Song of the Day: Music About Other Artists (Day Five). Ian Dury on Gene Vincent: “But Your Leg Still Hurts and You Need More Shirts, You Got to Get Back on the Road”.

For his debut album New Boots and Panties!! (1977), Ian Dury looked towards his hero, rock ‘n’ roll singer Gene Vincent for inspiration, penning one of his many iconic songs, the biographical Sweet Gene Vincent.  Sweet Gene Vincent was released as the sole single from the album on the fledgling, and equally iconic, Stiff Records label in November 1977.  The song, as with New Boots and Panties!!, is credited to Ian Dury as a solo artist, as his backing band, The Blockheads, were yet to be named at this point.

As a teenager, Dury, born 12th May 1942 in Harrow, London, had lovingly bought every single that Vincent had ever produced.  On various occasions, Dury would tell of how upon hearing Vincent’s Be-Bop-A-Lula in the 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It, he was reduced to tears.

Throughout his entire career, Dury would talk sentimentally, and on occasions poetically about Vincent and the influence that he had had on him.  Whilst Vincent’s music inspired Dury to follow the path of rock stardom, the fact that the two shared a similar disability only served to make his affinity felt towards Vincent even stronger.

At the age of seven, Dury contracted polio.  He believed that he had contracted the disease from a swimming pool in Southend on Sea during the polio epidemic of 1949.  He spent six weeks in a full plaster cast in Truro Hospital before being moved to Black Notley Hospital in Braintree, Essex, where he remained for a year and a half. Following this, he was sent to Chailey Heritage Craft School, a boarding school for disabled children in East Sussex in 1951.  He was left permanently disfigured by the polio and wore a calliper on his withered left leg.  The disease similarly affected his left arm and hand.

Gene Vincent was born Vincent Eugene Craddock on February 11th 1935 in Norfolk, Virginia, USA.  Dury refers to Vincent’s Virginia origin in the line “I miss your sad Virginia whisper”.  The man who became the pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly had actually planned a career in the Navy, hence the line “Skinny white sailor, the chances were slender”.  He first enlisted in the Navy in 1952 after dropping out of school at the age of seventeen.  He completed boot camp and joined the fleet as a crewman aboard the fleet oiler USS Chukawan, although he spent two weeks training period in the repair ship USS Amphion before returning to the Chukawan.  He never saw combat but completed a Korean War deployment.  He sailed home from Korean waters on board the battleship USS Wisconsin but was not part of the ship’s company.

In 1955, Craddock re-enlisted in the Navy and used his $612 re-enlistment bonus to buy a new Triumph motorbike.  In July 1955, whilst in Norfolk, he crashed his motorbike and shattered his left leg.  He refused to have it amputated.  Whilst his leg was saved, the crash left him with a permanent limp and constant pain, hence the line “But your leg still hurts …”  He wore a steel sheath around the leg for the rest of his life, much like Dury wore a calliper.  In various interviews, Vincent would tell a different story of how he received his injury, claiming that he was injured whilst serving in the Navy.

Once recovered enough, Craddock became heavily involved in Norfolk’s local music scene, changed his name to Gene Vincent and formed the rockabilly band, Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps.  ‘Blue Caps’ is a term used to describe enlisted sailors in the US Navy.  The Blue Caps are mentioned in the line, “Let the Blue Caps roll tonight”, which is also a reference to Vincent’s 1958 album Gene Vincent rocks! and His Blue Caps Roll!  In 1956, he wrote the song which would secure him with a record deal with Capitol Records, Be-Bop-A-Lula.  The song became a number 5 hit on the Billboard Chart.  Although the band were unable to follow up the commercial success of Be-Bop-A-Lula, they did gain an appearance in The Girl Can’t Help It and released critically acclaimed songs such as Bluejean Bop (1956) and Race With The Devil (1956), both taken from the debut album Bluejean Bop (1956).

On April 16th 1960, whilst on tour in the UK, Vincent, fellow rock ‘n’ roll artist Eddie Cochran (who had also appeared in The Girl Can’t Help It) and songwriter Sharon Sheeley were involved in a high-speed traffic accident in a private hire taxi in Chippenham, Wiltshire.  Vincent suffered broken ribs and collarbone and further damaged his already weak left leg.  Sheeley suffered a broken pelvis whilst Cochran, who had been thrown from the vehicle, suffered serious brain injuries and died the following day.

