Song of the Day: Music Inspired by Television Shows (Day Seven). “‘Cause I’m the Taxman, Yeah, I’m the Taxman”.

Taxman by The Beatles, from their 1966 album Revolver, is undeniably one of the greatest album openers in music history.  A quick, sharp song informed by a pounding bassline which has inspired generations of future musicians, a unique and beautifully executed lead guitar line and topical lyrics which slated Harold Wilson’s government and in particular, their taxation policies, have made Taxman one of The Beatles’ many finest moments.

Written by George Harrison, and becoming one of his best known works for The Beatles, it is the only Harrison-penned track to take premier position on a Beatles album, testament to how strong the main songwriters, John Lennon and Paul McCartney knew it was.  In fact, this was a time when Harrison’s song writing for the band was at its zenith, acknowledged by three of his songs, the most on any Beatles album apart from The Beatles (1968), being featured on Revolver:  Taxman, the Indian-tinged Love You To and the beautiful I Want to Tell You.  Taxman was actually one of the first songs that Harrison had written but became the sixth song to be featured on a Beatles record.

Musically, Taxman was inspired by the theme tune to the 1960’s TV series Batman (1966 – 1968), of which Harrison was a big fan.  Take for instance, the way in which the word “Taxman” is sung in a similar manner to “Batman” in the TV theme.

The Batman theme was originally written by conductor and trumpeter Neal Hefti and covered by surf rock group The Marketts, who released the song as a single in January 1966, reaching number 17 in the US singles chart.  It could be said that Harrison humorously draws comparisons between the ‘civil servant superhero’ in the song and Batman himself.

Over the years, there has been some confusion as to which of The Beatles’ played the lead guitar part on the song.  According to various interviews, McCartney played the distinctive lead guitar part.  In addition McCartney also played the song’s much imitated bassline, which itself is said to imitate the work of bassist James Jamerson, famous for his work on many 1960s soul records, including Wilson Pickett’s In the Midnight Hour (from the album In the Midnight Hour, 1965).

In a 1984 interview with Playboy, McCartney stated, “George wrote that and I played guitar on it”.  In a 1977 interview with Crawdaddy, Harrison said:  “I helped out such a lot in all the arrangements.  There were a lot of tracks though where I played bass.  Paul played lead guitar on Taxman and he played guitar – a good part – on Drive My Car [Rubber Soul, 1965]”.

Seth Swirsky, who worked as a staff songwriter before producing the Beatles documentary, Beatles Stories, said in a 2010 interview with Songfacts:  “I think Paul McCartney was one of the greatest guitar players of the ‘60s.  Nobody really recognised him as an electric guitar player, or an acoustic guitar player, but his leads on Taxman and on different songs that you think George played, they ripped.  I think George is great, but when Paul played lead on some songs, they tore.  They were just very unique.  There’s no one like Paul McCartney in the history of the world”.

In his book, Here, There and Everywhere:  My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles (2006), Geoff Emerick said of the recording session for Taxman:  “There was a bit of tension on that session, though, because George had a great deal of trouble playing the solo – in fact, he couldn’t do a proper job of it when we slowed the tape down to half speed.  After a couple of hours of watching him struggle, both Paul and George Martin started becoming frustrated.  This was a Harrison song and therefore not something anyone was prepared to spend a whole lot of time on.  So George Martin went into the studio and, as diplomatically as possible, announced that he wanted Paul to have a go at the solo instead.  I could see from the look on Harrison’s face that he didn’t like the idea one bit, but he reluctantly agreed and then proceeded to disappear for a couple of hours.  He sometimes did that – had a bit of a sulk on his own, then eventually came back”.  Emerick then dubbed McCartney’s eventual guitar solo onto another piece of tape and cut it into the end of the song; therefore, the guitar solo in the middle of the song is exactly the same guitar solo which features in the song’s fade out.  In a 1987 interview with Guitar magazine, Harrison said, “I was pleased to have Paul play that bit on Taxman.  If you notice, he does a little Indian bit on it for me”.

Additionally, Lennon remembers Harrison asking for assistance in the song’s lyrics.  In a 1980 interview with Playboy, he said:  “I remember the day he [Harrison] called to ask for help on Taxman, one of his first songs.  I threw in a few one-liners to help the song along, because that’s what he asked for.  He came to me because Paul wouldn’t have helped him at that period.  I didn’t want to do it … I just sort of bit my tongue and said OK.  It had been John and Paul for so long, he’d been left out because he hadn’t been a songwriter up until then”.

