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Seedy CD*: A psychologist’s look at the music of Soft Cell

In a previous blog on examining all Adam Ant’s songs about sexual paraphilias, I noted that Soft Cell are probably the only other recording artists who come close to talking about the seedier side of sex. They are also artists that (like one of my other favourite bands, Throbbing Gristle) have never been afraid to sing about taboo topics including prostitution (‘Secret Life’, A Divided Soul’), a housewife’s sexual fantasy about the paper boy (‘Kitchen Sink Drama’), pure hedonism (‘Sensation Nation’), alternative therapies such as colonic irrigation, meditation, and crystal therapy (‘Whatever It Takes’), murder (‘The Best Way To Kill’, ‘Meet Murder My Angel’), suicide (‘Darker Times’, ‘Frustration’ and ‘Down In The Subway’ – “Jump on that train track and die”), incest (‘I Am 16’), psychopathic killers (‘Martin’ based on the story of a serial killer in a film of the same name), shopaholism (‘Whatever It Takes’), anorexia nervosa (‘Excretory Eat Anorexia’), and obsessional cleansing (‘Cleansing Fanatic’), to name but a few.

Soft Cell arguably saw themselves as outside of the norm. Their first official release, an EP entitled ‘Mutant Moments’ EP set out their psychological store (and where ‘Metro Mr. X’ was their “favourite mutant”). They also had a track on the seminal 1980 (various artists) Some Bizarre Album about a disfigured woman (‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’). Very few artists would ever sing about such topics (although there are a few exceptions such as Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Hamburger Lady’ based on the medical case notes of a badly burned woman).

Soft Cell’s reputation as a band that focused on the sleazy side of everyday life was cemented after the release of their 1981 debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (NSEC). The cover featured a photo of the band’s two members (Marc Almond and Dave Ball) taken outside the Raymond Revue Bar, a notorious strip joint in the heart of London’s Soho district.

Just as the Velvet Underground’s debut album was viewed as a ‘sex and drugs’ LP because of a couple of songs about sadomasochistic sex (‘Venus In Furs’) and drug-taking (‘Heroin’), NSEC’s reputation as a ‘sleazy sex’ album also rested on just a few songs – most notably ‘Seedy Films’ (about telephone sex as well as pornographic films), ‘Secret Life’ (about using prostitutes behind a wife’s back), and the (now infamous) ‘Sex Dwarf’ (a song glorifying sadomasochistic sex). Later songs and albums also touched on various aspects of sexuality (their third album This Last Night In Sodom raising a few eyebrows on its’ release in 1984). They wanted to “try all of the vices” (in ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’) and also sang about having sex in cars (‘It’s A Mug’s Game’ and ‘Where Was Your Heart [When You Needed It Most’).

soft-cell-marija-563x353

One of my personal favourite in the Soft Cell canon is the 2002 song ‘Perversity’ which was a bonus track on their comeback single ‘Monoculture’ after reforming in 2001. It talked about studying at the “university of perversity” and provided me with the title to my series of blogs on the A-Z of little known paraphilias and fetishes. As Marc Almond and Friends, there was also a great cover version of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Discipline’ (a song about sadomasochism) and ‘Sleaze It, Take It, Shake It’ (by Almond’s side-project, Marc and the Mambas)

Soft cell’s second hit single ‘Bedsitter’ summed up my formative years as a teenage clubber and shares some of the same lyrical DNA as The Smiths classic ‘How Soon Is Now?’ (going to nightclubs in search of love and/or sex but going home alone). I’d also argue that Soft Cell sometimes give The Smiths a run for their money when it comes to songs about misery (e.g., ‘Chips On My Shoulder’, ‘Mr. Self-Destruct’, ‘Bleak Is My Favourite Cliché’, ‘Forever The Same’, ‘Down In The Subway’ and ‘Born To Lose’).

But Soft Cell aren’t just about sex, they also like songs about love more generally although their take on love is more about the unrequited love, the disintegration of love (‘Tainted Love’, ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’, ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, ‘All Out Of Love’, ‘Together Alone’, ‘Desperate [For Love]’, ‘L.O.V.E. Feelings’, ‘Whatever It Takes’, ‘Last Chance’, ‘What’, ‘Barriers’, ‘Disease And Desire’, ‘Her Imagination’, ‘Desperate’, and ‘Torch’). In short they focus on (as they describe in their song ‘Loving You, Hating Me’) “the other side of love” and the “devil in my bed” (‘from ‘God-Shaped Hole’). The only other band that have explored the ‘darker’ side of love lyrically in so many different songs are Depeche Mode (which I discussed in a previous blog on obsessional lyrics in pop music). Their songs aren’t afraid to feature one-night stands and casual sex (‘Numbers’, ‘Surrender To A Stranger’, ‘Heat’, ‘Where Was Your Heart [When You Needed It Most’ and ‘Fun City’). It’s also worth noting that Soft Cell were never afraid to talk about drug use in their songs including cocaine (‘Frustration’), LSD (‘Frustration’), alcohol (‘It’s A Mug’s Game’), valium (‘Tupperware Party’, ‘My Secret Life’), heroin (‘L’Esqualita’) and their “dealer in the hall” (‘Divided Soul’).

