The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, June 15, 2003
Radiohead and David Sylvian: After The Afterlife

”Don’t try to make sense of it,” she says

Saturday 9 June 2001
The greatest music critic I ever knew sat with me in our front room, scrutinising the performance of Radiohead on Later With Jools Holland. After some consideration she pronounced, in relation to Thom Yorke, “The John Malkovich of rock.”

I reminded myself of what David Thomson said about Malkovich: “There is no hiding his strangeness – gangling frame, thick legs, receding hair, buttony eyes, blank look, hallucinated voice…to all of which Malkovich brings a deliberate, nearly insolent, affectlessness. He does not seem quite normal or wholesome – he can easily take on the aura of disturbance or unqualified nastiness.” Later he added, “In a single gesture or drawled word, Malkovich can go from high camp to rare delicacy. It leaves him as maybe the most mannered and riveting of modern players.”

And why does Yorke always screw his eyes up as tightly as possible, without ever actually closing them, while in performance? It’s not the self-induced trance of Van Morrison’s similar gestures (Yorke also plays guitar, so doesn’t have any fists free to clench) in an effort to shut out all extraneous distractions to get to the centre of Cypress Avenue, or Coney Island, or John Donne. It is as if Yorke desperately wants to be free of his body, is sanely struggling to loosen himself from it. In interview, too, he will typically start a response to a question reluctantly, and then, as if his mind is his own internal blotting paper, he will run out of words, none of which is adequate to answer his far more pressing questions to himself.

The most mannered and riveting of modern players? I think this might be the case, and also the key to why and how Radiohead progressed as they did after OK Computer. To provide a facile answer to a complex question: it was then when Yorke took over the group properly, when it became for all practical purposes The Thom Yorke Quintet. What would the other four be doing if he weren’t there? He is the group’s absolute cynosure, and my feeling is that without him they would be marooned. Consider the embarrassing disclaimers issued by Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway in recent Yorke-less interviews – “We’re not interested in making unlistenable minority music,” etc. – as though they were Khachaturian forced at Politburo bayonet point in 1948 to proclaim that true music could only be of and for The People. As if the international success, commercially and critically, of Kid A and Amnesiac hadn’t negated the need for such nonsense to even be considered, let alone uttered.

It could be that the considerable degree of resentment felt towards Radiohead in certain British quarters is of the Graham Norton variety. Norton recently commented that the general feeling about his success in Ireland was in the order of: “Well it’s great that one of our own has made it – but why did it have to be him?” Similarly music critics of a certain vintage doubtless feel: “Why did it have to be bloody Radiohead? It was supposed to be Lush! Or Swervedriver! You know…one of our own! All Good Mixer/Captain Nemo’s Fish Bar mates together. Not these Jonny-shoegaze-lately office boys from Abingdon.” Because of course, a decade ago, before The Bends, Radiohead were generally regarded as a washed-up joke – one-hit wonders, second-rank shoegazers at best. And it is debatable whether the band, at the time, felt the same way – that really they should still be On A Friday, still hustling for support slots at the Bullingdon Arms or Jericho Tavern. Angst? Who needed it in 1994 when Kurt C and Richey E were doing it 4 REAL? When Liam and Damon and Justine and the boys were getting ready to CHEER US ALL UP AGAIN? They looked stranded, but luckily remembered Stranded and produced The Bends. It holds up pretty well today, though I hardly ever play it. You can see where they’ve come from and where they’re going. Yorke’s voice hasn’t yet quite broken free of generic post-Bolan/Bono quasi-yodelling, but there is straining and (in “My Iron Lung”) blood, and finally (“Fake Plastic Trees,” “Street Spirit”) architecture – as well as a comfy neurotic AOR paradigm (“High And Dry”) from which a large number of British bands continue to scavenge and make a good living doing so.

She coughed. She couldn’t stop coughing.

If OK Computer caught Radiohead just at the point where Yorke was taking over, and Kid A (“Songs Of Innocence”) and Amnesiac (“Songs Of Experience”) showed the regime settling in, trying on new slippers, Hail To The Thief consolid

Oh, ENOUGH! OK Computer is suggesting that the world is ending at a point where, for Laura and I, a new one was just beginning (the summer of ’97). Kid A is up to its neck in hock to Walker’s Tilt - but what a sublime hock, what a divine debt. Amnesiac cannot disencumber the pain of the summer of 2001. They must have understood that the receding mirages which conclude “Spinning Plates” were the last vestiges, the last sight, of Oxford, of LIFE, vanishing for ever.

