Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #14 by Stephen McClurg

Sweating to the Goths

In middle school, I couldn’t elude the yearly discussion of the science fair project on how different music affects plants. In English classes, someone would try to recycle their report as their English research paper.

Today, there is keen interest in the link between music and physical performance.

Much of the research shows how music supports workout intensity better than other activities. As much as I like reading, I’ve never been able to read and exercise. Unless I’m walking or cooling down, I don’t maintain workouts with podcasts or audio books either. That bears out in the study in which people gave a thirteen-percent higher happiness rating when listening to music rather than podcasts. 

My gym time is now essential. For complicated reasons and another essay, I ended up weighing 400 pounds and on the verge of some serious health issues. I worked with my doctor on diet and exercise, and had some counseling on changing behaviors. I was able to drop over 100 pounds, but like so often happens, I’ve gained 30 pounds or so back, which I’m working on getting rid of now.

Having to go to the gym has also meant that I have had to figure out ways to make the experience something that I want to do. I’ve found music essential. 

The way I choose music goes through phases. Preferring albums, I don’t like playlists. Initially, because high tempo music can increase exercise rates, I started with uptempo music that I knew well: most of Public Enemy’s records, Ice Cube’s The Predator, a variety of rock and metal, especially Entombed’s Wolverine Blues, The Misfits, and Faith No More’s albums through Angel Dust. These are still favorite records for workouts, but I had to find ways to vary it.

I discovered that I could listen to almost anything that had one of three drummers: Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, or Billy Cobham. They are ferocious, master musicians, who propel their music forward. Oddly, a fourth drummer I deeply love, Zigaboo Modeliste from the Meters, just does not work for me a workout. Modeliste has one of the deepest grooves ever, but I find his music too relaxing, maybe too bound with Mardi Gras, revelry or something. Modeliste makes me dance. Elvin Jones has a similar deep pocket, but he also has the forward propulsion of someone like Williams, albeit approached dissimilarly.

Another phase of listening has been simply checking out new music, whether a new release or an older album I’ve never heard. I never thought this would work, but workout intensity hasn’t suffered. If a record just isn’t keeping me going, I skip to a new one. If I check out three that don’t work, I go to an old faithful like almost any Fishbone album or Mastodon’s Moby Dick-inspired Leviathan, which was I found through this process. Even when I’m working out, I need music of some substance. I’m not much of a dance fan, and though I like electronic music, I can’t workout to it. Hearing some of these rock and pop records from year’s past has worked. I also get to hear new releases that I normally wouldn’t. Lizzo’s work has been refreshing and energizing lately.

One of the records that I didn’t expect to enjoy with workouts is Bauhaus’s In the Flat Field. I had only seen “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” on MTV’s 120 Minutes, but I had never listened to an album by the group. For whatever reason, Flat Field was recommended to me and I thought it was contrary to my setting enough to be fun, like listening to Joy Division or The Cure and looking at brightly lit rows of ellipticals and tank tops. The first song, “Double Dare,” has a slow descending riff like “Bela,” so I thought that if this is their thing, then I was going to have to listen to it at home. As the song continued, though, I found myself settling into my workout. 

In “Spy in the Cab,” the guitar felt oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it. And the drums, which sound like some sort of hand drums were also messing with my musical memory. A few minutes into cardio–it hit me. Secret Chiefs’ “Renunciation.” The guitar parts and arrangements, forwardness of the melodic component as well. Peter Murphy’s voice in the case of Bauhaus and Eyvind Kang’s violin/viola in the case of Secret Chiefs. I thought Bauhaus–though not an impossible–but at least a strange influence for SC3, but they certainly share some theatricality–especially the live versions.

Then I remembered that “Renunciation” was a cover. It was originally written by Ananda Shankar. Maybe it influenced Bauhaus, too, and that was possibly the connection. 

Stigmata Martyr” seems like an obvious influence on Ministry, particularly “So What” and maybe in title only– “Stigmata.” For one, even early on Al Jourgensen was singing in a British accent not too removed from Murphy’s own. The approach toward basslines, the noise, the repetition, all seem cut from the same prayer cloth. I love Murphy’s exorcism in this song, as scary as anything Ministry has done. The bands project a similar chaos and energy on stage as well, though Ministry was certainly upping the ante throughout the ‘90s. 

I’ve thought about music as something fun, spiritual, or intellectual most of my life, but there’s been a joy in experiencing music in a practical sense–How fast can it make the flowers grow? I’m too late for the frizzy hair and leather pants, but I feel lucky to find In a Flat Field when I needed it, on the elliptical, bathed in the most unflattering fluorescent lighting.

We should all be lucky enough to find the music when we need it.


Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.