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Album Of The Week

From Caustic To Cuddly: Memorials’ Music For Film
Matthew Horton , May 11th, 2023 09:26

Comprised of two very different soundtracks, one earthy and the other extra-terrestrial, Electrelane’s Verity Susman and Wire’s Matthew Simms debut as Memorials is a show of remarkable daring and versatility

Photo by Louise Mason

In Richard King’s 2019 book The Lark Ascending, a broad cultural history of Britain and its relationship with nature, a chapter is devoted to Greenham Common and the women who convened there in 1981 to protest the housing of the US Airforce’s nuclear arsenal, remaining on site in various configurations for the next couple of decades. King remarks upon the community’s essential anonymity, its avoidance of a recognisable spokesperson, and continues to protect it himself, offering contemporary quotes without attribution and celebrating – beside its extraordinary obstinacy of spirit – the camp’s adherence to collectivism. “Along with the wish for the earth to be rid of nuclear weapons,” King writes, “the defining characteristic of the Camp was its belief in leaderless, non-hierarchical, non-violent direct action”.

It's an attitude that feels like a hangover from the free love days, at odds with everything our pop historians tell us about the individualist 1980s. But all of that was real too. As the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was established at the end of a protest march from Cardiff in August 1981, in the more frivolous environs of the Top 40 frilly exhibitionists Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet were gaining a foothold in the charts’ upper reaches, the commercial triumph of a New Romantic movement that had first emerged a couple of years earlier. It was a scene about being seen, celebrating the self, not shielding it. That’s the restlessness of a culture in the shadow of the bomb.

Both these sides of a many-faceted era are brought to life and embellished in Memorials’ debut release, a double album of two movie soundtracks. Music For Film Part 1: Tramps! was composed for Kevin Hegge’s 2022 film of the same name, a decidedly non-nostalgic documentary of the faces and designers at the New Romantic vanguard from the end of the 1970s onwards, while Music For Film Part 2: Women Against The Bomb accompanies Sonia Gonzalez’s inside story of the Greenham Common camp, also released last year. Comprising the multi-instrumentalist duo of Electrelane’s Verity Susman and Wire’s Matthew Simms, Memorials themselves have the experience and imagination to let the albums stand apart from the films, but the context enhances them.

While both soundtracks are collaborations between the pair, Susman leads Women Against The Bomb, her voice regularly multitracked to evoke a choir, or – more appropriately – a group of Greenham Common campers assembled defiantly around a wire mesh fence. It’s hugely affecting, and unaffected. Opening track ‘Dark Green’ gathers all the Susmans straight away, a cadre promising the Greenham military presence they’ll “keep our eyes on you” over a mournful church organ, somehow carrying a sense of regret it’s come to this. It’s a song of unity and intent, effectively conveyed.

‘March To Greenham’ is equally vivid, interpolating lines from a letter written by Greenham activist Ann Pettitt, which was read aloud when the marchers arrived at the camp-to-be. “For every woman that you throw in jail,” Susman sings, “Another will come and another will come/And we’ll be more, more, more!” Its jolly dissent is reinforced by a rollicking tune, whistles, slide guitar and cantering beats – a cowboy clarion call at a new frontier. Later, in the insistent thrum of ‘Battle Lines’ and the menacing crawl of ‘We Will Fight’, the puffed-chest optimism has dissipated. Crashing cymbals, screams and squalling guitars drag the action along, the mood darkening, as if Susman and Simms are trying to achieve the aural equivalent of warpaint. It’s all swept away by the rousing, ramshackle, campfire folk of ‘Women Standing Strong’, accordions and handclaps bringing simple joy to the warning “We’re not going anywhere until you ban the bomb!” Straightforward, no nonsense.

Tramps! is considerably more oblique. On the whole, it takes its sonic cue from post-punk rather than the new pop suggested by the film, dirtier than the flashy 80s would turn out to be – and lyrically there’s no guiding message, no unifying purpose to hang your hat on. It’s the soundtrack to a documentary glorifying a period of creative audacity, unrooted and future-facing, so Simms and Susman go for it. If Women Against The Bomb is earthy, Tramps! is extra-terrestrial, stuffed with ideas beaming in from who knows where.

The wild title track combines screeching Magazine guitar, manic synth runs and entirely indistinct falsetto (apparently jabbering “Sodom, Sodom all the way”), before finishing with a jaunty seaside melody. It’s joined in anarchy by ‘Blue Feather Boa’ with its interstellar Vangelis soundscapes, scurrying drums and Susman’s skronking sax, and the itchy, bleeping robot rock of ‘What A Life’. There’s so much going on, why not throw in a panic attack too? No less dense, the blend of syncopated beats, rasping synths and reflexive bass is at least a little calmer on miniature prog epic ‘Kind Of Beyond’, and everything feels more familiar on the Wire-like – but still incredibly exciting – ‘Peacock Punk’.

There’s common ground between the two soundtracks – and, daresay, Susman and Simms’ respective approaches – in the mesmeric drone of Tramps!’ ‘Feel Of Time’ and Women Against The Bomb’s ‘Peacemaker’. But, coming at the end of Tramps!, the real crossover point might be ‘Boudicaaa’, an absolutely magnificent shot of mayhem honouring “queer” Queen Boudica (and the Queen of Sheba, Joan of Arc, Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth I and her “lezzers in waiting”). After all, wasn’t Boudica a woman leading a tribal uprising against the weapon of mass destruction that was the Roman Empire? Although perhaps with less peaceful, law-abiding strategies than the Greenham community.

So, connections are tenuous, but the soundtracks and their films at least celebrate groups united by a time, a determination to succeed in an uncertain environment, few tangible means and no obvious outcome beyond their existence. It’s just one had a cause, the other clothes. What really pulls the threads together is Susman and Simms’ daring and versatility. From the caustic to the cuddly, this is a debut of impressive breadth, at once alien and human, fusing their talents for the sake of the collective.