Sunday, December 16, 2007

Down In The Park

Down in the park
Where the Machmen meet
The machines are playing 'kill-by-numbers'
Down in the park with a friend called 'Five'
In Fall 2004, I attended a coffee shop fundraiser for a progressive political organization. The Big Election was coming up and, being in a more sensitive frame of mind than usual, I attended. The weather was pretty depressing, as I recall, and there was a sense of real pessimism in the air. Still, local bands, some containing friends, were playing and a full afternoon, if not an actual good time, was guaranteed for all.

The line-up consisted of eccentric New Weird Folkidelica alongside potent electronic avant-gargling and a classical string duo. Alec K Redfearn, an accordionist, close friend, and on-off bandmade of Yours Truly, also played a set. He informed me, beforehand, that his would include a Gary Numan cover.

Alec's rickety squeezebox pulse, strengthened by the presence of some talented cello and violin players, pumped some life into an otherwise downbeat day. As he performed the aforementioned Gary Numan composition, its unforced melodic beauty became quite moving. The song, originally a frosty electro tune, lent itself to Alec's idiosyncratic R. Crumbly instrumentation. I was also startled by the references to "rape machines."

The song was, of course, "Down In The Park."

With some cursory research using Ye Olde Internete, I can ascertain that "Down In The Park," has been covered by a large and varied group of musicians. Besides Mr. Redfearn, artists such as Foo Fighters, Marilyn Manson, somebody named DJ Hell, Christian Death and Girls Under Glass have attempted this oddball number. Now, granted, most of this "research" amounts to me pounding around on Wikipedia and a few other sites, so I haven't heard most of these. However, I do own a CD reissue of Foo Fighters' The Color And The Shape, so I have listened to their take. The rest, I will have to take on faith. What is striking about this list--however accurate or inaccurate it may be--is how people have been affected by this fairly obscure song by Gary Numan, a man thought by much of the general populace to be a cyborgian NuWaver of days gone by.

Why? Why has "Down In The Park" hummed in the collective unconscious of so many freaky people for such a long time? It's certainly not Mr. Numan's most popular tune. That would inarguably be "Cars," his big hit. In fact, it's not even his second most popular tune. We'd have to give that award to the mighty "Are Friends Electric?" Yet, somehow, "Down In The Park," off Replicas by Gary Numan & The Tubeway Army, coming at you all the way from 1979, may shape up as the most enduring song of The Pleasure Principal's career. Again, we must ask ourselves, "Why?"

Well, first of all, the song is quite beautiful. Despite Mr. Numan's solid-state at sub-zero sonic approach, "Down In The Park," possesses a gorgeous and melancholy musicality, like some of the best efforts of The Zombies, The Left Banke or even John Cale. The melody is rolling and sophisticated, yet memorable. Very "Eleanor Rigby" at points, albeit glacial in its pace (and, some would say, attitude.) Surgically remove Mr. Numan's willfully antiseptic approach and you are left with a haunting and powerful set of lines. As such, Foo Fighters attach it to their muscular chug and Alec K Redfearn swaddles the thing in his lysergic chamber music and "Down In The Park" emerges as the true victor. One hears the strength of the songwriter as well as the specific personality of the interpreter. As reluctant as some folks may be to admit it, we should all doff our space helmets in tribute to Mr. Numan's intelligence and wit as a craftsman.

Secondly, and, perhaps, just as importantly, Mr. Numan has put this remarkable melody in the service of some of the most unguardedly bonkers lyrics of his, or anybody else's, career. Near as I can tell, an upsetting William S. Burroughs/JG Ballard lyrical theme oozes through the entire Replicas record, a function of some internal logic and product of The Talented Mr. Numan's imagination. "Down In The Park" is explicit in the details of something so subjective that, even still, it remains vague and troubling. Taken literally from the first-person perspective of an Unreliable Narrator (I was in a car crash/Or was it the war?/Well, I've never been quite the same) the song describes how humans, corralled in The Park by sadistic, robotic Machmen, meet their deaths by the steely gears of "rape machines" and other infernal devices. Our Narrator, perhaps lobotomized by his mechanical captors, watches the ghastly events from a night club near The Park under the supervision of an android "friend" named Five ("Are Friends Electric," indeed.) The whole thing has a really nasty and nauseating Punishment Park/Demon Seed/A Clockwork Orange kind of vibe.

The effect is stunning. Seriously. Take an old 70's AM Radio hit--say, "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song" by Three Dog Night and replace the existing lyrics with rhyming couplets about the "Is It Safe?" scene from Marathon Man and you kind of get an idea of the "Down In The Park" vibe. In the spirit of Love's Forever Changes (the subject of my last entry for this operation, by the way) you sense that Enya or Sade could interpret this just as effectively as Genesis P. Orridge or LCD Soundsystem.

My first encounter with "Down In The Park," like so many of my generation and temperament, came from watching Urgh!- A Music War. Resembling Christopher Pike, Mr. Numan "belts out" the number while coasting across a glowing stage in what appears to a combination orgone box/go-kart. I suggest interested parties watch the clip on YouTube. It is impossible not to be distracted by the overwrought Futurisms of the show, but the song and its composer are unique. Give it a look, or, even better, a listen.

Down In The Park [download from emusic]
Down In The Park [download from iTunes]


Pete Bilderback said...

Nice post Guy. I Haven't heard any of the covers of "Down In The Park," although I see it has also been performed by Jim Collins, Silke Bischoff, Jimi Tenor, 18 Summers, Hex Dispensers and Terre Thaemlitz. It still has a way to go to catch up to "Yesterday" or "Eleanor Rigby," but it's still a pretty fair showing, and a bit unexpected.

The original does have a cold, spooky, sci-fi feeling, and I think your invocation of JG Ballard is spot on. The influence of David Bowie also looms very large over the song. Numan seems to have coupled the icy detachment and synthetic feel of Bowie's Berlin/Eno era with the distopian sci-fi bent of the Ziggy years. (I guess you could say that about much of Numan's work.)

Speaking of Bowie, I was never more impressed with his skills as a melodist as when I heard his songs performed solo acoustic and in Portuguese by Seu Jorge. The best covers have the ability to give you a new perspective on the original.

Peter said...

Greetings from a TPMer.

Okay then. I do believe that's the first time I've seen the names William S. Burroughs and JG Ballard apposed. I've been a big fan of both for decades.

I remember hearing the song when it came out; I was in college and reading both Burroughs and Ballard around that same time. A friend had the album and I heard it a few times but I was probably too stoned to pay too much attention to it.

Odd having it pop up now - makes for a weird sort of nostalgia.

-- Yet another Pete