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Nov 08

MASH – “Theme From M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)”

FT + Popular53 comments • 5,460 views

#459, 30th May 1980

I have to admit that if my 14-year-old son wrote these lyrics my first reaction might not be, “Hey! That’s my new film theme!”, though I’m sure little bolsters the will to live more than an endless series of royalty checks. Snark aside, this track, and its appearance here and now, are somewhat rum – a theme from an import TV show which had been running for 8 years and which had another three to go. I know transatlantic cultural transmission used to be on the slow side, but really – why?

But here it is: a pop artefact from the end of the hippie era and the very beginning of “the seventies”, washed up at the top of the charts after their close, the last of the death ballads. On one level “Suicide”‘s kitsch factor runs deeper for its being authentically adolescent, but the song’s creepy passivity stops it functioning as any kind of joke. In the war hospital context of M*A*S*H – a show I barely recall – it’s a bleaker, blacker take on “Que Sera Sera”. Taken out of that frame, though, it’s more uncomfortable: in mood a darkly dreamy cross between “Bright Eyes” and another bit of ’68 flotsam, the numbly pretty Beach Boys/Manson collaboration “Cease To Resist”. Half in love with easeful death, half in cahoots with Tin Pan Alley corn, “Theme From M*A*S*H” is as strange a number one as we’ll ever encounter.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    wichita lineman on 11 Nov 2008 #

    The “band”, as I recall from a Record Mirror Chartwatch from 1980, were The New Marketts – resumably a New Sekers type spin-off from the surf group who had a 1964 Top 10 hit in the US with Out Of Limits. This was the name on the first US pressing of Theme From MASH.

    Going further down a dark lane… it first came out in the UK in 1970 as The Song From Mash by The Mash, which presumably sounded better than “The New Somebody-you’d-never-heard-of-in-the-first-place”.

  2. 27
    Martin Skidmore on 11 Nov 2008 #

    The TV series DVDs have the option of playing with or without laughtrack.

    I could never get on with this because I was always conscious of it being sung to the suicidal dentist, nicknamed Painless. If you have that name in mind, the title makes no real sense. I always liked the tune well enough.

  3. 28
    Mark G on 11 Nov 2008 #

    Well, unless Suicide was the name of your dog…

    One time, the BBC got the wrong version of one episode, and for the want of the right one, aired it. That week, they had loads of complaints. Yep, laughter track.

  4. 29
    LondonLee on 11 Nov 2008 #

    Reminds me of the great line in Annie Hall when Woody Allen, referring to the canned laughter machine his friend is using on a dreadful TV sitcom, asks “Is there booing on that thing?”

  5. 30
    will on 11 Nov 2008 #

    I’d argue that the Manic Street Preachers version is a rare example of a cover that improves on the original.

  6. 31

    the glorias: when covers improve on the original

  7. 32
    Alix on 11 Nov 2008 #

    I played this on tenor horn in a regional competition when I was around 10 years old, and came second. In hindsight it was an odd choice, but at the time it seemed quite normal.

  8. 33
    peter goodlaws on 12 Nov 2008 #

    I never saw MASH and have no idea about this theme, although the tune is familiar. Once again, I am stumped as to how such dross could go to the top, especially something from ten years before. If Noel Edmunds is to blame its another reason to want him hurt. If a 14 year old wrote it, I say good luck but Mozart was writing operas at that age.

  9. 34
    pink champale on 12 Nov 2008 #

    i’m definitely in the more than a four camp. at the very least a couple of extra points are deserved for the scene in gregory’s girl where gregory’s ten year old nemesis hangs around a street corner whistling this cockily.

  10. 35
    Pete Baran on 12 Nov 2008 #

    Sorry, in my heirachy of Mash’s I missed out MASH The Opera. Between book and film I’d say.

  11. 36

    did mash the opera have helicopters? miss saigon did! (not that i ever saw miss saigon — i just remember the picture next to michael feingold’s review of MS, which was the single most hostile and caustic review of anything i ever saw) (also funny)

    (the only bit of it i can find on the net reads as follows: “”The New York Times must be firebombed into nothingness … while Cameron Mackintosh and his production staff should be slowly beaten to death with blunt instruments; this year’s Pulitzer Prize judges in drama could be used for the [ends here]”

  12. 37
    Pete Baran on 12 Nov 2008 #

    Mash Saigon – (starring Sean Connery).

    I remember having the choice between going to see Miss Saigon or Metropolis the Musical. I think I chose Metropolis because i figured it would be a silent musical (clearly a miscalculation which I twigged the moment Brian Blessed walked on stage).

