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 Inspired by Television Shows (Day Six). “I Want My MTV”.

Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits’ fifth album, was released in 1985.  The album charted at number one worldwide, spending ten weeks at number one in the UK and nine weeks at the top spot in the US and thirty-four weeks at number one in Australia.  It became the eighth best-selling album in UK chart history, is certified nine times platinum in the US and is one of the world’s best selling albums, having sold over thirty million copies worldwide.  It was also one of the first albums to be released in the CD format.  Following the release of opening track So Far Away as the first single just prior to the album’s release, the second single was one of Dire Straits’ most recognisable, famous and enduring songs, Money for Nothing.

Money for Nothing is notable for several reasons:  Its controversial lyrics, groundbreaking video and cameo appearance by Sting, who sings the song’s falsetto introduction and backing chorus, “I want my MTV”.  The single’s accompanying video was also the first to be aired on MTV Europe when the network started on the 1st August 1987.  The single was one of the band’s most successful, staying at the top spot in the US for three weeks and peaking at number four on the UK charts.  Money for Nothing went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1986 at the 28th Grammy Awards.

The lyrics of Money for Nothing are written from the point of view of a working class man working in a hardware store who is watching music videos on MTV and commenting on what he sees.  Singer, guitarist and songwriter explained the song’s meaning in a 1984 interview with critic Bill Flanagan, saying:

“The lead character in Money for Nothing is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television / custom kitchen / refrigerator / microwave appliance store.  He’s singing the song.  I wrote the song when I was actually in the store.  I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store.  I wanted to use the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real …”

In a 2000 interview with Michael Parkinson on his television programme, Parkinson, Knopfler explained the origin of the lyrics again, saying that he was in New York and stopped by an appliance store.  At the back of the store, they had a wall of TVs which were all showing MTV.  Knopfler continued to explain how there was a man working there dressed in a baseball cap, work boots, and a checkered shirt delivering boxes who was standing next to him watching.  As they were standing there watching MTV, Knophler remembers the man coming up with lines such as “what are those, Hawaiian noises? … that ain’t working” and so on.  Knopfler asked for a pen to write down some of the lines to eventually put them to music.

The character in the song, speaking in the first person, refers to a musician that he sees on the screen “Banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee” and a woman “Stickin’ in the camera, man we could have some fun”.  He moans about how the artists that he sees get “money for nothing and chicks for free” and describes a singer as “that little faggot with the earring and the make up” and moans about how the artists that he sees get “money for nothing and chicks for free”.

In an interview with Blender magazine in 2007, Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx claimed that the song was written about his band, saying:  ““Money for nothing and the chicks for free … that little faggot got his own jet airplane”.  They were in a store that sells televisions, and there was a row of TVs all playing Motley Crue – and that’s where it came from.  Isn’t that great?”

The lyrics in the song’s second verse, “See that little faggot with the earring and the makeup, Yeah buddy that’s his own hair, That little faggot got his own jet airplane, that little faggot he’s a millionaire” sparked much controversy, with several publications deeming them to be homophobic.  In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Knopfler said of the criticism:

“I got an objection from the editor of a gay newspaper in London – he actually said it was below the belt.  Apart from the fact that there are stupid gay people as well as stupid other people, it suggests that maybe you can’t let it have too many meanings – you have to be direct.  In fact, I’m still in two minds as to whether it’s a good idea to write songs that aren’t in the first person, to take on other characters.  The singer in Money for Nothing is a real ignoramus, hard hat mentality – someone who sees everything in financial terms.  I mean, this guy has a grudging respect for rock stars.  He sees it in terms of, well, that’s not working and yet the guy’s rich:  that’s a good scam.  He isn’t sneering”.

The songwriting credits for Money for Nothing are shared between Knopfler and Sting.  Whilst Dire Straits were recording the song in Montserrat, Sting was also visiting the city and Knopfler invited him to add some background vocals.  Sting has said that his only writing contribution to Money for Nothing was the line “I want my MTV”, which follows the melody from The Police’s song, Don’t Stand So Close to Me (Zenyatta Mondatta, 1980).

