As I’ve noted before, I come from a military family. My parents both lived overseas as children and teenagers when their fathers were stationed in Germany (in different locations), and then met while living on adjacent army camps, as I understand it, north of Salisbury – and indeed I was born in Salisbury, and for the first month of my life, my home was with my parents and maternal grandfather in Larkhill. My uncle served in the army as a young man, seeing active service in both the Falklands and Northern Ireland, and I’ve found various other members of my family that served in the forces while researching the family tree (which included a number based and serving in India at various times back to the mid-1800s at least, while my great-uncle went into the RAF).
Whether I like it or not, I guess, the military is in my blood. I chose never to have anything to do with it, mind, and have entertained an entirely civilian career in my adult life. Probably the closest I ever get is wearing army-surplus combat trousers.
In musical terms, though, the idea of serving in the military or armed forces has provided a deep well of inspiration for musicians and singers for centuries. Composers were commissioned to write pieces to celebrate victories (one of the best-known – of many – being Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky March) or to write patriotic anthems, folk songs celebrated soldiers at war across a great many countries, and in the past century musicians served in the forces or simply wrote songs to glorify them.
I asked about this subject for reasons that I’ve now forgotten back in February 2021, and weirdly enough, in the time since I’ve moved from London to a small Kentish coastal town that has a number of deep military connections (of which more later) – so I thought it time to dig into this subject. As I might have expected, I got a lot of suggestions, and while I’ve skirted around this subject before (particularly on /Tuesday Ten/189), I decided here to look mainly at the lot of the soldier in song – be that in the Army, Navy, or Air Force, although as it turned out, the majority of the songs I decided to feature are actually about members of the Army.
There were no less than 210 song suggestions. 23 of them had been used before, there were 163 unique suggestions, and 88 of you suggested thanks. As ever, thank you all.
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).
/Young Men Dead
Austin psych-rock band The Black Angels looked to the past in many ways on their exceptional debut album Passover – the gloomy, powerful sound owed much to The Velvet Underground and Spacemen 3, the production felt defiantly analogue, and the subject was also one oft-covered in the era of the Velvets (but not by them) – that of men being sent to war. Towering opener Young Men Dead laments the generation of young men turned into killing machines in Vietnam, many of whom never came home, themselves killed in a fruitless war that at least for a while, made Americans think again about meddling overseas, but more importantly caused enormous movements of refugees fleeing the chaos that followed and even more needless death along the way.
A song with a surprising number of suggestions in the thread for this post, this is the opening song to the third New Order album, and the iconic sound of the band was very much in place by this point. Rather less oblique than many lyrics from Bernard Sumner’s hand during the eighties, it tells a clear story – one of a lonely soldier posted abroad and dreaming of home, but there is an almighty sting in the tail of this song (albeit delivered in Sumner’s trademark dispassionate tone) that I won’t spoil if you’ve not heard it before.
/On Patrol In No Mans Land
Among the extraordinary stories from World War I that Neubauten told on their meticulously researched, gloriously idiosyncratic Lament was that of the 369th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The first African-American/Puerto Rican regiment to serve in the US Army (although thanks to the racial divide still prevalent in the US at the time, in practice they served under French command), they gained their nickname thanks to their legendary toughness in battle, where they didn’t give an inch (despite suffering terrible losses). But as well as paving the way for African-Americans to serve in the US military, their legacy also stretched to music, where the regimental band played a major part in introducing jazz to the Europeans during World War I and beyond. Some legacy.
/Bloodsport For All
The song that rather got me thinking about this subject earlier in the year was this bruising song from Carter USM, that right at the beginning of the Gulf War dug into continuing and prevalent allegations of mistreatment, abuse and racism within the British Army. Perhaps unsurprisingly – with the typical jingoism that rears its ugly head when British forces are involved in war – the BBC banned the song (among others), and thirty years on, Carter were of course proven right, as recent comments to MPs confirmed that women in the military are often pressured to drop any such allegations, and indeed there was an entire BBC program investigating allegations of everything Carter referenced just last year – and there have been a number of other high-profile cases in the press in the years between.
Long one of the centrepieces of the 242 live show, this epic track (which bizarrely has always had the “Mix” in the title, suggesting it might have been a reworking of an earlier version, perhaps) distils all of the strengths and themes of 242 into one piece. Tumbling drums and vicious synths combine to create a chaotic, disorientating atmosphere that the titular commando, in the depths of the jungle, is having to deal with. As the key lyric from the song notes (one on a 242 shirt I’ve had for years), “Danger can come from everywhere“, and in the jungle, I guess it really could.
