Song of the Day: War in Music (Day Three): “He Smoked German Cigarettes on Christmas Day”.

Indie rock music has had a longstanding fascination with the war, and particularly the World Wars.  This trend that is no small part due to the influence of Joy Division, the achingly cool and much lauded band who took their name from the prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the 1955 novel House of Dolls by Ka-tzetnik 135633.  The influence of war and the grim House of Dolls on the band can be seen on songs such as No Love Lost, from their An Ideal For Living EP (1978), which takes its spoken word section directly from the novel.

Move forward almost thirty years and a band who had obviously studied History at GCSE was GoodBooks, who penned the song Passchendaele for their 2007 debut album, Control.  Maybe it is mere coincidence that the name of GoodBooks’ album shares its name with Anton Corbijn’s film about the life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, released in the same year.  GoodBooks continue the World War referencing trend started by Joy Division in the late 1970’s but this time, whilst with the title Passchendaele, you may expect the song to be set in the First World War, the song actually spans both World Wars and every war that Britain has fought “the cause” in since.  Despite the links that could be forged with Joy Division, Passchendaele is perhaps more akin to Jona Lewie’s anti-war behemoth Stop the Cavalry (1980), complete with lines such as “He smoked German cigarettes on Christmas day”.  GoodBooks’ Passchendaele is perhaps the Noughties indie rock equivalent of Lewie’s pop classic.

The Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, was a campaign of the First World War fought by the Allies against the German Empire.  The battle took place on the Western Front between July and November 1917 for the control of the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders, as part of a strategy decided by the allies at conferences in November 1916 and May 1917.  Passchendaele lay on the last ridge east of Ypres, 5 miles from the railway junction at Roulers, which was vital to the supply system of the German 4th Army.  The battle is known for its horrific bloodshed, with 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties, and is one of the most talked about battles of the First World War.

In GoodBooks’ Passchendaele, the band tell the story of a First World War soldier named Jack who was “born towards the end of the 19th century”.  The song continues to tell how Jack, “married his sweetheart at the age of 23” but “Shortly before the birth of their first child, He answered the call of duty”.  And most importantly, how “he never made it past 25, he died at Passchendaele”.

The strength of Passchendaele, much like Stop the Cavalry is the plainness in which the tale is told.  Singer Max Cooke delivers the song in an almost monotone and very English manner which is also akin to the way in which Jona Lewie delivered his war story, complimented by lines such as “He carried English bayonets in an English way”.  Cooke gently tells of how the young soldier, with his wife (his “Mary Bradley” if you will) and child waiting for him at home, fights “In the war to end all wars” and loses his life in the process.

The song goes on to tell of the war’s influence on the dead soldier’s family, moving forward to the Second World War where “His son fell from a Spitfire in 1944” after following in his father’s footsteps.  In the same verse, we begin to see the anti-war element of Passchendaele, with lines such as “Well, Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?  And what did we learn the second time around?  Never again …”

Passchendaele is a song about the futility of war and effects of its seemingly endless cycle:  The First World War was supposed to be, as stated in the song’s chorus, “the war to end all wars”, yet two decades later, Britain would be involved in yet another World War and “still we keep on fighting”.

GoodBooks’ Passchendaele may have had less of a chart impact than Stop the Cavalry, and it will almost definitely never be seen to be as ‘cool’ as Joy Division’s No Love Lost, but what Goodbooks do achieve on Passchendaele is to place such an horrific scene of bloodshed to an upbeat pop backing which will keep you humming all day long.  One can only dream of how different the career of Goodbooks, who split in 2009, would have been if their war song’s success had matched that of Stop the Cavalry’s or if they had gained the same ‘cool’ status as Joy Division.  And it would have been deserved too because Passchendaele is arguably GoodBooks’ finest moment.