A Secret History of Movies, Monsters, and Electronic Music
The author of a study of how monsters irradiate our thinking about queerness, disability, children, and adolescents, talks us through the sounds of his new book.
A few weeks back now a package arrived from Fitzcarraldo Editions, one of Europe's leading independent publishing houses. Inside was This Young Monster by Charlie Fox, who for the uninitiated, is a young London-based author who writes for magazines like The Wire, ArtReview, and Sight and Sound. This Young Monster is his first full-length work, and it is, to be blunt, an unequivocal masterpiece of cultural criticism. The book assesses how the concept of the monster irradiates our thinking about queerness, disability, children and adolescents, Fox looks at everything from the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder to the photos of Larry Clark via Leigh Bowery's attempt to turn life into a never ending performance piece, always asking the reader to think about their own relationship to monsters, and monsterism. I tore through it in a single sitting, and you'll be likely to do the same thing.
In the following piece, Fox examines how electronic music, as refracted through the prism of his book's central concerns, has impacted him and his sense of being in the world.
(Josh Baines, editor of THUMP UK)
This Young Monster stomped into my head late one night while I was watching A Clockwork Orange again: it's what that macho dude calls Alex, the fun-loving psychopathic hero in Stanley Kubrick's movie, when he comes home. I wanted to bring together all this art about being a monster during childhood and adolescence, sink my fangs into it and go wild. Teen horror masterpieces like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Halloween are in there along with Alice in Wonderland, juvenile delinquents, heavy metal and Buster Keaton. For me, music is this hallucinogenic zone where you can get lost; I wanted the book to be like that. It's noisy and dreamy and mutant with all these different voices, it's a rambunctious and frightening fairy tale: it bites. This isn't so much a soundtrack to the book as a bunch of stuff that I'd revisit, vampire-like, whilst I was writing, to keep the thing alive.
1. Michael Jackson - "Thriller"
Rewind to Halloween, 1999: a horror-obsessed pre-teen, I wander around suburbia in a werewolf mask with some pals. Whilst hidden in dark trees heavy with the stench of bonfires, dead leaves and exploded pumpkins at twilight, I feel a weird glow. Later that evening, I watch the videotape of Thriller scored from a now long-dead Blockbuster and freak out, chiefly over Vincent Price killing it with his rap—:stand and face the hounds of hell!" (bonus track: Vincent flawlessly reciting 'The Harlot's House' the same year) but also about the synthesiser hook mimicking the throb of a zombie heart and Rick Baker's make-up for the dancing corpses, which has such rancid verisimilitude that cruising the shoot would be a necrophile's delight. And here's where Michael's fall from pop wunderkind to drug-addled bogeyman begins: soon there will rumors about him craving a brain transplant and partying in a clown suit to avoid detection by psychotic fans; soon things will get very dark indeed.
2. Matmos - "Public Sex for Boyd McDonald"
There's a bunch of radical queers in the book (cue Macaulay Culkin shaking his rump on MDMA in Party Monster) and not only because it was necessary to indulge in a little danse macabre with the zombifying reality of AIDS. "Public Sex for Boyd McDonald" appears on Matmos' record A Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, an album of elegies for gay artists. In this live airing, the track comes loaded with heartbreak sax and backdropped by footage of a tranq'd-up blonde Narcissus luxuriating in his own existence from a hot tub.
The contents of every Matmos track read like ingredients in a witch's cauldron: they've assembled their trippy and texturally luscious music by manipulating the sounds produced by materials such as a rabbit pelt, snails, and latex. The legendary filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (RIP) swaggers through the book and I fantasized about the form that Matmos' ode to him might take. Maybe it would be an aria scored by somebody joylessly snorting tons of coke and caressing the glitter-checkered flesh of anonymous boys, all to a Patrick Cowley beat at humping tempo with a few lines of Faust recited over the top. Repeat after me: "I give myself to frenzy/To pleasure that hurts most." What Matmos pulled off on A Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast is a mind-boggling paradox: biography without words—now that's witchcraft.
3. Oneohtrix Point Never's Instagram dog
Daniel Lopatin once claimed all he wanted was to create "phantasmagorical shit" and this five second video of a gnarly industrial mutt barking is yet another manifestation of that impulse. The metallic texture on the last bark's echo fogs the difference between 'mutt' and 'mutant'. This video is like proof that any artist is Victor Frankenstein, trying to sculpt or electrify something from the raw junk of their imagination ("biomechanical dog barking") and get it out of their head.
