I’m Dreaming Of A Mute Christmas

It’s that special time of the year where the sounds of well-worn Christmas hits from yesteryear fill playlists and people begin to debate whether ‘Fairytale Of New York’ really is the best Christmas song of all time.

With some help from my good friend and Mute afficionado Jorge, I here present a trawl through the back catalogues of Mute artists past and present to deliver an alternative compilation of seasonal songs; songs that range from the traditional, the just plain festive and on to the downright tenuous. Jorge has meticulously prepared a Spotify playlist containing everything we could get our hands on, though for some of the songs you may need to hope Santa brings you a Discogs gift voucher. For your optimal listening experience, Jorge’s should be listened to while wearing this year’s limited-edition Mute Christmas t-shirt and drinking one of the cocktails from Erasure’s Snow Globe box set. 

I often think of Erasure at Christmas, mostly because I remember receiving a 7″ of ‘You Surround Me’ in 1989 in my stocking. The year before, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell narrowly missed securing the coveted Christmas number one slot with Crackers International, an EP which led with ‘Stop!’ but also included the moving ‘She Won’t Be Home’ (renamed ‘Lonely Christmas’ on the slightly dubious The Erasure Christmas Gift 7″); elsewhere on the EP, the duo delivered a spooky version of the traditional carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ complete with authentic choir-boy vocals from Bell, while two years before the pair did a relatively throwaway take on ‘Silent Night’ for the US Yulesville promo LP. The limited formats of the ‘Am I Right’ EP (1991) featured a festive Me Company design of Christmas trees with a photo of a young boy holding presents, while Andy Bell co-hosted Channel 4’s Camp Christmas in 1993, with musical accompaniment from Vince. Andy also featured in a short film called I Hate Christmas as a market stall worker. 

2013 was the year that Erasure went all-out Christmas with the celebrated release of Snow Globe. The album collected a number of classic Christmas songs, including ‘Silent Night’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in updated splendour, as well as some of Vince and Andy’s own tracks. The limited-edition box – or should I say the obligatory limited-edition box, since if Mute did one thing in 2013 it was to ensure that their avid fans went without their turkey after spending out a small country’s GDP on ever more elaborate and expensive box sets – included a bauble, balloon, a packet of sweets and some Erasure-themed cocktail recipes. 

Other artists who’ve covered Christmas songs include Echoboy, who released a special split EP with Six By Seven for a Christmas show in Nottingham in 1999 which included a very alternative version of ‘Silent Night’. Richard Hawley also delivered a very easy listening take on ‘Silent Night’ for a special one-track CD given away to people who attended his show in Sheffield in December 2006; during winter gigs and on radio Hawley has also covered ‘Blue Christmas’, made famous by Elvis Presley, but I haven’t heard a recording of that yet (if anyone feels charitable enough at this time of giving to send me one in the name of research, please get in touch). 

In the wake of their 2008 album Seventh TreeGoldfrapp found time to record a beautifully jaunty version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ for a US Starbucks compilation, while former Blast First act Sonic Youth recorded a sketchy and somewhat unpleasant version of Martin Mull’s ‘Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope’ for a 1996 compilation, which is definitely one for completists only. 

For Can completists, the veteran Krautrockers put out an ultra-twee take on ‘Silent Night’ way back in 1976 on Virgin in the UK. The Residents launched their audacious avant-garde music career with Santa Dog in 1972, a double 7″ single mailed out to various people featuring four tracks by various pseudonymous artists, all of whom were actually The Residents themselves (whoever they are). The band have released several other versions of Santa Dog since 1972 – in 1978, 1998, 1992 (‘Show Us Your Ugly’), 1999 (Refused), 2006 and 2012 (SD12). Way back in 1956, occasional Blast First artist Sun Ra co-opted the alias The Qualities and issued the doo wop 7-inch ‘It’s Christmas Time’. Backed with the sincere blues of ‘Happy New Year To You!’ this curiosity remains one of the most surprisingly accessible pop releases in the expansive Ra catalogue, and proof that they celebrate teh holidays on Saturn just like they do here on Ra’s adopted home.

