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A battle of Witts: A brief look at ‘Taboos’ and the work of The Passage

“If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it” (Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare)

Today’s blog is not academic but it’s about an academic (but I’ll come to that later). Back in the early 1980s when I was in my early teenage years, my obsession for music was fed by listening to the John Peel show every weekday night. I still have dozens of cassettes of the songs that I taped off the show that I still cannot throw away (and before you ask, yes I am a hoarder when it comes to anything music-related). It was 1981 when I first heard a song that has become one of my all-time favourites – ‘Taboos’ by post-punk band The Passage. From the opening verse I was transfixed. Here was a group writing songs about sexual dysfunction in both a cerebral and humorous way. Around this time I was also a massive fan of Adam and the Ants, particularly their songs on sexual perversions and paraphilias (which I have already documented in two previous blogs on the psychology of Adam Ant, and Ant as a portrait in pop perversion)

The Passage formed March 1978 in Manchester and the band was led by Richard ‘Dick’ Witts (formerly a percussionist in the Halle Orchestra) and the only ever present member until they split up in 1983. Their early material as been likened to The Fall (not totally a surprise given that The Passage’s first bassist Tony Friel also played bass in The Fall), and like The Fall there was a constant change of line-ups with Witts being the equivalent of The Fall’s lead singer Mark E. Smith. Witts was also an occasional television presenter of music programmes (such as The Oxford Road Show). Witts also recalled the story of Morrissey auditioning for them before he formed The Smiths (“‘As we were spineless about singing we once auditioned a bunch of hopefuls, including a certain Steve Morrissey, who we thought a bit too glum for the likes of us”).

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Between November 1980 and March 1983, The Passage released four great albums (Pindrop; For All And None; Degenerates; and Enflame) on three different record labels (first Object Music, then Virgin subsidiary label Night & Day, and finally with legendary indie label Cherry Red). The LPs were all re-released in 2003 on the LTM label along with a compilation album (BBC Sessions). There’s also a ‘best of’ CD collection with the homophonically titled Seedy (geddit? A prime example of Witts’ wit) which is well worth getting as a primer to their later recorded output. Much of their music was critically lauded including (then NME critic and later a member of the band Art of Noise) Paul Morley who compared them to Joy Division (a band that was actually the support act at one of The Passage’s early gigs). Morley’s review of their debut LP noted:

‘With the disquieting Pindrop, The Passage can be accepted as major even by the cowardly, cautious and cynical: it’s a work of disciplined intellectual aggression, frantic emotions and powerfully idiomatic musicality. Pindrop is densely shaded, erratically mixed (which often works in its favour), rough edged, heavy in an unloveable sense of the word…It’s as shocking a beautiful nightmare, as stormy and aware a debut LP as [Joy Division’s] Unknown Pleasures. Where you gasp a lot. Comparisons will harm. Their sound is their own. It’s the shock of the new – new shades, textures, noises, pulses, atmospheres, energies, the opening up of new realms of feeling.’

One of the things I loved about The Passage was they were never afraid to write songs that were lyrically intellectually political and/or sexual (e.g., ‘Troops Out’, ‘Carnal’, ‘Taboos’, ‘XoYo’). Their ‘love songs’ (to use a quote from the Soft Cell’s song ‘Perversity‘) are “deliciously twisted” (e.g., ’16 Hours’. Love Is As’, ‘Revelation’, ‘Time Will Tell’). In fact, a number of music critics would talk about Witts’ “rigorously intellectual approach” to music and lyric writing. Their second album (For All and None) even took its title from the four-part philosophical novel by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (i.e., Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None). In the song ‘My One Request’, Witts refrain “Love, fear, power, hope” appears to be his manifesto on life. In a lengthy interview with Johnny Black for indie fanzine Masterbag about his continued fascination with form and structure:

“‘We’ve done 53 songs now and they’re all based on just three words,’ says Witts, beginning to illustrate his musical triangle on a paper napkin. At the corners of the triangle he writes the words and speaks them as he does so. ‘Fear, power and…love.’ ‘Another triangle takes shape while he tells me about power. ‘Power is ambiguous, it depends on how it’s used. In the same way, a knife can be used to cut bread, or to slit a throat.’ ‘The second triangle is ready, and at each corner he writes, semitone, minor third, major third, then pushes the napkin over to me. ‘Within these triangles you can sum up everything about Western music.’ The Witts fixation with structure (and triangles) is reflected even in the design of their album covers. ‘We use only black, red and white, which are symbolic colours. The red flag, the black flag for anarchy, black and white united fight – all these things…There are three people in the group and I associate those colours with us. I’m red, Andrew [Wilson] blue, and Paul [Mahoney] is white.”