Lyrically, Taxman attacks the high levels of progressive tax taken by the British Labour government of Harold Wilson.  Of the song’s lyrics, Harrison said, in his 1980 autobiography, I, Me, Mine:  “Taxman was when I first realised that even though we had started earning money, we were actually giving most of it away in taxes.  It was and still is topical”.  As their earnings placed then in the top tax bracket in the United Kingdom, the Beatles were liable to 95% supertax, something that had been introduced by Wilson’s labour government.  The 95% supertax is mentioned in the song’s lyrics, for example, “Let me tell you how it will be, There’s one for you, nineteen for me, ‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman”.  “One for you, nineteen for me” refers to the fact that for every twenty pounds the band and other ‘super-rich’ people earned, nineteen was taken by the taxman.  This high rate of taxation, which added a full 15% on top of the tax for less wealthy people, eventually led to The Beatles starting Apple Corp.  By channelling their income through Apple, they could pay the much lower rate of corporation tax.  The supertax was also the subject of The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, from the album Face to Face, released in the same year as Revolver.

The second verse continues the slating of the supertax and referring to the five per cent left over after the taxman had had his cut, “Should five per cent appear too small, Be thankful I don’t take it all, ‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah I’m the taxman”.  The line “Be thankful I don’t take it all” could be seen to echo the famous remark made by former Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, in 1957, that “most of our people have never had it so good”.  Whilst the British economy of the time was strong, many people had considered this statement to be dismissive and condescending.

The final two verses of the song move into the territory of exaggeration; such was Harrison’s frustration with the supertax.  Firstly, there is the verse, “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street, If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat, If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat, If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet”.

Following this, the songwriter questions where the where the money the band paid was going, with the taxman feeling that he does not have to give an explanation:  “Don’t ask me what I want it for, If you don’t want to pay some more, ‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman”.

The lyrics in the final verse of the song, “Now my advice for those who die, Declare the pennies on your eyes …” refers to the way in which, in Greek history, pennies would be put over the eyes of a dead person as payment to the ferryman carrying the body to the underworld.  In this verse, Harrison is suggesting that the taxman is so ruthless that he would even go as far as taxing those pennies; which in effect, would cause your body to drift into some sort of purgatory.

The backing vocals in the fourth verse of Taxman, “Haha, Mr Wilson” and “Haha, Mr Heath” were suggested by Lennon upon Harrison asking him for help writing the song, with “Mr Wilson” referring to Harold Wilson, prime Minister and leader of the Labour party and “Mr Heath” referring to Edward Heath, the leader of the Conservative Party.  Wilson had nominated all four Beatles as Members of the Order of the British Empire a year before the release of Revolver.  As heard on Take 11 of Taxman, featured on Anthology 2, released in 1996, the spaces in the song which came to feature the chanted names were originally filled by the lyrics, “Anybody got a bit of money?”

As with a vast majority of Beatles songs, Taxman has had a lasting legacy on British music, with bands often just stealing parts of song’s innovative composition for their own.   For example, on their 1980 album, Sound Affects, The Jam included Start!, which pays homage to McCartney’s bassline and guitar part.  Start! reached number one in UK singles chart in August 1980.

The Jam also used the bassline from Taxman on their previous single, Dreams of Children, a double A-side with Going Underground (1980), which also reached number one in the UK singles chart.  This time, the bassline was played as the lead guitar riff.

Interestingly, the Batman theme which had partly inspired Taxman, was covered by The Jam on their debut album, In the City, in 1977.

Meanwhile, Harrison would later allude to Taxman on his 1988 single, When We Was Fab, from the album Cloud Nine (1987), in the line “Back when income tax was all we had”.

Song of the Day: Music About Other Artists (Day Three). Lennon vs. McCartney: “So Sgt. Pepper Took You By Surprise …”

The dissolution of The Beatles had been a turbulent affair for all involved.  Although Let It Be (1970) was the final Beatles album to be released, it had been largely recorded prior to Abbey Road (1969).  The idea for Let It Be, originally titled Get Back, had come from Paul McCartney, who made the suggestion of recording an album of new material, rehearsing it and performing it before a live audience on a one hour television special called Beatles at Work.  Producer George Martin has said that the project was “not at all a happy recording experience.  It was a time when relations between the Beatles were at their lowest ebb”.