Following the accident and overcome with grief at the death of his friend Cochran, Vincent returned to the US, where his life went into terminal decline, developing serious addictions to alcohol and painkillers.  Vincent’s alcoholism is referred to in the line “Shall I mourn your decline with some Thunderbird wine”.  Incidentally, Thunderbird wine is a particularly cheap brand of fortified wine containing 17.5% alcohol, introduced after the end of prohibition.  Despite its yellow colour, Thunderbird wine turns your lips and tongue black when consumed in large quantities, therefore linking in with the prominent theme of black in the song, “black handkerchief” and so on.

Vincent’s career never really recovered following the accident, despite several comeback attempts.  One such comeback attempt was his 1969 album I’m Back and I’m Proud, produced by Kim Fowley, later the Svengali behind The Runaways, and released on John Peel’s Dandelion Records label.

Fowley would later pay tribute to Vincent and his experiences producing I’m Back and I’m Proud on his 2004 album Adventures in Dreamland.

Vincent died on October 12th, 1971 from a ruptured stomach ulcer in his mother’s arms.  His final words were reportedly, “You can call the ambulance now, mama”.

Vincent’s death inspired Dury, who at this point in time was a member of pre-Ian Dury and the Blockheads band, Kilburn and the Highroads, to make a serious go of a career in the music industry.  Dury also began to mimic Vincent’s stage outfits for his own on stage presentation, most notably, black leather gloves.

He also referred to Vincent in the Kilburn and the High Roads song Upminster Kid, from their debut album Handsome (1975).  Upminster Kid can, in many ways, be seen as a forerunner to Sweet Gene Vincent and discusses Vincent’s influence on Dury.

Dury dissolved Kilburn and the Highroads in 1977 in order to form the band which would become known as Ian Dury and the Blockheads.  Whilst writing what would become New Boots and Panties!!, Dury spent six weeks researching the lyrical content for Sweet Gene Vincent, reading two biographies about his hero, before handing an initial draft to the song’s co-writer and Blockheads guitarist and keyboardist, Chaz Jankel.  Jankel joked that if the song has been kept in its original form, it would have lasted 15 minutes.

Sweet Gene Vincent makes several references to Vincent’s songs.  Firstly, the opening line, “Blue Gene baby”, is a play on the first line of Bluejean Bop, “Bluejean baby”.

Additionally, the music of Sweet Gene Vincent, which begins with a slow paced verse before moving into the rockier section of the song, is a tribute to the musical structure of Bluejean Bop.  The line “Who, who, who slapped John”, spoken as the song moves into its faster section, is a direct lift from the song Who Slapped John, the B-side of Bluejean Bop.

Later in the song, the lyric “and you lay that pistol down” is a reference to the single Pistol Packin’ Mama (1960), which includes the line “Lay that pistol down” and also refers to Vincent’s habit of waving guns around in the studio.  In one incident of ‘pistol packin’’ in 1968, Vincent is said to have scared Gary Glitter so much that he nearly left the country in fear.

“Here comes Duck-tailed Danny dragging Uncanny Annie, She’s the one with the flying feet” refers to the line “She’s the one with the flying feet” in Be-Bop-A-Lula.  The “Danny” mentioned in the line appears in Rollin’ Danny, from the album Gene Vincent Rocks! And The Blue Caps Roll (1958), whilst the name “Annie” could be a reference to Queen Anne County, now known as Virginia Beach, where Vincent lived during part of his childhood.

The line “And you jump back honey in the dungarees, Tight sweater and a ponytail” is a reference to both Jump Back, Honey, Jump Back from the Bluejean Bop album …

… and Red Blue Jeans and a Pony Tail from Vincent’s follow up album Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps (1957).

Additionally, the line “The devil drives ’til the hearse arrives” not only speaks of Vincent’s death but also refers to Race With the Devil.

Other references to Vincent’s music include the lines “At the sock hop ball at the Union Hall, Where the bop is their delight”.  “At the sock hop ball” refers to the song Ready Teddy (1958), which includes the lines “All the flat top cats and the dungaree dolls, Are headed for the gym to the sock hop ball” …

… and “Union Hall” refers to Vincent’s song Rip It Up (1958) which includes the line “Shag on down to the Union Hall, Cats are jumpin’, gonna have a ball”.