Amnesiac was packaged as a library book. She was a librarian. DO YOU SEE?
(one, moreover, which was damaged and withdrawn for several years, only to be put back into circulation when healthy. HAVEN’T YOU GOT IT YET?)
(the numerous people who still imagine this to be a website about music!)

The fact is, there’s the envelope, and Radiohead are pushing it in an unhurried and entirely logical and emotional way, and I doubt whether any other operatives in music can/are do/ing the same thing, and we need to understand and accept that. So much newness in the shadows but only Radiohead/Yorke can bring it to the window, where the light is strong.

Now, just to demonstrate that they STILL know, Hail To The Thief is packaged as an AA foldout map. Stanley Donwood I find over-literal…the skyscraping landfills of “DANGER/YOURSELF/COPIES/TV/ARMED” are very Peter Kennard circa 1981…but look closely at the interior map. Is that Magdalen Bridge there in the middle? Am I seeing only what I choose to see?

(The vast quantity of blank space in the Oxford A-Z. Especially around where we lived. As if she won’t let anyone else fill it in)

Feedback fills the room. A cheery exchange: “’Ello!” “That’s a nice way to start, Jonny.” Like the “1-2-3-4” which starts off Revolver. Starting again…and straight into another one of those precariously elegant medieval-sounding minor key guitar-bordering-on-lute lines (Guillaume de Machaut resurfaces in Ocean Way, Hollywood). The song is entitled “2 + 2 = 5.” Get used to it is the subtitle not used (“The Lukewarm” is the subtitle actually used).

“Are you such a dreamer to put the world to rights?” inquires Yorke. “I’ll stay home forever where two & two always makes up five.”

“…I was telling her that all those ultraliberals were doubtless perfectly respectable through their high-minded virtue, but in other respects incapable of understanding that two and two make four.”
(Stendhal, Memoirs Of An Egotist)

…except that this is of course an attack on Dubya, rather than Napoleon. No Hazlitt will come through now to speak up for Bush, so Yorke will shout instead, changing the song’s gear with immaculate discipline into a fast-track splenetic rage: “YOU HAVE NOT BEEN PAYING ATTENTION.” “Don’t question my authority or put me in the dock.”

The balance of dynamic control – knowing exactly when to turn the volume up and recede again – combined with an ability to nail a hyperactive rhythm and keep to it interestingly are what makes Radiohead a profitable meeting point for prog-rock and post-punk. Paul Morley compared them to “Yes meets Oval” but one could just as easily say Van Der Graaf Generator meets DNA (perhaps I ought to insist that before delving further into Radiohead, all Churchgoers should (re)familiarise themselves with Peter Hammill’s The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage. Just so that you know where this was all going). Or Joy Division refracts upon King Crimson.

“Sit Down. Stand Up” (that period!) begins again as an ominous kyrie. “Walk into the jaws of hell. Anytime. Anytime. We can wipe you out.” So bloody in its mourning – aware, perhaps, of how post-punk marketing techniques have been stripped of their punctum and are now used to remind us that we can be crushed at any time. The DVLA Chitty Chitty Bang Bang road tax campaign. Don’t you fucking dare to fly away. We’ll tie you to the cross. Benefit fraud. Our misappropriated halo will TRACK YOUR EVERY MOVE and DESTROY YOU AT ANY FUCKING TIME unless you finance our obese pleasures. Peter Saville usurped by the Borgias but, like Gillian Welch (and how like Gillian Welch they are), Radiohead are gonna do it anyway, and take off into the best drum ‘n’ bass/rock crossover sequence there’s ever been, ten years late. “THE RAINDROPS THE RAINDROPS” Yorke intones, entranced, over what is clearly Roni Size meets the Groundhogs. Oh, keep providing life…


…”Sail To The Moon.” A beautiful Cocteau Twins guitar reverie to remind us of when everything was to be looked forward to. How graceful, how profoundly regretful, is the slide from major to minor as Yorke begins to sing his lament. Those isolated returns to the major key, always scuppered, hope always defeated, an end in sight. Stay for the flood and you’ll be drowned, sail to the moon and you’ll suffocate.