They also made cover versions that were often better than the originals. They sexed the songs up or made them mean, moody and menacing. Soft Cell were huge fans of Northern soul and is evident in their covers of songs like ‘Tainted Love’, ‘The Night’ and ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ but their other cover versions came from a wide variety of artists including Jimi Hendrix (their 11-minute ‘Hendrix Medley’ comprising ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Voodoo Chile’), Johnny Thunders (‘Born To Lose’), Suicide (‘Ghostrider’), Lou Reed (‘Caroline Says’ as Marc and the Mambas), and John Barry (‘007 Theme’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’). From the very first note, this were instantly Soft Cell even though they didn’t write the songs.

Lyrically (and musically), some of their best songs were on their final 2000 studio album Cruelty Without Beauty. For instance, ‘Caligula Syndrome’ depicts sadomasochism (“crawling down on your hands and knees like slaves”), orgies, and “every kind of deviation on demand”. The song ‘Grand Guignol’ is about the Parisian theatre that operated from 1897 until it closed in 1962. The theatre specialised in naturalistic amoral horror entertainment shows horror shows or as Soft Cell put it: It’s Grand Guignol/It’s rock ‘n’ roll/It’s vaudeville and burlesque/All of human life is here/In the theatre of the grotesque”. A sentiment that (I would argue) also sums up the many of the blogs I have published on this website.

*With thanks to The Passage (one of my favourite bands) who used the homonym ‘Seedy’ when naming their first CD [C-D, geddit?] compilation.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Almond, M. (1999). Tainted Life. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.

Almond, M. (2004). In Search Of The Pleasure Palace. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.

Fanni Tutti, C. (2017). Art Sex Music. Faber & Faber: London.

Lindsay, M. (2013). Sex music for gargoyles: Soft Cell’s The Art Of Falling Apart. The Quietus, December 12. Located at: http://thequietus.com/articles/14100-soft-cell-interview-marc-almond

Reed, J. (1999). Marc Almond: The Last Star. London: Creation Books.

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

Tebbutt, S. (1984). Soft Cell. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.

Wikipedia (2017). Marc Almond. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Almond

Wikipedia (2017). Soft Cell. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_Cell

Mack, the life: The psychology of Billy Mackenzie and The Associates

For the past month, the only music I have listened to on my iPod is all the albums by The Associates (along with the solo albums by their lead singer Billy Mackenzie), and have just finished reading Tom Doyle’s excellent biography of Mackenzie The Glamour Chasealso the title of their 1988 LP but remained unreleased until 2002). Mackenzie committed suicide in 1997, a few months before his 40th birthday. Following the death of his mother in the summer of 1996 (who he was very close to), Mackenzie became clinically depressed and took his on January 22nd, 1997 (following a previous suicide attempt on New Year’s Eve 1996).

I have loved The Associates since the early 1980s and became hooked on their music following the 1981 singles ‘White Car in Germany’ and ‘Message Oblique Speech’ (two of the great six singles they released that year and all available on their second LP, Fourth Drawer Down). Even if people don’t like Mackenzie’s recorded outputs, I doubt many people who have heard him sing would dispute how good his multi-octave voice was.

the-associates-billy-mackenzie-by-gilbert-blecken-1994-1images

Most people will know The Associates for their classic 1982 top ten album Sulk and the three British hit singles that year – ‘Party Fears Two’ (No.9), ‘Club Country’ (No.13), and ’18 Carat Love Affair’ (No. 21) but I’ve followed their whole career through thick and thin and have every one of their six albums (seven if you include the partial re-recording/remixing of their first album The Affectionate Punch) as well as the three BBC Radio 1 session LPs, the three compilation ‘greatest hits’ collections (Popera, Singles, and The Very Best of Associates), the rarities LP Double Hipness, and their only live album (Billy Mackenzie and The Associates In Concert).

