(This is the third in a series of posts about songs from the 1981 to 1985 period about TSOM songs which were unreleased at the time, following on from posts on Driver and Some Kind of Stranger (Early))
One of the most fascinating curios from the tape of Portastudio demos which ultimately surfaced on the 1990 bootleg album Hard Reign is usually entitled Burn It Down, a 1982 demo of an idea which would eventually culminate to the song Burn, effectively the title track of The Reptile House EP (with its opening line, “Burn me a fire in the reptile house”).
Musically, the track Burn It Down (kindly uploaded here to YouTube by Ade M) would seem to have little in common with the finished Burn, although the Doktor’s famous rattled drum machine into the song is identical, an obvious early clue that the two songs share the same lineage. However, what follows is a song with little evident relationship to the eventual Burn, with a primitive production and heavily reverbed vocal over a simple repeated guitar riff of the same note played over two octaves, much in the style of the 1980 Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark track, Messages. It has been alleged that this track is one of those which Eldritch worked on independently in the basement of his then abode (7 Village Place in the Burley area of Leeds), and certainly the track has a similar feel to the early demo version of Anaconda and that of Driver, as previously discussed on this blog.
Apart from the drum machine intro, the other major link between Burn It Down and Burn is in the lyrics of the former, which resurfaced in the backwards section of the Reptile House version of Burn, just before its final chorus. The backwards section, a sly nod to the satanic messages allegedly contained in similar records by the likes of Ozzy Ozbourne and The Beatles and much discussed still in the early 1980s, can be heard clearly on the bootleg single “NRUB” which is simply the track Burn played backwards, enabling us to hear the relevant section the right way round, with Eldritch singing :
“The Catherine wheel, the ring of fire,
The wheel goes round and the flame gets higher
Round the juggling men and the idiot clown.”
Although the lines are in a different order, the same lyrics are clearly audible on Burn It Down, and this section has been widely taken to be a reference to The Gunpowder Plot, a famous event in UK history where a group of (Roman Catholic) conspirators led by Guy (Guido) Fawkes attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London in 1605, an event commemorated by many in the UK to this day on the anniversary of the foiling of the plot, November 5th. The modern-day celebrations take the form of a bonfire (with the ceremonial burning of a model “Guy”) and fireworks, of which the catherine wheel is a popular and colourful variety.
Although the Burn It Down lyric contains no reference to the "catherine wheel", the idea of burning the “circus” (i.e. Parliament) to the ground is very much present, and the line “Some day I hope to turn and stand and watch this city burning down” gives further credence to this lyrical interpretation, with further allusions to the Dick Whittington story (contemporaneous to the Gunpowder Plot) to tie the image of the “city” to London. Capitalising the word “city” in the lyric would of course make this an anti-capitalist song, with the phrase “The City” being shorthand for the financial district of the UK capital (which is situated in the original heart of London known as “The City of London”), broadening the target of Eldritch’s invective.
Another, more recent historical event is brought to mind by the opening stanza in Burn It Down which refers to “bullets blowing holes” and the “orange and white lie in the stones”, possibly referencing the events which ultimately lead to the independence of the (Catholic) Republic of Ireland from the UK, with the attack on the Post Office in Dublin in 1916 which famously left bullet holes in the building’s façade. Westminster itself was the also the site of Irish Republican terrorism during “The Troubles” in the 1979 killing of the politician Airey Neave, an event possibly in Eldritch’s mind when he wrote his lyric in the early 1980’s.
Eldritch himself admitted that the Reptile House was the band’s most political work in contemporary interviews, but claimed that the term the “reptile house” had a much wider significance than Westminster. He told the free francophone Belgian magazine “Rock this Town” (in 1983, presumably from the time of the Brussels gig in early August of that year), “The Reptile House is also a reference to the whole world. It’s a concept EP : the mix is muddy, the melodies are hidden within a swarming mass of sound, very slow sounds which suddenly hit you like an arrow. To me, most people are snakes. The Reptile House is a metaphor for the world which we have to live in and from which there is no escape. There are no windows in the reptile house, and the record ends with a reprise of the introduction of the first song. It’s a never-ending circle.” He repeated a similar idea to the American radio station WNYU in September of that year, adding “the last track starts like it’s gonna be a sort of pop number and the voice just slithers back into the mix and the tune distorts itself.”
Hiding the earlier Reptile House meaning (i.e. Parliament) in the final mix of Burn in a backwards section may have appealed to Eldritch’s subversive sense of humour, but technically the idea may have come from the engineer for the session’s at Ken Giles’ KG Studios in Bridlington, John Spence. Last year he told the TSOM 1980-1985 Facebook fanpage, “The backwards vocal on Burn may have been my idea. I’d used backwards recording a lot at Fairview Studios before this record but it wasn’t a technique that Ken Giles ever used I’m fairly sure, so Andy probably hadn’t come across it before. Not difficult to do, but you have to be on your toes. It involves turning the tape over so that it plays in reverse, feeding the lead vocal into a delay effect with lots of regen and recording the effect onto a clear track. When the tape is played the right way, the effect comes before the original vocal.”
Not only would Burn become the key track on what Eldritch referred to in a postcard to John Peel as “The Commercial Suicide EP”, but it also opened the band’s live shows during the second half of 1983 and throughout the heavy touring year of 1984. Burn It Down serves as another reminder of the way in which Eldritch would refine original ideas in crafting a song, with the finished version often so far removed from the original demo that it effectively becomes a different song, as with Driver/Heartland. Burn It Down is also significant as the conceptual starting point for The Reptile House EP, which Eldritch would correctly describe in the American radio interview as “our finest hour yet”, a claim that many would argue remains true to this day.
My thanks for this post are due to the ever-wonderful Ultimate Sisters Resource Guide online resource (for the Rock This Town interview), Phil V, LG and others who share their resources on the fascinating Facebook group, Ade M for allowing those of us with shallow pockets to access rare bootleg recordings, Ez Mo for his lyrical analysis on Heartland Forum, and John S for sharing his recording reminiscences with the FB group.