Rock Music and a sense of mystery have mixed to form memorable works that have sparked great conversation and interest. In their prime, Led Zeppelin and The Doors epitomized this. After the success of their first three albums, Zeppelin intended to release their fourth recording without any title at all. The only musician credits were to be four symbols, one to represent each band member. It was only due to pressure from Atlantic Records that they agreed to affix their name to it, but the album itself remained untitled. Most fans will refer to the residing home of “Stairway to Heaven” “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Black Dog” either as IV, Four Symbols or Sticks. The more adventurous will go with ZoSo in reference to Zep’s chief architect Jimmy Page. Regardless of what you called it, it was an album that lent itself to tremendous speculation and discussion. I have yet to find a definitive, exact meaning for every reference that Robert Plant sings about on “Stairway.” I am not sure that Plant knows either. He has claimed to have written the lyrics in a quick burst of 15-20 minutes one evening, with a sensation that some unseen force was moving his hand across paper as lyrics about a “lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold” unspooled before him.
Even more curious was the cover of their 1976 album, Presence. The album cover and sleeve artwork were created by a London art collective known as Hipgnosis and featured a strange small black obelisk later referred to as “The Object.” The album photographs show the item in a variety of situations; sitting next to a couple by a swimming pool, another with a group of golfers after sinking a putt. The unusual aspect being the lack of a shadow by “The Object” despite those attached to the people that surrounded it. Hipgnosis, and its leader Storm Thorgerson would go on to create artwork and design for Peter Gabriel, Alan Parsons Project, Scorpions and, most notably, Pink Floyd. It was with Floyd that one of their most iconic images was created: the flying pig over London’s Battersea Power Station for 1977’s Animals album. On the second day of the cover shoot, the 40-foot Pig escaped, flying over Heathrow Airport before finally ending in Kent where it landed among a field of cows. The biggest mystery of this misadventure may have been what the Captain of a United Airlines flight might have said to his co-pilot when encountering a flying pig at 30,000 feet… In the immortal words of David St. Hubbins, “It’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.”
The Floyd would continue this sense of intrigue to their very last day. On their final tour supporting 1994’s The Division Bell album, the Internet phenomenon of Publius Enigma emerged. Cryptic messages from a user only identified as “Publius” began appearing on Usenet newsgroups (remember those?). They all hinted to some great “mystery” to be solved. As expected, the band, and anyone associated with them, denied any knowledge or involvement with the inexplicably elusive Publius. A message was posted to all who doubted that their bona fides would be revealed in Rutherford, New Jersey on July 18th. True to form, included in the light effects presented by the band were the word “Publius Enigma.”
The Doors were masters of darkness and the enigmatic. Songs like “Strange Days,” “Waiting for the Sun,” “The Changeling” and
“Riders on the Storm” covered lyrical territory far from the realm of typical “pop music” themes. Singer/lyricist Jim Morrison was heavily influenced by the works of William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Rimbaud, and took guidance from them in how he conducted his work and life. He once told friends that he would one day fake his own death, leave the country, and live out his remaining earthly time under the name Mr. Mojo Risin. For those keeping track, “Mr. Mojo Risin” is also an anagram for “Jim Morrison” and the phrase was repeated multiple times in the coda to “L.A. Woman,” the title track of the last album he performed on.
Morrison died unexpectedly in Paris at the age of 27 and no autopsy was performed. When the band’s manager, Bill Siddons, arrived in Paris to follow up on reports of the singer’s death, he was greeted with a sealed coffin, Morrison’s common law wife Pamela Courson, and a signed certificate of death by an unknown physician. Courson, the only person who may have been able to give an account on what transpired, died three years later. This, along with a number of strange occurrences in the intervening years, led to the theory that the singer had faked his own death, moved to a remote area in the south of France and continued living as an obscure poet, never to surface again. The romantic in me likes to believe this.
Music is filled with countless levels of speculation, hidden meanings and questions. Records by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, David Bowie all contain unanswerable riddles waiting for each new generation to discover and question. Don Henley has yet to completely reveal what “Hotel California” is really about.
