This has been an unusual one, that I’ve tried to write a few times and shelved. Sometimes you have inspiration, sometimes…you don’t. So I left it for a few months, and returned to it last week to pick up the thread again, and this time? It worked out, so here are ten songs about spying and espionage.
There was an interesting set of songs suggested for this all that time ago, with some songs fitting the narrative rather better than others, and indeed some were vaguely on the subject, if at all. But that’s the way it goes with this, and I’m finding that some potential subjects might be too specific. This one, though had an awful lot of intriguing songs to investigate, which was one of the reasons why it took so long to write and finish.
Anyway, there were 114 suggestions for this, and 100 individual songs, from 65 people. Just four songs had been used before, which left me with the aforementioned pile to work with.
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. 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).
/The Things We Make
I’m sure a number of readers of this ‘site will be aware of my love of this most caustic of the alternative bands from the past couple of decades, and this song was the one that inspired the idea of this week’s post in the first place – and I then originally asked for suggestions on this subject in March 2018. Although aside from the cinematic spy references in the lyrics, there perhaps isn’t much on Spies after all – and reading the bit about this song in Chris Olley’s recent book The Things I Make (lyrics – something never printed in most of the band’s albums originally – and more importantly, explanations and stories behind the songs) rather confirmed this, although Olley doesn’t really offer a meaning behind this particular song either! That said, it’s a fabulously epic song, which barrels along for nearly nine minutes and makes great use of a saxophone in it.
/Spies in the Wires
The Cold War was full of spies on both sides, so perhaps it was entirely unsurprising to find bands that were mining the stories of espionage for inspiration. One of the most forward-looking of the electronic bands in the latter decade of the Cold War, Cabaret Voltaire, probably hit their peak with the glowering Micro-Phonies and this seething burst of paranoia. It turns out, though, that they were way ahead of their time with concerns around those who might be spying on your phone. Just this year there have been stories from China of apps for mass surveillance, and covertly installing apps on visitor’s phones to the Xinjiang region, while elsewhere is no better, as we’ve found in the battles between the FBI and Apple.
/Shot By Both Sides
Right at the beginning of bands evolving from the nascent punk movement in 1977 – this was Howard Devoto already moving away from his roots in Buzzcocks for something else. Sure, musically, it’s not a million miles away from his previous bands, something that was to change fairly quickly – but lyrically this is a heck of a leap forward from the teenage frustrations of that other band. Here, a spy is caught in the crossfire, literally and figuratively, of some unnamed and unidentified altercation, as said spy comes to the horrible realisation that they’ve been absolutely screwed by someone and that just about everyone could be their enemy…
A group that make relatively regular appearances in this series, I must admit – it’s been just over a year since they last featured, too – but this wonderful song from their second album Beyond Flatline is an intriguing addition to this week’s list. Frank Spinath’s songs are often, or maybe exclusively, about human psychology particularly in relation to love, and this one to start with appears to break the mould. Wrapped around one of the most dancefloor-friendly backings they ever created is a fanciful reimagining of spy clichés, but the kicker comes at the end:
“Mysteries and twists / Make for a far more / Interesting existence / And thoughtful state of mind”
A bit of mystery and fantasy never hurt. Indeed it might do us some good.
/On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Talking of mystery and fantasy, Ian Fleming’s James Bond books – and the wildly successful film franchise that followed and has resulted in twenty-four films over forty-seven years (and with a twenty-fifth to follow) – have been a popular escape from reality for many, various issues with the portrayal of people (particularly women) notwithstanding. The theme to each film – so long linked with John Barry’s work – is nowadays a major event, with a fair amount of prestige to each band that gets the chance to create a theme.
But, I’m not featuring one of the direct themes, I’m going to the “cover” – probably better described as a re-interpretation – of what is one of the greatest of Barry’s themes, which ironically enough is far from the best film in the series. Big beat group Propellerheads stretched out the theme over nine epic minutes and added in elements that certainly weren’t in the original, but did an incredible job with it. Actually intended to be on Tomorrow Never Dies, a remix of it was used in a chase scene in the end.
A song that mystifyingly is omitted from “best songs by Pulp” lists – although it gets a lot of love as one of the favourite lyrics, mind, and is phenomenal live – this seething epic effectively sums up everything Jarvis Cocker was trying to say on Different Class. An amalgam of sex, class and bitter revenge on the world, the kitchen sink of production was thrown at the song to provide a suitably grandiose setting for such an ambitious song, and the most amazing bit is that they pull it off, as Cocker hides in the shadows under the aim of a subterfuge that no regular spy would recognise. In his own words:
I thought to myself that I was actually working undercover, trying to observe the world, taking notes for future reference, secretly subverting society. [source]
The mighty RSW make only their second appearance in the Tuesday Ten series – and their first since 2011 – with one of the many highlights from their outstanding, influential debut album of 1990. The beats grind and snarl amid a number of samples (and Flood’s ever-precise production means that nothing gets lost in the mist), as the vocals tear into someone who’s double-crossed and turned into a snitch for the “other side”. It is never clear exactly what has been done, or what information was passed over, but either way, the outlook isn’t good.
/Life During Wartime
/Fear of Music
Talking Heads were often – ok, pretty much always – a vastly more intelligent and thoughtful band, and their angular, post-punk/art-rock has had many imitators but no-one has ever managed to replicate their very strangeness. Particularly the concert film Stop Making Sense, which is a staggering piece of work in both a performance and cinematic sense, and one of the many unmissable highlights from it is this song. The joyous abandon of the on-stage (synchronised) dancing contrasts rather with the bleak, dark lyrics – where being some kind of shadowy spy observing a post-apocalyptic America is discussed in some great detail as if the story was being retold to someone who remembers what had been there before…
/The Red Thread
Aidan Moffat’s lyrics were often dealing with the seedy underbelly of love – of the loss, of the despair, of the distrust, of the failure and yes, of the sex – but few are quite as leaden with failure like this. Here, Moffat is curious. About a box his partner keeps locked, away from his prying eyes, and curiosity gets the better of him. His spying – or detective work, your call – rather backfires on him, as he finds out a world of information that he really doesn’t want to know. All his spying reveals is that he is something of a laughing stock as he is the only one that seemingly doesn’t know the truth.
/Spy in the House of Love
/What Up, Dog?
Was (Not Was) are one of those bands I became aware of thanks to my dad listening to quite a bit of their material, and amid their litany of strange songs – the title track to this album, Walk the Dinosaur…) are just two, none other than Leonard Cohen (!) does the vocals on Elvis’s Rolls Royce, and then there is this story – are a number of glorious soul tracks. The other single from What Up, Dog?, it imagines the life of a spy who just can’t let go of his craft when it comes to his relationships, or is someone utterly delusional and imagining that they are a spy. To this day I’ve never worked out which it is.