Apr. 19th, 2014

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In a way, I don't particularly want to tackle this album. Christian Death is one of those bands who have amassed so much bullshit over the years – both internally and externally – that getting involved in the fray is not high on my list of priorities. And when I say "bullshit," perhaps I should use the more polite phrase "strong opinions and reactions" save for the fact that I think "bullshit" more appropriate.

Because of the history and mythology surrounding Christian Death, they just aren't easy to write about fairly. Good for me then that Off the Rack isn't so much about in-depth analysis as it is my own word wankery to my record collection.

So, here we are: Only Theatre of Pain, the 1982 debut by Christian Death, hailed by many as the birth of gothic and/or death rock in the United States by way of Los Angeles. The CD version of this LP tacks six additional songs onto the end, which were originally released separately as an EP entitled Deathwish. That makes for thirteen unique songs, as the EP contained versions of "Romeo's Distress," "Spiritual Cramp" and "Cavity" which appeared in different forms on the album.

In June of 2008 (Friday the 13th, to be specific) Illusion of Joy along with The Burning Path opened for Christian Death at the 31st Street Pub. They were touring in support of their most recent release, American Inquisition. I can't compare them live in 2008 to this recording though. What I saw that night is pretty far-removed from Only Theatre of Pain. So far, in fact, that the current incarnation of the group doesn't play any early material.

Fronted by Valor Kand since 1985, some say that I didn't share a stage with the "real" Christian Death. I find arguments like that laughable, given that there are so many bands which have had rotating line-ups. If the argument is legitimacy then Kand being a part of the group since 1983 strengthens his position. Rozz Williams may have founded the group, but he only dedicated himself to it for six years before leaving to pursue other projects. Then there was a lawsuit and a suicide – and with that ultimate expression of "I give up" on Williams' part in 1998, there became only one "legitimate" Christian Death.

Like I said at the onset: bullshit. So much bullshit. I think this kind of stuff, more than anything, is why Illusion of Joy only has one member.

That 2008 show was pretty fucking awesome though. A shame it wasn't better attended.

But here I am going off on tangents when I should be focusing on Only Theatre of Pain. What do I think of this album? Honestly...not much. I don't hate it, but I don't particularly like it. Maybe when it debuted in 1982 it was mind-blowing, but I've heard gothic and deathrock albums which I've enjoyed far more and in my opinion are far better. Listening to this, it all kind of blends together. Only "Romeo's Distress" really stands out and would probably have been a great radio single if the first line of the song weren't, "burning crosses on a nigger's lawn." Yikes! Guess we all know where Marilyn Manson stole his shock shtick from. In fact, I'd dare to say that Antichrist Superstar is Only Theatre of Pain re-recorded with louder guitars. We all know that they've all been stealing from Alice Cooper though...

So, take away whatever goth points I have remaining (if any), but this is the only Christian Death album I own and I'm not into it. A couple of friends have told me to give Catastrophe Ballot a listen, telling me that I might enjoy it more. I probably should, but I don't feel any personal push to do so anytime soon. If anything, based on the strength of that live show I went to in 2008, I should grab a copy of American Inquisition. "Narcissus Metamorphosis Of" alone is likely worth the price of admission.

As I listen to the closing song on this CD – the Deathwish version of "Cavity" – I recall where I first actually heard Christian Death. It was either 1998 or 1999 and I had taken over WAIH's morning show. I decided that I wanted to do a Halloween special, which I cheesily dubbed "The Mourning Show." A friend loaned me some goth and deathrock CDs (WAIH's archives at the time being woefully inadequate since I'd yet to become the music director). Among these was Christian Death's 1996 album, Prophecies. I don't remember which track I played off of it – I'm tempted to say "Without" – but I do remember that it got a spin that Halloween morning. I also remember the then music director telling me that my Halloween special wasn't much fun to listen to because, "you can't have fun when you're dead."

I didn't know how to respond to that at the time. My anti-Valentines show several months later received more positive feedback.

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Pictures of starving children may not sell records, but a quirky, catchy single will. For what, at the time, was an eight-member band of anarcho-punks, “Tubthumping” was that single. Inescapable in 1997, the song was Chumbawamba’s sole taste of chart success in the United States. Nearly two years ago, at the tail end of 2012, the band quietly called it quits after thirty years of culture jamming.

Being sixteen at the time of it’s release, and not yet fully aware of the greater musical world beyond what was being aired on the radio stations in my rural residence, Tubthumper was the first Chumbawamba CD I acquired. I honestly can’t remember if I purchased it or won it in a contest at a local record store. In either case, it went into regular rotation on my personal playlist.

The first thing that stood out to me when I thumbed through the CD booklet was, nestled among the song lyrics, the following paragraph:

Due to the complexities of USA copyright law, we are not able to print the information intended for this space. At your written request we will supply you with a leaflet containing the information (while supplies last) or you can read it on our website: http://www.chumba.com

In hindsight, I should have written in for the physical pamphlet. However, I opted to visit their website instead. My high school internet was via a T3 connection, the fast lane of the “information superhighway” in the late 1990’s. At home my family was still on a 56k dial-up modem, which, even for the time, was soul-crushingly slow. So, it was during a study hall in the school computer lab that I loaded up Chumbawamba’s website to view for myself the “tubtexts” that United States copyright law would not allow to be printed in the physical booklet.

Chumbawamba’s website in 1997, thanks to archive.org. By today’s standards it is quaint and almost laughably amateurish. However, when you consider that this site actually had content besides a label hawking the group’s latest release, you come to realise that the band’s ideals had put them ahead of their time. The tubtexts, which nearly seventeen years ago I printed out and stapled together, have been archived with the home page: Part 1 and Part 2.

This was eye-opening stuff for me. While I ended up a socialist, not an anarchist, to see these songs put into this type of context made them better for me – and I was already enjoying them just for being a great set of pop songs. But they weren’t just a great set of pop songs; they were ...punk songs?

My mushy, embryonic teenage mind couldn’t quite fathom it. Subversive, yes. Rebellious, yes. But...punk? Wasn’t that Green Day? No, that’s what MTV told us was punk. So...what was punk, really?

I still can’t effectively answer that one. Nor do I really want to. It’s like the question: what is pornography? It’s more fun (and truthful) to answer that it can’t be defined, but one knows it when one sees it.

These days, this text which was supposed to accompany the lyrics to “Amnesia” stick out for me: “A change of Government is no guarantee of getting policies which put people before profit... as proved by the British Labour Party's past record. Short-term solution, long-term procrastination.” Allow me a moment to tip my figurative hat to President Barack Obama and the new, improved neo-liberal Democratic Party of the United States of America. Hope! Change! Bullshit!

I never got a chance to see Chumbawamba live...likely never will now. And while I’ve heard several of their songs and a few of their albums all of the way through, I should dig deeper into their discography. They are a band which I think deserves to have their whole story on my CD rack, from Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records all the way through ABCDEFG. Of course, those studio albums aren’t truly the full story as the band has numerous one-offs, fan-only discs, downloads and early (very rare) cassette-only releases. Don’t hold your breath for a consumer-friendly Chumbawamba rarities boxed set though...and that’s as it should be.


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Seth Warren

May 2017

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