Kieron Gillen's workblog




Been an intense few days, to say the least. But I'm not going to talk about that. Thanks to everyone who knows for putting up with my shit, and thanks for not being too put out now that I shut the door on that particular torrent. As this blog atests, I'm an emotional exhibitionist... but only about certain things.

I've also just watched the frankly brilliant documentary about Zoophiles on Channel 4. But I'm not going to talk about that, as I don't really have words. Or rather, I do, and they were all put in my CHIMPLANTS script already. Except "Maregasms".

Instead, I'm going to talk about something that doesn't matter. That is, art. And besides - I promised Uncle Stu Campbell a riposte to his Red Light Means Danger piece, of similarly obsessive nonsense about another song.

The song is "Game of Pricks" by Guided by Voices.

For the uninitiated Guided by Voices are a band who have been around forever, writing a string of albums featuring extremely short Who/Beatles-esque sixties pop songs fired through the indie-underground axis. They were something of a cause celebre among a certain axis of critics. I'm not among them, being aware of their most obvious work - I believe they had a spell with a major label, which got them some more exposure - but generally not being interested. Too dull. Too Indie. Too American. The opinion was cemented the one time I caught them live at a Festival where they played the Triumphalist card in front of a devoted fan whose blantant macho pugnaciousness turned my stomach and lead me to wander away somewhere less offensively male.

So, no, I don't dig 'em.

However, since its release, Stuart's Big Songs For Little Attention Spans has rested near my winamp play list. It's an addictive gestalt of single-amino-acid pop-treats. Occasionally one catches between my teeth and sends me into a music-freebase, the rest of the playlist deleted and just one track - and in the case of the stuff on this album, a track that doesn't even hit two minutes - spooned into an open vein. I've written about another previously - Primal Scream's shambling anthem Velocity Girl - and Game of Pricks hit even harder with its added unfamilarity. With Velocity girl it was returning to the scene of a crime, the accidental fling with an old flame. With Game of Pricks, it was the new affair, with all the hurried enthusasim of first passion. It stuck to me like napalm, and burnt tattoos in my mind.

I mean, last week when I wondered out of Popstars with Curran, I found myself dragging my aching corpse across north london while shouting out choice couplets from it. Six hours of highly-processed indie/camp-anthems couldn't dislodge it.

Because - y'know - it wasn't just a great, unusual song. It was a great song which had attached meanings to it, and thus by purely listening to it I could approach and process the associated issues. It's one way pop songs can work - as an emotional calculus, dramatising an emotional conflict and turning kitchen-sink into Melodrama. By pulling the song over you like a shroud you approach a truth. And it being a song about a person, I'd attached it to someone and letting it go about its work.

(It's the opposite of the *other* way songs get (deliberately) stuck in your head, which works in the opposite way. Rather than acting as a scalpel to an internal issue, it acts as armour to an external issue. You wear the song like plate-mail rather than the aforementioned shroud, becoming hard, unreal, possessed by music - urban voodoo. If you spend a lot of times with headphones, this is pretty much what you're up to. "I feel like I'm in a movie" is a standard comment from habitual headphoners, "I feel distant. Above people". Exactly. Exactly. And then there's the third way of a song getting stuck in your head - basic memeic invasion. Of course, if you actually examine it, you'll normally find its virulence to be related to it *really* being one of the previous two sorts.)

Anyway - Game of Pricks did that, and I was using it to speak to myself about how I was feeling about certain things in my life. Since it got me so badly, I decided to give Guided By Voices another chance and go out and pick up their Best of. Getting back to my squat, I put it on and discover that it's actually a considerably different version to what Stuart had included. It notes that the one on the album is from the Tigerbomb EP, with a different one on the Alien Lanes album. My maths would place Stuart's one as originating there.

