If the foolish Sandy (Blue Velvet) were to
hear Whitehouse, she would surely repeat her favourite expression ' it's a strange
world'. There would then sound one of the most scandalous roars of laughter that
you've ever heard in your life, that of William Bennett.
Whitehouse article in Factory 13 1/97 (translated from Spanish) by Felix Suarez
But no. Sandy will never hear it because despite her similar obsessions (and sense of humour), the place where David Lynch involves his obsessions - a fetishistic mystery that is visually attractive for the mass market - has a pseudocultist and pseudokitsch justification for the comfort and relief of the viewer, so they won't feel threatened. The monster created by William Bennett more than fifteen years ago presents us with his obsessions with all their harshness: direct, aggressive, terminal, extreme, uncomfortable for that same viewer that now feels like a victim. As one of their members, Philip Best, rightly described, "The concept of Whitehouse is pleasure. Pleasure for ourselves, even at the expense of others".
"I always had the the fantasy of making a sound which could bludgeon an audience into submission. Groups like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and other records from the 70s, some strange ones by Yoko Ono and suchlike all inspired me; but neither were they sufficient," explains William, with a smile which can break out at any moment. It's hard to imagine him playing the guitar in Essential Logic. "I recorded that single 'Wake Up' when I was 17. I wanted to get into the music scene, but I didn't know anything about experimental music then. It was afterwards, when I met Daniel Miller (Mute Records). We went on tour and Daniel showed me some strange German music from the 70s, electronic stuff; he took me one day to Genesis P-Orridge's house. I found out about that music through Daniel. I tired quickly of rock after that. Also, for me, especially when the Sex Pistols…. They seemed a great group to me, but they had to be the last rock group. There couldn't be anything after them. So, when they broke up, I was already looking for something new."
The 'legendary' Wasp synthesiser sold by Robert Rental and Daniel Miller's advice helped to start up the Come Organisation, the record label that also gave name to the embrionic group (Come) to which once in the 80s would be Whitehouse. The name is a play on words: Whitehouse is both the name of a British porno magazine and the surname of Mary, an English activist on a constant crusade against the alleged proliferation of filth on TV. The elements of their sound are already in place on their debut album, 'Birthdeath Experience' (1980), a powerful combination of screeching high frequencies and other almost subsonic low frequencies; violent waves of pink noise; imperceptible variations amidst the aural saturation of the passive listener; total absence of rhythmic backing (they hate it); and rising like from a tunnel of horrors, a dominating voice that shouts at you and orders you, treated so that the words can scarcely be made out. Although on the first LP there was an accompanying lyric sheet - which made them even more disturbing. "Yes, it's music, simply for the format in which you release it. It's like art. It's art because it's in an art gallery. It's that simple. If you bring out a CD, it has to be music. Anyway, I think that it is much more musical than a lot of minimalist or experimental music because at the end of the day, there are songs, there are lyrics and in a certain way, there are melodies too."
Somebody once described Whitehouse as "music you are conscious of when it ends". The comment refers to the effect of its silences - at times whole songs like 'Birthdeath Experience' and 'Politics'. On vinyl there was the attraction of the noise of the static and the scratches: now on CD people are saved with a button press. Amongst other things, it reveals the condition of some discs - most of them are scarcely longer than half an hour. They work by saturation, since those silences never announce a final relief. They are not a sign of tranquillity or relaxation for the listener who is on alert for the imminent blast of noise.
If we had to talk of stages in the evolution of Whitehouse, a first, by definition would culminate with 'Erector' (1981). The collaboration with Steven Stapleton's Nurse With Wound on the instrumental brut 'The 150 Murderous Passions…' (1981) opens the way to a period of thematic interest in mass murderers. This starts out on 'Dedicated to Peter Kurten' (1981) up to 'Right to Kill' (1983), where they dedicate a track to Dennis Andrew Nilsen, at whose trial the band were present "because it was right next to our home… for the morbid fascination".