there is always that ending

“Nothing in the next-door world of Dachau impinged on the great winter cycle of Beethoven chamber music played in Munich. No canvases came off the museum walls as the butchers strolled reverently past, guidebook in hand.”
(George Steiner)

“Backdrifts” keeps quiet: the Warp-ed meditations of “Kid A” the song blossoming into a maturer contemplation. Tones and beats drift around like indecisive molecules, unsure whether to form a flower or a bomb (“All evidence has been buried/All tapes have been erased/But your footprints give you away – so you’re backtracking”). But also: “You fell into our arms/We tried/But there was nothing/We could do.”

(I fall outside of her)

Then we have something which approximately approximates rock; a Byrds guitar curlicue and a drum track which would not be out of place on Cooking Vinyl soundtrack Yorke’s ode to oblivion “Go To Sleep.” “Something for the rag and bone man/Over my dead body.”
(Remember, though, how Nicolas de Stael opted to resolve matters. Those mouettes flying away from us, from you, from life)

“Where I End And You Begin” considers the possibility that there might be a gap between the two. Driven by a frantic rhythm track, underscored by a pitch-shifting tenor synthesiser motif, this is reminiscent of Simple Minds at their most kinetic (“Theme For Great Cities”), but as Yorke warns “I will eat you all alive” along come some No Pussyfooting Frippertronics, as though the “you” were being forced to re-enter, and thus rejuvenate, the “me.” Rock’s own backdrift.

“We Suck Young Blood” is a chain-gang kaddish, careful handclaps breaking rocks in the artificial sun; the corollary to “Fitter Happier.” “Are you hungry? Are you sick? Are you begging for a break? Are you sweet? Are you fresh? Are you strung up by the wrists?” The “job that slowly kills you” as we all face our prison sentences for the crime of being dependent. See how the music suddenly flares up midway into a freeform scream – sledgehammer the desks – before sinking back into resigned acceptance as we ALWAYS do. The dead tones of virtually anyone you hear in the street. Lobotomise yourself now. The carefully paced midtempo maunder of “The Gloaming” suggests what “life” might then become.

“Life’s easy when you’re a robot.”
(Coulter reflecting on his first day job in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark)

So OK Computer gained us entry into this world, Kid A and Amnesiac suggested and debated what we might fill it with, and now Hail To The Thief provides us with a working blueprint. That’s why “There There” was such a necessary choice as the first single – “Just because you feel it/Doesn’t mean it’s there.” The tribal beat turned sideways – worthy of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, and yet more evidence of how the Mac tend to seep their way subliminally into most intelligent rock – reintroduces the carnality which has been dormant in Radiohead since The Bends. Note how, halfway through, there’s a sublime if transient shift into what could pass for a Keith Richards riff; and then, how Yorke’s wail suddenly becomes impassioned to such a degree that you realise – they’ve been listening to Theatre of Hate! “Why so green and lonely?” is very Kirk Brandon (I could suggest that you should stop here and rediscover Westworld before carrying on – just to remind us of how it was unexpectedly carried on). Finally, the inhuman wail to which the rest of the album has hitherto been building. It, as some people still say, rocks.

What else to say? Only the most important thing – the 1:40 of “I Will” (and testament?). Over Greenwood’s tremulous guitar, Yorke quietly expresses anger. "I won’t let this happen to my children.” “Little babies’ eyes.” The placid eye of this record’s hurricane, a desentimentalised “No Surprises,” an unluckier but far more decided “Lucky.”

Don’t complain unless you have good reason. “A Punchup At A Wedding” – reminiscent musically of the last track of the first album by those other reluctant Oxonians, Supergrass (“I Dropped Ecstasy Down The Back Of My Sofa” or whatever it was called) – reminds us of the massed gallows which will be a consequence of our not hanging together. Meanwhile, “Myxomatosis” manages to show dullards like Goldfrapp how to reignite ‘70s glam motifs – the synth bass is twisted out of shape and married to a rhythm which is so much more relevant to Led Zeppelin than all those live DVDs; because this is what can still be done with/to it/them. The lyrical exchange “Now no one likes a smartarse/But we all like stars” is as pointed and polished as anything by any Sitwell (“Your voice is rapping on my window sill” from the next track “Scatterbrain.” How did they know?)

