I wanna dance like we used to: replaying my playlist

Everything_Propagate CollectiveLast week I put on my Life During Lockdown playlist on Spotify for the first time in a few weeks. I started this list in early April and now we’re several months down the line. I’ve visited my partner (now known as “bubble boy” or “bubble buddy”) in Oxford for the first time since lockdown and wore a festive new mask for the occasion. Recently he made the journey to see me in London. And now it’s been announced that pubs will be reopening on 4 July.

Like many I have my suspicions about a premature end to lockdown, especially for those who are shielding and stand to lose benefits, or workers who could be forced back into unsafe workplaces or claimants facing sanctions again. I don’t want to go back to the same routine and the same air quality as before or risk a second wave of infections. But will I be able to resist a visit to the pub after a walk?

With these thoughts in mind I recently listened to my lockdown playlist again. I considered the songs that continue to resonate and the changes that have taken place since I began putting it together. Listening to other playlists and compiling my own helped me keep the pieces of my mind together during a stressful period while opening some new musical avenues. It also eased the completion of a particularly troublesome novelette.

At the beginning I did casual searches for words like pandemic, lockdown, corona, covid and plague. This revealed thousands of other playlists. Some concentrated on dance music for indoor exercising, others were mournful, dark and gothic, still others were upbeat and humorous. A few focused on queer themes and some – which were left unclicked – petitioned for salvation from the plague. Many lists focused on certain genres – country music, heavy metal, grime, classical, industrial, rap, blues, folk. A spectrum of musical subcultures are represented: lots of rave-oriented playlists and some good thrashing punk ones and I’m sure I came across a psychobilly one too. There were even playlists of original plague-era early music, like this 15h Century Medieval Party Mix: “Party like it’s yer last day because thou is dying of plague.”

I’m sure these lists will prove fruitful for analysis of this crucial moment in history as well as providing hours of listening pleasure. Let a thousand PhD dissertations bloom!

Rappers were especially quick to the comment on current events. One of my favourite rap attacks on the virus was Gotty Boi Chis’ Fuck the Corona: “Wash your hands and wash your motherfuckin’ feet!”

Some songs on these lists didn’t have such an obvious connection, or none at all. I imagined a very personal context. Nosy as I am, I always want to know more. Was a certain song performed at their last gig before lockdown, or did they listen to it while sick in bed? Or perhaps a song reminded them of a lover who doesn’t happen to share their household.

I also revisited some videos on YouTube. I found that the ones that featured shoppers fighting over toilet paper already seem like period pieces. And when I listened to my own list, I found that the anxious apocalyptic edge has softened. Yet I still respond to the most ominous tunes, which have meant other things at other times. For example, I loved When the Music’s Over by the Doors since I was a kid. Did it have something to do with Altamont and the death of the 1960s counterculture (or a few countercultures past that)? Or maybe it’s about Death with a capital D or something that Jim Morrison ate that didn’t go down well. Now it means something else again. That’s what what I call a ‘classic’, even though I still giggle when Jim intones “the scream of the butterfly”.

When I hear the Specials’ Ghost Town I do remember the riots of 1981 and boarded-up deindustrialised towns – but 40 years on we’ve seen many other ways a city can die. I look out my window and see the development of Nine Elms, where flats are bought as investments and not actual places to live – a ghost town in the making. In any case, that eerie keyboard riff still sends a chill through me even as the bassline gets my feet moving.

And speaking of chills… this chuckle-provoking ditty about keeping it chill in New York City’s East Village reels out several apocalyptic scenarios and one hopeful one. Meanwhile, I continue my efforts to keep it chill in North Lambeth.

On my list I’ve also included songs about solitude and isolation, about death and grieving, about mutual aid and support as well as the solace of drink and drugs, and some plain silly stuff. There’s a lot about dancing and the desire to dance (Days of the Dance and Dancing While the Sky Falls Down). The embattled hedonism of Julie Delphy’s La La La (“I wanna dance like we used to…”) speaks to me again; this song also served in my post-election playlist. As my neighbour’s crap music pounded out his open window and into mine I added the reggae classic Man Next Door, which also expresses a need to escape: “I’ve got to get away!” That’s a recurring theme on several of my playlists.

However, a wider range of musical styles has made its way into my lockdown list. For example, I never got into electronic and industrial music before but I gravitated towards these genres on a few occasions here. I also wanted the playlist to touch on the history of plagues and pandemics and even some of the science, which cast another angle on the music I sought out.

These interests have taken me on some odd musical detours. So yes, I’ve chosen those lockdown staples like Ghost Town, Life During Wartime and End of the World as We Know It… but who else has the likes of Marcus J Buehler’s Viral Counterpoint of the Coronavirus Spike Protein? Buehler explains to ABC.net how his team analysed the “vibrational structure” of the coronavirus and created music out of it –and why this is a useful thing to do:

“Translating proteins into sound gives scientists another tool to understand and manipulate them… Understanding these vibrational patterns is critical for drug design and much more. Vibrations may change as temperatures warm, for example, and they may also tell us why the SARS-CoV-2 spike gravitates toward human cells more than other viruses…
Through music, we can see the SARS-CoV-2 spike from a new angle, and appreciate the urgent need to learn the language of proteins.”

You might expect ‘Rona to serenade us with some hardcore death metal. Not quite. It sounds rather beautiful, even soothing – in the beginning. Some comments on the YouTube page and elsewhere suggest a resemblance to Bjork’s music. Indeed, I came across a Bjork song with a very similar sound. And guess what it’s called – Virus. So this appears on the playlist just before Marcus J and it’s very creepy (“As the protein transmutates I knock on your skin, and I am in.”)

