I am not really sure how I came to hear about Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It was the late 90s and the arse end of ‘Britpop’. I had been wowed by the Stone Roses album (you know which one) and kind of fallen into the whole Oasis/ Pulp/ Blur/ Suede scene, some of which has survived better than others, and was getting rather bored with the whole thing. For a while it seemed quite exciting but gradually lost its sheen. I had some great summers in the nineties… but with the Millennium coming over the horizon it began to feel like winter was coming.
From 1997 onwards I also found myself spending more and more time in Berlin, and found myself in music shops, all of which had large banks of CD players, for hours on end. These were often unsupervised, allowing me to spend an inordinate amount of time listening to new music. I would fly over with all the most recent music mags, get a long list going, and just go for it.
This really helped me out of my landfill indie malaise and encouraged me to explore new avenues. So it was in one of these stores that I first heard ‘Dead Flag Blues’… when I did it was like a bolt from the blue. It felt like a message from the future… a track that seemed to capture the whole idea of the Millennium for me. A time of change, but also a warning of a coming dystopia.
The monologue at the beginning , written by guitarist Efrim Manuck, is for me truly poetic and replete with emotion, here it is in full:
the car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel
and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides
and a dark wind blows
the government is corrupt
and we’re on so many drugs
with the radio on and the curtains drawn
we’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
and the machine is bleeding to death
the sun has fallen down
and the billboards are all leering
and the flags are all dead at the top of their poles
it went like this:
the buildings tumbled in on themselves
mothers clutching babies picked through the rubble
and pulled out their hair
the skyline was beautiful on fire
all twisted metal stretching upwards
everything washed in a thin orange haze
i said: “kiss me, you’re beautiful –
these are truly the last days”
you grabbed my hand and we fell into it
like a daydream or a fever
we woke up one morning and fell a little further down –
for sure it’s the valley of death
i open up my wallet
and it’s full of blood
It would probably take me many words to even begin to unpick this, so I invite you to do your own analysis… for me it says so much about society and the dangers that we still face today. There is also love and hope in there and I am overcome by its poignance every time I listen to it. I feel sure that I cried when I first heard it in that Berlin store in 1998, but then memories are not always the most reliable.
What I would say it that this is the track above all others that took me over the threshold into the Twenty First Century and, if anything, it has become more a track for our times rather than less. The steady mournful drone, the sinister tone and, above all, the steer emptiness of the music is something that continues to both haunt and calm me to this day… the music really reflecting the monologue at the start.
Sonically, this track helped me to erase much of what I had been listening to up to that point… it was my second ‘year zero’ after punk, a chance to put behind a lot of the music I had been clinging on to… yes I actually bought the third Oasis album, although I’m not sure I ever listened to it more than once. For me this track, and the whole ‘F sharp A sharp infinity’ album, marked both a clean slate and encouraged me to explore new wormholes into the past which directly or indirectly brought me out in 60s/ 70s California (Nuggets), London (Pink Floyd), Birmingham (Black Sabbath) and Germany (Kraftwerk/ Neu!/ Can etc…)… all of whom had piles of CDs in those Berlin stores that I could openly explore.
For me, then, ‘Dead Flag Blues’ is an inspirational turning point which jolted me out of a long downward musical spiral and re-energised my love for music, but also helped me to start to find a much deeper connection to music… one which I benefit from today… proving influential in the way I write about music on this website.
A frightening, prescient, emotional and beautiful track of which I will never tire.
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