John Lennon described the sessions as “hell … the most miserable on Earth” and George Harrison similarly stated that they were “the low of all-time”.  Harrison had been so irritated by fighting between Lennon and McCartney that he walked out for five days.  On his return to the fold, he threatened to leave the band unless they “abandon[ed] all talk of live performance” and instead focused on finishing a new album.  He also demanded that they cease work at Twickenham Studios and relocate to the newly finished Apple Studio.  His band mates agreed and the idea came about to salvage the material shot for the TV production for use in a feature film.

So advanced were the tensions within the band that Harrison invited American virtuoso keyboardist Billy Preston to participate in the final nine days of the recording sessions.  Preston received a label credit on the Get Back single, released on the 11th April 1969.  Other than Tony Sheridan in 1962, Preston was the only artist outside of the four Beatles to receive this honour.

Preston was known as a top session musician in the 1960’s, having already worked alongside Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles.  He would go on to achieve fame as an artist in his own right, releasing the album That’s the Way God Planned It on The Beatles’ Apple Records in 1969 and scoring a UK number 11 hit with the title track of the album.

At the end of the rehearsal sessions, the band could not agree on a location to film a concert.  They rejected several ideas, including a boat at sea, a lunatic asylum, the Tunisian desert and the Colosseum before finally deciding on filming what would become their final live performance on the rooftop of the Apple Cops building at 3 Saville Row, London, on the 30th January 1969.

By the time it came to assembling an album, The Beatles were in such disarray that engineer Glyn Johns, whom has been described as the project’s uncredited producer, was given free rein as the band had virtually washed their hands of the entire project.

The band was put under further strain by the arrival of financial adviser, Allen Klein.  The need for a financial adviser had been evident since the death of original manager Brian Epstein on the 27th August 1967.  Klein had previously managed the Rolling Stones and Sam Cooke.  Arguments between the band members erupted once again due to McCartney wanting John Eastman, brother of Linda Eastman whom McCartney had married on the 12th March 1969, to manage the band.  In order to appease McCartney, both Klein and Eastman were appointed but further conflict ensued and financial opportunities were lost.  On the 8th May 1969, Klein was named sole manager of the band.

Following the miserable experience that was the Get Back sessions and such was the ill feeling in The Beatles camp, Martin was surprised when McCartney asked him to produce another album.  The recording sessions for what would become Abbey Road started on the 2nd July 1969 and were equally fraught.  Lennon rejected Martin’s proposed format of a “continuously moving piece of music”, instead wanting his and McCartney’s songs to occupy separate sides of the album.  The finished format of standard individually composed songs on the first side of the album and the second side largely consisting of a medley was McCartney’s suggested compromise.

On the 4th July 1969, Lennon became the first Beatle to release a solo single, Give Peace A Chance, credited to the Plastic Ono Band.

The completion and mixing of the Lennon penned song I Want You (She’s So Heavy) on the 20th August 1969 marked the last time that all four Beatles were together in the same studio.

Lennon announced his departure from The Beatles to the rest of the band on the 20th September 1969 but agreed not to make a public announcement in order to avoid denting the sales of the forthcoming Abbey Road album, due to be released six days later.  The album sold 4 million copies within three months and remained at the premier position in the UK charts for a total of seventeen weeks.  Harrison’s composition Something was released as a single, notable for being the only Harrison song to appear as a Beatles A-side.

Abbey Road was met with mixed reviews, although the medley was generally acclaimed.  Whilst Martin describes Abbey Road as his personal favourite Beatles album, Lennon felt it was competent but lacking life.

On the 3rd of January 1970, the final song, Harrison’s I Me Mine, was recorded for the Get Back album.  Lennon, who was in Denmark at the time, declined to participate.

Klein was unhappy with the work that Johns had done on the project, and following the change of the album’s name to Let It Be, the session tapes were given to Phil Spector, who had recently produced Lennon’s solo single Instant Karma!

On receiving the tapes, Spector edited, spliced and overdubbed several of the recordings which had been intended to have the ‘live’ sound.  McCartney was horrified with the results and particularly criticised the orchestration work carried out on The Long and Winding Road, which included a fourteen voice choir and a 36 piece instrumental ensemble.  When his demands that the alterations to the song be reverted were ignored, McCartney announced his departure from the band on the 10th April 1970, just a week before the release of his debut solo album, Paul McCartney.

The Let It Be album was released on the 8th May 1970 with the version of The Long and Winding Road which McCartney hated so much being released as the lead single in the United States, but not in Britain.  The Let It Be documentary film followed later that month and went on to win the 1970 Academy Award for Best Original Song Score.  Meanwhile, legal disputes between the Beatles continued long after the band’s break up and the dissolution was not made formal until the 29th December 1974.

