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Could it be… Satan?

Here’s something I wrote in 1998 or 1999 or so.

I’ve always been kind of fascinated with how these little backmasking scares appear to come in cycles, particularly when there’s some perceived “moral crisis” in the country. As priest confessors, Grand Inquisitors, Puritans from Salem, Kenneth Starr and Manoling Morato illustrate, those most obsessed with sex (or Satan) are the same ones who’ve taken it upon themselves to ferret sex and Satan out.[1] Too much time on their hands, I’d say, when there are genuine social concerns to address.

Granted, subliminal images in advertising and films are fairly well-documented. There were rumors in the ’60s (during the Cold War, a good panicky time) that there were subliminal advertisements underneath the Muzak played in supermarkets to encourage shoppers to buy certain products. But to lead someone to worship Lucifer??? Give me a break. It’s a very anti-humanist view of people for Christian pastors to adopt, I’d say, taking the metaphor of “their flock” too seriously…

One of the guys in my high school was utterly obsessed over backmasking and the connection between rock ‘n’ roll and Satan that he ultimately wrote a 100-page paper for a Social Science class about it. Essentially the guy, fueled by his newfound born-again Christian fundamentalist faith, combed through back issues of Creem and Kerrang! or whatever and picked out various anti-Christian/anti-status quo quotes, of which there were many. The local Catholic church was so impressed with his research that they invited him to give a two-part lecture at the local auditorium. [2]

In any case, the highlight of his presentation was the result of painstaking backmasking; Cool Edit didn’t exist then, so he must have cracked open all those tapes and physically turned the loops over. Unbelievable! Anyhow, everyone was given a handout with all the evil lyrics they were supposed to hear, thus setting the stage for a more receptive audience.[3]

First up was Depeche Mode’s “Master and Servant” — the part in the beginning where the vocals go “It’s a lie / it’s a lie” was supposed to sound like “God is cheap / God is dead.” “Turn me on dead man,” from “Revolution No. 9,” was reinterpreted as a reference to Satan. Anyhow, he went through a whole range of songs — Tears For Fears’ “Shout,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Hotel California” (boy did he have a field day with that one), but I can’t remember the exact words we were supposed to hear. Most famously was the “Start to smoke marijuana” phrase supposedly heard during Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.” (This was “clearest” during the chorus “breakdown” just before the end, when Freddie Mercury kept reciting “Another one bites the dust” over handclaps.) Though the backmasker couldn’t exactly explain the significance of the backwards message in Prince’s “Darling Nikki” (off the album “Purple Rain”) — it went something like “God is coming soon” — so Enrique (our backmasker’s name) chose to focus on the sexual lyrics instead.

Actually, the highlight for me was when he showed huge slides of black metal album covers. The look on the nuns’ faces was priceless.

[1] Satan and sex happen to some of the constant bugaboos in urban folklore, e.g. the supposed giant phallus on “The Little Mermaid” poster, the supposed “666” in the Procter and Gamble logo, etc.

[2] This happened to be a particularly urban folklore-fertile period (1988 or so) in the Philippines as well, which saw the country in the grip of a Satanism scare. Church groups were handing out flyers on “How to Spot a Satanist” — the anarchy symbol, the pentagram, 666, etc. The same flyers would warn of punks with mohawk haircuts defacing grave stones *and* distributing LSD-laced stickers to school kids (a nice conflation of urban myths right there). Needless to say, everyone distributed by the Twisted Red Cross label were highly suspect…

[3] (Obviously the way it works is through the power of suggestion: if you’re consciously looking out for “evil” lyrics, then garbled vocals will sound like what you want them to sound. The brain, in an attempt to find coherence in distortion, automatically tries to isolate and combine phonemes without the presence of a template — and if that same template (with all the evil lyrics) is already presented to you, then hey! it works.)

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Bjork; Stereolab.

Bjork; Stereolab. Two much-anticipated albums were released last week, and I promptly hopped over to Tower Records after my last class on Tuesday to get them.

Bjork‘s Vespertine is a fine, fine album, and it is growing on me with every listen. She has pretty much abandoned her dance diva days, but not necessarily the subject matter — this is still all about big-time sensuality. Each track is a finely-threaded, miniaturized, filigreed, ProTooled work; somehow wisps of jewelled lace come to mind. The album isn’t very melodic in the conventional sense and, as such, borrows more heavily from the theatrics of the Selmasongs album. The highlight comes at the end with “Unison,” the loveliest, most soaring song on Vespertine, but “Hyper-Ballad” it still isn’t. Along with Radiohead’s Amnesiac, this is the most experimental major-label release so far this year.