Hailing from Dundee (Scotland), The Associates (Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine the two lynch-pin members) formed as punk exploded in 1976. Before changing their name to The Associates in 1979 they used the moniker Mental Torture (a name that biographer Doyle described as “biographically embarrassing”) but as a psychologist a choice of name that I find interesting. The ‘classic’ line-up of The Associates ended at the height of their commercial success in 1982 when Rankine left the band. Following that, many view the next three Associates’ LPs as Billy Mackenzie solo albums in all but name and that he never reached such critical acclaim ever again. That’s a viewpoint I share (despite there being many other great songs in his post-1982 catalogue). The creative and artistic chemistry he shared with Rankine was never bettered in the last 15 years of his life, and even the handful of demos he recorded with Rankine in a short-lived reunion in 1993 (available on the Double Hipness album and on the latest The Very Best of Associates compilation) clearly demonstrated Gestalt psychology’s underlying maxim that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

So what was it in Mackenzie’s psyche that killed the goose that laid the golden egg? Rankine didn’t leave the band because of clichéd “creative differences” but left after Mackenzie refused to go on a lucrative US tour (and Rankine knew that touring to promote their music was the only viable option to maintain a successful national and international profile). There appeared to be a combination of factors that led to Mackenzie’s decision including stage fright (i.e., performance anxiety which surfaced throughout his career) and the fact Mackenzie didn’t want to do the usual cycles of making an album, doing the obligatory media circuit, followed by the big tour. In short he didn’t want to play by the accepted rules and conventions – something the underpinned his whole persona. He wanted to be a ‘studio band’ – something that Rankine thought would never work.

My blog had always focused on life’s extremities and much of what Mackenzie did was about living life at the extreme. The liner notes of The Associates most recent CD compilation by Martin Aston neatly sums it up:

“In some ways, The Associates music mirrored their behavioural excess, pioneered by the naughty boy that was Billy Mackenzie, music both lush and visceral, abrasive and ravishing, pure pop and reckless adventurism, devoured and sprayed over an unsuspecting audience”.

(The “sprayed over an unsuspecting audience” was more in reference to the fact that Mackenzie had an unusual ‘gift’ of being able to projective vomit and something he demonstrated on fans in the front row in an early gig where The Associates supported Siouxsie and the Banshees). When it came to music, most of Mackenzie’s collaborators (musicians, singers, producers) describe him as obsessive and a perfectionist. Michael Dempsey, a founding member of The Cure and bass guitarist with The Associates in the early 1980s said: “He was obsessive, always on top of every detail. It was even down to whether you were wearing the right shoes because that was part of the composition and the production to him”. Tom Doyle’s biography is full of stories about Mackenzie taking hours in the studio to get the sound of one right or taking 40 takes to do one song (almost the opposite of David Bowie – one of Mackenzie’s musical heroes – who often recorded songs in one or two takes). Musical collaborators also talk about Mackenzie’s ability to “see” music in his head (which is perhaps not as strange as it sounds as there are countless reports in the psychological and neurological literature of synaesthesia (a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway” – for example, some people can see specific colours when they hear a particular piece of music). His obsessiveness was not just restricted to music. His flatmates described his “mildly obsessive hygiene and beauty routines: using an entire tube of toothpaste in one single brushing, spending an eternity rubbing lotions into his skin before he would shave”.

Mackenzie arguably had only three passions in his life – his music, his family, and his love of dogs (and more specifically whippets). He never had any significant romantic relationship in his life (although had a very brief marriage in his teens to American Chloe Dummar when he briefly lived in California). Like Morrissey, Mackenzie was fiercely private about his sexuality and rarely talked about his personal life to the press. It was only in a 1994 interview in Time Out magazine that he first spoke publicly of his bisexuality. I mention Morrissey because it was rumoured that Mackenzie had a brief relationship with him and that Mackenzie was the subject of The Smiths‘ British (No.17) hit single ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’. This appeared to have some legitimacy when during the Associates brief 1993 re-union, Mackenzie wrote a song called ‘Stephen, You’re Really Something’ (Stephen, of course, being Morrissey’s first name).

In both Doyle’s biography (and in a profile piece on The Associates in the latest issue of Mojo magazine by Tom Sheehan), it is noted that Mackenzie had a “particular idea of his own sexuality” and that it was “beyond male and female, beyond sexuality”. Martha Ladly (of one-hit wonders Martha and the Muffins, and backing singer in The Associates in the 1980s) describes him as being “omnisexual…he didn’t see sexuality in people, he saw it in situations and in all things”. The online Urban Dictionary says that omnisexual is “generally interchangeable with pansexual, one whose romantic, emotional, or sexual attractions are geared towards others regardless of sex and/or gender expression” – check out my previous blog on pandrogyny in relation to Throbbing Gristle’s lead ‘singer’ Genesis P. Orridge). In the Mojo article, Rankine said Mackenzie was “very compartmentalised. All the way through [The Associates] it never occurred to me that Bill was having affairs. Everyone he came across he was shagging”. He was arguably a little vain (and overly conscious of his receding hairline in the last decade of his life) and always sought reassuring compliments from those around him about his looks. His obsessive grooming habits appear to provide a good indication of how important his look was to him but I’ve read nothing to suggest that he was narcissistic (although perfectionism is known to be a trait associated with narcissism).