I should also note that the track ‘Love Song’ from their New Love Songs EP was the first song I ever heard that featured the word ‘c**t’ in a rhyming couplet (‘I love you/Cos I need a c**t/I love you/To use you back and front’). (As a possibly amusing aside, I was the first ever academic to get the word ‘f**kwit’ into the British Journal of Psychology in a study examining the role of cognitive bias in slot machine gambling – see ‘Further reading’ below). The same song also referred to fellatio (but Adam and the Ants had already covered the topic in the song Cleopatra on their 1980 debut LP Dirk Wears White Sox). The Passage are arguably one of the most unsung bands of the 1980s. Perhaps the best tribute to the band was from Nick Currie (aka the musician Momus) who said:

“[The Passage were] one of the greatest, yet least known of 80s groups. I bought ‘Pindrop’ after hearing a track on [the John Peel show]. The album (slightly murkier, more introverted and mysterious sounding than later releases) was like nothing else being made at the time. Totally electronic, spooky, intelligent, political, passionate as hell, like Laurie Anderson crossed with The Fall. ‘Degenerates’ and ‘Enflame’ are also great records, Brechtian politics melded to angular, caustic lyrics. The Passage were very un-English in their willingness to write about sex and politics. I think you’d have to see them as libertarians in a peculiarly Protestant mode, like Quakers or Methodist radicals or something”.

Which brings me to arguably their two greatest songs – ‘Taboos’ and ‘XoYo’ – both about sex but both very different both musically and lyrically (sexual dysfunction versus sexual liberation). Both songs are on the 2003 CD reissue of the Degenerates LP and most people that have heard of The Passage probably prefer ‘XoYo’ because they are likely to be one of the 100,000+ music lovers (like myself) that bought the Cherry Red indie classic sampler album Pillows and Prayers on which it also appeared. The opening quote by Shakespeare is actually the first lyric on ‘XoYo’ (which you can listen to here) and it fits perfectly with the lyrical content of the song (you can read all the lyrics here as they also work as prose).

The ‘Taboos’ single (which you can listen to here) was recorded at Stockport’s Strawberry Studio in August 1981. Witts was apparently unhappy with the mix (although I think it’s great) as he was quoted as saying: “I drowned the drumming with timpani and other percussion, in particular Taboos which now sounds more like an Orange Order marching band than the [Phil] SpectorWall of Sound‘ I had in mind”. Lyrically, I just loved the whole song. Below are the lyrics to the whole song that I transcribed myself as (unlike ‘XoYo’), they don’t appear to be published anywhere online:

“I use this magazine that gives instructions/It tells me many things about seduction/It comes in monthly parts, there’s 16 sections/I need nine more for the complete collection

In Number 6 there’s chapters on disorders/And Number 7’s all about withdrawal/In Number 8 there’s pictures of positions/I’m stuck till I receive the ninth edition

Whoever hopes to dance with me/Must abandon all such guides and schemes/And measure up a million ways and means/Take to heart strange choreography

We have to wait until we’ve read them through/With things like this we’re better safe than sorry/I have it written here, four things to do/Each one a cornerstone of carnal knowledge

It makes you go blind/By closing your mind/Obstructing the view/Too many taboos/Too many taboos

We really should wait till we’ve read them through/You know we’re/always better safe than sorry/You see it written here a thousand rules/Certain regulations should be followed

Perhaps these studies on cassette are wisest/While they play you try the exercises/Just one of 15 minutes would be plenty/My body can’t take all five C-120s

Whoever hopes to dance with me/Must leave behind what’s being heard and seen/And stepping through a thousand routes and dreams/Take to heart new choreography

It makes you go blind/Disclosing the mind/A little taboos/Two million taboos

Let’s wait until we’ve seen the TV series/A programme titled ‘All Your Bedroom Queries’/You may will think I’m making lame excuses/I just don’t like, you know it more than I do

My only option is to write about/A verse or two of hollow lies about you/So you’d be flattered by my sharp deception/And words were made to exercise deception

Whoever wants to dance with me/Must abandon traps and trickery/Take to heart new choreography/Take by storm strange choreography

It makes you go blind/By closing the mind/Obstructing the view/Too many taboos/Too many taboos”

‘Taboos’ (words and music: Dick Witts and Andy Wilson)

Since The Passage disbanded, Witts has put his musical talents to good use. He became an academic and university lecturer in modern music and has taught at Edinburgh University, Goldsmiths University (London) and Edge Hill University (Ormskirk, Lancashire). He’s also written some great books including ones on Nico and The Velvet Underground (that you can download at his academic website). Hopefully after reading this, a few more people will delve into The Passage’s back catalogue and discover one of the great cult bands of the 1980s.

