Song of the Day: Education in Music (Day Six). “School’s Out for Summer, School’s Out Forever, School’s Been Blown to Pieces”.

School’s Out, from Alice Cooper’s 1972 album of the same name, became the singer’s breakthrough hit.  The song became Alice Cooper’s first major hit single, reaching number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart and number one on the UK singles chart for three weeks.  The single marked the first time that Alice Cooper was seen as more than just a theatrical novelty act.  Due to the huge success of the single, its parent album also became highly successful, reaching number two on the Billboard 200 chart.  On his radio show, Nights With Alice Cooper in 2008, Cooper explained the inspiration behind the song when he was asked “What’s the greatest three minutes of your life?”:

“There’s two times during the year.  One is Christmas morning, when you’re just getting ready to open the presents.  The greed factor is right there.  The next one is the last three minutes of the last day of school when you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning.  I said, ‘If we can catch that three minutes in a song, it’s going to be so big’.”

Additionally, Cooper went on to joke that the main riff of the song, written by Glen Buxton, was inspired by Miles Davis.  Cooper has also explained on various occasions that School’s Out was also inspired by a warning often said in Bowery Boys movies in which one of the characters declares to another, “School is out”, meaning ‘to wise up’.  The Bowery Boys were trouble-making New York City tough guy characters featured in 48 movies which ran from 1946 to 1958.  The movies were often shown on American television throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, eating up a lot of air time on independent stations.

Lyrically, Schools Out discusses the students’ disdain for school life to the extreme with its chorus stating that “School’s out for summer, School’s out forever, School’s been blown to pieces”.  Additionally, on the last chorus, Cooper plays on the idea of being absent from the school with the line, “School’s out with fever”, before bringing the song to a climax with the line, The song also incorporates part of the childhood rhyme, Pencils and Books in the lines “No more pencils, no more books, No more teachers’ dirty looks”.  This part of the song includes children singing, an idea by producer Bob Ezrin.  Ezrin would later use this effect when he produced another school-themed song, Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, from the album The Wall (1979).

In later live performances of School’s Out, Cooper has been known to incorporate parts of the first verse of Another Brick in the Wall Part 2.

For the album version of the song, Ezrin also used a “turn off” effect on the school bell and sound effects at the end of the song.  This effect is not present on the single version, with the school bell and effects simply fading out.

On the single’s release, some US and UK radio stations banned the song, deeming that it gave the students a negative impression of rebelliousness against childhood education.  The song was also shunned by teachers, parents, principles, counsellors and psychologists who demanded that it be removed from radio playlists.  In the UK, Mary Whitehouse, as part of her Clean Up TV Campaign, attempted to have School’s Out banned by the BBC, where it was receiving heavy play on their flagship music entertainment show, Top of the Pops.  In August 1972, Whitehouse wrote to the BBC’s head of light entertainment, Bill Cotton, complaining of the “gratuitous publicity” given to the song.  She continued to say:  “Because of this, millions of young people are imbibing a philosophy of violence and anarchy … It is our view that if there is increasing violence in the schools during the coming term, the BBC will not be able to evade their share of the blame”.  Alice Cooper famously sent Whitehouse a bunch of flowers to thank her for helping to publicise the song in a manner that they couldn’t have imagined and helping the song to the top spot on the UK singles chart.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Six). “She Packed My Bags Last Night, Pre-flight. Zero Hour: 9am. And I’m Going to be High as a Kite by Then.”

Rocket Man, alternatively named Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time), from the 1972 album Honky Chateau, is a song composed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin.  The song was produced by Gus Dudgeon, the producer of David Bowie’s 1969 breakthrough hit Space Oddity (David Bowie).  The song was inspired by Taupin’s sighting of either a shooting star or a distant aeroplane and was inspired by the notion of being an astronaut no longer being a hero, instead being an everyday occupation.  This idea can be most seen most notably in the song’s opening lines, “She packed my bags last night, pre-flight.  Zero hour: 9am.  And I’m going to be high as a kite by then”.

The lyrics of the song, written as per usual by Taupin, were inspired by the short story, The Rocket Man by Ray Bradbury and featured in his 1951 collection, The Illustrated Man.  The story tells of how astronauts are few in number, meaning that they work for high pay.  One such “Rocket Man” goes off into space for three months at a time, only returning to Earth for three days to spend time with his wife and son, Doug.  Additionally, the song was also inspired by another song called Rocket Man by Tom Rapp, written for his band Pearls Before Swine and featured on their 1970 album The Use of Ashes.  The Rapp song Rocket Man was in turn also inspired by Bardbury’s short story.

Due to a number of similarities in Rocket Man, some presume that this song might also be an allusion to David Bowie’s character Major Tom in Space Oddity.  Bowie has even made the connection himself during various live performances of Space Oddity in which he called out, “Oh, Rocket Man!”

As with Space Oddity, Rocket Man has been said to use space as a metaphor for a drug high.  The line most associated with being a drug reference is “And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then” with ‘high as a kite’ being a common idiom in drug use.  There is nothing to suggest that Taupin intended the double entendre but the song was released at the peak of the ‘70s stoner culture.

