A constant theme in this blog has been that places spark particular associations. Sometimes these can be so specific that everyone automatically makes the mental link. Can you think of Pisa without the Leaning Tower? (Here’s a tip that no-one has ever thought of. When taking a photo of the Leaning Tower get a friend to stand in the perspective with their arm out so it looks as though they are holding the Tower up). Or Cheddar without the Gorge? They become defined by the association. As They Might Be Giants put it: “New York has tall buildings, New Jersey has its malls. Pisa has a leaning tower. Will it ever fall?” (Where Do They Put Balloons?)
The same can apply on a wider scale to whole countries that have become inextricably linked in the mind and through songs with a specific period of their history, usually to do with a war or conflict of some sort. Wars have been a perennial topic in pop songs from the earliest days –one of record producer Joe Meek’s (see Holloway Road column) first big successes was Lay Down Your Arms by Anne Shelton in 1956. In fact, the following wars and conflicts, amongst others, have been referenced in song:
Iraq Invasion: (Operation Iraqi Liberation - David Rovics)
Yugoslav Wars ( Bosnia - The Cranberries)
Falklands War (Shipbuilding-Elvis Costello)
Vietnam War (See below)
Korean War (I Bombed Korea- Cake)
Spanish Civil War (Spanish Bombs-The Clash)
World War 1 ( Hanging In The Wire- P J Harvey)
Boer War (Two Little Boys - Rolf Harris)
Spanish-American war (Galveston - Glen Campbell)
American Civil war (Billy Don’t be a Hero - Paper Lace)
American Indian wars (Soldier Blue - Buffy St Marie)
Crimean War (5 4 3 2 1 –Manfred Mann)
Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo - Abba)
Anglo-American War of 1812-15 (Battle of New Orleans - Johnny Horton)
English Civil War (Young Ned of the Hill-The Pogues)
Trojan War ( 5 4 3 2 1 - Manfred Mann)
In fact here is 54321: 2 wars,erudite lyrics, polo neck sweaters, glasses and a beard, all in less than 2 minutes: intellectuals or what? (The follow-up, Hubble Bubble Toil and Trouble, threw in a bit of Shakespeare)
I have omitted a glaring instance :World War 2. There have been pop songs about it – Enola Gay by OMD for example - but they are surprisingly few. After all, the first wave of British groups, the Beatles, Stones et al, were born during World War 2 and the second wave spent their formative years watching war films on TV and at the cinema and reading comics where Germans said things like “Donner und Blitzen, the Englisher is a schweinhund”. Yet few chose to look a few years back for musical inspiration ( true to retrospective form the Kinks were an exception with Mr Churchill Says). Maybe World War 2 was just too near and too big to sing about. Or maybe the War became mixed up with those figures of authority – parents, teachers, town hall officials, park keepers, policemen – that emerging pop music rebelled against. A stereotypical figure then was the Dad with pipe and slippers and steam coming from his ears watching a group like the Pretty Things on TV and saying, ‘I fought in the war for that lot’. Followed by ‘What they need is a bath, a haircut and music lessons’. The War seemed to the musical generation emerging then a remote event.( I was initially startled when I recently read that some British tanks in World War 2 had pictures of Petula Clark on them as a mascot. How could that possibly be without a time warp? Then I realised that by the time of Downtown in 1964 Petula Clark had already had several careers: as the British Shirley Temple as a child film/radio actress - hence the mascot photos –and success as a singer in the UK and France, her first hit coming a decade before Downtown. Her Little Blue Man track was also ahead of its time ,a decade or so before pyschedelia.)
Some of these examples above have left some countries marooned in a particular time period. The obvious example is Vietnam, which has a large number of songs about it but nearly all of which are about the Vietnam War and are mostly American , for obvious reasons. The only British ones I can think of are Eric Burdon and the New Animals’ Sky Pilot and Paul Hardcastle’s 19, which was a hit years later in 1985. Yet it remains perhaps the most musically covered of all wars, partly as the peak years co-incided with pop music finding a political voice, though some - like Springsteen’s Born in the USA – came well after the event. One of the most effective was Feel Like I’m Fixin' To Die Rag, first released by Country Joe and the Fish in 1967 and given later popularity through the acoustic version in the Woodstock film. Effective because of its sense of the absurd, a singalong chorus that anti-war demonstrators en route to Grosvenor Square and the American embassy could dance along to and lyrics that went deeper than its tune suggested. This aside however, Country Joe’s only brush with commercial success in the UK came rather bizarrely in 1976 when the model Twiggy had a surprise hit with Here I Go Again, several years after the track had first appeared on a Country Joe album.
Another example is the former Yugoslavia, previously discussed in the column Lyla. Songs like Bosnia, or Dubrovnik is Burning, or Yugoslavia leave the region in the 1990’s just as Vietnam is left in the 1965-1975 decade. The song here from 2010 , however, Dubrovnik, by Northampton group My First Tooth offers an escape of sorts, a song of poetic imagery and hope: “Cannons calm from years of truce, after sad years of misuse, Dubrovnik poured into me, from castle to emerald sea”. (The eery noise at the beginning sounds like the musical saw again but I think it is singing).
Dubrovnik is full of the past, of course. The recent past is there in the new roof tiles replacing those smashed by shells, and in the photos of those killed in its siege. But it is the more distant past that fills the present, with the castle walls, bell-tower, alleyways and monasteries and a sense of entering a time machine as you pass through the city gates. And as you look out from the castle walls, there is the blue and emerald sea, timeless there for millennia.