Finally, the unbottled rage but no destruction in “A Wolf At The Door.” “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as restaged by the Bleasdale of 1982: rapid-fire phlegm over what could be the last piece of rock music every played. Consider how well, in a dumber world, this would sum up the artificially imposed Big Brother ethos, or, in a more understanding world, would sum up the lives which some of us are currently compelled to live:

“Drag him out the window/Dragging out your dead/Singing


…/Steel toecaps take all your credit cards/Step up! Get the gunge!/Get the eggs! Get the flan in the face!…/DANCE YOU FUCKER DANCE YOU FUCKER DON’T YOU DARE…/Let me back let me back I promise to be good/Don’t look in the mirror at the face you don’t recognise…/Help me, call the doctor, put me inside…/Stepford wives, who are we to complain?…”

(or be called “vinegar tits” and “sour”)

Sometimes one just has to acknowledge that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH and that moreover one can WALK AWAY FROM IT AT ANY TIME. Right now in fact.

“Someone else is gonna come and clean it up/Born and raised for the job…” as the song reaches its climax.

(“I myself don’t talk about a new world in the morning” – Roger Whittaker)

“Someone always does.”

“I wish you’d get up, go over, get up, go over (cf. “sit down/stand up”) and turn this tape off.”

(“Nearby he’s still crying. I won’t sing while he’s there” – Kevin Rowland)

And to help you turn the tape off, that Cocteau Twins guitar refrain returns from “Sail To The Moon.” All you have to do is walk towards it. Stand up first; then you will have the luxury of being able to sit down.

“One day we shall no longer understand anything about anything, but there won’t be anything to understand – the entire universe will have become information. An immaterial involution. Aphanisis. The end of the show.”
(Jean Baudrillard, from Cool Memories IV)

“Mrs Thatcher’s great virtue, Larkin told a journalist, ‘is saying that two and two makes four, which is an unpopular nowadays as it always has been.’ What Larkin did not see was that it was only by banking on two and two making five that institutions like the Brynmor Jones Library could survive. He lived long enough to see much of his work at the library dismantled; one of the meetings he was putting off before his death was with the Vice-Chancellor designate, who was seeking ways of saving a quarter of a million pounds and wanted to shrink the library by hiving off some of its rooms. That was two and two making four.”
(Alan Bennett, “Alas! Deceived,” review of Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion, London Review of Books, 1993)

Because it’s never quite the end and it is always best to leave one exit door open. Are the politics on Hail To The Thief its McGuffin? As I said, there’s always a way out


No no no no no no no no no

Sunday 26 August 2001

I am sitting in a room. Suddenly all I have is a random collection of sonic data. None of it makes sense anymore, but as yet I do not have the sense to realise this. I am numb. I feel ungrounded, as though I could move in any direction, transport myself to any place. One either wields the handily situated can of paraffin – and as it is a flat, and others could be harmed, the option is unfeasible – or attempts to make a new sense of these sounds. Not that I want to approach any of them. I want never to listen to them again. I desire as complete a silence as she now has.

Now there is a guitar in the room, the hum of equipment; is this a good start? Eventually, a familiar voice from a happier time, unheeded since 1984, but now considerably older – and the vibrato control is not the only thing which has changed. And what is he singing?

“I fall outside of her. She doesn’t notice. Mine is an empty bed. I think she’s forgotten.”

Passive rather than active, that last verb. What is this song about? A love affair ended, either by choice or involuntarily by unwanted death? But this isn’t the day after. In fact it’s today, nearly two years later. Already. “Put the brakes on, ‘cos I’m fading fast. Can’t find the link between me and her. He who was first coming in last. Don’t tell me that love is all there is – I know, don’t I?”

