I’ve mentioned before that I have a notes file (saved in multiple locations) that I’ve used since I started this Tuesday Ten series back in 2007. As a result, I have ideas and concepts for lists that have languished half-completed for years, while others get thought of and posted within weeks. I guess it is all about inspiration.
The former is where this the post this week comes from. I was looking for something to write about, and digging into that note file, I realised I actually had four or five potential subjects that, with a bit of work (and updating!), could be used, and this is the first of those. To start with, though, the original concept had to be refined. Initially it was “Songs about notable people”. There are a lot of those, but it was decided to cut out any musicians (I’ll maybe look at that in the future), and there was to be no Candle In The Wind – in any version.
Instead there are scientists, photographers, designers, controversial socialites. All of whom have interesting stories, and interesting songs about them. A few songs didn’t make the final list – either because I couldn’t work out what to write about them, or they didn’t really work. I’d like to hear about any you might think I’ve missed, though.
One of a few bands this week that wrote a number of songs about specific, notable people (and one of three on this album, in fact), the story of Kevin Carter has long fascinated me. A middle-class white South African who chose to assist in documenting and fighting Apartheid in the later years of that political system, he became a notable and brilliant photo-journalist who documented events than many others didn’t (or chose not to), in his native land and further afield. His name became famous worldwide thank to his extraordinary, Pulitzer Prize winning photograph from the Sudanese famine of 1993 (which can be seen here – warning: some may find it distressing), and just a year later, he killed himself by Carbon Monoxide poisoning, apparently unable to deal with the horrors he’d seen in his career. The Manics took on the subject after Richey Edwards’ disappearance, using his lyrics for one of the standout songs on Everything Must Go, which manages to replicate the quickfire nature of the shutter click, and provides a sympathetic look at a very troubled man.
The Steampunk Album That Cannot Be Named For Legal Reasons
Subject: Charles Darwin
The Men’s whole schtick – punk rock about Victorians, with a steampunk image – lends itself well to a great number of songs about notable Victorians. I could easily have looked at songs about Brunel, Stephenson/Stevenson (all of them), Bazalgette, Tesla, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, but decided to stick with one of their most cheery and celebrationary songs, about the great Victorian naturalist who wrote On the Origin of Species – in other words the man who was the foundation of evolutionary biology, and advancing our understanding of how mankind and other animals came to be perhaps more than any other: but as the song notes, it was not all plain sailing in Darwin trying to get his message across. Good luck in dislodging the earworm that this song is, mind…
Yet another band to have a number of character studies are The Indelicates, but rather than David Koresh, instead I’m looking a rather more curious person. Unity Mitford – from a notable aristocratic family – became a dedicated follower of Hitler, knowing him personally and staying close to him for some time during the war (while one of her sisters married Oswald Moseley, and another was a dedicated Communist), then dying young post-war after a failed suicide attempt. It is interesting, in many ways, that there were a number of prominent aristocratic Nazi sympathisers in Britain pre-war, and needless to say public opinion changed rather quicker than they did. Either way, this swooning song seems to see Mitford and something of a pitiful figure, desperate for attention and getting it in the most extreme way.
One of this Belgian band’s greatest songs, it absolutely fizzes with energy, appropriately enough seeing as it is about one of the more interesting twentieth century minds. Buckminster Fuller was more than just a scientist, architect, or inventor, and as the song details to begin with, after early struggles as an adult man, he had an epiphany and decided to devote himself to ways for bettering humankind. Avoiding suicide as a way out, his work did benefit others – he is best known for popularising geodesic domes, but also worked heavily for the benefit of environmental causes. The best quote I found about him, though, was despite his brilliant mind, about his travails at Harvard:
He was expelled from Harvard twice: first for spending all his money partying with a vaudeville troupe, and then, after having been readmitted, for his “irresponsibility and lack of interest.”
When he partied, he clearly partied hard.
