The USA has inspired polarisation of opinion for as long as I can remember from the other side of the Atlantic (and elsewhere), as policy decisions made in the USA often affect the rest of the world – for better or worse.
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So with my sixth trip to the US in the past decade starting today, I thought it interesting to look at views of the USA in music – from mostly British and Irish artists, alongside a certain famous Canadian.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound me. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
/America: What Time Is Love?
Having already slain the UK in particular with their majestic Stadium House trilogy (of which the What Time Is Love? (Live at Trancentral version was the first of them), The KLF made a third version of this track which became yet another massive hit, and their attention was on America. Adding in samples of Ace of Spades, some nonsense about the JAMS discovering the American continent in AD992, oh, and rescuing Glenn Hughes (ex-Deep Purple) from substance abuse by allowing him to bellow the hook in some style. In many ways, this was The KLF’s entire concept in four minutes – repackaging the past in spectacular, dancefloor-slaying style while tailoring their message to target markets.
The B-side was rather less noticed: America No More, which was far less celebratory about American politics and warmongering…
Leonard Cohen’s mighty resurrection in the late-80s and early 90s – did he ever release better albums than I’m Your Man and The Future – came with a savage intensity and deep political musings. Particularly on The Future, where Cohen appeared to be less enthused about what was to come than many others as the Cold War ended. On Democracy – with the backing of those marvellously cheap-sounding keyboards and the whole lot classier backing vocals of Jennifer Warnes – he gave a Canadian’s view on what was to come in his southern neighbour, as democracy had a painful rebirth in Eastern Europe, different democratic problems were to manifest in the US, and indeed problems that have only exacerabated since as the two main sides of the debate have only got further apart.
/I’m So Bored with the USA
The Clash were the one first-wave punk band to truly gain mainstream success in America – even if that pretty much tore the band apart as members questioned what they were for – but on their earlier material, they weren’t afraid of criticising their target. On the thrilling rush of I’m So Bored with the USA (those gang vocals! those riffs!), they – this was 1977 – were tired of talk of Vietnam and the aftermath, US cop shows, Watergate and politics, they’d had enough. They may have been bored of the USA, but they kept plugging away, and supporting The Who at Shea Stadium in 1982 (from whence the video to Should I Stay or Should I Go comes from) came from a time when Rock the Casbah hit the US top ten.
Britpop was nationalism and nostalgia wrapped in indie-pop music for the most part – from the moment where Brett Anderson posed in front of a Union Jack on the front of Select, to when Noel Gallagher and others found themselves at Downing Street with Tony Blair. It was also an almighty kick-back against the US musical hegemony of the time, with grunge and hip-hop/R&B making great waves too.
Far from the only song of the time that sneered at the US (and, perhaps, driven by the first wave of Britpop bands manifestly failing to “break America” for some time), Magic America was, in retrospect, a cynical take on a glitzy, over-friendly US that – as I’ve found on my numerous visits since, is anything but the experience I’ve had. This song dated quickly, too, as just three years and two albums later, Blur were professing a deep love for American indie music – and then got the US success they’d long craved when the anthemic, punky rush of Song 2 blew up (and has soundtracked all manner of sports events ever since).
The post-9/11 era – where the George W. Bush administration unleashed the full might of the US military on Afghanistan and Iraq with the clear aim of regime change (and opening a pandora’s box that twenty years on is still an unsolveable problem) – changed the view of the US in much of the world’s eyes. Needless to say, there were a lot of songs on the subject, but this song by the late Trish Keenan takes a different view. Looking at the way America lionises it’s military servicepeople like nowhere else, taking the attitude that they have served their country and faced danger, therefore they should be respected.
/The Remote Part
Something of a world away from the raging fury of Idlewild when they first appeared (go and listen to the twenty minutes of the Captain EP. Good? Let’s continue), American English was kinda the point where Idlewild left most of that anger behind. Instead, this quite gorgeous ballad is asking questions about how the writer can distort and influence meaning, particularly in the American context – and indeed I read somewhere while researching this that the great American writer Walt Whitman is the inspiration behind this song.
/The Body of an American
/Poguetry in Motion
The United States of America: a country built on immigration. The Native Americans were of course there first, and their homelands were much reduced or simply confiscated over the centuries of European immigration (people from pretty much every country came over at one point or another), and the legacy of slavery bought many people of African origin to the country too.
The Pogues have many songs in their catalogue about the Irish in America – with the devastation of the Great Famine in the 1840s seeing around 800,000 Irish escape to the other side of the Atlantic being a particularly important starting point – and I find this song, used as a recurring plot point in The Wire, to neatly show the skewed relationship.
Pretty much: Irish kids seeing the body of a once local man being repatriated home to Ireland, and being told of the stories of this man, Jim Dwyer, who left for a world very different to their own, and died after fighting for his new homeland. The kids seem ambivalent to the story and reverence of Dwyer – as if he’s just someone from the past who went away before they were born, and has come back. Maybe in the years to follow, then followed the same path across the Atlantic.
/Jesus Loves Amerika (Fundamental)
/In Gorbachev We Trust
Long before Ebenezeer Goode, The Shamen were an electronic rock band with a furious political edge. This track was one of quite a few around this time to be taking on evangelists in the US (the classic Welcome To Paradise by Front 242, which used samples of the evangelists themselves, was just a year or two before), but this track in particular was signposting the future we’ve now seen manifesting:
But creationist lies and dollar signs / are just fascist fallacies
…as we now see Republicans openly calling for what are basically fascist talking points, trying to take the US into some kind of twisted theocracy.
/The Circle and The Square
I’ve featured the marvellous Red Box a few times here in the past, and their debut album The Circle and The Square in particular remains a much-loved album to these ears, a mix of alt-pop and world music that in some ways was ahead of it’s time. One of the two top-ten hits Red Box had in the UK (and elsewhere in Europe) in 1985, this song was borne of their label WEA wanting a single that would appeal to US listeners.
A classic case of “be careful what you wish for”, really: For America was certainly a stonking earworm, but it also was critical of US stylistic attitudes and overseas military involvement, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the US success that the label wanted.
Red Box continue to be active, and I finally saw them live in late 2019 as they launched their fourth album, and they were absolutely marvellous.
/New Model Army
/Today Is A Good Day
The NFL season started last week (although judging on how badly my beloved Giants were pasted in their first game, this is going to be a long season), and as a youngster I remember my dad tuning into Armed Forces Radio on longwave, so that we could listen to games on a Sunday evening – long before live coverage in the UK became the norm. Until I went to the US, this was my only experience of US Radio, full of adverts and sponsored references in the commentary in ways that I was totally unfamiliar with otherwise.
This later period NMA song is clearly inspired by touring the US and listening to the radio, with the sheer diversity of radio stations as they crossed the country – that said, much of it since swept away by the dominance of Clear Channel since.