And now for a bit of light relief, Rob Harrison presents the top twenty-one in his all-time Apocalypse Jukebox.
1. Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell
This is one of the best environmental songs ever written and truly deserves to be in the number one spot, containing such brilliant lyrics as, ”They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum, and they charged the people a dollar and a half to see em”. In terms of grasping the environmental nettle, Joni was well ahead of the game, the song itself speaks of a sense of loss in both the future of the planet and Joni’s personal life.
2. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) – Marvin Gaye
Another great song about the environment this time from Marvin Gaye. “Mercy Mercy Me”, was taken from the album “What’s Going On”. Released in 1971 it was to prove to be a pivotal record in the ongoing black consciousness movement. The album neatly fits alongside other progressive black acts of the time, such as Funkadelic, Sun Ra, Miles Davis and Sly and the Family Stone. Like Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye was one of the first musical artists to produce an environmentally conscious song in “Mercy Mercy Me”. The song speaks about the polluted oceans and birds dying because of toxic chemicals present in the air.
3. Monkey Gone to Heaven – Pixies
Monkey is one of the best indie songs ever put to tape, and like Marvin Gaye’s song it stands as a classic in its own right. Apart from the stuff about environmental disaster, holes in the sky and out of control chemical sludge killing people, it references religious material with its use of sacred numbers giving an idea of a prophecy that has come to fruition – another end of the world song folks.
4. Crazy Horses – The Osmonds
The Osmonds number four, Dylan number five? How can that be then – surely some mistake? To use the vernacular of a certain Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On?’ But to be clear, in terms of passing on the revolutionary message the Osmonds have the edge, slightly, simply in the fact of being able to communicate an effective message to a wider audience, and of course the medium is the message as they say. Crazy Horses totally works both as a rock song and a revolutionary anti-pollution song about how the use of motor vehicles was a major factor in the rise of environmental pollution at the time. The situation was most prevalent in the United States as most Americans drove everywhere, partly for security, as well as convenience. Listening to Crazy Horses now, what strikes me is the aggressive rock stance of the record. One of the reasons the record stands up sonically, was that it was co-produced by Michael Lloyd, a founder member of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. Lloyd would be a member between 1966 and 68, pioneering what would be known as art rock. In interviews the Osmonds stated that it was one of their first self-penned songs and they felt they had something to say about the ecology of the planet.
5. A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall – Bob Dylan
In many ways “A hard rain is gonna fall” could be described as the first Apocalypse song one in which describes the end of days. According to Chronicles, Dylan’s autobiography. The idea for hard rain came about through reading micro film in the library going from the history of the civil war to recent events. And for Dylan at that particular moment in time, evil seemed to be present in every facet of society. According to the Old Testament scriptures which we suppose Dylan would with his Jewish background, be familiar with. We have the tale of Noah and the flood. After the flood, God warns Noah that if men continue to destroy what he has created for them then, once again he will flood the earth to rid the planet of the evil doers. From reading the old texts the term used is those that pollute this planet. So an interesting term of phrase indeed. The symbolism of water as a cleansing agent seems to be present in two Dylan songs. A hard rain is gonna fall and Down in the flood. Its interesting also, to find many references to Jewish mysticism in many of the songs here, Monkey gone to heaven and Eve of destruction.
6. Eve of Destruction – Barry McGuire
George Melly in his book ‘Revolt Into Style’ compares Dylan’s intellectual excursions to the Eve of Destruction, seeing it as an intellectually inferior piece of work. Melly goes on to say that the track is more of a cynical opportunity than an actual attack on the status quo, as the song appears to be just a grab bag of ideas, covering so much ground, from the threat of nuclear destruction to the degeneration of the black urban experience. This though is the paradox of the protest song: do we intellectualise the problem for those lucky enough to have a degree in literature or do we make the situation clear as to what the problems are and how they should be acted upon, so as to be understood by everybody? Whatever the artistic / revolutionary outcome of the particular songs, the Eve of Destruction has through time survived, and to be clear: at the time of its release its references to Vietnam were brave and incendiary. The United States in 1965 was still in a strategically good position, and generally the public still backed the tawdry military operation being carried out overseas. As a consequence of this the song was banned in many states, but still managed to get to the number one spot, striking a chord with a now jaded American youth, not in step with the general opinion of the rest of the United States.
7. Breathing – Kate Bush
Once again a brilliant song with so much in it. The first thing that strikes you is the intensity of the song, sounding like waves lapping against the rocks, each one more intense than the last, building up to a sonic climax. Bush remarks that the session players put a lot of emotion into the actual recording, rather than just concentrating on making it technically perfect; she wanted an emotional response as much as a musical one. The song is about a foetus that is slowly dying. Born in a nuclear holocaust, the child breathes in the nuclear fallout. Breathing and dying at the same time. Bush adds that this action of breathing and dying could also reference the act of smoking, at which she admits to being a culprit, harming not just herself but others as the poisonous smoke is exhaled. She sees this in a wider context of the human condition, where the act of self-destruction seems to be built into the matrix perhaps.
8. Metal Guru – T-Rex
Worth inclusion simply for the fact of having the brilliant line “ain’t no pollution machine”, but apart from that, Marc Bolan of T-Rex fame was involved with the then Keep Britain Tidy campaign, a fledgling environmental movement in the early seventies across Britain.