The other personal characteristic that Mackenkie was infamous for was spending money and loved life’s luxuries. One of my research areas is shopping addiction and compulsive buying but on reading Doyle’s biography I don’t think Mackenzie would be classed as a shopaholic or compulsive spender by my own criteria (but did end up bankrupt so was a problematic spender at the very least). Like many people, Mackenzie believed that money was for spending and he spent loads of other people’s money (usually the record company’s) on everything from clothes and daily taxis (including many a black cab ride from London to Dundee), to the best hotel rooms. My view is that he was much more of an impulsive (rather than compulsive) spender.

Many people were surprised (including me) that he was clinically depressed during the last few months of his life because up to the point of his mother’s death, he appeared was always outgoing and extraverted. In his earlier life he was hedonistic and engaged in heavy alcohol drinking and recreational drug use but as he matured the use of psychoactive substances all but disappeared from his life. No-one around him thought he would be the type of person to commit suicide (although it’s worth noting there appears to be an association between perfectionism and depression, and depression is one of the major risk factors for suicide along with stress caused by severe financial difficulties).

One of Mackenzie’s best known songs in The Associates back catalogue is Rezső Seress’ Hungarian suicide song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ (from their 1982 masterpiece Sulk). The Wikipedia entry about the song has a dedicated sub-section on urban legends connected to the song and Doyle’s biography also discussed it:

“While Mackenzie had first encountered ‘Gloomy Sunday’ through the version recorded by Billie Holiday in 1941 that – along with ‘Strange Fruit‘ – remained one of the dark show-stoppers forming a significant element of her repertoire, the song has a morbid history that stretches back to pre-war Hungary. Rezro [sic] Seress composed the mournful song in 1933, the lyric expressing a feeling of futility and helplessness following the death of a loved one, unusual in that it is directed at the person, the narrator detailing numberless shadows and conveying thoughts of suicide”.

Doyle goes on to tell some of the stories that came to be associated with the song being cursed:

“The first reported death associated with ‘Gloomy Sunday’ was that of Joseph Keller, a Budapest shoemaker whose suicide note in 1936 quoted the lyric. In the Hungarian capital alone, seventeen other similar deaths apparently followed, bearing some connection with the song: a couple were said to have shot themselves while a gypsy band performed ‘Gloomy Sunday’; there was talk that a fourteen-year-old girl had thrown herself into a river clutching the sheet music. The song was eventually banned in Hungary, although even these days the occasional piano rendition is performed in the Kis Papa restaurant in Budapest where Seres first aired the song. The legend of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ grew as its apparent effects became further reaching. In New York in the [1940s], there were reports that a typist gassed herself, leaving instructions for the song to be played at her funeral. In London, a policeman was alerted to the fact that a recorded instrumental of the song was being repeatedly played by an unseen female neighbour who, when her flat was entered, was discovered to have overdosed on barbiturates while an automatic phonograph played the song over and over again. Doubtful these tales have been embellished over the years in an effort to emphasize the myth surrounding ‘Gloomy Sunday’, but certain facts remain: the BBC ban imposed on the song in the [1940s] has not been lifted to this day: Holiday suffered a tragic premature death at forty-three form heroin-related liver cirrhosis in 1959; Seress, the song’s composer, himself committed suicide in 1968”.

The Wikipedia entry on ‘Gloomy Sunday’ covers similar ground but is a bit more sceptical. It also references an article on the myth-busting website Snopes.com and notes the BBC ban on the song was lifted in 2002:

“Press reports in the 1930s associated at least nineteen suicides, both in Hungary and the United States, with ‘Gloomy Sunday’, but most of the deaths supposedly linked to it are difficult to verify. The urban legend appears to be, for the most part, simply an embellishment of the high number of Hungarian suicides that occurred in the decade when the song was composed due to other factors such as famine and poverty. No studies have drawn a clear link between the song and suicide. In January 1968, some thirty-five years after writing the song, its composer did commit suicide. The BBC banned Billie Holiday’s version of the song from being broadcast, as being detrimental to wartime morale, but allowed performances of instrumental versions. However, there is little evidence of any other radio bans; the BBC’s ban was lifted by 2002”.

Here is Doyle’s take in relation to Mackenzie in the months after Mackenzie’s mother had died where Mackenzie was having a ‘house leaving’ party:

“The personal grief at the time imbues the song’s lyrics an uneasy resonance that could not have escaped [Mackenzie]. As he lay there singing in the early hours of the Sunday morning following the party, Billy alternated the line ‘Let them not weep, let them know that I’m glad to go’ with his own lamenting alternative: ‘Let them not weep, let them know that I’m sad to go’”.

Arguably his life was a paradox personified. It took him years to get noticed but when he finally made the limelight, he appeared to shun the fame. He lived life his own way on his own terms. Thankfully, while Mackenzie is no longer with us, his music – and his legacy – lives on.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dalton, S. (2016). 18-carat love affair. Electronic Sound, 2.0, 70-75.