Note: I would like to thank both Dick Witts and Keith Nuttall (at http://www.thepassage.co.uk) for their help in compiling this article.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 351-369.

Nice, J. (2003). The Passage\Biography. LTM Recordings. Located at: http://www.ltmrecordings.com/the_passage.html

Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.

Wikipedia (2015). Richard Witts. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Witts

Wikipedia (2015). The Passage (band). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Passage_(band)

Give me another hit: A brief look at gambling in popular music

Today’s blog is an intersection of my academic passion (gambling) and my personal passion (popular music). In my academic career I have published three papers examining the impact of music on gambling behaviour (and I’ll cover that topic in a future blog). However, today’s blog is about gambling content in music rather than something more academic. Although I had been collating material to write this blog for well over a year, it was a tweet I received the other day from Ian Peel (editor of Classic Pop magazine) in response to a blog I wrote about my Art of Noise obsession that provided the impetus I needed to actually write this article.

One of the problems I had in putting this article together was trying to decide what the precise focus should be. Should it cover the topic of gambling in music in its entirety or be very specific and focus on a particular type of gambling. For instance, some of my readers are aware that I did my PhD thesis on fruit machine playing. To my knowledge, at least five artists have released a song with the title ‘Fruit Machine’ (The Ting Tings, Paul Lekakis, The Fades, Fat and Frantic, Lissat and Voltaxx, and Homelife) and at least two albums have been released with the same title (LPs by Jens Buchert and L.A. Deluxe). However, apart from The Ting Ting’s song, I know little about the other releases so writing something very specific was probably not the best option.

Ian Peel’s tweet suggested I should write an article on “gambling/music crossover next, [for example] Alan Parsons Project’s ToaFC”. As a massive fan of The Beatles, I know of Alan Parsons’ engineering and production work on Abbey Road and Let It Be (as well as some solo Paul McCartney LPs) as well as his role as engineer on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. However, I don’t own any albums by the Alan Parsons Project including The Turn of a Friendly Card (ToaFC).

ToaFC is probably the only concept album about gambling. (In fact the only concept album that has any crossover with my academic research is The Who’s LP Tommy (i.e., ‘The Pinball Wizard’), as I published a paper on pinball addiction in the journal Psychological Reports back in 1992 – see ‘Further Reading’ below). ToaFC was a progressive rock LP released back in 1980 and was the fifth album by the band (reaching the UK Top 40 albums chart and the Top 20 albums in the US). As the Wikipedia entry on the LP notes:

“[The album] focuses on gambling, and loosely tells the tale of a middle-aged man who grows restless and takes a chance by going to a casino and betting all he has, only to lose it all. The album has a 16-minute title piece, which was broken up into five tracks…with the five sub-tracks listed as sub-sections. The Turn of a Friendly Card spawned the moderate hits ‘Games People Play’ and ‘Time’.”.

There are lots of other albums that feature nothing but songs about gambling but these are all gambling-themed ‘various artists’ albums. What’s interesting about all these albums is that they all feature music made from the 1920s to the early 1970s and mainly from the genres of blues, folk, soul, and/or country and includes such LPs as Gambling Blues and Sinners, Loaded Dice – Vintage Gambling Songs, Life Is Like A Card Game (US Gambling Songs 1920s-1950s), Lady Luck – Classic Gambling Songs, and Bet You Haven’t Heard This – Poker, Casino and Gambling Songs. That’s not to say that there weren’t songs from other genres such as rock ‘n’ roll (Viva Las Vegas, Elvis Presley), ska (Long Shot [Kick De Bucket], The Pioneers), jazz (Blackjack, Ray Charles), lounge/swing (Luck Be A Lady, Frank Sinatra), and easy listening (The Lottery Song, Harry Nilsson) but the other genres appear to have far more songs about gambling.

