Song of the Day: Authors and Literature in Music (Day Six).

In 1973, days after completing work on the Pin Ups album, a collection of cover versions which officially marked the end of the Ziggy Stardust period, David Bowie set about the arduous task of creating a West End musical based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).  Several songs were written for this adventurous outing but when George Orwell’s widow refused him the rights, Bowie found himself with a set of material heavily influenced by the apocalyptic totalitarian themes of Nineteen Eighty Four and nothing to do with them.  This inspired Bowie to create his own nightmarish environment, Hunger City and the Diamond Dogs (1974) album was born.

Along with the obvious Orwellian influence, the first side of Diamond Dogs is also influenced by the cut up techniques of William Burroughs in Sweet Thing / Candidate / Sweet Thing (Reprise) and by A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess in the droog-like “Dogs” and in the resemblance of the Halloween Jack character to A Clockwork Orange’s lead character, Alex.  The writing style on the album is also reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic dysptopian feel of a number of works by JG Ballard, such as Crash (1973) and High Rise (1975).  Much of the second side of the resulting album focused purely on the songs which Bowie had written for his unrealised Nineteen Eighty-Four project:  We Are The Dead, 1984 and Big Brother.  Several other songs were written based around the Nineteen Eighty-Four theme, notably Dodo (AKA You Didn’t Hear It From Me).  Dodo was performed as part of a medley with 1984 from the then to be released Diamond Dogs album for Midnight Special on US TV in October 1973.  This performance of 1984 / Dodo is notable as it was a duet with Marianne Faithfull, who elected to wear a nun’s habit slashed at the back showing her derriere.

The song 1984 became the centrepiece of the second side of Diamond Dogs album and in the context of Bowie’s interpretation of the Nineteen Eighty-Four, is thought to represent the imprisonment of Winston Smith and his interrogation by O’Brien.  The lyrics bear a passing resemblance to the earlier All The Madmen from The Man Who Sold The World (1970), with both songs being about incarceration.  For example, in All The Madmen, Bowie sings “Day after day, they take some brain away” and in 1984, he sings “They’ll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air”.  There are a number of other Bowie songs which involve the theme of incarceration, see also The Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud (from Space Oddity, 1969) and Scream Like A Baby (from Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, 1980).  The theme of incarceration in Nineteen Eighty-Four is of obvious interest to Bowie, having already written around the same theme several times previously.  His interest in the theme may come from his Half-Brother Terry Burns’ incarceration in various mental health institutions and his family’s various battles with mental illness.

With it’s Orwell inspired lyrics coupled with the disco-funk feel of the music, obviously inspired by Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft (1971), 1984 is the strongest cut of all the songs Bowie wrote for his Nineteen Eighty-Four project.  Musically, the song was an indication of what to expect from Bowie’s ‘plastic soul’ period.  Of the other songs specifically written for the aborted Nineteen Eighty-Four Project, the dark and eerie sounding We Are The Dead takes it’s title from a line spoken by Winston Smith to his girlfriend, Julia, before their imprisonment by the Thought Police and finds the characters worrying of repercussions following their illicit affair and the insistent and slightly unnerving Big Brother is based upon the character in Orwell’s book, returning Bowie to the idea of the “Super God” or “Homo Superior” featured in earlier songs such as The Supermen from The Man Who Sold The World (1970) and Oh! You Pretty Things from Hunky Dory (1971).  Bowie’s fascination with supermen, whether in terms of his alter-egos, mythical figures, legend, philosophy (mainly due to his interest in Nietzsche, see particularly The Supermen) or novels would eventually culminate in Bowie’s flirtation with Nazism two years later.  1984 shows Bowie’s obsession with power and absolute control as well as those affected by it.   He also shows fascination for the schizophrenic manner in which its abuses are encouraged.