Apparently called the “the best American band” by none other than Front 242, this early American EBM group were certainly ploughing a similar furrow to their Belgian contemporaries. Their monstrous single Armed Forces is all stabbing synth hooks, thumping beats and a forest of military drill Sargeant samples, while the band growl “Construct, Destruct, Deceit, Lies, Control” – perhaps alluding to the thinking that military grunts are simply human machines following the orders from on high, whether they are right or not. Either way, military themes and musical motifs – not to mention military dress – have long been a part of EBM and industrial music, whether we like it or not.
/In The Army Now
Laibach have long – for forty-one years next week, in fact – been pushing buttons to get a reaction, indeed from the very beginning in their native then-Yugoslavia they saw themselves banned, pilloried and questioned, and somehow decades later are now revered as a smart band who force their audience (and detractors) to question everything they see and hear. Their military image came about early on, as they realised they needed a uniform, and settled on their own military fatigues as they had served in the army anyway.
Laibach’s music of the time was equally confrontational. Oft-preoccupied with subjects of war and death, their martial-industrial was a difficult listen (and, for non-Slovene speakers, almost unintelligible), but then, perhaps it reflected the times – Yugoslavia post-Tito in the eighties was careering towards bankruptcy and division before it split and collapsed into two decades of wars at the end of the eighties. They became better known elsewhere once they revealed their mastery of reworking other peoples’ songs – and perhaps shining a mirror on imperialist, jingoistic music elsewhere (their take on Queen’s One Vision being perhaps the best example of that).
NATO, from 1992, brought us full circle. A concept album mostly covering popular songs about war, one such take being a cover the Bolland & Bolland (and yes, later, Status Quo) song In The Army Now, a song from the point of view of a footsoldier being drafted and then sent to war overseas, to fight and “liberate” a country that doesn’t want them and the soldier knows nothing about. Laibach would later write their own songs questioning US imperialism in particular, and this track is a pointer to where they would end up.
/Brothers In Arms
/Brothers In Arms
An album best-remembered for being one of the first truly mega-selling albums recorded digitally (not to mention released on CD from the off, and this song was apparently the first-ever CD single) – and has since sold an eye-watering 30 million copies. That was at least partly thanks to the MTV-friendly videos for the singles, but go beyond the light-hearted singles and there were some bleak and poignant songs within. The closing, title track was one of those. Written during the Falklands War, Mark Knopfler imagines soldiers dealing with the death of their own on the battlefield, not to mention the senselessness of conflict, and there is striking humanity to Knopfler’s gentle vocal delivery, while the squalls of guitar offer tribute above.
/Nothing Can Stop Us
A perhaps angrier song written at the same time, about that same conflict, came from the pen of Elvis Costello, but while Costello’s own take on the song is very good, it doesn’t hold a candle to the quiet fury of Wyatt’s version. This wasn’t about the war as such, but the impacts of it: the dying shipyards of the north might get a boost from Naval requirements for new ships, thus boosting the local economy, while other young men from the same places were going to fight – and might not return. But then, in such depressed economies, what choice did these young men have? The unemployment line, or go and fight (and risk their lives)?
/Over The Hills and Far Away
/Over the Hills & Far Away: The Music of Sharpe
A song (at least in this version) best-known thanks to being the theme for the long-running Sharpe TV series, which follows Sean Bean as the titular British soldier and officer in the Napoleonic Wars and beyond. The song itself originates at least a century back before that, although, as with many folk songs, it has been changed, reworked and reworded many, many times over the years!
It turns out, too, that my new home town of Hythe, Kent has a considerable number of links to the military (and, indeed, the Napoleonic Wars). The most prominent of those is the Royal Military Canal, built as a potential bulwark against an invasion by Napoleon in the early 1800s (which of course never happened), and also saw use in preparations for similar potential invasions during World War II, while the Martello Towers that dot the local coastline also date from a similar time. But even further back, Hythe was one of the Cinque Ports, that maintained ships ready for the Crown in return for various tax and legal privileges (in effect a forerunner of the Royal Navy, in some respects) that gave these ports a surprising amount of autonomy – and power – for the time.
The parts of the area that remain in active military use, though, are the Hythe Ranges (for small arms training of soldiers, dating back to the establishment of the School of Musketry in the town in 1853), while also dating from Napoleonic times is the Shorncliffe Camp on the cliffs between Hythe and Folkestone, which has long been a large garrison, even if it has shrunk in size in recent years. Part of it is becoming (much-needed) new housing, another part has become controversial asylum seeker accomodation, while the remainder has been the home of the Royal Gurkha Rifles since the Millenium.
/In The Navy
“What’s that song…”In The Navy”? That’d be great for our recruitment campaign”
“Get them on the phone.”
“Sir, I don’t think you’ve quite understood their message…”
“What, that it’s great to be in the US Navy?”
“Get them down to San Diego, they can film it on USS Reasoner. This will be great.”
(The video was filmed, but the Navy stuck with Anchors Aweigh…)