Sweet Gene Vincent also makes many references to Vincent’s typical black and white stage attire and presentation:  “White face, black shirt, White socks, black shoes, Black hair, white strat, Bled white, died black” and “Black gloves, white frost, Black crepe, white lead, White sheet, Black knight, Jet black, dead white”.

Dury would pay further tribute to Vincent when he appeared as a guest on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1996, choosing Woman Love, the B-side of Be-Bop-A-Lula, as one of his 8 songs.

Song of the Day: War in Music (Day Six). “What If I Take My Problem to the United Nations?”

For her eighth studio album, Let England Shake (2011), PJ Harvey looked to war for inspiration and in particular, the war in Afghanistan, which Britain was heavily involved in at the time of the album’s writing and recording.  Harvey also took inspiration from past conflicts, most notably the two World Wars.  Of the album’s subject matter, Harvey told Uncut Magazine in January 2015:  “I’ve always felt that I’m affected by the world, by the way we treat each other, by the way different countries treat each other”.

Let England Shake was not the first time that Harvey had spoken about war in her music.  On her 1996 album with John Parish, who also collaborated on Let England Shake, Dance Hall at Louse Point (credited to John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey), she included the song Civil War Correspondent.

At this point in time, Harvey never explained her lyrics and they were, more so than ever, left open to broad interpretation.  One could assume that the civil war mentioned in the song is the 1992 – 1996 Afghan Civil War, a phase of the war in Afghanistan which had been raging since 27th April 1978.  The war in Afghanistan had started when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power in a military coup, known as the Saur Revolution.  Most of Afghanistan subsequently experienced uprisings against the PDFA government.

In December 1979, the Soviet War in Afghanistan began with the aim of replacing the existing communist government.  The mujahideen, Afghanistan’s resistance forces, fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  Some factions received support from the US, with the Pakistani ISI serving as the US middleman, and Saudi Arabia.  The Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in February 1989.  The Soviet-backed Afghan communist government survived for three more years until the fall of Kabul in 1992.

In 1992, Afghan political parties agreed on the Peshawar Accords, a peace and power-sharing agreement which established the post-communist Islamic State of Afghanistan after the resignation of communist President Mohammad Najibullah and appointed an interim government.  Militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar opposed the agreement and with Pakistani support started a bombardment campaign against Kabul, signalling the beginning of the 1992 – 1996 Afghan Civil War.  In addition, three militias who had been able to occupy some suburbs of Kabul engaged in a violent war against each other.  Other than Kabul, other cities to witness violent fighting included Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar.

Despite these assumptions that the civil war of which Harvey speaks in Civil War Correspondent is probably the Afghan Civil War, it is left open to interpretation.  Therefore, the narrator of the song could easily be a correspondent in any war, making the song a stark reminder that all war is the same:  Each war has its casualties and its devastating effects on those involved, whether on the frontline or witnessing the atrocities from a journalist standpoint.  “Word leave my heart dry, Words can’t save life, Love has no place here, No joy, no tears” sings Harvey emotionally on the song.  Perhaps the correspondent is actually Harvey herself as opposed to a media correspondent, a songwriter attempting to put into words what she sees through the media.  “I shout but he don’t hear, Just put down the page, Darling spare me your tears, Dear God please send me the light of day, I can feel his, Heart wired, Heart like, Gunfire …” continues Harvey in the guise of a war correspondent watching a soldier losing hope in the face of the brutality he is facing.  By the end of Civil War Correspondent, the soldier’s mind and spirit has been consumed by the war and he cannot escape the gunfire anymore than he can escape his own heartbeat.

On her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, Harvey had been inspired by her love of New York City.  Take for example, Good Fortune, with its references to China Town, “In China Town, hung-over, you showed me just what I could do” and Little Italy,  “When we walked through Little Italy, I saw my reflection come right off your face”.

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea also includes the highly prophetic song One Line, which includes the lyrics, “I’m watching from the wall, As in the streets we fight, This World all gone to war, All I need is you tonight”.

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea won the Mercury Music Prize, the ceremony for which was held on September 11th, 2001, the infamous day as the terrorist attacks on the USA.  Harvey was in Washington DC and had witnessed the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon from her hotel room window.  When she was announced as the winner, she made her acceptance speech by telephone, saying, “It has been a very surreal day.  All I can say is thank you very much, I am absolutely stunned”.

