulation […] Bullshit saccharine ballads / And selfies / And selfies / And selfies / Here’s me outside the palace of me” –these are just a few small extracts, the whole track is epic and stands as sprawling yet deeply insightful and all-encompassing critique of the shallowness of our times.
Benjamin Clementine-I Won’t Complain
My bonus track choice is another current artist who could hardly be considered undiscovered as he won the Mercury Music Prize in 2015. I had a listen to a few of his songs back then but (as with much music that is truly unique) it didn’t sink in on first listen. Last night I listened again and feel deeply in love. His name is Benjamin Clementine.
In the song “I Won’t Complain” he expresses the pain of modern life with a depth unequalled since Nina Simone. Often as he sings it feels like he fits in too many syllables into a line but somehow it works, dramatically and honestly conveying the intensity of his soul. There is a subtext to many of the lyrics of this song which superficially seem optimistic. When he says “I smile” it brings to mind Maya Angelou’s The Mask, “We wear the mask that grins and lies / It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes.”
Through his songs I have fallen in love though I fear the love won’t be appreciated as he sings – “And for those who hate me, the more you hate me / The more you help me / And for those who love me, the more you love me / The more you hurt me” – whilst playing his own raw nerves with such eloquence of emotion that it strikes a deep chord and resonates with my own feelings, reducing me to uncontrollable, cathartic tears.