The Final Warning: Three Decades After This Heat’s Deceit

Thirty years after the release of This Heat's Deceit, John Calvert re-examines a record that embraced the Cold War terror of ultimate destruction - and made something far more complex, humane and moral than mere hatred

1981 was, you could say, the end of the beginning. January of that year and, just as Young Marble Giants split, ABC breach the Top 20, as do U2 and Duran Duran. Soon afterwards The Human League pull the rug on the entire edifice, reshaping the face of chart music forever with Dare. Across the water the second incarnation of No Wave rises to prominence in New York just as the city’s mutant disco scene collapses with the demise of Ze Records. Meanwhile, back in the UK, Green Gartside writes ‘The Sweetest Girl’, Visage hit pay dirt with ‘Fade to Grey’ and New Order release ‘Everything’s Gone Green’, planting the seed for what would eventually become Madchester and generation ecstasy.

Curtis is dead a year, PiL are disintegrating and both Magazine and Gang of Four have in separate fashion sabotaged their TOTP appearances, destroying their first and last chances for mainstream infiltration. Throbbing Gristle go in June, MTV premiers in August, and Devoto escapes into the dead of night as Magazine call time in September – the same month ‘Tainted Love’, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and ‘Prince Charming’ top the charts (the latter for four consecutive weeks). Despite some eleventh hour tremors in the first quarter – amongst them The Fire Engine’s debut and the apical Solid Gold – by the end of the year post-punk was dead and New Pop reigned. In December ‘Don’t You Want Me’ made it to the number one slot and stayed there for five weeks, guaranteeing New Pop its world-conquering but gravely pyrrhic victory. There was, however, one final distress flare left in the chamber. In October of that year, and at the very end of it all, came Deceit.

Launched into what for some was the creeping gloom of defeat, Deceit burned incandescently, turning the night sea red for danger before vanishing completely from the collective memory. Founder members Charles Hayward, Charles Bullen and Gareth Williams, who, punk before it had a name, had craved violent release for years, weren’t the types to blemish their music with cryptic gripes about their contemporaries’ accedence. And, as musicians (Hayward and Bullen at least) and committed aesthetes, they had no beef with the newly crowned pop aristocracy. Indeed, as Hayward explained, they had a greater distaste for the more unmusical, didactic reaches of post-punk. Rather, it was the exact timing of the hate-fuelled, heroic Deceit that pricked the consciences of the new gold dreamers. On the cusp of New Pop’s gargantuan offensive, it was a deafening whisper to say: "One last thing before you make hay, we’d like you to know… we’re still fucked here". Recalling Lydon’s last words as a Sex Pistol ("Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?"), contained in its title was a one-word address to the failure of yet another movement at the hands of commercial temptation. To a quiet majority, largely excluded from the official histories, the brave new drive towards entryism wasn’t strategic comprise, it was hypocrisy dressed up as ideological rule-bending. A trick of self-delusion. A deception. Deceit.

The same year This Heat formed, so too did the beautifully egalitarian London Music Collective. Established in 1975, the organisation sought new forms by unifying trained classical and jazz musicians with relative amateurs. Composer Clive Bell described the set up for Wire – "Within one hour, a roomful of assorted and embarrassed individuals could be led to build a communal musical experience of enormous power. Suddenly the mysteries of group improvisation and experimental music were opened up, and the sheer joy of music-making seemed accessible to all". Membership rose dramatically with the arrival of punk, attracting the likes of The Slits, This Heat favourites Alternative TV and Scritti Politti to the fractious monthly meetings, held in a powder keg performance space in post-punk flashpoint, Camden.

Along with savage in-fighting amongst its founders, added tension would derive from the panoply of mostly extreme ideological viewpoints muscling for rank within a sometimes 200-strong attendance, giving rise to unique – not to mention combustible creative – conditions. Directly across the road was Scritti’s famous squat/deconstructionist talk shop. Like LMC and eventually This Heat, the Scritti gang venerated the iconoclastic power of amateurism. Amongst them was the redoubtable Ian Penman, a kind of predecessor to/ contemporary of Paul Morley who pioneered the use of critical theory in music writing. He reported on This Heat in the NME on several occasions, and was largely responsible for building their reputation among a future generation of writers as a mysterious and terrorising prospect.