Following the September 11 attacks, the USA announced its War on Terror, a term coined by President George W. Bush.  The USA, backed by its close allies, including Britain, invaded Afghanistan.  The war followed the Afghan Civil War phase (1996 – 2001) and public aims were to dismantle al-Qaeda and deny it a safe base in operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power.

Additonally, in 2003, the USA, with assistance from the United Kingdom, invaded Iraq, signalling the start of the Iraq War, which aimed to and succeeded in toppling the government of Saddam Hussein.  The conflict continued for much of the next decade as an insurgency emerged to oppose the occupying forces and the post-invasion Iraq government.  The USA and United Kingdom officially withdrew from the country in the 2011, the year of Let England Shake’s release but the insurgency and various dimensions of the civil armed conflict still continue.

After witnessing the horror of the September 11 attacks which sparked off the Afghanistan War firsthand, it is no wonder that Harvey would at some point in her career feel compelled to compose more songs pertaining to war, this time using the subject of war to create a concept album.  Harvey began writing the lyrics for the album before setting the words to music.  She has cited the poetry of Harold Pinter and T.S. Eliot as influences, as well as the artwork of Salvador Dali and Francisco de Goya and the music of The Doors, The Pogues and The Velvet Underground.  She also researched the history of conflict, including the Gallipoli Campaign, and read modern-day testimonies from civilians and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of the musical content on Let England Shake, Harvey makes full use of the autoharp which she began to play in concert some years prior to working on the album.  She told local newspaper Bridport News in 2001:  “I was really enjoying this different, enormous, wide breath of sound that the autoharp gives.  It’s quite a delicate sound, but it’s also like having an entire orchestra at your fingertips.  I began by writing quite a lot on the autoharp, and then slowly as time went by, (because this album was written over two and a half years) … my writing started moving into experimenting with different guitars, and using different sound applications, ones that I had never really experimented with”.

In order to tell the tales of war which make up Let England Shake, Harvey adopted a very different vocal style to that used on previous works.  Harvey commented in her 2011 interview with Bridport News that “I couldn’t sing [the songs] in a rich mature voice without it sounding completely wrong.  So I had to slowly find the voice, and this voice started to develop, almost taking on the role of a narrator”.

Let England Shake is a wonderfully executed suite of war-inspired songs.  The title of the album and its opening track can be interpreted in two ways with respect to the two different periods of time which inspired the songs.  Firstly the opening line of the title track, “The West’s asleep, let England shake” refers to the past, before World War One, when England appeared to be a perfect epoch for peace and prosperity.  The Western world was asleep, overconfident in its own power, economy and technological development.  The brutality of both World Wars proved the opposite and England was one of the countries which suffered the cruel and tragic consequences.  Secondly, the same line also refers to the present, where we find Harvey pondering as to whether England is now, once again, overconfident and whether the Western world is, once again, on the brink of collapse.  Therefore, based on historical evidence, England will, indeed shake again.  Interestingly, shortly after the release of Let England Shake, a series of riots occurred across England, breaking the deceptive state of calm.

Additionally, Let England Shake features the lines “I fear our blood won’t rise again, Won’t rise again”, an observation about death.  In this line, Harvey is saying that if our blood doesn’t rise again, from the graves that contain our corpses, then there is no hope.  The line also poses an attack against the teachings of Christianity, which has justified the most horrendous actions against humanity throughout history, such as Crusades, Inquisition, paedophile networks and torture practices.  Christianity states that we are going to be saved by Jesus after death and this life is not a real one, for only in resurrection will we be reunited with divinity and eternal life.

Further into the album, we find the song This Glorious Land, the third track and the second single to be taken from the album.  The lyrics of This Glorious Land refer to the military and the ongoing Afghan War, told from the perspective of the locals in a country invaded by England and America (“Oh, America, Oh, England”).  The song tells of how such interventionism often exploits those being invaded, removing their culture and ability to be a contender in the world economy:  “How is our glorious country ploughed, Not by iron plows, Our land is plowed by tanks and feet, Feet, Marching”.   The people of the invaded country are also often forced to exploit their own children in order to survive.  The lyrics in the final refrain allude to the disastrous effects of war:  “What is the glorious fruit of our land?  The fruit is deformed children, What is the glorious fruit of our land?  The fruit is orphaned children”.   Whilst the song was primarily inspired by the conflict in Afghanistan, it could also refer to the bombing of Japan by America and Britain during the Second World War.