Based on the research I did for this article I have come to the conclusion – and I may well be wrong – that there have been far more songs written about gambling up until the end of the 1960s than post-1970. If this is true, it may well be that back in the first half of the twentieth century, the number of leisure activities that were available for adults to participate in was significantly less than the latter half of the twentieth century. People wrote about what they did for pleasure before the rise of television and video games, and gambling was one of those activities that may have been more prominent in people’s leisure lives. As Jon Dennis writing in The Guardian noted:

“There’ve been songs about gambling since cavemen first found themselves feeling wreckless with too much time on their hands. It’s been a favourite theme of singers and songwriters, many of whom making the connection with life’s cruel throws of the dice…If you’ve ever wondered why Lonnie Donegan was one of the most influential figures in British music, listen to his version of Woody Guthrie‘s Gamblin’ Man. It has the furious, youthful energy of the best rock ‘n’ roll, and a manic dedication to the repeated refrain that would do Mark E Smith proud. Speaking of whom, the Fall’s Dice Man is based…(and Smith acknowledges on the sleeve of 1979 album Dragnet) on Luke Rhinehart‘s book ‘about a man whose life choices are decided on a dice roll’. It’s an uncharacteristically revealing song about Smith’s working methods…No shortage of slot junkies in Las Vegas, of course. Emmylou Harris first sang ‘Ooh Las Vegas’ as a duet with Gram Parsons  on Parsons’ Grievous Angel album. The song notes the relationship between booze and gambling, and the gambler’s fallacy (that a series of losses boosts the chances of an imminent win): ‘Third time I lose I drink anything/’Cos I think I’m gonna win’…The fact that gambling’s been a much-used metaphor lends [Amy Winehouse’s] Love Is a Losing Game a timeless quality”.

There are many songs that use gambling analogies as a way of expressing and talking about human relationships. Whether it’s the Rolling Stones’ ‘Tumbling Dice’ or Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’, the language of gambling has almost become a clichéd rhetorical device for expressing human emotion. That’s not to say it can’t be done well. My own personal favourite from a lyrical perspective is Sting’s ‘The Shape Of My Heart’, my favourite couplets being:

“He deals the cards as a meditation/And those he plays never suspect/He doesn’t play for the money he wins/He don’t play for respect/He deals the cards to find the answer/The sacred geometry of chance/The hidden law of a probable outcome/The numbers lead a dance”.

Finally, I am always asked by my friends that know I love music what my favourite song about gambling is – and it can change from day to day (but it will never ever be ‘The Gambler’ by Kenny Rogers – even though I mentioned this in the very first journal paper I ever published in a 1989 issue of the Journal of Gambling Behavior). From a purely visceral viewpoint, it has to be Motorhead’s ‘Ace Of Spades’ but I also like The Animals’ definitive version of ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’, and an obscure 1988 song called ‘Chance’ by the duo Act (formed by ex-Propaganda singer Claudia Brucken and Scottish musician Thomas Leer) from their great ZTT album Laughter, Tears and Rage.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dennis, J. (2011). Readers recommend: Gambling songs – results. The Guardian, September 15. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/sep/15/readers-recommend-gambling-songs-results

Dixon. L., Trigg, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). An empirical investigation of music and gambling behaviour. International Gambling Studies, 7, 297-308.

Ekberg, A. (2009). 25 great gambling songs. Yahoo.com, April 30. Located at: http://voices.yahoo.com/25-great-gambling-songs-3228884.html?cat=33

Griffiths, M.D. (1989). Gambling in children and adolescents. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 5, 66-83.

Griffiths, M.D. (1992). Pinball wizard: A case study of a pinball addict. Psychological Reports, 71, 160-162.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2005). The psychology of music in gambling environments: An observational research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13. Located at: http://www.camh.net/egambling/issue13/jgi_13_griffiths_2.html.

Music Jay (2013). Ten famous songs inspired by gambling. ZME Music, June 3. Located at: http://www.zmemusic.com/other/singles/ten-famous-songs-inspired-by-gambling/

Spenwyn, J., Barrett, D.K.R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of lights and music in gambling behavior: An empirical pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 107-118.

Votaw, L. (2013). 13 awesome songs about Las Vegas. Billboard.com, May 17. Located at: http://www.billboard.com/articles/events/bbma-2013/1562827/13-awesome-songs-about-las-vegas