As for the Let It Be album, Spector’s production work remained a bone of contention for McCartney for many years, until 2003 when he was the driving force behind Let It Be … Naked:  A presentation of the album in the form that he felt it should have been released in, complete with The Long and Winding Road without the production treatments which had finally forced him to quit the band.

Whilst the Beatles fought out their differences in the courts, McCartney and Lennon were also busy fighting each other on their subsequent solo releases.  On his second solo album, Ram (1971), McCartney and wife Linda made a barely concealed attack against Lennon on the opening track, Too Many People.  The song starts with the words “Piss off, cake”, a slur which McCartney would eventually admit was aimed at Lennon in an interview with Mojo Magazine in 2001:

“Piss off, cake.  Like, a piece of cake becomes piss of cake, and it’s nothing, it’s so harmless really, just little digs.  But the first line is about “too many people preaching practices”.  I felt John and Yoko were telling everyone what to do.  And I felt we didn’t need to be told what to do.  The whole tenor of the Beatles thing had been, like, each to his own.  Freedom.  Suddenly, it was “You should do this”.  It was just a bit the wagging finger, and I was pissed off with it.  So that one got to be a thing about them”.

The insults directed at Lennon on Ram did not go unnoticed by McCartney’s former songwriting partner and his wife, Yoko Ono.  They, and the record buying public, also noted lines such as “You took your lucky break and broke it in two”.  In an interview with Playboy in 1980, Lennon said of the damning lyrical content of Ram:

“There were all the bits at the beginning of Ram like “Too many people going underground”.  Well that was us, Yoko Ono and me.  And “You took your lucky break”, that was considering we had a lucky break to be with him”.

Additionally, Ram also featured the equally bitter song 3 Legs, in which McCartney uses the idea of a dog with three legs (“My dog, he got three legs, But he can’t run”) as a metaphor for the other three members of The Beatles, suggesting that they would never amount to anything without him.  The song also contains lyrics such as “Well, when I thought, well, I thought, When I thought you was my friend … But you let me down, ho, Put my heart around the bend” and “My dog he got three legs, your dog he got none”.

Already angry at the attacks delivered towards him on Too Many People, 3 Legs only served to exacerbate Lennon’s rage.   Also, on viewing the artwork for the Ram album, he noted the significance of the picture of two stag beetles mounting each other.  It would seem that McCartney was throwing down the gauntlet and Lennon was all too pleased to oblige.

In a game of one-upmanship which had started with McCartney pipping him to the post by being the first Beatle to publicly quit the sinking ship, Lennon penned a retort to his former band mate.  The resulting song, How Do You Sleep? was featured on Lennon’s second solo album Imagine (1971).  Particularly citing the insults directed at him on Too Many People as ammunition, Lennon pulled no punches in his assassination of his former bandmate.

How Do You Sleep? starts with the sound of an orchestra warming up in reference to The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and in particular its title track, the concept of which was introduced to the band by MacCartney.

Following this, we find the first incendiary lines, “So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise, You better see right through that mother’s eyes”.  The use of the word “mother”, a shortened version of the swearword ‘motherfucker’ is a rather direct retort to the “Piss off, cake” utterance in McCartney’s Too Many people.  This opening is also a further attempt on Lennon’s part to disassociate himself from The Beatles in order for him to be seen as an individual and solo artist.  This idea of severing all ties with his Beatles past was first seen on his song God from previous album John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band (1970) …

… which featured lines such as “Don’t believe in Beatles , I just believe in me …” and “I once was the walrus [in reference to The Beatles’ I Am The Walrus (1967)], but now I’m John”.

Following this, the line “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead” refers to the Paul is dead hoax, a conspiracy started by American college students in 1969.  The conspiracy suggested that McCartney has died following a car crash in 1967 and had been replaced by a doppelganger.  The students published articles claiming that clues to McCartney’s death could be found amongst the lyrics and artwork of the Beatles’ recordings.  This clue-hunting proved infectious and within a few weeks it had become an international phenomenon.  Clues were said to include a message saying “Turn me on, dead man” when Revolution 9, from The Beatles (1968) is played backwards …

… and the utterance of “I buried Paul” at the end of Strawberry Fields forever (1967), words which Lennon stated were actually “Cranberry sauce”.