Lopatin's dog may be related to the dog from The Thing or a toxic bro to Tim Burton's Frankenweenie who comes back from the dead. Or he might be Void, the dog belonging to Ezra, the pubescent misfit hero of his last album, Garden of Delete. That record totally infected This Young Monster's world since it's about all teen life as a monstrous phase where you transform into this sick creature—there's a chapter of the book called 'Untitled (Freak)' dealing with Diane Arbus' photography, and plenty of her works about that disorientation. But Garden of Delete also invents this landscape full of warped pop culture garbage; it's the reality but it's all warped somehow and that's like heaven to me. It's saturated with these weird voices—some demonic, some almost human, some just lonely—and I've always been obsessed with voice manipulation. What if I had no true voice at all? I could be a girl, werewolf or zombie; I could bark myself to death, too. It's all inside the dog.
4. Clu Gulager - A Day with the Boys
Who can tell what cornucopia of wild chemicals the kids in this haunting Vietnam allegory ingested but when that fucked-up puer aeturnus grins for you in the movie's last freeze-frame, you know you've seen something wonderful. I think what happens is a gang of boys frolic like hyenas in the wilderness as summer dies—everything is Halloween orange—with everything done in slow motion for extra melancholy, and all very Peter Pan even when they shoot down a middle-aged dweeb and bury his carcass in a ditch. When I was writing about Larry Clark's photographs of teenage speed freaks and skaters running off in search of oblivion for the book, I looped this film for hours. The Jimmy Joyce Choir pine like the ghosts of kids from the score for A Charlie Brown Christmas. Before and after things get bloody, spaced-out carousel melodies float through the air, the sunshine turns psychotropic and a funeral trumpet blows a requiem for the enchanted time of childhood. Dude, LSD was never this good.
5. Julee Cruise - "Floating into the Night," Bathory - "Nocternal Obeisance"
One of the most curious things about Lewis Carroll's Alice books is that he never tells us what happens in Wonderland or the land of the Looking Glass at night and I decided to solve this mystery by inventing a teenage hellcat Alice who stays up late and narrates a chapter of the book from a Wonderland that's gone totally Gummo. Then I remembered that Julee Cruise, the Twin Peaks songbird, had conjured up Alice by night long before on this record where she plays the ingenue adrift in a dreamscape—when "dog and bird are faraway," beware. Fading out of Cruise's "The World Spins" into this eldritch Bathory track that's Nordic midnight breeze mixed with drone, honors the ecological continuity between Twin Peaks and black metal, alike in their belief that the woods are zones of dark enchantment. If you get the mix right, you feel like Hansel and Gretel, creeping away from home, sweet home into a world of supernatural malevolence.
6. Nirvana - "Endless Nameless (Live on Halloween Night 1991)"
The book ended up feeling so haunted by Kurt in all his negative creepiness, which is probably down to my longstanding fascination with his portrayal as a white trash ghost in that biography, Heavier than Heaven. Here's the noise produced by a boy who used to stay at home with his cats making collages that coupled pictures of Kiss with medical photography of diseased vaginas or mutilating dolls and huffing fumes from aerosol cans. I didn't know music could sound so inconsolably deranged before getting into "Endless Nameless." The mood swoops between feral despair and strung-out longing—check out Kurt rhyming "mother" with "summer." It was cathartic and confusing to hear, aged 11, as my dreams of being a vampire bit the dust. Did this lure a bunch of kids into trying Sonic Youth and Fennesz or were they way too spooked by hearing Kurt repeatedly puke the phrase "go to Hell" at his dad, himself or everybody else as if mid-exorcism to do anything but shiver?
7. Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill
Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is just these echo-soaked skeins of Liz Harris' voice and guitar swirling around you; it's like being at the center of a beautiful spiderweb. Imagine if little Cecilia Lisbon from The Virgin Suicides heard this record as a morbidly depressed teen, maybe she would've been OK and not slit her wrists in the family bathtub. Maybe not. Harris appears on the cover as a six-year-old goth doll in a snapshot taken by her mother. She looks so regal and self-possessed, she could be playing hide-and-seek with the Dark Lord. Ask her if you can join in, it'll be so much fun.
Charlie Fox's This Young Monster is out now on Fitzcarraldo Editions.