While it is easy to point out that this abstractness of thought has certainly contributed to legend and sales, it is only part of it. Prince’s original intention was to distribute The Black Album with nothing but a black cover absent of both credits and promotion. It was just to be found one day in record stores with no further information. A sudden change of heart pulled the album at the last minute, only to be replaced by Lovesexy in 1988. The Black Album would see eventual release in 1994, but for only a scant 30 days. Far from a revenue generator, The Black Album was a financial bomb for record company Warner Brothers from start to finish. It is also one of my favorite albums by the late Minneapolis genius.
While, this has all led to the current trend in “Surprise Album Releases” by artists like Beyoncé, Skrillex and U2, it is far from rock’s mysterious past. These much-hyped releases are not really much of a surprise. It is not like the average person just stumbled on them in the local record store without any idea it was ever coming. Once released, the Twitter-verse has already reported, experienced, digested and responded endlessly in Meme-form. When an album-drop is reported on CNN the next morning, there isn’t a whole hell of a lot of mystery anymore.
The number of acts who have delved into mystery is now sadly few and far between. Those that do, go deep into the rabbit hole. Nine Inch Nails built a tremendous level of puzzlement into their 2007 “Year Zero” concept album. Tracks for the album were leaked through “hidden” thumb drives found in select cities during a concert tour, each one revealing another tantalizing piece to the dystopian story. They worked in the media at the time. Upon release, if you took their black-coated Year Zero CD and held it slightly over a source of heat, like a open oven door or heating unit, the blackness would fade away to reveal a hidden internet address for an online alternate reality game. Also included in the packaging was a warning from the fictional United States Bureau of Morality and a phone number. When dialed, the caller was informed, “By calling this number, you and your family are implicitly pleading guilty to the consumption of anti-American media and have been flagged as potential militants.” Wow, I had NO IDEA I had called Donald Trump’s future election campaign. Trent Reznor, you ARE the KING OF THE FUTURE! That sure does explain a lot…
Then came The 1975 who took it to deeper level that encompassed the entire history of the band. Prior to their debut album in 2013, the band had worked together for over 11 years, forming in 2002 and gigging under a variety of monikers like The Slowdown, Big Sleep, Talkhouse and Drive Like I Do. They finally settled on “The 1975” based on something leader Matthew Healy discovered scribbled in a used Jack Kerouac poetry book, but more on that later.
From the beginning, the band worked with shadows and mystery in their music, building a large arc throughout. When it came time to release the first record, they had established a well-thought out approach to their music and would reveal it in bits and pieces over time. Prior to the first album, the band released four separate E.P.s, each one giving slightly different
interpretations of their vision. The period of this first album used only the colours of black & white. From the album cover to the concert presentation on stage, everything was either dark or light. Everything incorporated the vertical shape of a rectangle.
Their first performance at First Avenue was entirely backlit allowing for only shadows and an obscured view of the musicians at work. This presentation was done for a singular purpose and to great effect. At the end of the set, they closed with a fiery rendition of “Sex.” This song about rejection made the black & white show theme’s point by exploding during the instrumental section of the song. It was an explosive cacophony of guitar driven sound. From a stage presentation point of view, the white lights flashed on and off in a strobe-like effect with the color red intermittently added in. It was the only time any other color was used. It was stunning and elevated a great performance into something truly astounding.
Their second release, with an identical cover to their first but now using the colors of pink and white, broke them into the mainstream. Songs like “The Sound” and “Love Me” captured the pop audience and gave them their first Number One album on this side of the pond. For those long-time fans who were paying attention, it is worth noting that the catchy chorus to “The Sound” can be found faintly hidden midway in the track “Intro/Set 3” from their third E.P. The 1975 are seemingly equal parts band and ongoing art project.