In addition to the hundreds upon hundreds of suggested allusions to McCartney’s death, the cover photo of the Abbey Road album was said to symbolise a funeral procession, with Lennon, dressed in white, symbolising a clergyman or heavenly figure; Ringo Starr, dressed in black, symbolising either an undertaker or mourner; George Harrison, dressed in denim jeans and shirt, symbolising the gravedigger and finally, McCartney, shoeless and out of step with the other Beatles, symbolising the corpse.  In November 1969, McCartney gave an interview with Life Magazine in order to dispel the rumours.  In this line, Lennon is saying that McCartney is dead to him.

Following this, the line “The one mistake you made was in your head” is a retort to McCartney’s lines in Too Many People, “That was your first mistake” and “That was your last mistake”.  Following this, we find the song’s title sung as the refrain.  “How do you sleep?” is sung a total of eight times throughout the song, just in case McCartney didn’t get the point the first time.

The line “You live with straights who tell you you was king” are a gilded attack on the egotism that McCartney had displayed on Too Many People and 3 Legs, suggesting that he associates himself with sycophants who feed his ego.  “Jump when your momma tell you anything” displays McCartney as a ‘Mummy’s boy’.  This line can be seen as slightly hypocritical on Lennon’s part as whilst McCartney also lost his mother at a young age, the loss of Lennon’s mother, Julia, in a traffic accident in 1958 when Lennon was 17, was a major source of insecurity and fed many of his lyrics.  Obvious examples include Julia (The Beatles, 1968) …

… and Mother (John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, 1970).

This line is also a jab at McCartney’s title track of the Let It Be album which proved to be the band’s downfall, in which McCartney sings, “And in my hour of darkness, Mother Mary comes to me”.

Lennon further rubbishes McCartney’s back catalogue on the line “The only thing you done was yesterday, And since you’ve gone you’re just another day”.  The first song to be poked fun at in this double-pronged attack is Yesterday (Help!, 1965) …

… and the second is McCartney’s solo single, Another Day, released earlier in 1971.

The song’s outro begins with the lines, “A pretty face may last a year or two, But pretty soon they’ll see what you can do”.  This lyric refers to the way in which McCartney was often seen as the “pretty face” of The Beatles and suggests that McCartney is all front and no substance.  The following lines, “The sound you make is muzak to my ears, You must have learned something in all those years” are an equally debasing line which further states Lennon’s low opinion of McCartney’s increasingly sentimental songs, first expressed towards the end of The Beatles when he described McCartney’s lyrics as “granny music shit”.  The song that attracted such scorn from Lennon was Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (The Beatles, 1968).  The outro of How Do You Sleep? could be read as entirely referring to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, with the words “A pretty face” also referring to a mistake that McCartney made whilst singing the song.  In the last verse, the line “Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face” was supposed to be “Molly stays at home and does her pretty face”.   Desmond.  Apparently, this mistake was kept in the song because the other Beatles, even Lennon, liked it.

To add further insult, Lennon even enlisted George Harrison to play slide guitar on the song and in the 1971 film Imagine, with Harrison playing alongside him, Lennon sings, “How do you sleep, ya cunt” before asking the engineer to stop recording.  Additionally, whilst Lennon is credited with writing the song alone, multiple reports suggest that Yoko Ono and Allen Klein, now Lennon’s manager, also contributed lyrics.  Ringo Starr visited the studio during the recording of the song and was reportedly upset enough to say, “That’s enough, John”.  However, for Lennon, this wasn’t enough.  Also note how the following song on Imagine is entitled How as if to emphasise the point of How Do You Sleep? still further.  And last but not least, the inside sleeve of the Imagine album features a picture of Lennon holding the ears of a pig, parodying the cover of McCartney’s Ram.

On the release of the Imagine album, Rolling Stone magazine described How Do You Sleep? as “horrifying and indefensible”.  In an attempt to defend himself, by the mid 1970’s, Lennon often said that he had in fact written the song about himself.  However, in his interview with Playboy in 1980, he said:

“I used my resentment against Paul … to create a song … not a terrible vicious horrible vendetta … I used my resentment and withdrawing from Paul and The Beatles, and the relationship with Paul, to write How Do You Sleep?  I don’t really go round with those thoughts in my head all the time”.

In his interview with Mojo Magazine in 2001, McCartney said of How Do You Sleep?:

“The answer to John was well – I was sleeping very well at the time.  Before John died, I got back a good relationship with him.  That was very special.  The arguments we had didn’t matter.  We were able to just take the piss about all those songs; they weren’t that harsh.  In fact, I have been thanked by Yoko and everyone else for saving the Beatles from Allen Klein.  Everything comes round in the end”.

