Thursday 19 April 2018

Cult Cinema, Appendix: God only knows what you're missing

See the Beginning Stages of... The Polyphonic Spree (2004)

1. So over the last week or two I've written about Tetsuo, Salò, Eyes Without a Face and The Skin I Live In. It's time to have a close watch of something that isn't traumatic, something easier, at least in some ways. Let's find something more affirming.

2. I know that I said I wasn't going to do documentary films in Cult Cinema. And I'm not. But a concert film, that's a slightly different matter, and this concert film in particular, that's different, too. Go with me here.

God only knows what you're missing
I had fallen deeply into evangelical Christianity by the end of 1994, and quickly became part of a culture where a tiny group could become convinced that its internal squabbles and home made reaching out efforts were decisive strikes in a vast cosmic battle.

And this was about the time when the Toronto Blessing was in full swing.

And I don't know, I suppose you had to have been there really to understand how weird that time was. Starting in a megachurch in Toronto, apparent supernatural manifestations began to sweep across evangelical churches in the English speaking world. And in 1994, it hit Swansea.

Glossolalia and prophetic visions were present, but you must realise that these things were common in the pentecostal and charismatic churches, even then. What made this different was that there were also fits of laughing, people taken by convulsions, strange sounds, even animal noises, and most of all, people got slain, slain in the Spirit. A hand touched to a forehead, a body collapsing in teary ecstasies, a sort of trance state. And many who had had these experiences were profoundly affected afterwards, and prone to entering this state on their own.

At the time, I was not keen to take part in this. You have to realise that part of the reason that Christianity drew me at that time was that after the weirdness of my childhood, and it hadn't yet even dawned on me just how weird and messed up my childhood was, I was sort of looking for a normal religion, where this sort of thing doesn't happen.

You may mock me.

Anyway, one night, the Toronto Blessing went to Sketty Hall, the other side of campus. I went with two guys I knew, both very conservative Welsh Calvinist types, who also, in their own way, different to my own, wanted normalcy in their religion. They were both hugely sceptical of it. One, who even at the time I had pegged as a nasty bit of work, had been suggesting disrupting the event in various ways (he'd been threatening especially to bring a chicken alarm clock, if I remember it right). The other, with whom I was inseparable back then, although we haven't spoken for maybe twenty years, laughed at this, but had resolved to sit, and watch. I went because that was what I did. Tag along.

So we went to the event, and there was some singing of choruses, which I've always found an endurance test, and then they started clearing the chairs away, to make space for the falling. Anxiety clenched my stomach into a fist, a fear of my self being somehow violated, of my self being stolen. In the chaos I became separated from my companions.

In order to avoid the prospect of falling prey to this, I did the only thing I could think of. I went to the front and volunteered to catch people. I had noticed that these moves of the Spirit were very specific, that they never seemed to move upon the staff and the volunteers, and realised that the centre of the storm was the safest place. And so I spent most of the next couple hours standing behind people as a minister prayed over them briefly and tapped them lightly on the forehead. Each pitched backwards and each time I caught their limp frames in my arms and lowered them gently to the floor. All around me I could hear weeping, and people speaking in tongues and wordlessly, aimlessly singing.

I saw, as I made my escape, since there were no more bodies to catch, my sceptic friend on the floor, lost in the rush of the thing, tears streaking his face. The other guy had bottled (or in his version, left in disgust) when things started to get weird. I felt like I'd escaped something terrible. I felt I'd preserved myself. I went back to campus alone.

My friend, the following morning, was shaken, but in the end whatever had happened to him had changed nothing. He was as sceptical of it as he had ever been.

Hey, it's the sun, and it makes me shine
I've had two occasions where musical gigs I've been to have come close to duplicating the experience of that night. One was when Bob Dylan played Cardiff, this in April 2009. The ticket had been bought for me, and I'd gladly gone because, when someone buys you a ticket to see someone like Dylan, that's not a gift horse you look in the mouth. Never mind I'd never much cared for Dylan, that's irrelevant.

It's still one of the very worst gigs I've ever attended. But also one of the weirdest. Dylan didn't seem to care what he was doing, played through the hits in the same laid back blues style, without acknowledging the audience or even really having much to do with his band of doughty session men. There was no life to it.

But I stood in the middle of a crowd in rapture. Some swayed, lost in the music, some wept. Some gave themselves up to wild excitement. And I stood among people having a near-religious experience. And not feeling it. Ready to catch someone.

Of course, it didn't matter if the gig was bad. He could have stood there twanging a rubber band to the tune of “Rainy Day Women Nos 18 and 35” (not actually terribly far from what it was like, to be honest) and no one would have cared. Because it was Bob Dylan, there in the flesh. Don't underestimate that.

I saw the Polyphonic Spree play live once, in 2003, at their commercial peak. It was at the Greenbelt Festival, and they were the musical headliners. They'd just followed a rather disappointing set by Billy Bragg, who I'd seen before, and better; I'd been looking forward to seeing the Polyphonic Spree for a while, and they were terrific, joyful, and as much as the Dylan gig is still one of the worst I've attended, that show is still one of the best.

But a strange thing happened to me part-way through. I had begun to lose myself, to raise my hands and give myself up to the wave of joy that had taken the audience. I began to feel a sort of ecstacy. And then I became aware of that, and I stopped myself. And I lowered my hands. And I clapped and cheered, and I enjoyed the music and the crowd happily losing their heads around me. But I kept myself together. I kept apart from it. But it's the closest I ever got to that feeling in any venue, religious or musical.

