The Swans – Cop/Young God/Greed/Holy Money
Every time someone blithely mentions the phrase ‘I remember the ’80’s!’, I often have the irresistible urge to slap them. Why? Because 90% of what people ‘remember’ from the decade is either worthless tripe posing as trivia, useless celebrity gossip that now seems placid compared to the almost constant barrage of sex scandals, suicide attempts, and drug overdoses that now inundate Hollywood, and (most importantly) a scant 5% of musical talent is ‘remembered’, usually on idiotic television shows, such as “I LOVE THE 80’S!”, as obscure talking heads desperately attempt to inject some semblance of relevance into their dessicated public image. News Flash: There was more to the 1980’s than Foreigner, Whitesnake, Journey, Toto, Heart, Kansas, and Boston (though Boston usually escapes my scorn, because they kicked ass more often than most). For example, there was The Swans.
Formed in 1982, The Swans initially was connected with the nebulous ‘no wave’ moniker, but that association lasted for only one album, following the departure of their original guitarist. “Cop / Young God / Greed / Holy Money”, released in 1999 (shortly after the band had disbanded), is a double LP featuring the albums “Cop”, “Greed”, “Holy Money”, and the infamous “Young God” EP (which Kurt Cobain listed among his favorite albums). The studio recordings present Swans with their most unadulterated musical vision: agonizing auditory assaults, all recorded between 1984-1986. The guitar sounds as if it were being amplified through diesel exhaust pipes, the bass sounds as if it were strung with electrical wires, and the drums are accented with various metal ‘found objects’. But one of the most unnerving aspects of The Swans’ sound is Michael Gira’s vocals. Alternating from a deadpan delivery (in which he issues matter-of-fact statements regarding death, dismemberment, sex, “humiliation as a disease”, and other subversive conversation starters) to snarled shouting, he deftly explores the squalid underside of existence in a manner few bands are able to accomplish effectively.
While the “Young God” EP is stylistically similar to the “Cop” LP, there are a number of interesting differences between the two. Almost immediately noticeable is the fact that the songs, though similar to the previous album, are much more ‘sinister’ sounding than ‘overtly brutal’ (although it is important to note that there is no loss in intensity; in some respects, this album is a bit more intense). Also obvious is the fact that the band had, by this point, began to experiment with slightly more complex song progressions (such as the outro of “I Crawled”). Michael Gira’s voice is also a little bit more diverse on these songs, with reverb and chorus effects appearing in the mix at times (this does, however, cause his voice to be somewhat further back in the mix). His ranting/screeching/shouting is especially pronounced on the song “Raping A Slave”. And that loud clanking sound you hear every once in a while? That’s a steel table and chain.
The second disc begins with an explosive machine-gun drum attack, followed by Skinny Puppy-esque programmed drums and rattling guitar feedback/noise. Initially, there is no melody to speak of, besides the random horn blare here and there. The first song, “Time Is Money (Bastard)” (from the EP of the same name) is where the band would change from dirge noise rock to pounding industrial themes (complete with a sampled nail gun in the previously stated track). “Another You” reintroduces melody in the guitar/bass lines, but also surprises the listener with a mournful harmonica introduction (which, on paper does not sound like it would work, actually sounds quite appropriate once listening to the song a few times). The next song, “Blackmail” is interesting in that it is the first song on this collection to feature the lovely voice of Jarboe (although it is important to note that this collection, for some strange reason, does not list the track titles in the same manner as the original albums). Backed by a strange (but beautiful) piano melody, the song’s lyrics are also strange: the song is called “Blackmail”, even though Jarboe encourages the listener to “Close your eyes…And close in on me…Say you’ll do anything for me…I’ll be your body when your body is broken”. “A Screw” is Swan’s oft-discussed exploration into ‘industrial dance music’, featuring jazzy horns, jagged & choppy guitar/synth melodies, and thundering (yet undeniably funky) percussive rhythms. It is extremely catchy and humorous, due in part to Gira’s deadpan delivery of his most overtly sexual lyrics to date (“Open your mouth…here’s your money!”). Meanwhile, “You Need Me” features a husky-voiced Jarboe (who honestly sounds like she is on the verge of crying) and piano, creating the VERY creepy sensation of an abuse victim desperately apologizing to their abusive husband (“I’m sorry…I won’t do it again…I love you more than myself…I am your only friend”).
It would be hopelessly cliche to claim that this is the most brutal of The Swan’s recordings (given that nearly half of their studio and live recordings are given that status, with each being equally accurate to that claim), but I will admit that it does make for a harrowing two and a half hours. If you feel you are ready for the journey into despair, deprivation, cowardice, and fury, this is a good place to start. It is also an important collection in that one can easily hear musical trademarks which would later appear in other bands (such as Godflesh’s “Streetcleaner” album, Cop Shoot Cop, and arguably Khanate as well). Unlike many other early 1980’s bands, The Swans lasted until 1997 (ending their career with the almost impossibly diverse “Soundtracks For The Blind”); while Michael Gira and Jarboe continue to have successful solo careers. Nevertheless, this collection remains a landmark release of early 80’s aggression and devastation.
PS : The first video is the ‘original’ version of “A Screw”; the second is the “dub” version. Both are from the Swans VHS “A Slow Long Screw”. The second video also features Jarboe, so it’s not for the kiddies.