Category Archives: Shakin’ All Over Top Ten

Shakin’ All Over, number 2: Curtis Mayfield, ‘Here but I’m gone’

SAO cover lo res… There is another falsettist in popular music whose later work makes us think again about the place of the high voice in disability culture. The African-American soul singer Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999) had major success in the 1960s and 1970s both with the vocal group the Impressions and as a solo artist. Mayfield was a singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, notably successful black independent music industry businessman, and a social activist. His songs were characterised by gospel sounds and dance beats, soul harmonies and catchy melodies, his own deceptively light funky guitar-playing, and his fragile-sounding falsetto. In 1990, a workplace accident—he was performing onstage during a concert in New York—resulted in a severe spinal cord injury that left him in a quadriplegic state, paralysed from the neck down. Asked in an interview in 1994 if he could still sing, Mayfield replied: ‘Not in the manner as you once knew me. I’m strongest lying down like this. I don’t have a diaphragm anymore. So when I sit up I lose my voice. I have no strength, no volume, no falsetto range, and I tire very fast’. Yet Mayfield returned in 1996 with a new album of songs, New World Order, which heavily featured his characteristic falsetto delivery. How was this achieved? In large part, via technological manipulation of his recorded voice in the studio.

For Mayfield the vocalist, the challenge was two-fold: to be able to sing once more at an acceptable level of quality over the duration of an entire song, and to be able to sing his falsetto. The first was achieved by bringing the studio equipment to him, in his bedroom at home, and arranging his body so that it was most physically capable of producing vocal lines for capture by the equipment. In one account, ‘he was suspended by harness to give gravitational power to his voice, just to find breath to complete a musical phrase or two’. Another account elaborates on this: he ‘developed a technique that enabled him to record a few lines at a time, which could be edited in the studio later. He discovered a way of getting gravity to help his lungs do the work in the studio and it was this way that Curtis evolved the system of singing, lying down at a slant (sometimes flat) on the studio floor’. Line by line songs were composed and vocals painstakingly recorded, which various guest producers and musicians worked up elsewhere.

As for the falsetto, the most intriguing point is that it continued at all, since he was in fact now physically incapable of reaching that range which had made him famous. He could no longer move on up. Post-accident, his voice tracks were recorded at the lower pitches and slower speeds which he could now achieve, and then handed to an engineer. As his biographer Peter Burns explains, ‘[h]e recorded his voice at a slower and lower level than in the past and the results were sped up for the falsetto sections’. In this way, Mayfield’s voice was manipulated to retain the pre-accident sound of sensitivity and sincerity. Many of the reviews of New World Order were full of wonderment at the disabled overcoming—though for Ray Pence, the album is about ‘Mayfield’s resistance to portrayal as a victim’.

But I do wonder whether such a positivistic social model reading as Pence’s what can be overlooked is consideration of, as Mayfield sings on ‘Here but I’m gone’, ‘what my mind erased’—the set of deficits which is hinted at in several of the absence- or negative-oriented lyrics Mayfield sings. It is almost impossible to listen to this album on some level without a heuristic impulse to bring in the knowledge of the material condition—the physical arrangement, the health context—of its production. Although there is no overt reference in lyric, music, or album artwork and text to his disability, in sung lyrics like ‘How did I get so far gone? / Where do I belong? /… I still feel as if I’m here but I’m gone’, or ‘Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down / It’s like one way in and no way out’, or even the album’s moving opening line ‘Darkness no longer’, an autopathographic narrative is being both tentatively and compellingly presented to the listener.

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Shakin’ All Over, number 3: ‘She’s lost control’, Joy Division (1979)

SAO cover lo resConfusion in her eyes that says it all. She’s lost control. / And she’s clinging to the nearest passer-by. She’s lost control…. / And she screamed out kicking on her side and said ‘I’ve lost control again’. / And seized up on the floor. I thought she’d die. She said ‘I’ve lost control’.

How might neurological and cognitive impairments be not only voiced but corporeally performed in music? According to Manderson and Peake, ‘[t]he injured or diseased body is a body out of control, often at both the cellular and the systemic level, in terms of stability, mobility, and bodily functions’.

I look at a specific pathology in the world of the neuro-diverse, the neurological disorder of epilepsy, which is the most common of the serious neurological conditions—around half a million people in Britain have it, for example. It is an umbrella term for a complex set of conditions—there are over 40 types of epilepsy—with the mutual feature being, according to he National Society of Epilepsy’s website, ‘the tendency to have repeated seizures that start in the brain’, caused by the interruption of electrical signals between nerve cells.

I show that epilepsy is of such interest to us due to its extreme potential within a popular music context as a physical performance of being out of control, what Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia calls the ‘kinetic stutter’ as a form of involuntary dance. For, when fitting, the body may indeed rock and roll.

The link of neurology and music is not a new one, of course: the pathological category of chorea, after all, has its etymology from ancient Greek—dance—and links also therefore with choreography, chorus, choir. Dance, song, disease. In Greek, Latin, and English, neurological disorder is inscribed in the activity of making music and the activity of moving to it alike.

Perhaps we should be considering Neil ‘Shakey’ Young and Ian Curtis, our epileptic stage singers, not as the exceptionals, the curiosities, displaying their control issues nightly before the crowd while they sang of them also, but as the very centre, the nerve centre, of popular music. After all, they are the ones who are shakin’ all over, who are all shook up, who show us that there’s a whole lotta shaking going on; they epitomise it and they embody it.

