Saturday, October 5, 2013
Analysis: The Skids and Their Influence on Neofolk/Martial Music
With a review under my belt it’s now time to try my hand at some critical writing, a foray into the actual understanding of these cryptic genres of music. Where to begin? There are so many places to jump from, such as trying to piece together a history from its post-industrial roots to comparing and contrasting different aesthetics. My personal library at hand to research is somewhat limited, it being more aligned to film and Italian studies. But on the other hand, existing material is fleeting anyways, so I can really start wherever.
So throwing the hypothetical dart at the board, I’ve hit “influences”. In this essay I will tackle from what I perceive the apparent influences that the Scottish punk band The Skids had on neofolk and military pop music. It should be low key enough to get some ideas flowing, but substantial enough to make a legitimate claim.
The Skids, either directly, or indirectly as part of the greater punk movement of the 1970s, had a profound influence on the neofolk and military pop genres of music.
Section 01 – The Skids (Extremely Brief Overview)
The Skids were a Scottish punk band active in the very late 1970s and early 1980s, but never reaching quite the level of fame that The Sex Pistols or The Clash had at roughly the same era. They do have a minor cult following, but are probably more noteworthy for their successor band Big County, which spawned the multi country hit “In a Big Country”, until they fell into one hit wonder status. Both bands had Stuart Adamson, notable for being able to distort his guitar to make it sound like a bag pipe, giving both bands a distinct sound.
So how does an unassuming Scottish punk band have an influence on a seemingly unrelated scene decades later?
Section 02 – Symbols and Runes
The Skids, as one component of the larger punk movement of the 1970s, paved the way to make it acceptable to use fascist or Third Reich imagery in their artwork and promotional material. How the imagery has been used is multifaceted: from shock value, challenging established conventions, pure aesthetics, to “just because we can”. The most famous example is of The Sex Pistol’s Sid Vicious’ swastika shirt. Some punk bands of the time had stylized their names and logos in that the S in their name would mimic that of the sig rune, which was used by the Schutzstaffel (SS). Bands that had such stylizations include The Subhumans and The Skids.
This establishing of use acceptance back in the 1970s has been taken advantage of by a variety of musicians and projects since (Slayer for example), and the neofolk/military pop genre is no exception. The sig runes used by The Skids can be found in the iconography used by many popular bands in the scene. The first self titled Der Blutharsch vinyl single contains a sig rune front and center. The Von Thronstahl logo is a modified sun wheel made up of many small stylized sig runes.
By extension, rune use is rampant in the iconography used in the genre, from Death in June to Belborn to Of the Wand and the Moon.
In these regards, the punk bands helped lay this foundation, the neofolk bands are building on it.
Section 03 – Lyrics and Words
Lyrical content from The Skids has been directly utilized by neofolk artists, particularly Von Thronstahl. The song “A Day in Europa” from the album Days in Europa contains the following lyrics:
Hail to the mighty, the ritual begins
Hail to Apollo, the cleanser of sins
Hail to Europa, she always wins
These lyrics were appropriated by Von Thronstahl into their song “Adoration to Europa” on their Bellum, Sacrum Bellum!? album. “Adoration to Europa” in turn was covered by Rose Rovine E Amanti under the title “Adorazione Dell’Europa” on their album Rituale Romanum. Though the Von Thronstahl version has gained some traction and accepted by other bands as an anthem of sorts, it is still far out surpassed by the much well known, more revered, and more covered, “Runes and Men” by Death in June.
The song “The Saints are Coming” from The Skids’ debut album Scared to Dance was covered by Von Thronstahl in its entirety and appears as a bonus track on the limited edition version of Germanium Metallicum as well as the Conscriptum compilation album in a different version.
The track “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is based on the poem of the same name penned by Wilfred Owen, a solider and poet during World War I. This practice of using lyrics and poetry from soldiers/poets during the wars is a practice whole heartily adopted by various neofolk and martial bands. Ernst Jünger is probably the most popular subject, with an entire compilation dedicated to him (Der Waldgänger) that contains contributions from Werkraum, Von Thronstahl, Shining Vril, Luftwaffe, and Bleiburg. Other bands that draw from Jünger sources include Forthcoming Fire (“Heliopolis”) and Blood Axis (“Storms of Steel”). Sagittarius has drawn subject matter from Herman Hesse (“Valse Brilliante”), who like Jünger, served in the German Imperial Army during WWI.
