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: Biography in Music (Day Five). “Pioneer of Aerodynamics, Thought He Was A Real Smart Alec …”

Alec Eiffel is a song from the Pixies’ fourth album Trompe le Monde (1991).  The song, written by frontman Black Francis and released as the third single from the record, is about French Engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (15th December 1832 to 27th December 1923), designer of the Eiffel Tower and also the Statue of Liberty and tells of how, when the Eiffel Tower was being built, people thought it was a bad idea.  Alec Eiffel is a song about how people bring down other people and their ideas.

Construction work on the Eiffel Tower began on the 29th January 1887, with the building being completed on the 15th March 1889.  It was formally opened to the public on the 31st March 1889.   During its design and construction stages, the Eiffel Tower was subject to some controversy, attracting criticism from both those who did not think it was feasible and those who objected on artistic grounds.  When work began on the tower at Champ de Mars, the ‘Committee of Three Hundred’ was formed, with one member for each metre of the tower’s height.  The committee was led by Charles Garnier and included some of the most important figures of the French arts establishment, including Adolphe Bouguereau, Guy Maupassant, Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet.  A petition was sent to Jean-Charles Alphand, the Minister of Works, and was published by Le Temps.  Part of the criticism against Eiffel’s idea read:

“To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour de Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of le Invalides, the Arc de Triumphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream.  And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal”.

Starting with the line, “Pioneer of aerodynamics (Little Eiffel, Little Eiffel)”, Francis describes how, during his lifetime, Eiffel carried out important work in aerodynamics, as well as meteorology.  Eiffel’s interest in these areas was a consequence of the problems he had encountered with the effects of wind forces on the structures he had built.  His first aerodynamic experiments, an investigation of the air resistance of surfaces, was undertaken by dropping the surface to be investigated together with a measuring apparatus down a vertical cable stretched between the second level of the Eiffel Tower and the ground.  By doing so, Eiffel definitely established that the air resistance of the body was very closely related to the square of the airspeed.  He then built a laboratory on the Champ de Mars at the foot of the tower in 1905 and later built his first wind tunnel there in 1909.  The wind tunnel was used to investigate the characteristics of the airfoil sections used by early pioneers of aviation such as the Wright Brothers, Gabriel Voisin and Louis Bieriot.  Eiffel’s work established that the lift produced by an airfoil was the result of a reduction of air pressure above the wing rather than an increase of pressure acting on the under surface.  After complaints from nearby residents about the noise generated by the wind tunnel, Eiffel moved his experiments to a new establishment at Auteuill in 1912.  At this new site, it was possible to build a larger wind tunnel and Eiffel began to make tests using scale models of aircraft designs.  In 1913, Eiffel was awarded the Samuel P. Langley Medal for Aerodynamics by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.  Presenting the medal, Alexander Graham Bell said:

“… his writings upon the resistance of air have already become classical.  His researches, published in 1907 and 1911, on the resistance of the air in connection with aviation, are especially valuable.  They have given engineers the data for designing and constructing flying machines upon sound scientific principles”.

In celebration of Eiffel’s work in aerodynamics, the music video for Little Eiffel features the Pixies playing in a wind tunnel with physics formulas in the background.

The second line of Alec Eiffel, “They thought he was a real smart alec (Little Eiffel, Little Eiffel)” was explained by Francis in an interview with Melody Maker at the time of the album’s release:  “Because of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, but also because it’s funny:  In Australia, you often say ‘It’s a smart Alec’ for a guy who’s nice but not very bright”.  However in reality, Australians actually use the term to describe somebody who is speaking out of turn; often in a way that makes them appear more intelligent than the person or group that they are addressing.  In the UK and US, a “smart Alec” is the opposite of Francis’ description, meaning somebody who is intelligent but mean or sarcastic.