The first stanza of Rocket Man was thought up by Bernie Taupin whilst he was on the motorway heading to his parents’ home.  Taupin had to repeat the line to himself over and over for two hours. Upon reaching his parents house, Taupin has said a number of times over the years that he rushed in to the house and ordered nobody to speak to him until he had written the lines down.  Additionally, the song is thought to be a comment on fame and touring, with the line “I’m not the man they think I am at home” perhaps referring to the superficiality of stardom and stage persona.

Musically, the song is one of John’s most grandiose offerings, anchored by piano, with atmospheric texture added by synthesiser, which was played on the recording by studio engineer Dave Hentschel and processed slide guitar.  Rocket Man is also notable for being the first of a number of John recording to feature the signature backing vocals of his band at the time, Dee Murray, Nigel Olssen and Davey Johnstone.  The song was another resounding success for John, reaching number 2 on the UK singles chart and number 6 on the US Billboard Pop Singles Chart.  In 1998, John played Rocket Man at the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery.

Rocket Man has been covered a number of times over the years, most famously in 1991 by Kate Bush as part of the Elton John / Bernie Taupin tribute album, Two Rooms:  Celebrating the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.  Bush’s unique reggae-styled interpretation of the song was a great commercial success, reaching number 12 on the UK chart and number 2 on the Australian chart, where it was held off the top spot by Julian Lennon’s single, Saltwater (from the album Help Yourself, 1991).  Bush’s version of Rocket Man was voted as the Greatest Cover of All Time by readers of The Observer in 2007.

The B-side of Bush’s version of Rocket Man was a cover of another John and Taupin classic, Candle in the Wind.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Four). “Hats Off, Hats Off to Mars, Let’s Align Our Footsteps with the Stars”.

Glam rock was the era in which music openly acknowledged its superficiality.  Originating in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s and characterised by artists wearing outrageous clothes, makeup and hairstyles.  Platform-soled boots and glitter were commonplace and the flamboyant costumes and visual styles of glam performers were often camp or androgynous.  Artists such as Marc Bolan and T-Rex, David Bowie, Sweet, Roxy Music and Gary Glitter enjoyed extraordinary success.  However, for every one of these artists there were scores of glam divas waiting in the wings.

Take for example, Jobriath, the first openly gay rock star, who released two wonderfully camp and epic albums in the early 1970s, Jobriath (1973) and Creatures of the Street (1974) before the few members of the public who had been turned onto him turned against him.  He lived out the rest of his days in the Chelsea Hotel, where he became one of the first rock casualties of the AIDs virus in 1983.

Whilst Jobriath briefly managed to release his music, the subject of today’s Song of the Day was dealt a more cruel fate.  That subject is Brett Smiley, who to all intents and purposes had the makings of a successful glam rock superstar.  Young, blonde, beautiful and androgynous, Smiley began his career as a child actor, playing Oliver on Broadway before being discovered by Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham at the age of 16 in 1972.  Two years later, he was given a $200,000 recording deal and recorded the album Breathlessly Brett.  The album was produced by Oldham and featured Steve Marriott on guitar.  The first single from the album was the glam-stomping rock thrash out, Va Va Va Voom.

Va Va Va Voom was filled with all the elements that should have made it a glam classic, including wonderfully noisy guitars and a masterful sax line as worthy as those found in Bowie songs such as Suffragette City (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972).

The Bowie influence is also prevalent on Va Va Va Voom’s B-side, Space Ace.

Space was a regular theme in glam rock music, think T-Rex songs such as Spaceball Ricochet …

… and Ballrooms of Mars (both from The Slider, 1972) …

… and of course, probably the main source of inspiration here, Bowie’s most famous character creation, Ziggy Stardust.

The sound on Space Ace is suitably cinematic, fitting for the era in which it was born, whilst the lyrics, sung in Smiley’s distinctive and breathy voice, spiral like a freefall through outer space.

Around the time of the single’s release, Smiley appeared on the Russell Harty Plus TV programme, where he was interviewed alongside Andrew Loog Oldham and gave a startlingly over the top performance of Space Ace.

Unfortunately for a single that by all rights should have become a classic, it bombed and the album was shelved.  Smiley all but disappeared, save for a blink and you’ll miss it cameo in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980), as well as starring roles in a few ill-advised pornographic movies, and wasn’t heard from again until 2003 when RPM Records acquired the master tapes for the Breathlessly Brett album.  In the intervening 29 years, Smiley had been wallowing in a gargantuan drug addiction somewhere on skid row.  In 2005, Smiley was the subject of Nina Antonia’s book The Prettiest Star:  Whatever Happened to Brett Smiley.  Now free of his drug addiction, Smiley is back recording and performing, mainly around New York City.

Starman and Nine Other Songs About Aliens. David Bowie Releases The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. This Day in History, 06/05/1972.

1.  Julian Cope ‘I Come From Another Planet, Baby’

(from the album Interpreter, 1996).

2.  Brett Smiley ‘Space Ace’

(from the album Breathlessly Brett, 1974).