Einstürzende Neubauten stalwart F.M. Einheit and Caspar Brötzmann recorded an album called Merry Christmas which Paul Smith‘s label put out in 1994, but it isn’t at all festive and, besides, it was released in May that year. Still, the album’s sleeve of a hand-drawn tank reminds me of troops putting down arms during World War II, so maybe there’s a connection to the festive season somewhere on this album after all. Mute US duo The Knife recorded a song called ‘Reindeer’ for their eponymous album in 2001; as if the song wasn’t festive enough already with its lyrics about Santa, The Knife issued a version with Christmas bells (renamed ‘Christmas Reindeer’) in 2006 as a free download. Holger Hiller’s eponymous last album for Mute in 2000 included the track ‘Once I Built A Snowman’, while Ben Frost’s 2017 album Music From Fortitude opened with ‘This Is Not Christmas’. 

Andreas Dorau, he of one-time Mute group Die Doraus Und Die Marinas, has recorded two Christmas songs. ‘Weihnachten Ist Auch Nicht Mehr Das Was Es Mal War’ is a bouncy electropop track that appeared on Staatsakt’s Santo Klaus sampler in 2016, and just over ten years earlier, he released the track ‘Weihnachten Im Wald’ as a limited-edition of 100 CDs for a Carhartt jeans promotion. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion‘s 1992 Sub Pop Singles Club 7-inch paired together two excellent tracks – the wild rockabilly gestures of ‘Big Yule Log Boogie’ and the ‘Blue Christmas’-esque ‘My Christmas Wish’.

Josh T. Pearson became the first Mute artist to deliver a whole EP of Christmas songs, with his maudlin Rough Trade Bonus disc getting released in 2011 as a Rough Trade shop exclusive accompanying his Mute debut, Last Of The Country Gentlemen. This year, Pearson issued a new song, ‘2020’s Silent Night Hindsight’ straight to YouTube, and a more perfectly cynical take on a shit year you will be hard-pressed to find. 

In 2012, Canada’s Ladan Hussein, variously known as Al Spx and later Cold Specks covered Mary Margaret O’Hara’s ‘Christmas Evermore’ for a Christmas compilation, complete with brass and obligatory messages of peace and hope and a bit of Diamanda Galás-esque tremulous wailing. The debut Cold Specks album, I Predict A Beautiful Expulsion (2012) also features the stirring track ‘Winter Solstice’. 

Looper‘s 2003 album The Snare features the haunting and evocative ‘New York Snow’, while the ‘Intro’ track on M83‘s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has dreamy lyrics about walking in snow. Way back in 1982, Yazoo‘s Upstairs At Eric‘s included the sparse ‘Winter Kills’ and an orchestral version of ‘Only You’ was used in a Boots TV ad in 2017. A year before Upstairs At Eric’s, future Mute artists A Certain Ratio recorded the irrepressable long-form funk track ‘Winter Hill’ for their To Each album, while, some twenty years later, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released the wintery ‘Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow’ in 2001, regrettably the closest the songwriter has yet come to recording a seasonal song. Surely there’s a Christmas album in St. Nick somewhere? Moby‘s never done a Christmas track either, though he did remix arch-crooner Tony Bennett’s ‘I’m Coming Home For Christmas’ in 2007, but the track was only ever released as a promo. 

Maps, known to his parents as James Chapman, kicked off his pre-Mute career as Short Break Operator, including the haunting ‘Some Winter Song’ as the first track on his debut EP from 2003. In fact, of all the Mute roster, Maps is easily the most prolific Christmas-loving artists. He recorded the frosty ‘Sparks In The Snow’ for his second single, went on to cover East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ for a promo CDr and released ‘Merry Christmas (My Friend)’ straight to Soundcloud in 2013, which is among the most atmospheric things Chapman has ever recorded. 

Later still, 2016 Chapman’s collaboration with former Mute artist Polly ScattergoodOn Dead Waves, yielded two Christmas songs in the form of a cover of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ and the track ‘Winter’s Child’ that closed the duo’s only album together. This year, Polly Scattergood released her own Christmas track, ‘Snowburden’, which followed this year’s career-defining and intensely personal album In This Moment. The new song found the singer somewhere between Laurie Anderson-esque sound art and sensitive balladeering. 