Until the mythical 'Psychopathia Sexualis' (1982), the trio were made up in the studio with Peter McKay and Paul Reuter. Their role was pretty much that of studio musicians, and when in February of 1982, they began live concerts, the famous live actions, their line-up went through a series of like-minded musicians like Steven Stapleton (Nurse With Wound); Kevin Tomkins (founder of Sutcliffe Jugend, a disciple but more importantly, passed over part of his repertoire to Whitehouse then retired to a family life and then returned again in the 90s with the rock group 'Body Choke' and ended up resuscitating Sutcliffe Jugend; Philip Best - his Consumer Electronics were also very extreme and intense, since he was 14 he has been in Whitehouse in different eras, and also in the imitators Ramleh; Peter Sotos - from Chicago, publisher of recordings and printed material that have caused him, shall we say, the odd legal problem; Glen Michael Wallis - of Konstructivits, he only collaborated in some live performances where "we would give him the synthesiser without keys so that he wouldn't try and be a 'virtuoso'"; David Tibet (Current 93); Jordi Valls (Vagina Dentata Organ, see Factory 9) or John Murphy - another session musician who has since played with The Associates, SPK, Shriekback, Gene Loves Jezebel and Hoodlum Priest.
'Right To Kill' with Kevin Tomkins and Philip Best, and 'Great White Death' (1985), advances up to a 'point of no return' that, after two abrasive performances in the 666 Club in Barcelona (1/85), arrived at a cessation in activities. This was for essentially creative reasons but also logistic owing to various changes in members' places of residence. The relaunch would take place in Chicago with some interminable sessions, begun in 1985, in Steve Albini's studio. "I met him through his friendship with Peter Sotos. He is extremely creative and he gives something to every song; so if I had an idea and we recorded the sounds, he would then change it a bit improving it further".
'Thank Your Lucky Stars', first single (1988) then album (1990), shows Whitehouse bringing a more refined and 'purged' sound to the 90s. A return which was supported by two successive compilations and the reissue of all their discography on CD at an annual rhythm, in order to take on the constant bootlegging and to compensate for the limited editions of the records.
For the new era, Susan Lawly took over the rein from the Come Organisation. The exquisitely brutal evolution of their sound has given birth to masterpieces like 'Never Forget Death' (1992) or the more varied and adventurous 'Twice Is Not Enough' (1991). The latter contains one of the sporadic collaborations of Scorpio, alter ego of Chris Connelly (Ministry) based on his admiration for the bad guy in Dirty Harry: "From before he played, he was a big fan of Whitehouse. When we began, he would have been about 16, and we were the first music that he listened to. What he does nowadays isn't to my taste." The now journalist and occasional 'musician' Stefan Jaworzyn also intervened in the first chapters of that powerful and necessary retrun. "He owes money to people all over the place, and much of his record collection is just for show; in reality, he's just a jazz fan". Now established in recent years and from the 80s, the trio ("we must always be three") of Bennett, Best and Sotos, their latest studio album, again with Steve Albini, is 'Quality Time.' (1995) that promises "new recording techniques". "We've experimented with a new style: it's just as extreme. It's difficult to explain what's new about it (laughs) but it's…. Well, it's all on the same wavelength, but with new instrumentation, some of it digital."
The new era of Whitehouse brings with it an apparent change in public attitude. If before they played with a certain calculated ambiguity, with a provocative air in declarations and live from a music which seems to demand a counter-reaction just as violent, nowadays the declarations are more in the sense of "we make music for our fans, not to offend people". "I don't believe we've ever provoked deliberately: it's what it might seem like, but it's always been about our own tastes: or let's say our obsessions. The appearance has changed somewhat. The covers are prettier, everything seems nicer, it might all appear more commercial even but the truth is that our obsessions, our tastes and even the meanings of the lyrics haven't changed all that much (laughs). A little of the mask of normality, appearance is a key and everything appears normal but isn't." Perhaps that brought with it as a consequence a certain level of attention from the UK media - that had pretty much tried to ignore them before - when they reappeared, and which has since returned to little. "Never have we had a special fame. There would be the odd review of concerts or records but… That's the way things go, in cycles. We've never been especially fashionable but with time the same things can be seen in a different light. For example, all the atrocities of this century are deplored, but things that happened in Roman times are almost seen as amusing, aren't they? It's like Jack the Ripper, now he's a kind of folk hero, all those books show him as being an almost mythical figure."
