“Look How Far They Go”
On 10 Years of Frightened Rabbit’s
‘The Midnight Organ Fight’
words by tom johnson
This is a story about me. Which is, we’re so often told, what we should always be writing about, when it comes down to it. It’s also a story about something else and other things too, as any story tends to be; collected pieces found along the way; little flecks of otherness to illuminate the whole thing, like jewels in a junkyard.
It begins on a hill, in a town between hills, somewhere in the south of England. And it begins approximately 10 years ago, though it could go much further back than that, I suppose. It begins, in finer detail, with a walk to work, the same walk every day in fact; to a job I didn’t care for and back to a home that was quietly crumbling, like a drawn-out, winter-long earthquake so subtle we thought we could just pretend that it wasn’t, in fact, happening at all, that neither of us even noticed it at all. But I noticed it (I won’t speak for her). I heard it rumble in the night when I lay awake thinking of what else. Felt it gently underfoot in the quiet, empty mornings. Noticed it in the way the pictures would hang from their hooks, always slightly squint no matter how many times we righted them.
And then a song came in and changed something, making the rumble of the quake much louder, no longer to be ignored, but somehow alleviating the weight of what it meant at the same time. This song became my companion, every day, on the walk to and from. I stuck by it because sometimes when I heard it, when I walked among my fellow tired human beings, my heart would soar for just long enough to see something brighter laying ahead in the change that was getting closer and closer.
When it talked of a talk, of someone telling another about what they did that day, I was lost in the simplicity of such a thing and my rib cage heaved for it. To ask and be asked. Something so simple, but the contentment of the image ripped through me like a brisk wind and I felt everything all at once, for a brief moment, just long enough to believe in the world and myself once more. It’s funny what a song can do, don’t you think?
When I spoke of that song years after, to others, to myself, I would say that it saved me. The truth is probably more that it changed me. I’d like to think I wasn’t quite past the point of self-salvage but I suppose there’s no way of knowing, if the difference between the two even matters. It’s hard to remember now, given everything that’s been and gone in the in between, the actuality of that walk, the back and the forth. It’s details have faded, not so much like a photograph, but like a story repeated and repeated, less pronounced and greatly embellished until it’s all a bit of a jumble.
In the ten years that have passed since I left that shuddering hill, since that song was written and born, I’ve slowly journeyed north, eventually finding my own place among the bridges and hills and dirty streets that helped to build both it and the album it introduced; not deliberately, I should add, but in funny and unintentional ways that I sometimes remember to remember.
Handily, in terms of my own story, The Midnight Organ Fight is a break-up record and it certainly fulfilled that role for me; a shoulder to cry on, a stiff drink to be shared. But it also isn’t that, not really. It’s a record about love and lust and sex and drink and weather and people and all of the falling out and falling in and falling, falling, falling. The seemingly endless falling. It might have been spurred by a break-up but its heart lies in the aftermath, the little things we take with us as we try and piece the world back together and move on, to remember how simple things work, and how we work, like someone asking us what time it is when all we have is a clock lying in a pile of all its parts.
Now that I’ve found a newer north, found my way to a country that feels a bit like home, enough for me to believe it anyway, I see and feel how much this land also shaped Frightened Rabbit’s colossal record. I didn’t know it then, though I always assumed, but I do now. It’s not just the weather – the endless rain, the greyness of days lost to it – but the things that are carried in them; the ghosts of people you find in the drizzle and the rivers, which, in turn, feed the whisky and water that we turn to, or get lost in, or throw down our necks for comfort or fun or friendship; same as it ever was.
People up here yearn to get old, old fashioned, just for a night, because those things – the soft static of a radio, a generous shuffle of feet – have a distinct and beautifully sad romance, greater here than anywhere else I’ve known. And those things become stories, and those stories are told and sung and passed on down, even to pretenders like me, who are able to know without really knowing.