In terms of the song’s music, Knopfler modelled his guitar sound for the distinctive riff after ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons’ trademark guitar tone, much due to the fact that ZZ Top’s music videos were very popular on MTV.  In an interview with Musician magazine in 1986, Gibbons stated that Knopfler had asked for his help in creating the right guitar sound for the track, but also said, “He didn’t do a half-bad job, considering I didn’t tell him a thing!”

The video for Money for Nothing, directed by Steve Barron, who also directed the videos for A-Ha’s Take On Me (Hunting High and Low, 1985) …

… and Thomas Dolby’s She Blinded Me With Science (The Golden Age of Wireless, 1982), was seen as highly innovate at the time.

The video was the one of the first to feature computer generated animation by means of the early program, Paintbox.  Apparently, the characters in the video were supposed to have more detail, such as buttons on their shirts, but the project went over budget.  The video won the award for Best Video at the MTV Music Awards in 1986.

In the book I Want My MTV:  The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (2011), it is explained by various people who worked at the network that Dire Straits’ manager Ed Bicknell asked MTV what they could do to get on the network and break America.  MTV’s answer was, for them to write a hit song and have a top director make a video.  In a 2011 interview with Culturebrats, Barron said of the video:

“The song is damning to MTV in a way.  That was an iconic video.  Te characters we created were made of televisions, and they were slagging off television.  Videos were getting a bit boring, they needed some waking up.  And MTV went nuts for it.  It was like a big advertisement for them”.

Song of the Day: Music Inspired by Television Shows (Day Five). “Once A Time, They Nearly Might Have Been, Bones and Oogie on A Silver Screen”.

On Slip Away, from his 2002 album, Heathen, David Bowie paid homage to the New Jersey born ‘Uncle’ Floyd Vivino.  Vivino, born 1951, is a vaudeville-styled comic and pianist who hosted The Uncle Floyd Show on cable television between 1974 and 1998, when it was cancelled.  The Uncle Floyd Show started out life as a children’s show hosted by Vivino, along with a cast of puppets, who outnumbered the human cast members by at least three to one.  The puppets used by Vivano included Bones Boy and Oogie, both mentioned by Bowie in Slip Away.

Despite his intention for the show to appeal to children, it soon became apparent that its subtle adult humour wasn’t being understood by a young audience, so Vivino reworked the show so that it would appeal more to an older audience, as well as children. The show also featured appearances from musicians such as Cyndi Lauper, Bon Jovi, The Smithereens and The Ramones.  The Ramones also mentioned The Uncle Floyd Show in their 1981 song, It’s Not My Place (in the 9 -5 World), from the album Pleasant Dreams:  “Hanging out with Lester Bangs and all, Phil Spector has it all and all, Uncle Floyd Show’s on the TV”.

The cast of The Uncle Floyd Show first became aware of Bowie’s interest when he attended a live appearance at New York’s The Bottom Line nightclub on the 29th January 1981.  Bowie met Vivino and told him how he had always had the show on whilst he was getting ready to perform in The Elephant Man, the Broadway play by Bernard Pomerance, in which he played the lead role of John Merrick.  Bowie had been introduced to The Uncle Floyd Show by another fan, John Lennon.

Two decades later, Bowie rang Vivino and informed him that the tribute song was to be featured on Heathen.  In an exclusive interview for davidbowie.com, Bowie said of the song:

“Both Slip Away and Afraid [also from Heathen] were recorded early last year and I liked these 2 so much, I just moved them forward to this album.  We completely re-recorded Slip Away over one of Matt’s [drummer Matt Chamberlain] great loop parts.  Back in the late 70’s, everyone I knew would rush home at a certain point in the afternoon to catch The Uncle Floyd Show.  He was on UHF Channel 68 and the show looked like it was done out of his living room in New Jersey.  All his pals were involved and it was a hoot.  It had that Soupy Sales kind of appeal and though ostensibly aimed at kids, I knew so many people of my age who just wouldn’t miss it.  We would be on the floor, it was so funny.  Two of the regulars on the show were Oogie and Bones Boy, ridiculous puppets made out of ping pong balls or some such.  They feature in the song.  I just loved that show”.

