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Anniversary

25 Years On: The Young Gods' Debut Revisited
David Stubbs , May 22nd, 2012 06:29

David Stubbs writes about how the Swiss violence of The Young Gods debut album arrived in time to save him from fey C86 indie and "Bono's big white hat"

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25 years ago, in 1987, the English music scene felt debilitated by a certain, deliberate, postmodern smallness. The highly influential C86 cassette put out by the NME just months earlier set the indie tone – groups like The Wedding Present, Bogshed and pre-rave Primal Scream, dubbed the “shambling bands” by John Peel, were deliberately colourless, unambitious and low-key, retaining the provincialism of punk and post-punk but little of its energy or rage – a drizzle after the storm. The Housemartins from Hull were the pop epitome of this new dispiritedness – clever purveyors of wry, sidelong ditties. It was as if the music were beset by an inferiority complex, that new generations could aspire to be no more than pygmies mooching on the shoulders of dead giants. To reach for the sky, rather than into one's pockets, was considered unseemly, even pretentious, the worst thing one could possibly be. No air, no grace.

This stooped cultural tendency was exacerbated by the recent introduction of the sampler. Although this new technology opened up infinite possibilities, many of which would be pursued in time, it was initially used as a filching, quoting machine – the backbeat to James Brown's 'Funky Drummer' or Led Zep's 'When The Levee Breaks', or the retro-stream of M.A.R.R.S' 'Pump Up The Volume'. The overall effect of the sampler, as deployed in 1987, wasn't in general to undertake fresh sonic exploration but to wittily refer to the past, a halcyon, disappeared age of innocence and greatness destined to be alluded to in a new, perma-era of retro-gradism. The earnest cod-soul of the pop day, meanwhile, seemed to come in with a built-in, earnest, reproachful reminder that no modern music could possibly match the grainy greatness of Motown and 60s soul, of which it was almost a duty to generate inferior, worthily unworthy versions.

Fortunately, our weatherbeaten little Atlantic rock was buffetted from one side by the expansive likes of Sonic Youth, The Buttholes, Big Black (and from Ireland, My Bloody Valentine) and also from Europe, The Sugarcubes, Front 242, Einsturzende Neubauten and others, all of whom, in the different ways, dared to inflate, expand and rearrange notions of what rock could be, if it chose not to settle into the morose, trad-indie furrow.

The Young Gods were from Switzerland. They were formed in the mid-80s by Franz Treichler, a conservatoire-trained classical guitarist. However, while there was guitar noise aplenty in The Young Gods, they used no guitarist. Their initial line up was Treichler (vocals), Frank Bagnoud (drums) and Cesare Pizzi, who operated the sampler that supplied the remainder of their sound.

Released a quarter of a century ago, The Young Gods's eponymous debut album featured a cover in which the band were depicted as stick-men chalked onto a stone surface, like early cave paintings. Their line-up and approach were unprecedented. It was as if history began again with this record, this group. We weren't in Hull any more. Treichler bore some physical resemblances to Bono whose U2 had, with titles like The Unforgettable Fire, had pompously assumed the mantle of bearers of rock's pure late 80s flame. However, as Rattle And Hum, their 1988 would confirm in all its nauseating osmosis-masquerading-as-homage, they were in deadly, earnest retrospective thrall to rock's roots and origins, to Presley, BB King, to Bo Diddley, to antique soul and prepostmodern authenticity.

The Young Gods, by contrast, aspired to what might be called postpostmodernism. Though the turbulent, elemental sound spectacle they presented felt like Earth before the dinosaurs, The Young Gods's use of samplers was symbolic – they used artifice and synthesis, mechanically retrieving the sounds of the dead rock (and classical) past, but forging them in such a way as to create something bold, grandiose and absolutely new under the sun. “They have chosen the right time to rediscover fire,” I wrote at the time. “They are at once a funeral pyre and a giant ignition.”

The Young Gods certainly got their first hearing among the more inquisitive of those into goth and post-industrial and certainly, in their unabashed grandiosity, with titles like opener 'Nous De La Lune' (We Of The Moon), featuring tolling bells and Treichler's vomiting, bass growl, they were not short on portentousness. With its martial beat preceded by what sounds like the sounds of Martian heavy industry, it was, however, subtly unlike anything conceived by Throbbing Gristle's world of moral decay or Neubauten's deconstruction or Sisters Of Mercy's moshpit-friendly shape throwing.