3.  Ash ‘Girl From Mars’

(from the album 1977, 1996).

4.  David Bowie ‘Starman’

(from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972).

5.  The Wedding Present ‘The Queen of Outer Space’

(from the album Hit Parade 2, 1993).

6.  Janelle Monae ‘Many Moons’

(from the album Suite I (The Chase), 2008).

7.  Radiohead ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’

(from the album OK Computer, 1997).

8.  Pixies ‘Motorway to Roswell’

(from the album Trompe Le Monde, 1991).

9.  Blondie ‘Rapture’

(from the album Autoamerican, 1980).

10. The Carpenters ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’

(from the album Passage, 1977).

Song of the Day: Music About Other Artists (Day Seven). Carly Simon on ?: “You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Song is About You”.

Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, from her 1972 breakthrough album No Secrets has been the subject of much debate for decades.  Many of her ex-boyfriends have wondered whether they were the inspiration behind the singer’s cutting description and Simon has relished in it, throwing curveballs and adding to the mystery at every opportunity.  Other than You’re So Vain being a wonderful pop song with one of the most classic choruses in music history, together with an array of brilliant and sometimes witty lines, this mystery is the key to the song’s longevity.  So, let’s line up the vain suspects.

Prior to You’re So Vain becoming a hit, Simon told interviewers that the song was about “men” in general and not a specific “man”.  However, this didn’t stop potential subjects wondering whether the song was about them and Simon’s audience trying to unravel the clues in the lyrics.

Mick Jagger wondered whether the song was about him.  Jagger provided backing vocals for You’re So Vain and in Angie Bowie’s 1993 book Backstage Passes, she claimed that Jagger had been “obsessed” with Simon.

Additionally, Angie Bowie claimed to be the “wife of a close friend” mentioned in the final verse of the song.

When You’re So Vain was sampled for Janet Jackson’s 2001 single, Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song is About You), from the album All for You, Simon stated that “The apricot scarf was worn by Nick [Delblanco].  Nothing in the words referred to Mick”.  Simon started dating Delblanco in the early 1960s whilst he was studying at Harvard University and was being hotly tipped as the next big thing in literature.  She and Delblanco travelled to France together where Simon acted as her boyfriend’s helpmeet.  The couple broke up in 1964.

Could the song be about Kris Kristofferson, with whom Simon had a summer-long love affair with in 1971?  During their romance, Simon wrote the song Three Days, from the album Anticipation (1971), about Kristofferson.

In return, Kristofferson wrote I’ve Got to Have You, from the album Breakaway with Rita Coolidge (1974), about Simon.

As quoted in Sheila Weller’s 2008 book, Girls Like Us, Kristofferson said of the Simon:  “Looking back on the romance, I was pretty self-absorbed in those days.  Carly was funny and really smart – she had more brains than I did.  I have a hard time now believing she tolerated my company”.

In a 1989 interview, Simon said that the song is a little about Warren Beatty, whom she dated in the early 1970s, but is actually a composite of three men from her days in Los Angeles.  In a 1983 interview with The Washington Post, Simon said:  “It certainly sounds like it was about Warren Beatty.  He certainly thought it was about him – he called me and said thanks for the song.  At the time I met him, he was still relatively undiscovered as a Don Juan.  I felt I was one among thousands at that point – it hadn’t reached, you know, the populations of small countries”.

To keep her audience on their toes, Simon has divulged letter clues as to the mystery man over the years.  During an interview with CNN in 2004, she said, “Well, I guess for those who are interested in clues – the name of the person it was about had an ‘E’ in it … Maybe I could disclose another letter.  Ok, it also has an ‘A’ … Well listen, two vowels ain’t bad!”  Additionally, in an interview with Regis and Kelly in 2004, when asked by Regis Philbin who the mystery man was, Simon dropped another letter clue, this time saying, “If I tell it, it’s going to come out in dribs and drabs.  And I’ve given out two letters already, an ‘A’ and an ‘E’.  But I’m going to add one to it.  I’m going to add an ‘R’, in honour of you”.

Between 1972 and 1983, Simon was married to singer / songwriter James Taylor, who is often cited as a potential source of inspiration for the song.  However, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1973, she said, “No, it’s definitely not about James, although James suspected it might be about him because he’s very vain.  No, he isn’t, but he had the unfortunate experience of taking a jet up to Nova Scotia after I’d written the song.  He was saved by the fact it wasn’t a Lear”.

Cat Stevens has also been cited as a speculative candidate.  Simon opened for Stevens at The Troubadour for three nights in April 1971.  Following the sell out shows, Simon travelled back to New York with Stevens, where he asked her out and the pair became romantically involved.  Simon wrote her single 1971 Anticipation, from her second album, also called Anticipation, whilst waiting for Stevens to pick her up for a date.  She also dedicated the aforementioned album to him, using his real name, Steve (Steven Demitri Georgiou).

In return, Stevens wrote the song Sweet Scarlet, from his 1972 album Catch Bull at Four, about Simon.