Bob Dylan. Polyphonic Spree. Toronto Blessing. Doesn't matter. I'm always separate at these times. Always apart.

Reach for the sun
The Polyphonic Spree have, since they started up in Dallas in 2000, produced what they call “orchestral pop”. They're a big band with a constantly shifting lineup, boasting at times as many as 28 members; now, much less of a thing than they were, they're probably remembered for having been the band St Vincent/Annie Clark got her start in as much as anything else.

Their first album, The Beginning Stages of... The Polyphonic Spree (2002) was hugely popular, so much so that they became a punchline in discussions among the music nerds on the forum I frequented. Fault lines were drawn by the question of whether you thought the Polyphonic Spree were a work of unironic genius or a terrible hipster novelty act.

The momentum continued somewhat into their 2004 album Together We're Heavy, which had the odd conceit of continuing the numbering of the first album, so the first album had “Sections” one through ten; the second 11 through 20; this continues through the third and fourth albums too. While that gives a sense of continuity and works to suggest an ongoing artistic statement and a consistent body of work, I'm not convinced that's a particularly smart move from a marketing standpoint, and no way to bring in new fans. Certainly, by 2007 and the release of The Fragile Army, they'd already entered for many people an “Oh wow, those guys, are they still going?” phase. I didn't even realise until recently that there was a fourth album – Yes, It's True (2013) – let alone a Christmas album (2012, Holidaydream: Sounds of the Holidays, Vol. One).

Although always intended as a serious ongoing concern, the Polyphonic Spree really did have something of the novelty act about them. You had an orchestra, incorporating the instruments you'd find in a regular rock band, but with harp, flute, brass, a theremin, a tympani and so on. Their music is choral, and huge, and in the first two albums is almost entirely upbeat. Nearly every song on The Beginning Stages of… speaks to the daylight, the sunshine: “Have a Day”, “Light and Day”, “Hanging Around the Day”, “It's the Sun” and so on.

This focus on the numinous forces of nature, the celebratory choruses that inspire singing along in the congregated audience, would be enough to make the group seem somehow a bit churchy. But the aesthetic of the group seals the deal. In the first few years, that meant everyone wore choir robes; later that meant black uniforms, and in the last few years more elaborately matching outfits. And all of these factors together, combined with band leader Tim Delaughter’s playful noncommittal on the subject in interviews, gave the group the look of a cult.

Sure, a cuddly, friendly, happy, benign cult made of goofy hipsters, but with the signifiers of cultic worship. Hymns to nature. Quasi-religious dress. Leading the audience rather than playing to them.

You can see this in See the Beginning Stages of... The Polyphonic Spree, which is a short, tightly edited concert film which was released on DVD accompanying a reissue of The Beginning Stages Of… Very simply, the Spree play a stage in London. Jarvis Cocker comes on stage and dons a robe, and joins the collective, and it's all very jolly. He's playing the part, it's all in good fun. And it's clearly play, clearly a joke everyone is in on.

But because it carries the signifiers of New American Religion, it has an edge to it. So you have the choral robes, and the dechristianised hymns, with their pagan, numinous subjects – the Light, the Day, the Sun – and the slight sense of dissonance that produces, the slight feeling that this is somehow off, gives the whole thing a thrill, the slightest edge of the sinister. We're afraid of cults, we are, but the cathartic act of participating in a sort of mass role-playing, of being in a Revival Meeting with no actual revival, has a frisson to it. A sense of the perverse. It doesn't matter how goofy and benign the Polyphonic Spree were, their gigs felt the closest you could get to the hysteria of charismatic religion without having to believe. You could go wild, feel moved by the spirit, worship the sun, and possibly even have a transcendent experience, and then go home and, you know, not have to be in a religion.
In any really thrilling rock gig, or even, in the case of that Dylan gig, a terrible one if the artist is right, people can enter ecstasies, and they have done since the days of Elvis and the Beatles. When in 1966 John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he was, for once, not talking bullshit. He knew what he meant. He could see it any time he went on the stage.

But what the Polyphonic Spree did in their heyday was to highlight this exact phenomenon and overtly accept the parallels. Music gigs are transcendent, so let's just own it. Here we had a band that, in its imagery, did exactly what any number of wretched contemporary worship acts (I'm looking at Delirious? here, for example) had been trying to do, and achieved the essence of it, the idea of it, without the pesky baggage of the religion. And in doing that, in creating a religious experience without any religion in it, they crafted a sort of interactive theatre of worship.

Any reasonable account of the work of the Polyphonic Spree has to accept that they were always immeasurably more as a live act than they ever have been on record, and that's because the audience is an integral part of the show, that a band dressed like a religious group, singing hymnic songs, leads its audience like worship leaders. It's always been interesting to me that the most hostile opponents of the band among the people I've seen have been Christians, and I wonder if the reason for that is they see right through the artifice, and find the act of worship disturbing when there's no specific object.

It is a little disturbing. I have always felt that the genius of the band is that there's nothing whatsoever in the band's songs or image to suggest edginess, and yet there is an undeniable edge, because in joining in, you're playing at being a member of a sect. And why should there not be? As their star has fallen they've become the quintessential cult band.