This is affirmed by “Jusqu'au Bout”, whose juddering progress and exhaust fume sputters of revving guitar feel both quintessentially rock and yet, in its strange and visible joins, revealing that this is mechanically simulated, revolutionary. Treichler's melodramatic, pterodactyl-like screams again intimate that this a new prehistory is dawning here; an effect exacerbated on 'A Ciel Ouvert', in which the skies blacken and redden at time lapse photography speed. As with Jimi Hendrix's 'Voodoo Chile', the lyric is about unrestricted, infinite capability. “Stop the wind / with your teeth / Encircle the earth / Pay homage to your being."

Then comes 'Jimmy', which could be perceived as in tribute to either Hendrix or Page, both of whose volcanic contributions to rock history are referenced here; the mid-section reminds of the abrupt, reverberating detonation that punctuates Zeppelin's live version of 'Dazed And Confused'. But again, the straight ahead rotor effect of the riff, feels manufactured, freshly minted, could only have occurred as late as 1987.

On 'Percussione', there's a dialogue, a gladiatorial tussle between primitive, muscle-powered percussion and the synthetic variety, while on 'Feu', a looped riff crashes and burns over and over, as the track temporarily buckles under its own, lava-like intensity. The historical rules of progression, verse, chorus, are all suspended; America is no more, or has yet to happen. The Young Gods, insisted Treichler, represented “a quintessentially European idea of rock”.

'Did You Miss Me' is a temporary diversion, a Laibach-like version of Gary Glitter's 'Hello, Hello (It's Good To Be Back)', but ingeniously constructed from orchestral samples, and the “Yeah!!” chant a forgivably sly lapse into homage, drawn from a live album by fellow Zurich based innovators Yello.

The clouds lift hereafter, with early hit 'Envoye' driven by a fast-somersaulting guitar sample and hectic, motorik percussion. 'Irrtum Boys' is like some cubo-futurist take on Thin Lizzy's 'The Boys Are Back In Town', stabbing at you from all angles. 'C.S.C.L.D.F.', meanwhile, loops a Ruts riff to solemnly mesmeric effect, the sampler used to frame, maximise and preserve its energy, which on the original suffers a conventional death by ordinary progression and decay. The song is broken up by what sounds like a moment of instant, nuclear annihilation, before resuming.

The Young Gods did not achieve instant success; their Swissness, their insistence on singing in French all precluded a wider audience, while some looked askance at the sort of extravagant language heaped on the group by writers such as myself and approached them suspicious of hyperbole rather than open to experience. In 1991, they did achieve the pinnacle of their commercial success and were namechecked by the likes of Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie and even U2. They continued to record, achieving notable brilliance with 1995's Only Heaven, though today they are one comet among many in a dark sky of processed electronica/rock crossover.

I was afraid, coming back to the album and listening to it in full and in sequence that it would sound tinnily dated and disappointing in 2012, superseded by the sheer volume, capacity and weight of 21st century recordings – that it would seem significant only as a pivotal, if improperly acknowledged moment in the dialectical process. But no – crank it up and immediately I experienced again the rush of blood I felt as a young writer, having just interviewed the band in Zurich, heading to a cafe in the city that had been a Dadaist hangout back in 1916 in naïve search of psychogeographic inspiration, blackening a notebook with screeds of adjectival frenzy as the album raged on my headphones. It retains both its molten power and own, grandiose sense of purpose – the fire that came along to torch an entire era of white-socked hipsters, crewcut mumbling indie dullards, smirking ironists, lumpen, Luddite grebos and post-Live Aid white soul hegemonists and Bono's stupid big white hat.

Ged
May 22, 2012 10:54am

Ugh, hate that word 'provincialism', it's so patronising, so London media snob, so elitist.

Also what is this C86 you talk of? hardly fair to lump all those diverse bands under one fake NME banner when all the best UK noise stuff had been 2 years before- there was nothing dull about the Fall, Membranes, Fire Engines, early Sisters Of mercy (key influence on Big Black), Southern Death Cult and many others unless you want to rewrite history.

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Rooksby
May 22, 2012 11:04am

Stubbs, you berk... A Witness, Big Flame, The Shrubs, World Domination Enterprises, "fey"?
Bogshed were actually a rather fearsome live act, & far better to dance to than Young Gods' hilariously overwrought gothic posturing.
Cruically, Bogshed never wore leather waistcoats either, because they weren't pretentious Swiss ponces with outdated/misguided Jim Morrison fixations, OK?

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David
May 22, 2012 11:16am

In reply to Ged:

Er, there's nothing dull about The Fall, that's true, but who are these others you speak of? 'The Young Gods' stuck a knife in the side of music in 1987 and twisted it sideways. Thank God.

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Neil Kulkarni
May 22, 2012 11:17am

Great piece - The Young Gods sounded like no-one else, still don't: tremendously exciting to read about them and hear them in 87, just as it is to read & hear about them again NOW. I can also assure the poster above that Young Gods were utterly fantastic to dance to, live or played by a friendly DJ (rare, but my god, hearing Envoye through a club-system in the late 80s was awesome and I imagine still would be).

