The wisdom of pop songs – Flying

Songs about air travel

If  iTunes or YouTube survive the destruction of mankind, however and whenever that may be, the extraterrestrial historians of the future will be able to use pop songs to study our interests, preoccupations, habits, likes and dislikes. And one of the things they will discover, in addition to the fact that we are obsessed with love, is that human beings could fly. Having studied skeletons, they will conclude that it wasn’t self-powered flight, which must mean a machine was involved.

Going through the list of songs available to them alphabetically, they may stumble across Airport, a mid-70s single by English pub-rockers-turned-new-wavers The Motors.  And they will find that love has got mixed up in it as usual, with the airport being blamed in this instance for taking someone’s loved one away.

“Irrational,” they might conclude, Spock-like, “but then they destroyed their own planet, so what can you expect?”

Labouring through their research – and think how distracting it would be, having a zillion songs to listen to – they might then find Joni Mitchell’s This Flight Tonight (covered, strangely enough, by the raucous rock band Nazareth), in which she is regretting getting on the thing, which a Steve Miller song will tell them was called a Jet Airliner. In this, Miller is talking to the plane, urging it rather pointlessly not to take him too far from home.

To back up the theory that all this travel was not necessarily a good thing would be Leaving On A Jet Plane, most famously by Peter Paul and Mary but written by John Denver. He doesn’t want to be on that plane either. So did these humans have no control over air travel? Did it choose them, rather than the other way around?

The Beatles seemed happy enough on Back in the USSR, though, with screaming jet engines taking them to the former Soviet Union although other research indicated that they came from Liverpool, England.

Should these historians come across the legendary live recording of Woodstock, they might hear Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee introducing a song as I’m Going Home “by helicopter”, and painstaking detective work would reveal that the musicians playing at the 1969 concert got into the traffic-choked farm where it was taking place by air, and that Neil Young was thrilled to be sharing a chopper with the late, lamented Jimi Hendrix.

Travel in all its many forms will be revealed to the researchers by Oleta Adams’s 1991 tearjerker Get Here, soon adopted by worried lovers and spouses of American servicemen and women in the Gulf War, as every mode of transport is evoked as a possible means to bring them safely home. This was written by prolific songwriter Brenda Russell, of Piano in the Dark fame.

Perhaps the only recorded musical artifact that conjures up the dreamy, surreal quality of a long plane journey is 12 Hours of Sunset, in which the maverick English troubadour Roy Harper follows the rays around the world from Los Angeles to London. I will leave it to those of a scientific bent to work out if such a thing is plausible. Suffice it to say that it does capture those long hours when, despite the endless drinks and snacks, your destination never seems to get any closer and all you can do is surrender to the in-flight movies and your iPod.

The only other truly happy plane song is Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon, which, being a pre-space travel number, fails to grasp the fact that a pair of wings and a full tank isn’t going to get you to another planet. Of course, further study shows that the song wasn’t about air travel at all, but merely an elaborate way for a man to make the perennial suggestion to a woman. Or maybe he just loves her.

Step forward Peter Gabriel, whose late-80s hit Sledgehammer offers his girl “an aeroplane flying, if you bring your blue sky back”. As we have seen so many times before, we don’t have to try to make exact, logical sense out of this kind of thing. We get the idea.

Frustration and impatience of the practical variety is the usual atmosphere of these things, as corroborated by Gunga Din, The Byrds’s late 60s tale of returning to L.A. after a disastrous gig in New York.

Sitting backwards on this airplane
Is bound to make me sick
Spend your life on a DC8
And never get to pick

That’s not something you come across often these days, but you still get it on trains.

Moving into the 21st century, B.o.B. featuring Hayley Williams with a bit of help from Eminem brought us Airplane, in which an aspiring rap star is reflecting on the episodic nature of life and how when one mutha doesn’t give him a recording contract he will simply adjust the swivel of his baseball cap and try again. And the plane bit? Oh, he or she (they keep swapping lines) wants to pretend that airplanes were like shooting stars. Why? So they could wish on them, of course. Do try to keep up.