In contrast, Stereolab‘s Sound-Dust is a rather limp affair and, despite the presence of those fellers from Chicago (not the band Chicago, god no, but the folks from Tortoise / Chicago Underground Duo/Trio etc.), sounds like warmed-over Muzak. I saw them live a year or two ago, touring on the Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night album (or maybe it was Dots and Loops), and they rocked, coming across louder and harder in concert than in the studio. But this time the abrupt time changes, Laetitia Sadier’s run-on phrasing, the slightly off-kilter harmonizing — all quite endearing in previous albums — I find oddly cloying and grating somehow.

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The Eraserheads, Part Three: The Circus Years

And here’s part three of the Eraserheads article. I wish I’d finished it — in particular, with a little analysis of my favorite Eraserheads song ever, “Alapaap.”

The Eraserheads, Part Three: The Circus Years

But for the second album, Circus, an album of the highest order, the Eraserheads made a stunning leap into the sphere of Pure Pop Perfection, already more than hinted at by ultraelectromagneticpop! From the sly, skewed and skewering humor of “Punk Zappa” to the irrepressible longing of “Sembreak,” the album probed, with sparkling insight, the vagaries of the everyday: insomnia, drinking, smoking pot, pornography, semester breaks, obsessive music fans, pining for the one you love. Never have the Eraserheads been so earthbound and yet so transcendent at the same time.

The torch song “Kailan,” for instance, is both an uncanny doo-wop imitation (albeit one filtered through an Apo Hiking Society sensibility) and an in-joke, with only the slightest hint of irony. The often-abused “unplugged” or acoustic version – usually meant to convey some sort of sincerity about the music – actually works here, in “Kailan Lounge.” Buendia’s vocals are incredibly expressive here – but then again, so is the rest of the band. Adoro’s guitars sound extremely assured on “Wishing Wells”; Zabala’s bass-playing is fuller and more complex on “Magasin“; Marasigan drums up a storm on rave-ups like “Insomya” and “Alkohol.”

The sheer unpretentiousness of the Eraserheads’ music can be seen in concert; obviously they aren’t “too cool” to not lead the crowd on a sing-along to the chorus, or to not play a crowd-pleasing medley. The wonderful shamelessness in incorporating harmonizing vocals or pa-pa-pa-pa bridges attests to a certain kind of musical sincerity. (Buendia actually gets away with singing “Let me hear you sing it” between the doo-doo-doo-doo refrain in “With a Smile.”)

Circus, as I had pointed out, represents an incredible stylistic jump from the first album, taking listeners along with them on their forays into different musical territory. But it is, at the same time, quite cognizant of their musical influences, from the Apo Hiking Society to the J. Geils Band.

Which brings me to the amazing “Magasin,” which at first listen sounds like a pale ripoff of the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold.” This is hardly the case: the Eraserheads make the latter sound completely leering and adolescent. (Okay, so there may be deeper philosophical implications found in “My blood runs cold / My memory has just been sold,” but I doubt it.) Their plots are similar: guy picks up a nudie magazine, and discovers (the former) girl of his dreams inside. Buendia’s protagonist is momentarily guilt-stricken (“Sana’y hindi nakita“), but in the act of looking his entire world has suddenly changed (“Iba na ang ‘yong tingin / Iba na ang ‘yong ngiti / Nagbago na’ng lahat sa ‘yo“). “Magasin” is more complex, more in tune with the turmoil and guilty pleasure of seeing one’s boyhood fantasy naked to the world. It shouldn’t be this way, he must say to himself. She is not the same anymore. But then he looks. And looks. By the time we get to the song’s punchline of sorts, he has succumbed to the temptation. Such drama in a pop song!

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The Eraserheads, Part Two: The UltraElectro Years

The first album, ultraelectromagneticpop! rightly shook up the Philippine music scene, and with much good reason: only a precious handful of albums before 1993 (Gary Valenciano‘s Moving Thoughts, for one) arguably captured the intensity of OPM’s earlier mid-to-late-’70s Metropop heyday. (How thrilling it must have been to turn on the radio and hear Freddie Aguilar, VST and Co., Hotdog, early Apo Hiking Society, the Juan de la Cruz Band and Asin on one station!) The playing, as with Buendia’s vocals, was still pretty raw around the edges, but the album, with its complete lack of pretensions, would be a refreshing contrast to the Chicago / Toto / power-ballad template that underlay some of the more slickly-produced, histrionic OPM singles of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Indeed, the music scene during that period was, in my opinion, rather bleak. The lessons learned from new wave did not last very long; only The Dawn, with its tight trio playing (and only really on its first album), would follow through with their synth-laden hooks. One must also remember that there was also a mini-generation of listeners suddenly tuned in to Citylite 88.3, ultimately just a more “sophisticated” version of the Mellow Touch. (I have a long theory about Citylite, the marketing of the yuppie aesthetic, and the EDSA Uprising of 1986, but this is not the place nor the time.) The significance of the fact that the recalcitrant NU 107, devoted to college rock, was situated at the very opposite end of the radio dial should not be lost on the reader. Indeed, one can only gauge the stagnation when saxophonist Eddie Katindig (or Eddie K), in a misguided attempt to imitate the moniker of an American lite-“jazz” artist of the lowest species, was reduced to producing sad little covers of Top 40 hits. The social consciousness pervading mainstream music only a decade earlier would at least find its resurgence in Joey Ayala’s re-recordings of his older cassette-only albums, but lightweight pop singles and ballads were, unfortunately, the norm. Listen, for instance, to Martin Nievera‘s “You Are The One”; what actually passed for drama was the mere raising of an octave for every iteration of the chorus. Or the entire Constant Change album, by Jose Mari Chan, which threatened to engulf the whole of Philippine radio with its utter blandness.

