Song of the Day: Education in Music (Day One). “And the Lesson Today is How to Die”.

Starting off this week’s theme of education is a song that could have also been placed in ‘Crime in Music’ a few weeks back.  That song is I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats, from the album The Fine Art of Surfacing (1979).  The song became the band’s second number one after previous single, Rat Trap (from the album A Tonic for the Troops, 1978).

According to singer and songwriter Bob Geldof, he wrote I Don’t Like Mondays after reading a telex report at Georgia State University’s campus radio station, WRAS, on the shooting spree of 16 year old Brenda Ann Spencer, who fired at children in a school playground at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California, USA on the 29th January 1979.  Spencer killed two adults and injured eight children and one police officer.  Spencer showed no remorse for her crime and her full explanation for her actions was “I don’t like Mondays.  This livens up the day”.  Within the next month, Geldof had written the song and it had been performed live for the first time.  In an interview with Smash Hits in 1979, Geldof explained how he had come to write the song:

“I was doing a radio interview in Atlanta with [Johnnie] Fingers and there was a telex machine beside me.  I read it as it came out.  Not liking Mondays as a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange.  I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel and I just said, ‘Silicon chip inside her head had switched to overload’.  I wrote that down.  And the journalists interviewing her said, “Tell me why?”  It was such a senseless act.  It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it.  So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it.  It wasn’t an attempt to exploit tragedy”.

The telex machine is mentioned in the second verse with the lines, “The telex machine is kept so clean, And it types to a waking world”.  Elsewhere in the song, the chorus takes the form of a police investigation, with the backing vocals singing, “Tell me why” and Geldof singing “I don’t like Mondays … I wanna shoot the whole day down”.  Meanwhile, the verses of the song find the school and Spencer’s parents trying to find a reason for the tragedy before Geldof concludes that “… that there are no reasons” both speaking of various peoples’ shock over the senselessness of the killings and echoing Spencer’s lack of remorse.

The song was originally intended to be a B-side but Geldof changed his mind following the song’s success with audience on the Boomtown Rats’ US tour.  Spencer’s family tried unsuccessfully to prevent the song from being released in the US.  Despite it being a number one single in the United Kingdom, the song only reached number 73 on the US Billboard Hot 100.  The song was played regularly by US radio stations in the 1980s.  However, radio stations in San Diego did not play the track for years after the crime in respect to local sensitivities about the shooting and to the families of the victims.  In the UK, the song won in the Best Pop Song and Outstanding British Lyric categories at the Ivor Novello Awards.

Eight months after the shooting, Spencer pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon.  She was sentenced to 25 years to life.  She has been denied parole four times since 1993 and will not be considered again until 2019.

The Boomtown Rats performed the song for Live Aid at Wembley Stadium in 1985.  This performance became the band’s last final major appearance.  After singing the line, “And the lesson today is how to die”, Geldof paused for a moment.  The crowd applauded on the significance to those starving in Africa which the event had been organised to help.