There are those moments in everyone’s music listening history when they hear something that is so different to anything they ever heard before that it pins them to the wall/bowls them over/leaves them speechless/insert your own idiom. Several classic songs that I can think of have been received in that fashion by the music media as well as the fans, such as Roxy Music’s Virginia Plain and Ultravox’s Vienna.
With me and Intervention it was slightly different. I’d parked up in an Oldham town centre car park in advance of a business meeting, in 2007. It was raining horizontally as it tends to do on the edge of the Pennines. There was no way I could get out; I was locked in the car until it stopped, for which I am eternally grateful. I had Radio 2 on and the stand-in DJ was, I think, Zoe Ball. Hosting the ‘tracks of my years’ section she was talking to a band about their choices and Intervention came on.
The last thing I expected to hear, even on R2, was a hymn. The sheer power of the thing stopped me in my tracks. I was fairly ignorant of Arcade Fire at the time. They went on to be my favourite band for many years (until they blew it with Reflektor) but at the time I had only vaguely heard of their first album, Funeral, and wasn’t aware the second one, Neon Bible, had been released.
The first thing you notice is the doom-laden power and volume of the church organ that Regine Chassagne plays although it turns out it belongs to a fairly small church, not the Montreal Cathedral as I’d always thought. How I’d love them to play Intervention at the Bridgewater Hall or the Albert Hall, but actually playing a big pipe organ live in time with a rock band would be damn near impossible, I’m sure.
Then the way the song cleverly rises to two separate crescendos. Then the sharp word play. For my money Intervention is an anti-war song – as the title suggests –rather than an anti-religious song as many argue (‘working for the Church’ refers to adherence to the Republican Party IMO) but the barbs are in there whichever way you interpret it. “The king’s taken back the throne, the useless seed is sown” (George W Bush’s second term of office); “your little baby sister’s going to lose her mind” (an undecided Canada).
It’s a song to be listened to and watched live, even though the power of the organ is lost somewhat (and made up for by Richard Parry’s guitar contribution). Unfortunately, as I suggested in the Will Butler album review a while ago, with so many band members doing their own thing right now it’s possible they won’t ever play it live again. The raw emotion Win Butler spits out (and Chassagne and several other band members for that matter) proves how much the song means to them.
I have to confess that politically I don’t agree with the spirit of the song but the fact that I sing along with it whenever and wherever it is played is testimony to how well written and powerful it is, as is the fact that it has become possibly my favourite rock song ever.
There are two versions here. The first is regarded as the ‘official’ video though I don’t think it actually is. It’s the clever cutting of the song to Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and in particular the Odessa Steps massacre scene, regarded as one of the most influential in the history of cinema. A quick note about the lovely ‘woman pushing pram,’ who entrances me every time. The Italian Beatrice Vitoldi was appearing in her only film but became a star. An émigré to St Petersburg, she became friendly with Eisenstein who cast her in Battleship Potemkin. Later she became Soviet ambassador to Italy and then died in mysterious circumstances in the ‘Great Purge.’ Don’t say you don’t get value for money in this blog.
The second is a live rendition from Sydney in 2007, one of my favourites. For me this was Arcade Fire’s best and most productive period, in the studio and on the road. Those horns!
Neon Bible has been trashed by several reviewers and ‘celebs’ like Jeremy Vine as being too bombastic. I disagree. I reckon it embodies the concept of zeitgeist and just about everything on it is perfectly in tune with the world as Arcade Fire saw it from 2004-7. In time it will have the same historical value as the Rosetta Stone or the Magna Carta or the Bayeux Tapestry.
©D J Bentley 2015