Slip Away started out life as a song called Uncle Floyd, recorded for the officially unreleased Toy album, which Bowie had scheduled for release in 2001.  Bowie intended Toy to feature new versions of some of his earliest songs as well as three new songs.  However, the project morphed into creating the Heathen album instead.  In terms of overall composition, Uncle Floyd is fairly similar to Slip Away, with its most notable difference being the inclusion of a segment from The Uncle Floyd Show in the intro.  The Uncle Floyd Show intro was later used when Slip Away was played live on the Heathen Tour and the A Reality Tour to accompany Heathen’s follow up album Reality (2003).  The use of the segment from The Uncle Floyd Show on Uncle Floyd adds another dimension to the composition and is particularly effective in concert, because despite its humorous nature, the clip features Oogie posing the sadly prophetic question, “Did you ever stop and think:  If there wasn’t an Uncle Floyd Show, what everyone on the show would be doing?”  Given the nature of the lyrics, which seem to evoke the feeling of Uncle Floyd, Oogie and Bones Boy being lost and forgotten nearly-stars (“Once a time, They nearly might have been, Bones and Oogie on a silver screen” and “… Some of us will always stay behind, Down in space, it’s always 1982, The joke we always knew”), this intro segment works perfectly.

There is a wonderful quality of maudlin beauty to both Slip Away and Uncle Floyd.  Bowie uses his saddest sounding vocal tones to full effect and the gigantic, crashing, cinematic chorus, one of Bowie’s most underrated, seems to stretch further than the space that Uncle Floyd, Bones Boy and Oogie find themselves in.  Then there is Bowie’s use of the stylophone, the toy instrument first used in Space Oddity (David Bowie, 1969), which just serves to add to the beauty of this stunning track. If you are not shedding a tear whilst listening to this song about lost heroes who should have been huge stars, then you are potentially dead.  Just “don’t forget to keep your head warm”.

Footnote:  Sadly, I couldn’t find a clip from The Uncle Floyd Show anywhere on YouTube.

Song of the Day: Music Inspired by Television Shows (Day Three). “Your Music’s Shite, It Keeps Me Up All Night”.

The closing track of Oasis’s era-defining debut album Definitely Maybe (1994), was partly inspired by an argument between Noel Gallagher and his then girlfriend, Louise Jones.  Jones, sick of being kept awake by Gallagher playing his guitar coined the phrase “Your music’s shite!”  Gallagher’s reaction was of course, “had to keep those lines” and thus, the idea for Married With Children was born.

The other inspiration for the song was the American sitcom Married … with Children, which ran for eleven seasons between 1987 and 1997, from which the song takes its title.  In an interview with Melody Maker in 1994, Gallagher explained:  “I looked at them two in the show, and looked at us two, and I thought, that’s us, that is!”

He also said of the song, “It’s another song that anybody could relate to, because if you live with a girlfriend or just a flatmate, there are always petty things that you hate about them, and this song’s just about pettiness”.

Gallagher put these elements together in the bedroom of producer Mark Coyle’s house, writing the song on the Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar that had been left there by Stone Roses guitarist John Squire. Interestingly, the song uses the same chord progression as Lithium by Nirvana, from their 1991 album Nevermind.  A good chord progression to share since Gallagher was about to become as much of a figurehead to indie music as Kurt Cobain was to grunge.

The song was recorded there and then in Coyle’s bedroom with just Noel Gallagher, Liam Gallagher and Coyle present.  Coyle used the limited recording equipment available, which he described in Definitely Maybe: The Documentary (2004) as “appalling”, to create a subtle and charming end to an album that has gone down in history as one of the greatest debuts ever made.

The basic nature of the song’s composition and recording also showed another side to Oasis, the softer more acoustic approach which would later be used to great success on the number 2 hit Wonderwall, from the following album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995).

Lyrically, Gallagher played to his biggest song writing talent, that, once again, of keeping it simple.  As Gary ‘Mani’ Mountfield of The Stone Roses and ex-Primal Scream says in Definitely Maybe: The Documentary, “People don’t want to get the logarithm tables out when it comes to music”. Gallagher also played to another talent, that of the great lyrical hook.  The both fearsomely working class and endlessly humorous refrain of “Your music’s shite, It keeps me up all night”, particularly when sung by Liam Gallagher is his inimitable style is just one of many on Definitely Maybe.

