Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Six).

“Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be putting me on”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me coming you better run”

Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61””

– Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, from the album Highway 61 Revisted, 1965.

Long before his fully fledged conversion to Born Again Christianity in the late 1970’s, When he released the full on Christian themed albums Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), Bob Dylan was already referencing The Bible.

On Highway 61 Revisited from 1965’s landmark album of the same name, he begins the song by referencing the story of Isaac and Abraham.  In the story of Isaac and Abraham, God commands Abraham to kill one of his son, Isaac, in order to prove his devotion to him:

“Some time later, God tested Abraham.  He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am”, he replied.

Then God said, “Take your only son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region

of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you””.

– Genesis 22.

Adding significance to the use of the story in Highway 61 Revisited, Abram, the original name of the Biblical Abraham, is the name of Dylan’s own father.  The use of the Abraham and Isaac story could also be used as a protest symbol against the Vietnam War.  It is probably no coincidence that the President at the time of the American Civil War was Abraham Lincoln.  Therefore, Bob Dylan may be making a connection between the Bible story and historical events via his own father in order to make a comment about the Vietnam War.  Is Dylan about to be sacrificed as a warning to America not to kill it’s sons by sending them to war in the same way Abraham Lincoln did in the American Civil War?

Highway 61 is the road which runs through Bob Dylan’s home town down to the Mississippi delta and the same road that he wanders down in One Too Many Mornings.  The route passed near to the birthplaces and homes of influential musicians such as Muddy Waters, Son House, Charlie Patton and Elvis Presley and had already been the subject of Roosevelt Sykes’s 1932 song Highway 61 Blues.  It is also the road where Bessie Smith died after sustained serious injuries in a car accident.  But most significantly in terms of music history and relating to the first verse’s religious imagery, it is the road where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil, at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49.  So therefore, through the song’s Biblical reference, is this God telling Dylan’s father that he has to kill his son at the same place that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil?

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Four).

“ … wandering stars for whom is reversed the blackness of darkness forever” – Jude 1:13.

Wandering Star from Portishead’s Mercury Music Prize winning album Dummy (1994) takes the ideas of Jude 1:13, in order to paint a picture of intense suffering, as is singer Beth Gibbons’ specialism.  Coupled with a voice which seems to harness all the sadness of the world and spill it back at you with a haunted beauty that is often unmatched, Wandering Star tells a tale of fallen angels condemned to live in hellish pitch black anguish and torment forever more.

Firstly and most obviously, the chorus of Wandering Star is taken verbatim from Jude 1:13.  In the Bible, ‘stars’ often represent angels, with Lucifer and his demons being referred to as “falling stars”.  Take for example: “How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn!  You have been cut down to Earth, You who have weakened the nations!” (Isaiah 14:12).  Lucifer was once an angel of light, “O star of the morning”, with good angels being known as morning stars.  When translated, Lucifer means ‘shining one, morning star’.  Wandering Star is a song about demons being cast into the abyss, written from the perspective of a demon as a metaphor for the suffering of a human being.

By taking on the form of the demon, Beth Gibbons taps into very human emotions.  The line “Those who have seen the needle’s eye” is also a Biblical reference.  See Mark 10:25 which states, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God”.  Essentially, what this is saying is that those in a low condition who suffer on Earth, as opposed to those who are in a high condition and prosperous, are more likely to enter heaven.  Here Gibbons uses the idea of “the needle’s eye” to depict the darkest place that a human being can be in.

Like many of Portishead’s songs, Wandering Star is about being in the midst of depression and the need to escape.  Take for example, the lines “And the time that I will suffer less, Is when I never have to wake”, referring again to those who have suffered on Earth entering the Kingdom of God.  The line “For it’s such a lovely day” is very telling as if we look at the etymology of the word ‘Lucifer’, a demon, we find that it is derived from the Latin word ‘Vulgate’ which translates as ‘the morning star, the planet Venus.  If we take Pluto to be a Dwarf Planet as opposed to a Planet, there are seven Planets.  Similarly, it took God seven days to create the Earth and finally, there are seven days in a week.  Seven is the divine number of God and therefore, Wandering Star is a song which uses the image of a demon in order to talk about the emotions felt by a human being on Earth who is suffering great pain, battling their demons, questioning their life and looking to make it into Heaven.  Discussing her lyrics and persona within Portishead in the 1998 documentary Welcome To Portishead, she said:

“Nothing is always as it seems, I think that’s the main thing and the one thing I would like people to realise (is) that, even, it’s like me laughing when we’re doing this, it just goes to show how different it is on the outside to the inside.  Human beings are brilliant at pretending to be something they might not be … most of us live under a charade of a personality but underneath, we’re all the same.  Most of us feel paranoid or lonely or unlucky in life or past heartbreaks or other family problems.  You know, normal things that … things aren’t what they seem.  So, however I come across, I might not be a good portrait of what I am”.