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Jon McArthur
May 22, 2012 12:30pm

I saw them at Hull Adelphi, on the same stage that the Housemartins had played a few years before. They were fantastic, only one spotlight taped to the mic pointing upwards, nothing else. The noise was like nothing I'd heard before. Saw them a few years later at Reading or Phoenix, and they looked lost on a big stage, but in a club, my god!

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lh
May 22, 2012 1:59pm

"today they are one comet among many in a dark sky of processed electronica/rock crossover."

Bullshit. They're still an amazing band.

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Wigan Pier
May 22, 2012 7:03pm

In reply to David:

Bollocks, frankly.

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bewarethemoon
May 22, 2012 7:40pm

I saw them in the early 90's at the Sheffield Leadmill, being a fan already for a few years it was amazing to see them in the flesh, and god, did they rock! the singer had the presence of Jim Morrison, and with a live drummer pummeling away at the skins, quite a spectacle.
Obviously, I didn't speak French, so the lyrics simply added to their mystique and utter uniqueness at that time.... pretentious? maybe, but they still rocked live

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Yuri
May 22, 2012 9:37pm

Last autumn I was back in my hometown, having a meal in a nice little bohemian restaurant. I knew the Young Gods were playing Geneva's premier alternative scene L'Usine. Enter Franz Treichler, looking aged since the first time I saw him hanging around the bar at said L'usine 20 years earlier but I still felt like a teenager with a crush.

I saw them live in the early 90's, at a small festival by a beach of Lake Geneva. My totally oblivious English gf (now wife) came along to indulge me. Then they played, for well over 2hours, starting at dusk. After the concert which I spent close to the scene, I met up with my gf, she only told me "They really are young gods" with eyes magnified by the music (and maybe drugs...). The day after, the serious local paper "Journal de Geneve" wrote a dytrhambic piece on them, it was named "Le songe electronique d'une nuit d'ete" - "An electronic mid-summer dream". Very apt...Yet, you would bump into Franz, acting as anybody else at the various squats of Geneva, chat with him. A modest genius and a lovely bloke.

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Tim Russell
May 23, 2012 1:30am

Great piece David. Saw them on the L'Eau Rouge tour in Morecambe (Morecambe!) in 1989, in some really crappy nightclub. The stage was in the middle of the dancefloor & of the 30 or so people who showed up, at least a 3rd left after about 10 minutes. But they were fucking brilliant. Interviewed Franz afterwards for our student mag - absolutely lovely bloke, sat & chatted to us for a good hour & also shared his post-gig fish & chips with us.

Saw them again a couple of years later on the TV Sky tour and they were even better.

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Rabbit Fighter
May 23, 2012 3:00am

In reply to Ged:

The Membranes were ALWAYS dull; one of numerous examples of a band with better ideas (idols) than the means to achieve them.

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defrost
May 23, 2012 4:01am

one of the best live band ever. saw them live twice in london. and one was an acoustic set. first time I've been really HIGH without using any kind of shitty drugs. they're musical geniuses, lots of respect!

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Lucas Regis
May 23, 2012 9:27am

Cross Zodiac Mindwarp with Laibach & what do you get? A pretentious industrial joke without a punchline (& Swiss, no less). Young Gods, in retrospect, were phenomenally awful, though I admit it's amusing to see how many ex-Melody Maker readers are obviously still listening to them - ha!

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Andy C
May 23, 2012 10:24am

In reply to Tim Russell:

I was there too! (excuse the slightly excitable use of exclamation mark). Hadn't heard anything by them before the gig, but had read Mr Stubbs' pieces on the band and their first album, so was expecting something special - and wasn't disappointed. A phenomenal performance, that flattened me with its hypnotizing externality. And I got a free copy of L'Eau Rouge.

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Ged
May 23, 2012 12:24pm

In reply to Rabbit Fighter:

not true, the Membranes were a big influence on may on us on the underground, a fearsome live band and with an original sound. The Young Gods were podgy, leather trousered Doors copyists beloved only by music journalists.

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ged
May 23, 2012 12:26pm

In reply to Rooksby:

Your comment is perfect.
The problem with the London music press is that they never went to gigs and rewrote music history to their own agenda.
Provincial. Pah!

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Mars
May 23, 2012 3:20pm

Head of David! That shit was raging AND hilarious.

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Rooksby
May 23, 2012 8:16pm

In reply to Mars:

Right fucking on! I'm digging my copy of Dogbreath out for a celebratory spin RIGHT FUCKING NOW.