On Diamond Dogs, Bowie makes the most of Orwell’s widow’s reluctance to allow his musical based on Nineteen Eighty Four by using Orwell’s concept of dystopian post-apocalyptic hell to create his own nightmarish vision.  Whilst obviously showing direct lyrical homage by Nineteen Eighteen Four, Bowie’s song 1984, together with it’s We Are The Dead and Big Brother counterparts, also follows the themes in Bowie’s own work.  Just as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four was evocative of the post World War Two era in which it was written, 1984 and the Diamond Dogs album as a whole is evocative of the time in which it was written.  In the UK, it was an era one of three day weeks, power cuts, price hikes, food shortages and threat of IRA attacks.  The apocalypse that Bowie spoke of earlier songs such as Five Years seemed to be coming to pass.  For the previous few years, Bowie had also strongly believed that World War Three was imminent, as suggested on Aladdin Sane (1973) where “(1913 – 1938 – ?)” followed the title.  The first two years refer to the years before the two World Wars broke out and finds Bowie questioning when the Third World War will start.  History is pointing in one direction, it is there in the tea leaves and it is there on TV:  “Beware the savage jaw of 1984”.

Song of the Day: Authors and Literature in Music (Day Five).

Child’s Christmas in Wales, the opening song on John Cale’s 1973 album Paris 1919, takes its title from Dylan Thomas’ 1952 prose work A Child’s Christmas in Wales.  Whilst Child’s Christmas in Wales takes some inspiration from Thomas’ work of the same name, evoking the same wide-eyed wonder of a young child at a time of festivities, the song gives more than a passing nod to another Dylan Thomas work, the poem The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait (1946).

Musically, Paris 1919 is to John Cale’s canon as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) was to theirs and strongly influenced by producer Chris Thomas’ recent experiences working with Procol Harum on their Live: In Concert With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (1972).  Set amongst the  lushly orchestrated backdrop, the lyrics of the album are arguably Cale’s most impressive but confusing work to date. Child’s Christmas in Wales stirs a similar feeling to the Dylan Thomas work of the same name, one of magic and joy in the company of family and friends at that time of year with lines such as “With mistletoe and candle green” and “good neighbours were we all” but the songs setting, aboard a ship (“Ten murdered oranges bled on board ship”), shows the influence of The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait. The most obvious lyrical reference to The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait is in the lines “Too late to wait, the long legged bait Tripped uselessly around”.  The main character of Thomas’ poem is a fisherman who uses a girl as bait.  The fish violate the girl and she dies:  “A girl alive with hooks through her lips, All the fishes were rayed in blood”.  Note here the similarities between the line in Cale’s Child’s Christmas in Wales to the line in Thomas’ The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait. Other similarities include the references to cattle in both Cale’s work and Thomas’ work.  For example, in The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait, after various miracles and strange things happening, notably the disappearance of the sea, the fisherman sees “the bulls of Biscay and their calves” and “The cattle graze on the covered foam”.  These references to cattle and the replacement of one environment for another are mirrored in Cale’s Child’s Christmas in Wales in the line “The cattle graze uprightly seducing the door”.  Cattle are also mentioned in the second track of the album, Hanky Panky Nohow in the rather baffling lyric, “There’s a law for everything and for Elephants that sing to keep the cows that agriculture won’t allow”.

With Child’s Christmas in Wales, John Cale uses the influence of Dylan Thomas as a springboard to the set the scene for the evident themes of the sea, travel and war on Paris 1919.  The penultimate verse of Child’s Christmas in Wales (“Sebastopol Adrianapolis, The prayers of all combined, Take down the flags of ownership, The walls are falling down”) can be read in three ways.  Firstly, the walls falling down could be a reference to the magical occurrence where one setting is replaced by another in Thomas’ The Long Legged Bait.  Secondly, the lines could refer to the submission of the long legged bait with the flags representing the girl yielding to the narrator’s advances and the walls falling down representing her defenses tumbling.  Thirdly, it could be a war reference, with the flags of ownership representing either the countries at war and the walls falling down representing invasion and the assuming of control.  Just as Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales finds Thomas reminiscing about childhood Christmases, we could see the narrator of Cale’s Child’s Christmas in Wales as a soldier aboard a ship over the Christmas period reminiscing about childhood Christmases at home.

“Sebastopol” refers to the southernmost suburb of Pontypool, Torfaen, South Wales, named in honour of the Crimean city of Sevastopol (also known as Sebastopol) which was taken during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) during The Siege of Sevastopol (1854 – 1855).  Adrianapolis is the old name for Edime, Turkey, the site of The Battle of Adrianople (378), fought by the Roman Army and Gothic rebels and the Siege of Adrianople during the First Balkan War (1912 -23).