It takes the best part of four minutes for David Sylvian to sing these lines. The opening title track of his new album Blemish lasts for almost 14 minutes in total. It starts almost exactly where “Brilliant Trees” ended, but instead of the alliance of East and West which that song represented (Hassell, Czukay, Sakamoto and Sylvian become one), Sylvian has now indeed become one. Thoughtful electronically-delayed guitar, with sudden shrieks erupting in the background (compare with John Tilbury and Keith Rowe’s extended threnodies on Duos For Doris) – pain and rage are there, but Sylvian keeps his countenance. The cover illustration (by Atsushi Fukui) has him resembling a younger and wiser Badly Drawn Boy, smiling in his woolly hat and reluctant beard growth.

On “Blemish” the song, the grief continues to accumulate. “There’s no talking to her. I’ll keep my thoughts to myself. Life’s for the taking, so they say – take it away. At 9:15 there is a sudden terrible explosion as Sylvian intones: “All is bloated and far from truth! Let’s secure that reputation.” And then the quiet returns and the meaning of the cover is made starkly relevant – “Just pull the wool down on his eyes one more time.” It is an excoriating piece of music to listen to; no succour, just an unresolvable uncertainty. As with everything else on this record, Sylvian gives each song as much time as it needs, because asking someone to stick to three minutes or 200 words is, in some circumstances, like asking them to breathe only once an hour.

But Sylvian is not entirely alone for all of this record. Startlingly not so, for the second song “The Good Son” opens with the familiar guitar and vocal aside (“Vocals? OK!”) which one would never have expected to hear on a Sylvian record – Derek Bailey. They are admittedly not together in the same room – Bailey recorded his contributions in Hackney and mailed them over to Sylvian in New York. Sylvian inspected the playing and selected those sections which he felt would be best adaptable to his song forms – even though the entire emotional and melodic content of their three collaborations here was based upon what Bailey played. And it’s a relevant title, too, for Bailey begins with motifs which have been heard before – specifically on his introduction to “The Good Doctor” from Song For Someone (Incus 10) the 1974 big band album by another regular Sylvian collaborator, Kenny Wheeler. But this represents the first occasion when another musician has tried to mould Bailey’s vision into a recognisable song form. And despite the sly humour in Sylvian’s lyric (“He loves a good tune, so whistle one he knows – LISTEN CLOSELY NOW – Don’t try to make sense of it, she says”) the intent is deadly serious. It’s a marvel to hear Sylvian’s voice and emotions rising and ebbing entirely naturally with Bailey’s occasional animated activity. It seems to be a genuine collaboration, rather than a convenient look-at-my-hip-record-collection label.

If Scott Walker were ever to get around to recording a record entirely solo, it might not sound dissimilar from Blemish; the same clipped words, the remote emotions, the genuine inquisitive musical adventure. Sylvian is back on his own for track three “The Only Daughter” which may be the most unsettling piece of music I’ve heard this year, in its quietude as disturbing as early Throbbing Gristle. “She was a friend of mine. Do us a favour – your one and only warning – please be gone by morning.” What has occurred? Possibly something very horrific – “She won’t even see it coming…the Vaseline…Roll them over…The penny’s dropped. The room’s in order. I masked the spot. Me, the only daughter.” And then everything swirls into confused cut-ups: (“I came to hate her” before the disinformation occurs, and more forcibly, “IT’S MY HOME NOW”). Codes scrambled; the memory is decomposing and can only be recalled incompletely, in incomprehensible fragments. Trying to make “sense.” Running through the entire history, reading through the now-completed file, trying to remember what they forgot to do. It is terrifying to hear.

And there’s more in track four “The Heart Knows Better” where for the first time a distinct rhythmic structure becomes noticeable, the closest Sylvian is now prepared to come to “pop”; “I don’t know how long she’s been here with me, but it’s been a long time coming. Make it last forever. Call me by my true name and I’ll call you back.” Then the memory becomes distended again: “And every night is wedding night in my bed (an empty bed, let us not forget)/My eyes are closed but I can see the sky…oh, but nothing really matters in the end – and if everything still matters, what then?…I’m absent from the place I ought to be.” The Other is but the faintest of chimeras here – “the driver’s much too drunk to see, and she’s sitting in my place – devastating beauty in my place” (Princess Diana?). The almost throwaway “ha ha ha” with which Sylvian signs off is in its own undemonstrable way as chilling as Ivor Cutler’s cackle at the end of Rock Bottom.

