Stephen King is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable names in fiction. A celebrated author of more than 54 published novels and over 200 short stories, he has written extensively in the genres of horror, suspense, supernatural fiction, science fiction, and fantasy, and to date, King has sold more than 350 million copies with his literary works continuing to be some one of the most adapted in history. Whether or not you’ve picked up and read a single King novel, you no doubt have at least heard the famous lines of “Here’s Johnny!” or “When you’re down here with me, you’ll float too!” Perhaps you watch The Shining religiously, or you felt a bit uncomfortable the next time hopping in your car after watching Christine, or maybe high school dances even bring to mind blood-drenched memories of Carrie? Whatever way you choose to look at it, Stephen King continues to be a figure firmly cemented in the annals of popular culture.
This month has seen the newest adaptation of Mr King’s seminal 1986 novel It hit theatres on September 7th. With the film being directed by Andrés Muschietti (known for his 2013 film, Mama) and starring Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, this will be the second time an actor has portrayed the predatory antagonist since Tim Curry‘s iconic turn in the role for the 1990 miniseries.
It is also a novel that has been touched on by a few different bands, with Germany’s Blind Guardian, US punk icons Pennywise (who even named their band after the character), and German/Swedish power metallers, Savage Circus all writing material based on the fictional town of Derry, Maine and the villainous, cosmic entity who takes the shape of a menacing clown and terrorises the local children.
Opening up with Blind Guardian’s 1988 track, “Guardian of the Blind”, the song featured on the band’s debut full-length album, Battalions of Fear. Having featured during the band’s early speed metal days, “Guardian of the Blind” discusses in length in the lyrics the world of It. The song buries right to the heart of the conflict between “The Losers’ Club” – a group of seven young friends, the respective outcasts of their town – and the malevolent, shape-shifting force who stalks the sewers and storm drains of Derry (the figure the Losers’ Club come to name as “It”). It is capable of taking the form of anything it chooses – including familiar people in the children’s life or of their most innate fears and nightmare. Although, It most fancies the shape of the balloon-toting dancing clown, Pennywise (modelled after such famous clowns of the period like Bozo, Clarabell, and Ronald McDonald), wearing a clown’s smile with tufts of blood-red hair. Wisecracking and sadistic, It is an ancient, cosmic entity from a dimension outside of our own; the adversary of Maturin, the world turtle and one of the twelve Guardians of the Beams in King’s fictional multiverse.
“Guardian of the Blind” is a notable track for its unique approach to the source material. The song chooses to move to the period in 1984/’85 when the children confront It for the second time as adults. Having first encountered the malignant entity as children in 1957/’58, following the murder of the main character Bill Denbrough’s younger brother, Georgie, the seven little children who stood against the ghost find themselves falling back to the dark dream that [they] got once. The ‘Guardian’ the song takes its name from is Maturin, who is responsible for contacting Bill and advising him of the Ritual of Chüd, the battle of wills that allow the seven children to defeat It during their first confrontation and forcing the cosmic beast into an early hibernation. Alternatively, the song title can be argued to further be an allusion to Gan, the demiurgic force that governs all things in King’s cosmology, and is the power behind the Losers’ strength.
The song goes on to discuss the reluctance and fears that accompany the Losers journey as adults back to the sewers of Derry, elaborating on It’s thirst for their flesh. As the song quickens in pace and urgency, driven by the soaring vocals of frontman Hansi Kürsch, the lyrics add to the horror of It’s thirst…
Believing is the answer but you’ve lost before
Find back to your infancy, it’s time to die
I’ve been the herdsman, you’ve been my sheep
I find taste on lambskin, everything’s alright
killing for the thirst for small children sweat
Delving further into the sadistic mindset of It, the song discusses the creature’s ill-intent but also the monster’s concern with the new powers it senses. Powers that threatens Pennywise’s own existence.
I give them illusions to raise their fear
Hear the crying dying child it’s music to my ears
Feel the sweetness of its death everything’s alright
But there’s a new feeling I’ve never known
There must be a third one a mighty guardian
The drums of Thomas “Thomen” Stauch lend themselves to the flurry of phrases that accompany the opening choral cries of “Guardian, Guardian, Guardian of the Blind!” The song then leads into the urgency of the Losers’ plight; recalling their confrontation with Pennywise when they were children, and how that fear creeps in anew for returning visions of madness, horrible sights of the “Deadlights” within the clown’s cold eyes.
Once we were a circle fighting hand in hand
Our weapons were illusions to let it feel the pain
By the sweet taste of our lives, it call us back again
Referring once more in passing to the Ritual of Chüd, the others cry out to Billy Denbrough that you must find your way, and that their beliefs rest on his shoulders. For it is Bill that must find Maturin, and it is he that must find a sign for the Guardian of the Blind. It is through this act that the Losers’ Club destroys the monstrous It for good, as the area of Maine suffers its worst storm on record, and sweeping through Derry, they watch as the town collapses around them.