For his 2006 book, Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?, Gavin Edwards interviewed Simon’s ex-husband James Hart, whom she was married to between 1987 and 2007, who said, “I’m sure that the song wasn’t about anybody famous”.  Hart was the subject of another of Simon’s songs, Coming Around Again, from the album Coming Around Again (1987).

On the 19th June 2008, disc jockey Howard Stern claimed on his show on Sirius Satellite Radio that Simon had privately revealed to him whom the song was written about following an interview.  Stern said of the revelation that, “There is an odd aspect to it … he’s not that vain”.  On the 17th March 2009, again on his radio show, Stern claimed that it was a “composite of three people”.  Most recently, Stern said on air on the 5th May 2014, “She takes me aside, pulls me close, whispers in my ear three names.  She goes, it wasn’t one person, it was three people”.  Stern also said that he thought one of the names could have been Warren Beatty and another might be American business magnate and Geffen Records boss, David Geffen, but said he “forgot”.

Another possible candidate may be musician Dan Armstrong, whom Simon had first known whilst performing in nightclubs in the mid 1960s.  Armstrong owned Armstrong’s Guitar Repair Shop and in 1968, the two met officially and started a relationship when Simon took her guitar to be fixed.  Their relationship lasted for two years.  In Sheila Weller’s 2008 book Girls Like Us, she states that “Although Simon described him as an arrogant, opinionated Neanderthal, she found him to be overwhelmingly handsome and very gifted musically”.  In his 2012 biography of Simon, More Room in a Broken Heart, Stephen Davis claims that Simon described herself as “naive” at the time.  Could Armstrong be at least the inspiration behind the lines “Oh, you had me several years ago, When I was still naive”?  After Simon broke her relationship with Armstrong off, he moved to Los Angeles to set up a new business.  Simon regretted her actions and tried to make it up to Armstrong but tono avail.  Her heartbreak over the end of the relationship inspired the song Dan, My Fling from her 1971 debut album, Carly Simon.  Armstrong’s full name of Daniel Kent Armstrong feature all three letters of Simon’s clue.

During an interview with WNYC’s Soundcheck on the 4th November 2009, Simon stated that she had hidden the identity of the vain man, whispered backwards, in a certain version of the song.  The next day, the show revealed that the name was “David”.  Simon, however, denied that the name was David, saying that she spoke “Ovid” both forwards and backwards and that it sounded like “David”.  In the February 2010 issue of Uncut magazine, Simon once again stated that the subject of the song was whispered backwards in a re-recording of You’re So Vain.

At this time, a representative for Simon confirmed that the name was indeed “David”.  Following this, various publications quickly reported that David Geffen was the subject of the song and that the song had been inspired by Simon’s jealousy over the attention that Geffen had paid to label-mate Joni Mitchell.

However, Simon’s publicist stated that the song was not about Geffen but there was indeed “a David who is connected to the song in some way, shape, or form”.  In an Email to Showbiz 411, quoted in the March 2010 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Simon said “What a riot!  Nothing to do with David Geffen!  What a funny mistake!  Someone got a clue mistaken for another mistake”.  Simon went on to say that she didn’t know Geffen when she wrote the song in 1971.  This would be true as the song was written prior to Simon’s label Elektra Records being merged with Geffen’s Asylum Records in 1972, when Geffen assuming control of the combined companies.  If the David in question is not David Geffen, then could it be David Bowie?  Taking Simon’s  ‘A’, ‘E’ and ‘R’ clues and using Bowie’s real name, David Robert Jones, then perhaps.  Additionally, and to add further confusion, the February 2010 issue of Vanity Fair noted that the names “David”, “Warren” and another unintelligible name are whispered during the recording.

That’s cleared that one up then.

Song of the Day: Movies in Music (Day Seven). “Here’s Looking at You, Kid”.

“I was moved by your scream dream, celluloid pictures of living” sings Bryan Ferry in the opening lines of 2HB, from Roxy Music’s 1972 debut album, Roxy Music.  The screen dream that Ferry is reminiscing about is Casablanca (1942) and the song is a tribute to both that film and in particular, its star, Humphrey Bogart, with 2HB being an acronym for “To Humphrey Bogart”.  It is also interesting to note that 2HB is a grade of pencil.  Ferry studied fine art at University of Newcastle on Tyne, later becoming a pottery teacher at Holland Park School in London.  During this period, he began his quest for pop stardom, first of all forming the band Banshees, followed by The Gas Board and finally, Roxy Music.

2HB is Ferry’s tender tribute to his hero, including such lines as “Your death could not kill our love for you”.  Ferry paints pictures of scenes from Casablanca with cinematic scope, with lines such as “Take two people, romantic, Smoky nightclub situation, Your cigarette traces a ladder”, placing the listener in Rick’s Cafe Americain back in 1941.  The chorus, featuring the famous line from the film, “Here’s looking at you, kid” and later lines “Ideal love flies away now” and “You gave her away to the hero” beautifully capture the scene in which Rick forces Ilsa to board the plane to Lisbon with her husband, Lazlo, telling her that she would regret it if she stayed.