The LMC’s progressive practices and singular output chimed with Bullen and Williams’ increasing desire for a new creative paradigm. As part of Eno-squired prog act Quiet Sun, Hayward had grown increasingly sick of formalism, having experienced first-hand the worst indulgences of late-period prog from an outsider’s perspective of the Canterbury scene; a vantage point only This Heat could boast amongst the post-punk set. Arguably Hayward and Bullen had more incentive to reel against prog’s crippling strictures than most. Already embedded in the underground scene driving the prog-to-art-rock transition, they gravitated to the strong Dadaist overtones encircling LMC’s experiments, in particular the living theatre which bubbled from the congress of disenchanted professionals and young musicians from every discipline – from french horn to thrash guitar. To the pair, it was both alive and of life.

By 1977 they had enlisted non-musician and reputed live-wire Gareth Williams, who they saw as that missing agent of anarchy capable of drawing sparks from their technique and musical conditioning: a prism of performance through which they could engage with the pain, exhilaration and grit of reality, spitting it back at the audience with tenfold the horror. "We had to find textures and sounds, as opposed to a nice jazz-based solos," Hayward told Simon Reynolds in 2001. "This Heat was about being totally human – not just a brain, not just a body, and not just emotional. People think intellectuals should be dispassionate; but it’s all these different things at once that make you complete."

Free-improv saxophonist Evan Parker, a major influence on This Heat, told in 1980 of LMC’s processes: "The SME [Spontaneous Music Ensemble] worked on a method that I called ‘atomistic’ – breaking the music down into small component parts and piecing them together again in a collective way, so as to de-emphasize the soloistic nature of improvisation. Although the solo was lost, an orchestral sound emerged in its place." In a live review of This Heat in 1978, Penman spotted this jazz-experimental conceit of ‘everyone solos-nobody solos’, where ‘performance is both obscured and accentuated’. Put simply, the word was cacophony: a certain kind of force the post-punk bands were unable to adequately control without falling foul of rawk excess, and which the punk bands – albeit blitzing and rowdy – were too basic in form to build. It was something This Heat excelled at, giving rise to an exotic counterpoint between austerity and bombardment, and a type of serrated muscularity unlike anything post-punk had produced up to that point.

Before Deceit there was This Heat’s self-titled debut, recorded over two years and released in 1978. Although based in rudderless musique concrète and unstructured experimentation, the album offered a tip to the direction pursued on Deceit with ‘The Fall of Saigon’. There was also the remarkable ’24 Track Loop’, which predicts scores of instrumental acts trading in Fourth World brain-dance music in 2011. Ultimately, though, This Heat was a pre-punk entity. It wasn’t until their 1981 opus that they attacked, going at prog’s orthodoxies with twice the intensity of the majority of punk acts of the time.

In July of 1945 America informed Japan that they would detonate nuclear bombs on Japanese soil unless in the event of their immediate surrender. The euphemism that replaced ‘nuclear bomb’ was the phrase ‘prompt and utter destruction’. The translators passed the message along and awaited a reply.

The Japanese responded to the ultimatum with a transmission containing the word Mokusatsu, meaning ‘to ignore’ or ‘to treat with silent contempt’. In a certain context, however, the phrase also translated in English as ‘to take into careful consideration’. Historians to this day assert that had the Americans not interpreted the word as they did, the events of August the sixth – in which tens of thousands of Japanese were killed – might have been averted.