Song of the Day: Music Inspired by Television Shows (Day Two). “And So It’s My Assumption, I’m Really Up the Junction”.

Up the Junction is the eighth track on, and third single from, Squeeze’s second album, Cool for Cats (1979).   The song became one of Squeeze’s most successful singles, reaching number two on the UK chart and has become one of their most enduring and recognisable compositions. The tale of working class life set in the band’s native South London is notable for not having a chorus, instead using key changes to its base progression in order to mirror the dramatic arc of its storyline.  ”.  Structurally, the song is similar to Bob Dylan’s Positively 4th Street (1965), which songwriters Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have cited as an influence.  In a piece written for The Guardian on the 5th May 2015, Tilbrook stated “There’s no chorus because I thought a repeated section would spoil the flow of Chris’s story”.

Lyrically, the song is well-known for its use of half rhymes.  For example, “ready” and “telly”; “kitchen” and “missing”.  The title of the song is not sung until the final line.  Difford has been known to cite Roxy Music’s Virginia Plain (1972), which similarly only has the song’s title in the last line, as the inspiration for this.

Difford has acknowledged that the song takes its title from the 1965 television play Up the Junction, aired as part of The Wednesday Play series, directed by Ken Loach, and the subsequent film version, released in 1968.

The play is, in turn, based on Neil Dunn’s collection of short stories of the same name, first published in 1963. The film version of Up the Junction featured a song named also named Up the Junction by Manfred Mann, which is unrelated to Squeeze’s song.

Although Squeeze’s Up the Junction is not a retelling of the play, it does include several parallels.  Firstly, both the play and Squeeze’s song are a portrayal of daily life in the Clapham area of London, the song beginning with the lines “I never thought it would happen, With me and a girl from Clapham”.  The “Junction” in both the song and the play refers to Clapham Junction railway station.  Clapham is seven miles southwest of Deptford, where the band is from.  The term ‘up the junction’ is English slang meaning without hope, or taken at its crudest level with another English colloquialism, ‘screwed’.   In turn, ‘screwed’ is also a colloquialism for someone who has just had sexual intercourse, thus linking in with the theme of pregnancy in both the play and particularly in the song, in which it is a main theme.  The use of colloquial working class language is prominent in both the song and the play.

As the song continues, the “windy common” mentioned as the place where ‘it happened’ between the song’s protagonist and his love interest is a 200 acre park in Clapham which has sports fields, freshwater ponds, a bandstand and its own tube station.  Further into the song, following a verse of flirting between the couple, we find the lines “We moved into a basement, With thoughts of our engagement, We stayed in by the telly, Although the room was smelly”.  Here, the protagonist and love interest are living together and thinking about marriage.  They are living very modestly but happily, staying at home and enjoying each other’s company and watching the television.  Further to this, in the following lines, “We spent our time just kissing, The Railway Arms we’re missing, But love has got us hooked up, And all our time it took up” sees the couple loved up and starting a new way of life away from the local pub, “The Railway Arms”.

In the following verse, the protagonist tells of how he “got a job with Stanley, He said I’d come in handy, And started me on Monday, So I had a bath on Sunday”.  The first day of a new job being a special enough occasion to have a bath is a reflection of the economic situation of the characters in the song.  Additionally, the idea of having a bath as and when needed is an example of the humorous self-defacing attitude towards British working class life prominent in the song.  For further examples of this, see the line “She dealt out all the rations, With some or other passions” in the first verse.  This line not only depicts the love interest playing hard to get but is also a comment on rationing in post-World War Two Britain, which didn’t end until 1954.  If we were to take the song to be set in the same era as the play, with the book on which it was based having been published in 1963, then although rationing was finished, it would have still been very fresh in the memories of the characters involved.  Also, the couple live in a “basement”, which has connotations of them being at the bottom of the property ladder.

In the next verse, “I worked eleven hours, And bought the girl some flowers, She said she’d seen a doctor, And nothing now could stop her”, we see the change in circumstances which informs the rest of the song.  Interestingly, after the love interest finds out she is pregnant, the song’s tempo speeds up, perhaps referring to the passage of time taking on a new speed and evoking the chaos which the couple are thrown into.