Also this year, one of Mute’s longest-serving sons, David Baker – one half of I Start CountingFortran 5 and Komputer – released ‘The Lights Of The Pub’, a charity single under his Joanna-tinkling alias Dave The Keys in aid of his local London boozer, The Lamb on Holloway Road. Inspired, in part, by ‘Fairytale Of New York’, ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ has the requisite mix of memories, festive bells and a Dickensian air of that which has been lost. Read more about ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ here

Speaking of charity, here’s a shameless plug: in 2012, Documentary Evidence compiled MuteResponse, a double download charity compilation album intended as a tribute to Mute’s legacy, and also to rule off the first ten years of writing this very site. On MuteResponse #1, I was able to include one-time Credible Sexy Units act Vic Twenty‘s ‘Christmas In Korea (New Year In Japan)’. Angela ‘Piney Gir’ Penhaligon and Adrian Morris recorded the track years ago but it was never officially released until the MuteResponse compilation. I first heard this track years ago during an interview with Morris, and I always wanted to make sure that others would get to hear it, and so I was delighted to let the song see the light of day. Incidentally, Piney’s done plenty of other Christmas songs, one of my personal favourites being the lovely ‘For The Love Of Others’ in 2009. You can find MuteResponse over at Bandcamp

So we’ve surveyed the traditional and the festive – what about the tenuous? Look no further than Mute’s most bankable act, Depeche Mode, whose only obvious Christmas connection was Dave Gahan delivering a festive message on the aforementioned Yulesville compilation. However, a year earlier, Depeche’s Alan Wilder and Martin Gore penned the track ‘Christmas Island’ as the B-side to ‘A Question Of Lust’; it isn’t remotely festive, it was released in May that year, it’s named after an island in the Indian Ocean, but it’s got the word Christmas in the title and so, dubious though it is, onto the Dreaming Of A Mute Christmas playlist it goes. 

Christmas is supposed to be fun, and so here’s a version of The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Bombshelter Brigade, re-titled ‘Merry Christmas’ and taken from the 1988 compilation Christmas At The Bombshelter.

Happy Christmas to Mute fans everywhere. 

Words: Mat Smith 
Spotify playlist and Mute Navidad nous: Jorge Punaro 

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence & Jorge Punaro. Earlier versions of this feature were published in 2012 and 2013. If we’ve missed anything let us know and we’ll get them added in.

Mute 4.0: Silicon Teens – Music For Parties (Mute album, 1980)

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As part of Mute‘s fortieth ‘anti-versary’, the label is making available very special limited edition vinyl versions of selected releases from their four decades of releasing and curating incredible music. To celebrate this element of Mute 4.0, we’re re-posting reviews of those special albums from the depths of the Documentary Evidence archives. Full details on the releases can be found here.

After launching Mute Records with his single ‘TVOD / Warm Leatherette’ as The Normal, few would have expected Daniel Miller‘s next musical move to be an album of (mostly) covers of old rock ‘n’ roll songs. But, then again, if you believed the liner notes Music For Parties by Silicon Teens wasn’t by Daniel Miller at all. Rather, the album was made by Paul (percussion), Diane (synthesizer), Jacki (synthesizer) and Daryl (vocals) and produced by Larry Least (a pseudonym Miller would use again as a producer for Missing Scientists and Alex Fergusson). Eric Hine and Eric Radcliffe provided engineering duties for the LP, half of which was recorded at Radcliffe’s Blackwing studio in London, the location for many early Mute recording sessions.

Not having been aware of Daniel Miller, Mute or anything much when this was released (I was four years old), I’m not sure if anyone was suckered in by the ruse at the time – by the time I fell in love with Mute in 1991, the secret (if it ever was one) was already out; Biba Kopf’s Documentary Evidence pamphlet made it completely clear that Silicon Teens was the work of one man and one man alone: Daniel Miller. Apparently, at the time, actors playing the fake quartet would be deployed for interviews. A promotional photo for the group, taken by Simone Grant, included two people whose names are now lost to the mists of time standing in for Diane and Jackie, with Miller and Fad Gadget’s Frank Tovey taking the roles of Daryl and Paul, all four sporting some very Velvet Underground shades.

