The Lost Art of the Spoken Word

A few weeks back, I touched on the recent Napalm Death / Dropdead show in London, and Barney Greenway’s courageous (and surprisingly successful) attempt to deliver the Napalm Death set while confined to a chair with a broken ankle.  Another aspect of the gig that stayed with me was that, of course, Greenway and Dropdead’s Bob Otis are two of life’s great in-between song speakers.  Very different in style – the former a cheerful raconteur, the latter rather more deadpan – but both committed to articulating their thoughts during a show.  That said, the pleasure I derived from Dropdead thematically grouping their songs is more my problem than yours…

This all served to remind me how this type of interplay has become something of a dying art.  Many shows now flash by often without pause, and while band-crowd interaction remains high, it tends not to take the form of between song dialogue.  Does this matter?  In many respects, no.  Good shows remain vibrant collective experiences.  However, I can’t help but feel that communicating ideas and shared values remains an important part of a hardcore show.  And while the diminishing of this does not necessarily compromise gigs, I can’t help but feel that when it does happen, it enhances the live experience and reinforces why we are all there.

In his highly recommended book The Poetry of Punk: The Meaning Behind Punk Rock and Hardcore Lyrics, Gerfried Ambrosch (guitarist with Carnist and Momentum) explores the centrality of lyrics to the hardcore community.   This stems in part from the explicit function of the lyrics to share political ideas, to challenge social conventions, and to help nourish community identity.  It also reflects what is referred to as the ‘inarticulate articulacy’ of the lyrical delivery, its distortion is a physical representation of dissent.  And as Ambrosch explores: ‘It’s important for the audience to know that there is semantic substance behind the noise, because a big part of the connection they make with the artist and each other, especially at live shows, is lyrical’.

In the often-febrile environment of the live show, I have always felt that between song dialogue serves the same purposes as the lyric sheet at home, strengthening the communal bonds being forged.  So, why has it seemingly fallen out fashion?

For some bands, I suspect it is simply that they don’t feel that the nature of their live delivery affords time for such interactions.  Take the blistering delivery of Permission – I’m not sure their vocalist would have had the physical capacity to speak such was the frenetic nature of their live performances.  Or perhaps it could fracture the efforts of a band who seek to create a more all-encompassing atmosphere.

For others, I sometimes sense that there is a latent tendency to not want to be seen to be preaching, least of all to the converted.  I must admit that this is a view for which I have less sympathy.  While no one enjoys being lectured, the very underpinnings of hardcore are political.  That is not to argue that it is by any means a coherent political ideology. But it can be convincingly argued, as Ambrosch does, that ‘most punks hold “progressive” – culturally liberal, socially egalitarian – views’.  And while this progressivism spans anti-capitalism / DIY ethics, social equality, and animal rights, it would be wrong to assume that even within punk communities that these issues are necessarily understood (and practised) with equal clarity.  In any case, the aim is not to tell people what to think – but rather to ferment debate and encourage people to investigate issues for themselves.

The final contributory factor I suspect is confidence.  I speak as someone who has complete admiration for anyone prepared to throw themselves into the limelight on a stage.  It clearly requires a level of confidence (or at least an ability to conquer fear!) that I would find challenging to muster.  But to speak publicly issues about social and political concern, even to a sympathetic and engaged audience, does demand a particular level of self-confidence.  Thinking of the frontpersons who have perhaps most engaged me over the years – Greg Bennick (Trial), Damien Moyle (As Friends Rust, Culture), Sean Murphy (Verse), and Dan Yemin (Paint It Black) – there was certainly an impressive level of eloquence and empathy in evidence. And when you consider the professions of Bennick (a motivational speaker) and Yemin (an adolescent psychotherapist), there perhaps lie some important clues.  These are, clearly, both individuals who thrive on human interaction and who are not afraid to explore issues publicly, which may in turn speak to their skills as a frontperson for a hardcore band.

It could be that levels and types of on-stage dialogue are cyclical in much the same way as the music being played – emphasis changes, evolves, and reinvents itself.  But I do hope that it’s not lost completely.  As with the lyrics themselves, such interactions build connections and encourage reflections, which is never a bad thing.