9. Let’s Save the Planet – Edgar Winter’s White Trash
Surprisingly groovy track from Edgar Winter’s White Trash, it references that loss of innocence we saw in the work of Joni Mitchell, telling us to save the children and playing into environmental concerns with the lyrics repeating ‘save the planet you gotta save the planet’. Ok, right we get it guys.
10. Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth – Sparks
Unironic song from the kings of postmodern pop warning not to destroy our natural resources and not to underestimate the power of Mother Nature. Indeed – as we are finding out to our cost now.
11. Space Oddity – David Bowie
So, I know, you’re saying to me, ‘this one’s all about space, what’s this got to do with the environment then?’ David Bowie’s long-time producer Tony Visconti admitted that Bowie only spilled the beans on the song years later. He would tell him it was a song about isolation, being stuck miles up in space. But thinking about that in context, is it an environmental song – a different environmental song of course – and do we not find ourselves stranded on this planet, slightly ill at ease with this world that we find? Without adequate food or shelter this place can be as inhospitable as the coldest planet, so spare a thought for Major Tom stuck in space.
12. The Day the World Turned Day-Glo – X-Ray Spex
Punk rock singer Poly Styrene (ha) rages against the plastic society, and the degraded lives we lead as slaves to this disposable society in more ways than one. In an interview she laments the time everything came in paper bags – shades of a bygone era. On that one at least we appear to be going backwards rather than forwards as an environmentally conscious society.
13. Don’t Go Near the Water – Beach Boys
The Beach Boys decide to grow beards and at the same time to save the planet, now that they have had to hang up their surfboards as it’s not safe to go in the water. A strange song but interesting at the same time.
14. Hole in the Sky – Black Sabbath
Ozzy lacks the lyrical skills of a Dylan or a Joni Mitchel but makes up for it with stonking good riffs. Anyway, you get the general idea. Hole in the Sky, catching my drift right, is a brilliant song off a late Sabbath album. Worth checking out.
15. Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood) – Bob Dylan
Another song about people drowning by Bob Dylan, this one is covered by so many people. In one of the numerous song fact sites found on the net, the song is analysed by a Dylan expert (sic) who ponders over the rather horrible fate that occurs to the recipients of the flood. Still, whatever the gruesome subject matter, it’s a good song. The best version is to be found on the official bootleg album the Basement Tapes. Sandy Denny, the singer with Fairport convention, does a nice rendition as well. There you go – another one to check out pop pickers.
16. The Trees – Rush
The songs keep coming, and another iffy song in terms of its political thrust. It’s interesting how people can interpret this stuff, like I’m doing now of course, but by at least trying to lay down some ideas we can create a groundwork for discussion. Gleaning information from the Rush site there appear to be numerous interpretations of this song, ranging from seeing it as a pro-libertarian piece based on mutual cooperation, the forest as a democratic structure, or as a site of civil unrest put down by authoritarian lumberjacks. At the time Neil Peart was a big fan of Ayn Rand, the neoliberal guru of the American right, and it does seem anti-union. Peart later recanted his right-wing views, but many Rush songs were written from this point of view. Once again decipher the lyrics, get shocked.
17. Stoned Soul Picnic – Laura Nyro
Great song about getting naked, rolling a joint and chillin’ in the country. One of the many songs about urban retreatism written at the time of hippies and Woodstock, it sees the country as alternative space from capitalism and sexual oppression.
18. Go Wild in the Country – Bow Wow Wow
As with all great pop tunes you can’t really hear the words properly, so lyric sheet please. Once armed with the lyrics it’s an even better song, basically like Stoned Soul Picnic in that it’s another song about the retreat from urbanism. It talks about how bad the city is with its takeaways, and lonely streets. In true agent provocateur style, courtesy of Malcolm McLaren, the reason you don’t need takeaways is you can catch animals, so that’s bound to send the animal rights campaigners going wild indeed. Contains the classic lyric ‘go wild, go wild in the country where snakes in the grass come absolutely free.’
19. In the Year 2525 – Zager and Evans
This is the apocalypse song to end all apocalypse songs, the tune being more a hit list of possible atrocities to happen in the future. Although to their credit many prophecies on the record have already come to pass. The song itself is written in the same vein as Eve of Destruction – it’s basically a bubble gum protest song and it socks it to you baby, but as we discussed before, the medium is the message, and it got to number one. Interestingly, as occurred before with Eve of Destruction, an early version was snapped up by a public eager for alternative voices in the United States. The songwriters printed up a version on their own label of about a thousand copies, supposedly selling these from the back of their car. All the copies sold out and Zager and Evans got signed to RCA records due to its popularity, but once again, like Barry McGuire with Eve of Destruction, the fame was to be short lived.
20. Open Letter (To a Landlord) – Living Colour
This is a hard-hitting song about gentrification in the black areas of New York. Buildings and whole neighbourhoods were being torn down to make way for yuppie flats. At the time of writing this was a new phenomenon. The song was written with a local activist / poet Tracie Morris.
21. Ape Man – Kinks
And finally, the Kinks with another back-to-nature song about wanting to be an Ape man, to escape the pollution and the bad vibes of the city, man!