This Friday, what was potentially unthinkable (and very unlikely indeed) a year ago will happen – Donald Trump gets inaugurated as 45th President of the United States of America.
There are many, many ways that this is truly worrying for the world – which I’m not going to list here – and one of those is what this means for fighting climate change and cleaning up the environment. As has been noted in various places, his picks for various senior roles in Government are a mass of climate change deniers and/or oil and gas industry advocates that look keen on dismantling the EPA, and promoting fossil fuels over all else, among other things.
There isn’t any way to avoid this being political, then. But here are ten songs that cover environmental issues, an area in music that is perhaps less covered in song nowadays than it was (only two of the ten are from the past decade). I’ve avoided a few better known songs (Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi for a start), for ten songs that I found more interesting to write about.
I Remember California
One thing that was notable when we were in California in December was how different the attitude was to water than elsewhere in the US – manifested in small ways. On the East Coast, water was de rigeur at any bar or restaurant as soon as you sit down. In California, there were small signs in pretty much every location noting that water is “available on request” but water conservation was necessary. Seeing as the state had broadly been in drought for five years, this was a necessary step.
Hardly the only song to detail the issues facing California (Tool‘s seething Ænima suggests that the southern half of the state at least deserves to be washed away), this stately R.E.M. song from what I view as their greatest album is almost a prophetic warning. Across an ominous swell of a backing, Michael Stipe details what we’d lose from California as climate change warms the region and changes it irrevocably, and as a Government comes in that appears dedicated to ignoring the effects of climate change (and even outright denial), the future looks as bleak as this song.
Last Great American Whale
Lou Reed, some years after spending much of his time in The Velvet Underground (and his early solo career) documenting and revelling in the decadence of the New York scene, turned his attention to other subjects as the nineties arrived. New York was his best solo album since Transformer (and he certainly never topped it afterward, either), but it wasn’t really about the music – as the sparse, simple backing of this song shows. It was a furious, angry polemic of an album, railing at the right-wing politics of the time, social issues (particularly homelessness and the wealth gap on Dirty Blvd.) and also the environment, as on Last Great American Whale, with a “half a mile from tip to tail” Whale a metaphor for what was lost as the Americans used all of the resources of their country.
Well, it remains a metaphor until the close of the song, where Reed finally lets loose with what he really feels:
Americans don’t care too much for beauty
They’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream
They’ll watch dead rats wash up on the beach
and complain if they can’t swim
Twenty-six years after this song, the actions that led to the Flint Water Crisis perhaps encompassed exactly the attitude Reed was talking about.
Don’t Go Near the Water
Ragged Old Flag
Similarly, nearly twenty years before Reed’s polemic, Johnny Cash was also sounding the alarm on the state of the USA’s polluted rivers, suggesting that lots of things he held dear – such as fishing in the river, swimming in the river, he could no longer do with his children as the water was so dirty and dangerous. Interestingly, the Clean Water Act had recently been put into federal law in the US at the time of this song’s release, but as Flint has shown, there is still some way to go even now – and indeed with threats to the EPA’s very existence by the incoming Trump administration, things may yet get worse.
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)
What’s Going On
Probably one of the very first songs to tackle the subject of global warming, this glorious three minutes of soul comes from Marvin Gaye’s still-extraordinary concept album, where it seems that Gaye’s view of the world and the future is unremittingly bleak, on pretty much every single level. But in terms of the environment, it is clear that he was some way ahead of the curve than many in the public eye – it was already known by 1971 by scientists, of course, as observations had begun to make it clear from the couple of decades before that. But to be saying this at that time in song? It was pretty much unprecedented.
Impact (The Earth Is Burning)
There don’t need to be lyrics to get across a message in a track, as Orbital made very clear with the centrepiece of their much-loved 1993 album. Just the title and short speech samples do the job here, amid a multi-layered, twisting rampage of a beat and acid synths, as the samples (when they eventually arrive) deliver another terrifying message as to the threat to the state of humanity if Climate Change continues unchecked.
Apparently a song about a dream where she watches the end of the world from an airplane – as “a tsunami of millions and millions of poverty-stricken people” overwhelms the world and particularly the White House – parts of the song can also be seen as a message to those that deny Climate Change and continue to fuel it, will simply be swept away by reality in the end (“with our feet thumping / with our feet marching / grinding skeptics / into the soil“). This song – with a spectacularly intense, tribal rhythm hurling it forward and Björk’s seething vocal – has always struck me as a bit of an outlier in her often more introspective, experimental later work, but like all of her work, it is a fascinating change of focus.
Monkey Gone to Heaven
Unlike much of their output, Black Francis was unusually direct here with his lyrics, and broadly played it straight – dealing with the poisoning of the sea by man, and also the depletion of the Ozone layer (something that was still a relatively new idea to the public at the time of release). Yeah, ok, so it has the batshit, howled bridge about Numerology, too, but the main thrust of the song very much fitted in with the spirit of the time (it is notable that five of the songs picked for this week come from within a four or five-year period across 1989 to 1993).
From Mars To Sirius
Easily one of the most popular and progressive metal acts of recent times, they are also an unusual band in their espousal of environmental causes, to the point of many of their songs tackling these issues. Not an uncommon subject to discuss in the news nowadays, it is perhaps less common than it was to be discussed in song. It certainly sets them apart – and they practice what they preach, too, as prominent supporters of Sea Shepherd – and as a result it was obvious that they’d be featured this week, the only problem was “what song?”.
For me, it was back to the first album of theirs I heard, From Mars To Sirius, and the opening track, where amid the fluctuating time signatures and riffs that crash like calving icebergs, vocalist Joe Duplantier imagines the horrors await as the sea levels rise on this precarious, ocean-dominated planet.
Inherit The Wasteland
Destroy the Machines
Gojira were by no means the first metal band to tackle such issues, though, and neither were Earth Crisis either, but their commitment to such causes was also notable. Coming from the metal side of the wider New York hardcore scene, they certainly stood out with their songs about their straight edge and vegan lifestyles, but also their interest in environmental and political issues. From their debut album, though, Inherit The Wasteland is three minutes of chugging fury where corporate and political interests are accused of poisoning their home planet for their own gain, and without thought to any consequences.
(Nothing But) Flowers
As Talking Heads entered their twilight years – Naked would prove to be their last album – David Byrne became another to envision the future if climate change was not tackled. Don’t let the sunny, afrobeat-influenced rhythm fool you – the future here is very bleak indeed. There was sign of human activity, but it has all gone, as civilisation cracked and crumbled as there were no more resources to plunder, no more food to grow. As Byrne notes, “And as things fell apart / Nobody paid much attention” – but the final call for help from Byrne offers a glimpse of hope, as he can’t deal with his vision, and wants to do something to change the course of history. For some, despite the wealth of evidence, it is a call still being unheeded nearly thirty years on.