Ferry’s love for Bogart also extended to his wardrobe at the time, wearing similar outfits to the one that Bogart wore in Casablanca in live shows during the early 70s.  Also see the outfit that Ferry wears on his second solo album, Another Time, Another Place (1974) to see Ferry’s homage to Bogart’s style and then look at the line “White jacket, mmm, black tie wings too” in 2HB.  Ferry always looked like a 1940’s film star and crooned like the very best of the crooners of the era; you can very much imagine him as the suave debonair gentleman sitting in Rick’s Cafe Americain, romancing with his cigarette tracing a ladder as Sam plays the piano.

The music of 2HB is also indebted to Casablanca, with Andy Mackay’s saxophone solo being based on the melody of As Time Goes By, the song featured prominently in the film.

With the song’s lyrical content describing scenes from the movie and its music alluding the movie’s score, 2HB is possibly the greatest retelling of a movie in song form and Ferry’s wonderful tribute to his celluloid hero.  So important was the influence of Bogart on Ferry that he later resurrected 2HB on the B-side of his first solo single, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (1973) and on his solo album Let’s Stick Together in 1976.

Song of the Day: Places in Music (Day Three). “I Can’t Believe the News Today …”

Derry is a small town in Northern Ireland, the home to approximately 100,000 people.  Derry has a dark past.  In 1970, the British Army had entered Northern Ireland to keep the peace at the height of The Troubles.  On the 9th August, 1971, Internment had been introduced by The British Government and the Unionist Government in Northern Ireland.  In the small hours of the morning, those suspected of being IRA members were subjected to their houses being raided and being put in prison with no trial, completely bypassing the judicial system.  On the 30th January 1972, British soldiers shot twenty six unarmed civilians during a protest march against internment organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and The Northern Resistance Movement.   Fourteen people were killed.  Thirteen were killed outright whilst another man died four and a half months later due to the injuries he sustained.  Many of the victims were shot whilst fleeing from the soldiers, whilst others were shot trying to help the wounded.  Two protestors were also injured when they were run down by army vehicles.  This bleak event in the history of Northern Ireland became known as Bloody Sunday.

Move forward eleven years and Northern Ireland was still in the grips of The Troubles.  A young band from Dublin begins to play a song.  Starting with a militaristic drum beat which evokes image of soldiers and guns and almost makes the listener feel as though they were there on Bloody Sunday even before the vocals begin, this song is Sunday Bloody Sunday and the band is U2.

Sunday Bloody Sunday, from U2’s third album War (1983), grew from a guitar riff written by guitarist the Edge in 1982.  Whilst singer Bono and new wife Ali Hewson were on their honeymoon in Jamaica, the Edge was in Ireland working on the music for what would become the War album.  Following an argument with his girlfriend and a period of self doubt over his abilities as a songwriter, the Edge channelled his frustration into what would become Sunday Bloody Sunday, writing the first draft of the song’s lyrics.  Bono rewrote the Edge’s lyrics, which started with the line “Don’t talk to me about the rights of the IRA, UDA”, fearing that the original lyrics would be misinterpreted to be sectarian thus placing them in danger.  Instead of the original potentially volatile opening line, Sunday Bloody Sunday starts with the line, “I can’t believe the news today”, evocative of the prevailing response to the violence in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s.  Thus, with this still powerful opening line, Sunday Bloody Sunday became U2’s equivalent of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967), which starts with the line, “I read the news today, oh boy”.

Despite the way in which Sunday Bloody Sunday is often perceived as a protest song, something heavily disputed by the band, the song actually takes the viewpoint of somebody outside of the violence who is horrified at the cycle of violence in the province and the effect it has on people.  Sunday Bloody Sunday links together the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 and Bloody Sunday in Dublin, 1920, where British troops fired into the crowd at a football match in retaliation for the killing of British undercover agents.  The band has said that the song is not specifically about either event.  Sunday Bloody Sunday is more a condemnation of the glorification of violence, common with those involved in it and those supporting it in Ireland and elsewhere around the world.  In an interview with Lucy White in 1983, Larry Mullen Jr said of the song:

“We’re into the politics of people, we’re not into politics.  Like you talk about Northern Ireland, Sunday Bloody Sunday, people sort of think, ‘Oh, that time when thirteen Catholics were shot by British soldiers’; that’s not what the song is about.  That’s the incident, the most famous incident in Northern Ireland and it’s the strongest way of saying, ‘How long?  How long do we have to put up with this?’  I don’t care who’s who – Catholics, Protestants, whatever.  You know people are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we’re saying why?  What’s the point?  And you can move that into place like El Salvador and other similar situations – people dying.  Let’s forget the politics, let’s stop shooting each other and sit around the table and talk about it … There are a lot of bands taking sides saying politics is crap, etc.  Well, so what!  The real battle is people dying, that’s the real battle”.