Doyle, T. (2011). The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy Mackenzie (Revised Edition). Edinburgh: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Mikkelson, D. (2007). Gloomy Sunday: Was the song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ banned because it led to too many suicides? Snopes.com, May 23. Located at: http://www.snopes.com/music/songs/gloomy.asp

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

Sheehan, T. (2016). Beautiful dreamer. Mojo, 272, 50-55.

Vive Le Rock (2016). A rough guide to…The Associates, Vive Le Rock, 35, 84-85.

Wikipedia (2016). Alan Rankine. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Rankine

Wikipedia (2016). Billy Mackenzie. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Mackenzie

Wikipedia (2016). Gloomy Sunday. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloomy_Sunday

Wikipedia (2016). Martha Ladly. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Ladly

Wikipedia (2016). Michael Dempsey. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Dempsey

Wikipedia (2016). The Associates (band). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Associates_(band)

Making an online killing: A brief look at “suicide fetishes” and “addiction” to suicide websites

Back in March 2011, a then 46-year old American ex-nurse William Melchart-Dinkel from Minnesota was convicted of persuading two people he met online to commit suicide. Melchart-Dinkel was accused of having a “suicide fetish” because he got his kicks from frequenting online suicide chat rooms. Posing as a female nurse, he would chat online and feign compassion to depressed individuals and encourage them to commit suicide.

More specifically, a US court found him guilty of aiding the suicides of 18-year old Canadian student Nadia Kajouli (who jumped into a river and drowned), and 32-year old British IT technician Mark Drybrough (who hanged himself). During the trial, Nadia’s mother shared extracts of the online chats that took place between her daughter and Melchart-Dinkel (who was using various aliases including ‘Cami’, ‘Falcon Girl’ and ‘Li Dao’). A Minnesotan Internet crimes task force forensically examined Melchert-Dinkel’s computer and located online chats that he had with the Canadian teenager. The online conversation demonstrated that Melchart-Dinkel had urged Nadia to hang herself (rather than kill herself by drowning) and provided detailed instructions on how to kill themselves:

“If you wanted to do hanging we could have done it together online so it would not have been so scary for you…Most important is the placement of the noose on the neck…knot behind the left ear and rope across the carotid is very important for instant unconsciousness and death…I’m just trying to help you do what is best for you not me”.

Melchart-Dinkel even urged Nadia to kill herself while they were chatting online. A few hours after chatting with Melchart-Dinkel, Nadia emailed her roommate and told her she was going to “brave the weather and go ice skating” (in an effort to make it look like an accident). Nadia jumped into a frozen river (but her body was not found until 11 days after she had jumped in). In Mark’s case, Melchert-Dinkel replied to a question posted online by Mark about how he could hang himself if he didn’t have a high ceiling. Following a long email conversation, Melchert-Dinkel instructed him on what to do and convinced Mark that ‘she’ was suicidal too. Melchert-Dinkel wrote:

“I keep holding on to the hope that things might change. Caught between being suicidal and considering it. Same old story!…I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. If you want someone who’s suicidal, I’m just not there yet…Sorry. I admire your courage. I wish I had it”. 

Mark killed himself a few days later. Mark’s mother Elaine called Melchert-Dinkel her son’s “executioner”. She also told the Daily Mail in the UK:

“Mark had had a nervous breakdown and he was depressed and incredibly susceptible. [Melchert-Dinkel ]was there whispering in his ear every time he logged on. In the last email, [he] claimed to be a nurse, saying he had medical training, and proposed a suicide pact”

With the help of Celia Blay (a youth worker from Wiltshire in the UK), Mark’s mother managed to track Melchert-Dinkel. It was during their own investigation they discovered dozens of people had received similar emails to Mark’s:

“We found out everything about him on Google, including where he lived in Minnesota. He befriended them using a female identity, was very loving and sympathetic, but never suggested an alternative to death, even when they were only teenagers. He’d tell them that he intended to kill himself too, and said they should set up a web camera and he would do the same thing so they could watch each other die over the internet”.

During his testimony, Melchert-Dinkel admitted that he had asked between 15 and 20 people to commit suicide on camera while he watched (although when he was first caught, he said the online chatting must have been his teenage daughters). One report on Melchert-Dinkel’s case noted:

“While he never actually witnessed a suicide, he did believe that at least five of the people he had talked to were successful in taking their own lives. He also entered into around 10 ‘suicide pacts’ where he promised to kill himself simultaneously with the person he had been chatting with…Melchert-Dinkel was admitted to a hospital where he told doctors he had a ‘suicide fetish’ and an addiction to suicide websites”.