Section 04 – Flirting with Fascism
The most overt influence The Skids bring to the neofolk and military pop genres is the overt flirtation with Nazi subject matter and nationalism. For The Skids, this is their album Days in Europa, a concept album about Germany in the late 1930s to the war years. For The Skids in terms of subject matter, this is a one off album, with their first and third albums (Scared to Dance and The Absolute Game respectively) being normal punk/Oi! albums without any overt theme, and their last album Joy being a folk album. There is a bonus release called Strength Through Joy which was controversial in name only (a reference of Kraft durch Freude), but it doesn’t carry the cohesive theme that Days in Europa does.
From cover art to lyrical content, Days in Europa is steep in Germanic mythos. The original album cover is a reference to the 1936 Olympics that was held in Berlin. The art style on the cover looks to be influenced by various propaganda posters of the era.
Though not every song on Days in Europa adds to the Germanic canon, a large selection does. The first song that adds to the theme is “Dulce et Decorum Est (Pro Patria Mori)” which translated means “it is a sweet and glorious thing (to die for one’s country)”. The song doesn’t have any direct Nazi or World War 2 references, but it is rife with military and solider references and has a slight nationalistic tinge to it.
"Working For The the Yankee Dollar" is completely overt in its Germanic and World War 2 subject matter. The song is lyrically complex and is difficulty to discern point of view, so it leads to a variety of interpretations. The person working for the yankee dollar could certainly be an American soldier recalling what we saw during the war. A particularly interesting lyric is as follows:
Saw a German son with a Yankee gun and a uniform much older
It should be noted that the stanza these lyrics are in started with “in Germany in the 45’”. With that in mind, the lyrics paint me a picture of Germany extremely late in the war, with conscripted youth using salvaged weapons (fallen American guns – the Yankee gun) and wearing uniforms intended for adults, or metaphorically these kids placed into an adult position (being combatants) when they should be kids. I recall the scene in Downfall as Allied troops advance into Berlin and the children manning mortars to fight them off.
“The Olympian” provides the musical and lyrical companion to the albums cover. These particularly lyrics carry a slight nationalistic undertone that can be applied to any country:
And all the banners, all the flank
And all the banners, all the flank say
Hey, hey – look at this man
Hey, hey – he’s Olympian
“Thanatos” is the daemon of death in Greek mythology, which coupled with “A Day in Europe” brings (see section 2 above) in some classical deities and lore into the fold. “A Day in Europe” also bringing some Euro-centric nationalism as well. “Peaceful Times” ends the album and recalls imagery in a post war Europe but before the Cold War would officially begin:
I casted out the image from my mind
Where did the mission say to leave a sign
On the tables, books of Paris, start to shine
Oh, the world ensembles as we dine
Let’s tal of Jackals and drink sweet wine
Peaceful times, Rome and Paris, are so fine
A bit of cleverness that should be pointed out, the final lyric of this song is “stand by me, in animation”, while the first track on the album is called Animation.
With the cover art and lyrical imagery, there was of course controversy. Mark Brennan, former bassist for the Oi! Punk band The Business, and also the head of Captain Oi! records wrote the following in the linear notes of the 2001 re-release of The Skids’ Days in Europa album on his label:
Shooting to No. 32 in the charts the album met with a mixture of controversy and critical acclaim. “Melody Maker” said “much improved effort by Scott Punk band in transit between street credibility thumping and art as exemplified by lead singer Richard Jobson’s obscure would be intellectual lyrics” whilst “Sounds” alarmingly thought the album had Nazi overtones because of the artwork depicting an Ayrian Olympian! Nevertheless the record was re-mixed and re-issued in a totally different sleeve even though Jobson told “Sounds”, “we checked things out very carefully, even the gothic script we used on the cover which supposedly has Nazi connotations but is actually Jewish!”
And concludes his linear notes with:
…despite personal upheavals and nonsense dodgy politics accusations still managed to come up with a classic album that over twenty years later still manages to hit all the right places.
The album was certainly remixed and re-released with different artwork (with the original hidden in the background).
The new version dropped the track “Pros and Cons” and added “Masquerade”, which had originally been released as its own single. Of the tracks on Days in Europa, “Pros and Cons” contains lyrics that are the least fascist and I can only assume it was dropped in favour of the far superior “Masquerade” track.
The cover art and the lyrics do certainly flirt with controversial concepts, and despite a reissue, there are no claims to The Skids being a Nazi, skinhead, or fascist band. On contrary, time has been good The Skids. The controversy surrounding Days in Europa seems almost a minor footnote and rarely referenced. The Skids would go on to influence many bands, and in turn be honoured by many as well. A particular example of them being honour is when popular bands U2 and Green Day joined forces and did a cover of “The Saints are Coming” in 2006 in response to Hurricane Katrina.