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Anyone familiar with ‘Daryl’s particular brand of singing (nasal, a definite punk-informed delivery) would detect that this was a Miller project from the first lines of opener ‘Memphis Tennessee’; anyone familiar with his electronics work before and after would spot his unique synth work in the chirpy sounds and harsh dissonant interruptions. Anyone who didn’t, but was listening closely to the lyrics of one of the four Miller compositions here, ‘TV Playtime’, may have finally got the connection with the line ‘TV OD, video breakdown‘ delivered in a wobbly voice during one section of that track, while behind the watery voice malfunctioning synths not dissimilar to those deployed on Fad Gadget’s ‘Ricky’s Hand’ flutter and bleep.

To my shame, I only bought this in 2011, though I had bought the album’s three main 7″ singles years before that. I picked up a CD copy of the album from Rough Trade East and happened upon it in the ‘punk’ section; I scoffed at first, until I remembered that when I’d played the version of ‘Memphis Tennessee’ to my dad – an avowed Chuck Berry fan – he screwed his face up in disgust, as if the generally polite sounds of Miller’s version were somehow abrasive on the ears or that making an electronic facsimile copy of a rock ‘n’ roll track was like sacrificing a holy cow; it’s how I’d seen footage of people in punk documentaries reacting to the Sex Pistols, so perhaps Music For Parties was punk after all. Certainly, in ‘TV Playtime’ there is a dimension which evokes the uncompromising sound of Suicide and in turn the pre-Dare sound of Human League at their most uncompromising.

One of my favourite tracks here is Miller’s take on The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’, where the proto-punk / garage rock central riff is replaced with a buzzing synth delivered over a simple motorik beat. If this had been released as a single it could potentially have been chart-bothering, compared with the slightly more bouncy ‘Just Like Eddie’ which apparently did reasonably well as a single. ‘Do Wah Diddy’ and ‘Do You Love Me’ again are brilliant; these were two tracks that I absolutely detested as a child when they cropped up on radio. The latter is frankly among the most manically joyous songs I own, even if it doesn’t start out that way. The album version of ‘Let’s Dance’ sounds like Depeche Mode‘s ‘Photographic’ in its Some Bizarre Album incarnation; like Soft Cell did with their 12″ version of ‘Tainted Love’ mixed with ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, you almost long for someone to hitch the Teens and Mode tracks together. Irrespective, it’s very danceable, with some quite tasty big fat synth notes as well. The Ramones also covered ‘Let’s Dance’ for their début; when rendered on Ramones as amphetamine-fuelled speed-punk it made complete sense alongside their own ‘Beat On The Brat’, ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’ and ‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue’; here too, as a piece of high-energy synthpop, it likewise makes complete sense and the link to The Ramones’ version comes in as Miller snarls the ‘1, 2, 3, 4‘ intro.

Aside from the abrasive ‘TV Playtime’, Miller also contributes three other compositions to Music For Parties. ‘Chip ‘n Roll’ is an insanely upbeat synth pop gem, lots of handclaps and hissing hi-hats, as well as a gloriously twee main riff. It’s like Martin Gore‘s ‘Big Muff’ only way more poppy. ‘State Of Shock (Part Two)’ begs the question as to whether the Mute archives will ever turn up, or indeed if there ever was, a part one; this is a clanking, vaguely dark instrumental track with a stuttering rhythm and some squelchy sounds muttering away in the background. I’m not entirely what party you’d play this at; probably some dark, moody place where you’d be as likely to hear Kraftwerk nestled up alongside Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. Miller’s ‘Sun Flight’, originally a B-side to the ‘Just Like Eddie’ 7” and included here as a bonus track, is again reasonably dark and mysterious, the distorted chorus intonation of ‘Come to the sun‘ and some snatched radio conversation sounding like a course of action filled will danger, even if the main keyboard riff is singularly both captivating and entirely of its time.

