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Tuesday, February 15, 2005
Life During Wartime
...this ain't no disco.
I was thinking about the war today, trying to remember what it felt like to be alive before everything, all of it. That's hard to do now; there's a real dark cloud over our time that wasn't there such a short time ago.
I'd be a fool to express my views on the various wars we're in on these pages; there are entire blogs devoted to that, and I'd hate to alienate a music fan. I certainly don't like death, or killing, or fanaticism, or imperialism, or anything else that goes with it. Some of us are more fortunate than others; we can sit idly by a computer and talk about old records. Others cower in cellars, or lie bloated in alleyways.
I will however, randomize a playlist of war songs from my collection. All of the songs included are either explicitly about war, allude to it, or use it as a metaphor for an era. I decided to include anything from any era; even if it wasn't specifically written during wartime.
I'll note that the bulk of the titles are Vietnam War era, or 1980's. There haven't been many since then, except for the spate that accompanied the start of the Iraq war, none of which I have, unless "Let's Roll" by Neil Young counts.
From a pool of 113 titles that I could find, I'm sure I missed at least as many. No other filters used, first 10 songs randomly selected by the Media Center are profiled, Jam Tags (1-5 stars) follow:
1. Edwin Starr: War *****
One of the last great Motown soul workouts, Starr delivers an aggressive, passionate jolt that's irresistible from the first beat. An unusually propulsive beat, a powerful horn section, a great backing chorus, but most of all Starr, who owes a big debt to James Brown, shines here. Starr had only a handful of hits, and he's easy to overlook among Motown's more famous labelmates, but this was one of the best singles of the late 60's. One of the most explicitly anti-war, as well.
2. Jimi Hendrix/Band of Gypsies: Machine Gun *****
Maybe Jimi's greatest shining moment, ever. The Band of Gypsies was a looser, funkier trio than the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Hendrix is free to really stretch out on this New Year's Eve 1970 performance. Former paratrooper Hendrix conjures up the Vietnam War right there on his guitar, complete with choppers, mortars, explosions, and machine guns. Words cannot express his mastery of his guitar at this stage of the game; the unexplorable sonic roads Jimi routinely played and the ones towards which he seemed to be pointing when he died are incomprehensible to the mortal mind. His was the greatest loss of the 60's among musicians, in sheer potential.
3. The Byrds: Draft Morning ****
Effective song written by David Crosby, but recorded after he left the band. Languid and gentle as a sunshiney dawn, with a soft, tuneful hippie vibe, which soon vanishes into a sound effects montage of battleground carnage, and then returning again for a bittersweet verse. Somewhat precious conceit, but the remaining band (a trio at this point, down from a quintet) is honed and at the top of their game. It's sad and elegiac, and a good piece of late 60's experimental rock.
4. Jefferson Airplane: Wooden Ships *****
Wooden Ships was also released at about the same time by Crosby Stills and Nash. The Airplane's Paul Kantner co-wrote it with Stills. This is an epic song; designed for three part harmony and three separate vocal solos, lyrically ambitious in its portrait of a postnuclear wasteland. CSN's version is more well-known, but I've always preferred the Airplanes, which is more languid in arrangement but ripped raw by some stinging lead from Jorma Kaukonen. Slick, Balin, and Kantner seldom sounded better than they do here.
5. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band: Give Peace A Chance (live in Toronto) ***
From a one-shot John Lennon/Yoko Ono performance at a music festival with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, and Andy White as his band. Lennon admits they had no time to rehearse, and their set is ragged and out-of-tune but still sounding OK, with an almost faintly garage-band sound to them. This version of Give Peace a Chance actually sounds a little better than the familiar one, thanks to having a band propel it. For fans and historians.
6. Alice In Chains: Rooster *****
The only 90's tune to come up (Eddie Vedder doing "Masters of War" came up #11). This is as much about heroin addiction as it is about war; really that's all it's about. Still, the wrenching vocals are the best cold turkey since Cold Turkey, and the return of early Black Sabbath paced doom chords was welcome. And the lyrics are completely couched in war imagry; the surprise is they're unusually good.
7. Bob Dylan: A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall *****
The famous story goes that this was written during the Cuban missile crisis, and Dylan feared he wouldn't have time alive to finish all the songs he was saving, so he used all their first lines together in this one, very impressionistic lyric. I'm not sure if I buy that story; he'd perfect the form with "Subterranean Homesick Blues" a few years later. But even if he's kidding, it's a brilliant remark. It isn't the song that's about the war, per se. It's the context. Dylan used to think like that all the time back then.
8. Funkadelic: Wars of Armageddon *****
Funkadelic, one of two bands simutaneously led by funk architect George Clinton, is some heavy listening. Clinton's other band, Parliament, was for dancing. Funkadelic, as the name implied, was psychedelic funk; trippy and experimental, full of heavy guitar riffs that any metal fan would enjoy. Their lyrics were usually overtly political, but with a frightening edge; their sonic world was one of sleaze and decadence, urban decay and depression. This is the closing track from their most consistent album, Maggot Brain, and it is a slippery, slimy funk workout with squishy sounding guitars, sound effects of fighting neighbors, scraming babies, airline departure announcements, disembodied voices shouting things like More power for the people/More power for the pussy/more pussy for the people Another track words cannot do justice to; a landmark track for funk and sound collage fans.
9. Crosby Stills and Nash: War Games **
I was 18 when the Matthew Broderick movie War Games came out. A yarn about a nuclear war that is very nearly launched by an errant computer, the movie actually gave me chills. Well, not the movie so much as nuclear war; that gave me chills. In 1983, Reagan was president, and the Soviets were acting up. This CSN song, which relies on a fairly cheesy sounding synth for propulsion, was rejected as the theme to the movie. It was then tacked on to a mediocre live album that few bought. Now semi-rare, feel free to skip it.
10. Dead Kennedys: Chemical Warfare ***
Either the most underrated American group of the punk era, or the most overrated, depending on whom you ask. In retrospect, it is easy to see that they really had a sound all their own, with Jello Biafra's creepy vibrato spewing out surprisingly literate lyrics, and East Bay Ray's chainsaw buzzguitar slicing through the echo, on top of skatepunk rhythms. And certainly no band quite shared their colorful history. Chemical Warfare is from their brilliant and influential debut; they did go downhill fast after that. It has all of the above, plus a humorous Blue Danube interlude. What's missing now is only the shock of the new.
An unusually playable random playlist this time, although that's mostly due to the small pool of tunes the player drew from, not anything particularly listenable or tuneful about war.
If any real antiwar music is being made now, you can bet that 99% of it is on indie labels, or without a label at all. In this age of mass ownership of media outlets, where record companies are in bed with the radio stations who are in bed with the concert promotors who are in bed with the ticket agents, you won't see a lot of artists defy their label with a line like up against the wall motherfucker, like the Jefferson Airplane did, unless it's a pimp daddy talking to a 'ho.
Pete Seeger would turn in his grave, if he weren't still alive.