Whipping Boy

This week I have taken delivery of the reissue of Whipping Boy’s album ‘Heartworm’. I have written that sentence and already had to go back and take all the adjectives out of it. Here be dragons. Let me explain. I think (and I’m not alone) that ‘Heartworm’ is one of the greatest albums ever made. It’s not an easy listen, you may know this. But all I want to do in this post is try to write why you, too, might be interested in listening to Whipping Boy.

If, like me, you lived in small town, the first you saw or heard of interesting bands might be a review in Melody Maker of a single, or album. Perhaps a blurry picture in somewhere embedded in an out-of-the-way column. You would learn the names of the writers you could trust – although you would devour every word in print. Writers like Everett True, Victoria Segal, Simon Reynolds, Caitlin Moran, Andrew Mueller, Neil Kulkarni, Simon Price, Taylor Parkes. These were the people who taught me how to write, how to think, how to listen. I don’t think it was quite the haven of enlightenment that I thought it was at the time; I eagerly read about Riot Grrl by writers who were working in this sort of environment. But the quality of the writing was very much higher than its rival(s). Melody Maker wasn’t populist, usually – until the darkness of the Oasis years – and so each issue was like opening up a world of thought and expression. And Whipping Boy’s ‘Heartworm’ made waves. And, if you lived in a small town, often you had to wait for your mates to share music with you. So, my first listen to Whipping Boy was on a poor quality compilation tape that someone had borrowed from someone else, and left somewhere. My first listen was to the line ‘I belong to you and you belong to me. I belong to you but you belong to another man’ intoned in a clear, almost flatly belligerent tone that just begged inquiry. It seemed to scream: think about what I am saying. Think about it. Am I saying this? Am I saying this? Or am I inviting you in to think about this? I have never forgotten that invite.

Whipping Boy, a four piece band formed in Dublin, had been written off by the English press as copyists. But ‘Heartworm’ (I think) surprised everyone. Forgive me if I sidestep the music momentarily. What truly truly set Whipping Boy apart was Fearghal McKee. In early Whipping Boy songs, Fergal’s spitting and hissing delivery was often buried in a wall of noise that was as exciting and full of verve as the words must have been; it’s just that you could barely hear them. Fergal’s presence would come forward out of the music like a monster lurching out from a cloud of dry ice in order to intone a line like ‘everybody’s favourite sister’, and then would recede back into the chord fog. Fascinating, yes. Clearly vituperative, yes. But not always very clear. What happened with ‘Heartworm’ is that a major label picked them up and paid a producer who moved Fergal’s voice to the centre of the sound. And with some sculpting of the dynamics of their songwriting, it all fell into focus. Said major label did not cover themselves in glory in the long run, but the record certainly benefited. And Fergal’s voice moves through moods and changes with the music – from whispers, to serenades, to declarations, to snarls, from sneers to near reverb-less pouring out of the heart. Yes, the heart. It was a record that mapped out territory of the other people’s hearts that we just don’t dare go to. But before we talk about that, we need to talk about personae.