After the massive success of their second album, The 1975 retreated. Word was they were “working on a new album.” All that Healy would offer was that for their third release, they were striving to do something really special. They were after the legendary British “third album” release. This was always part of the plan. They were looking to make their own The Queen Is Dead, War, or OK Computer. Hey, if you’re gonna have goals…
The band and its members deleted their social media accounts and the website went blank. They were closed for business. About a month ago, the initial group of people who first signed up to their mailing list received an enigmatic e-mail. Patterned after the leaflet that accompanies a new iPhone, the only thing included was an obscured photo of what appeared to be a Stealth fighter jet in a vertical rectangle obscured by a smaller white rectangle with a single word – “Hello.” It was on.
Posters began appearing around London and the band’s native Manchester. Phrases like “Modernity Has Failed Us” and “First Disobey: Then Look At Your Phones” were presented with the letters MFC in the upper right hand corner. There were rumours that the third album was to be called “Music For Cars.” Incidentally, the third E.P. released before their debut album was also titled “Music For Cars.” They were painting with broad strokes and an eye on the long game from the beginning.
Days later, visitors to The 1975 website were greeted with ambient music and a countdown clock. Working the clock backwards revealed the ending time to be exactly midnight on June 1, 2018 in London, England.
Now, about the name of the band again. Healy has maintained from the beginning that the inspiration behind the name came from a photograph found inside that used book of poetry. On the back were the words “June 1, The 1975.” He was struck by the unusualness of the use of the word “The” preceding the year. June 1. Odd to have June 1 fall on a Friday, the new day that music is generally released worldwide. Yeah, maybe not that odd after all.
Deeper dives into their website gave evidence of four separate photographs, each with a different phrase. The concept for whatever is to happen on June 1st is beginning to be slowly, and painstakingly, revealed. One of the more striking photos show a number of people in an art gallery intently looking at their mobile phones while oblivious to the beautiful art on the walls around them. The words “Isaiah 6:9-10” are superimposed over the image, an obvious reference to a verse from the Bible that reads:
9 And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.
10 Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.
Isaiah 6:9-10 King James Version
Also embedded in the code for the four images were pieces of an Internet address. When joined together, these led to a website containing a transcript of dialog between a human and an computer driven Artificial Intelligence engaged in a discussion on morality in the modern world. A puzzle wrapped inside an enigma, coated with a fair amount of pretension, but fun to dive into. All this serving to draw a greater connection to the music. The band has revealed that they will put the concept of “The 1975” to rest, at least for a while, after this release and tour cycle. They aren’t going away, however. They have also indicated that they will return, with the exact same four members, now performing under their previously used “Drive Like I Do” moniker. The recent inclusion of DLID buttons in their merchandising and visual concepts appear to lend credence to this, leaning towards a more “emo”-based sound for the musicians. It is like the band Drive Like I Do woke up one morning and told itself that they should wear more sweaters. *
So, what is going to happen with The 1975 on June 1, The 1975? Likely a new album, but no one knows for certain. It sure is fun to watch and speculate. I do know one thing to be true. Somewhere in rural France, a 74-year-old man who answers to the name of Mr. Mojo Risin is sitting, gazing over the rural countryside and he knows exactly what “Publius Enigma” means. He raises his glass of vintage Cabernet Sauvignon to the next Riders on the Storm and issues a gentle, raspy laugh.
Grabbing My Ears:
Bruce Springsteen has been releasing archival concert recordings on his website over the past few years and this performance from the Ghost of Tom Joad tour is particularly good. Recorded in the Catholic High School Gym of his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, Springsteen is warm, funny and loose. Telling stories of growing up and changing his setlist to add a more local flair, this 2 hour, 32 minute performance is among his very best. In solo acoustic form, “Adam Raised a Cain” gains greater nuanced power while the linking of “Two Hearts” and “When You’re Alone” works to build a story that enhances both songs. He closes the night with a special composition for the night, a song he introduces as one that he will only play once in his life titled “Freehold.” It is an honest and loving song of remembrance, family and friends. As Springsteen says at the beginning of the recording, “I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I wasn’t standing here. Right under the cross, too.”
One Last Thing…
If you don’t get this reference, then it is your mystery to solve.
Daniel G. Moir is a freelance writer, musician, and baseball enthusiast. Mostly, though, he is among the most passionate music fans and aficionados of our times. He can be contacted at @DMoir5150.
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