Before the trial, the Associated Press had interviewed Professor Jonathan Turley (George Washington University Law School), an expert on doctor-assisted suicide. It was reported that:

“[Professor Turley has] never heard of anyone being prosecuted for encouraging a suicide over the Internet. Typically, people are prosecuted only if they physically help someone end it all – for example, by giving the victim a gun, a noose or drugs. Last month, a Florida man was charged in his wife’s suicide after allegedly tossing several loaded guns onto their bed. Turley said if prosecutors file charges against Melchert-Dinkel, convicting him will be difficult – especially if the defense claims freedom of speech. The law professor said efforts to make it illegal to shout ‘Jump!’ to someone on a bridge have not survived constitutional challenges. ‘What’s the difference between calling for someone to jump off a bridge and e-mailing the same exhortation?’ he said”.

This line of defence was used by Melchert-Dinkel’s legal team. His behaviour was described as “abhorrent” by his own lawyer (Terry Watkins) but argued in court that his client’s actions were protected by the freedom of speech. Watkins said in court that:

“Freedom means you have to allow things to happen that some would find disgusting and completely unacceptable from a community or moral standpoint”.

However, the presiding judge (Thomas Neuville) said that the accused had “imminently incited the victims to commit suicide” and described Melchart-Dinkel’s online written comments as “unprotected speech”. He was sentenced to almost a year in prison (360 days) but was delayed until a ruling from the Supreme Court (SC). Earlier this year, the SC in Minnesota overturned Melchert-Dinkel’s conviction, and ruled that Minnesota’s law prohibiting the “encouraging” of suicide was unconstitutional and (as Professor Turley claimed) violated a person’s freedom of speech. However, the case (as far as I am aware) is still continuing because the original state prosecutors are trying to argue that Melchert-Dinkel “assisted” (rather than “encouraged”) people’s suicides.

My own take on this case is that Melchart-Dinkel committed a criminal act and that his claim to medics that he was addictedto encouraging people to commit suicide was made as a way of absolving responsibility for what he did. There was nothing about his online behaviour to suggest it was in any way addicted (at least not by my own criteria). Also, his own use of the word fetish is inappropriate in this instance. Although he did appear to get some kind of kick from his activity, there was nothing sexual in it. Again, his use of the word ‘fetish’ to describe his behaviour also appears to be another linguistic device to distance himself from taking the blame for his actions.

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

Further reading

Associated Press (2011). Nurse William Melchart-Dinkel had ‘suicide fetish’, went online to provoke two people’s deaths: cops. New York Daily News, October 17. Located at: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/nurse-william-melchert-dinkel-suicide-fetish-online-provoke-people-deaths-cops-article-1.388085

Caulfield, P. (2011). ‘Suicide fetish’ nurse found guilty of provoking people he found online to kill themselves. Daily News, March 16. Located at: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/suicide-fetish-nurse-found-guilty-provoking-people-found-online-kill-article-1.122996

Firth, N. (2010). Revealed: The suicide voyeur nurse who ‘encouraged people to kill themselves online’. Daily Mail, March 20. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1259379/The-suicide-voyeur-nurse-encouraged-people-kill-online.html

Guariglia, M. (2014). William Melchert-Dinkel: 5 Fast facts you need to know. Heavy News, March 19. Located at: http://heavy.com/news/2014/03/william-melchert-dinkel-suicide-minnesota-nurse/

Murray, Rheana. (2008). A search for death: How the internet is used as a suicide cookbook. Chrestomathy, 7, 142-156.

Yount, K. (2014). Minnesota Supreme Court turns its back on mentally ill. (i)Pinion, March 27. Located at: http://ipinionsyndicate.com/minnesota-supreme-court-to-suicide-predators-party-on/

Glum drone pleasures: The psychology of Ian Curtis and Joy Division

“Now there’s a really good book…[by French economist] Jacques Attali wrote in the late [1970s] called ‘Noise: The Political Economy of Music’…and the main tenet of that book is that…music is the best form of prophecy that we have…so that working with music or sound is our best way of divining a future, and being able to show to ourselves what’s round the corner in that psychological, or even psychic sense” (writer and graphic designer Jon Wozencroft being interviewed for the 2007 film Joy Division)

As a poverty stricken teenager in the early 1980s, all of my minimal disposable income was spent on buying records, cassettes, and music magazines (and to be honest, 35 years later nothing much has changed except I now buy far too many CDs instead of cassettes). Unlike most of my friends at the time I refused to be pigeon holed as a new romantic, a punk, a mod, or a goth because I liked music from all those genres. In the early 1980s was as equally as likely to buy a record by Adam and the Ants and Bauhaus as I was to buy records by Secret Affair and The Clash. I was also into city music scenes with my favourites being the ‘Liverpool scene’ (Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, Wah! etc.), the ‘Sheffield scene’ (Human League, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire, etc.), and the ‘Manchester scene’ (Magazine, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Passage, etc.).