At a concert filmed the night of the IRA Enniskillen bombing on the 8th November, Bono backed up this viewpoint, saying:

“I’ve had enough of Irish-Americans who haven’t been back to their country in twenty or thirty years coming up to talk to me about the resistance, the resistance back home.  And the glory days of the revolution.  FUCK THE REVOLUTION!  They don’t talk about the glory of killing for the revolution.  What’s the glory in taking a man from his bed and gunning him down in front of his wife and children?  Where’s the glory in that?  Where’s the glory in bombing a remembrance Day parade of old age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day?  Where’s the glory in that?  To leave them dying or crippled for life or dead.  Under the rubble of a revolution.  That, the majority of people in my country don’t want.  No  more!”

The song also links the events of both Bloody Sundays to Easter Sunday, paraphrasing religious text from Matthew 10:35 in the line “Mothers children; brothers, sisters torn apart” and twisting 1 Corinthians 15:32 to fit around the theme of Bloody Sunday in the line “We eat and drink while tomorrow they die”.  The chorus of Sunday Bloody Sunday, the opening track on War, is echoed in the album’s closing track 40, which is a heavily based on Psalm 40.

The chorus of “How long, how long must we sing this song …” rhetorically pleads with those involved in the killing of innocent people and the glorification of such atrocities over the course of The Troubles.  What became known as The Troubles lasted between 1960 and the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998 but in reality, Ireland has seen bloody clashes since the 1600s and continues to see sporadic violence, such as the Massereene Barracks Shooting in 2009.

Throughout Sunday Bloody Sunday, disturbing images of violence abound.  In verse two of the song, “Broken bottles under children’s feet” refers to the combatants’ use of Molotov Cocktails during The Troubles and “Bodies strewn across the dead end street”.  These lines are followed by Bono’s insistence that he affiliates with no side in the conflict and that he and the band are simply against violence:  “But I won’t heed the battle call, It puts my back up, Puts my back up against the wall”.  Later in the song, we see the lines “And the battle’s just begun, There’s many lost but tell me who has won”.   Between 1969 and 2001, 3,526 people were killed as a result of The Troubles.  “The trench is dug within our hearts, And mothers, children, brothers, sisters Torn apart” Bono continues, telling of the devastating effects of death, political and religious difference and imprisonment.  The lines, “Cause tonight, we can be as one, Tonight, Tonight” end this section of the song with a powerful cry for unity and an end to the bloodshed and misery.

In the final verse of the song, Bono tells of the effect of media manipulation on conflicts with the lines “And it’s true we are immune, When fact is fiction and TV reality”.  The band itself grew up in Dublin, Republic of Ireland where the violence of Northern Ireland didn’t impact them in terms of seeing it firsthand but more through media coverage, relating back to the song’s opening lyric, “I can’t believe the news today”.  Therefore, much like most other people listening to the song, he is taking the viewpoint of simply seeing second hand accounts of the violence.  Bono has said of the day of Bloody Sunday in an article for The New York Times in 2010:

“It was a day when my father stopped taking our family across the border to Ulster because, as he said, the “Nordies have lost their marbles”.  And we were a Catholic-Protestant household”.

The band end the last verse of song on a religious note, neatly linking the events in Northern Ireland to Easter Sunday and calling for an end to the violence with the lines, “The real battle just begun, To claim the victory Jesus won on …” before returning to the chorus for the full effect of the “How long …” refrain.  This refrain has been used to great effect in concert during The Troubles and other conflicts around the world, often being played as the final song of the set, with the audience continuing to sing it long after the band have left the stage.  Also greatly effective in live performances was Bono waving a white flag whilst performing the song, both as a call for peace and to ward off unwanted politically-motivated attention for the song.

U2 have returned to the subject of The Troubles several times throughout their career, most notably on the song Please, from 1997’s Pop album. The song is about the ongoing Northern Ireland Peace Process and in particular, the lack of resolution from the talks.  When Please was released as the fourth single from the album, the sleeve featured pictures of four Northern Irish politicians – Gerry Adams, David Trimble, Ian Paisley and John Hume.  In the song’s fourth verse, we find the lines “Your holy war” referring to The Troubles and “Your northern star” referring to Northern Ireland.  These lines are followed by an allusion to car bombs in the lines “Your sermon on the mount, From the boot of your car”.

In the final verse of Please, Bono sings: “September … streets capsizing … Spilling over, down the drain … Shards of glass splinters like rain, But you can only feel your own pain … October … talking getting nowhere … November … December … remember, Are we just starting again?”  These lines juxtapose the difficulties in coming to a peace agreement with images of violence in The Troubles, which were still continuing.

Please could be seen as the sequel to Sunday Bloody Sunday, perhaps approached with more maturity but also more cynicism.  Bono has now gone past the point of screaming for peace and sounds positively exhausted, at his wit’s end pleading with those involved in The Troubles to find a resolution.

Around the same time as Bono penned the lyrics for Please, he and the Edge collaborated with Christy Moore on the equally mournful and pleading North and South of the River, also influenced by The Troubles.  The song was recorded during the Pop sessions and released on the B-side of the album’s second single, Staring at the Sun in 1997.  The band played the song live for the 1998 television benefit for the victims of the Omagh bombing.  To date, this is the only time the song has been played live.

