Who’s Punk?! What’s the score?!…Song #5/25: The Dead Flag Blues by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Godspeed You! Black Emperor are a nine-piece band out of Montreal. They have been performing together for over twenty five years now. In that time, they have released only one, grainy promotional band photo. They conduct no interviews. They have no website. They don’t make music videos. Their songs cannot be found on conventional radio. When playing live, they rarely interact with their audience. And yet…Godspeed You! Black Emperor are regarded by many who have taken the time to listen to their music and/or to see them in concert as the last band in the world still producing anything even remotely original. Godspeed You! Black Emperor have won Canada’s Polaris Music Prize for the artistic nature of their albums. They are not a punk band per se, but they operate under the punk ethos better than anyone else. This is the story of Montreal’s own Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the best band you have probably never heard of.

First things first, Godspeed You! Black Emperor got their band name from a Japanese movie from the 1970s. Apparently, a quarter century later, while on tour in Japan, the band members were able to meet the director of the movie from which they took their name. He had never heard of them. However, he found their music to be, shall we say….interesting. The band was founded in 1994 in Montreal by three friends named Efrim Menuck, Mauro Pezzente and Mike Moya. The three came together primarily because of a shared set of beliefs when it came to music as well as to politics. The three men were not pro-Marxist or Communist, but they definitely were anti-capitalism. They believed that our money-oriented society run by nameless, faceless corporate overlords was at the root of much that was wrong in the world. Thus, they formed their band as an antidote to what they saw the world becoming. In essence, they formed Godspeed You! Black Emperor to give people a sense of hopefulness in the face of despair. In doing so, Menuck, Pezzente and Moya checked off Box on the Punk ethos checklist: they formed a band that opposed the status quo and were demanding societal change.

The second box on the Punk ethos checklist is all about integrity. Diehard punk fans expect the bands they respect to adhere to certain principles of how they function as a band. For instance, a true punk band doesn’t sign with corporate record labels and feed off the corporate teat, so to speak. Maintaining independence and control over a band’s creative decisions is an integral part of being a true punk band. In the case of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, one of the very first group decisions that the band members made was that they were going to let their music sell itself. This meant that they were going to succeed or fail as a band completely on their own merits. They arranged for their own rehearsal and recording space in lofts and in warehouses in and around Montreal. They packaged their own vinyl records in sleeves that they decorated themselves. They pooled what little money they had and purchased venues where they could perform and which could, in turn, be leased out to other local bands to perform in, too. They rejected any attempts to be interviewed by journalists from newspapers or music magazines. The band simply created music, performed it in public and used that opportunity to create a wave of connections with fans that began spreading across the country and around the world. The members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor were deliberately mysterious. If you wanted to know who they were and what they looked like, you had to attend a show. Even if you attended a show, the band members usually turned toward each other and away from their audience. There were no after parties, no VIP ticket packages, no backstage passes offered. If you came to a show, you came for the musical experience only. As time went on, word of the originality and power of that musical experience raged like wildfire. The band garnered a reputation for itself as being completely divorced from all other bands in terms of concert experiences. In a world where true originality is hard to come by, Godspeed You! Black Emperor stood out.

For the most part, the band plays instrumental music. There are some spoken word samples incorporated into their music, but for the most part, they are all instrumental. Further to that, the structure of their music is more closely related to that of classical composers than it is to Ramones-like two-minute speed fest songs. The members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor tend to create music in suites that can last thirty minutes or longer. Just as in a classical music suite, there are distinct musical sections or movements that help create emotional depth and help tell their audience a story that often packs a political and emotional punch. Because of the fact that the band composes music in such vast, sweeping panoramas, they don’t tend to release commercial singles like all other bands. As a consequence of that policy, they do not produce albums of singles that are meant to be marketed for profit. Commercial success comes from the totality of their music being accepted and desired by their fans. For the sake of this post, I opted to highlight one of the band’s most noteworthy movements. “The Dead Flag Blues” was the introductory movement from the first suite of their debut album entitled “F# A# ∞ ”. The album title represents musical chords being played to infinity. “The Dead Flag Blues” begins with a spoken word poem written by Efrim Menuck from a film script he had been working on. I will print the poem out in a moment but first, this poem served as a catalyst for creating the buzz about this band – particularly in Europe. One of the only music magazine interviews the band has ever given was with a magazine out of England called New Musical Express!  This magazine was known for exclusively featuring performers from the UK on its covers, so the mere fact that they gave their cover to this unknown Montreal band raised eyebrows. Because of band policy, there was no promotional photo to share nor any band member headshots to use in the article. Instead, New Musical Express! opted to reprint the opening stanza of Menuck’s poem from “The Dead Flag Blues” on their front cover. That was how Godspeed You! Black Emperor was unveiled in Europe and, subsequently, the rest of the world. Menuck’s full poem goes as follows:

The car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel

and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides.