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Three).

“Well, I read The Bible, me … I read The Koran as well.  I’m a believer.  They’re powerful.  I’ve been to the Coliseum and I went to the place where the Roman emperors sat and you get a feeling off all that.  And I went to the Sistine Chapel and I got a feeling off that.  And the steps that the Catholics stole.  The Holy Steps.  They took them during The Crusades.  I’m interested in all that and when you write lyrics, it’s going to permeate through” – Ian Brown, speaking to Q Magazine, 1995).

Befitting for a band that inspired a whole new generation and led to the second coming of British rock music, The Stone Roses’ debut album The Stone Roses (1989) could be said to be based around the life of Jesus Christ.  Notably, the album begins with I Wanna Be Adored, which could be seen to reflect the birth of Jesus and the closing track, I Am The Resurrection could be seen to be about Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Elsewhere on the debut album, as well as its heavy references to the Paris Student Riots of 1968 with its references to the way in which the students carried lemons to counteract the effects of the tear gas used by the police (“Choke me, smoke the air, in the citrus-sucking sunshine, I don’t care”), Bye Bye Badman could be seen to be likening the Parisian students to Jesus, who, like the students, denounced the authorities of the time.  Like I Am The Resurrection, Bye Bye Badman depicts Christ’s crucifixion and because Jesus dying for the sins of mankind is central to the Christian faith, the song is positioned in the centre of the album.

This is the One is about a girl who is consumed by fire and her struggle to escape.  The title of This is the One refers to John The Baptist’s proclamation that Jesus is the promised Messiah:  Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!  This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me” (John 1: 29 – 30).  The idea of the girl being on fire could be derived from The King of Tyre being consumed by fire in Ezekiel 28: 17 and 18:  “You profaned your sanctuaries.  Therefore I have brought fire from the midst of you; It has consumed you, And I have turned you to ashes on the earth In the eyes of all who see you”.  It could also be said that Waterfall has religious leanings with the lyrics “Chimes sing Sunday morn” and that She Bangs The Drums, with the lyrics “Passion fruit and holy bread” could be about The Last Supper”.

If we are to look at the lyrics of The Stone Roses in a Biblical sense then the line “Pack on my back is aching, The strap seams cut me like a knife” in the non-album single Fools Gold (1989) could refer to Matthew 5:41: “And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles”.  It is also possible that “the pack” in question may be the cross that Jesus carried, thus making the song partly about Jesus travelling to his crucifixion.  In hindsight, the lyrics of Fools Gold were the first sign that all might not be well in the Stone Roses camp.  Fools Gold is about greed and inspired in part by the 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  In Q Magazine in 2009, Ian Brown said:

“In the film the friends go up a mountain looking for gold. But as they go on, they start turning on one another. That’s how it felt once the Roses started getting successful. Suddenly everyone was after their piece of gold.”

