Priests and cannibals, prehistoric animals: Shriekback’s “Nemesis” was a “Viewer’s Choice”

By on September 26, 2018

On September 19, 1986, Night Flight presented a selection of music videos that faithful viewers of our USA Channel cable TV show told us they wanted to see again, “Viewer’s Choice” requests which sent us digging deep into our Video Vault for the English post-punk band Shriekback’s “Nemesis.”

Watch the episode again over on Night Flight Plus.

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The story behind “Nemesis” — the first single released on Shriekback’s fourth studio album, 1985’s Oil & Gold, issued during the heyday of goth rock — has quite an interesting origin.

Lyrically it was apparently inspired by the character Nemesis the Warlock from the British weekly comics anthology 2000 AD, created by writer Pat Mills and artist Kevin O’Neill.

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We found a nice breakdown online, written by “G. Lyon,” who provides us with essential details (buy the book here):

“Thousands of years in the future, in a universe that contains many various and imaginative forms of sentient life, humans have still not managed to destroy themselves. Humans are now part of an empire that spans a large part of the galaxy.”

“As they have not managed to destroy themselves they instead want to destroy all aliens. ‘Die, die, die’ they chant as they hack and cleave at the many aliens who refuse to defend themselves.”

“Now these humans are lead by a quasi-religious cult of whom their leader is the infamous Torquemada. His slogan ‘Be pure! Be vigilant! Behave!’ echoes through the pages. It is his dictatorship that has lead to the wilful genocide of anything other than human.”

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“But, wait for it, one alien refuses to lay down and die.”

“Nemesis, of the species Warlock, is our hero. He leads a cabal of resisting worlds/species (although why all aliens under threat don’t join up for membership, given that the alternative is the genocide of their species, is beyond me!) that defy the evil humans and their leader Torquemada.”

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Shriekback’s “Nemesis” video — directed by Tony Van Den Ende — depicts a post-apocalyptic wasteland where torture, murder and hunger is the norm, and hedonism is the rule of the day (“How bad it gets, you can’t imagine/The burning wax, the breath of reptiles/God is not mocked, He knows our business/Karma could take us, at any moment”).

Nemesis, the fire-breathing demonic alien, can be seen hovering in the shadows.

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The chorus pays tribute to Nemesis: “Priests and cannibals, prehistoric animals/Everybody happy as the dead come home/Big black Nemesis, parthenogenesis/No one move a muscle as the dead come home.”

(Parthenogenesis, incidentally, means “reproduction without the usual process of fertilization”).

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“Nemesis” peaked at #94 on the UK singles chart in June of 1985. It did not chart in the United States, but received heavy club play.

Read more about Shriekback below.

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Shriekback were formed in 1981 in Kentish Town, England, by former XTC founder/keyboardist Barry Andrews — more recently he’d been a member of Robert Fripp’s short-lived League of Gentlemen — and Dave Allen, a founding member of the UK’s post-punk outfit Gang of Four, along with guitarist Carl Marsh (who had previously been in the obscure UK band Out on Blue Six).

Andrews’ keyboard work (he’s credited with playing “steam piano” and “clapped out organs”) is one of highlight’s of XTC’s frenetic first studio album, White Music (Virgin Records, January 1978).

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Andrews is also featured on the band’s second album, Go 2, released in October of ’78, but he left the band after a falling-out with Andy Partridge, who once described, with affection, Andrews’ playing as “the sound of someone repairing a flying saucer engine.”

Bassist Dave Allen — whose rhythmic playing on their 1979 album Entertainment provided Gang of Four with a signature sound, influencing practically every single bass-player who followed in his wake — similarly had his own ideas about how the band he’d co-founded should sound.

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Allen ended up becoming a hugely successful record producer in the ’80s, working with the Cure, Human League and the Go-Gos, among others.

Based the pedigrees and playing techniques of both Andrews and Allen, you’d half expect Shriekback to have become one of major acts of the decade.

Alas, Shriekback were never quite able to focus their instinctive talents into a cohesive and memorable sound of their own, spending much of the 1980s trying to build up an American fanbase who obviously preferred trendier synth-pop bands like Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and others, or goth-industrial keyboard-and-sequenced drum-track-driven bands like Ministry.

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They managed to chart a few times on Billboard‘s American Dance and Modern Rock charts, but Shriekback were never quite able to make their presence known on the Hot 100 pop charts.

Shriekback’s biggest break came in 1986, when film director Michael Mann used several of their tracks in his film Manhunter, the pre-quel to Jonathan Demme‘s Silence of the Lambs.

Mann also featured their songs “Faded Flowers” in Band of the Hand and “Underwaterboys” during an episode he directed of TV’s “Miami Vice.”

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Dave Allen would leave Shriekback around ’87, but Andrews soldiered on, releasing their sixth studio album, GoBang!, in 1988. The album featured Shriekback’s cover of KC & the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight,” if you can believe that.

Shriekback disbanded in 1989, reforming again in 1992 to released a seventh studio effort, Sacred City, before calling it a day once more.

Watch Night Flight’s “Viewer’s Choice” episode from 1986 — you’ll also see music videos by Frank Zappa, The Cure, Falco, Whistle, Ultravox, and Phil Collins, along with our look at Britain’s ska revival of the ’80s — on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Jacob Swizzle

    Shriekback is alive and well! This year (2018) they released “Why Anything? Why This?” Dave Allen isn’t involved but the current line up includes Barry Andrews, Carl Marsh and Martyn Barker.