The following line, “He thought big, they called it phallic” refers to some peoples’ view of the Eiffel Tower at the time of its design and construction, an observation that is still attached to the building to this day.  As recently as 2013, several feminist groups in France called for the tower to be demolished, with Marianne Caster, the leader of the campaign, telling newspaper, The Local:

“For too long we have lived under the shadow of this patriarchal monstrosity.  Every day, women in this city are forced to glare up at the giant metal penis in the sky.  It may be good for tourism but as long as it stands there, France will never have ‘egalite’ [liberty, equality, fraternity].  Since 1889, women have been forced to gaze up at this example of French industrial machismo and colonial arrogance”.

In his 1979 collection of essays, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, French philosopher Roland Barthes asserted that the tower is really nothing; not a museum, nor is there anything to be seen within it.  Barthes went on to say that the reason people go to see the Eiffel Tower is because it stirs the human imagination and people are able to attach their own vision to it, thus making the tower “the symbol of Paris, of modernity, of communication, of science or of the nineteenth century”.  Barthes continues to tell of how the tower can become a “rocket, stem, derrick, phallus, lightning rod or insect”.  He concludes by saying, “In the great domain of dreams, it means everything”.  It is important to note here that the back cover of the artwork for Alec Eiffel features the Eiffel Tower in the form of a rocket, linking in with Barthes idea that in the imagination of the person viewing the tower, it can become a “rocket” and so forth.

Further into Alec Eiffel, Francis continues to tell of how Eiffel’s detractors thought the project was lunacy, with lines such as “Little Eiffel stands in the archway (Little Eiffel, Little Eiffel), Keeping low, doesn’t make no sense”.  In a Melody Maker article in 1991, they describe the line thus:  “It’s not certain whether lines like “Little Eiffel stands in the archway, Even though it doesn’t make no sense” are an observation of the lunacy of the architecture or the song itself, which features a sixties-style zither!”  It should be noted here that Melody Maker misquoted the line, it being “Keeping low, doesn’t make no sense” rather than “Even though it doesn’t make no sense”, which answers Melody Maker’s question.

Put to a musical backdrop which sounds like a whirlwind, complimenting the song’s subject, with Eiffel using the wind tunnel in his quest to understand the concept of aerodynamics, Alec Eiffel is just one of a myriad of great Pixies songs.  This is a song of unique subject matter and vision as wonderful as that of the Eiffel himself, executed in a way that only the Pixies ever could.  As Francis said himself in his 1991 Melody Maker interview:  “I thought it was important to speak about Gustave Alexandre Eiffel, as he is considered as the pioneer of aerodynamics.  Fascinating subject”.

Song of the Day: Biography in Music (Day Four). “It Glittered and Gleamed, For the Arriving Beauty Queen …”

1991 marked the arrival of a musical departure for Siouxsie and the Banshees as the band adopted a more straightforward pop-orientated sound than on previous records.  This was largely due to the arrival of Stephen Hague as producer.  The resulting album, the band’s tenth, was Superstition, which gave the band their first hit on the US Billboard 200, where it reached number 65.  The lead single from the album was Kiss Them for Me, also a success in the US, where it reached number one on the Modern Rock chart and number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.  The song is about the death of Jayne Mansfield in a car accident in 1967.  The song takes its name from the 20th Century Fox movie in which she starred with Cary Grant in 1957.

Mansfield, born Vera Jayne Palmer on the 19th April 1933, was staying at the Cabana Courtyard Apartments in Biloxi, Mississippi in preparation for an engagement at the Gus Stevens Supper Club.  After an evening appearance on the 28th June 1967, Mansfield, her lover Sam Brody, their driver, Ronnie Harrison and three of Mansfield’s children, Miklos, Zoitan and Mariska, set out in Stevens’ 1966 Buick Electra 225.  The party of six were headed for New Orleans, where Mansfield was scheduled to appear on an early morning television show.  On the 29th June, on highway 90, east of Rigolets Bridge, the car crashed into the back of a tractor trailer which had slowed down behind another truck which was spraying mosquito fogger.  The car hit the rear of the trailer and went underneath it.  The three adults in the front seat were killed instantly, whilst the children in the back survived with minor injuries.