Another twentieth century mind was rather more troubled. Wilhelm Reich was another of the pre-WWII psychoanalysts, whose unorthodox methods – surprise – resulted in accusations of unethical behaviour and ostracism from mainstream science, and he ended up dying in jail in the US (having moved from Austria to escape the march of the Nazis into the country). His pursuit of his theories resulted in some very strange diversions, most notoriously perhaps his experiments in “cloudbusting” in the early fifties, trying to release rain from the atmosphere and stop a buildup of “Deadly Orgone Radiation”. Uh-huh. Kate Bush tackled this part of his life in the eponymous song, with dramatic rhythms and choirs of voices swirling around her voice, and coupled the song with an equally dramatic video, with Donald Sutherland memorably playing the ageing Reich.
Metroland, as I’ve noted before, are pretty much unique in having written an entire album themed around urban transport systems, and particularly for their suite of songs on said album (Mind The Gap) that are clearly based around the London Underground. And if you didn’t already work it out, the distinct Kraftwerk influence of their work is made all-the-more obvious by the cheeky It’s More Fun to Commute. In among all of this geeky electronic glory, though, is a punchy tribute to the man who came up with the original design for the iconic London Underground map. The map first emerged eighty-five years ago, in 1931, and remarkably the basic idea still remains true today – a sign of just how brilliant a concept it was, and of course the Tube Map is one of the instantly recognisable symbols of London, although it perhaps still confuses the odd tourist as they try and navigate using it…
One of the Super Furries’ greatest songs, in my mind, and one that gets unfairly overlooked. The title, and at least the first verse and chorus, are about Albert Einstein’s parents, and how he grew up as a troubled, underappreciated child at school before becoming the genius that he is known as – the best explanation I’ve seen for this song, though, suggests that it is about Gruff Rhys buying/reading cheap factual books at service stations, and taking his lyrics (and general knowledge) from these – and taking a swipe at education along the way. The song itself is a wonder of interlaced vocal harmonies, funny asides and a surging rhythm that is as understated as it is brilliant.
So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright
Bridge over Troubled Water
Subject: Frank Lloyd Wright
A curious one, this, in that it is a song that while it name-checks and references the legendary American architect, was actually written by Paul Simon without knowing who Lloyd Wright was! Instead it was later revealed to be about his soon to be ex-musical partner Art Garfunkel (who had also initally trained as an architect) and the imminent dissolution of their partnership, and indeed, with Lloyd Wright having died in 1959, it was highly unlikely that Simon would have been able to sing with the elderly man back then! As for the song? I’ve never really been able to get along with Simon & Garfunkel’s work – heretical, I know – rather preferring Paul Simon’s later solo work, as that was what I grew up with. Yeah, it’s pretty, and sparse, and tuneful, but…meh?
I remember, a few years ago – before seeing Philip Jeays live – seeing a support band play all of Bob Dylan’s Desire. Not one of Dylan’s finest hours, really – with the exception of the searing opener Hurricane (all nine minutes of it). The song is about the alleged (at the time) failures of the justice system in finding the boxer Rubin Carter guilty of murder in 1966, and seethes with rage at the injustice of the whole thing. Needless to say the song itself stirred up considerable controversy at the time of release and in the years afterward, but Dylan’s backing of Carter was vindicated when a Federal Court freed him twenty years later, effectively confirming the allegations made all along. Carter made good with his freedom, too, taking up the causes of others wrongly convicted by way of non-profit legal organisations and campaigning, before he died from prostate cancer a few years ago.
The Race for Space
Subject: Valentina Tereshkova
PSB’s (literally) stellar second album The Race For Space did an amazing job of telling the story of the Space Race of the sixties, as humankind went further than ever before, both from the Russian and American sides. It’s greatest triumph, though, was somehow humanising the story, highlighting some of the personalities behind those amazing feats that came at astonishing speed. The pulsating singles Gagarin (the first man in space) and Go (Mission Control behind Apollo 11, and particularly Flight Control Director Gene Kranz) were both celebrationary, glorious character studies, but a more subtle take was that of Valentina Tereshkova in Valentina, celebrating the oft-forgotten first woman in space, who had a remarkable story herself. The only song on the album to barely have any samples at all – the video has all of the samples – it instead has a dreamy, wordless melody provided by the female duo Smoke Fairies, pretty much the only time PSB have ever used actual vocals.