Song of the Day: War in Music (Day Four). “I’ve Got My Spine, I’ve Got My Orange Crush”.

Orange Crush, the first single taken from REM’s sixth album Green (1988), takes its inspiration from the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, manufactured by Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical for the US department of defense.  It was used in the Vietnam War (1st November 1955 – 30th April 1975) as part of the USA military’s herbicidal warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, between 1961 and 1971.

Orange Crush is one of REM’s most political songs.  Singer Michael Stipe explained in an appearance on the TV show Last Call with Carson Daly that the song is about a young man from America who played football but left to serve in Vietnam.  During the Green Tour to accompany the album, Stipe often started the song by singing “Be all you can be … in the army”, a reference to the US Army’s recruitment slogan from 1980 to 2001.

REM were already no strangers to producing overtly political songs.  Take for example, the song Exhuming McCarthy from their previous album, Document (1987), which makes an explicit parallel between the red-baiting of Joe McCarthy’s time and the strengthening of the sense of American exceptionalism throughout the Reagan era, particularly in the Iran-Contra affair.

The Iran-Contra affair was a political scandal which occurred during the second term of the Reagan administration (1983 – 1988), in which senior administration officials secretly facilitated the sales of arms to Iran, which was the subject of an arms embargo.  It was hoped that the sales of arms would secure the release of several US hostages and the money would fund the Contras in Nicaragua.  Contra militants based in Honduras were waging a guerrilla war to topple the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) revolutionary government of Nicaragua.  Under the Boland Amendment, the name given to the US legislative amendments between 1982 and 1984 aimed at limiting the US government assistance to the Contra’s militants, further funding of the Contras by the government had been prohibited by Congress.  Another motivation on the part of some officials was to press for renewed ties with the Islamic Republic. The argument for developing ties with Iran was based on the traditional Cold War concern that isolating the Khomeini regime could open the way for Moscow to assert it’s influence in a strategically vital part of the world.

In 1950, McCarthy had become the most visible face of a period of intense anti-communist suspicion inspired by the tensions of the Cold War.  McCarthy made claims that there were large numbers of Communist and Soviet spies and sympathisers inside the federal government and elsewhere.  The term ‘McCarthyism’ was coined in 1950 in order to refer to McCarthy’s practices and was soon applied to other anti-communist pursuits.  The song includes a sample from Joseph Welch’s rebuke of McCarthy from the Army-McCarthy Hearings on the 9th June 1954:  “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator … You’ve done enough.  Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?  Have you no sense of decency?”

The Vietnam War was highly significant in the Cold War.  Neither the United States of America nor the Soviet Union could risk all-out war against each other, with the nuclear military of each nation being too great.  However, when it suited both, the United States of America and the Soviet Union had client states which would carry on the fighting on their behalf.  In Vietnam, America actually fought, meaning that in the Cold War ‘game’, the Soviet Union could not.  However, to support the Communist cause, the Soviet Union armed China, a fellow Communist state.  In turn, China would equip the North Vietnamese who fought the Americans.

Other REM songs to deal with the subjects of communism, war and politics include The Flowers of Guatemala from the band’s 1986 album Life’s Rich Pageant.  In the song, the flowers cover the graves of the people killed by the US-backed military regime in Guatemala.  In 1954, the US government backed the Guatemalan coup d’etat which overthrew the democratically elected government.  This government was then replaced by a fascist dictatorship.  The coup d’etat laid the foundations for the Guatemalan Civil War, which ran from 1960 to 1996.  The Civil War was fought between the government of Guatemala and various leftist rebel groups supported chiefly by ethic Mayan indigenous people and Landino peasants, who together made up the rural poor.  The government forces of Guatemala have been condemned for committing genocide against the Mayan population of Guatemala during the Civil War and for widespread human rights violations against civilians.  The Flowers of Guatemala is about the violent right-wing government in Guatemala and the devastating effect it had on the Guatemalan people.  In The Flowers of Guatemala, “Amanita” refers to the genus of several exceptionally deadly mushrooms, including one commonly known as the ‘Destroying Angel’, serving as a metaphor for the US as a destructive force, a ‘destroying angel’.

For the Green album, the band explored political matters and their condemnation of the US government still further.  The album’s opening song, Pop Song ’89 sets the scene for the political subject matter incorporated into the album with the lines, “Should we talk about the weather?  Should we talk about the government?”

The song World Leader Pretend uses war imagery as a metaphor for the war of self-doubt that the singer wages on himself:  “I sit at my table and wage war on myself, It seems like it’s all, it’s all for nothing, I know the barricades, And I know the mortar in the wall breaks, I recognise the weapons, I’ve used them all”.