Other places name checked on the album are Transvaal (The Endless Plain of Fortune); Andalucia (Andalucia, which also includes references to Agriculture with the character of Farmer John); Paris; Japan (Paris 1919); Chipping Sodbury (Graham Greene); Dunkirk; Dundee; Berlin; Norway (Half Past France); Antarctica and Barbary (Antarctica Starts Here).  All of these locations are also important in wars, battles and exploration.  They are as follows: The Second Punic War in 218 to 201BC and the Spanish Civil War in 1936 – 1939 (Andalusia); The First and Second Barbary Wars in 1801 to 1805 and 1815 respectively (Barbary.  The Barbary Wars were fought between the United States and the Barbary States, Northwest Africa after US President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the high tributes demanded by the Barbary States and because they were seizing American merchant ships and enslaving the crews for high ransoms. The First Barbary War was the first military conflict authorised by Congress that the US fought on foreign land and seas); The Vincennes South Sea Surveying exploration which travelled to Antarctica (1839) (The Vincennes was the first US warship to circumnavigate the globe); The Crimean War in 1853 to 1856 (Sebastopol, as previously mentioned); The First and Second Boer Wars in 1880 to 1881 and 1899 to 1902 respectively (Transvaal); The Russo-Turkish War in 1877 to 1878 (Berlin, the site of the Berlin Peace Treaty in 1878, during which Bismarck’s decision to split Bulgaria would start a war in the Balkans 34 years later and would eventually lead to the First World War); The First World War in 1914 to 1918 and Second World War in 1939 to 1945 (Japan, which in alliance with Entente Powers played an important role in securing the sea lanes in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans against the Imperial German Navy during the First World War.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 led to the USA’s entry into the Second World War; Berlin was the site of the Battle of Berlin in the Second World War, which led to the suicide of Adolf Hitler; Norway, which was neutral during the First World War but subject to extensive espionage from both sides in the conflict.  Norway was occupied by German in the Second World War.  Both Britain and Germany had strategic interest in denying the other access to Norway; Dunkirk was the site of a naval air station which operated seaplanes during the First World War and later the site of the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940, ending the Phoney War and kick starting France and Britain’s major involvement in the Second World War; and Dundee, a major shipbuilding location during the First and Second World Wars).  The Paris of 1919 from which the album and it’s title song takes its name was the site of 1919 Paris Peace Conference, six months where President Woodrow Johnson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Premier Georges Clemenceau met to shape a lasting peace and redrew the borders of the modern world.

Elsewhere on Paris 1919, John Cale also references Shakespeare in the wonderful Bolan-esque stomp of Macbeth, employing both the characters of Macbeth and Banquo (“Banquo’s been and gone, He’s seen it all before”).  Although a welcome addition to Paris 1919, Macbeth seems oddly out of place lyrically.  Graham Greene is later name checked on the slightly whimsical sounding track, Graham Greene.  Graham Greene fits in with the war theme on Paris 1919.  During his life, Greene travelled around the world to remote places.  His travels led him to being recruited into MI6 by his sister Elisabeth, who worked for the organisation, and he was posted to Sierra Leone during the Second World War.   This fits neatly in with the theme of espionage on the album.  The mention of “Chipping and Sodbury” in the song Graham Greene could refer to Chipping Sodbury being a staging post for men preparing to go to France during the First World War.  Chipping Sodbury could also be mentioned because it was the location of an emergency hospital during the Second World War.  If we were to take the latter as the meaning for the use of these place names, it would be coherent with the lines “Welcome back to chipping and sodbury, You can have a second chance”.  Far from actually being anything to do with Graham Greene, the song may actually be about a wounded soldier in hospital who despite being injured is enjoying the grandeur of the hospital compared to the conditions he has lived in during the war.  The character in the song may be fantasising about “drinking tea with Graham Greene” and “making small talk with the Queen”.  Just as Dylan Thomas wrote about his past as a boy or as a young man, Cale also looks back to the past but expands this nostalgic view to encompass other themes such as war, travel, espionage to produce a piece of writing which, if looked at closely, reads like a potted history of war told through a collection of short stories.

