>The sound of conflict


The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

John Stuart Mill, 19th century English economist and philosopher.


What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?

Mahatma Gandhi

War has been a hot topic in the news with events in Libya bringing arguments for and against military action centre stage. I’m certainly not going to dwell on these arguments on a music blog – for fear of losing what’s left of my readership after 21 days of inaction which is tantamount to blogger suicide (in my defence I was busy sorting the aftermath of being burgled!). To return to the point, war has been a subject addressed by many artists over the years and the whole gamut of views have been covered. Edwyn Starr’s ‘War! (what is it good for?)’ stands apart as one of the greatest protest songs in history yet there have also been many gems supporting war. I strongly recommend this site  which has proved invaluable to me as a history teacher. Josh White’s ‘Berlin Blues’ from 1943 is a superb example of the quality of writing engaged in the propaganda of war. In this blog I will choose five songs linked to the theme of war and offer my views on each.

‘Masters of War’ by Bob Dylan

It would be remiss of me not to include a slice of Zimmerman on here and although this might be a bit obvious I make no apologies. This song appeared on the wonderful ‘Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ and contrary to popular misconceptions is an attack on the military-industrial complex rather than a condemnation of the act of war itself. The song was written around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and reflected the sentiments of Eisenhower’s closing White House address when he warned of the growing influence of the arms industry. Dylan is at his most blunt, eschewing the abstract word play of his later work to offer a extremely simple address to those in power which is all the more powerful for its simplicity.

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

Like the majority of great protest songs the message was far from heeded and within a couple of years of its release the United States were embroiled in a war where the only winners were the manufacturers of Napalm and Agent Orange.

Here are three versions I find particularly interesting as it shows how the message endures through a variety of interpretations:

‘Just War (feat. Gruff Rhys)’ by Dangermouse & Sparklehorse

Dark Night of the Soul is an absolutely stunning album bringing together the unique talents of Sparklehorse and Dangermouse with a sprinkling of perfectly chosen guest vocalists (including David Lynch!). It is so consistently excellent that choosing a favourite is all but impossible. On this track the vocals are provided by Gruff Rhys from Neon Neon and the Super Furry Animals. The appeal of the track is how the bleak subject matter is contrasting with the lilting, almost jolly backing. Whether this was an intentional comment on the ease with which we accept the need for military intervention or purely coincidental is secondary to the primary enjoyment of a successful combination of seemingly hostile elements. I’ve chosen a video which uses a brilliant animation from 1982 which compliments the song perfectly.

‘Ballad of the Green Berets’ by Sgt Barry Sadler

I suspect my affection for this songs comes more from its value to me as a history teacher rather than an admiration of its composition. The melody is basic but the lyrics are a fascinating depiction of war as glory and the fact this song topped the US chart in the mid-60s shows how public opinion was once in favour of the Vietnam Conflict. It is easy to dismiss it as disposable propaganda yet when considered as a tribute to fallen friends as the writer intended it is actually tremendously moving and far more affecting than the plethora of sanctimonious anti-war songs latching on to a public mood to revive their own flagging career (cough* Greenday*cough)

‘Two Tribes’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

I used to hate the eighties. Perhaps it was reaching my teens in the following decade which made me loathe the prior decade. It seemed so bombastic, cliched and full of atrocious music usually sung by men wearing make up. It was only when I bid farewell to my teen years that I began to discover that lurking beneath the surface of excreta was some of the most brilliant, socially aware music ever committed to record. In the case of Frankie Goes to Hollywood they managed to combine a wit and eye for parody with challenging messages. Two Tribes is a sublime comment on the Cold War which manages to avoid polemics and instead offers a withering rebuke to both parties.

‘Landlocked Blues’ by Bright Eyes

One of the highlights from one of my favourite albums ever made. I won’t linger on analysing the song as it stands for itself but one angle that I’m not sure others share is how this song reminds me of this scene from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I remember the first time I heard the lyric about ‘kids playing guns in the street’ it cast my mind back immediately to this scene. It seems like a cruel twist of fate that the facet which drives human kind to achieve great things – namely competition and desire to be the best – is also the catalyst for so much pain and suffering.

That’s it from me, I’ll try not to leave it so long between blogs in future. A word of warning; I managed to get Ryan Adams tickets for June so expect even more Ryan worship than usual as my excitement builds.

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