Several reports emerged that Mansfield had been decapitated.  This is untrue.  However, she did suffer severe head trauma.  This urban legend was started when police photographs appeared of a crashed car with the top virtually sheared off and what resembled a blond-haired head tangled in the car’s smashed windscreen.  This is likely to have been a wig that Mansfield was wearing or her actual hair and scalp.  Mansfield’s death certificate stated that the immediate cause of death was a “crushed skull with avulsion of cranium and brain”.  Following her death, the Nation Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) recommended the fitting of an under-ride guard, a strong bar made of steel tubing, on all tractor-trailers.  The trucking industry was slow to adopt this change but the resulting bar became known as the Mansfield Bar, or ICC bar.

The song’s opening lines, “It glittered and it gleamed, For the arriving beauty queen” has a double meaning; the preparation of the television studio for Mansfield’s arrival and heaven preparing to greet Mansfield following her death.  In the next line, “A ring and a car”, the “ring” refers to the $5,000 dollar ($210,000 in 2015 dollars) 10-carat diamond engagement ring given to Mansfield by her second husband Mickey Hargitay on the 6th November 1957.   The following line, “Now you’re the prettiest star by far” could refer to the encapsulation of Mansfield’s beauty in the memory following her death or could be a slightly morbid and sarcastic visualisation of the horrific injuries that Mansfield suffered.  The line could also refer to the way in which stars who have died in tragic circumstances often become more famous in death than they would have done in life.

The song’s second verse, “No party she’s not attend, No invitation she wouldn’t send, Transfixed by the inner sound, Or your promise to be found”, refers to the metaphorical road to stardom and Mansfield’s attempts to be noticed by Hollywood.  The “inner sound” refers to the calling and the final line, “Or you’re promise to be found” refers to the promises made by Hollywood big-shots about her big chances for being a star.  Mansfield was a big star but her reign was brief.  Despite her publicity and popularity, Mansfield had no film roles of note after 1959 and was unable to fulfil a third of her time contracted to Twentieth Century Fox due to her repeated pregnancies.  Twentieth Century Fox stopped viewing Mansfield as a major star and she was often loaned out to foreign productions until the end of her contract in 1962.  She was loaned out to both English and Italian studios for a series of low budget films, many of them obscure and some considered lost.

The promises made by the Hollywood big-shots are further elaborated upon in the following bridge, “”Nothing or no-one will ever, Make me let you down””.  Note that on printed lyrics for the song, the bridge is often written in parenthesis, giving the impression that these words were something that were said to Mansfield.  This interpretation is backed up by an interview with Record Hunter in 1992, in which Sioux said of the song:  “This song was sparked off by Jayne Mansfield’s story.  She typified the dream that Hollywood holds for young women – a fairytale thing”.

The song’s chorus of “Kiss them for me, I may be delayed, Kiss them for me, if I am delayed” is a message from Mansfield, in her affected Hollywood manner, to the television studio where she was due to take part in an interview.  To state the obvious, she was terminally delayed.

The following verse, “It’s divoon, oh, it’s serene, In the fountains pink champagne, Someone carving their devotion, In the heart shaped pool of fame”, firstly includes Mansfield’s catchphrase, “It’s divoon”, with “divoon” being an affected way of saying ‘divine’.  The verse also refers to Mansfield’s 40 room Mediterranean-style mansion, 10100 Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, bought in 1957.  Mansfield had the house pained pink and had a fountain spurting pink champagne and a pink heart-shaped swimming pool installed.  She dubbed her home the “Pink Palace”.  Mansfield also rode in a pink Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible with tailfins, which was at that point in time, the only pink Cadillac in Hollywood.  Elvis also owned a pink Cadillac, acquired in 1955, but it was in Memphis, Tennessee.

The song’s final verse, “On the road to New Orleans, A spray of stars hit the screen, As the 10th impact shimmered, The forbidden candles beamed” firstly and most obviously refers to the crash that claimed Mansfield’s, and two of her co-travellers’, lives.  The “spray of stars” which Sioux speaks of could refer to the mosquito fogger which the truck in front of the trailer that Mansfield’s car crashed into being sprayed on the windscreen.  Alternatively, the “spray of stars” could refer to the taillights of the trailer or the glass from the smashed windscreen.  In another interpretation, the “spray of stars” could be Mansfield’s life flashing before her eyes in the final moments before her death, with the “screen” of the car being likened to a cinema screen.  The line “As the 10th impact shimmered” refers to nine other car crashes that Mansfield had allegedly survived during her life.