On Orange Crush, the theme of war on the Green album takes a literal turn and further explores the subject of Communism first addressed on Exhuming McCarthy.  The US government viewed its involvement in the Vietnam War as a way of preventing a Communist takeover of South Vietnam.  This was part of a wider containment policy, with the stated aim of stopping the spread of communism.  The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were fighting to reunify Vietnam under communist rule.  They viewed the conflict as a colonial war, fought initially against forces from France and then America, and later against South Vietnam.

Of Orange Crush’s lyrical content, the song opens with its chorus and the reoccurring motif “Follow me, don’t follow me”, referring to the frequent situations in the Vietnam War where one soldier was sent ahead of his troop in order to check for danger or ambush.  “Follow me”, therefore, is a cue for the troops behind the leading soldier to advance on his position.  Alternatively, the command “don’t follow me” means to cease movement and observe.

The lyric “I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush” refers to the assurance that soldiers fighting in Vietnam were given that Agent Orange would have no effect on them.  However, on returning home, the soldiers experienced an array of illnesses ranging from several forms of cancer to their wives suffering miscarriages.  Another effect of Agent Orange was Spina Bifida in the children of soldiers exposed to the chemical.  Therefore, in this line, the soldier says “I’ve got my spine”, believing that he is unaffected by the chemical and that his children won’t be affected either.  With the lyric “I’ve got my orange crush”, the soldier may also be referring to the ability to call upon air attack measures in the event that whilst being sent ahead of his troop, he runs into trouble.

The following line, “Collar me, don’t collar me” is a further reference to Spina Bifida.  The deformation of their spine caused by their fathers’ exposure to Agent Orange meant that they were often required to wear a special brace, or “collar”.  This line refers to the uncertainty of deformation and the fact that the father of the deformed child was unsure about the negative effects of the chemical.

“We are agents of the free” is a play on the word ‘agent’ in Agent Orange but also alludes to the American ideology of spreading democracy throughout the world.  The Vietnam Conflict was a war against Communism and this line finds the soldier taking the stance of somebody freeing the Vietnamese from the evils of Communism.

In the line “I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to serve your conscience overseas”, we find the soldier telling of how after having his fun playing football whilst living in Suburbia and living the American Dream, he now feels it is his duty to serve his country in the war.

Following this, “Over me, not over me” finds the soldier on the battlefield intoning that he hopes the pilot of the aircraft above him to drop the Agent Orange further ahead of him as opposed to on top of him.  The next line, “Coming in fast, over me” refers to the aircraft about to deploy the chemical flying quickly above him.

After two choruses, the first line of the verse, “High on the booze, In a tent” tells of how the soldier and his comrades pass the time in their tent drinking, whilst the following line, “Paved with blood” adds a dark twist, with the tent most probably being covered in blood from the fighting.  In this verse, the soldiers repress the atrocities that they have seen on the battlefield by finding enjoyment in alcohol.  The “Nine inch howl” that the soldier refers to is the sound of artillery firing, with “nine inch” being the artillery barrels.  In the following line, “Brave the night”, the soldier is hoping to make it through the night as the Viet Cong were known for setting traps and ambushes, whilst “Chopper comin’ in, you hope” refers to the soldier hoping for a helicopter (“chopper”) to come in and take him home, away from the battle.

The songs middle section is spoken by Stipe through a megaphone, an element of the song which worked to great effect when played live.  The singer has said that this part of the song is merely a series of random thoughts sewn together.  Despite Stipe’s assertion that these lines are nonsense, they do have significant connections to war, and specifically Vietnam.

Trying to make some sort of sense of the middle section, these lines appear to tell the story of the soldier arriving in Vietnam and being lost in a strange land (“We would circle and we’d circle and we’d circle”); fixing the army vehicles ready or warfare (“Stacked up all the trucks and jacked up and our wheels”); enjoying the beauty of Vietnam whilst not fighting (“It’s just like heaven here”) and finally heading home in the helicopter (“Then this whirlybird that I headed for, I had my goggles pulled off”), realising that after so long in Vietnam, he now knew the place like the back of his hand (“I knew every back road and every truck stop”).  Alternatively, If we were simply to see these lines as nonsense as Stipe suggests, they could be seen to denote the soldier suffering from shellshock, which is likely to cause him to have random flashbacks and mutter random occurrences.