Which got us thinking: I wonder how many other versions are out there. Stuart hit the filesharing, and pulled up a handful of others. Live versions by GbV, which was only to be expected, and a couple of covers, one from Jimmy Eat World and the other from My Vitriol. As is the nature of covers, all highlight different aspects of the song. So I started approaching The Game Of Pricks in the manner of an evolutionary biologist, studying the mutants and extreme expressions of a phenotype to rediscover more about the norm... except without really having a norm to compare to.

So, on and off, I've been sitting with all these versions of the song in a mini-playlist, on repeat. I'm doing it now, with a sorbet of a D&B-period Bowie track ("I'm Deranged") at the end to clean the palette before the next course.

What have I learnt about The Game of Pricks?

Obvious first: It's a love song.

This doesn't say much - about eighty percent of all pop music is love songs, and the banality of most disgusts a certain thread of mind away from it (The early manics' "We will never write a love song" (Or was it ballad? I forget) sticks in the mind). Now, most of this sort are the songs which are expressed in generalities, just speaking the romantic myths that chain us. A great love song is, in my eyes, generally about a specific moment or knot of feelings, with a deeply personal spin. The greatest love song of the late nineties, for me, was Arab Strap's "New Birds" which took the scenario-type as far as it's probably possible to go in the form (It's, essentially, the story of an infidelity which he turns back from at the last minute. It gains its power by admitting the lust that powers and alters us... and then still turning back, remembering that Kiss he's worked so hard on back at home, wondering where he's got to). But moments vary - take The Pixie's Gigantic, Kim Deal's paean to how much she likes a nice big cock, which is as mischevious, human and glorious that the voice that frames it. Or the giggling insanity of Kenickie's "Can I take you to the cinema", which stretches the two-second of asking someone out for a date to just over a minute of harmony, confusion and the big dumb smile of probably making a fool of yourself and not really caring (The "Can I take you the cinema?/Can I take you home/Can I take you" Trio-archy of the lyrics, cutting between harmonies still makes me smile and say "That's it... that's exactly it").

Similarly, confusion is clearly what Game of Pricks is about. But not the silliness of Kenickie's giddiest moment, but a certain confrontational pugnaciousness - and, yes, the macho turned me off when I saw them live, but it works perfectly here. And besides - I could always have been wrong ("Changed my mind" - Ed). I can't even be completely sure that it's actually about a genuine relationship - it could be unrequited love. It could be platonic love. It could be platonic turning into something more or something less. All that you can be really sure of listening to is the nature of confrontation and the asking for honesty.

Anyway - here's the lyrics, which are spilt out over the one and a half to two minutes all the versions last for. I'll come back to them a lot later, so get used to 'em.

"I’ve waited too long to have you
Hide in the back of me
I’ve cheated so long I wonder
How you keep track of me

You could never be strong
You can only be free
And I never asked for the truth
But you owe that to me

I’ve entered the game of pricks
With knives in the back of me
Can’t call you or on you no more
When they’re attacking me

I’ll climb up on the house
Weep to water the trees
And when you come calling me down
I’ll put on my disease

You could never be strong
You can only be free
And I never asked for the truth
But you owe that to me
And I never asked for the truth
But you owe that to me
And I never asked for the truth
But you owe that to me"

Fuckers in the audience will disagree, but there's some great confusing lyrics there (And songs about confusion often are reliant on articulating that through the confusing in the lyrics - alternative methods would include the babel voices of something like Can I Take You To The Cinema).

Its one of those strokes of genius that it keeps you waiting for the signature line. For the entire first half of the song you have no idea why it's called the game of pricks, and then they just go and then the title is stated with crystal clarity - "I've entered the game of pricks, with knives in the back of me" and you go "Oh... yes". Game of Pricks is a poetic phrase anyway, sounding like a lost title for the Afghan Whig's Greg Dulli's autobiography, hinting at everything, but the line gives it a different, tenderer, weaker (as in "Soft" not "less effective") context. He wasn't always in the game of pricks, but he's found himself in the situation - with the expression in all the originals making it clear that it isn't a competition he wanted to be in. However, upon entering, he's been backstabbed, fucked over. He can't even enter the Game of Pricks cleanly. He's sat down to a Blackjack table, and he finds someone he's trusting is holding a mirror behind him so everyone can see his cards.

