Monday, 28 April 2014

You are sleeping; you do not want to believe

I was listening to 'Rubber Ring' by the Smiths recently, one of my favourite Smiths songs. It was originally just a B-side (wow, remember those?) on the back of 'The Boy With A Thorn In His Side', one of the singles from 'The Queen Is Dead', but it got an album release on the 1987 compilation 'Louder than Bombs'. Anyway, as it played out there are several samples intercut with the music. One is a man with a bit of a plummy BBC Received Pronunciation accent saying something like; "everybody's clever nowadays", and then as the music finishes there is a woman with an equally cut glass accent clearly intoning; "You Are Sleeping; You Do Not Want to Believe. You Are Sleeping."

Now as I say it is obviously sampled from somewhere, and as you do, I began to idly wonder where Morrissey might have got it from. I've probably wondered that dozens of times, every time I've listened to the track, but in previous decades that would be as far as it went, as unless you had the album to hand and it was credited on the sleeve notes you'd just never know. Now, however, for better or worse the internet has liberated us from that kind of idle speculation and 30 seconds' Googling led me to a Smiths fan forum, where the truth was laid bare, and it turned out to be more interesting than I had thought.

In fact the woman's voice was from a 7" flexi-disc (those were thin, floppy, disposable vinyl records for those of you below the age of 35) distributed with the English translation of a book called; 'Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment In Electronic Communication With the Dead', by a Latvian parapsychologist called Konstantins Raudive, then working in Sweden and Germany. The book was published in 1971 but detailed work conducted in the 1950s with what is now known as Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). The woman is - I imagine - an actress or staff member paid to read transcripts of what the 'dead' are 'saying' for greater clarity, as the recordings themselves are very indistinct, and intriguingly the message that the Smiths purloined for Rubber Ring actually purports to be one from Raudive's dead Swedish colleague, Dr Gephardt Frye (although given that Raudive spent his entire life pursuing this ephemeral pseudo-phenomenon, as a judgement upon him from beyond the grave it seems a bit harsh, frankly). The full version of the flexi-disc can be found at this illuminating site, with its sleeve notes, and makes for mildly diverting listening. The woman speaking the piece used on the Smiths track is about 60% of the way through the first side.

I first became aware of EVP after reading 'Legion', by William Peter Blatty, at a time when I was devouring occult books of any description. Blatty was the man who wrote The Exorcist, and Legion, published in 1983, was the 'official' sequel. There had been a rather hammy sequel film in 1977 called The Heretic, where Linda Blair reprised her role as Regan, the possessed child, now all grown up, and with Ri-Chard Bur-Tonnn as a priest trying to help her deal with Pazuzu, an African spirit who is in the film identified as the 'demon' from the first film. The Heretic, is, however, fairly terrible, and Blatty wisely disassociated himself from it.

Legion, though, is a much more subtle book which takes the police detective from the first book/film (William Kinderman, written as a kind of Jewish Columbo) and Father Dyer, a friend of Father Damen Karras (the priest from the first film), and takes them through the realisation that the demon is still around, now possessing the body of Father Karras, and using it to commit terrible crimes as the 'Gemini Killer', an obvious reference to the 'Zodiac Killer' who terrorised San Francisco and parts north in 1969-71 and who was never caught. Legion eventually got made into a film as 'The Exorcist Part 3' in 1990, but while it's ostensibly about demons and the fight between good and evil, the book is actually mostly Blatty, a committed Catholic (no great surprise there), working through his own personal theology via the mouthpiece of Detective Kindermann. At one point Kindermann becomes interested in EVP as a way of unlocking the murder of a doctor who was into the phenomenon, and starts trying to recreate it, although he eventually decides it's the works of dybbuks (oy!) and throws the apparatus away. Interestingly, not only was the Zodiac Killer active at the same time that Blatty was writing the original Exorcist, it was also the same time that Raudive's book came out, and I suspect there's no coincidence they both make it into Blatty's sequel.

Anyway, as an impressionable 17/18 year old as I was, having rejected religion but keen on finding meaning in the cosmos, and experimenting (dabbling, I guess is the word) with the occult, this seemed to me to be something worth exploring, and so I started making EVP tapes myself. Unfortunately this tended to involve setting a tape machine to record nothing, and then spending hours with a pair of headphones listening back to see if you could hear anything. Hours of tape hiss (Dolby in or out? Another one to baffle the youngsters) and the occasional squeak of a tape wheel, straining to hear something. And of course eventually you do. I convinced myself I could hear a man saying "a warm welcome" at one point, and a woman saying dismissively "stupid". Of course these voices are not on the tape - they are in your head. The random noises of the tape become an audio version of a Rorschach ink blot. Just as our eyes are built to recognise faces and objects, and so tend to impose such order on random visual input like flames and clouds, so our ears are built to recognise human voices most of all, and can sometimes hear them where they don't exist. I swiftly grew bored with EVP, discovering that, like the occult, it was a load of old bollocks, and left it behind me, but listening to the mp3 version of the 'Breakthrough' record brought it all flooding back. Most interesting of all to me is the thought that Morrissey might have been doing exactly the same thing as me in a room in Salford at almost exactly the same time, as Rubber Ring was made just two years after my own brief flirtation with EVP, although it has to be said that the song itself is not about anything like that, it's about nostalgia and the way we cling to old songs as time goes by like a novice swimmer clings to a rubber ring. A post-modernist might try arguing that Morrissey is clinging in the same way to the hope of life after death, but I wouldn't go that far.

And besides, just go back to the tape of Breakthrough and listen again to those 'voices', without the pre-judgement of deciding that they are voices, and what do they really sound like? Like the random tape noises that they are; electrical and mechanical graunches and groans that are an artifact of the recording process (remember these were made in the 50s, so presumably with an old reel to reel recorder), almost impossible to duplicate with modern digital recording methods. In a way they are almost the inverse phenomenon of the camera 'orbs' - dust motes caught in a flash that are only picked up now we all use digital cameras. It seems to me that it is no coincidence that interest in EVP has declined in the digital age, just as it is no coincidence that interest in 'orbs' has increased. Each is an artifact of the technology being used.

So maybe the woman is right; perhaps I Do Not Want To Believe, but I would argue that, unlike the adherents of EVP, I am not sleeping.

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