The early speed metal stylings of Blind Guardian seem a perfect fit to carry over the desperation and confusion of the children-turned-adults and the terror lurking within their sewers. Watching Blind Guardian’s style mature and grow over the years, and returning to this is almost like a parallel to the changes within the Losers’ Club from who they were as kids to who they become as adults. The guitars of André Olbrich and Marcus Siepen never miss a beat, Hansi’s vocals and bass playing are note-perfect, and Stauch’s drums add that frantic layering that feels appropriate given the story’s setting.
Following his departure from Blind Guardian, ex-drummer Stauch would go on to dedicate his time to his side project, Savage Circus. Having released two full-length albums to date, including 2005’s Dreamland Manor and 2009’s Of Doom and Death, the band’s first studio release would feature the song, “It – The Gathering”, a song originally intended for Blind Guardian and one that deals extensively with Stephen King’s novel. This track, which carries a very strong resemblance to Blind Guardian’s musical style – no less to Stauch’s influence as a founding member of said band, or to then-lead vocalist Jens Carlsson‘s inspiration from Hansi – the track further strengthens the resolve of the Losers’ Club in their stand off with, as the song goes, the devil in disguise of a clown. Speaking of the seven bound to the oath, the song goes on to relay their mission as adults returning to the underworld of the sewage pipes, where the tunnels are bare of light. It is here where they bear witness to It’s true form as a monstrous spider, or at least, the closest thing humans can perceive as the creature’s ‘true’ form without losing all sanity. As the lyrics convey,
It is awaiting us like a spider in the web
What’s interesting to note about these two tracks, and what helps to separate them in terms of what story they’re aiming to convey, is that while both setting’s chosen are to do with the final encounter between the Losers’ Club as adults and It, they are approached at different angles. “Guardian of the Blind” chooses to focus more on Bill’s mission to uncover Maturin’s secret power (and the faith the other six have in him to do so), while “It – The Gathering” is about just that, the gathering of these kids, now fully grown, against the ancient horror. The children had sworn a blood oath to each other to return one day and defeat It for good should the monster re-emerge, and following certain events, they do reunite. Their repressed childhood memories soon return to them, and despite their instances of childhood trauma, they forge through it and stand tall against Pennywise. The driving rhythm of Stauch’s drums once more, along with the atmospheric licks of Emil Norberg and Piet Sielck propel the stories of the Losers’ Club forward, echoing their plight against It as they stand at the gateway to the devil’s lair.
Seven bound to the oath
Hold on forgetful
That brought us back, coming here
To end it once and for all
Hand in hand, we’re going to stand
Together again, to carry out
What must be done
The final chapter has begun
The chorus and final verse perfectly summarise the Losers’ final quest to rid the town of Derry of It once and for all, as they stand triumphantly against the beast.
While arguably ‘simpler’ than the other two songs presented above both technically and lyrically speaking, the band Pennywise’s eponymous track breaks right to the core of what makes Pennywise the Dancing Clown truly terrifying: the psychological damage he inflicts as an entity only these seven children can see, and something that continues to stalk their psyche and follow them wherever they go. As the lyrics boldly state in its opening verses…
Clear your mind, hide your fear
Don’t look around, don’t turn around
Pennywise is here
Through the old school punk vibe that this song emits, it actually complements the sinister nature of the lyrics quite well; supplementing the frantic elements of the track with the notion of Pennywise chasing the children both in their real lives and in their nightmares.
He’s a monster, he’s not human
He’s more than just a figment of your imagination
You can’t run, can’t hide
There’s no way to escape Pennywise
From the refrain, the song adds another moment of sinister intent, creeping into your ears just as Pennywise does to the poor, unsuspecting children of Derry.
He’ll creep inside your soul at night and torment nice and slow
Don’t look around or turn around Pennywise will know
He’ll make you wish that you were dead and make it hard to cope
He’ll make you wish that you were dead and hanging by a rope
The title track “Pennywise” is taken from the band’s debut self-titled album from 1991, and is a staple of early US punk rock, echoing many of the themes that would become staples to the band’s sound moving forward and on a whole for the genre in the 1990s with band’s such as fellow Californian acts, NOFX, The Offspring, Bad Religion, and so forth.
What vocalist Jim Lindberg, guitarist Fletcher Dragge, drummer Byron McMackin, and bassist Jason Thirsk do so well with this track is that they manage to not only convincingly portray the plot of It but also to blend their own punk style with the novel’s themes in a satisfying way. During the song’s short run-time, it sufficiently offers nods and references to elements of the book such as the evil that lurks in his eyes, which could be construed as both a nod to Pennywise’s venomous persona but also perhaps a mention to the Deadlights held within It’s supernatural form, and briefly seen behind his eyes.
With Muschietti’s new film out now, what is definite among all of these songs is that the lasting legacy of It is not going away anytime soon. The continued success of the novel has seen the book become one of Stephen King’s most prominent works since its release over three decades ago, so head to the cinemas to catch It and brace yourselves for what floats down within the sewers of Derry, Maine.