You might find it impossible to listen to an hour and a half of Marcus J’s viral song in one go. I haven’t stuck out the duration either and I have a slightly shorter version on Spotify. Perhaps I’ve watched too many Ring films, but I can’t help suspecting that if I listen to the whole song I’ll be inviting a whole crew of those spiky little fuckers in for a party. Bueller himself does offer this analogy: “As you listen, you may be surprised by the pleasant, even relaxing, tone of the music. But it tricks our ear in the same way the virus tricks our cells. It’s an invader disguised as a friendly visitor.”

Meanwhile, others suggest (tongues firmly in cheek) the opposite; that listening to it might confer immunity!

In line with my folkloric interests, the most suitable follow-up to that long long song of the virus would be an 18th century ballad (with medieval roots) called Twa Corbies, which describes a conversation between two crows about what they’ll eat next as they eye up the corpse of a slain knight. I’ve chosen Maddy Prior’s haunting solo version. Perhaps a pun – which may be wearing as ancient as the folk song itself – lurks in there too.

I’ve followed this with another folk song,  Shaking of the Sheets, a jolly little ditty that revolves around the trope of death as the “Great Leveller”. It’s obviously untrue in our context where class and race have determined how people are affected by Covid; Boris Johnson had better options for treatment than a black nurse in Peckham who was left to die alone in her flat. But if you listen to Shaking of the Sheets, it seems to hurl defiance  at ‘sly bankers’ and “the politicians of high and low degree” and “lords and ladies, great and small.” The song warns: “Don’t think that you’ll escape and need not dance with me.” Consider an era when official ideology touted the divine right of kings to rule. This song is saying: you call yourself divine your royal fucking highness but you’re only human like us and you’ll die.

Many have noted that times of crisis may result in major changes that can have both negative or positive potential. In English history, restless survivors of the Black Death of 1348 unleashed the Peasants Revolt across large parts of England. It was sparked by the imposition of a poll tax and culminated with an assault on the City of London. This period produced the socialist vision expressed by John Ball and an expanded notion of rights and commonalities.

Could we be looking at another period of upheaval now? We won’t be emboldened by a labour surplus as folks were in the 14th century – quite the opposite. We could be facing another case of state ‘shock doctrine’ in the aftermath. On the other hand, the effects of austerity left a system unable to cope with the pandemic. It is now being challenged and much of the ‘culture change’ demanded by the architects of austerity has been derailed.  The logic of work at any cost, enforced by a regime of benefit sanctions, has also been exposed and held up to question – check out Pandemic Creations: Links to a New World for many perspectives on this. As Arundhati Roy notes in her article:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

To mark the historical connection I searched for tunes dating from the Peasants Revolt; the only thing I found was The Cutty Wren. If you listen to the lyrics, it seems as if folks are getting out a lot of equipment (hatchets and cleavers, big guns and cannons etc) and going to a lot of trouble to do away with a small brown bird. But the unfortunate wren could symbolise young King Richard II, who is killed and fed to the poor in the song. Folk chronicler AL Lloyd put that idea on the table in 1944 and Chumbawumba popularised the connection by including the song in their album English Rebel Songs 1381–1914. Others claim there is no evidence to connect The Cutty Wren with the Peasants’ Revolt. In any case, this is the closest I could get to a song of that era so it goes in!

The Chumbawumba version wasn’t available on Spotify but I do like this one because it’s sung with a lot of verve and a touch of menace. The response: “We may not tell you…” followed by an explicit description of the hardware involved in wren-killing so reminds me of conversations concerning “security” in various naughty noughties actions in the days of yore! This was when ‘masking up’ meant something very different than it does now.

War Movie by the Jefferson Airplane previously turned up in this blog as part of a Paul Kantner tribute. Here it is again, with its SF high-tech vision of another kind of peasants revolt predicted to take place in “nineteen-hundred and seventy-five”. So maybe this did take place in another timeline… I’ve posted the original below but you can also listen to a live version where Paul updates to “two thousand and five”.

And now, in our own timeline, I can’t help but think that recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, occupations and statue-dunking could herald the opening of the portal described by Arundhati Roy. This spirit came across in Saul Williams’ List of Demands. Though it was written in the early 2000s it feels very contemporary: “I got a list of demands written on the palm of my hands. I ball my fist and you’re gonna know where I stand.”

Meanwhile, the illness and death of John Prine from Covid-19 prompted me to think about how important his music had been to me when I was growing up. He was one of the singers I first enjoyed on late-night radio, probably on WBAI with Bob Fass – those mournful and wry tunes were just the thing for clandestine listening on a school night. That Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore always made me laugh – it was the perfect antidote to Okie from Muskogee. Prine had been one of the first at the time to show that country music doesn’t have to be right-wing and flag-waving, and he’s been a major influence on recent “alt-country” (it might be called something else now) performers.

I’ve therefore put a bunch of his songs on my playlist and it’s been a bittersweet experience to revisit them. I had to chuckle when listening to his song Donald and Lydia for the first time in years. It ends with:

“They made love in the mountains, they made love in the streams,
They made love in the valleys, they made love in their dreams.
But when they were finished there was nothing to say,
’cause mostly they made love from ten miles away.”

How’s that for social distancing?

If anyone thinks it’s in bad taste to put a John Prine tribute on the same playlist with Marcus J Bueller’s song of the coronavirus (or have issues with some of the more lighthearted comments in this post), please have a listen to Please Don’t Bury Me. It reveals a sense of humour that is both dark and humane:

I ended the playlist with a few songs about friendship and mutual aid (Carry Me, Stand By Me and Stay Free), followed by Alison Mosshart’s Rise. The timing of its release in early April is coincidental but I’ve taken this song as an anthem about getting through lockdown and loss to “make it to the other side” – and opening that portal.

And if you get this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed the music!