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Ant
May 24, 2012 11:49am

In reply to Ged:

Doors copyists I can see only in them covering the Alabama Song and a similar vocal style. Everyone's got their influences and the Young Gods were pretty open about it, naming themselves after a Swans song and all. This is no way a slight to The Membranes but they wouldn't have existed without The Stranglers in that same way (and without them Mick Harris might not have done what he did). Neither band are copyists, though. The C86 is purely an easy, lazy journo slag-tag though - and fair play, we need labels as shorthand to talk about things, but it certainly wasn't all the twee rubbish its made out to be in hindsight.

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jsd
May 25, 2012 12:43am

David, I'm pretty sure it was your review I read 25 years ago that made me get their stuff in the first place. LOVED IT. So, thanks for that. I can't wait to get home and listen to it all again. Longue Route Comete!!!!!

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Simon Biddell
May 25, 2012 9:37am

You can hear echoes of YG in Skrillex, even Rammstein amongst many others. Awesomely great record. Overlooked - liked Yello - methinks because of their country of origin.

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Ding
May 30, 2012 3:19pm

This is the 2nd article by Mr Stubbs that I have read recently that seems totally unresearched. Having done a hatchet job of bands that begin with the letter 'A' in John Peel's record collection, he once again writes about a band's past releases whilst referring to them in the past tense. Yes, the Young Gods debut LP is a great record, but they released possibly their best to date last year, but this article would have you believe they are long defunct. Lame journalism. Good review.

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John Doran
May 30, 2012 4:12pm

In reply to Ding:

Only a fucking idiot would claim Everyone Knows was in contention for bet YGs album. Stubbs says the band continued recording - nowhere does he say they've split up. All anniversary pieces are written in the past tense because... Christ, you can work out why - what tense would you have us write it in? Future perfect? And it came out in 2010 not 2011. Why not get your own house in order before bringing your shit round here.

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Rob Patrick
May 31, 2012 7:50am

As much as I love this album I feel that the second album L'eau Rouge is their masterpiece. I was listening to it yesterday and it still sound fantastic. I'd recommend checking it out if you've not heard it.

There is a documentary about the Young Gods called 'Lonely Pioneers' that unfortunately as far as I'm aware it's not available in English that I would love to see. You can find the trailer here: https://vimeo.com/32401043

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Jun 1, 2012 12:41pm

as with previous commenters, i was at the Hull Adelphi show too :) and whilst it was back to...oh, Bridewell Taxis supported by Bob (or similar) the following week, for a night at least we breathed Alpine air. i'd argue that L'eau Rouge is stronger, and perhaps their pinnacle, but anything that sends people back to the debut reinvigorated is very much welcomed. your advocacy changed my life at 16, David Stubbs xxx

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John Doran
Jun 1, 2012 1:41pm

In reply to :

I don't want to be pedantic but I actually remember the week's programming after the Young Gods at Hull Adelphi and I think it included Pussy Galore and Primal Scream.

And Bob were a great band.

My point being that Jacko and Mr Nutter ran a great venue in those days. Maybe they still do, I have no idea.

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Ron
Jun 4, 2012 7:29pm

Jim Thirlwell (!) just sayin'

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Johnny Nothing
Jun 8, 2012 10:46pm

L'eau Rouge is where they really nailed it. That and the Kurt Weill thing. Still haven't heard anything quite like those two and they never matched them again. Other bands around that time doing interesting things with samplers: Cranes, MBV, Cocteau Twins since whenever, Carter, yes Buttholes (Locust Abortion Technician going further still) (et al, sure there were a couple more but it's been a long week) and at the time I don't think I even fully understood how these things were being made!

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Rory
Jun 18, 2012 10:31am

Yep, great album, again. My missus hadn't heard them now she is listening to them as she runs in the gym, 25 years later. They still have it.

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Deus Ex Maschina
Jun 20, 2012 11:42am

Great article - weren't YG a Melody Maker Band of the Year or something back in the 80's ? YG are still a very necessary and totally relevant band in 2012 - correct - and live they have always been sonically amazing - Skinflowers live is guaranteed to be a total release of energy and emotion.

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Jan 24, 2013 11:19am

Also, they gave some of the best shows I've seen!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6C_6yP5s0eA

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Blunt
Jan 24, 2013 8:21pm

Shame on this record and band for convincing a whole generation of Swiss kids they could have a music career in their own country ;)

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Mike H
Dec 16, 2013 11:34am

Saw them last night, the first time being at that Reading Festival. 23 years gap melted away, the music is just as powerful. Threw myself around a fair amount but by the end I realised I was standing completely stock still just staring at the stage, letting the music wash over me. Still the best.

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Peter Sijbenga
Mar 16, 2014 10:51pm

Lovely revisiting here. Your 1986 observation nails it!

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