Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Two). “I Always Flirt With Death, I Look Ill But I Don’t Care About It”.

As I talked about yesterday, in songs such as David Bowie’s Space Oddity (David Bowie, 1969), whether space is a metaphor for the effects of heroin, or others drugs, is something that is often debated.  However, on other songs such as The Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, their best known single and the second track on their debut album, The Only Ones (1978), the references, whilst still being the subject of debate, are much more blatant.  Though the song is often considered something of a rock standard and various publications have named the song the greatest rock single ever recorded, Another Girl, Another Planet was not a hit when first released.  In fact, the song’s highest chart position was number 44 on the New Zealand chart in July 1981.  The song was re-released in the UK in January 1992, backed with Pretty in Pink by The Psychedelic Furs to promote the compilation album, Sound of the Suburbs.  On this release, the song reached number 57 on the UK singles chart, its highest position to date.  Another Girl, Another Planet was placed at number 18 in John Peel’s all time Festive Fifty millennium edition and when playing it as part of 1980’s Festive Fifty, in which it reached number 28, he introduced it as an “artful little caprice”.

Although this song, with its soaring guitars, perfect three minute pop format and front-man Peter Perrett’s elliptical lyrics could simply be read as a song about the excitement and perils of space travel and having a girl on every planet the narrator passes, something which gives the song some of its huge appeal, dig deeper into the song and the heroin references are plain for all to see.

Another Girl, Another Planet starts with the killer opening lines, “I always flirt with death, I look ill but I don’t care about it”.  To “flirt with death” is an expression normally used when talking about doing something dangerous and life-threatening for personal enjoyment.   Here, to “flirt with death” is about the dangers associated with injecting heroin. “I look ill, but I don’t don’t care about it” straightforwardly refers to the sick look which heroin users are prone to inheriting due to regular usage.  This look has in recent years, thanks to the fashion world, become known as ‘heroin chic’ and is characterised by pale skin, dark circles and angular bone structure due to weight loss.  Interestingly, in Blink 182’s cover version of Another Girl, Another Planet (Greatest Hits, 2005), they change the line to “I could kill, but I don’t care about it”, which could refer to the fact that in the process of ‘cooking’ a batch of black tar, bacterial spores can enter the drug solution.   Once the drug is injected, these spores can damage and even kill the body’s muscle, skin and organ tissues.  Alternatively, or perhaps simultaneously, perhaps the singer is telling of how he would kill to receive the drug and its hit.

In the following lines, “I can face your threats, Stand up tall and scream and shout about it”, the facing of “threats” may refer to side effects and risks associated with taking the drug.  The second of these lines, “Stand up tall and scream and shout about it”, finds the singer defiant, telling of how he does not care who knows about his heroin use because of the euphoria he receives from the drug.

The chorus of the song, “I think I’m on another world with you, I’m on another planet with you” finds the singer metaphorically on another planet following the hit of the drug.  Heroin often leads people to hallucinate, so perhaps in this context, Perrett is speaking of how heroin takes him to places that he cannot reach when not under the influence and perhaps hallucinating about women.  It is said that this is a common hallucination when taking heroin.   Alternatively, the “girl” of which Perrett speaks could be a personification of the needle used to inject the drug, with the use of the word “another” being telling of Perrett’s repeated drug use.  Perrett was often compared to Lou Reed, so much so that when listening to an Only Ones recording, the NME’s Nick Kent once believed he was listening to a new Lou Reed recording.  If we were to see the “girl” as a personification of the needle, then we could compare this line to the line, “It’s my wife and it’s my life” in the Velvet Underground’s Heroin (The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967).

As the song’s second verse opens, we find the line, “You always get under my skin, I don’t find it irritating”, possibly the clearest heroin reference in the whole song.  Usually, if somebody gets under your skin, they are annoying you.  However, here, Perrett states “I don’t find it irritating”, meaning that he enjoys literally having the needle beneath his skin because he knows that what will follow will be a pleasurable experience.  The following line, “You always play to win” refers to heroin playing to win, i.e. claiming lives and being a very difficult addiction to beat.  The following line, “I don’t need rehabilitating” implies that he does not wish to try to kick the habit and would rather “flirt with death” and allow the drug to win.

The song’s final verse starts with the lines, “Space travel’s in my blood, And there ain’t nothing I can do about it”, Perrett’s declaration that he can’t get clean from heroin and that he doesn’t want to try to.  In the following lines, “Long journeys wear me out, Oh God we won’t live without it”, the ‘long journey’ refers to being under the influence of heroin for an extended period of time.  After coming down from his high, he is worn out.  Note the pluralisation of ‘journey’, which is telling of the repetition of injecting the drug.  The line, “Oh God we won’t live without it” is further evidence of the singer’s defiant stance against stopping taking the drug.  In the song’s coda, the line “Another planet, forever holding you down” is, once again, testament to the grip that the drug has on him.  Additionally, heroin is a downer or depressant:  hence, the repetition of injecting the drug is forever holding the singer down.

When asked whether drugs were an aspiration for him in an interview with Classic Rock magazine in July 2014, Perret replied:

“No, it was just an accident.  I never, ever wanted to devote my life to drugs.  I’d starting smoking joints and they relaxed me.  Because I wanted the best hash, I started meeting people that had the best hash.  Gradually, over a couple of years, I met people, started doing it as a business.  I signed on at college and I used to go in at the beginning of each term, get my grant money and start up dealing, then I eventually met people, started importing it.  Then we went over to importing cocaine – it’s a fraction of the size, much easier to smuggle in, and you’re facing the same risks.  All of a sudden, I’m doing the cocaine that used to knock my head off.  That was about 1975, and after that I tried smack.  That was a big mistake because all of a sudden, that was the best feeling I’d ever felt in my life.  That’s why it’s so dangerous.  It’s silly telling people not to take it.  You’ve got to let them know that the reason it’s so dangerous is because it’s the best feeling you’ve had in your life, and it’s so hard not to want it all the time, and if you have it all the time, eventually it stops working and you need it just to be able to function”.

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.