Would an album like this ever get released today? Hardly likely. Music For Parties taps into a sense of kitsch excitement surrounding the relatively (then) untapped potential of the synth in a pop context. Prior to this, and other albums released at around the same time, the synth was mostly deployed by po-faced Progsters with lavish budgets to spend on huge modular synth behemoths. Music For Parties‘ most punk achievement was to take these songs from yesteryear, remodel them as cheeky pop tunes and inject some tradition-baiting lightheartedness.

For Mute 4.0, Music For Parties is being reissued as a vinyl LP.

First posted 2011; edited 2018. With thanks to Simone Grant.

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(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound Issue 42 – Mute Cover Feature & The Normal Clear Vinyl 7″

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Electronic Sound have today announced their Mute-focussed latest issue, featuring a major new interview with Daniel Miller and an exclusive clear vinyl pressing of The Normal‘s ‘Warm Leatherette / T.V.O.D.’ 7″.

The issue also features a rundown of Mute’s 2018 artist roster and a new interview with the longest-serving member of the Mute community, Erasure‘s Vince Clarke, wherein he talks about joining the label with Depeche Mode, Miller’s influence on him as an electronic musician, and how he approaches running his own label, VeryRecords.

The full announcement from Electronic Sound is included below.

“I honestly didn’t think anybody would like it,” says Daniel Miller, talking about The Normal’s ‘TVOD’ / ‘Warm Leatherette’, which we are delighted to be reissuing with this issue of Electronic Sound. While The Normal was where Mute Records all started, this month’s cover story finds Daniel Miller discussing how his label is shaping up for the future. We also profile the artists that make up Mute’s Class of 2018, as well as catching up with Vince Clarke, a man who has only ever been signed to one label for his entire recording career. Click here to order now.

This issue also includes a rare interview with David Sylvian, discussing his soon-to-be reissued work with Can’s Holger Czukay, a chat with Finiflex, the artists formerly known as Finitribe, and a drinking session with post-punkers Sink Ya Teeth, who put us under the table. Elsewhere, we speak to Klaus Schulze, Claudia Brücken & Jerome Froese, The Orb, A Flock Of Seagulls and LUMP, a new project from indie folkster Laura Marling and Tunng’s Mike Lindsay. Plus there’s our usual bumper mix of tech, toys, books, gadgets and, of course, the very latest must-hear album releases.

This month’s exclusive music offer is a limited edition reissue of The Normal’s ‘TVOD’ and ‘Warm Leatherette’ seven-inch on crystal clear vinyl. Recorded by Daniel Miller using just a Korg 700S and a four-track tape machine, the single was the first release on Mute Records and is recognised as one of the most important electronic music records ever. Our reissue comes in a replica of the original 1978 picture sleeve. Click here to order now.

(c) 2018 Electronic Sound

Various Artists – The Tyranny Of The Beat (The Grey Area Of Mute album, 1991)

Various Artists 'The Tyranny Of The Beat - Original Soundtracks From The Grey Area' CD artwork

the grey area of mute | cd agrey1 | 1991

The Tyranny Of The Beat – Original Soundtracks From The Grey Area was a 1991 compilation issued by Mute to showcase releases from its Grey Area sub-label. The Grey Area specialised in reissuing the back catalogues of Cabaret Voltaire (their Rough Trade releases), Can, Throbbing Gristle (plus various Industrial Records acolytes), Graeme Revell‘s SPK and many others. The label also became home to early albums by artists that had been signed to Mute, such as Nick Cave‘s pre-Birthday Party band The Boys Next Door, D.A.F., Wire and Einstürzende Neubauten.

The reissue programme conducted by Mute through The Grey Area inevitably produced a varied counterpoint to the releases issued through the main Mute imprint, through Paul Smith‘s hugely diverse Blast First (which itself, at times, also reissued plenty of older material) and NovaMute. Alongside The Fine Line, specialising predominantly in soundtracks for TV, film and theatre, The Grey Area represented a hugely interesting opportunity to hear some out-of-print releases on CD for the first time.