For the next verse, “I worked all through the winter, The weather brass and bitter, I put away a tenner, Each week to make her better, And when the time was ready, We had to sell the telly, Late evenings by the fire, With little kicks inside her”, the song shifts from a major to minor key in order to simulate the passing of time and circumstance and the change of season.  The “brass” is another British colloquialism from the phrase “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”.  It is derived from small monkeys cast from alloy brass which were very common tourist souvenirs from China and Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries.  They often, although not always, came in a set of three representing the Three Wise Monkeys carved in wood above the Shrine of Toshogu in Nikko, Japan.  Some sets added a fourth monkey with its hand covering its genitals.  Similarly, “tenner” is another British colloquialism, meaning ten pounds.  The fact that the couple have “to sell the telly [another colloquialism, meaning television]” shows how tight money is, particularly with their new arrival imminent.  The couple also live in cramped conditions; note how their living quarters is referred to as a “room” earlier in the song.  This means they would be thinking there would now be very little room for a “telly” once the baby arrived.  The fact that the couple are sitting in front of the fire in the penultimate line of the verse is telling of the coldness of the couple’s flat during the winter.

The next verse, “This morning at four fifty, I took her rather nifty, Down to an incubator, Where thirty minutes later, She gave birth to a daughter, Within a year a walker, She looked just like her mother, If there could be another”, switches back to the major key, conveying the joy of childbirth.  This joy is short-lived, as the next verse explains:  “And now she’s two years older, Her mother’s with a soldier, She left me when my drinking, Became a proper stinging, The devil came and took me, From bar to street to bookie, no more nights by the telly, no more nappies smelling”.  In this verse, the stress of fatherhood has taken its toll on the protagonist, his partner and his daughter are no longer in his life and he has succumbed to the twin vices of drinking and gambling.

The following verse, “Alone here in the kitchen, I feel there’s something missing, I’d beg for some forgiveness, But begging’s not my business, And she won’t write a letter, Although I always tell her, And so it’s really my assumption, I’m really up the junction” finds the protagonist missing his partner and daughter and his old life but admitting that it is his own fault that he is on his own.  The fact that he wants his ex-spouse to write a letter shows that the protagonist wants to make amends for his wrongdoings and have his family back in his life.  The brilliance of the song’s composition is seen in the way in which the final line, featuring the phrase “up the junction”, referring to both the hopelessness of the situation and Clapham Junction, brings the song full circle with the opening scene, “I never thought it would happen, With me and a girl from Clapham”.

And what became of the “girl from Clapham”?  She reappears in the later Squeeze song A Moving Story, from their 1998 album Domino.

The music video for Up the Junction features the band playing in a flat.  The flat is actually John Lennon’s old house, the same house where the promotional film for Imagine was filmed.  Additionally, the song is also notable for its accompanying Top of the Pops performance, for which the band, miming to the song, swapped instruments.  For example, singer Glenn Tilbrook is on drums and pianist Jools Holland is on guitar.

Song of the Day: Music Inspired by Television Shows (Day One). “Jeux Sans Frontieres …”

Always one to push musical boundaries, when Peter Gabriel presented his 1980 album Peter Gabriel to Atlantic Records, who handled the US distribution for his previous two albums and his final two albums with Genesis, it was flatly rejected.  Upon hearing mixes of the album’s session tapes in early 1980, Atlantic A&R executive John Kalodner deemed the album not commercial enough and recommended that Atlantic drop Gabriel from their artist roster.  As a result, Peter Gabriel, also referred to as ‘Melt’ due to its sleeve picture and to distinguish it from his three other self-titled albums, became Gabriel’s only release for Mercury Records.

By the time Peter Gabriel was eventually released several months after being rejected, Kalodner, now working for Geffen Records, realised his mistake and arranged for Gabriel to be signed to the label.  Peter Gabriel was subsequently reissued on Geffen Records in 1983.  The first single to be taken from Peter Gabriel, Games Without Frontiers, was released three months prior to the album and set the precedent for further explorations into the eclectic mix of sounds and intelligent lyricism that pervades Gabriel’s body of work.