The Manchester music scene was incredibly buoyant although often portrayed by the music press at the time as psychologically and emotionally ‘miserablist’. My parents could never understand what I saw in the “depressing and alienating music” (as they saw it) of bands like Joy Division and The Smiths. But it was through these bands that I developed an interest in psychology and what could be described as ‘psychgeography of post-punk’. In the case of Joy Division, their geographical location in Manchester and its surrounding area (Salford, Macclesfield) was integral to their music. In fact, a number of commentators (such as Liz Naylor, the co-editor of City Fun fanzine) have asserted that Joy Division “relayed the aura of Manchester” in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

All of my information about Joy Division came from reading the NME, listening to the John Peel Show on Radio 1, and listening to their two studio LPs (Unknown Pleasures and Closer) and assorted singles (that I mainly taped off the radio as most of them were not widely available). I was too young to go to gigs and they rarely appeared on television. Of the four members of Joy Division – Ian Curtis (vocals), Peter Hook (bass guitar), Bernard ‘Barney’ Sumner (guitar), and Stephen Morris (drums) – it was Curtis that captivated my adolescent attention. It was through Curtis’ documented medical conditions that helped develop my interest in psychology. Curtis suffered from epilepsy (like one of musical heroes Jim Morrison of The Doors) and clinical depression. It has also been alleged that he suffered from bipolar disorder (i.e., what used to be called ‘manic depression’) although this was never formally diagnosed (and many of those close to Curtis claim that such a claim is speculative at best).

Descriptions of Curtis’ behaviour on first sight look like bipolar disorder given the reports by his wife and others of his severe mood swings (where on one day he could have feelings of happiness and elation but on the next day could have feelings of intense depression and despair). However, other members of the band claimed that the mood swings were caused by the epilepsy medication Curtis was taking. However, bipolar disorder is not uncommon among musicians given many other high profile rock and pop stars have suffered from it including Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Ray Davies (The Kinks), Sinéad O’Connor, Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), and Adam Ant (to name just a few). Curtis was never afraid to write about psychological and medical conditions and the song ‘She’s Lost Control’ is arguably the most insightful song ever written about epilepsy (based not on his own experiences, but his observations of a female epileptic client who died while he was an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer based at the Job Centre in Macclesfield).

As any Joy Division fan knows, as a result of his severe depression, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself on May 18, 1980 (a date I always remember because it was my favourite gran’s birthday), just two days before Joy Division were due to go on their first US tour. Even as a 14-year old teenager, I remember going to my local library in Loughborough not long after his death to learn more about depression, epilepsy, suicide, and attempted suicide (as he had two previous attempts to commit suicide earlier that year). I’m not saying that this alone was responsible for my career choice but it certainly facilitated my growing interest in psychology and mental health issues.

It was also through Joy Division that I started to read history books (and still do) on various psychological and non-psychological aspects of Nazism (and is evidenced by my previous blogs on the personality of Adolf Hitler and Nazi fetishism). Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Joy Division were often accused of having Nazi tendencies. It didn’t help that their name came from the 1955 novella House of Dolls by Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nu (writing under his pen name Ka-tzetnik 135633). The ‘Joy Division’ was the name given to a group of Jewish women in World War II concentration camps whose only purpose was to provide sexual pleasure to Nazi soldiers. I have to admit I’ve never read any of De-Nu’s books. According to an online article by David Mikies (‘Holocaust Pulp Fiction’), De-Nu’s writings were “often lurid novel-memoirs, works that shock the reader with grotesque scenes of torture, perverse sexuality, and cannibalism“. In the 2006 book Joy Division and the Making of Unknown Pleasures, Jake Kennedy asserted that “Curtis’ fascination with extremes would hint to anyone willing to look beyond the headlines that the choice of name was probably an old fashioned punk exercise,  matter of old habits dying hard”.

One of the bands earliest songs ‘Warsaw’ (which was also their band name prior to becoming Joy Division) is arguably a lyrical biography of Hitler’s deputy Führer Rudolf Hess. The song even begins with the lyric “3 5 0 1 2 5 Go!” (Hess’ prisoner of war serial number after he was captured after flying to the UK in 1941). Another of their early songs ‘No Love Lost’ features a spoken word section with a complete paragraph from The House of Dolls. A 2008 article by music writer Jon Savage in The Guardian newspaper noted that Curtis’ songs “such as ‘Novelty’, ‘Leaders of Men’ and ‘Warsaw’ were barely digested regurgitations of their sources: lumpy screeds of frustration, failure, and anger with militaristic and totalitarian overtones”.