The megaphone used in Orange Crush could be seen as significant to the subject matter of war in the song, perhaps being an allusion to the amplification of commands given over the noise of the battlefield or, more likely, to the way in which if negotiations between countries or parties are held through press releases and announcements, they are termed ‘megaphone diplomacy’.  The aim of ‘megaphone diplomacy’ is to force the other party into adopting a desired position.

Therefore, the use of the megaphone may refer to the war announcements made by the US and Vietnam through the media and the pivotal role that the media played in the Vietnam War.  At the beginning of the Second World War, television had gradually become familiar to the public but by the end of the war, it began to be manufactured on a large scale.  In the 1950s, only 9% of American homes owned a television, a figure which rose dramatically to 93% by the mid-sixties at the height of the Vietnam War.  A survey conducted in 1964 suggested that 58% of respondents received their news from television, making the medium the most important source of news for the American people during the Vietnam Conflict.

Additionally, the idea of the use of a megaphone is also addressed on the song Hairshirt, a song of self-repentance which compliments both Orange Crush and World Leader Pretend.  A hairshirt was a scratchy woolen undergarment worn by religiously repentant people between the 13th and 15th century, who believed that suffering brought you closer to God.  In Hairshirt, the lyric “I can swing my megaphone, And long arm the rest, It’s easier and better, To just beat it from the chest, Of desire” finds the singer pondering over the importance of the messages that he delivers in his lyrics and his significance as a songwriter.

Linking Hairshirt to Orange Crush, the use of music in war and other political matters has been highly significant over the years.  During the Vietnam War, music and particularly the protest song, was highly important, with artists such as The Doors (take for example, The Unknown Soldier from Waiting for the Sun, 1968) …

… and John Lennon (take for example, Give Peace A Chance, 1969) using their music to express their disdain for the conflict.

Orange Crush was obviously written long after the Vietnam War ended but deals with the after-effects of the conflict and the continuing damage caused to those who fought and their families.  Thus, Orange Crush proudly takes its place in the pantheon of songs addressing the conflict and of anti-war songs in general.

The Green album was both commercially and artistically a turning point for the band.  In a 1988 interview with Elianna Halbersberg for East Coast Rocker in November 1988, Peter Buck described Green as an album which didn’t feature any typical REM songs.  He described the band’s previous output as “Minor key, mid-tempo, enigmatic, semi-folk balladish things” and said for Green, the band “wrote major key rock songs and switched instruments”.   In conversation with the band’s biographer, David Buckley for the book Fiction:  An Alternative Biography (2003), Michael Stipe stated that he told his band mates to “not write any more REM-type songs”.  This was an experiment that REM would later repeat on the 1994 album Monster, a move away from the sound of the albums Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), which following the embryonic commercialism of Green, gained the band even further commercial success.

With the change of direction on Green, it is no surprise that REM’s war anthem Orange Crush was given the full rock treatment.  Orange Crush is an upbeat pop song full of jangling guitars which sound like the artillery fire talked about in the lyrics, complete with that middle section which places the listener in the centre of the battlefield and further compliments the images of helicopters deploying Agent Orange in the song and the intensity of battle.  Orange Crush, and the rest of the Green album, finds REM exploring sonic directions in order to paint pictures to accompany Stipe’s increasingly cinematic lyrics.  Bassist Mike Mills, in conversation with David Buckley, said of the Green album in conversation that it was an experimental record, resulting in an album which was “haphazard, a little scattershot”.  This haphazard and scattershot approach though is exactly what makes Orange Crush so wonderful and one of the many highlights of an often underrated and overlooked album in REM’s canon, with the, at first nonsensical sounding lyrical content conjuring up images of the confusion and mayhem on the battlefields of the Vietnam War.

When it came to producing a video for Orange Crush, REM turned to director Matt Muhurin, who is also responsible for videos for singles by U2, Queensryche, Metallica, Tracy Chapman, Tom Waits and Alice in Chains.  The video for Orange Crush won REM their first VMA award for Best Post-Modern Video.  Orange Crush was the first song to win in the category.

Orange Crush was later covered by Editors and used as the B-side of their Blood single in 2005.  The Editors cover version is fairly faithful to REM’s original in terms of its musical content but starts with a stripped down piano led interpretation of the line “I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush” and adds the band’s own lyrics “High on the roof, Thin the blood, Another one on the waves tonight, Comin’ in, you’re home”.  The latter change to the song not only links the cover version with A-side of the Editors single with the use of the word “blood” but also adds an extra-dimension and shows the malleability, longevity and brilliance of the song’s composition.