Great Music, Terribly Analysed: SHADOWPLAY

Joy Division’s seminal album Unknown Pleasures features a lot of really strong, authentic, and just really really good tracks. From its opener Disorder to the final track I Remember Nothing. Every track is good, and it’s no shock it remains one of the greatest albums of all time.

Joy Division’s music was always filled with a very pessimistic, jaded view on love and relationships – shaped by Ian Curtis and his failing marriage. The lyrics downbeat and never about falling in love as much as falling out of love, that’s if they even wrote about relationships. Much of the tracks off the seminal work Unknown Pleasures reflect the misanthropic and nihilistic view Curtis had towards his own existence.

Tracks like Shadowplay reflect that he felt his life, like hand puppets in a literal shadowplay, was a show for everyone but the one performing. Shadowplay is also probably my favourite Joy Division song. It boasts some of Curtis’ best lyrics and my personal stand-out verse from any song:

In the shadowplay, acting out your own death
Knowing no more
As the assassins all grouped in four lines
Dancing on the floor
And with cold steel, odour on their bodies
Made a move to connect
But I could only stare in disbelief
As the crowds all left

But who or what are the assassins? What’s it all about?

I always took the assassins grouped in four lines, dancing on the floor to be the crowd. The audience at their gigs. A cynical way of looking at it, but would match up with Ian Curtis and his how he felt alienated from people. His description of them with the cold steel of their 70’s punk aesthetic, odour of sweat, and disillusionment with him on stage.

But here’s the punchline to this very write-up:

He makes a move to connect with the audience, but never feels like they truly understand. Hell, I don’t really understand what Curtis means with his lyrics. They’re coded in metaphor and allegory and this is my best attempt at deciphering one of my favourite tracks.

Shadowplay is ultimately about one of the struggles of being an artist – you attempt to pour your soul out but nobody will ever truly understand you. You’ll gain a cult following but nobody has a true clue who you were or what you stood for. Ian Curtis is shrouded in myth and legend now – and there’s some beauty to that.

Running Up That Hill & Art Of Good Covers

If I only could, make a deal with God…

Did you forget to take your meds? Just another Nancy Boy? See you at the Bitter End?

Placebo’s music has often focused on nitty-gritty, taboo, and slightly uncomfortable relationships. Abusive couples, drug-fuelled break-ups, or as it’s put in Meds – sex, drugs, and complications. Rarely was their music uplifting or not about destructive people and destructive relationships – happy mutual break-ups were not their schtick.

Their sound was so clearly Placebo. Brian Molko’s nasally vocals paired perfectly with Stefan Olsdal’s banging guitar and bass. Placebo had previously done other covers, including a cover of The Smiths’ Bigmouth Strikes Again in 1997 for the single release of Nancy Boy, T. Rex’s 20th Century Boy in 1998, and Depeche Mode’s I Feel You in 1999. Molko and Olsdal often said the covers they did were representative of the music they loved and found significant in their formative years.

When Placebo released a studio cover of Kate Bush’s iconic Running Up That Hill it seemed at first like a weird combination but made more sense you more you thought of it. Kate Bush’s original was heartfelt but much faster paced, Molko explained in interview why he decided to cut down on some of the lyrics and lower the pace of the song.

I grew up listening to that song, and I always thought it was an amazing song, but I thought the tempo was too fast. It didn’t give enough space for the real emotion to shine through. When we decided to cover it, I really, really wanted to slow it down so that [there was enough space to express] what was really going on — the fear and the abandon.

Brian Molko, with vanyaland.com in 2013

The raw emotion you feel from Molko’s interpretation of Running Up That Hill gives the song a completely new layer. A vulnerable male perspective on gender identity, a relationship going south, and heartbreak. This is a mixture of Placebo’s signature and Kate Bush’s own style which covered taboo topics and at the time contentious issues like gay couples and identity. The low-fi feel of Placebo’s cover allows the emotion of the song to really kick in, and it’s haunting.

This, is in my opinion, is a perfect example of a cover and what makes a good cover. Using the original song as a basis, true to its meaning, whilst still transforming it to make a different feel.

However, a good cover doesn’t always need to completely shake up the song, but rather add a different voice and singing style to a tune. A personal favourite, which for me is a case of I love both cover and original, is Shadowplay. Originally by Joy Division, and covered by The Killers for their 2007 b-sides and rarities album Sawdust.

A sombre and gothic track which was turned into a (almost fittingly) New Order-ised track by The Killers. It’s somewhat faster paced and has more of a light dance rhythm than a self-introspective brooding piece as originally intended by Joy Division. This works surprisingly well for me. While Brandon Flowers doesn’t have the deep, booming voice of Ian Curtis he does have a really good voice for a track like this.

Sometimes, covers become so much better known by the cover people barely remember the original. This is definitely the case with things covered by The Clash – only recently I found out that I Fought The Law, released on Give Them Enough Rope, was originally by The Bobby Fuller Four. At the time, was a #1 track but 54 years on from its original release in 1966, I’d say the version the absolute majority of people would know is The Clash version.

Covers are a really interesting way of using music. It can be seen as an ultimate tribute to an artist and their work, a sign of passing the baton, and also a way to keep a classic song relevant. It’s a good way of looking at the creative cycle itself – a cover is the creative cycle going full circle. I don’t think I’d have as much interest in Kate Bush if I didn’t love Placebo’s cover of Running Up That Hill.