What the World Is Waiting For, which was twinned with Fools Gold as a double A-side single, finds Jesus on the cross shortly before his death, reflecting on his life.  What the World Is Waiting For juxtaposes images from Jesus’s birth, life and his current predicament with lines such as “Here comes the wise man and there goes the fool”, referring to the wise men travelling to see his birth, the way in which Jesus was seen by his followers during his lifetime and how he is seen as a ‘fool’ by many following his arrest and as he is dying on the cross.  The lines “Here comes the donkey, Chained to a ten ton plough, He’ll never make that hill in a million years, Whip crack beating down” refer partly to Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus riding a donkey and if we were to take the word ‘donkey’ in the slang sense of the word, meaning ‘a stupid person’, this also fits in with the term ‘fool’ in the previous verse, referring to many peoples’ view of Jesus at his death.  The image of the donkey chained to a “ten ton plough” could also refer to the cross which he forced to carry and the line “He’ll never make that hill in a million years” could refer to people jeering Jesus as he carried the cross up Calvary Hill.  The image of the donkey and plough in this verse may also refer to Luke 9:62 in which Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God”.  This verse, therefore, is a depiction of Jesus upon the cross, reflecting on his life and absolving himself of sin in order to reach the kingdom of his father.  The lines “He loves his brother but he’d sell him for a fist full of gold” refers to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, taking money to frame him.  Judas had been one of the 12 disciples, one of Jesus’s ‘brothers’.  This line also fits nicely with the theme of greed  expressed in Fools Gold and if we were to see What the World Is Waiting For / Fools Gold as a complete package, perhaps the band are likening their own experiences with the effects of greed to Jesus’s experiences.  The title of What the World Is Waiting For itself refers to how the world is waiting for Jesus to die on the cross in order that mankind can be saved.  The coda of “Stop the world, I’m getting off” could be seen as Jesus’s last moments upon the cross.  If we were to look at the work of The Stone Roses at this point in time as being based around the life of Jesus, then What the World Is Waiting For is Jesus’s swansong, The Stone Roses’ equivalent of My Way.

Also from this era, Something’s Burning, the B-side of the One Love single (1990) features the line “I am the vine and you are the branches” is a direct lift from John 15: 5.  Something’s Burning is a song about loyalty and morality, possibly in a relationship.  By saying that he is “the vine”, Ian Brown places himself in the position of the Messiah figure.  Similarly, the companion song to Something’s Burning, One Love saw The Stone Roses singing “You feel my flow and you flood my brain”, also referring to John’s Gospel.  In John 7: 37-38, Jesus proclaims, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture said, streams of living water will flow within him”.  This was a band who knew they were a force to be reckoned with, a band who had you in the palm of their hand:  The Stone Roses were messianic and you were the disciples.  They were “your vision, your wild apparition”, this was a band who could get inside of you and “sink to the depths of your soul”.  They were saying, they were your “one love” and you “don’t need another one”.  One Love was the band drawing together their disciples in collective worship:  “One love, one heart and one soul, We can have it all, Easy peasy”.

But, just as stated in One Love, “What goes up, must come down, Turns into dust or turns into stone”.  It is telling that on the band’s second album, released some five years after their highly influential debut, aptly entitled Second Coming, the first song, Breaking Into Heaven, is a song about your one and only chance of making it into heaven being during your time on Earth and the controlling forces that might try to barricade your passage.  These barricades are thought to refer to the series of legal disputes with record companies and management which had stopped the band from putting out any new material for five years.  Following Breaking Into Heaven, Driving South tells of an encounter with the devil at a crossroads:  “I stopped for an old man hitcher at a lonely crossroads, He said, “I’m going nowhere, I’m only here to see if I can steal your soul””.  The devil is likely to be a metaphor for either their record company, who had put an injunction on the band to stop them recording and releasing any new material or, perhaps, and more likely, their former manager Gareth Evans, whom the band had sacked, feeling that he was dishonest and untrustworthy.  For example, at one point, the band were awarded a Christmas cash bonus of £10,000 each by their record company, which Evans kept for himself to pay the legal costs for their court cases.  Additionally, after finding out about the cash bonus and sacking Evans, he sued them for a large percentage of their earnings and won.

Most surprising though, in terms of analysing the theme of faith in the Stone Roses’ catalogue, is the first single from Second Coming, Love Spreads.  Imagery of the crucifixion abounds, with lines such as “Love spreads her arms, Waits there for the nails” and “Too much to take, Some cross to bear”.  However, Love Spreads is curious in the way in which it attacks the traditional image of Christ by portraying the crucifixion of Christ with a black woman on the cross:  “Let me put you in the picture, Let me show you what I mean, The messiah is my sister, Ain’t no king, man, she’s my queen”.

In an interview with Melody Maker, May 13, 1995, John Squire said of the song, “The idea of the song is, ‘Why couldn’t Jesus have been a black woman?’ It’s just an attack on the white guy with a beard sitting on a cross, because that reinforces the patriarchal society”.  Adding to the conversation, then drummer Robbie Maddix added, “Do you know what The Bible calls the church?  ‘She’.  It’s like what The Bible calls the Earth, ‘Mother Earth’.