In ‘Heartworm’ McKee adopts a series of personae. They are all male. And they are not all pleasant. In fact, most of them aren’t pleasant. In the the chorus of ‘Twinkle’ the pounding quiet/loud opener to the record we are treated to an end-of-the-night violin which at first drawls, then lifts and lifts and then falls. Then the heartbeat drums kick in and McKee’s voice is on us: ‘Waiting to be bled. / Turning tricks just like your mother’. Imagine you hit the stop button right then. Imagine that you didn’t get to the songs I will go through below. You could misinterpret that, if you listened no more. McKee’s opening song – and indeed its opening lines – are (I think) the bravest of any record. He’s singing in the persona of a misogynist right from the start, who denigrates his muse (that concept also itself misogynistic) and seems to think with a logic that these days we would label as ‘incel’: to hate women because of his own frustrations and fascinations because she has ‘Left my dreams for dead./ making out with every other.’ Not convinced? What about the line ‘You’re going to pay for all the hate I’m giving’? Or when the ‘you’ of the song gets the briefest of voices (all else is implied) in the weary line ‘F—, I might be here forever.’ The brutality of this is an evocation of the darkness of the possessive male. In fact, it is an evisceration of every other love song; if the man or male persona of a song says ‘You belong to me’, or ‘you’re mine’, or ‘MY baby’… what does that mean? Well.. it means the singer of that song you like is the persona of ‘Twinkle’. Even that perfect sarcastic title gives the clue here about the unpleasant presence that McKee is shunting out into the daylight from the patriarchal tomb in which it hides in the hope that we see that desire can be twisted into dark forms. McKee is undertaking the unenviable task of using himself as an avatar – to take in the poison of deified patriarchy to be seen, judged, wounded and killed off. The illogic of the persona of ‘Twinkle’, the possessive ugliness of it, the implied self-hate, too… all bound up and writhing together. And set to a song that, after the lyrical element is spent, rises and rises, rises and rises in tension, in the ferocity with which the drums are hit, and in the pitch of the guitars which go up and up to then shatter with a series of crashes and then grind and whir back to earth like pieces of machinery that have exploded in the sky. It’s the guitar equivalent of the end of the prelude of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major (and you’ll know what people say about the end of that).

Listen out for the vocals at the end: are they ‘Again… again… again…again…’?

And after all that darkness you hit the second track ‘When We Were Young’. And again you’re hit with one of Fergal’s great opening lines: ‘We we were young nobody died and nobody got older/ The toughest kid in the street could always be bought over’. And you’re into a part story, part litany of nouns that collage into a coming-of-age-and-derailing narrative from the hazy shared narrative of most people’s youth (‘Babies. Sex and flagons. Shifting women. Getting stoned. Robbing cars, bars and pubs. Rubber johnnies. Poems’). Certainly not romanticised. Here, the narrative is soured by the loss of the personae’s reverie and an external third person narrator takes over in the acknowledgement that ‘With a start he was awoken from the middle of a dream/ He’s making movies in his head that never will be seen’; after this we have the refrain ‘What might have been’ (mirrored even by the backing vocals) helping the listener understand that the personae’s life has taken a path determined by actions, but also by the context that brought them up. If you track back in the verses, at the start of the second McKee narrates that ‘The first time that you stole…’ and split from common shared childhood rites of passage into a suggested shared destiny for whole groups of people because of the material forces at work within society. Yes, all this. But in ‘When We Were Young’ is a moment so beautiful that I nearly can’t listen to it. It’s the volta in the first verse. At first you get ‘The first time you got drunk, you drank Pernod and dry cider’ which has never failed to raise a grin from anyone I’ve played the record to, but it develops to ‘Smashed a window in as the police came around the corner./ You never had no time to run…’. So far, so misdemeanor, but then the devastating climactic moment is ‘..and your dad stood up for you, as the judge said you’re a fool.’ I’ve seen a Rembrandt ‘sketch’ made with a drying brush that pops to life a whole person. This line, the court, the sentence, the life… all brought to life in implied detail. But the most visceral detail implied is the father’s unquestioning love of his son in the face of the bureaucratic arm of the state that has held down the aspirations of people, provided them with little alternatives to the choices they’ve made and then damned them for a predestinate aberration, putting their lives onto even darker rails. All that set to a bouncy, uptempo, bass-chord thumping score that your friend the U2 fan would tap their feet to. In fact, perhaps ‘score’ is a good word to use for all its cinematic quality – but it’s cinema at its impressionistic best. And the video is a chuckle. And I could talk forever about the ‘Philo Version’ of the song – but you must discover that for yourself.

What might have been…

All this, and we’re only two songs in. And the record goes on to map out even darker territory that we shy away from: not because its bad (even though it is), but because it is easier to shy away than confront ourselves, our fathers, our brothers. Whipping Boy’s great record feels like it is emerging into a time that might be able to listen better and use it better, and need it better. Men need to do better. I am suggesting that this record is a Trojan horse for that purpose. I shall argue that another time.

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