But it's not the most important lyric. That honour goes to the "You could never be strong/You can only be free" couplet. These are startlingespecially given the form of the songs, most clearly expressed in the original version (The Aliens Lanes one, since I heard it first is the original to me, which is all that matters in these sorts of debates, clearly). It's the shortest, minus the extended and monentum sapping extended intro of all the others, opening with a single chiming (well... chiming in the darkness given the level-zero production) chord before the voice booms in expressing clearly. The song is a pure sixties homage, only gaining modernity due to its self awareness, all open chords, and a melody line which rides in and out like the waves lapping in San Francisco, Liverpool or the Manchester Ship Canal. It has that feel of neo-classicism which so many formalists reach for but so few achieve. It achieves timelessness through coming from such a defined personal perspective. But, most importantly, sixties.

But the lyric cuts against all that. "Strength" is not a virtue which is particuarly hailed in the music which this borrows. Conversely, "Free" - or Freedom - is probably the highest. It gains power by this contraction of form and message, because the forthright and slightly hurt expression of these words - yet again - turn it into personal expression. The fact the music is so accurate to the period implies that he loves everything about it... only for the words to clearly admit that he knows how this has failed. While the song is clearly about one person, he could be talking to anyone who has put one virtue so much higher than the other. Free Spirits are only free because when they move, they don't care. The freedom to leave is about the lack of thought about what you leave behind. He may be enamoured by them, but he's still hurt by them. While wildeness enchants, there's only so many times you can clean up for neurotic self-enamoured girls before you recognise this.

Then the pay off - "I never asked for the truth/But you owe that to me". What's really going on here? It's a lack of communication song in that way - stuff has happened because he's been strong and took it, but is no longer willing to play the Spartan. What the fuck is this about? Its this aspect that makes you suspect it's an adultry song - Game Of Pricks and the references to cheating suggest that, but there's a poetry and a self-lacerating aspect which suspects it's more. Ultimately, however, it's about What Is Going On Here? This is how I feel - how do you feel?

And that's it. The song comes so quickly, expresses its points if not cleanly, then with forthright irresistability, and leaves, without ever really hinting an answer. It's a late night phone call, a bedroom confrontation, words in the dark, a text message with a question mark... without a response. That's why it's so addictive, as that we have no idea how it ends. It could go anywhere from here. The hints are that it'll end darkly, that there's little hope here, but you can only hope that passion and will can somehow find a way out of the traps its set for itself.

But no matter what, it sounds like a pointed finger, angry eyes, a set jaw and other determined male nonsense that in a better time we would have described as heroism. And it leaves cuts in me like the welts a crucifix makes on your shoulder.

Ah - this has gone on even longer than meant to. Was going to dwell on the differences between the versions a little more, like how My Vitriol bring a little eighties-indie stadium atmosphere to the song with their ever-present echo (an irony in that the song being by a band who was existant then being made more eighties by a band who only appeared towards the close of the millennia) and how thoroughly emo-fied it is by Jimmy Eat World, who make the extended introduction work better for them with persistant tight high strings ringing across the riff than Guided By Voices actually do with their slightly lumpen over-shaped almost Springstein-esque take, at the cost of the electrifying vocal performance - which, for me, is a cost too much (Singing versus shaped yelps is no choice at all). And how all versions sound stronger than the original... but the original in its two-dimensional production holds the soul of it for me. But I'm not going to, except that bit I just did because I can never resist myself.

Be strong. Be free. The Game of Pricks makes me wonder if I can (or ever have) been either. And makes me wonder if it's too late to throw in my cards and leave the table.

Any Guided By Voices fans in the audience who know the actual story behind the song, please don't tell me. I already know the story behind the song. Or, at least, the only story I'm interested in.




Kieron Gillen's Workblog, foo'.