The fourth track on the album and its first single, The Words That Maketh Murder, is also about the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan as well as the World Wars, the First World War in particular.  The lyrics also criticise diplomacy, particularly in the final refrain, “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?”  which, with dark humour, finds the subject of the song, who has experienced the unimaginable whilst involved in the conflict such as “soldiers fall[ing] like lumps of meat”, looking to the international peacekeeping body for help.  The refrain is based on a lyric from Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues (1958), where he sings, “I’m gonna take my problems to the United Nations”.

The reference to the United Nations places the song’s setting in the modern day, i.e. the Afghanistan War, as opposed to the First World War, as the United Nations did not exist until 1945.  The League of Nations, the United Nations predecessor, was regarded as powerless and content to allow the strong to bully the weak and, two decades after the First World War, failed to stop the outbreak of the Second World War.  The United Nations has been slightly more successful but has also often ignored, as recently as the Invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain.

In the lead up to the catchy and beautifully conceived refrain, Harvey paints a bleak picture of battlefield carnage.  “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget, I’ve seen soldiers falling like lumps of meat, Blown and shot out beyond belief, Arms and legs were in the trees”.  The lyric “Longing to see a woman’s face” finds the subject of the song missing the comforts of home, perhaps his wife or just female company.  “Instead of words that gather pace” is likely to refer to the Treaties and threats that tipped Europe into the First World War in 1914.  After the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is Sarajevo, all of the world’s major powers were pulled into the First World War one by one.

The chorus of the song, “The words that maketh murder, These, these, these are the words, The words that maketh murder …” are a further attack on the diplomacy which surrounds war.  By referring to war tribunals as “The words that maketh murder”, Harvey is discussing the way in which killing on the battlefield is seen as legitimate but when investigated by war tribunals, it can be classified as a war crime.  Whilst the work that the soldiers carry out is important, killing, regardless of circumstances, is still murder.

Following the first chorus, we find the line “I’ve seen a corporal whose nerves were shot”, a reference to Post Traumatic Stress (shell-shock), which is a common ailment suffered by soldiers who have fought in wars.  The line “I’ve seen flies swarming everyone” and later lines “Death lingering stunk, Flies swarming everyone, Over the whole summit peak, Flesh quivering in the heat” refer to the way in which war was often conducted in extremely unsanitary conditions and disease was as big a threat to the soldiers’ survival as the opposing side.  The repetition of lyrics about soldiers falling is most likely an expression of shell-shock related flashbacks.

The video for The Words That Maketh Murder’s single release in January 2011 was directed by Seamus Murphy, who also created videos for the other eleven tracks on Let England Shake.  Harvey contacted Murphy after seeing his “A Darkness Visible:  Afghanistan” exhibition in London in 2008.  In her interview with Bridport News, she said that she “wanted to speak to him more about his experiences being there in Afghanistan”.  After an initial meeting, a collaboration grew with Murphy taking charge of promotional photographs for the film in July 2010 and completing the promotional videos in January 2011.  The resulting videos were screened at various UK festivals between the 14th and 17th July 2011 and released on the DVD Let England Shake:  12 Short Films by Seamus Murphy on the 12th December 2011.

The video for The Words That Maketh Murder features Harvey practicing the song on the autoharp.  The opening scene features lights shining through a car windshield, followed by imagery of warfare such as a soldier walking through an open field.  Later in the video, the soldier is shown dead in the middle of the road during the lyric “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat”.  Additionally, the video shows soldiers dressed in formal uniform and children playing a war-related video game.  Other scenes show a funfair and slips from a rock concert as well as a ballroom scene filmed in Blackpool, a still from which was used as the single’s artwork.

Let England Shake was named Album of the Year in no less than 16 different publications, including Uncut, Mojo, NME and The Guardian.  In September 2011, ten years after winning the Mercury Music prize for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, she won the Mercury Music Prize for Let England Shake.  This win marked the first time in the award’s history that it had been awarded to the same artist twice.