Growing up, people would often ask me why I listened to metal—wasn’t it filled with evil lyrics and violence? No, not all of it.
Listening to metal exposed me at an influential age to a wide range of views and opinions, many of which touched me. Megadeth sang about the pain of losing someone close to you (“In My Darkest Hour”), Testament sang about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre (“Seven Days in May”). But consistently Martin Walkyier-era Skyclad sang about the urgent need to look after the earth.
I know that it was easy for some of my Christian friends to dismiss Skyclad out of hand because they marketed themselves as a pagan folk metal band. But I always felt that they spoke about the earth and nature with such love and respect that it influenced how I thought and treated this remarkable rock on which we live, spinning around our nearest star. Perhaps not enough, though.
During one of the hottest weeks I’ve ever known in Scotland, I was in the car the other day – I know! but the supermarket is too far away to walk to, especially with my poor health – listening to Skyclad’s 1993 album, Jonah’s Ark when the song “Tunnel visionaries” started.
This song has been in my unconscious for 29 years and it has haunted me these past few days. I frequently quote its lyrics to myself in response to news articles about corporate financial greed or when I see faceless, multi-national conglomerate stripping the planet of its valuable, natural resources regardless of the cost to the climate, environment or the lives of local people.
Nobody could have conceived in the final decade of the 20th century that our humble affairs were being manipulated by computer interface.
Not a soul could have summised that the lives of billions were of less consequence than a decimal point in the stock exchanges of the world.
Rare few even questioned the relentless exploitation of our rapidly dwindling natural resources.
And yet across the polished boardroom tables, beings immensely more devious than ourselves surveyed this defiled planet with jaundiced eyes, and swiftly and ruthlessly, they hatched foul plots against us.“Tunnel visionaries”—David Pugh and Martin Walkyier, Skyclad, from Jonah’s Ark (1993)
In the light of the 12 years of Tory rule, corruption and neglect, in the light of the current cost of living crisis and spiraling gas and electricity prices (and astronomical utility company profits), does this sound familiar?
Perhaps this way of living isn’t working for us. Perhaps we should be trying to live sustainably. Perhaps we should be living within our means, downsizing, living simpler lives with less stuff. Perhaps local isn’t all that bad; perhaps global isn’t always better. Perhaps empowering people rather than grabbing all the power is a better course of action for us all. Perhaps sharing rather than being selfish makes us happier. Perhaps putting the lives of our fellow human beings before money and profits should be our goal as a species. Perhaps respecting the earth and seeking to live in harmony with our fellow creatures (mammals, insects, birds, marine creatures, bacteria—thanks Graeme for this suggestion) should be our goal rather than pulling everything that glitters out of the ground and seeing how much other shiny stuff we can earn by burning it. Surely the role of the strong is to lift up the weak, not push them down and squeeze all of the life out of them. The current state of British (and international) politics breaks my heart right now; some days to the point of tears … no, actually, most days.
I sometimes think that humanity is like the story of God telling Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But when God returns to the garden later, not only have Adam and Eve eaten from the tree, they’ve razed the orchard, purged the forest creatures from their homes and are now stripping mining it for minerals. And God stands open mouthed, with the same expression as the horror on the faces of Treebeard and the ents when they saw what Saruman had done to the forest of Fangorn, in the Lord of the Rings.
Jonah’s Ark, like many of Skyclad’s early releases, is a powerful album, filled with pleas to look after the only planet we have. It echoes a comment that I heard someone (probably solo bass Steve Lawson—an aside: definitely check out his music, “the soundtrack to the day you wish you’d had”, and please support him) say years ago: “You can’t throw things away; there is no away.”
Twenty-nine years ago, in the wake of Thatcherism and the financial greed of the late 80s/early 90s (why is it that the words Conservative/Tory and greed are never too far from one another?) Walkyier and Co. were singing this bleak prophecy about the road we were already marching down. They and many others could already see this fire in the distance and were urging us to stop and turn around. But their ‘hippy’ and ‘alternative’ messages were dimissed in favour of convenience and comfort, brushed off with a dimissive wave of the hand and a “We’ll be fine … ooh! look at this shiny thing. I want! I want!”
Skyclad’s album closes with this message:
Sometimes I believe that we’re already dead“It wasn’t meant to end this way”—Graham English and Martin Walkyier, Skyclad, from Jonah’s Ark (1993)
Each day on the TV our last rights are read
Some fair-weather oil tanker bleeding its load
Powder keg, powder plant ripe to explode.
Mr Prime Minister, hear what I say,
Please Mr President, listen I pray.
You have the influence and you have the power
To turn back the clocks on mankind’s final hour.
When death is the helmsman who steers “Jonah’s Ark”
Tomorrow’s an iceberg that lurks in the dark.
The band plays our song… it’s the funeral march.
Is it too late? Does humanity have the desire and strength and wisdom to turn back, or have we danced so far into the sunset that we can no longer make out the flames around us?