An Open Wound: Swans’ Cop Revisited

Catharsis was just another word for sonic dismemberment, says Ned Raggett about this 1984 noise rock album from Swans

2014 seems to be the year of Swans. Or at least a year of note. To Be Kind, the third album since the reactivation of the name, entered the US charts in the honest to God top 40, fans are slavering over the upcoming tour, the album’s premiere stream was even hosted at NPR, the de facto ‘tasteful’ American national radio network and still seen to be mostly a home of earnest political discussions and profiles. So the presence of Michael Gira howling "TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE" via said network, at least online, is as much as an indicator that the outsiders become inside, given time, generational turnover, elder statesmen talk and so forth.

Try that in 1984. Try that with Cop, the band’s second overall album. The thirty-years-previous radio audience would have, to say the least, objected. Or at least sent in querulous notes asking for more Garrison Keillor-introduced banjo music.

In a way, the return to Swans for Gira is the return to his deep past, a time of extreme intensities often at high volume, untempered by Jarboe’s own focused power and control. But they are different beasts – the full band exultance of the current line-up grows out of his late Angels Of Light work, it bespeaks tradition and lineage. Cop wasn’t the start of Swans, but it represented the non-tradition of the band soon after it began, Gira’s own desires to destroy and then destroy what was destroyed. It was no wave as rock exhibitionism, something that presumed the beyond-rock-as-such of distant avatars like Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Neubauten could be matched by a ‘traditional’ rock line-up, if you wanted to call it that, but slowed down, blown out from the inside, uninterested in easy appeal. It wanted your body, broken, your soul, consumed, your blood, spattered. Catharsis was just a kind word for sonic dismemberment.

Thinking about New York City in 1984 is for me a question of tourism – living upstate as a young teenager, visiting family friends for Thanksgiving, the Macy’s parade, the Rockettes, even a Broadway production (Jerry Orbach played Julian Marsh in 42nd Street, and the man was a star – RIP Law And Order’s Lennie Briscoe). I was cosseted. All the later knowledge of the city and how it was viewed by those who lived there, from Larry Kramer’s howling at an indifferent society ignoring a plague to the street art/high art celebrations and critiques of Basquiat and Haring to Madonna communicating a home-grown fuck you aesthetic to the top of the charts, that was something else, learned and informed and created by the oppressed and the dead. (The dead are still dead. The oppressed? They just got priced out and ignored.)

Not that Swans were a protest band per se. Or even politicised per se, though definitely political. Gira’s own memories of music reached back to earlier forms of celebration and opposition that outraged and appealed. There was Jim Morrison’s booming performance pieces (Gira once said “Of course, he’s pretty corny on the page, but it works with the music. I used to listen to the Doors over and over, in various mental states”), Pink Floyd describing inner trips toward outer blackness, much more besides. Starting points and, these days, new extensions, but when he began Swans he did so without the powers of labels like Elektra and EMI as support, and Ed Sullivan performances were out of the question. Inspired by punk, ignoring its own rules, poking into the swirl of ideas that became the legendary ‘New York’ of Downtown 81, then growing louder and noisier in the wake of Branca and Chatham and alongside some similarly not-entirely-spring-chickens called Sonic Youth (Lee Ranaldo contributed to the sleeve art of Cop), the result was vivid darkness, enacted power structures, seeking to use rock’s seeming dead end to describe the dead hand of societal oppression, a boot stomping on guitar strings, forever.

It wasn’t just Gira, of course: Roli Mosimann’s own feet and hands were the ones pounding the drums like he was directing a slave galley, Norman Westberg was playing the guitar like it was the ‘shaver’ on the cover of Frank Zappa’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh – except maybe broken and even more damage-causing – Harry Crosby did the bass noises that wanted to cause involuntary muscle spasms. Gira himself added tape loops and further effects in production to make the whole thing even more off, less like getting on stage and kicking out the jams and more like a queasy internal malfunction, a slow motion version of the exploding head in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. The opening ‘Half Life’ is enough of an existential horror show in sound thanks to the band’s slow, drawn out work setting the tone for the whole album even before Gira says a word. Cop is music to direct and dominate, not entice except by muted acceptance, with Gira as the apparently willing or at least clearly aware victim, somewhere between Bataille and whoever answers some of the more unusual Craigslist requests.

The lyrics are pronouncements, statements of means and limits, lack of independence, baldly stated reductions from subtlety to utter bluntness. Consider ‘Your Property’: "I give you money – you’re superior. I don’t exist. You control me." In almost any other hands, a slogan or just terrible poetry, but keep that observation about Jim Morrison in mind, because nothing could work with the music more perfectly. The collective experience of Swans as recording unit transforms such a lyric into a rendering of capitalism that renders, not leaving much but the fat and bones (and selling that if possible). Punk as such would have plenty of negative songs about the police before and since Cop – and N.W.A.’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’ was just four years in the future – but the title track is an apotheosis in degradation on that front, where one of the gentler sentiments runs "Nobody rapes you like a cop in jail." The by now familiar slow, steady roll (though not necessarily swing) of the music builds to a rampaging end.

A problem with extremity is one of potentially lessening impact over time, or something so outrageous that it becomes solely humorous instead of blackly humorous, and that black humour was always there, cold but clear. In many ways, the path of Gira and his collaborators as they changed over time had to leave where Cop was, to find alternate paths to the beyond, and the result was a richer series of albums and partnerships than an end with Cop would have ever allowed for. Meantime, others took the example of Cop and found their own paths – just two examples include Justin Broadrick’s tortured slow grinds in Godflesh and the Young Gods’ twisted epics as produced by Mosimann in their early days, intent signalled further by the band being named after a Swans song and EP that immediately followed Cop. By existing, by capturing a seething rejection as Grand Guignol on the Lower East Side, Cop feels less like a distant past than a still open wound, in a city and society that tries to bury 1984 in numerous memory holes.

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