Epic Soundtrack #1: Rise Above
In September, 2018, I walked across London listening to Epic Soundtracks’ debut solo album, Rise Above, on repeat. The route I followed was between 3 Bodney Road in Hackney and 129 Sumatra Road in West Hampstead – the move Soundtracks himself took in leaving a difficult and stultifying location to one he thought would free him a little bit. The move was prescient in that, at Sumatra Road, Soundtracks created a series of artistically successful solo albums – and, in Rise Above, at least one genuine classic. The problems he faced weren’t solved, however, and it was in the basement flat at Sumatra Road that Epic Soundtracks died on Bonfire Night, 1997.
The inspiration for this walk occurred five years ago when, living in Hackney myself, I was approached by a teenager in a coffee shop. ‘What’cha doing?’ they asked me, all smiles and optimism. I snapped, ‘Why? What do you want?’ They recoiled, and walked away with a tear in their eye. I packed my things and left, shocked at this person I had become. London is a wonderful city, and Hackney an exciting, ‘vibrant’ (in a sense long destroyed by grantwriters and estate agents) place that is still close to my heart. But something about me at that point in life, and living, for the first time, in a megalopolis, had changed me.
Walking home from that café I thought one line, from one song, ‘Fallen Down’ on Rise Above, over and over:
‘I’m being called from across the sea / “Get out of London,” you know it’s killing me…’
I’ve been haunted by Epic Soundtracks since hearing the first notes of ‘Fallen Down’ 25 years ago. His was a ghostly presence even then – he was the shade behind the drumkit for two of my then-favourite artists: Crime & the City Solution and These Immortal Souls, as well as his origins in uber-hip groups I was just dipping into like Swell Maps and Jacobites.
I never spoke to Kevin Godfrey – who, as a teenage post-punk in the Swell Maps with his brother Nikki Sudden, changed his name to the glorious Epic Soundtracks; I spent a single hour in his presence at CBGB’s a quarter-century ago, listening as he sang and intermittently stroked a few piano keys. It has held. The music on Rise Above and in that performance: I have listened to sad songs all my life, but these were beyond mere ‘sadness’ – these were, and are, songs of out-of-place-ness. They are molasses and they are levitation. Rise above, indeed – whether you want to or not. And then, the drop.
My 2018 walk was a psychogeographic experiment: what changes in our experience of a place when altered only through a repeated soundtrack? How can the music born of such a path affect that path’s tracing?
The answer is: a lot. The answer is: too much.
Sometimes experiments fail. It’s been nearly a year since that walk, and I’ve been unable to return to it; unable to write anything about it. The experience was wrenching, and at times, genuinely bizarre. In the three-plus hour walk, including a few diversions, I went through a range of emotions from nostalgia and yearning, to paranoia and, eventually, terror.
Not far from the end, I came to 165 Broadhurst Gardens – the one-time location of Decca Records studios where, in 1962, the Beatles auditioned and were turned down. Knowing that this would’ve been a touchstone location for Epic Soundtracks, I stopped at the building and took out my earbuds; stopped the soundtrack. The relief was physical – I realized, only then, that my pulse was racing, my head spinning. I never restarted the music.
At 129 Sumatra Road, the curtains were drawn – there was a ‘HOME’ sign on the door; no one answered my knocks. It was hometime, and children were beginning to filter into the tree-lined streets. It felt comfortable and safe in a way that – at least in his songs – I’m not sure any home ever felt to the ghost I chased.
I have not revisited this project since because, like most of us, I sometimes feel close to the state of Rise Above; closer than I’d like to admit. Close, and yet extremely so-far-away. Rise Above’s genius is to make those feelings – of yearning, of almost-there and once-was; of terror at the night and at a pair of worn-down shoes and at the vast unknowable world – to make them something accessible, the way we might feel the madness of Lear or of Ahab only to shrink that feeling away into a pocket, knowing that, when we need to, it’s there, to revisit.
I always – always – feel one half-step away from the rest of the world. I always – always – feel that there is a tiny bit of information that all those around me possess and which I do not. Just a point of fact, or a tradition, or some kind of unwritten rule. Listening to Rise Above it’s easy to see that Epic Soundtracks felt that way, to an Nth degree. Looking back, it’s comforting – a reminder that it’s a feeling that millions of people have in the modern world, if not everyone, to some degree. And I can put it in my pocket.
When Soundtracks sings, ‘I don’t understand / why nothing goes as planned’, he’s not talking about a relationship or a friendship or a late-night meet-up or a gig, he’s talking about literally everything. It’s familiar, and it’s a relief.
Listening to Rise Above in its entirety five, six times, walking the busy, frantic, packed-yet-empty, solemn streets of London’s northern middle, I felt that nothing had ever gone to plan, nor would it. That’s not Epic Soundtracks’ fault and it’s not London’s. It’s mine, for not understanding the power of these combinations – that two inert objects, for example the strings on ‘Sad Song’ and the man kneeling on his coat for midday prayers in Simla Court off Brewery Road, could have such an explosive emotional and, indeed, spiritual reaction. Epic and London: they’re just doing their jobs. Nature.
Four lines from four songs:
‘What is the point of me even writing this song?’
‘Everybody else is always putting you down’
‘I don’t expect you to understand’
‘I don’t trust a soul after this, I don’t trust a soul, not even me’
By Sumatra Road, I had to try to transform back. I’d already decided not to write anything – decided to abandon the project and just try to salvage my sense of self. I had spiralled into a comic-book version of another person: I’d let my insides mirror someone else’s art; this deepest and darkest, never-real version of a man I’d never met, never knew; someone with whom I shared a room once in my life.
(That night, at CBGB’s in New York City, Epic arrived onstage in double-denim, eyes obscured; he played an electric piano. I don’t recall him speaking, just singing a short set and off again. It was magical and worrisome. Out of a festival of scores of artists throughout the city that weekend, his was the performance that resonated the most. As I left the venue, another man said to his late-arriving friend, ‘Yeah, you missed it, but there wasn’t much to miss – Epic Soundtracks has gone lounge and it was shit.’ We had experienced utterly different things.)
I hope someday to recreate this walk, in a different mood, a different mental starting point, and write it. But while this experiment didn’t work as intended, it has shown me that there’s something powerful about the concept itself. Another decision: I will re-enact this experiment with other soundtracks and other landscapes, but in a different form. Inspired by Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, I won’t attempt to note and then describe, but to poeticize.
I suggest you listen to Rise Above. I suggest you buy it; and Jacobites, and Jane from Occupied Europe, and Get Lost, and many more. I suggest you live with it for 25+ years, as I have. I’ve listened to it many times since the walk – it’s a worthy companion in this half-step world. But I use it carefully.
And I apologise to Epic for not being able to do justice to this process. His work deserves more. One day, I’ll try again.