The wisdom of pop songs – War

when johnny
Yessir. Fun to sing. My ass!

People have always written songs about war. It’s an important subject, it’s emotive and when one country is at war with another, everyone is affected.

What has changed over the years is the way the songs are angled.

It used to be songs of support for the brave lads going off to be slaughtered. There was whistling and optimism and hope.

The American Civil War inspired some of the most notable and enduringly popular, such as Patrick Gilmore’s rousing When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

When Johnny comes marching home again
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
Hurrah! Hurrah!

In the First World War the troops and the folks back home kept their spirits up with such ditties as It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag. Okay, you’re heading for the trenches and if the Boche don’t get you, disease will, but smile, smile, smile anyway.

When Europe succumbed to strife again little more than 20 years later, Britain had a “forces’ sweetheart”, Vera Lynn, reminding the boys of what delights awaited them when they got back, in lyrics such as The White Cliffs of Dover and We’ll Meet Again.

English rose: what could Jerry throw at you that would stop you coming home to Vera?

As the century rolled on, protest songs came to prominence in the 1950s. Even as the world was dusting itself down after 1939-45, folk singers and country artists were doing the talking while the rock’n’rollers just got on with enjoying their freedom. When the Korean conflict raged, Wilf Carter issued Goodbye Maria I’m off to Korea, while Jimmie Osborne gave the nation God Please Protect America, followed by Thank God For Victory in Korea.

Thank you very much, said Elvis and Bill and Gene and Eddie. Now Honey, will you turn off the radio and help me undo the studs on my Levi’s?

There, in the middle of the 20th century, the common man had access to recording contracts and the right to express his opinion, and the tone of the songs started to change.

Adopted: Oleta Adams’ big hit became a Gulf War anthem

Going to war was no longer seen as an honourable thing to do, and as hippies urged us to love one another, they began to point out what was wrong.

At Woodstock in 1969, Country Joe and the Fish gave us the anti-Vietnam war tirade I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag, with lines such as

Be the first one one your block
To have your boy come home in a box
And there was it’s ironically jaunty chorus, ending with:

There ain’t no need to wonder why
Whoopee, we’re all going to die

60s British troubadour Donovan falls victim to the art department’s creative ideas

Kenny Rogers got in on the act with Ruby Don’t take Your Love to Town, about a paralysed veteran trying to hang onto his red-blooded woman.

Years later, in the late 80s, Paul Hardcastle would compose a strikingly catchy dance song with lyrics about Vietnam. 19 took its name from the average age of combat soldiers in the conflict.

The 70s gave us Pink Floyd’s Us and Them, written by Roger Waters, whose father had died in the Second World War. This was no jolly, do-your-duty number, but a heavy indictment of the way young soldiers were used as cannon fodder by senior officers.

“Forward he cried, from the rear
And the front rank died”

Waters returned to the subject with a song, When The Tigers Broke Free, regarded by his bandmates as too personal for their album The Wall. But this tale of the loss of British lives caused by German Tiger tanks did make it into the soundtrack of the film.

“And that’s how the High Command
Took my daddy from me”

Other writers have taken very different standpoints. In the mid 60s, when everything was rosy and world wars were just the bad old days, a sizeable pop hit made fun of WWI air combat as imagined by a cartoon character with Snoopy vs the Red Baron.

The MASH film and TV series popularised a theme song apparently by a suicidal GI filtered through a haze of marijuana smoke.

“Suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it
If I please”

N-n-n-n-nineteen must have made Paul Hardcastle a f-f-f-f-fortune

And then there are the songs that are not about war at all but just adopted by servicemen and women and their loved ones.

Oleta Adams had a massive international hit with Get Here, the listeners seeing a desperate side to it concerning soldiers somehow returning from the danger zone, this case the Gulf War. As affecting as the song is when taken in that way, it was actually written by writer and singer Brenda Russell after she saw hot air balloons in Stockholm and thought what a novel means of transport it was.