Released on the eve of a perilous escalation in the arms race, Deceit is a record about the breakdown of language, and what that entailed for the survival of the human race. From the colliding ethnic flavours to the banquet of instrumentation, with the chaotic clatter of Hayward’s top-heavy jazz-drumming and the uneasy coalescence of the electronic and the naturally occurring; from the fractured lyrics to the time-befuddling convergence of prerecorded tape, real-time improv, and post-production additions; the landscape is one of confusion, overload and crossed wires. The production forms a detrital anarchy of co-channel interference, pre-echoes, unwanted reflections, and disrupted communique. It’s an unsolid sound: indeterminate, untrustworthy, treacherous, deceitful. It writhes like a faltering broadcast, hissing like its seething, spat title. As Hayward sums it up on ‘Triumph’: "Through dirty net curtains you look at me, why is it I can’t see through to you?/ The mesh, it is in your favour."

This Heat were under no illusions as to what would happen if we ever stopped talking. "At that time it seemed like it was a fait accompli that there was going to be a Third World War," Hayward told Reynolds. Sickened and angry with the idiocy of governing men, they used their prog-honed skill for expressionist nuance to paint this lunatic system of miscommunication in crystal technicolor. What we get is a blaring farce where reason and intellect are lost in translation over a "festering tongue" (‘A New Kind Of Water’). In order to deliver a record as terrifying as Deceit they embraced their worst nightmare, meditated on it. As a consequence, Deceit courses with sour fear. "We had a firm belief that we were going to die and the record was made on those terms," Hayward stated.

‘Makeshift Swahili’ emerges from the chatter of ‘Radio Prague’, a real life station which, due to its geographical location, transmits in five different languages. Suspended in the clutches of Williams’ organ, the pitch soon escalates to a state of crisis as the Tower of Babel builds to the heavens. On a vaguely absurd breakdown Hayward addresses the plight of the Native Americans: "We give you firewater / You give us your land / White man speak with forked tongue / But it’s too late now to start complaining, too late". The implication is that the co-opted are unable to complain because they can’t speak the new native tongue of the white man. As such they are imprisoned by it: "You’re only as good as the words you understand / And you don’t understand a word," recites Hayward in a paint-stripping Dalek voice.

Released the previous year, Kubrick’s The Shining also boasted myriad subtextual references to ‘Bloody Empire’ and the subjugation of the Native American. Erected on an ancient Indian burial ground, the Overlook Hotel drives writer Jack Torrance mad with white guilt. After succumbing to alcoholism – the fate of the Native American people – he slaughters the African-American chef Hallorann with an axe, and his son Danny’s backwards prophecy is fulfilled. Torrance roams the Overlook maze to the chants of Indian ghosts, while the blood of the massacred flows from the hotel walls in a river of lies. Finally, the writer loses all powers of speech, howling to the sky. Likewise, as ‘Makeshift Swahili’ races towards cataclysm after one deception too many (the "new lamps for old" lyric refers to The Sorcerer’s trickery in Aladdin), the tower wavers in the winds and Hayward too loses control of his functions, burbling "Monosyllabic, Hieroglyphic, Etcetera, Etcetera". In the end he is reduced to incontinent gibberish as the tower falls, scattering the tribes to the four corners the earth: "Rhubarb / Rhubarb / Rhubarb / Rhubarb / Rhubarb / Rhubarb". Longtime ABC reporter Bill Blakemore wrote of The Shining in the San Francisco Chronicle: "We never hear the rushing blood that pours from the lifts of the Overlook. It is a mute nightmare." Recorded at ear-popping volume, with a tyrannical vengeance Deceit challenges that silence, a history of colonial shame written by us, the victors, then erased from everyday language or petrified in themed hotel decor to threaten subliminally from the walls.

In seminal nuclear war drama Threads (1984), years after the nuclear war the broken British men and woman have ceased communicating. Their children, born after the war, are no longer able to speak in any meaningful capacity, interacting in a Neanderthal language of broken English and stock phrases from fuzzy kids’ edutainment programs. They cannot feel love, or show it – they lack the vocabulary. Or perhaps the word no longer exists.