In the end what Days in Europa accomplishes is being The Skids foray intro examining Germanic and nationalistic themes. The subject matter is interesting, and The Skids take a stab at exploring it. Nowhere will one find endorsement from The Skids into the fascist themes, just fascination with an interesting, controversial, but important subject matter. And this is the case with the various neofolk and martial bands as well. What The Skids did with one album is what many neofolk and military pop bands do with all their albums.
Section 05 – Von Thronstahl as Transmitter
Even from all the above statements, proclaiming The Skids has had such an impact on the neofolk and military pop genres still seems farfetched since many of the examples seem like indirect correlation rather than direct correlation. In fact the most direct correlation with the neofolk and military pop genres is from the firmly illustrated Von Thronstahl/The Skids connection. It is this connection that acts as a funnel or a transmitter to instill the scene with the facets attributed to The Skids. This becomes more palpable if we look at this claim in historic chunks.
First, back in the 1980s, Von Thronstahl members Josef Klumb and Dennis Plummer were both active in the German punk scene, being part of bands Aus’98 and Circle of Sig-tiu. Note the Sig and Tiu symbols in the band logo, an already established trope:
This German punk scene of course being greatly influenced by previous punk scenes as well. The Skids surely must have had an impact on Josef K. at this early stage, since he would homage them so much later.
At the same time in the 1980s, the neofolk genre had not even formed yet. This was still in a post-industrial age. Death in June had not yet done But, What Ends When the Symbols Shatter?. The foundations were certainly being laid by Death in June and Current 93, but this decade still belonged to post-industrialism.
The 1990s is where the godfathers of neofolk music truly emerged. In this decade, Death in June and Current 93 were full into incorporating folk elements into their music, and many other major players were forming and entering the scene. Sol Invictus was now a major force, as was Blood Axis and The Moon Lay Hidden Beneath a Cloud. Von Thronstahl also formed in the late 1990s.
It was these bands in the 1990s that firmly had the direct impact to the influx of neofolk and military pop bands that would surface in the 2000s. It was during this period of rapid growth in technology, especially with the proliferation of social media (myspace, Facebook, etc) along the rise of more portable and less expensive music making equipment that these projects could be started. Many are still around, and even more were ephemeral and disappeared. Regardless, these waves of neofolk and military pop artists needed tropes and models to draw their own cues from, and the established bands from the 1990s provided just that.
Von Thronstahl turned to be a much more major force in the early 2000s, with band projects emulating or attempting to collaborate with them. It is via this conduit that Von Thronstahl was able to proliferate attributes originally from The Skids onto the bourgeoning neofolk scene, a hereditary carrier of music genes from parents to children. The installment of any additional punk ethos from Von Thronstahl would have also been reinforced parallel by Death in June, since Douglas P’s band prior to Death in June was Crisis, an English punk band form the late 1970s. Von Thronstahl brought the direct The Skids D.N.A. into the fold, both bands brought the rest of the punk elements.
Conclusion and Recap
1 – The Skids, along with several other punk bands of the 1970s, set the foundation to allow the incorporation of symbols and runes. The Skids in particular for the Sig rune.
2 – Lyrics of The Skids have been used by various neofolk acts.
3 – The Skids (along with other bands no doubt) made it acceptable to adopt poetry and literature originally penned by poets/soldiers.
4 – The Skids were able to explore or show an interest into fascism, war, Germanic, nationalistic themes via their Days in Europa album without themselves supporting or endorsing it. Neofolk and martial bands try and accomplish this with their music as well
5 – Von Thronstahl is the main funnel that carried the tropes from The Skids and into neofolk and martial music
One of the arguments against martial and neofolk music is that their flirtation with symbols and fascist imagery makes them a promoter of fascism. I do hope with this article I was able to demonstrate that this is rarely the case. The flirting with taboo subjects in music has gone on for decades, and selectively applying it as a negative quality to the martial music is disingenuous.
In the subject of The Skids – I like them! I don’t listen to too much punk music, but I got into them via the Von Thronstahl connection. My favourite song of theirs is “Masquerade”, but other songs I hold in high regard include “Animation”, “Charade”, “Sweet Suburbia”, “The Olympian” and “A Day in Europa”. The Captain Oi! releases of their albums are exceptionally nice, since they include full lyrics, essays, and singles tact on as bonus tracks. Recommended by yours truly.