Games Without Frontiers, as is the case with many of Gabriel’s compositions, is a song which takes one idea and builds it into a piece with a variety of meanings.  The starting point of Games Without Frontiers came from the long running European television show, Jeux Sans Frontieres, which translates as ‘Games Without Frontiers’.  The song starts with the refrain “Jeux sans frontieres”, often misheard as “She’s so popular”, sung by collaborator Kate Bush.

The idea for Jeux Sans Frontieres, which ran from 1965 to 1999, is credited to French President Charles de Gaulle, who thought it would be a good idea for French and German youths to meet in a series of funny games in order to reinforce the friendship between France and Germany in the post-World War Two era.  This idea was then put to other European countries and as a result, countries from all around Europe took part.  In the show, teams representing towns and cities from the various European countries would compete in games of skill, usually dressed in bizarre costumes, hence the line in the song, “Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games”.  Whilst some games were simple races, other games allowed one team to obstruct the other.  As to be expected, there was a strong element of nationalism in the games.  The British version of Jeux Sans Frontieres was titled It’s A Knockout, which is referenced by Gabriel in the lyrics in the final verse of Games Without Frontiers:  “It’s a knockout, If looks could kill, they probably will”.

And then we find the sublime brilliance of Gabriel’s writing because the use of references to Jeux Sans Frontieres is an allegory for the childish antics of adults.  Gabriel noted the attitudes of countries towards each other in the sporting events and the seriousness with which they competed against each other despite them supposedly being fun, hence the likening of such competitions to war.

The character of Andre in the lyric “Andre has a red flag, Chiang Ching’s is blue” refers to Andre Malraux (1901 – 1976), a French statesman and author of the book Man’s Fate (1933), about Shanghai’s communist regime in the 1920s.  The “red flag” that he has refers to Malraux’s leftist politics.  Chiang in the following lyric, “Chiang Ching’s is blue” refers to Chiang Kai-shek (1887 – 1975), the Chinese leader of the Kuomintang who opposed the Communists, hence the right-wing blue flag.  In 1949, after being defeated in the Civil War, Kai-shek’s forces fled to Taiwan, where they set up a government in exile.  Lin Tai-Yu in the line “They all have hills to fly them on except for Lin Tai-Yu” refers to Nguyen Van Thieu (1923 – 2001), the South Vietnamese president at the height of the Vietnam War.  Following the Communist victory of 1975, Thieu fled to Taiwan, followed by England, and later to the US where he died in exile.  The lyric refers to the way in which whilst leftist politicians such as Andre Malraux had a secure position in France and rightist leaders such as Chiang Kai-shek had a secure country in Taiwan, those in the middle such as Nguyen Van Thieu had no secure country and were just pawns in the Cold War game.

Additionally, Lin Tai-Yu is a character in the classic Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber (1868) by Cao Xueqin, which charts the rise and fall of the Qing Dynasty.   In the novel, Lin Tai-Yu is emotionally fragile and prone to fits of jealousy.   She is also described as a lonely, proud and ultimately tragic figure.  Therefore, her name could be used in order to represent a country which is in a weak position during a war and is jealous of the positions of other countries.

Despite the song actually having been written prior to the incident, Games Without Frontiers took on further meaning when it was released as a single shortly after the 1980 US boycott of the Olympic Games, which is referred to in the single’s accompanying video with scenes from Olympic events juxtaposed with clips from 1950 public information film Duck and Cover, which used a cartoon turtle to instruct school children on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

Gabriel also covers the Olympic Games in the first verse of Games Without Frontiers.  The lyric “Adolf builds a bonfire …” refers to the way in which the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Berlin, Germany, was used by Hitler as an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race.  Hitler had high hopes that Germany would dominate the games with victories and was horrified when Jesse Owens, an African-American, won four gold medals in sprints and the long jump.  On the first day of the games, Hitler had only shaken hands with the German victors and left the stadium.  On the day when Owens was due to be decorated with the first of the four gold medals, the Olympic committee gave Hitler the ultimatum that he either shook Owens’ hand or didn’t shake any hands at all.  He chose the latter option.  The decision was largely seen as a snub towards Owens.  To add insult to injury, Owens later discovered that Franklin D. Roosevelt had not invited him to the White House to honour his victories in the games.  The line continues, “… Enrico plays with it”.  The Enrico mentioned is Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901 – 1954), who is most notable for his work on Chicago Pile-1, the first nuclear reactor.  In 1938, he won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on induced radioactivity by neutron bombardment and the discovery of transuranic elements.

