Tuesday Ten: 047: Documents of the Past

I set myself a tough subject for this week’s list a few weeks ago, and in some respects I’m glad I gave myself the extra time to prepare this list – while I had a lot of options for it, it proved to be a tough one to whittle down.

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So what is this list about? Songs about historical events. Documenting actual events – although to make things a little simpler, the band may not have actually been there at the time! There is of course often a thin line between songs about events and those about wider concepts. For this reason I removed a number of tracks from the initial list simply because they fell into the latter – I wanted songs that were clearly about documented events.

As always, if you have any better suggestions, please leave comments.

The Coffin Ships
The Gathering Wilderness
Subject: Irish Potato Famine

First on the list is the song that inspired this subject – an extraordinary, ten minute outpouring of fury at the suffering and humiliation endured by this band’s forefathers and the Irish Nation in the mid-1840s when the famine was at it’s height. Primordial are a proudly Irish band, who somehow successfully merge celtic folk influences with their doomy, blackened metal sound, and while their songs often have something to say, they have never done so with such power as this.

Manic Street Preachers
The Intense Humming Of Evil
The Holy Bible
Subject: Nazi Concentration Camps

Probably one of the darkest songs the Manics ever wrote – and really, that’s saying something bearing in mind that this is track eleven on The Holy Bible – this six-minute epic details the horrors of the concentration camps. The alien-sounding samples of clanking machinery just add to the horror.

The Clash
Spanish Bombs
London Calling
Subject: Spanish Civil War

Another Manics track I could have chosen would have been If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next – about those who went to assist the fight against Franco in Spain. However, missing out that (and the fact that I had the pick of many other, and better, Manics songs) meant that I could include this cracking track that also is about the fight of the Republicans against Franco in the Spanish civil war.

Iron Maiden
The Trooper
Piece of Mind
Subject: Battle of Balaclava

One of Iron Maiden’s best-known (and best) tracks, with an instantly recognisable guitar riff that opens it, the battle the song is about is better known for it being the battle where The Charge of the Light Brigade occurred.

Sunday Bloody Sunday
Subject: The Troubles

Not strictly about the titular event, but actually about watching The Troubles unfold helplessly, and the anger at watching two sides kill each other. I don’t doubt that there are many other songs about this period of Northern Ireland’s history, but this has always struck me as a particularly great track.

Chaos A.D.
Subject: Carandiru Prison Massacre

Sepultura – at least until Max Cavalera left the band – were always a band proud to proclaim their Brazilian heritage. And in addition, they were not averse to pointing out the bad sides of their country, either – and this brutal track about the infamous prison in São Paulo and the police treatment of it’s inmates sounds like the chaos of a prison riot. Justice appeared to have been served some fourteen years after the riot, only for the charges to be quashed.

Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel (1980)
Subject: death of Steve Biko

Another subject covered by many, many artists was the troubles of South Africa and in particular the anti-Apartheid movement – of which the most prominent track on the world stage was this haunting track by Peter Gabriel, an elegant eulogy to a man who was crushed by a system that didn’t want him to empower others.

The Specials
Ghost Town
Subject: Thatcherism and Industrial Decay

Specifically about the band documenting what they saw as the slow death of their home city (Coventry), over the years it has taken a wider significance as effectively the song that immediately evokes everything that was bad about 1981 (the riots, the recession…).

Midnight Oil
Beds Are Burning
Diesel and Dust
Subject: the forcible movement of the Pintupi

A burning sense of injustice fires through this track, now over twenty years old and still a brilliant piece of political songwriting. The apology, of course, for this and everything else meted out to the indigenous peoples in Australia only came this year – and in the meantime Peter Garrett dissolved the band in 2002 to pursue a political career.

The Levellers
Battle of the Beanfield
Levelling The Land
Subject: the eponymous event in 1985

So, one last track – and as this was always the closing track wherever it appeared (on CD or in the live setting), this being at the end of the list seems particularly apt. In some respects this brings things full circle, too – dealing with the shame, humiliation and suffering of one group of people, but in a considerably different and smaller scale than that Primordial were dealing with at the top of this list.

The Battle of the Beanfield was the first real test of police power after the end of the Miner’s Strike, and the allegations of police brutality against the new-age travellers convoy who were being stopped from getting to Stonehenge has always left a nasty taste in the mouth. This video is worth watching about it – in particular the ITN reporter whose report at 09:28 in the video never made it to air at the time.

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