Words and their meaning have separated in the liquid semiotics of Cold War conflict, essentially a war of words. Midway through ‘S.P.Q.R’, Hayward recites: "Two plus two equals four / Four plus four equals eight". Partly intended as a reaffirmation of intellect amidst a primal act of savagery (‘S.P.Q.R’ is Deceit‘s most straightforward punk track), the equation sits in the middle of the storm like a rock to cling to – a last remaining unbreakable law, one final absolute to orientate around in a world where, on ‘Cenotaph’, even a kiss doesn’t mean what it used to. Elsewhere, on ‘Cenotaph’ (or "empty tomb"), Hayward exhorts: "Lest we forget the glorious dead, Poppy Day, remember poppies are red and the fields are full of poppies / History repeats itself". With the repetition of ‘poppy’ it’s as if he’s reacquainting himself with the word, letting it assimilate. The poppy, and even the colour of red, have become untrustworthy representations, simulacra, empty tombs – no longer the meaningful symbols of blood shed on the fields of Northern France. The word is unmoored from its intended connotations and associated imagery, like that the inscription on a monument erected in honour of a person whose remains are elsewhere. What we remember in the silence at Whitehall is compromised. Hayward consumes the word in its primary form and implores us to do likewise, for fear that history repeat itself; but the language of danger is dying.

Similarly, on ‘Not Waving’ Hayward is adrift at sea, either unable to signal his distress, or no longer confident that his gesturing will be understood on the shoreline – misinterpreted as just a "nervous reaction". So he floats in the ocean "not waving, but drowning". As the bombs drop around him on ‘Paper Hats’, Hayward asks of the architects of his demise: "The sound of explosions / What does this tune signify? / What is its meaning? / Is it really that straight forward? / Or are our ears beyond words?" As on ‘A New Kind Of Water’, we are no longer sentient to the signs of past and present danger. Shell-shocked in a garden of nuclear eruptions – the language of mortal peril distilled to its purest form – Hayward has to ask if it means he is dead. There is no finer expression of the mistrust in your senses, your surroundings and the ambiguity of perception in the post-punk canon, which is replete with such sentiment. Hayward’s deranged cry of "Oh no! / Is this any easier?" is the loudest scream of the 80s.

"I think what Ballard maps out so well is that moment of surrender to the terrible. A total, inevitable, final embrace. After Hiroshima we really had no choice. It was impossible to pretend that the world would ever be the same again. We all sleep there every night, now." John Foxx

Amidst what was arguably the most effective (i.e. frightening) anti-war message of the decade, more stereotypical post-punk concerns come to the fore; the type of telemetric angst, in fact, that Radiohead have based a career on. ‘Shrink Wrap’ and ‘Sleep’ are forerunners to ‘No Surprises’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ – the vaguely somnambulant stuff of clinical contemporary living and the numbing effects of consumerism. In both anger and helpless obedience, Hayward and Williams war-dance around the fire for the gods of capitalism on ‘Shrink Wrap’, begging of their false idol: "Wolf in sheep’s clothing, enshrine our latest product / define the hollow spaces / mobilised cellophane / untouched by human hand". ‘Sleep’ describes "a life cocooned in a routine of food". In Weber’s iron cage of the rational we are hobbled by our inborn impulse for nesting: "The creature comforts / stimulus and response / a house that’s warm / your body would choose all this, of course! / it’s innate, we’re selfish". Finally: "It doesn’t cost much to keep in touch". As well as a tribute to the Third World as the last bastion of rebellion, the world music influences evince This Heat’s fetish for pre-civilisation, where reality is still reality and they can feel the earth between their toes.

