Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published May 11th 2020
School was never like this
Sometimes I am astounded by the sheer breadth of topics covered in mainstream songs. Being stuck at home and armed with a reasonable music collection, I have been grabbing CDs, records and cassettes at random and just listening to songs and artists I have not listened to in, in some cases, years.
Topics have ranged from books and writing to toys, from grandparents to children, from birth to death everything. But one topic that attracted my attention just recently is the sheer number of songs about history people and events that modern song-writers have decided to focus on. It is a weird thing to be singing about, but there you go literally anything can be fodder for a pop/rock song, I guess.
This list, therefore, is about those songs. Simple, really. Now, I had to be careful here. Some songs that seem historical to us now were actually written at the time the events were happening one only has to look at the number of Vietnam War songs in the late 60s to see that and some songs recorded long after events have ended up being traditional songs reworked for a modern audience. Oh, and for the record, The Bee Gees' 'New York Mining Disaster 1941' doesn't actually relate to any specific event it was made up.
The only rule I decided on was the song had to be about something that happened before the end of World War 2. That felt like a nice end point. Anyway, ten songs. Nine were chosen by me, one by the person I told about this list and her first thought.
History in song! Presented in order of the events portrayed.
'The Big Bang Theory' by The Barenaked Ladies (2007) Event: History of the Planet Earth, 4 Billion Years ago to now
Yes, this was written as the theme song to one of my favourite modern sitcoms (The Big Bang Theory), but they also recorded a full-length song version and it is basically, a complete history of the world as science currently knows it. In one song. Incredible. Actually very well written, using the correct terms for a lot of the concepts. More than that, the song is catchy as all out and it is very hard not to bop your head along in time to it.
'Mesopotamia' by The B-52's (1982) Event: Generalisation of the Mesopotamian Empire, pre-3000BCE to 300BCE
So, let's start our history lesson in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of human civilisation, on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The song is about wanting to go back in time to visit Mesopotamia because there are a lot of ancient ruins there, and that was where they laid down the law. It is a slightly slight premise, and maybe not exactly about history per se, but I like the song and it is an interesting conceit. And the musical style shows The B-52's leaning away from where they started and heading towards songs like 'Love Shack', so it is an interesting transition period.
'Run To The Hills' by Iron Maiden (1982) Event: Colonisation of the Americas, 1400s onwards
Ah, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. My personal favourite in the heavy metal genre of music. I own a lot of Iron Maiden albums, and this track ranks very highly amongst those songs I own. The live version is especially powerful. And this track does not let up on the story it tells so powerfully: the colonisation/invasion of the American continent by Europeans. Unlike a lot of songs talking about subjects like this, it puts forth both sides of the equation invasion and settlers. Iron Maiden are always under-rated for the thought they put into their lyrics and their amazing literacy. Even if you don't like the genre of music, the words actually mean something. But I do like the music, so yeah.
'Holy Grail' by Hunters And Collectors (1993) Event: Napoleon's March on Russia, 1812
Hunters And Collectors are one of the many Australian bands that should have done so much better internationally than they did. In Australia, this song has become a staple of sporting broadcasts, especially the Grand Final of the AFL. But long before then, when I heard Mark Seymour say on an interview in the late 90s that this was about the same war that gave us Tchaikovsky's '1812 Overture', I was stunned. Yes, the band were equating it with the struggles they were having completing their album, but, still, the song is about Napoleon's disastrous advance on Russia. And it is a really good song to boot.
'Indian Reservation' by Mark Lindsay (or Raiders) (1971) Event: Forced Removal of Several Native American Tribes from their Traditional Lands, 1838
This is a cover version of a much older track, but not only is it better known, but it is actually a better version. While some of the facts in the song are not historically accurate, the whole tone of it being about enforced displacement off traditional tribal lands is, and the repercussions of those government decisions are still being felt today. I like the driving drums of the song and deep, sad tone of the singer. And why two artists? The band was called Raiders and the lead singer was Mark Lindsay, and I have it attributed to both on different albums, but they sound exactly the same. I think it's because Paul Revere and the Raiders recorded a version so they went for the lead singer's name, but that's a guess.
'The Trooper' by Iron Maiden (1983) Event: The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854
I never said one song per artist for this list! Yet again, the literacy and intelligence of the lyrics by Iron Maiden shine out, as they tell the story of the famed doomed Charge from the perspective of the men on the ground. Yes, this is the same Charge of the Light Brigade immortalised by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
"Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred."
This is not simply that poem put to music, but is a more damning indictment of the officers in charge. This is the sort of theme the NWOBHM really suited with its style. Another fine Iron Maiden track.
'Mister Custer' by Larry Verne (1960) Event: The Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1876
I also decided to include a comedy track on this list because, again, it tells the tale of a big event from one of the little people involved. The poor member of General Custer's ill-fated cavalry charge wanting to go home as everyone dies all around him was surely the way many of the men on the front line of that battle must have felt. While the humour is possibly a little broad for modern tastes (or maybe a little sophisticated, when you consider how much money Adam Sandler makes), it is still a decent track. "What am I doing here?" indeed.
'Rasputin' by Boney-M (1978) Event: Life and Death of Rasputin, 1869-1916
This is the song I was convinced to include. Now, I am not a big fan of disco, but even I have to admit this song is okay. The story of the Russian mystic and his control over the Russian royal family before the Russian Revolution brought them down. Yeah, such a cheery subject for a lively disco song. And, have no doubt, this song was everywhere in the late 70s. It was certainly catchy and from what I can gather from the people old enough to go to discos, this song was played a lot. But still, the life and death of a Russian alleged holy man and disco. Yeah, the 70s were weird times.
'To Be Or Not To Be (The Hitler Rap)' by Mel Brooks (1983) Event: Hitler's Rise to Power and Downfall, 1936-1945
And another comedy song. Mel Brooks (the Jewish Mel Brooks) sang a mocking comedy song about the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler. I have read online where some people see it as a celebration, but, no, this was meant to mock that particular dictator. He covers everything, portraying Hitler as almost a rock star of the time, with the inevitable downfall and fleeing to Argentina. It is done in the style of rap common in the 1980s, when that form was only just starting to gain some traction in the mainstream, hence the singing female backing chorus and slowly spouted rhymes. Does not matter; this is more intelligent than 75% of rap songs I hear nowadays. It still makes me tap my foot.
'Enola Gay' by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (1980) Event: The Bombing of Hiroshima, 1945
And we finish with the end of World War Two and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Yep, a new wave pop single about one of the most destructive single acts of war in history. I did not understand this song when I first heard it, and my mum couldn't shed any light on it. It wasn't until high school when I got it 'Enola Gay' was the name given to the aircraft that dropped that first atomic bomb. Wow, what a depressing theme, but what a great song. I mean it, one of the best songs of 1980.
History in song. Like I said, it is amazing what people will write songs about, and amazing how good those songs can end up being. These are all good songs (yes, even 'Rasputin') and they tell little slices of history (or all of history in one case) in an entertaining way. I think if there were more songs like this, learning history at school could be made so much more fun and less just reciting names and dates.
As it is, this is a nice snapshot of the world as we know it from times past, and I hope you enjoyed it.