It’s not been long enough to be generational quite yet but Scott Hutchison passes down wisdoms too, elsewhere too, but most notably on Organ Fight. As with most favourite records I’ve always pitched myself as the protagonist in these songs, putting my own story in to the heart of it, rather than as an outsider listening in. But that’s just a silly aspect of music and its pulling power, and despite that the songs here are undoubtedly his story. Through blood-shot bleary eyes, amongst the weird and skittering percussion of his brother, a rabid and essential background character, he walks us through his world and the gaps between, the parts he’s come to understand and those that never really made any sense in the first place. He told us that it takes more than fucking someone to keep warm, and doesn’t it just; that the coloured-in parts of a drunken night are always the best; that even with the best of intentions you can quite easily end up back in the shit, knee-deep and willing.
Frightened Rabbit might have meant to make only tiny changes here but, with an arc of a tongue, with the willingness to lay it all out on the line, they made really big ones; songs that so many others, known and unknown, have sung to, have clung to, from open mouths and in to the night, spat out at the stars as if the act itself, twisted though it is, might provide vital nourishment amid the sorrow and solitude of love and life and all of its fuckery.
My own story, which has kind of got away from me at this point, has moved on to happier places, and then sad places, and then happy ones again, and then…well, I’m sure you understand, such is the way. But, where most things from a decade ago have faded, like favourite t-shirts, like memories diluted by new ones, The Midnight Organ Fight remains strong and true, finding new ways to journey through my veins, new ways of warming from somewhere deep down inside, something both familiar and familial in the way you yearn for its presence both in the rough and smooth, alongside old folks and new ones.
There’s a somewhat ageless quality to it, in fact. And while it’s primed for nostalgia, while it thrives under that umbrella, it doesn’t rely on it, and that’s not why it still matters now. It matters so, so much because of the unmentionable, the implacable, the fogginess that hangs around each one of us, little cloaks of cloud we only take of in secret, formed from debts and doubts and the destruction of things and also all the good bits, the special moments that fill us up once more, that keep us going; the marvellous messiness of what it means to be alive, to succeed and fail, to want for things that can’t always be found, let alone kept hold of.
I grew up with hay fever, a shitty allergy that ruined days and days of my best teenage summer days, the prime of my life lost to streaming eyes, a streaming nose, and sucker-punch headaches that felt like the world was ending. And then one year it changed. The eyes and nose suddenly clear, the summer days alive again. I was a free man. I had won, I said, as I teased my sinuses. And then another summer came and the skin on my hands started peeling; small, loose bits of skin that could be picked off and thrown away, painless and intriguingly ugly. Nothing stopped it. Not leaving it alone, not pulling it all off whenever I saw a new patch, not expensive moisturiser, not cheap moisturiser. Then the doctor told me it was probably my hay fever, returning in a different form. That cursed thing back again, in a new, and admittedly fascinating, way. So now, each summer, like a snake with added limbs, I shed my skin slowly and methodically. I pick at the most prominent bits with interest and obsession and I throw them in to the street, to be washed down the drains. Due to the somewhat sacrificial nature of this reaction, it’s hard not to think about the steady passing of time, of what it means to tick off the years as they come and go. I look out for that first peel of skin like you look for Autumn in the turning of the leaves, for Spring in the first daffodil. What I mean to say is that while we may not gain anything by thinking of our time here in such a linear way, the world has a funny way of making it impossible not to.
And so it’s been ten years since that funny little song, its proverbial leper and all, came and breathed life in to my lungs. A full decade since it helped me find enough energy to take a leap of faith. Most of the time its age means nothing at all. Most of the time I pay it no more attention that the lines on my skin, or the people that have come and gone again; human-beings as marker-points, once sharply focused and now blurred in the ether, waiting to be recalled when the occasion fits. Every now and again, though, it means something; it really means something. An arbitrary date it might be, but ten years allows it a more defined celebration than most, whether that be via the telling of a story or a little moment to yourself, when it all falls in to place. Anniversary’s are often a way of remembering to remember once more, to think not just about the breadth of time that has passed since, but also the significance of its arrival; what it means to have once been somewhere and to now be somewhere else; to recall the choices you made and to look how far they go; to remember that even when those things are gone, something carries on.
And so we carry on.
‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ turns 10 years old this week
Frightened Rabbit play at SWG3 in Glasgow on 1st June. Tickets are on sale now.
GoldFlakePaint will also curate a stage at the event – full details can be found here