Although Mitzi Waltz and Martin James state in their recent article on Curtis and disability in Popular Music that ‘epilepsy was never mentioned in any of the band’s live reviews at the time’, a July 1979 gig was reviewed by Mick Middles, later co-author of a Curtis biography, in the weekly British music magazine Sounds thus:

During the set’s many ‘peaks’ Ian Curtis often loses control. He’ll suddenly jerk sideways and, head in hands, he’ll transform into a twitching, epileptic-type mass of flesh and bone. Suddenly he’ll recover. The guitars will fade away…. Then, with no introduction, the whole feeling will begin again. Another song, another climax.

While he would sing of losing control, the audience would watch him seemingly doing it, and the journalist would record it for those not there yet so they would know what to expect when they saw Joy Division. The music press reviews of live gigs were, in Deborah Curtis’s phrase from her powerful memoir about life with her husband Ian, Touching From a Distance, becoming like ‘psychiatric reports’. Curtis was by now sometimes experiencing successive grand mal seizures, without necessarily recovering consciousness between each one—the medical emergency situation termed status epilepticus. Suddenly he’ll recover…. Then, with no introduction, the whole feeling will begin again….

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Shakin’ All Over, number 4: Ian Dury, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ (1981)

Shakin' All Over GEORGE McKAY badges


Surely this song should be no. 1? Originally Shakin’ All Over was to be called Spasticus. The 2010 AHRC award that helped fund its writing was indeed titled Spasticus: Popular Music & Disability. The badges/buttons above are themselves a small tribute to Dury, presented in the style of his famous set from 1977, sex& drugs& rock& roll&.

I write a good deal about Dury’s cripsongs. HALLO TO YOV OVT THERE IN NORMAL LAND.

English singer and lyricist Ian Dury was for a time in the UK in the post-punk years the highest profile disabled pop star, even reaching no. 1 in the charts in 1979 with the single ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick’. He contracted polio as a child, in a Southend swimming pool, in 1949. This was the same year folk/pop singer Donovan contracted the disease, in Glasgow (via a faulty vaccination—quite common), and US saxophonist Dave Liebman too. Here is some interview material I did with The Rotarian magazine about polio and popular music; Rotary International, alongside the Gates Foundation, still today runs a huge international campaign to rid the world entirely of polio.

Actually, there is an entire chapter, called ‘Crippled with nerves’ (title of an early Dury kind of love song), about polio and popular music.

‘Spasticus Autisticus’ is Dury’s controversial 1981 single. As a global consciousness-raising exercise, the United Nations declared 1981 the International Year of Disabled Persons. Recorded in the Bahamas the song, and the single ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ was Dury’s public response to a public gesture. In this song there is I think an extraordinarily powerful—not only within the context of the pop world—‘narrative of corporeal otherness … [presenting] the disabled figure’s potential for challeng[e]’, in Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s term.

In fact, his motivation for the song, and his understanding of his own position as a public figure of disability, were complex. One idea was to ‘get a band together who were either recruited from mental hospitals or recruited from really savagely disabled places’. Instead, he explained, he wrote a ‘war-cry’:

The Year of Our Disabled Lord 1981 I was getting lots of requests. I turned them all down. We had this thing called the ‘polio folio’, and we used to put them in there…. Instead I wrote this tune called ‘Spasticus Autisticus’. I said, I’m going to put a band down the road for the year of the disabled; I’ll be Spastic and they can be the Autistics. I have [my band named the] Blockheads and that means they’re autistic anyway.  

As he notes, the politics of self-naming is evident in the flaunted stupidity of calling his backing band the Blockheads (after another of his song titles). One possible title for his first solo album, his 1977 breakthrough record, before choosing New Boots and Panties!! was The Mad Spastic. Of course, ‘Spasticus’ was also a cultural effort at what Brendan Gleeson has termed ‘the reappropriation and revalorisation by disabled people of abject terms for impairment’.

The single was partially banned by the BBC, because of fears it would offend. As his first single since leaving the independent Stiff Records for the major label Polydor, it was a provocative, or even perversely self-destructive, choice. In fact we can and should go further—to release it as a single (let alone that it was on a new label, and with a new band) was an extraordinary, and brave, if also frankly career-shattering move on Dury’s part. A Sly and Robbie-backed Jamaican dance-rhythm pop song about spastics, released as a single, with a political message and a powerful and discomforting accusation?

Ian Dury Spasticvs badge, 1981: the audience self-identifies tooThe press release accompanying the single contains a section entitled ‘No handicap’, and locates the song firmly within Dury’s childhood experience, in a section headed ‘About polio’ (Polydor 1981). Yet in other ways it is the song that most departs from polio and from Dury’s medical-musical autobiography towards a much more general and encompassing position—the song’s hero’s name is, after all, Spasticus Autisticus, and Dury had no personal experience of autism.

That most public of his songs about disability, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, closes with a number of male and female, normal and impaired voices proclaiming each in turn ‘I’m Spasticus!’ I have argued that the song is directed outwards, to the inhabitants of Normal Land, as a piece of cultural advocacy. But it is also directed inwards, in its closing collective gesture of self-identification and -empowerment. To achieve both, in a single pop song, makes it in my view a compelling challenge to what Marc Shell, in his brilliant book Polio and Its Aftermath, has termed the ‘the paralysis of culture’ that surrounds polio survivors, makes it instead a culture from paralysis….

Lots more in the book, including about the song’s glorious rebirth at the 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony. I’ve also discussed that here. ‘Get up, get up, get up, get down, fall over!’

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