In their now almost 80 live actions all type of things have happened. The time when the doors were blocked so that the police couldn't get in, and when they were opened the group left the venue without being stopped thanks to their normal appearances, while the raid on the audience continued. Another time when he slapped a girl in the audience - "I used to do it often. In Newcastle afterwards we were banned for playing for 10 years" - and after the tumult they ended up playing for just a single person who turned out to be the guy in charge of locking the venue. Another time in San Francisco, supported by up and coming heavy metal group Slayer, "I quite liked some of their lyrics, quite interesting, but, Christ, the music is the same as always, drums, rock and roll." And on another occasion - "in Olympia (Washington), near Seattle there were some Christians outside the venue playing acoustic guitars 'Don't let them play! Don’t let them play!'. Then during the show, one of them came into the venue with a big cross and approached the stage like this, as if we were vampires. When this failed, they called the police and said we had no work permits, we always went to the States as tourists because of the bureaucracy involved in getting permits." Part of these performances, quite surreally, can be heard on a 'Whitehouse Audience Noise Tape' brought out by the Japanese magazine 'IR'. "It's like an hour of sounds from between and after songs. It's pretty incredible, everything's on it apart from music, all edited non-stop from 1982 up until now."
One could call it electronic hardcore, in a way 'ambient', or simply repulsive, but the one thing for sure is that, if at any time music has arrived at an extreme, it would be Whitehouse. "It's also been said that it was a sort of 'John Cage for the people', but of course definitions are impossible, and I'm not saying it as a boast, because I like similar sounding music, but there is nothing near it." Of course, it's because their supposed imitators are pathetic. "It's not that they're bad, but it's usually far removed from… the purity. Also sometimes people think you just pick up a synth and make some white noise for a few minutes, and it's obviously a lot more than that."
And how do you explain that it's more than that to people who don't understand that, or think they understand it? "It isn't explained, because those who understand, understand. The references and the illustrations work on many levels, and sometimes they are only understood on the most basic level, and people may fail to see a dimension much more… It's like colours to a blind person, if he can't see them, he can't see them - it can't be explained."
In any case, what it does show those poor imitations is how difficult it is to do it well. "You have to think about it a lot, in other words, the songs are very well thought out and composed. It's not something random, not just get out the synths and make a noise… the lyrics and the sounds, everything, you've got to think for a long period about what you're going to do. For example, on 'Quality Time.' everything was very studied and planned over a couple of years. Besides which in recent years the arrangements have been pretty complex."
Do you discard much material? "Not a great deal, because we always go to the studio well prepared. For example, the singing of the lyrics on the last album was rehearsed for a long time before going to the studio, at times, when going down the motorway when nobody else can hear you, and things like that. I told some Japanese guys who'd asked me how they could possibly play because in Japan they had a problem owing to the very small houses, they couldn't rehearse at home. The noises, maybe, because the volume could be turned down but the voice was almost impossible to record because it would be heard through the thin walls and also the recording studios in Japan are prohibitively expensive. 'What can we do? Could you give us some advice?' And I told them as above or if they're in the middle of the countryside etc. 'Ah, great! We're gonna do that!' So now I have the vision that in Japan right now there are a bunch of lunatics there in the parks and on the motorways screaming and shouting Lord knows what.'
William Bennett played the drill without realising it on the record by US group Bastro 'Diablo Guapo' (1989) produced by Albini who overdubbed the tape. Another US group 'Christ On A Crutch', brought out the single entitled 'Kill William Bennett', although it seems that they might be indicating the Republican senator of the same name who recently tried to ban explicit and profane rap music recordings. Although his namesake says, smiling, that he's in agreement with him, one supposes that if such a proposal became real, the recordings of Whitehouse would also be affected, wouldn't they?
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