Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel
JG Thirlwell in 1987, portrait courtesy Richard Kern
This is a guest post written by Graham Rae.
“This isn’t the melody that lingers on/it’s the malady that malingers on.” – Foetus.
Flashbacktrack: for reasons that I am not going to discuss, I was in a great deal of mental and emotional pain in August of 2010. I often found myself listening constantly to the albums Hole (celebrating the 30th anniversary of its release this year) and Nail (30th anniversary next year) by Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel, which I have now been listening to for a quarter of a century. At that time, and others preceding it, these two therapeutic sonic works helped eat my pain and keep me sane. The reasons why they did, and why they will no doubt continue to do so in the skull-suture future, are what I intend to discuss here.
James George Thirlwell, the one-manic band behind Scraping Foetus, was born in Melbourne in Australia in 1960. He spent the first 18 years of his life being down in Down Under, saying that he hated every minute in the country. He attended an all-boy’s Baptist School for twelve years, singing in a choir and playing cello, the school experience a life-scarring one that resonates through a lot of his work to a greater or lesser degree. “I’ve put myself through a deprogramming process so I’ve blocked out most of my childhood, but I remember as I grew up I felt like I didn’t want to be where I was,”(1) he noted later. “I remember getting a bad report card that said my studies were okay but ‘James needs to have more faith’. I was pro-evolution and I’m an atheist to this day.”(2)
Thirlwell flirted with and dropped out of art school, but his disaffection for his art-content-informative (de)formative years soon led him across the ocean to London, where his Scottish mother had studied music. He told his parents he was going on there holiday and quite simply did not return to Australia, which had been his plan all along. He’s rarely been back to the land of his birth since; there are no Antipodean (or Scottish) melodies in his music that I have ever heard. Scorched earth policy from lifestart to teen angst finish.
Finding himself in the post-punk-blitzkrieg soundruins of England’s capital, the displaced Australian got himself a job at Virgin on Oxford Walk, which meant he could keep an ear and eye on the latest musical releases as they came out. After some sonic noodling in a couple of undergroundsound outfits (pragVEC, Nurse With Wound, Come), Thirlwell put out his first Foetus-themed release in January 1981, Foetus Under Glass doing OKFM/Spite Your Face.
Before we go any further, I have to explain something to the Foetus virgins in the audience. In order, apparently, to let the music speak in tongue twisters for itself, Thirlwell has recorded using more Foetus-themed pseudonyms and bandwagons than I would care to remember for three decades, but since 1995 has used Foetus as his main moniker. And what is the significance of that six-letter babybrand? Well, Thirlwell has been known to say with a shy sly wry grin it’s just an embryonic human, and that he likes the connotations of potential. But one thing’s for sure: with this mercurial never-miss-a-beat pimp of the perverse, you can never be quite be sure.
There have only ever been three Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel releases. Of the bizarre and slightly disturbing name, Thirlwell says: “My mental image of that is a foetus being tied to a railway track and being run over by a train and the engineer going, ‘Oh shit, not another!’. It’s a strong image and I like it. The word foetus is great, you know. I love f-o-e-t-u-s. I love the fact the oe is ee. I see it more in an abstract sense. It’s like a vague, abstract term.” (3)
Eventually-just-Foetus’s first few releases were cheaply recorded in London, with tiny numbers pressed for lack of cash, making small raindrop-in-puddle splashes in the British music press. Although he met his several-years-long girlfriend, firespitter No Wave punk provocateur Lydia ‘Lunch’ Koch during this time (more on which later), hanging out with her in a Brixton high rise flat, Thirlwell still wasn’t happy. He had no money, but fortuitously met Stevo of Some Bizzare, records through his Virgin job. This sonic-malefactor benefactor offered him unlimited 24-track studio time free, which Thirlwell jumped on, pulling mad 24-to-36-hour shifts to produce a full album and two 12” tracks.
The end result was the album Hole, recorded in May-October 1983 in London. The name shows its composer’s penchant for four-letter one-syllable titles. “You know, each (record title) has triple entendres. Like, say Hole, for example. It can mean hole in a sexual sense, hole as in a hole in the wall, or hole as in the hole that you descend into Hell with.”(4) The recording was originally conceived as a six-song album, with a three-minute rendition of “Clothes Hoist” for the whole of Hole’s first side. “The trouble is that as I worked on the song it started growing into a monster and the others just came from nowhere.”(5)
Read more after the jump…