“The forbidden candles beamed” refers to Mansfield’s involvement with the Church of Satan and possibly her passage to the afterlife.  Whilst in San Francisco for the 1966 Film Festival, Mansfield visited the Church of Satan with Brody to meet Anton LaVey, the church’s founder.  LaVey gave Mansfield a medallion and the title of ‘High Priestess of San Francisco’s Church of Satan’.  The Church of Satan proclaimed Jayne to be a pledged member, and she displayed a framed membership certificate in her pink bedroom.  The media covered the meeting between Mansfield and LaVey and proclaimed Mansfield to be a Satanist.  They also claimed that Mansfield was in a relationship with McVey.  These media claims were made time and time again throughout the rest of Mansfield’s life.  In a 1992 interview with Joan Rivers, LaVey’s daughter and High Priestess of the Church of Satan, Karla LaVey confirmed that Mansfield had indeed been a practicing Satanist and had had a romantic relationship with LaVey.  Karla LaVey also elaborated on the story in which after Brody mocked the Church of Satan, LaVey bit back with the words, “You are cursed by the devil, you will be dead within a year”.  This retort led many to believe that the crash that killed Mansfield was the result of a curse that LaVey had placed on Brody.  Despite her alleged involvement with the Church of Satan, Mansfield’s funeral ceremony was conducted by a Methodist minister.

Song of the Day: Music About Other Artists (Day Four). The Go-Betweens on Patti Smith on Kurt Cobain and Others. “When She Sang About A Boy, Kurt Cobain, I Thought What A Shame It Wasn’t About Tom Verlaine”.

Patti Smith, along with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, began work on her sixth studio album, Gone Again (1996) in 1994.  Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, previously of the seminal garage band MC5, was a highly influential force on what would become Patti Smith’s first album since Dream of Life in 1988, teaching her to play acoustic guitar so she could write songs by herself and providing her with titles and concepts to develop.

The first of these songs was Summer Cannibals, the eventual single from the album, which discussed the darker side of being a rock musician.  The couple drew from Fred’s Indian ancestry in order to compose a song told from the point of view of a tribe’s shaman.  The song tells of an old woman coming down from the hills in order to tell her people of their history, informing them of, in times of strife, the cycle of life and the changing seasons. And thus began the potent theme of death on Gone Again, a theme inspired by the deaths of several people close to Smith.

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe had died March 9th 1989, aged 42, from an AIDs-related illness …

… and Patti Smith Group pianist Richard Sohl had died on June 3rd 1990, aged 37, from heart failure.

During the writing of Gone Again, Patti Smith was devastated yet further when on November 4th 1994, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith died suddenly from heart failure, aged just 45.   The loss of her husband informs a vast majority of Gone Again but specifically the final song, Farewell Reel.  Played on the acoustic guitar which her husband taught her how to play, Farewell Reel opens with the spoken message, “This little song’s for Fred; it’s G, C, D and D minor”.

Shortly after the death of her husband, her brother, Todd, also died, aged 45.  Gone Again is also notable for featuring the last studio performance by Jeff Buckley, who added his voice to Beneath The Southern Cross.

Smith was also moved by the death of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, with whom she had sympathised.  Cobain committed suicide, aged 27, on 5th April 1994.  Smith didn’t know Cobain personally but told Seattle Weekly News in 2010:

“My reaction to Kurt Cobain was much more emotional.  I was heartbroken when he committed suicide.  I loved Nirvana.  And I knew that Kurt Cobain was very fond of my husband and the MC5.  We felt so badly.  We just wished that we would have known him, and been able to talk to him, and had some sort of positive effect on him.  Seeing Robert [Mapplethorpe] doing everything to live, and then seeing this very gifted boy kill himself was painful to factor”.

Smith’s reaction to Cobain’s death can be heard on the song About A Boy, a suitably etheral and sometimes funereal lament, the title of which is a play on Nirvana’s About A Girl, from their 1989 album Bleach.

Lyrically, About A Boy, much like many other songs on Gone Again, is spiritual and almost hymnal with lines such as “Toward another, He has gone, To breathe an air, Beyond his own, Toward a wisdom, Beyond the shelf, Toward a dream, That dreams itself”.

The verse “From the forest, from the foam, from the field, That he had, Known, Toward a river, Twice as blessed, Toward the inn of happiness” tells of Cobain’s ascendance to heaven but also refers to his hometown of Aberdeen in the US State of Washington.  The forest mentioned in the verse is most likely to be Olympic National Forest in the State of Washington, whilst the river mentioned is the Wishkah River, a tributary of the Chehalis River which flows south through Washington and empties into the Chehalis at Aberdeen.  Linking in with the Indian theme on Gone Again, the name “Wishkah” is an adaptation of the Chehalis Indian word ‘hwish-kahl’, meaning “stinking water”.  More importantly, however, the Wishkah River has a great deal of significance in the legend of Kurt Cobain, as he lived under a bridge on the river during a period of homelessness after dropping out of high school and being thrown out of his mother’s home.  The song Something In The Way from Nevermind details this time in Cobain’s life.  After his death, one third of his ashes were scattered in the river.  Additionally, the river gave its name to the Nirvana live album, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, released in 1996 and featuring live performance recorded between 1989 and 1994.

A band who had been listening to Smith’s tender tribute to Cobain was Australian band, The Go-Betweens.  For their 2000 album, The Friends of Rachel Worth, Robert Forster wrote When She Sang About Angels, in part an answer song to About A Boy.

When She Sang About Angels includes the slightly sarcastic sounding riposte to Smith choosing to pay tribute to Cobain, “When she sang About A Boy, Kurt Cobain, I thought what a shame, it wasn’t about, Tom Verlaine”.  Tom Verlaine is best known as the front man of seminal New York rock band Television, most notable for their critically acclaimed and highly influential debut album Marquee Moon (1977).  Verlaine was a stalwart of famous New York punk clubs such as CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and dated Patti Smith whilst they were both up and coming artists.  Verlaine has collaborated with Smith many times over the years, most notably adding guitar to Smith’s albums Horses (1975); Easter (1978); Gone Again (1996) and later, Gung Ho (2000) and Twelve (2007).

The song’s title and lyrics “When she sang about angels, She looked at the sky …” refers to both Smith’s songs about people who have died on Gone Again and to Smith’s song Ask The Angels, the opening track on, and third single taken from, her 1976 album Radio Ethiopia.

Additionally, When She Sang About Angels includes lines such as “When she sang about the fields, She raised up her arm, As if she was pushing back the cotton on some Midwestern farm”, a reference to Smith’s powerful stage mannerisms and the imagery of fields which inhabits some of her songs.  Take for example, in About A Boy where she sings, “From the field that he had known”; Ask the Angels, in which she sings “Across the country through the fields” and Birdland (Horses, 1975) in which she sings, “Him and his daddy used to sit inside, And circle the blue fields and grease the night”.

Despite the hint of sarcasm which pervades Forster’s critique of Smith, there is also a lot of tenderness expressed towards Smith in When She Sang About Angels.  Take for example the refrain, “Anybody else, anybody else, but I let it go by”, absolving Smith of her various lyrical and performance tendencies and the reminiscence of the lines “Then she threw some names, Like she always did, She threw some names, she dropped some names, Like she used to when I was a kid”.  Smith is known for writing songs about other people and in particular other artists.  Take for example, her song Frederick (Wave, 1979), written about Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith before their marriage in 1980.

Smith would pay further tribute to Kurt Cobain on her 2007 album of cover versions, Twelve, when she covered Nirvana’s 1991 mega-hit Smells Like Teen Spirit, from the album Nevermind.

Smith’s version of Smells Like Teen Spirit strips away the thundering bombast of the original, the sound which inspired a thousand other bands and almost single-handedly invented ‘Grunge’, and delivers it with a sparse country-tinged arrangement featuring a bass guitar, acoustic guitar, violin, banjo and her voice, which much like Kurt Cobain’s, has influenced whole generations.

Song of the Day: Crime in Music (Day Four). “ … And the Filth Get Promoted but They’re still Doing Time for Being Irish in the Wrong Place and At the Wrong Time”.

The Birmingham Six were six men (Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker) who were sentenced to life imprisonment for the Birmingham pub bombings.  Their convictions were declared unsafe and unsatisfactory and quashed by the Court of Appeal on 14th March 1991.  The six men were later awarded compensation ranging from £840,000 to £1.2 million.

The story of the Birmingham Six began on the 21st November 1974, when two bombs exploded in two separate Birmingham pubs; the Mulberry Bush at the foot of the Rotunda at 8.25pm and the Tavern in the Town, a basement pub in New Street, at 8.27pm.  21 people were killed (ten at the Mulberry Bush and eleven at the Tavern in the Town) and 182 people were injured, making the attacks collectively the most injurious and serious attacks in Great Britain since World War II.  A third device was placed outside a bank in Hagley Road but failed to detonate.

Six men were arrested, five of whom were Belfast-born Roman Catholics, whilst John Walker was born in Derry.  All six had lived in Birmingham since the 1960s.  Five of the men (Hill, Hunter, McIlkenny, Power and Walker) had left the city early on the evening of the 21st November from New Street Station, shortly before the explosions.  They were travelling to Belfast to attend the funeral of James McDade, an IRA member who had accidentally killed himself whilst planting a bomb in Coventry.  Hill also intended to see an aunt in Belfast who was ill and not expected to live.  Callaghan saw them off at the station.

Upon reaching Heysham, they and others were subject to a Special Branch stop and Search.  The men did not tell the police of the true purpose of their visit to Belfast, something which was later held against them.  Whilst the search was in progress, the police were informed of the Birmingham bombings.  The men agreed to be taken to Morecambe police station for forensic tests.

On the morning of the 22nd November, after the forensic tests had taken place and the men had been questioned at the hands of the Morecambe Police, the men were transferred to the custody of West Midlands Serious Crime Squad police unit.  William Power alleged that he was assaulted by members of Birmingham Criminal Investigation Department.  Also on the 22nd November, Callaghan was brought into custody.

Whilst the men were in the custody of the West midlands Police, they were deprived of food and sleep and were sometimes interrogated for up to 12 hours without a break.  Threats were also made against the men and they endured beatings ranging from punches, dogs being let within a foot of them and being made the subjects of a mock execution.  Billy Power confessed whilst in Morecambe and Hugh Callaghan, John Walker and Richard McIlkenny confessed at Queens Road in Aston with Paddy Hill and Gerry Hunter not signing any documents.

On the 12th May 1975, the six men were charged with murder and conspiracy to cause explosions.  Three other men, James Kelly, Michael Murray and Michael Sheehan, were charged with conspiracy and Kelly and Sheehan also faced charges of unlawful possession of explosives.

The trial of the Birmingham Six started on the 9th June 1975 at Lancaster Crown Court before Justice Bridge and a jury.  After legal arguments, the statements made in November, the unreliability of which was subsequently established, were deemed admissible as evidence.   Thomas Watt provided circumstantial evidence about John Walker’s association with Provisional IRA members.

Forensic scientist Dr Frank Skuse used positive Greiss test results to claim that Hill and Power had handled explosives, whilst Callaghan, Hunter, McIlkenny and Walker all tested negative.  GCMS tests at a later date were negative for Power and contradicted the initial results for Hill.  Skuse’s claim that he was 99% certain that Power and Hill had explosives traces on their hands was opposed by defence expert Dr Hugh Kenneth Black of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, the former HM Chief Inspector of Explosives, Home Office.  Skuse’s evidence was clearly preferred by Bridge.  The jury found the six men guilty of murder.  On the 15th August 1975, the Birmingham Six were sentenced to 21 life sentences each.

On the 28th November 1974, the men appeared in court for a second time after they had been remanded into custody at HM Prison, Birmingham.  Each of the men showed bruising and other signs of ill-treatment.  Fourteen prison officers were charged with assult in June 1975, but all were acquitted at a trial presided over by Mr Justice Swanwick.  In 1977, the six men brought a civil claim for damages against the West Midlands Police.  This claim was struck out on the 17th January by the Court of Appeal, constituted by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, Goff LJ and Sir George Baker, under the principle of estoppel.

During proceedings, prison officers and police were blamed for the beatings.  A prisoner released from prison two weeks after the Birmingham Six started their sentence testified to the beatings the six men had received.

In March 1976, their first application for leave to appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal, presided over by Lord Widgery CJ.  In 1985, Granada TV broadcast the first of several World in Action programmes casting doubt on the men’s convictions.  In 1986, Journalist Chris Mullin, who investigated the case for World in Action, also published the book Error of Judgement: The Truth About the Birmingham Pub Bombings, which set out a detailed case supporting the men’s claims that they were innocent.  In the book, Mullin claimed to have met some of those who were actually responsible for the bombings.

The Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd MP, referred the case back to the Court of Appeal.  In January 1988, following a six week hearing (at that point in time the longest appeal hearing ever held), the convictions were ruled to be safe and satisfactory.  The Court of Appeal, presided over by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Lane dismissed the appeals.  Over the next three years, newspaper articles, television documentaries and books all presented new evidence questioning the safety of the convictions, whilst campaign groups were formed in Britain, Ireland, Europe and the US calling for the men’s release.

In 1991, their second full appeal took place.  Hunter was represented by Lord Gifford QC, whilst others were represented by human rights solicitor Gareth Peirce.  New evidence of police fabrication and suppression of evidence was presented.  Additionally, the condemnation with regards to the confessions and the 1975 forensic evidence caused the Crown to decide not to resist the appeals.  The Court of Appeal, constituted by Lord Justices Lloyd, Mustill and Farquharson , stated of the forensic evidence that “Dr Skuse’s conclusion was wrong, and demonstrably wrong, judged even by the state of forensic science in 1974.

The success of the appeals, as well as other miscarriages of justice, caused the Home Secretary to set up a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1991.  The commission reported in 1993 and led to the Criminal Act 1995 which established the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997.  Superintendent George Reade and two other police officers were charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice but were never prosecuted.  Richard McIlkenny died of cancer in Dublin on the 21st May 2006.

Shane MacGowan and Terry Woods, songwriters with the Irish folk / punk band The Pogues,  wrote the song Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six based on the plight of the Birmingham Six and included it on the band’s 1988 album If I Should Fall from Grace with God.  The song is split into two parts, the first of which, Streets of Sorrow, written and sung by Woods, describes the emotions felt on the streets of Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles.  The song is told from the perspective of somebody leaving Northern Ireland because of the increasing levels of violence and conflict.  The narrator states that he will never return “to feel more sorrow, nor to see more young men slain”.

The second part of the song, Birmingham Six, written and sung by MacGowan, is a demonstration of support to the Birmingham Six (as well as to the Guildford Four, who were similarly victims of a miscarriage of justice, having been accused of the Guildford Pub Bombings).  The song tells of how the confessions of the six men had been extracted by torture at the hands of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, claiming “There were six men in Birmingham, In Guildford there’s four, That were picked up and tortured, And framed by the law, And the filth got promotion, But they’re still doing time, For being Irish in the wrong place, And at the wrong time”.  Whilst this was later proven to be the case, at the time that the song was written, the people mentioned in the song were still convicted and still in prison.

Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six was highly controversial.  When the band performed the song on Channel 4’s Friday Night Live on the 15th April 1988, the programme cut to a commercial break before the end of the song.  The song was quickly banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) under the same laws which were responsible for a ban on the broadcasting of direct interviews with members of Sinn Fein and other groups, as they worried that it might have invited support for a terrorist organisation such as the IRA.  After the Birmingham Six had their convictions overturned in 1991, the ban on the song was lifted.

Interviews with the Birmingham Six can be seen on this ITV documentary, World in Action Special: The Birmingham Six – Their Own Story, transmitted on the 18th March 1991: