Sunday, November 12, 2006

Songs To Learn And Sing #12

Today's lamb to the slaughterhouse of popular music opinion is head boy of The Runout Groove, who's even supplied his own pictorial backup, Jamie Summers:

Crosby, Stills & Nash - Cathedral

The power of religion in people's lives, both positively and negatively, has to me seemed to be a difficult subject for popular song. Often, on the positive side, we get musicians who are far more interested in expressing the strength of their faith than they are in producing something beautiful. Thus we have huge industries of Christian Music made specifically for Christian people creating music that has no real impact on anyone outside of that group. The same can be said for most religions. However there are of course some musicians who make the crossover, either by being so fantastic that you can't help but love them despite not having any idea what they're on about (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), or through expressing their faith so beautifully or cleverly that you can't help but be touched/affected in some way (Sufjan Stevens/Danielson Famile) or through being so obtuse about it that you can be forgiven for thinking that they're not talking about religion at all.

On the other side of the spectrum, things are pretty much the same. There are barrel loads of very embarrassing anti-religious songs that act as album filler and are usually an excuse for stupid lyricists to try to show us how clever they are for, you know, spotting that religion is sometimes a bit too powerful; there's probably one on the new Killers album (I wouldn't know). However, again, there are a bunch of exceptions. First of all you can have your metal anti-religious songs that can border on the comedic (Marilyn Manson when he's not being rubbish - and there are times), then you have ones that are musically different or very clever in how they express themselves (see PIL's Religion 1 and 2), and of course you have some that are such fantastic poppy songs that even religious types among us can't help but tap their feet (XTC's Dear God for instance).

The one crossover, I think, is when it comes to songs of real deep emotion. Just as there can be incredibly beautiful songs about faith that touch us even if we're not at all religious, there can be songs about the failure of religion that express the disappointment about the realities of faith and religious organisations so well that their very anti-religious nature makes them truly...religious. These songs may express disdain, but this disdain comes from a true desire for religion, for God, for some sort of universal love or meaning. The people who write the heartfelt religious songs that amaze us and the people who write the heartfelt un-religious songs that amaze us are divided by a very thin barrier. Perhaps that's why many of the best songs about the problems or pressures of faith are usually written by lapsed Catholics/lapsed Protestants.

My song for today is an anti-organised religion song that works well because it's both very beautiful in its expression of disappointment, and also because it's bloody catchy and stunningly performed.

Whilst on tour in Britain in the seventies David Crosby, at the time part of uber beautiful supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, was on an acid trip when he wandered into Winchester Cathedral (just a few miles down the road from my home of Southampton). In reaction to the power of the atmosphere and architecture he experienced a deep crisis of faith which resulted in the song Cathedral, which featured on 1977's CSN album. It's a multi-part epic which soon turned into a high point of any live performance, and has since the 70s come to be seen as one of Crosby's best songs.

I was in the cathedral a few months ago, having not been there for a number of years, and have to say that the opulent, oppressive nature of much of the surroundings is both very beautiful but also very sad, raising questions of how a religion of supposed poverty could gain so much wealth and use it in such a (perhaps) uncharitable way. It's truly a stunning place, and the chance to see caskets containing the remains of the first five kings of England, as well as (a few minutes walk down the road) an artefact that was long thought to be the genuine Round Table of King Arthur's court, is quite a special experience. But anyway, here is the song, and I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for reading!


Ben said...

How bizarre - I was listening to Clinic's album Winchester Cathedral when I read this post...

Simon said...

If anyone reads it while listening to Winchester Cathedral by the New Vaudeville Band we'll be very impressed.

Jamie's posted this on his own site tonight, if anyone passing by is interested. He's got a live Guided By Voices set up as well as many other interesting things we can't quite remember offhand.

Anonymous said...

It was Graham Nash, not Crosby, who tripped into Winchester Cathedral and wrote the song.

It truly is a moving and beautiful work, though, and demonstrates the passion and depth of which the often undercredited Nash is capable.

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