And a dark wind blows.

The government is corrupt

and we’re on so many drugs

with the radio on and the curtains drawn.

We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine

and the machine is bleeding to death.

The sun has fallen down

and the billboards are all leering

and the flags are all dead at the tops of their poles.

It went like this:

The buildings tumbled in on themselves.

Mothers clutching babies picked through the rubble

and pulled out their hair.

The skyline was beautiful on fire.

All twisted metal stretching upwards,

everything washed in a thin orange haze.

I said, “Kiss me, you’re beautiful-

These are truly the last days”.

You grabbed my hand and we fell into it

like a daydream or a fever.

We woke up one morning and fell a little further down-

for sure it’s the valley of death.

I open up my wallet

and it’s full of blood.

During live performances, these words are spoken aloud against a backdrop of dystopian imagery being flashed on screen behind the band. As the final words end, the band begins to play until a wall of sound envelops the stage. The world is, indeed, on fire and the end is drawing near…until the music ebbs and flows and picks us all up in its hopeful embrace.  The effect of it all in this musical suite is quite magical and transformative. I imagine that two or three hundred years ago when the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach were creating their thirty and forty minute symphonies and concertos, that the movements within their suites had a similar effect on audiences as well. To my mind, to have created a form of musical expression that doesn’t require words or photographs or celebrity or marketing to move hearts and minds is a magnificent accomplishment. The closest thing that I can compare Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s music to would be some of the psychedelic prog rock that came out of the late 1960s and early 70s. But, having said that, what they have done feels different. It is more orchestral and symphonic and experimental than early Yes or Genesis or even Laser Floyd at the Planetarium. They are a band who are incredibly unique. They create musical worlds the likes of which you rarely get to hear or experience. 

As I draw this post to a close, I invite you to take your own first steps into the world of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I do so by offering the following bits of information and advice. First of all, their music is meant to be enjoyed in its totality. There are no three-minute commercial singles for you to listen to and then go on about your day. The musical suites are each usually twenty to forty minutes in length. A whole cohesive album’s worth of music can easily run 80-90 minutes. The importance of listening to their music as a whole is that it was created to tell an entire emotional story about the state of our world as the band sees it. There will be loud segments and quiet ones, too. There will be segments that offer distortion and loudness of volume but there will be beautiful, melodic sections, too. The effect of these musical panels is to create an overall patchwork tapestry that tells a story in the end. Like Laser Floyd at the planetarium, I find that I like this music best at night with my headphones on. I have never tried to listen to it in a stoned, medicated state but I imagine that doing so may add layers of meaning and colour to what you are experiencing. In any case, in a world of ever-shortening attention spans, the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor will make demands upon you as a listener that you may not be used to anymore. But let me reassure you, the effort required to listen to one of their thirty minute suites is worth it in the end. If you decide to give this music a try, then make yourself comfortable, free yourself from potential distraction and allow the music to take you on a journey. I guarantee you that this is music that is completely original and unlike anything you hear on radio today. As bands go, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, while being a cross between an orchestra and a rock band, is as Punk a band as there exists in the world today. Sometimes being Punk is a style of music. Sometimes it is a state of mind and a philosophy of life. Welcome to the world of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Have fun. Enjoy.  

There is no website for the band for me to link to. Instead, I will link you to their own record label called Constellation Records. Once there, click on the heading marked as Artists. Then click on the band name from the dropdown menu. This website has a nice description of the band’s history and philosophy. You can find the link to Constellation Records here.   

The link to an audio-only video for the opening movement called “The Dead Flag Blues” from the album F# A# ∞  by Godspeed You! Black Emperor can be found here.

***The title of this series on Punk music is taken from the lyrics of the song “Boxcar” by San Francisco band Jawbreaker. The link to their website can be found here. Please feel free to visit their site and show the band some love in return for me using their lyrics for my series title. Thanks.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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