There days, at least nominally, The Grey Area no longer exists. Can reissues have never officially carried the logo, and whilst Mute remains the custodian of the seminal Cologne unit’s back catalogue, it is done in partnership with Can’s own Spoon imprint; Cabaret Voltaire’s latest reissue programme through Mute is done through the main label and consequently all releases now carry stumm catalogue codes, and Throbbing Gristle effectively bought back their work to reopen the doors of Industrial Records. The opportunity to reinvigorate The Grey Area upon securing the opportunity to reissue the Swans back catalogue in 2014, alongside the Cabs programme, feels like something of a missed opportunity.

The Tyranny Of The Beat then serves as a useful overview of what The Grey Area were up to at this point in the early Nineties. A small four-page flyer inside the sleeve highlighted just how comprehensive the reissue programme undertaken by Mute was through the sub-label – after all, they were effectively re-releasing whole or sizeable elements of back catalogues, not sporadic releases. The flyer also included some items that were planned for releases but which have never materialised – chief among these was the Robert Rental / The Normal live album recorded at West Runton, which Rough Trade had released in 1980 as a one-sided LP.

The sleeve also features liner notes from Biba Kopf, famed NME journalist and currently (under his real name Chris Bohn) the editor of The Wire. Kopf also wrote the copy for the Documentary Evidence brochure which inspired this site.

The breadth of music included in sampler form on The Tyranny Of The Beat is impressive, taking in the grubby pulse of TG’s live track ‘See You Are’, their Industrial signees Monte Cazazza with the truly horrible ‘Candyman’, a bit of early electro from the Cabs, the detached punk of Swell Maps‘ brilliant ‘Midget Submarines’, the similarly aquatic ‘Our Swimmer’ by Wire (still one of their best Seventies pieces), a truly ethereal piece by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert / Graham Lewis as Dome with A.C. Marias and the still-devastating Rowland S. Howard-penned ‘Shivers’ by The Boys Next Door. Can’s ‘Oh Yeah’ – one of Daniel Miller‘s personal favourite tracks – provides a rhythmic counterweight to the urgent mechanical production-line beats of Neubauten’s ‘Tanz Debil’ and Die Krupps‘s ‘Wahre Arbeit, Whare Lohn’. Dark relief comes in the form of SPK’s ‘In Flagrante Delicto’, a track which suggests Graeme Revell was always destined to compose the scores for spooky, suspense-filled films like The Craft.

Like a lot of sampler albums, The Tyranny Of The Beat can sound a little uneven, and whilst a lot of these bands were part of common scenes – industrial, punk, the terribly-named Krautrock – it would have been a pretty weird festival if this was the line-up.

Kopf’s liner notes deserve a mention, if only for the way that he positions the concept of a grey area as a place that people run to for escape or as a means of consciously assaulting musical norms, a place that both acted as a reaction against the regimentation of beats and simultaneously gave birth to the repetitive rhythms of techno. ‘In The Grey Area you get the sense of limits being pushed up against and breached,’ he says, and even now, listening to Genesis P. Orridge deliver a maniacal vocal over corruscating waves of sinister noise from a distance of thirty-five years, or Monte Cazazza’s detached multi-channel reportage of a serial killer’s victims and the nauseatingly vivid listing of the savagery he put those victims through, you can see exactly where Kopf was coming from.

Track listing:

cd:
1. SPK ‘In Flagrante Delicto’
2. Throbbing Gristle ‘See You Are (Live, The Factory July 1979)’
3. Cabaret Voltaire ‘Automotivation’
4. Chris Carter ‘Solidit (Edit)’
5. Die Krupps ‘Wahre Arbeit, Wahre Lohn’
6. D.A.F. ‘Co Co Pina’
7. Einstürzende Neubauten ‘Tanz Debil’
8. NON ‘Cruenta Voluptas’
9. Can ‘Oh Yeah’
10. Wire ‘Our Swimmer (Live, Notre Dame Hall July 1979)’
11. Swell Maps ‘Midget Submarines’
12. The Boys Next Door ‘Shivers’
13. Dome ‘Cruel When Complete’
14. Monte Cazazza ‘Candyman’
15. The Hafler Trio ‘A Thirsty Fish / The Dirty Fire’

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence