Song of the Day: Education in Music (Day Two). “Belligerent Ghouls Run Manchester Schools …”

The Headmaster Ritual, the first track on The Smiths’ second album, Meat is Murder (1985) tackles a taboo subject in the field of education, that of corporal punishment.  In state-run schools, and also in private schools where at least part of the funding came from the government, corporal punishment was outlawed by Parliament with effect from 1987.  In other private schools in England and Wales, it was banned in 1999.  Scotland followed in 2000 and Northern Ireland in 2003.  In 1993, the European Court of Human Rights held in Costello-Roberts v. UK that giving a seven year old boy three whacks with a gym shoe over his trousers was not a forbidden degrading treatment.

The implement often used to deliver corporal punishment in state and private schools in England and Wales was a flexible rattan cane, applied either to the student’s hands or, especially in the case of teenage boys, to the seat of the trousers.  Slippering, the act of smacking the bottom with the hand or a slipper, was widely used as a less formal alternative.  In a few English cities, a strap was used instead of a cane.  In Scotland, a leather strap, known as a tawse, administered to the palms of the hands, was universal in state schools but some private schools used the cane.

In 2005, there was an unsuccessful challenge to prohibition of corporal punishment in the Education Act 1996 s.548 by headmasters of private Christian schools.  They claimed it was a breach of their freedom of religion under Article 9ECHR.  In a poll carried out amongst 6,162 UK teachers by the Times Educational Supplement found that one in five teachers would still back the use of caning in extreme cases.

The Smiths’ The Headmaster Ritual tells of Morrissey’s days at St. Mary’s Secondary Modern School and the corporal punishment handed out there by the “Belligerent ghouls” who “Run Manchester schools”.  In the manner we have come to expect from Morrissey when he gets a bee in his bonnet, he does not even attempt to mask his contempt, as he continues to tell of “Spineless swines” and graphically discusses the beatings handed out in lines such as “Mid-week on the playing fields, Sir thwacks you on the knees, Knees you in the groin, Elbow in the face, Bruises bigger than dinner plates” and “Please excuse me from gym, I’ve got this terrible cold coming on, He grabs and devours, He kicks me in the showers, kicks me in the showers, And he grabs an devours”.

In 1997, Johnny Marr told Guitar magazine that it took him two years to complete work on the guitar part of the song:  “The nuts and bolts of The Headmaster Ritual came together during the first album [The Smiths, 1984] and I just carried on playing around with it.  It started off as a very sublime sort of Joni Mitchell-esque chord figure; I played it to Morrissey but we never took it further.  Then, as my life got more and more intense, so did the song.  The bridge and the chorus part were originally for another song, but I them together with the first part.  That was unusual for me; normally I just hammer away at an idea until I’ve got a song”.

The Headmaster Ritual is the first song of an album’s worth of songs mentioning violence of some sort.  Take for example, Rusholme Ruffians where “someone’s beaten up” at “The last night at the fair”; …

I Want the One I Can’t Have with its cameo appearance from “A tough kid who sometimes swallows nails, Raised on Prisoner’s Aid, He killed a policeman when he was, Thirteen” …

… and Barbarism Begins At Home where “A crack on the head, Is what you get for not asking” and “Unruly girls, Who will not settle down, They must be taken in hand”.

Morrissey would revisit the theme of education on his 1995 album Southpaw Grammar.  According to Morrissey, the title of the album refers to “the school of hard knocks”.  ‘Southpaw’ is slang for a boxing left-hander and ‘Grammar’ is a reference to British grammar schools.  The Shostakovich Fifth Symphony sampling 11 minute long opening track, The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils turns the idea of the teachers bullying the pupils seen in The Headmaster Ritual on its head.  This time, the pupils are in control and wreaking their merciless revenge on those “Belligerent ghouls”.  Society has now changed and teachers struggle to control unruly children.  The teachers are now persecuted by nasty, spiteful students.  Gone are the days of corporal punishment; “Lay a hand on our children”, sings Morrissey, “And it’s never too late to have you”.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Seven). “Do You Remember the Time We Knew A Girl From Mars?”

Girl from Mars was released as the second single from Ash’s first full-length album, 1977.  It became the band’s first Top 40 single in 1995, reaching number 11 on the UK singles chart and number 16 on the Irish singles chart.  It was the first single to bring the band to public attention.

The song was written in 1993, when Tim Wheeler was just 16 years old.  The band’s third demo tape, Garage Girl, funded by their school’s Young Enterprise scheme, had just topped the local charts.

At this point in time, despite their achievements, the band were beginning to become disillusioned and with GCSE exams looming they begin to wonder how they will get a record deal in a country with a non-existent music industry.  Things were looking bleak but the band’s svengali, Bill McCabe, sends the Garage Girl demo tape off to his London contacts.  The tape gained attention from publicist Paddy Davis and radio plugger Stephen Taverner who send the band £300 to go back into the studio.

The band’s first single, another space-themed classic, Jack Names the Planets, was released on Taverner’s newly formed La La Land label in February 1994 and picked up play on Radio One, impressing influential DJs Steve Lamacq, John Peel and Mark Radcliffe.  A few months later, the band signed to Infectious Records and played their first London show at the Camden Falcon whilst on Easter break from college.

The summer found the band recording with producer Marc Waterman.  From these sessions, Petrol …

… and Uncle Pat were released as the band’s second and third singles and topped the UK indie charts.  The mini-album, Trailer, was released in October of 1994.

The single Kung Fu followed in 1995, the first from the eventual 1977 album …

… before the release of Girl from Mars.  The single established Wheeler as a writer of truly great pop songs and saw the band performing on Top of the Pops for the first time, two weeks after their A-level exams.

The perfect three minute pop-rock classic tells the tale of Wheeler’s infatuation with the song’s subject matter and finds him remembering “the time I knew a girl from Mars?”, “playing cards” and smoking “Henri Winterman cigars”.

The song has two different videos.  The first, the UK promotional video, was directed by Peter Christopherson and is described by the band as a cross between the video for Give It Away by Red Hot Chili Peppers (from the album Blood Sugar Sex Majik, 1991) …

… and the Natrel Plus TV advert from the mid 1990s, depicting people camouflaged against a woodland backdrop.

The band disliked the original promotional video so much that when it came to releasing the song in America, they re-filmed it.  This time, the video was directed by Jesse Peretz, who also directed the video for the Foo Fighters single, Big Me (from the album Foo Fighters, 1995).

This video features Ash playing the song as part of an art exhibition as a small girl looks on mesmerised.

Following the release of Girl from Mars, the band signed to Warner Records in the US and NASA even began to use Girl from Mars as the hold music on their phone systems.  The future looked bright for a band that was on the verge of breaking up shortly before writing the song.

Song of the Day: Music Inspired by Television Shows (Day Three). “Your Music’s Shite, It Keeps Me Up All Night”.

The closing track of Oasis’s era-defining debut album Definitely Maybe (1994), was partly inspired by an argument between Noel Gallagher and his then girlfriend, Louise Jones.  Jones, sick of being kept awake by Gallagher playing his guitar coined the phrase “Your music’s shite!”  Gallagher’s reaction was of course, “had to keep those lines” and thus, the idea for Married With Children was born.

The other inspiration for the song was the American sitcom Married … with Children, which ran for eleven seasons between 1987 and 1997, from which the song takes its title.  In an interview with Melody Maker in 1994, Gallagher explained:  “I looked at them two in the show, and looked at us two, and I thought, that’s us, that is!”

He also said of the song, “It’s another song that anybody could relate to, because if you live with a girlfriend or just a flatmate, there are always petty things that you hate about them, and this song’s just about pettiness”.

Gallagher put these elements together in the bedroom of producer Mark Coyle’s house, writing the song on the Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar that had been left there by Stone Roses guitarist John Squire. Interestingly, the song uses the same chord progression as Lithium by Nirvana, from their 1991 album Nevermind.  A good chord progression to share since Gallagher was about to become as much of a figurehead to indie music as Kurt Cobain was to grunge.

The song was recorded there and then in Coyle’s bedroom with just Noel Gallagher, Liam Gallagher and Coyle present.  Coyle used the limited recording equipment available, which he described in Definitely Maybe: The Documentary (2004) as “appalling”, to create a subtle and charming end to an album that has gone down in history as one of the greatest debuts ever made.

The basic nature of the song’s composition and recording also showed another side to Oasis, the softer more acoustic approach which would later be used to great success on the number 2 hit Wonderwall, from the following album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995).

Lyrically, Gallagher played to his biggest song writing talent, that, once again, of keeping it simple.  As Gary ‘Mani’ Mountfield of The Stone Roses and ex-Primal Scream says in Definitely Maybe: The Documentary, “People don’t want to get the logarithm tables out when it comes to music”. Gallagher also played to another talent, that of the great lyrical hook.  The both fearsomely working class and endlessly humorous refrain of “Your music’s shite, It keeps me up all night”, particularly when sung by Liam Gallagher is his inimitable style is just one of many on Definitely Maybe.

Song of the Day: Crime in Music (Day Seven). “Hey Little Girl, Do You need A Ride?”

Diane is a song recorded by St. Paul, Minnesota band Husker Du for their 1983 Metal Circus EP.  Written by drummer Grant Hart, the song concerns the abduction, rape and murder of West St. Paul waitress Diane Edwards, whom Hart vaguely knew, by Joseph Donald Ture in 1980.  Ture (pronounced Toor-ee) was convicted of the kidnap, rape and murder in 1981 and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Whilst serving his sentence, Ture was also found guilty of the 1979 murder of eighteen year old Marlys Wohlenhaus in rural Alton, Minnesota and sentenced to a second life, consecutive life term.  Ture was later also found guilty of the murder of thirty-six year old Alice Hurling and three of her four children at their home in St. Cloud, Minnesota in 1978.  At the time of these convictions, Ture was also serving consecutive sentences of three Minnesota rapes.  Ture has always protested his innocence in relation to the homicide charges.

Diane is a graphically dark song telling how the abduction, rape and murder of Diane Edwards took place, told from the perspective of the murderer.  “Hey little girl, do you need a ride?  Well, I’ve room in my wagon, why don’t you hop inside, We could cruise down Robert Street all night long, But I think I’ll just rape you, and kill you instead” sings sings Hart in the opening verse of Diane, detailing what happened to Edwards and giving the listener a glimpse into the thoughts, desires and psyche of the killer.

In the second verse, the killer is seen attempting to convince his prey that his intentions are honourable by attempting to get her to go to a party with him:  “I heard there’s a party down at Lake Cove, It would be so much easier if I drove, We could check it out, we could go and see, Oh won’t you come and take a ride with me”.

As the song continues, verse three offers more insight into the killer’s depraved and twisted mind and we see the scene of the murder, with the lines, “We could lay down in the weeds for a little while, I’ll put your clothes in a nice, neat little pile, You’re the cutest girl I’ve ever seen in my life, It’s all over now, and with my knife”.

As with many of Husker Du’s songs, the lyrical content is brief, with Diane having three verses.  However, this briefness is the key to Diane’s effectiveness because it doesn’t say any more than it needs to.  What it does say though makes for some very dark and disturbing listening.  The wonderful verses are complimented by one of the most deceptively simple choruses in music history.  The chorus is simply Diane sung three times but with the backing vocals putting an inflection on the pronunciation of the name to emphasise the first syllable, making it:  “Die Anne”.

Whilst Husker Du’s original version of Diane is stirring and frightening enough, Northern Irish band Therapy? covered the song in 1995 for their album Infernal Love and released it as the third single from the record.  This version, as opposed to the fuzzy guitar that adorns the Husker Du original features just a haunting cello and singer Andy Cairns’ mighty voice on the main vocal and backing vocal.  The ingenuity of the backing vocal is made even more apparent on the Therapy? version, perhaps because of the starkness of the song’s cello only backing track.  When released as a single, Diane was coupled with a video every bit as graphic and powerful as the song itself, directed by W.I.Z, which breathed even more new life into the wonderful song.

Speaking of the song in an interview with Thumped in 2012, Grant Hart, when asked “How much of yourself do you put into what you do?  What I mean is, are you inseparable from the music you make or the art that you create?  Or is it a different you that we hear on record or see on stage?”, replied:

“Perhaps the best answer I can give to that question is … if an artist is honest and is not trying to come off as something they are not, then they are putting as much of their self into the songs they write as they can.  I stopped playing Diane because I could no longer stand putting on the mask of a monster.  A book came out about one of Diane Edwards’ murderer’s other victims [Justice for Marlys by John Munday (2004)] and it made me physically sick.  There was not as much info about the Edwards murder as the other girls.  The cruelty that this psychopath confessed to made me bloody-minded myself”.