Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Thank Christ for the Bomb

Two albums made at the beginning of the 1970s explicitly dealing with the reverberations of world war in the present. One by an English band, the other by a German group. Both draw on potentially controversial iconography and speak to particular constructions of national history and its legacies.

The Groundhogs' third album crawled out of the back-end of the British blues boom to present the group as a sonically adventurous and thematically ambitious (if sometimes lyrically adolescent) combo capable of some compelling work. Not quite a concept album, the songs on Thank Christ for the Bomb are loosely held together by a preoccupation with the rottenness of twentieth century warfare in general and the contempt for the ordinary soldier shown by the officer class during World War I in particular.

The first half of the title track is an acoustic folk-protest pastiche that sketches out the album's theme: that the progressively bloody wars of the twentieth century have culminated in the phony, hygienic security of deterrence. In a way, the folky, CND-supporting, greatcoat-wearing beatnikisms of the 50s scene that are invoked here -- not to mention the simplistic lyrical content -- remind the listener of the long-gone spawning ground of the blues boom -- the coffee bars, ‘ban the bomb’ demos, record shops, and hairy fishermen's jumpers that provided the milieu within which a few obsessive young white men could pursue a particularly exotic form of 'authentic' expression through the grooves of records made in obscurity by disenfranchised black men on the other side of the world.

The track's generic anti-war plaint trundles on until it peters out with an aimless strum, replaced by a guitar freakout and a menacing, accelerating rumble (cf. Sonic Youth) that is cut dead by a pair of chillingly conclusive nuclear explosions. This electric response to the acoustic narrative of the first part of the track at once silences and substitutes the folk model of low-fi resistance with a thundering non-verbal pulse. At the same time, the sneering irony of the title is humourlessly blanked by the fact of the atomic detonations that end side one of the record.
Side two does not exactly follow through chronologically to a post-apocalyptic phase, though the preoccupation here with outsiders, tramps, and eccentrics does suggest a willful, out-of-step refusal to participate in an affirmative culture that normalises and sanctions war, nuclear or otherwise. In ‘Garden,’ for example, the speaker’s house is overgrown because it has been deliberately left to revert to a wilderness state. Doors won’t open and hundreds of birds nest in the trees that block out the sky. Not a single blade of grass will be cut, we’re told, and ‘my garden will look just like the distant past.’ All comforts will be forsaken when the speaker leaves the house, and he will live ‘another way,’ scratching a living from rubbish heaps and having only tramps for friends.

Vagabondage is taken up again in ‘Eccentric Man,’ where the life of a tramp is an act of will rather than a fact of individual economic or social failure. The eccentric man has a country home but prefers park benches and ‘walls made of gravestones.’

The cover of Thank Christ for the Bomb pastes the heads of the band members onto familiar images of World War I soldiers in the trenches. The time compression here is not as jarring as it might be since the long-haired and bearded tommies look strangely at home in what would become the army surplus favoured by British heads in the late 60s; the bedraggled tramp refusenik politics articulated in ‘Garden’ and ‘Eccentric Man’ is captured in the cover image even as it implicitly victimises the band by identifying them as another generation of cannon fodder.