Another in an occasional series in which concerts I’ve been to are used as a pretext to recall formative experiences with the artist in question. This is not a live review but a reminiscence, an extract from an autobiography that will never be written.
I was never a big fan of John Peel. I listened to his show, of course, as so many British people did whose musical tastes ventured beyond the mainstream. I would listen in the dark, after my parents had said goodnight to me, with my head and the radio under the duvet so they couldn’t hear. Once I listened to the whole of Peel’s Festive Fifty, and I remember Joy Division’s chilling “Atmosphere” being number 1. That puts it at 1981, when I was fourteen. In general, though, I would only listen to the start of the show at 10.00pm, when Peel would read out a list of the artists he was going to play that night over the show’s dust-dry theme tune. Most of the names meant nothing to me, and I would turn off the radio and fall asleep soon afterwards.
Indie pop, Peel’s stock-in-trade, never did much for me, nor indeed did any of the other genres relentlessly championed by the man. One night in 1985, though, I heard him play a song that made an instant and deep impression on me. It was a slow, funereal tune, with frosty bugle calls that somehow evoked images of dark, snow-covered European forests. Delivered in a strangely distant, anonymous-sounding voice, the words added to the song’s atmosphere of mystery and desolation: “Your alleyway, your terror glistens with despair/Dead meat and error, the only crown I’ll wear/From the ashes of liars grow the flowers of hope/From the steeples and spires/Hang each tear from a rope.” I was mesmerized by this song, which Peel announced as “Come Before Christ And Murder Love” by Death in June. I went hunting for it in Salisbury’s record shops, and surprisingly found it (on 12 inch, no less) in a place on Fisherton Street. The cover, with its death’s head symbol and inverted rune and the complete lack of any information other than the artist and title, deepened the mystery still further. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had just received my introduction to the British post-industrial underground, or what David Keenan was to term England’s hidden reverse – a strand of music that was to become hugely important to me as the years wore on.
Keenan’s book scarcely touches upon Death in June, partly because they don’t really fit the book’s thesis, but also because Douglas P. did not wish to be interviewed for it. The omission is regrettable, since Pearce looms large in the story of Current 93 in their pivotal years during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the reasons I’ve always cherished Death in June is that I was listening to them for a full six years before I even became aware of Current 93. It was only when I travelled up to London for my first Death in June concert, at the New Cross Venue in 1991, that I encountered Current 93, who were second on the bill (above Sol Invictus, about whom the less said the better). C93 were great that night, but DIJ were truly exceptional.
Over the next few years I saw Death in June play live several times. Concerts included Charlton House in London, a chance encounter in Prague (where I had gone for a week’s holiday, and happened to see a poster advertising the gig in the window of a record shop), the Powerhaus in Islington (during which Douglas P. had a glass thrown in his face by an audience member) and, for what I think was probably the final time until last week, the Camden Underworld, at which Pearce was joined for the encore by Patrick Leagas and Tony Wakeford for a fleeting reunion of the original line-up.
Throughout that time Death in June appealed to me on a number of levels: the lyrics, the music and the aesthetics and iconography employed by Douglas P. Clearly, the project was conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk in which sound, text and visual imagery all inform and reinforce one another. The group’s early musical trajectory sees the first post-Crisis records shading into the dance-influenced Nada! and from there to what I regard as their twin masterpieces, The World That Summer and Brown Book. These two albums, for me, capture the essence of Death in June: dark clouds of acoustic guitar, emotive flourishes of brass, atmospheric effects, driving percussion and solemnly intoned texts evoking sacrifice, kinship and heroism. Drenched in sublime and dreamlike imagery, I found this whole approach to be remarkably seductive and powerful. On the mid-period albums But What Ends When the Symbols Shatter? and Rose Clouds of Holocaust, Pearce ditched some of that stylistic diversity in favour of a more unadorned acoustic approach, with a slight but appreciable loss of impact. 1998’s Take Care & Control was weaker still, and after that I bailed out completely.
It would be remiss of me at this point not to briefly address the issue of fascism which has bedevilled Pearce throughout his career. My position is clear: I am agnostic on the question of Douglas P’s political beliefs, for the simple reason that he has never, to my knowledge, made any kind of public statement regarding them. It is, I believe, a grave error to presume to know what those beliefs may be on the sole basis of lyrics, symbolism, iconography and whatever other props have been used to label Pearce as a Nazi. Death in June is not a political project; no ideological agenda is advanced and no critique is offered. It is this lack of critique that gives Douglas P’s detractors much of their ammunition. It is a dereliction of duty, the argument runs, to simply ‘explore’, ‘investigate’ or ‘be interested in’ the history and aesthetics of fascism without making one’s position on the matter clear. Indeed, the refusal to state a position is seen as tantamount to taking up a pro-Nazi position. In other words, if Pearce doesn’t explicitly come out against fascism, then given his use of Nazi and related imagery he must be a fascist himself. It should be clear by now that I regard this argument as without merit. I neither know nor care what Pearce’s political views are; they are irrelevant to the way in which I respond to the music of Death in June.
And so, finally, to Death in June’s two concerts in Vienna last week, part of what is being touted as their last ever tour of Europe. On the first evening there was a semi-private solo performance in a restaurant, at which I was lucky enough to be one of the 40-odd people in the audience. Pearce confessed that he had never before played in such an intimate space, and there were enough fluffed lines and hesitant moments to confirm that there were a few nerves going around the room. That said, Douglas P. was relaxed enough to play several requests, including one for “Come Before Christ And Murder Love”. You can probably guess where that one came from.
Any such butterflies were well and truly banished the following night, as Pearce was joined by percussionist John Murphy for a full-scale Death In June show in the unexpected but very attractive setting of the Gerstenboden, an upstairs hall within the walls of the Ottakringer Brauerei. For someone who claims not to enjoy doing concerts, Pearce certainly comes across as a striking and powerful performer. The intimidating Venetian mask is worn for the first few songs, while he and Murphy hammer out colossal martial rhythms on the drums, summoning an aura of blank, affectless cruelty that is never quite dispelled. Elsewhere, the cavernous sound of the twelve-string acoustic guitar forms the basis for Douglas P’s exquisite horrorstruck lamentations. The performance seems to exist in a grim alternative Europe where beauty and dignity mingle physically with slaughter and betrayal. This is the troubling paradox of Death in June.