  13. 38
    Mark G on 12 Nov 2008 #

    heh!

    I saw Miss Saigon, the stage musical. Not far off Bangkok, settingwise.. And yes, helicopters. But it was lights/mirrors/sounds rather than an actual mock-up…

  14. 39
    lonepilgrim on 12 Nov 2008 #

    re 31 that was an idea that failed to run and run – a shame

  15. 40
    Billy Smart on 13 Nov 2008 #

    This single had an educationl value for seven-year old Billy, as I was moved to ask “Mummy, what does suicide mean?”. Once I’d been informed, I think that I automatically treated the song as an important work of art.

    Actually, I do really like this a lot now. I think that it has a really shadowy and ghostly feel to it. You could castigate the lyrics for being adolescent, but I’d reflect that in some instances, in the mix of emotions, there’s a sense of vainglory in suicide that is a bit adolescent…

    All of this is accentuated in the Manics version which is almost unbearably thrilling, the characteristicly barked lyrics and approximation of Guns ‘n’ Roses riffs, giving it a scorched earth sensation of either life itself crashing out in an act of self-immolation, or something new (harsher but new) arising from an act of destruction.

  16. 41
    Billy Smart on 13 Nov 2008 #

    Out of interest, is this the first noticably ‘old’ recording to get to number one since ‘Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me’?

  17. 42
    wichita lineman on 14 Nov 2008 #

    Space Oddity and Stand By Your Man were both six years old when they got to no.1. If it wasn’t for pesky Bo Rhap keeping it at 2, Laurel & Hardy’s Trail Of The Lonesome Pine would trash allcomers.

  18. 43
    cheasyweasel on 21 Nov 2008 #

    Just to go back to the ‘Cease to Exist’ references. The original Manson song has that title but wasn’t recorded by the BB’s as that. Once adopted by Dennis Wilson it became ‘Never Learn Not To Love’ on the album 20/20.

  19. 44
    Tom on 21 Nov 2008 #

    #43 yes, of course, with “Cease to resist” being the altered opening line. Thanks for the correction!

  20. 45
    punctum on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Three things come to mind when considering this song about “the things that are withheld for me.” Firstly, that Robert Altman’s original film of M*A*S*H* wilfully concerns itself with the things which are withheld from its audience, if not its characters, namely the cold facts of war, death and blood. Altman’s deliberate focus on the doings, duckings and divings at base camp make the film seem like a decaffeinated Bilko for the Vietnam age (even though ostensibly set at the time of the Korean War) but is arguably infinitely crueller to its cast; witness for example how Robert Duvall’s square peg is purposely and gleefully driven beyond the point of madness while Sutherland and Gould focus on small talk, the twinings of microlanguage to make nonsense the primary sense in their environment. And “Suicide” is the nickname for the camp dentist, but far from doing away with themselves, the soldiers’ increasingly arid antics survived in the realms of the spinoff TV series for a generation afterwards.

    Secondly, we need to take into consideration the role and purpose of Noel Edmonds, since it was his inexplicable plugging of the film’s ten-year-old theme song, combined with the belated popularity of the TV series (it was consistently top of BBC2’s ratings), which saw it become an unexpected number one in Britain. In parallel with M*A*S*H*, Edmonds focused on creating an imperturbable and impenetrable world within a world on his long-running Radio 1 shows; a passed and closed-off society of granges and servants, of bemused newsreaders and arbitrary sports commentary cut-ups whose main purpose appeared to be the deliberate avoidance of a realer and bloodier world outside. That this eventually proved a fatal fantasy is something which may need to be returned to when the time comes. Yet there was controversy over the success of “Suicide Is Painless”; was its plugging reckless, its motive naively foolish?

    The third thing to consider is the then-recent suicide of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis; “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Closer would have been sufficiently harrowing journals had he lived, but his absence suddenly made all “gestures” in rock or pop seem fake, insufficient; there was, as the lyrics to Closer solemnly prove, no distance between their arenas of agony and the unsupportable pain of their author. Nobody affected by Joy Division, least of all me, felt like listening to very much else that summer – but the dangers of basing a future life on “The Eternal” and “Decades” were already clearly apparent. In such a context, “Suicide Is Painless” seemed a little…gauche, a pretty cruel and pitiless joke.