After taking the position of the Christ figure on their debut album, Love Spreads offsets the idea of the band being Christ-like by placing the song’s subject matter, a black woman, as the Messiah instead.  As well as sparking a little controversy by presenting Christ as both black and female, this is telling of how after influencing a whole new generation of rock bands, directly leading to what would become known as Britpop, the band were now somewhat adrift in the music scene, having spent five years away.  Most notably, The Stone Roses were particularly in adoration of Oasis, whom, in their absence, had stolen their crown.  Oasis’s Rock and Roll Star, from their all conquering debut alum Definitely Maybe (1994), echoed the sentiments of Stone Roses’ songs such as One Love, with lines such as “Look at you now, You’re all in my hands tonight” and Liam, Noel and company were soon to become the new messiahs of British rock.  Whereas once, The Stone Roses lay stringent and rightful claim to their position as Messianic figures in music, this was now a band at odds with what they had created, a band who had been all but crucified by the record industry but were now content to take their position as the founding fathers of the church of Britpop.

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Two).

From the very inception of the band, U2 have had a longstanding fascination with Biblical imagery.  Take for example, Gloria from October (1981) with its chorus of “Gloria in te Domine, Gloria exultate …” which translates as “Glory in you, Lord, Glory exalt (him)”, with “exalt” in the imperative, a reference to Psalm 30:2.  Gloria also contains references to Colossians 2:9 – 10 in the line “Only in You I’m complete” and James 5:7 – 9 in the lines “The door is open, You’re standing there” amongst other references.  40, the final song from War (1983) is also overtly Biblical, being based on Psalm 40.  Until the End of the World from Achtung Baby (1991) takes a different stance to other religious songs in the U2 canon.  Whereas previously, U2 had simply made Biblical reference, Until the End of the World, inspired by Luke 22:47, is a fictitious account of events based around a Bible story.

The lyrics of Until the End of the World describe a conversation between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot.  The first verse of the song tells of The Last Supper:  “We were as close together as a bride and groom, We ate the food, we drank the wine, Everybody having a good time”.  The use of the term “bride and groom” is a reference to Christ and the Church and in turn, a reference to Ephesians, where Paul speaks of the Church being a bride for Christ, the groom:

“So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the Church” – Ephesians 28 – 29.

The second verse finds Judas identifying Jesus with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Where Bono sings “I took the money, I spiked your drink, You miss too much these days if you stop to think”, he refers to the way in which, according to the Scriptures, Judas was the keeper of the purse.  Those who are good with money are often good with numbers and ‘thinkers’.  Judas’s intelligence is what is keeping him from seeing the Kingdom of Heaven:

“And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”. – Matthew 18: 2 – 4.

In Until the End of the World, Judas says, “In the garden I was playing the tart”.  If we take “tart” to mean ‘prostitute’, one meaning of which is to put oneself to an unworthy or corrupt use for personal or financial gain, then he is referring to the way in which by betraying Jesus for thirty silver coins, he has prostituted himself thus relinquishing his right to a place in the Kingdom of Heaven.  When Bono sings, “I spiked your drink”, the drink he is referring to could be interpreted as being Jesus’ blood and the spike could be taken to mean ‘a nail’.  Therefore, this could be a reference to the way in which Judas, by betraying Jesus (“I kissed your lips and broke your heart”) has condemned him to death.

The third verse of the song is about Judas’s suicide after being overwhelmed by guilt and sadness.  The final line, “You said you’d wait ‘til the end of the world” refers to The Final Judgement.  By placing the listener in the position of Judas Iscariot, Bono cleverly creates a song about the cleansing of the soul through pity and fear.

U2 continue to pay homage to the stories of the Bible to this day, with almost every song having some sort of Biblical connotation.  Examples of later Biblical references in U2 songs include the lines “The heart is in bloom, Shoots up through the stony ground” in Beautiful Day from All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) which is based on Isaiah 52:3:  “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground”.  In the same song we find the lines “See the bird with the leaf in her mouth” which was inspired by Genesis 8: 10-11:  “[Noah] waited seven days more and again sent the dove out from the ark. In the evening the dove came back to him, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! So Noah knew that the waters had lessened on the earth”.  Amongst the wealth of Biblically inspired songs in U2’s repertoire, Until the End of the World stands out as it takes the Bible story and tells it from a different perspective, that of Judas, in order to put a new spin on the events.