For their All That You Can’t Leave Behind album, released in 2000, the band were inspired by The Troubles once again.  Peace on Earth was directly influenced by the Omagh bombing on the 15th August 1998.  The car bombing was carried out by the Real IRA, an IRA splinter group who opposed the IRA’s ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement.  The bomb killed 29 people and injured about 220 others, making it the highest death toll from a single incident during The Troubles.  Telephoned warnings had been received approximately 40 minutes before the incident but the details conveyed by those responsible were inaccurate and as a result, the police had inadvertently moved people towards the bomb.

During the song, Bono pays tribute to the victims of the bombing, reading out several of the names of people killed in the highly moving verse:  “They’re reading names out over the radio, All the folks the rest of us won’t get to know, Sean and Julia, Gareth, Ann and Breda, Their lives are bigger, than any big idea”.  Similarly, the song makes reference to the funeral of victim James Barker in the lines “She never got to say goodbye, To see the colour in his eye, Now he’s in the dirt”.  The Irish Times had quoted James Barker’s mother as saying, “I never realised how green his eyes were”.  Peace on Earth gained further meaning in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks when the band performed the song as an encore, usually coupled with Walk On from the same album, during their Elevation Tour.

After the anger and frustration of Sunday Bloody Sunday and the emotional appeal of Please, Peace on Earth, although also political, finds Bono at crisis point.  In Peace on Earth, Bono expresses that ‘Peace on Earth’ is simply a saying that is thrown around with no actual meaning.  As much as the singer despises war, he finds the concept of people saying that there will be peace on Earth difficult.  Peace on Earth is Bono attempting to come to terms with the seemingly impossible nature of peace.

Song of the Day: Places in Music (Day Two): “New York is the Place Where …”

Right from the early days of The Velvet Underground, Brooklyn born Lou Reed had taken the location, people and elements of New York, usually the darker elements, and put them to a unique musical backdrop in order to tell a story.  Take for example, I’m Waiting for the Man from Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), a song about purchasing $26 worth of heroin in a Harlem brownstone near the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, written from the perspective of the purchaser.

In the late 1960s, Reed (along with other members of The Velvet Underground:  John Cale, Stirling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, together with Nico) was a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory.  In 1966, Warhol set his sights on the world of rock music, sponsoring The Velvet Underground.  From The Factory, Reed drew inspiration for many of the Velvet Underground’s songs, setting the ‘low life’ characters that were an integral part of the scene and the goings on inside The Factory to music.  Take for example, Heroin (from Velvet Underground and Nico) and later, Candy Says (from The Velvet Underground, 1968).

Candy Says is a precursor to the themes expressed on one of Reed’s best known songs, Walk on the Wild Side, from his 1972 David Bowie produced classic, Transformer.  Candy Says tells the story of Candy Darling, a transgender Warhol Superstar who starred in Warhol’s films Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971).  Four years after Candy Says, Darling would also become one of Reed’s muses for Walk on the Wild Side.

Jayne County said of Reed’s transfixation with characters such as Candy Darling:

“Lou Reed was fascinated with trannies, transsexuals particularly.  He loved transvestites, he’s fascinated with transvestites.  But Lou, at one time actually had a girlfriend called Rachel and she was a transsexual.  It’s only natural that Lou would write a song where three of the characters are drag queens”.

Reed struggled with his own sexuality throughout most of his life.  When he was 16, his parents consented to Reed being given electroconvulsive therapy in an attempt to cure his homosexual feelings.  Reed appeared to blame his father for what he had been put through and wrote about the incident in his 1974 song Kill Your Sons, from the album Sally Can’t Dance.

In an interview with Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain for the book Please Kill Me:  An Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996), Reed said of the electroconvulsive therapy:

“They put this thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head.  That’s what was recommended in Rockland State Hospital to discourage homosexual feelings.  The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable.  You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again”.

For Walk on the Wild Side, Reed remembered the transsexuals and transvestites of Warhol’s Factory scene and painted a tale of how they had come to be in New York.  In the first verse of the song, we are introduced to Holly:  “Holly came from Miami, FLA”.  Holly refers to Holly Woodlawn, a transvestite born Haraldo Santiago Franeschi Rodriguez Danhakl, born in Puerto Rico, 1946 who “Hitched hiked her way across the USA, Plucked her eyebrows on the way, Shaved her legs and then he was a she”.  Holly is best remembered for starring in Warhol’s film Trash (1970) alongside Joe Dallesandro, whom I shall mention later.

In the second verse, we see Candy Darling return into Reed’s songwriting:  “Candy came from out on the Island”.  Transsexual Candy Darling was born James Lawrence Slattery on Long Island, New York in 1944.  Candy Darling died of cancer in 1974.