To sum up the point that Gabriel is making in Games Without Frontiers, “War without frontiers” refers to a competition between nations, whilst “war without tears” refers to countries competing for supremacy without using any military force.  Therefore, Games Without Frontiers is a song about nations using athletes to fight wars.

Song of the Day: Music About Other Artists (Day Four). The Go-Betweens on Patti Smith on Kurt Cobain and Others. “When She Sang About A Boy, Kurt Cobain, I Thought What A Shame It Wasn’t About Tom Verlaine”.

Patti Smith, along with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, began work on her sixth studio album, Gone Again (1996) in 1994.  Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, previously of the seminal garage band MC5, was a highly influential force on what would become Patti Smith’s first album since Dream of Life in 1988, teaching her to play acoustic guitar so she could write songs by herself and providing her with titles and concepts to develop.

The first of these songs was Summer Cannibals, the eventual single from the album, which discussed the darker side of being a rock musician.  The couple drew from Fred’s Indian ancestry in order to compose a song told from the point of view of a tribe’s shaman.  The song tells of an old woman coming down from the hills in order to tell her people of their history, informing them of, in times of strife, the cycle of life and the changing seasons. And thus began the potent theme of death on Gone Again, a theme inspired by the deaths of several people close to Smith.

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe had died March 9th 1989, aged 42, from an AIDs-related illness …

… and Patti Smith Group pianist Richard Sohl had died on June 3rd 1990, aged 37, from heart failure.

During the writing of Gone Again, Patti Smith was devastated yet further when on November 4th 1994, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith died suddenly from heart failure, aged just 45.   The loss of her husband informs a vast majority of Gone Again but specifically the final song, Farewell Reel.  Played on the acoustic guitar which her husband taught her how to play, Farewell Reel opens with the spoken message, “This little song’s for Fred; it’s G, C, D and D minor”.

Shortly after the death of her husband, her brother, Todd, also died, aged 45.  Gone Again is also notable for featuring the last studio performance by Jeff Buckley, who added his voice to Beneath The Southern Cross.

Smith was also moved by the death of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, with whom she had sympathised.  Cobain committed suicide, aged 27, on 5th April 1994.  Smith didn’t know Cobain personally but told Seattle Weekly News in 2010:

“My reaction to Kurt Cobain was much more emotional.  I was heartbroken when he committed suicide.  I loved Nirvana.  And I knew that Kurt Cobain was very fond of my husband and the MC5.  We felt so badly.  We just wished that we would have known him, and been able to talk to him, and had some sort of positive effect on him.  Seeing Robert [Mapplethorpe] doing everything to live, and then seeing this very gifted boy kill himself was painful to factor”.

Smith’s reaction to Cobain’s death can be heard on the song About A Boy, a suitably etheral and sometimes funereal lament, the title of which is a play on Nirvana’s About A Girl, from their 1989 album Bleach.

Lyrically, About A Boy, much like many other songs on Gone Again, is spiritual and almost hymnal with lines such as “Toward another, He has gone, To breathe an air, Beyond his own, Toward a wisdom, Beyond the shelf, Toward a dream, That dreams itself”.

The verse “From the forest, from the foam, from the field, That he had, Known, Toward a river, Twice as blessed, Toward the inn of happiness” tells of Cobain’s ascendance to heaven but also refers to his hometown of Aberdeen in the US State of Washington.  The forest mentioned in the verse is most likely to be Olympic National Forest in the State of Washington, whilst the river mentioned is the Wishkah River, a tributary of the Chehalis River which flows south through Washington and empties into the Chehalis at Aberdeen.  Linking in with the Indian theme on Gone Again, the name “Wishkah” is an adaptation of the Chehalis Indian word ‘hwish-kahl’, meaning “stinking water”.  More importantly, however, the Wishkah River has a great deal of significance in the legend of Kurt Cobain, as he lived under a bridge on the river during a period of homelessness after dropping out of high school and being thrown out of his mother’s home.  The song Something In The Way from Nevermind details this time in Cobain’s life.  After his death, one third of his ashes were scattered in the river.  Additionally, the river gave its name to the Nirvana live album, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, released in 1996 and featuring live performance recorded between 1989 and 1994.