‘A New Kind Of Water’ is a neglected masterwork of the post-punk era. Like much of their output the track is aimed squarely between enlightened and moronic, illustrating the conflict at the heart of Deceit, between a prayer for reason in the face of global annihilation and This Heat’s attraction to the Dadaist principle that pure logic and reason are the cause of all modern woes. Ultimately, it’s about progress, or the illusion of progress, and the thin red line dividing premodern ignorance and modern hyper-rationale. Grasping, and grasping again, Hayward is tense with empty discontent: "I don’t know either, what is the answer? / We were told to expect more, and now that we’ve got more, we want more, we want more." Again, as on ‘Makeshift Swahili’ and ‘Paper Hats’, the track picks up to a murderous speed at the midway point. There’s the vertiginous sensation that everything is happening too quickly, spiralling out of our control. "We have moved from A to X / The size of it all carries us all along / More equals better / It’s what we want / Our energy is endless it seems" – or "hey man, slow down", as Thom Yorke reduced it to some years later. But the machine is unstoppable, propelling us towards the end, and the dream becomes a nightmare. That, Hayward and co tell us, is the real "triumph of the will" (‘Triumph’). In every corner of Deceit is written a wry ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’. According to Hayward on ‘Not Waving’, devolution is the solution: "So cold I can’t feel my toes, I’ll let them go/ Who needs them?/ Circulations stand still". At last, relief. De-think to survive, as Welsh punkers Mclusky once proposed.

Over the course of its 40 minutes Deceit works through a tangle of conflicting voices and a multitude of tongues, almost by dialectical process (Penman called this quality "argumentative"). It scales great heights and travels epic distances, only to arrive back where it started, at the same inevitable conclusion. Japanese for ‘explosion damaged people’, final track ‘Hi Baku Syho’ is a windswept swirl of fallout dust and the cries emanating from beyond the mist of Hiroshima’s devastated woodland. However, it’s not until the penultimate ‘A New Kind Of Water’ – another track seemingly beamed from a future aftermath – that our fate is explicated literally: "This nuclear state is our demise / Fly away Peter, hide away Paul / Who can watch as the earth burns, shatters and dies?’ Hayward appeals for reason from the ruling institutions: "Failsafe / foolproof / we’ve heard that before / Good sense is needed / Let’s hope we’ve got men on the job".

"Their chaos is meticulous. They hop rather than swagger," wrote Penman of This Heat’s style, a brand of psychedelia which, although mind-altering, was what Hayward described as "Mondrian" (i.e grid-like). Deceit beats unnaturally, rises mechanically, and runs a trajectory that seems calibrated rather than composed. Penman referred to it as ‘industrial’, but only insofar as it sounded manufactured. It skips jarringly from theme to theme, both musical and lyrical, rather than being of a fluid nature like 60s psyche, as Reynolds highlighted. Using techniques such as Williams’ tape-looping, Faust-informed studio cuts and the incremental development of repeated guitar phrases, the sound would find its legacy within the aesthetics of sampling, post-hardcore and, most overtly, post-rock. In particular, Deceit echoes through the music of math spooks Slint and the chamber-jazz genius of Bark Psychosis, led by Graham Sutton. Sutton would go on to produce These New Puritans’ Hidden – a similar exercise in modern-ancient tension which owes its entire existence to Deceit. Indeed, This Heat have served as a lionised antecedent to many of the greatest punk, post-punk, and experimental acts of the last decade. None greater, though, than New Yorkers Liars. Like This Heat, with a corrosive focus Liars modelled an infecting political polemic impressionistically – i.e. by mood, metaphor, and ominous insinuation. Using the allegory of a townspeople driven into the hollow of a mountain by avenging witches, their post-9/11 parable They Were Wrong, So We Drowned warns of the day when the Middle East turns on its American master.

There’s a theory that all punk was about the bomb. However, doing ‘hatred’ is a simple task for any punk band. To convey the sound of madness driving hatred, much less so. Leave it to a band as visionary as This Heat to capture the way in which pandemonium evolves slowly, by sequence; as unease gives way to anxiety, anxiety gives way to panic, and panic gives way to insanity. Deceit’s cover art collage depicts a Munch-ian face branded with charged imagery, suffocating in a swaddle of grinning heads of state and instructional literature on correct operating procedures "in the event of nuclear war". A mushroom blooms between the eyes like headache pain and an American flag forms the tongue, notably the one image that finds its way into the head, gagging the scream. For all its nihilistic vitriol, Deceit is a deeply moralistic, deeply humane record. A deafening whisper to say: "One last thing before you make hay, we’d like you to know… we’re still fucked here".

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