However, ultraelectromagneticpop! is still, in my mind, an uneven debut, but for every iffy track like “Maling Akala,” “Shake Yer Head” (if I wrote “Well I ain’t no stupid fighter / I go for flower power,” I guess I’d be kind of embarrassed) or “Toyang” (just what is it with Pinoys and medleys?), there would be an absolute stunner of a song like “Ligaya,” or a flat-out work of irresistible genius like “Shirley.” (The squall of guitar noise at the beginning, anchored with that little throwaway piano riff, is alone worth the price of admission; it’s not very often you can pogo along to a song which so perceptively traces the fall and rise of a relationship.) The breathless, melodic complexity of “Tindahan ni Aling Nena” transcends its novelty-song origins. The humor of the album, as well as the goofy liner notes, was already a nod to the wacked-out anarchy that would pervade later albums.

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Eraserheads, Part One

Here’s an unfinished fragment of an overblown, gushing, and frankly embarrassing essay about a Filipino pop band — the Eraserheads — which I wrote in 1995 or so. Alas, what I write below is not true anymore (about which I can write later), but for one moment there (after the release of their Cutterpillow album, one of my favorite albums of all time) they truly were the greatest band in the world. (Otherwise everything’s still the same: I still love the Beatles, and Yo La Tengo still rules.

This is Part One; Parts Two and Three continue next week.

Eraserheads, Part One

The Eraserheads are the greatest band in the entire world. This is a fact. And I write this with the same equanimity as making a statement like “The sky is blue.” For no other pop music group (well, there are exceptions; see below) has produced a body of work that has consistently challenged my intellect, stirred my emotions, and on the whole produced such limitless listening enjoyment as the Eraserheads have.

Of course, I could qualify my sweeping generalization with a modifier of time, i.e., the Eraserheads are the greatest band in the world right now, and to follow that up with something like the Beatles are the greatest band in the world ever. Or a modifier of place, such as Yo La Tengo is the greatest band in America and The Eraserheads are the greatest band in the Philippines. But such qualifiers needlessly diminish the drama of my original, monumental statement, when all I really want is for the impact of my affirmation to remain. So let me write it again: The Eraserheads are the greatest band in the entire world.

Again, it should be understood that I state this with no shred of objectivity whatsoever. Certainly a kind of ethnic sentiment clouds my judgment; I am Filipino, after all, and the fact that the ‘heads are from the Philippines means everything. But do not let that sway the uninitiated listener from experiencing music that is both refreshingly experimental and reassuringly consistent at the same time; music chock-full of damnably catchy melodies and lyrics both silly and worldly-wise; music which, with dead-on accuracy, has painted a portrait of an entire generation of Filipinos over the course of a mere four albums; music that rewards the listener with different, deeper meanings with every listen. As with the Beatles and Yo La Tengo, who would have known a three-minute pop song would yield up such an embarrassment of riches?

Take, for instance, just one couplet from the song “Ligaya“: “Gagawin ko ang lahat pati ang thesis mo / Huwag mo lang ipagkait ang hinahanap ko.” Is this not an altogether brilliant pledge of love and devotion? How could the listener dare doubt this? (Side note: the Eraserheads have long been compared to the Beatles, a comparison that is not only trite but irrelevant as well. For what band, except for that empire in which James Brown reigns, does not come from the Beatles? Or, to take a different tack, it is not as if the Beatles originated vocal harmonies, or verse-chorus-verse structure.)

My appreciation for the Eraserheads has been, oddly enough, in a kind of media vacuum; I have yet to see them interviewed, or any of their music videos, including the much-heralded one for “Ang Huling El Bimbo.” Their career began and rocketed as I was out of the country and unplugged from any Filipino radio station; perhaps that explains as well my obsessive, repeated listenings, trying to glean any little information I could about who these pop geniuses were.