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Bauhaus: Swing the Heartache (BBC Sessions)

July 9, 2011

Schwing da heartache Bow wow wow houseRoll: 1-2-14
Album: Bauhaus, Swing the Heartache (BBC Sessions)

I almost discarded this roll since this will mark the second Bauhaus and third Daniel Ash album I’ll have reviewed in this series. I’d hate for people to get bored with an endless series of ’80s goth and Pet Shop Boys reviews. But lead singer Peter Murphy has a new album out this week, so why not? Besides this is one of the formative albums of my youth. And by album of course I mean cassette.

Living in a small town on Vancouver Island was, in some ways, exciting for a young music fan. The excitement derived from not being able to walk into your typical big city record store and find any obscure underground title you could wish for. Another word for this excitement might be frustration. Well, the great thing about adolescence is the two are often interchangeable. Ironically, these days in a big city like Toronto finding a shop that can afford to stock every imaginable title is rare if not impossible. Not every exciting at all, mostly just frustrating. Of course, the Internet can find you anything you want be it on Amazon or Bit Torrent.

In 1989 though, pre-Seattle grunge explosion and the Internet, we relied on handed-down mix-tapes and cheaply printed college-radio program guides to introduce us to what were then correctly described as “alternative rock” bands. Once you had your interest piqued, it was an hour-and-a-half ferry ride across the Georgia Strait (uphill both ways, naturally) to Vancouver only to spend another hour on a bus to downtown (also uphill both ways) to find tapes by these bands.

That’s how I acquired my first Bauhaus tape. I was already a huge Love and Rockets devotee, but hadn’t been able to track down anything by their mythical first band. Well, mythical to me anyway. I’d even been able to see a few seconds of one of their video clips in what must have been a Much Music spotlight on Love and Rockets. As soon as I saw that, finding anything by Bauhaus became my personal quest. So when my friend Aaron Schneider wanted to take a day trip to Vancouver to shop at Fluevog Shoes, I jumped at the opportunity.

It all seems rather cute now, given that the Bauhaus catalogue is hardly rare. Though it possibly might have been at the time since apparently what I ended up with at the end of the day wasn’t any of their proper albums but the newly released BBC Radio sessions compilation, Swing The Heartache. Or maybe I was just a dumb kid who didn’t know what he was buying. Possible since, previous to purchasing the tape, I’d never heard of a “Peel Session” or understood John Peel‘s significance as a taste-maker.

I remember a five things about that day:

1. Aaron’s mom being an unimaginable cow to us as she dropped us off at the ferry terminal. I forgot to mention it was a 40-minute car ride down to the ferries on top of all the other modes of transportation we’d be taking that day. She was probably just upset because the drive was, obviously, uphill both ways.

2. Loudly talking about Hitler on the ferry to clear the seats around us. What a couple of charming young punks we were.

3. The hideously ridiculous shoes Aaron bought. They were, I think, the Boy style but with an exaggerated saw-tooth tread. Of course, I had no right to criticize since for years I coveted these bastards.

4. Catching our reflections in the tinted windows of a building downtown and being hit with the sledgehammer epiphany that I was really a very short guy. Actually quite tiny seeing as I was emaciated in those days. The conception I had of myself was entirely obliterated in that split second. But quietly so. I didn’t let on I was having an existential crisis as we walked along Granville or Robson Street. It should be noted Aaron is really quite tall but I didn’t take that into consideration when glimpsing us side by side. All I saw was my own freakish stature.

5. Being on the bus home listening to Swing The Heartache for the first time and trying to make sense of just what exactly was it that I was hearing.

Up until that point my experience with punk rock and post-punk was pretty staid. The old school (The Clash, Generation X, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols) was really pretty simple, straight ahead rock’n’roll. The newer alternative bands I listened to Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, and Fugazi were more creative but also consummate—barely “punk rock”—musicians. Love and Rockets’ own noisiest material (“It Could Be Sunshine”, “Ball of Confusion”) was very structured and precise and, like contemporaries The Cult,  their psychedelia very traditional and not terribly experimental. I was listening to a few hardcore punk bands that were looser and rougher (Bad Brains SNFU) but they still played simple three chord bashers that were really just The Ramones on amphetamines instead of glue.

Even though I considered myself some sort of artistic elite who pushed the envelope with his musical tastes, I hadn’t experienced music so truly weird before. It was funky, viciously raw, atonal, psychedelic, experimental, artsy, dubby, jazzy, punky and glamorously dark. All at the same time. My mind was blowing as I watched the houses of Marine Drive drift past on our way back to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. I’m not sure I entirely liked the experience. I was also still reeling from the shock of discovering I was— I felt with adolescent neurosis—freakishly short. I wasn’t in the mood for a musical paradigm shift on top of that.

It took a full week of listening to the tape non-stop for me to fully “get” it. That isn’t to say I didn’t love Bauhaus by the time I got to the end of side two—after all I’d convinced myself they were my favourite band before even hearing them— but my heart was taking its time catching up to my head. My ears hadn’t yet been exposed to the bleak dissonance of Sonic Youth and Joy Division or the violent, off-kilter polyrhythms of  Southern Death Cult (my other holy grail of the time). These new sounds made me uncomfortable. Funny to look back at that now since it all just sounds to me like how music is supposed to sound.

Not surprizingly, it was the cover versions where I found a toe-hold. Their hyperactive take on T.Rex‘s “Telegram Sam” and the beefed up version of  Bowie‘s “Ziggy Stardust” were the least bitter pills to swallow. Then I became enamored with the overall production style. Kevin Haskin‘s unusual percussion instrument choices and the dub echo effects on Daniel Ash’s guitar. I loved how this didn’t sound like “natural” music made by human beings, even if it were being played live in the studio.

The extreme of this approach, the Kafka-esque performance piece “Departure”, quickly became my favourite on the album. Now that I’m a bit older, I recognize it as being terribly pretentious. Unfortunately I didn’t understand this at the time and modeled all my writing (right through university) after it. Bauhaus still managed to pull it off somehow. Perhaps Peter Murphy’s non-ironic theatricality makes it work. Or maybe it’s just the opposite. It’s always hard to tell if Bauhaus took themselves completely, or not at all, seriously. They certainly managed to walk an exquisitely fine line without falling off. A debatable claim, I suppose, when talking about the “gothfathers.”

Ultimately, one of the most artistically successful BBC compilations, Swing The Heartache serves as a top-notch introduction to the band. It covers most the their career highlights and, unlike some Peel Sessions, the performances here are just as good, if not better, than their album counterparts (plus five of the tracks actually ended up as official album versions). Though some of this material has since been included as bonus material on the various CD reissues of their main albums, it still contains enough rarities to be essential for fans.

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