I have tried to work out the meaning of the lyrics on Paris 1919 for years and just when I think I am coming close, I flail and submit like the Long Legged Bait, such is the majesty and mystique of Cale’s writing.  On Paris 1919, which the influence of Dylan Thomas resonates through themes such as the sea and lost innocence in Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas is merely a springboard of inspiration for an album which despite its overall accessibility could be John Cale’s most lyrically audacious and complex work, filled with multi-layered songs with multifaceted meanings.  Child’s Christmas in Wales is a stunning opener to an equally stunning album that enthrals, enraptures and captures the listener on each play.  It is obvious why Cale chose to position Child’s Christmas in Wales as the first track of the album:  This album is a voyage, one of depth and complexity, a concept album that is more than the sum of its parts and one in which John Cale proves that his writing should be equally as revered as that of Dylan Thomas.

Song of the Day: Authors and Literature in Music (Day Four).

Cemetry Gates (sic), the fifth track on The Smiths’ 1986 album The Queen Is Dead, features references to Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats and John Keats in this account of a battle of literary knowledge set in a cemetery.  “Keats and Yeats are on your side”, says Morrissey to his friend, strongly thought to be long time associate Linder Stirling, and then plays his trump card, “but Wilde is on mine”.

What follows is Morrissey and companion’s feelings of sadness at the deaths of all the people whom they “gravely read the stones” of before the singer ridicules his friend for claiming the words “ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn” as their own.  Morrissey states that he has “read well” and has “heard them said a hundred times, maybe less, maybe more”.  The line that his friend quotes is actually a misquote of a line from Shakespeare’s Richard III.  The actual line, from Richard III, Act V is: “The early village-cock / Hath done salutation to the dawn”.

This misquote is almost definitely deliberate and adds to Morrissey’s smirking about him feeling he knows more about literature than his friend.  By misquoting Shakespeare and deliberately misspelling the word ‘cemetery’ in the song’s title as ‘Cemetry’, the song suggests that Cemetry Gates is about two people who know less about the English language and it’s literature than they claim.

Morrissey goes on to tell his friend that if they “must write prose and poems, the words they use should be your own” and warns against plagiarism or taking on loan.  His friend then tricks the narrator into believing that lines the narrator opines are words that could only be their own before his companion produces “the text from whence it was ripped”.  The narrator, perhaps in embarrassment that he has been fooled and does not know the text, denounces the writer as “some dizzy whore, 1804”.  The line ‘quoted’ by Morrissey’s companion in the song, to my knowledge, does not actually exist in a work of English literature.  Here Morrissey is ironically reflecting the (mis)quote from Richard III.

Following much sniping, the song ends with Morrissey holding strongly to his belief that he knows more about English literature than his friend with the closing lines, “Keats and Yeats are on your side, But you lose because Wilde is on mine”.  The message that Morrissey is very cleverly conveying in the song is that nobody is ever truly an expert on English literature, nobody is as well read as they think and that everything that is said, despite the narrator of the song’s plea not to plagiarise or take on loan, will almost definitely be taken from somewhere else.

Song Of The Day: Authors and Literature in Music (Day Three).

“Not Savior from on High deliver, No trust have we in prince or peer, But in our strong arm to deliver”. -Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy

Burn It Down, the incendiary opening track to the band’s magnificent and visionary 1980 debut album, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels started out life as Dance Stance, the band’s debut single from the previous year.  Reworked and revitalised for the debut album, the song now featured an opening of Kevin Rowland searching (perhaps for ‘the young soul rebels’) on his radio.  Through the static and fuzz laid a collage of snippets from songs from the last decade such as Holidays In The Sun by The Sex Pistols, Rat Race by The Specials and Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple followed by the battle cry of “Oh, for God’s sake burn it down!”

Following the inflammatory opening denouncing the music scene of the last decade and a call to arms to forget what went before and just as Kevin Rowland states on the album’s closing track, There There My Dear, “welcome the new soul vision”, Rowland taps into his Irish-Catholic roots by making reference to an array of Irish playwrights and writers and tells of the ignorance towards the Irish.   In total, Burn It Down references 14 Irish literary figures: Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neil, Edna O’Brien, Lawrence Stern, Sean Kavanaugh, Sean McCann, Benedict Keilly, Jimmy Hiney, Frank O’Connor and Catherine Rhine.  Rowland told The Guardian in 1980:

“I was sick of hearing anti-Irish prejudice all the time from really thick people and the lyrics just spilled out of me.  I had this biography of Brendan Behan and on the back it said: ‘Some say Behan has the potency of Oscar Wilde …’ and listed all these other great writers:  Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw and so on.  I’d heard of them – that was all – but thought: ‘I’ll put them in!’  I don’t think I was ever claiming to have actually read them.  I was saying:  ‘If Irish people are so thick, how come they’ve produced all these great writers”.

