You Suffer: How A One Second-Long Song Represents The Age Of Anxiety

Novelist Benjamin Myers reflects on the 1.316 second-long track 'You Suffer' by grindcore titans, Napalm Death, and what it says about the age of anxiety we all live in

Napalm Death, The Mermaid pub, Birmingham, 1985

“We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”

Marcel Proust

In 1987 Napalm Death released their debut album Scum. Amongst its twenty-eight tracks was ‘You Suffer’, which closed the first side of the album and would attain notoriety for being little over one second in length and featuring just four words as its lyrics.

Though popular in a freshly-minted corner of the musical underground where the extremes of anarcho punk, hardcore, extreme metal and the avant garde were meeting – a new genre dubbed grindcore – Napalm Death were dismissed by the wider world as something of a novelty act, a joke; as if playing short, abrasive songs almost entirely devoid of melody somehow represented a lesser art-form than any other musical genre.

John Cage could write ‘4’33"’ a composition comprised of pure silence, and be acclaimed for challenging our very perceptions of what constitutes sound and performance. Lou Reed could release an hour-long collection of mangled noise entitled Metal Machine Music and, though critically divisive, still be afforded much heavyweight intellectual analysis decades later. Yet Napalm Death were simply sneered at. Why? Because they had a silly name. (Though I’d argue it’s one of the great band handles of our time.) Because they played metal, a genre afforded almost zero critical mainstream respect in the UK, even though its key exponents routinely outsell more acclaimed, yet fleeting, artists. And because they came from the West Midlands, and therefore had accents perennially portrayed in culture as comedic; an accent which prevents its speakers from ever being perceived as entirely sexy or cool. (See also everyone from Slade to The Streets; though Shakespeare, who came from over the county border in Warwickshire, gets a pass because no-one ever heard him spit bars.)

Napalm Death’s early history is complicated by the usual petty squabbles that are to be found amongst restless young men, and perhaps largely only of interest to fans the band or the evolution of grindcore; though the recording of their debut is noteworthy as Scum is essentially two separate recordings presented as one album, and featured entirely different line-ups on its two sides. In short, the four members who play on the B-side are entirely different to the original teenage trio who recorded the A-side. There were two Napalm Deaths on one album then, the second iteration a simulacrum of the first, who featured the composers of ‘You Suffer’ (though there had already been many other line-ups previously). For the record, these were: singer/bassist Nicholas Bullen, guitarist Justin Broadrick and drummer Mick Harris.

Why is this notable? Because at the heart of so much of significant art throughout the ages is a sense of duality. Of opposition. Of two ideas running in tandem, or pulling apart. The creative process is often one built on such conflicts – between individuals, or between two sides of the self: the conscious and the unconscious. Sometimes art must be schizophrenic. Sometimes the very best work is driven by desire, impulse, torment, lunacy, derangement, neurosis and mania. Often it is produced when one’s mental health is operating under extreme conditions. Here are where the original ideas lie.

And as a brutishly short sonic burst of noise that detonates in the listeners face like a letter bomb, ‘You Suffer’ is perhaps the most concise example of a modern work of art that represents personal creative pursuit in the face of ridicule, while also pre-empting the worldwide anxiety epidemic in its perfect portrayal of a panic attack. In this sense, it is as important and powerful a work as Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ (1893).

The obvious apotheosis of the idea of the artist driven to insanity is a contemporary of Munch’s, Vincent Van Gogh, who, in just ten years, produced 900 paintings and 1,000 drawings, at a rate of one piece of work every two days. While not all of them were ‘The Potato Eaters’ (1995), ‘Sunflowers’ (1888) or ‘Wheatfield With Crows’ (1890), it is still nevertheless an impressive rate of productivity now regarded as a product of psychosis – the price the painter had to pay for being a genius.

Late in life, when his mental health problems deepened, Van Gogh produced 75 paintings in 70 days alone; many of these were as good as anything else produced in the 19th century. No-one was waiting for these works, nor he did the master have a grand plan. He simply had to produce them. He had to express, expel and expunge.

If Scum represented creative conflicts – two bands operating under one name – then ‘You Suffer’ takes the idea of misery and anguish and chisels it down to something pure. It asks a question that could be posed to anyone who is acting upon a similar need to express, expel and expunge, or suffers from mental health problems, or is simply a human being acutely aware of their place in a chaotic world. In his later period, Van Gogh’s work reflected the violence of his mind through the violence of colour. In their early period Napalm Death reflected the violence that lies within the human mind though a song that lands like a haymaker punch to the temple.

And just as ‘Portrait Of Dr Paul Gachet’ (1890) is considered a work of great financial value ($83m via Christie’s), not only because of its aesthetic accomplishment, but because it is part of the artist’s broader narrative as someone operating on a higher level of artistic endeavour, so too ‘You Suffer’ ($2.79 via Spotify) should be judged as one of the most important musical works of the 20th century.

If nothing else, ‘You Suffer’ also functions as an excellent title for a book I decided I was going to write while at the peak of one of my manic creative spells, where ideas pour out of me at an unstoppable rate, until they don’t and I must take to my bed for weeks at a time, a spent husk.

Napalm Death live in Leeds, 1986, courtesy of Mick Harris

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

Søren Kierkegaard

I first conceived of the idea of writing a full-length book about ‘You Suffer’ less than 72 hours after I pulled myself back from the brink of having what I now realise was some sort of breakdown. The song sounded like the ultimate summation of the intensity of being alive, and how I felt several times a day.

The occasion that prompted this latest episode of extreme anxiety was the final interview in a summer several years ago spent attempting to promote a novel, while in the grip of extreme feelings of self-doubt, worry, despondency and a growing sense of inertia so great that merely staying awake during day-light hours was a huge effort. The interview was a live radio appearance on The Jo Whiley Show for the BBC Radio 2’s Book Club segment.

The anxiety manifested in all the usual ways in a life time of sporadic bouts of anxiety – or what I prefer to call existential overload: vomiting, loss of appetite, broken sleep, loose stomach, extreme fatigue, mild paranoia, fear and an extreme sensitivity to loud noises.

It was not Jo Whiley that I was scared of, but near enough everything else: leaving the house, getting on a train, migraines, seeing anyone I know and having to converse with them, clamming up live on air or, worse, sobbing uncontrollably. Also, Radio 2 was just not my scene. Whiley’s support was appreciated, but her radio world felt like everything I thought I was not.

What was I doing? The simple answer was: trying to keep my tirelessly supportive publishers happy enough to keep backing my work, so that I might further delay having to get a real job in the real world. And the real world should be avoided at all costs. I’ve been there; it’s awful.

Before I arrived at the BBC studio I ingested three strong ibuprofen tablets, three paracetamol, one beta blocker, one diazepam and a few shot of Yespresso (my own home-mashed Yorkshire tea, boiled down to its stringent tar-black basics). Because I had already puked at home I thought I should get something into my stomach before the nerve-steadying, pain-killing cocktail of pharmaceuticals did any damage to my empty stomach’s lining, so ate a packet of cashew nuts, a packet of dried mango slices and half a banana. The sudden intake of fibre sent me dashing to the toilets in a bar over the road from the BBC, midway through a brief stop-and-chat with a young female actor who I knew a little: “Hi, how’s it going? You look great, really well!” I was seven minutes away from the studio and live on air in eight minutes.

As it happens the interview went fine. I had an empty bin beside me in case I felt like vomiting again and a bent paperclip that I routine stabbed into my hand in order to bring myself back into being whenever the crushing fatigue became too strong. We all have our techniques. Typing these words now, years later, I can’t help but wonder whether other people live their lives this way. Then I remember: of they do. Think of Van Gogh, think of Napalm Death, think of your neighbour whose internal world you can never know.

I was 15 and broke when I spotted a copy of Scum by Napalm Death for 99p in the sale rack of HMV. I bought it and walked across town to the indoor market, and sold it for £3 to a man called Bill who ran a record stall. Bill stickered Scum and put it straight back out on sale for £5. I walked back across town to the cheapest off licence and used the £3 to buy a four-pack of LCL lager (5% proof). I drank it slowly on the riverbanks, down below the cathedral while smoking a cigar and watching students with beefy, bulging shoulders glide up and down in single scull rowing boats while their coaches cycled the tow-path, barking instructions through a loudhailer. This month I publish a new novel that is set around this same cathedral, these same river banks, these old worn paths that I walked day after a day; it’s a book whose seeds were unwittingly planted thirty-odd years ago during these solitary peregrinations.

Bill later turned out to be a Nazi and some of those beefy students are now running the country. Their three years in the north were not enough to stop them murdering it in adulthood. The following week I bought Scum back and took it home.

When the needle hit the groove it became apparent to me that ‘You Suffer’, a song acknowledged by the Guinness Book Of Records as the shortest single ever released, was rock music’s full stop. It was the end-point for a genre that began when, as Muddy Waters, sang, “The blues had a baby and they named the baby rock & roll”. Everything that would follow ‘You Suffer’ – or certainly any music made by men with guitars – would appear flabby, pointless and indulgent. How could it not? Here was rock music ending with a death; the death of melody, the death of composition and the death of good taste. And, perhaps most thrillingly, it ended with a statement and a question: You suffer.

But why?

Napalm Death live in Leeds, 1986, courtesy of Mick Harris

It was two days after the Radio 2 interview and I was prone on the sofa, watching Hugh Grant and Helena Bonham Carter films and idly throwing seedless green grapes into my mouth – excellent vitamin intake for those who can’t face normal food – when it occurred to me that I should write a book about ‘You Suffer’. It just made perfect sense. There was so much to say about those 1.316 seconds of music.