As a footnote, one of Bono’s alter-egos on the Zoo TV Tour, which accompanied Achtung Baby, was MacPhisto.  MacPhisto was Bono’s interpretation of the Devil.  The Zoo TV Tour satirised television oversaturation in order to draw attention to the desensitising effect of mass media.  Explaining MacPhisto during a 2004 speech, Bono said:

“To serve the age, one must betray it … or something like that … To me, betraying the age means exposing its conceits, its foibles, its phony moral certitudes.  It means telling the secrets of the age and facing harsher truths.  Every age has its massive moral blind spots”.

By taking on the guise of Judas in Until the End of the World and MacPhisto (the Devil) on the Zoo TV Tour, Bono not only uses the Bible as a device to talk about his Christian faith, he is also linking it to the ideas addressed on the Achtung Baby album and Zoo TV Tour in order to make a statement about an age of moral corruption.  Just as Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane, Bono is betraying the age in which Achtung Baby and Zoo TV was born into by fully embracing it, exposing its weaknesses.  Judas was obsessed and driven by money, as is the modern world.  Therefore, by adopting the character of Judas on Until the End of the World, Bono is making a statement about the greed of the modern world.

It is also important to note the influence of recording in Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the country’s reunification.  Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet East Germany was seen as the poor side of Germany and West Germany was seen as the more prosperous.  This obviously influenced the band and can be seen in the cover art of the album.  For example, the sleeve prominently features the utilitarian Trabant motor car built in East Germany juxtaposed with the much more luxurious Mercedes motor car built in the richer West Germany.  On one of the album’s sleeve photos, a Trabant owner looks jealously at an obviously better dressed and richer Mercedes driver.

“Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” – Galatians 5:26.

See also the song So Cruel with it’s allusion to the death of Jezebel.  In the song, Bono sings, “Between the horses of love and lust we are trampled underfoot”, referring to 2 Kings 9:33: “Throw her down!” Jehu said.  So they threw her down, and some of her blood splattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot”.

Is what we are seeing here a comment on sin in the modern world?   In the Bible, sin is described as “transgression of the law of God” (1 John 3:4) and “rebellion against God” (Deuteronomy 9:7; Joshua 1:18).  Sin had it’s beginning with Lucifer: Enter MacPhisto.

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!” – Isaiah 14:12.

So with Achtung Baby, do we find a lyricist who, in the modern age of consumerism, is struggling with his faith?  Until the End of the World and other songs on the album with their tales of sin and corruption and the Zoo TV Tour’s comment on the way in which television had blurred the lines between news and entertainment, truth and fiction and right and wrong over the previous decade would suggest that Bono was questioning whether his beliefs were viable in the ever-evolving modern world filled as it is with moral and spiritual disintegration.  On the title track of U2’s follow up album Zooropa (1993), amidst a barrage of advertising slogans such as “Vorsprung durch technik” (Audi); “Be a winner” (The UK Lottery) and “Be all that you can be” (the US Army), Bono would sing, “And I have no religion, And I don’t know what’s what, And I don’t know the limit, The limit of what we’ve got”.  Further on into the Zooropa album, on Stay (Faraway, So Close), there is the equally telling lyric, “Just the bang And the clatter As an angel Hits the ground”.

An Audience with the Pope: Ten Songs Inspired By the Pope and Catholicism on the Tenth Anniversary of the Death of John Paul II, 02/04/2005.

1.  Elbow ‘An Audience With The Pope’ (from the album The Seldom Seen Kid, 2008).

2.  Patti Smith ‘Wave’ (from the album Wave,1979).

3.  George Harrison ‘P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night)’ (from the album Brainwashed, 2002).

4.  The Damned ‘Anti-Pope’ (from the album Machine Gun Etiquette, 1979).

5.  James Dean Bradfield ‘Say Hello to the Pope’ (from the album The Great Western, 2006).

6.  Shane MacGowan & The Popes  ‘The Church of the Holy Spook’ (from the album Snake, 1994).

7.  U2 ‘Gloria’ (from the album October, 1981).

8.  Morrissey ‘Dear God, Please Help Me’ (from the album Ringleader of the Tormentors, 2006).

9.  Roxy Music ‘Psalm’ (from the album Stranded, 1974).

10. Danny Wilson ‘Mary’s Prayer’ (from the album Meet Danny Wilson, 1987).