By Owen Hatherley.
Brussels is the capital of Europe, and hence is, for those of us who think a Pan-European Superstate would be a fairly good idea, a significant place. A byword for bureaucratic blandness, a cursory visit reveals instead the most chaotic European city outside of the UK, an amalgam of 17th century prettiness, ridiculous imperialist confections, brash and confident early 20th century art nouveau and modernism, and the glass tombstones of the EU Quarter. Through it all runs horrendous traffic, a noxious underground system, linguistic polyphony and the omnipresent bureaucracy. Front 242 knew all this, and the ‘Headhunter’ video is a weird, funny and almost erotic paean to the city.
First of all though, there’s that riff. Played on god knows what, a skin-scraping metallic roar repeating and morphing, it is to those of us who like our dancing mechanik as instantly thrilling a sound as any classic Rock anthem, a Pavlovian noise that makes Beavises and Buttheads out of any sophisticate. Powering ‘Headhunter’s marshalled montage of samples, clattering beats and Moroder arpeggios, this riff has since turned up in some peculiar places, as on the Rio baile funk track ‘Cerol Na Mão’ by Bonde do Tigrão, and in tracks by Tetine – appropriate, as ‘Headhunter’ is all about a depersonalised internationalism. What we have here is a depiction of the corporate, bureaucratic world as pure gangsterism – ‘looking for this man, to sell him to another man, at ten times his price at least’ – where the title refers as much to the practice of poaching managers and directors as to assassination.
The video depicts this almost by accident. The director Anton Corbijn misheard the title as ‘Egg Hunter’, and after being told the actual title by the band, decided to stick with his original ideas. The end result suggests that Corbijn has a rich modernist imagination, all too often hitched to the immortalisation of rock martyrs and would-be statesmen – these three minutes feature more original ideas than the whole of Control. The ‘eggs’ of the title are followed around the Brussels landscape. So a Lynchian salaryman carrying a giant egg dreamily pursues a girl who has one on her head, around the gigantic steel globes of the Atomium, a massively magnified iron crystal built for the 1958 Expo, through Berlaymont, the European Union headquarters, recently redesigned (because it contravened EU regulations, amusingly enough), and through Fascistic colonnades straight out of Bertolucci’s The Conformist.
Then a few more corporeal ingredients are added to the mix – eggs thrown and cracked, swallowed and spat out, mixing with images of the more unambiguous globes of the female buttocks, and the band, in bomber jackets and Travis Bickle cuts, striking paramilitary poses, the threatening superego presiding over the dream, blocking the consummation of the salaryman and the object of his desire – finally, the singer has the girl’s egg hat on himself, and snarls at the frightened protagonist. The video adds up to a peculiar psychoanalysis of the bureaucrat, with this emblem of fertility carried through their scrupulously sterile city, the base and carnal desires sublimated into business warfare. Like the track itself, it’s thrilling, silly and scintillatingly modern.