In the thirty-odd years since the song was released, there have been TV performances of ‘You Suffer’; slowed down versions; acoustic versions; Earache, the record label that originally released Scum, belatedly created a video for the track, which was released in 2007, featuring a small girl jumping up and down; a game attempt by former Labour leader Ed Miliband to sing it live on his radio show under the tutelage of current Napalm Death singer Barney Greenway; and, of course, an official single release in 1989, with the similarly one second-long – yet far inferior – ‘Mega-Armageddon Death Pt 3’ by Electro Hippies on the B-side. Why is it inferior? Because a one second-long song only works once. There’s no point in anyone painting ‘The Scream’ after Edvard Munch. Clearly, ‘You Suffer’ was part of the culture now. It should be reframed as high art, and if it took 80,000 words and eighteen months of my time to do it, then so be it.

Oh yes, this, I decided, was the very book that the world was lacking, and would help restore some karmic balance to my life as a bad-ass motherfucker, who had just happened to have published a gentle, bucolic novel that was making unexpected in-roads to the heart of the mainstream and selling by the truckload in Germany. I mean, Radio 2, for fuck’s sake.

I shared the idea with my wife. She was in the bath at the time and I was sitting on the toilet (with the lid down; I’m not a complete animal). She responded by saying that of all the sudden lightbulb-moment ideas that I had enthused about over the years, this was possibly my worst yet. After short consideration I had to agree, though countered that that reason alone was not a good enough to not write it.

But then she added that a long-form piece about trying to write a long-form piece about ‘You Suffer’ by Napalm Death had potential. “You could do a Geoff Dyer,” were her exact words, which I took to be a reference to his excellent collection of digressions and distractions that comprised Out Of Sheer Rage, the writer’s attempt at penning a biography of the wandering randy visionary DH Lawrence – another Midlands lad.

I couldn’t sleep that night: a dose of antibiotics for a year-long wisdom tooth infection was keeping me awake. But so were thoughts about ‘You Suffer’ (the song) and You Suffer (the as-yet-unwritten book about the song), or perhaps even a long essay entitled something like ‘You Suffer: How A One Second-Long Song Represents The Age Of Anxiety’.

In the still blue hours of a cooling pre-dawn day, the lyrics lodged themselves in a dark corner of my racing nocturnal mind. I once again quote them in full here, lest they have slipped from your mind:

"You suffer

But why?"

The more I considered these four words, the clearer it became that this was not just a succinct and vital piece of music but also a work of lyrical perfection. This was something striving for a higher plane: this was poetry.

What everyone from Diogenes to Emily Dickinson, Bob Dylan to Ol’ Dirty Bastard said in several verses, Napalm Death achieved in four words. This was poetry that said more to me in one second than most bands and songwriters achieve in their entire oeuvre.

And if it spoke to me in such a clear voice, then it surely spoke to others too. The purity of expression displayed by Napalm Death was unequivocal and unambiguous, as sudden and horrific as one of the paintings in a Francis Bacon triptych, which, once glimpsed, was instantly and eternally felt. You don’t explain a Bacon painting, you experience it, and you identify with it. You don’t explain ‘You Suffer’, you live it, have lived it, and will continue to live it.

Here the band were asking one of life’s great questions. “We do not suffer by accident,” Jane Austen wrote in Pride And Prejudice. “But why?” wondered Napalm Death in response.

Maybe such a book or essay would not strictly be about the song at all then, but about anxiety – my anxiety and the epidemic of anxiety and ill mental health that was increasingly defining modern life – because was not the song itself the ultimate expression of rage, anger, confusion and anxiety, a howl of despair that was compressed and compacted, diamond-like, into something as pure, potent as powerful as Penderecki, yet as universally relatable as “Round, round, get around, I get around”?

Indeed it was. And therefore such an investigation would get to the heart of the matter – that is, what exactly is it eating away at some of the greatest minds of my generation, and may carry on eating away at those who follow too? Marcel Proust wrote: “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.” Could it be that ‘You Suffer’ was, in fact, the balm to heal our open wounds, the solution to our problems?

Or were the tablets I was taking, and twenty-five solitary years working away at the creative coal face of freelance writing, both bending my head further away from my day-to-day reality?

And one more question: does art cause anxiety or does anxiety cause art? This is something I find myself continually asking as I sit down once more, to write another short story, another novel, another film.

As with the chicken and the egg, this supposition reaches far back. It delves deep into the fetid mulch of the human psyche, in which all great isolated art percolates, occasionally belching itself into being, just as three heroic youngsters coughed out ‘You Suffer’, and forever changed the face of music.

Does art cause anxiety or does anxiety cause art – and can the two ever truly be separated?

Through art – through music and novels and paintings and plays and poetry – it is a question that mankind shall, and must, keep asking.

You suffer. I suffer. We all suffer.

But why?

Benjamin Myers’ new novel, Cuddy, is published by Bloomsbury on 16 March. Shane Meadows’ adaptation of his novel The Gallows Pole is coming soon to the BBC

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