The lyrical attack against ignorance towards Irish people by name checking the greats of Irish literature was complimented by the album sleeve featuring a Belfast Catholic boy carrying his belongings after moving from his home during The Troubles, a time in which this ill feeling was more apparent than ever.  The band’s image of the time, that of the New York docker, could be seen to reflect the immigration of the Irish to America, where most of the band’s soul influence derived from.  Incidentally, Brendan Behan, the influence of whom kick-started the writing of Burn It Down, famously lived in New York’s Chelsea Hotel in the early 1960’s.   The band’s Irish influence was taken one step further with the sound and image adopted on the band’s second album, Too-Rye-Ay (1982).  As Kevin Rowland explained in the BBC’s Young Guns Go For It documentary, “I had a need in me to find a way to say, ‘I’m Irish and I’m not shit’”.

Song Of The Day: Authors and Literature in Music (Day Two).

The Cure’s debut single from 1979, Killing An Arab, finds Robert Smith re-imagining the central  scene in Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942).  In the scene he novel’s protagonist, Meursault, half-deranged by the heat of the Algerian sun, murders an Arab for no good reason.  Condemned for his honesty about his feelings, Mersault is considered an outsider (or “stranger”) because “he refuses to lie” and “doesn’t play the game”.

Killing An Arab has courted much controversy over the years.  When it was included on the singles compilation Standing On A Beach (1986) and the CD / VHS version, Staring At The Sea (1986), it sparked a campaign in the US to control the implications of it’s title.  As a result, and after much wrangling with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the album was packaged with a sticker advising of racist language, mistakenly being deemed to be a racist slur against Arabs.  Furthermore, the band agreed to adding a message in the credits of the VHS version.  The song has continued to spark controversy ever since, including during the Gulf War  and after the September 11th terrorist attacks.

“The fact is it’s based on a book that’s set in France and deals with the problems of the Algerians, so it was only geographical reasons why it was an Arab and not anyone else.” – Robert Smith, interview with Chart Attack (2011).

Coupled with an Arabian sounding musical backdrop courtesy of Robert Smith’s guitar lines, Killing An Arab finds The Cure attempting to put Albert Camus’ concept of absurdity within the context of life philosophy which says that, for the most part, all action is inherently meaningless, into song form.  Little did they know that it would go on to be misinterpreted so heavily for years to come.

Song Of The Day: Authors and Literature In Music (Day One).

Welcome to Song Of The Day, a series in which for every day of the week, I will post songs based around a theme, changing the theme every Monday.  This week’s theme is Authors and Literature, so that includes songs about, named after or inspired by either authors or their literature.

The first song is The House That Jack Kerouac Built by The Go-Betweens from their fifth album, 1987’s Tallulah.  Today’s featured band were never shy of a literary reference.  I could have also featured Here Comes A City from the 2005 album Oceans Apart which name checks Fyodor Dostoevsky:  “Why do people who read Dostoevsky look like Dostoevsky?”  This could be the only song I know of to feature Dostoevsky it’s lyrics other than Lie Detector by Sleeper from The It Girl (1996).  The band’s name is even derived from a work of literature, J.P Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), which was in turn made in to a film with it’s screenplay written by Harold Pinter in 1971.

Despite it’s reference to the most famous American Beat writer, The House That Jack Kerouac built is a song that Robert Forster describes as part of “my Irish phase” and being inspired by spending time with a lot of shady people, hence the line, “Baby, you’re on the road with a bad crowd”, also a reference to Kerouac’s most famous novel, On The Road (1957).  Forster sings of the need for separation from his current situation and surroundings in an increasingly strained manner and new band member Amanda Brown’s slightly unsettling violin work permeates the song with a heavy air of paranoia.  One of the band’s many defining moments and an underrated classic.