“She Is Not” gives us 43 more seconds in the company of Derek Bailey. “There she is…among her children, full of paintings….there she is not.” Yet another reminder of a future lost.

“Late Night Shopping” demonstrates just how far Sylvian has travelled. With such a title, anyone else would still be (and most still are) posing around the suburban mall which Sylvian left behind in 1981. But remember the alternate meaning of “shopping” and consider the second illustration on the cover, which pictures Sylvian wheeling a shopping trolley through a deserted snow-filled forest. The trees may or may not be of human form. Information to be conveyed, people to be betrayed. “We can lose ourselves.” “We don’t need to need a thing.” Those same handclaps which we heard on “We Suck Young Blood.”

Then the sound effect of the trolley being wheeled, followed by what sounds like a coffin lid creaking open, and Sylvian’s voice, now a ghost, reiterating what amounts to this song’s chorus (and the chorus is the song).

The last of the Bailey collaborations “How Little We Need To Be Happy” tries to find a point of reconnection. As Bailey’s guitar becomes simultaneously never more songlike and never more aggressive, Sylvian’s voice suddenly gains an extra degree of confidence – truly we realise here how, contrary to the popular belief of Sylvian vocally being a Bryan Ferry wannabe, he is in fact the missing link between Ferry and Yorke. Either could still end up in this place. “They removed his voice and the silence overwhelmed him…There’s a universe of disappointment to be lost…” Catharsis, as far as it can be reached in such an environment. “You brimming with life and with joy and curiosity. And the lights won’t go out, the stars refuse to dim. And everything goes on, but not as before…” There is some rhythm. And then the payoff. “What have they done to you? Cry all your tears, the sorrow that threatens to overwhelm you.” It has to be done. And finally: “Let’s rise up again.”

So let us try to turn an imagined endless summer into reality, as we reach the coda of this, Sylvian’s finest and truest record, “A Fire In The Forest,” which involves another traveller, Christian Fennesz, on sundry electronica. “There is always sunshine above the grey sky. I will try to find it. Yes, I will try.” And the most heartbreaking and heartfelt statement is left until last: “I would like to see you. It’s lovely to see you. Come and take me somewhere. Come take me out.”

With that, the bereaved man, blinded by his own grief, cautiously finds his way back into the world. Would such a man need to continue expressing himself musically, or writing a weblog?

“This has another ending.”
(Throwing Muses, “Walking In The Dark”)

What will be the last thing I will ever see? What would be the last thing I would like to see? My ineptitude with graphics prevents me from ending this properly. Ideally the last thing you should see here would be a picture, a vista. Perhaps a panorama of Port Meadow, to remind you what (or, more accurately, who) this website is actually about. Or maybe the pastel-coloured cottage further downstream, at Osney Island, the one which we had planned to buy for the purpose of raising a family. If only to remind us how big and unstoppable the world truly is, and how small and stoppable humanity really is.

Is that the end then? What about those 3000 words on M Ward doing D Bowie?
It’s not quite the end of the story, although the end may come soon. There are other things to record before that happens. The Dizzee Rascal album, for example, which is the third and perhaps truest member of the trilogy which encompasses Radiohead and Sylvian.
Oh come on, tell us whether Dizzee Rascal is worth investing in.
It’s been a long and hot day. There are many things to be put in order, or in a different order. All I will say for now is: how appropriate that the Rascal’s real name is Dylan Mills, and his album is problematic but brilliant, or brilliant because it is problematic. It must be heard. And then there’s the Richard X album and the Beyonce Knowles album to be taken into consideration. Music goes on to startle and seduce, in that order.
Not to mention another radio show to do.
Indeed. Resonance FM have asked me back to do Clear Spot again. I will be appearing on Friday 27 June between 7:00-8:30 pm (BST) to talk about and play examples of the genius of Ze Records and No Wave. It can be found on 104.4 FM in London; outside London, you can hear it by visiting their website at and clicking on “Listen.” I will, among other things, be playing tracks from the criminally long unavailable No New York and making impassioned pleas for a legit reissue (as opposed to the Japanese bootleg which sometimes surfaces in the more knowledgeable of record shops).
And the other ending?
Brighton Beach. I will be in Brighton next weekend, so the next chapter of this story may have to wait a fortnight.
Is this your future?
I’d like it to be.

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