In the third verse, “Little Joe” who “never once gave it away” refers to Joe Dallesandro, born in Pensacols, Florida in 1948.  Dallesandro was the ‘straight’ butch Brooklyn street kid who had turned to gay hustling before his discovery by Warhol and director Paul Morrissey, hence the lines, “A hustle here and a hustle there, New York City is the place where …”  Warhol and Morrissey used Dallesandro’s universal sex appeal to their advantage in several full-length cinema projects, most notably Lonesome Cowboys (1968); Trash (1970) and Heat (1972).  Later Dallesandro crossed over into mainstream films, playing the part of Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano in The Cotton Club (1984) alongside Richard Gere, Diane Lane and Bob Hoskins.  He is now considered to be an icon of underground cinema and of gay subculture.

“Sugar Plum Fairy” in verse four, refers to actor Joe Campbell and not to a drug dealer, as often mistakenly thought by listeners.  Campbell, who’s nickname was the “Sugar Plum Fairy” appeared in a few of Warhol’s films, including My Hustler (1965) and Nude Restaurant (1967).  Campbell was also known for being in a relationship with openly gay politician Harvey Milk.  Campbell passed away in 2005 following a lengthy battle with AIDS.

“Jackie is just speeding away, Thought she was James Dean for a day …” refers to drag queen Jackie Curtis.  Curtis was born John Holder Jr. In 1947 and performed both in and out of drag in films, most notably Warhol’s Flesh and Women in Revolt, as well as onstage.  He was also a prolific writer.  Curtis has also been credited for, in some part, inspiring the glam rock movement of the 1970’s due to his use of lipstick, glitter, bright red hair and ripped dresses and stockings during drag performances.  Warhol once described Curtus as follows:  “Jackie Curtis is not a drag queen.  Jackie is an artist.  A pioneer without a frontier”.  Curtis was also a heavy drug user, hence the aforementioned lines alluding to speed and its effects and the following lines, “Then I guess she had to crash, Valium would have helped that bash”.  Curtis succumbed to his addiction to heroin and various other drugs and died following an overdose in 1985.

Amazingly, for a song that concerns itself with such subject matter and contains phrases such as “giving head”, Walk on the Wild Side was never banned by the BBC or by most US radio stations because they simply did not understand the references.  Walk on the Wild Side did however see some edited versions at the time, but instead of taking out the reference to oral sex, various edits replace the line “And the coloured girls say” with “And the girls all say”.  This could simply just be because many radio stations in 1972 were limited to a time frame of 3 to 3 and a half minutes per song, which the full version of Walk on the Wild Side lasts 4 minutes and 12 seconds.  Speaking about Walk on the Wide Side in Victor Bokris’s biography Transformer:  The Lou Reed Story (1994), Reed said:  “I always thought it would be kind of fun to introduce people to characters they maybe hadn’t met before, or hadn’t wanted to meet”.

Reed continued to use the backdrop of New York and its people, often those caught on the outside of society, in his songs throughout his career.  The Transformer album notably features several songs written about the New York scene that he loved, including Andy’s Chest, a song with a Dadaist lyrical structure written for Andy Warhol following his failed assassination attempt by Valerie Solanas in 1968.

The album also notably includes New York Telephone Conversation, a rather sarcastic song about the spreading of tittle-tattle by telephone in “the city of shows”.

Later in his career, Reed would use the imagery of New York, still using inhabitants regarded as ‘low life’, to great effect on his 1989 album New York.  Whilst the New York album is highly regarded for the strength and force of its lyrics, it drew much criticism at the time for its apparent pedestrian “truck driver” musicianship.  However, the music of the New York album is purposely simplistic in order to not distract from the frankness of the lyrical content.  Throughout the fourteen songs featured on the album, the lyrics are profuse and carefully woven into a concept album.  In the liner notes for the album, Reed directs the listener to hear the album in one sitting “as though it were a book or a movie”.

On New York, an older Reed seemed more much more bitter towards his once beloved city.  Take for example, the lyrics in one of the album’s tales of life in a New York Slum, Dirty Blvd.  “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ‘em, That’s what the statue of bigotry says, Your poor huddled masses, Let’s club ‘em to death, And get it over with and just dump them on the boulevard”, says Reed with more than a hint of sarcastic anger.  These lines are a play on the 1883 poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, which in 1903 was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the second verse of which reads:

“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!””

Elsewhere on the New York album, we find the song Romeo Had Juliette, a song about New York’s hopeless, hopeful, innocent, violent and greedy.  Romeo Had Juliette is a dark and bitter modern day take on Romeo and Juliet but also a poem to the beautiful but dirty and wrecked city that Reed adored, complete with the awe-inspiring opening lines, “Caught between the twisted stars, The plotted lines, the faulty map, That brought Columbus to New York”.  Elsewhere, Reed tells of how “Manhattan’s sinking like a rock, Into the filthy Hudson, what a shock, They wrote a book about it, They said it was like ancient Rome”, expressing Reed’s concerns that like Ancient Rome, New York had become too big for its own good.

Also on the album is the song Halloween Parade, about the annual gay celebration in Greenwich Village and to all intents and purposes, a dark sequel to Walk on the Wild Side.  Halloween Parade is a post-AIDS crisis tribute to those who had fallen.  “There ain’t no Harry, no Virgin Mary, You Won’t hear those voices again, And Johnny Rio and Rotten Rita, You’ll never see those faces again” says Reed solemnly.