A band who had been listening to Smith’s tender tribute to Cobain was Australian band, The Go-Betweens.  For their 2000 album, The Friends of Rachel Worth, Robert Forster wrote When She Sang About Angels, in part an answer song to About A Boy.

When She Sang About Angels includes the slightly sarcastic sounding riposte to Smith choosing to pay tribute to Cobain, “When she sang About A Boy, Kurt Cobain, I thought what a shame, it wasn’t about, Tom Verlaine”.  Tom Verlaine is best known as the front man of seminal New York rock band Television, most notable for their critically acclaimed and highly influential debut album Marquee Moon (1977).  Verlaine was a stalwart of famous New York punk clubs such as CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and dated Patti Smith whilst they were both up and coming artists.  Verlaine has collaborated with Smith many times over the years, most notably adding guitar to Smith’s albums Horses (1975); Easter (1978); Gone Again (1996) and later, Gung Ho (2000) and Twelve (2007).

The song’s title and lyrics “When she sang about angels, She looked at the sky …” refers to both Smith’s songs about people who have died on Gone Again and to Smith’s song Ask The Angels, the opening track on, and third single taken from, her 1976 album Radio Ethiopia.

Additionally, When She Sang About Angels includes lines such as “When she sang about the fields, She raised up her arm, As if she was pushing back the cotton on some Midwestern farm”, a reference to Smith’s powerful stage mannerisms and the imagery of fields which inhabits some of her songs.  Take for example, in About A Boy where she sings, “From the field that he had known”; Ask the Angels, in which she sings “Across the country through the fields” and Birdland (Horses, 1975) in which she sings, “Him and his daddy used to sit inside, And circle the blue fields and grease the night”.

Despite the hint of sarcasm which pervades Forster’s critique of Smith, there is also a lot of tenderness expressed towards Smith in When She Sang About Angels.  Take for example the refrain, “Anybody else, anybody else, but I let it go by”, absolving Smith of her various lyrical and performance tendencies and the reminiscence of the lines “Then she threw some names, Like she always did, She threw some names, she dropped some names, Like she used to when I was a kid”.  Smith is known for writing songs about other people and in particular other artists.  Take for example, her song Frederick (Wave, 1979), written about Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith before their marriage in 1980.

Smith would pay further tribute to Kurt Cobain on her 2007 album of cover versions, Twelve, when she covered Nirvana’s 1991 mega-hit Smells Like Teen Spirit, from the album Nevermind.

Smith’s version of Smells Like Teen Spirit strips away the thundering bombast of the original, the sound which inspired a thousand other bands and almost single-handedly invented ‘Grunge’, and delivers it with a sparse country-tinged arrangement featuring a bass guitar, acoustic guitar, violin, banjo and her voice, which much like Kurt Cobain’s, has influenced whole generations.

Television, One Nation Under A Drug: Ten Songs About Television. First Distance Public Television Broadcast (From Washington DC to New York City, Displaying The Image of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover). This Day in History, 07/04/1927.

1.  The Disposable Heroes of Hypocrisy ‘Television, One Nation Under A Drug’

(from the album Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, 1992).

2.  The Stooges ‘TV Eye’

(from the album Fun House, 1970).

3.  David Bowie ‘TVC 15’

(from the album Station To Station, 1976).

4.  Dire Straits ‘Money For Nothing’

(from the album Brothers in Arms, 1985).

6.  A-ha ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’

(from the album Hunting High and Low, 1985).

7.  Bruce Springsteen ’57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)’

(from the album Human Touch, 1992).

8.  The Buggles ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’

(from the album The Age of Plastic, 1980).

9.  Arcade Fire ‘Antichrist Television Blues’

(from the album Neon Bible, 2007).

10. Mansun ‘Television’

(from the album Six, 1998).