Deborah Curtis (Ian’s wife) also remembered that her husband had a book by John Heartfield that included photomontages of the Nazi Period and that graphically documented the spread of Hitler’s ideals. The cover artwork of the band’s first record, the ‘An Ideal For Living’ EP, also featured a boy member the Hitler Youth drawn by guitarist Barney Sumner banging on a drum. Much of the flirtation with Nazi symbolism was arguably juvenile fascination and playful naivety. It’s also been noted that Joy Division’s early music concentrated on the nihilistic provocations of industrial music’s pioneers Throbbing Gristle (whose music I also examined at length in a previous blog). An interesting 2010 article by Mateo on the A View From The Annex website defended Joy Division’s use of Nazi imagery and lyrics:

“The Labour government´s betrayal of the working class during the 1970s and the rise of Thatcherism at the end of the 1970s heralded a future of mass unemployment, government repression and decaying industry. The perspective taken by Ian Curtis, the band´s sole lyricist, towards this growing authoritarianism and despair is crucial to understand if one is to place the references to fascism found in the band´s album art in the context intended by the artist, that is, a despairing anti-Nazism…Punk at that time was a unique music scene in which battles between anti-racists and neo-nazis were being thrashed out at concerts as the skinheads tried to appropriate the punk aesthetic and hijack the following of alienated, disillusioned working class youth who gravitated towards such a sub-culture in places like Manchester at the beginning of the 1980s…The lyrics of Ian Curtis made it clear that this was a presence suffered and feared as opposed to tolerated or toyed with by the band…Joy Division feared fascism, they did not flirt with it and the artwork and lyrics in ‘An Ideal for Living’ serves as a warning of growing fascistic tendencies in British society…For this, Curtis and his bandmates should be lauded for tackling such a controversial issue and expressing such a well-grounded fear and hostility towards such a veritable enemy of the working class during a swift turn to the right in Britain”.

By all accounts, Curtis was a voracious reader and read books by William Burroughs, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, Nikolai Gogol, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hermann Hesse and J.G. Ballard, many of which made their way into various Joy Division songs (an obvious example being their song ‘Interzone’ taken directly from a collection of short stories by William Burroughs). As Jon Savage noted:

“Curtis’s great lyrical achievement was to capture the underlying reality of a society in turmoil, and to make it both universal and personal. Distilled emotion is the essence of pop music and, just as Joy Division are perfectly poised between white light and dark despair, so Curtis’s lyrics oscillate between hopelessness and the possibility, if not need, for human connection. At bottom is the fear of losing the ability to feel”.

J.G. Ballard was a particular inspiration to Curtis (particularly the books High Rise and Crash, the latter of which was about the suffering of car accident victims and sexual arousal, and which I wrote about in a previous blog on symphorophilia). One of Joy Division’s best known songs (the opening ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ from their second LP Closer) took its’ name from Ballard’s collection of ‘condensed novels’ (and given its focus on mental asylums is of great psychological interest). So distinct is Ballard’s work that it gave rise to a new adjective (‘Ballardian’) and defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J.G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments”. Given this definition, many of Joy Division’s songs are clearly Ballardian as they examine the emotional and psychological effects of everything around them (including personal relationships on songs such as their most well known and most covered song, and only British hit ‘Love Will tear Us Apart’).

The overriding psychology and underlying philosophy of both Ian Curtis and Joy Division are both contradictory and complex but ultimately the band members were a product of the environment they were brought up in and the sum of their musical and literary influences. At the age of 24 years, Curtis’ suicide was undoubtedly tragic and like many other literary and musical ‘artists’, his death has been somewhat romanticized by the mass media. Although he didn’t quite make it into the infamous ‘27 Club’ of ‘rock martyr’ musicians that died when they were 27 years (e.g., Dave Alexander [The Stooges], Chris Bell [Big Star], Kurt Cobain [Nirvana], Richey Edwards [Manic Street Preachers], Pete Ham [Badfinger], Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Brian Jones [Rolling Sones], Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison [The Doors], Amy Winehouse) he is surely a candidate for being a prime honorary member (along with Jeff Buckley). Retrospectively looking at his lyrics (In the shadowplay, acting out your own death, knowing no more” from ‘Shadowplay’, you can’t help but wonder (given that many of them were autobiographical) whether Curtis’ death could have been prevented by those closest to him.

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

Further reading

Curtis, D. (1995). Touching From A Distance. London: Faber and Faber.

Curtis, I., Savage, J. & Curtis, D. (2015). So This Is Permanence: Joy Division Lyrics and Notebooks. London: Faber and Faber.

Gleason. P. (2015). This Is the Way: “So This Is Permanence” by Ian Curtis. Located at: http://stereoembersmagazine.com/way-permanence-ian-curtis/

Hook, P. (2013). Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. London: Simon and Schuster.

Kennedy, J. (2006). Joy Division and the Making of Unknown Pleasures. London: Omnibus.

Mikies, D. (2012). Holocaust pulp fiction. The Tablet, April 19. Located at: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/97160/ka-tzetnik?all=1

Morley, P. (2007). Joy Division: Piece by Piece: Writing About Joy Division 1977-2007. London: Plexus Publishing.

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

Savage, J. (2008). Controlled chaos. The Guardian, May 10. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/may/10/popandrock.joydivision