Yes, I’m still banging on about Foetus, because even though virtually nobody has heard of Jim Thirlwell, he’s about as important to music history as Syd Barrett or Ray Davies, so you really need to pay attention. This won’t by any means become a Jim Thirlwell blog, but while he’s on the forefront of my consciousness, I really think you should check him out. Specifically, you need to start with Nail.
I heard this little gem from 1985 a whole decade later when a friend at work gave me a cassette tape of the album. To put things right, I recently bought the mp3 for a whopping £6.99 – available from his own site or Amazon – which is probably less than it would have cost me to buy the album 15 years ago.
Nail sounds dated now – of course! – but there’s been a lot of care and attention paid to how the sounds are layered that still sounds impressive given the limited resources and age. I’m pretty sure it was an influence on NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine, which came out four years later. Everything about Nail indicates “labour of love”, however hate-filled the lyrical invective. I’ve been playing it to death lately, so I’m just going to share a little “walkthrough” for anyone who’s not heard it yet. It’s a concept album of sorts but f***ed if anyone knows exactly what was going through Thirlwell’s head at the time. Nail is an incredible achievement, and one you really need to hear.
The opening track, Theme from Pigdom Come, sounds like the missing Danny Elfman theme from Batman (which, again, came out four years later) – all twinkling percussion and soaring synth-strings, both epic and playful. Thirlwell re-scored his instrumental project Steroid Maximus with a live orchestra: he really needs to do the same with Nail some time.
The Throne of Agony is to me the same as that Can track is to Everett True. It’s the song you can’t get past; the one you keep going back to. It’s the Casablanca of songs – practically perfect in every way. The lyrics are achingly clever (“gimme a break/start at the neck”) and totally indicative of the album: a gallows humour that tempers the ferocity of the misanthropy and self-disgust. It randomly switches in and out of Mission Impossible before gaining momentum – all the while his voice lurching from off-key growl to pretty Elvis impression. It’s this tension that makes it exquisite – both beautiful and ugly; perched between catchy rockabilly hooks and outright chaos.
Pigswill doesn’t pause for breath – this is Elvis after too many nights in the Overlook Hotel. When he’s snarling “destroy all girls”, it’s not Marilyn Manson’s idle shock tactics, but Jack Nicholson breaking down that door with that axe. This is why Thirlwell’s true contemporary is Nick Cave and not any industrial act: he’s writing murder ballads. Pigswill is a horror soundtrack to an imaginary movie. All the beats are there: the menacing build, lapse into noisy metallic clangs, and then quiet crooning over more orchestral lullabies. Another build, more noise, more menace and then a bloody, exilharating climax.
Descent Into The Inferno is another stand-out track on a virtually perfect album. It builds up from nothing – the odd roll, the odd synth-brass squeak. More impossibly clever punning – but as soon as you’ve stopped your guilty giggling, the bass has kicked in, and it’s a sing-a-long pop anthem with jazz-scat backing vocals, Jim still riffing on Evil Elvis. We’ve moved on from Kubrick; this is the coolest movie Tarantino never made.
Enter the Exterminator is all brooding whispers over traditional industrial noise … for two and a half minutes until the there’s a tantalising glimpse of a pop hook … back to noise before seguing to random Grieg and slamming to a sudden, sweet stop.
DI-1-9026 is zombie Grease on crack – a brutal, startling rock’n’roll nightmare that sounds like the “Born to Hand Jive” scene invaded by Danny Boyle’s infected from 28 Days Later. The lyrics are a description of the horrific Manson family murders – “Pigs are gonna taste the knife/10050 Cielo Drive/when the chosen few arrive/no-one gets outta here alive” – it’s a stomach-churningly graphic snapshot to a sweet finger-clicking tune. It has to be said: Jim Thirlwell is one sick f***.
The Overture from Pigdom Come is perplexingly placed towards the end of the album, and is a similar orchestral instrumental to the opener. It’s absolutely no surprise that Thirlwell made the move from rock star to soundtrack composer: at the time, the classical noodlings seemed affected (however welcome), but here it shows a rare and obvious talent.
Private War is just one minutes of random noises, scrapes, clangs, bangs and rattles. A typical filler, its sole job is to unsettle.
Anything (Viva!) is an epic, unforgettable closer: two and a half minutes of noises and threats followed by a brutal, pummelling, ferocious explosion of rage and rebellion. “I can do any goddamn thing I want” he growls, and for the first time, probably means it. Bare guitars and bass-heavy drums – the staples of classic rock – take the place of the stylised rockabilly of the earlier tracks. Layers of the found sounds from Private War contribute to that sense of foreboding as it builds into … a dizzying waltz, at once beautiful and unsettling, which itself then segues into a straight 4/4 rock anthem, as Jim growls “get out of my way” – and the music moves around him.
By this point, all the layers have come together, unified into a collossal wall of noise and melody – synth brass, bells, strings, guitars, drums and vocals only on the very edge of being in key as it inexorably mounts to the kind of climax you’d expect to find on a classical masterpiece. It knows what it is.
Anything is awe-inspiring – an answer to Comfortably Numb or Kashmir or Master of Puppets – but it’s let down by being one man on a synth instead of belted out by a 64-piece orchestra. Perhaps that’s why Nail is so unforgiveably overlooked. Foetus is approximately what you’d get if you stranded vintage Bowie on a desert island with a tin whistle – almost limitless ideas and no way to realise them. Remember that song Tribute by Tenacious D? The guy writes the perfect song, forgets it, and then makes up a merely adequate song in recognition of his failed potential. At least Jim remembered the tune, but could only deliver an adequate execution. Nail sounds good – the production is still clean and intricate, and certainly gives a very good impression of what it should have sounded like – but I’m always left feeling slightly frustrated after hearing it, as I try to imagine what it would sound like with “real” instruments. Perhaps that’s a part of what keeps me coming back for more – like I think they’ll magically appear the next time I play it. Either way, I’m glad I heard Nail and keep going back to it.
I love his voice, the grim humour and eloquence of the lyrics, and the way that the warmth and charm of one part of the instrumentation is pitched against the raw noise of another. I love how I hear something different every time I play it, and I’ve played it a lot by now. Get any fan of Nail and they’ll passionately enthuse – just like any fan of The Wall or Sergeant Pepper. The trouble is, everyone owns The Wall, and almost nobody owns Nail.
Perhaps it’s time you fixed that.