The Bells Are Ringing Out For Lemmy

Some of the tributes to the recent deaths of Lemmy, David Bowie and Alan Rickman have come from some unlikely places…

By Yonatan Collier


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Posted by Marchal Molenaar on Monday, 11 January 2016

Last week, one of the most talked about tributes to David Bowie was the one played out on church bells in the 634-year-old Dom Tower in Utrecht. Bell ringers at the Church in the Netherlands played a cover version of ‘Space Oddity’ and the video of it has gone viral. This week, perhaps inspired by the Dutch church, The Holy Trinity Church in Hull, England played the Harry Potter Theme in tribute to the death of Alan Rickman, who played Snape in the films (he will always be Hans Gruber or the Sheriff of Nottingham to me, but perhaps I’m showing my age).

Surprisingly, these are not the only tributes paid in bells to passing media icons this week. It has just been announced that the bells of Oslo City Hall will chime to the melody of Motörhead's 2015 single ‘Electricity’ at 6pm every evening until the end of May, while the 7pm slot will sound the bells to Bowie's 1971 hit ‘Changes’.

What does it say about the power of the media and celebrity that these figures are celebrated in this way? These tributes are undeniably heartfelt, and they are touching. But can you imagine The Church marking the deaths of a cross-dressing, bisexual alien and a fictional wizard in this way forty years ago? Or would the City Hall of one of Europe’s capitals have mourned the loss of someone like Lemmy, a notorious drug fiend who collected Nazi memorabilia? These are isolated incidents but they are indicators of a seismic power shift that has taken place over the past hundred years; away from traditional institutions such as the church, towards those who control the media.

Certainly, a number of academics have made the case that as we in the West move away from religion, we are looking for other things, other figures to put our faith in. We need something to believe in, and in many cases pop and rock stars have stepped into that vacuum – often aided by record labels who realise that the devotion inspired by their artists will eventually turn into cold, hard cash. In his book, ‘Pop Cult: Religion & Popular Music’ Rupert Till, of the University of Huddersfield, argues that record labels have very deliberately turned their artists into icons; the artists themselves are obviously complicit in this in many cases. He describes how record labels and the media are able to transform “traditions of religious observance, worship, ritual and devotion into consumer behaviours, by creating Gods who have products to sell.”

It is perhaps a little simplistic to suggest that we are all being hoodwinked by the ‘capitalist machine’ however. The record labels and the media may have taken financial advantage of us as fans, but the need for people to believe in something is very real. It is no surprise that as the role of the Church in our lives decreases, we can be found scrabbling around looking for something we can say we are a part of. Bowie, that most self-aware of pop stars, was obviously aware of this; describing his character Ziggy Stardust (and by extension himself) as a ‘Leper Messiah’. An icon for the outsiders, the weirdos.

In his book ‘Media, Religion and Culture’, Jeffrey Mahan discusses the death of Michael Jackson, describing how some forms of social media were completely shut down by the sheer volume of responses to his death. He asks whether these new forms of icon and ritual actually constitute a new type of religion, albeit one that does not require official leaders or an ongoing institution. He suggests that religion could perhaps become a “less organised, more effervescent experience that bubbles up in times of stress”.

How do we look then, at the Dom Tower playing ‘Space Oddity’. Perhaps the passing of the baton from one form of worship to another?

Published January 21st, 2016

Yoni Collier is a music producer, composer and writer who has been signed by (and then fallen out with) too many record labels to mention. He now freelances as this keeps arguments with colleagues to a minimum. He has written music for TV and award winning short films, and has worked as a producer with numerous artists. He also teaches music production at Leeds Beckett University.