    Then again, if the song’s lyrics do read like fourth-form Baudelaire (“The sword of time will pierce our skins” accompanied by that stinging glockenspiel which feels like a needle splashing into a rivulet of vital blood), that may be because they were actually written by a fourteen-year-old – Mike Altman, Robert’s son – and set to music by the film’s composer Johnny Mandel. The session singers have remained anonymous; they are not the Association, or even the Four Seasons, although their close (closing?) harmonies derive from that era. But the agony is conveyed effectively because of the apparent lack of overt emotionalism in the song’s delivery; as it crouches down to allow the final sarcastic/defeated retort “And you can do the same thing, if you please” there is a nonchalance which borders on numbness. Contrast with the overwrought, hysterical treatment given to the same song by the Manic Street Preachers, who scored their first top ten hit with their cover in 1992; but then again, consider the horribly real pain of Richey Edwards being channelled through Bradfield’s screaming lungs…and wonder how we can ever recognise real screams, especially when screamed squarely in our faces.

  21. 46
    Billy Smart on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Going back to my thoughts at 40… the Manics do sound joyously cathartic to me (albeit in a genuinely ‘Manic’ depressive up phase). There’s something quite fun about their interpretation – in the face of despair and horror – in what I consider to be an authentically rock ‘n’ roll fashion.

  22. 47

    surely the nickname of the dentist was “painless” rather than “suicide”? (long time since i watched film or TV show)

  23. 48
    Anjana on 13 Oct 2009 #

    This is a very interesting article. I have reached this as I am researching things for my Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy assignment. Well, our teacher made us listen to the song “Suicide is Painless” in class before he said that we had to connect it with Hamlet in our analysis. Thus, if anyone finds any analysis in this, please email me the site to musicxemo@aol.com . Thank you =D

  24. 49
    Pete on 14 Oct 2009 #

    Not sure of any obvious link Anjana. Is it “to be or not to be”? Oh, why ask me…

  25. 50
    thefatgit on 14 Dec 2009 #

    Altman’s movie was a thinly disguised protest against Vietnam. By 1970, LBJ had been forced to stand down after the Tet offensive in ’68. Popular opinion turned against America’s involvement as more young men returned home in coffins or wheelchairs. Nixon began to withdraw troops, while approving CIA counterinsurgency operations in Cambodia and Laos. Against all this, is the fag end of hippiedom and the hangovers from Woodstock and Altamont. The film was a success which touched a nerve with Liberal America.

    Young Mike appears to be the winner financially, earning a shitload of royalties from the song. There’s something slightly endearing about a 14 year old writing a hit song and seeing it get to the top albeit 10 years later. There’s hope for many adolescent bedroom lyricists out there. The suicide aspect from an Ian Curtis point of view seems to be an unhappy coincidence. I would never attribute Mr Noel Edmonds pinning his colours to Joy Division’s mast. He was always a lover of whimsy and japery and if he ever gazed into an abyss, his first thought would be “we’re gonna need more custard”. So why then did he go for the M*A*S*H theme in such a big way? The dreaminess and airbrushed feel of the song removes it from any starkness emotionally. The session singers with their close harmonies suck you in and force the lyrics to wash over you without their meaning or message to penetrate, which makes sense really when you consider the film itself is the message. If Edmonds was a fan of the film or Altman’s work then he’s simply enforcing his tastes upon the British public from his DJ booth at Radio 1. His power was not to be underestimated, wresting the coveted breakfast slot from Tony Blackburn, Noel gives us prank calls and John Snagg. His Lord of Tomfoolery persona was popular at pre-playlist R1. Railing against new wave and post-punk, Edmonds favours disco, soft-rock and ballads. People listened to him and were entertained by him. He was ice to Tiswas’ fire on a Saturday morning. He was Middle England. He was mediocrity. He was safe.

    And that’s what “Suicide Is Painless” is. You listen to the song, you watch the movie, you laugh at Klinger as he endures his own personal Catch 22 in the TV series, and you know you are safe. You’ll go to bed in 1980 and be woken by your radio alarm clock to the safe tones of Edmonds winding up some poor sap on the other end of a phone, ignoring the running sore Stateside as America comes to terms with 50,000 war dead 5 years after the last chopper leaves Saigon.

  26. 51
    thefatgit on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Another film that endures from around the same time as M*A*S*H is it’s retarded cousin, Kelly’s Heroes.

  27. 52
    Snif on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Ease up, mate, it’s just a TV show

  28. 53
    Rufus Headroom on 4 Jun 2016 #

    M*A*S*H is one of the greatest shows ever! As far as covers go, The Ventures “Suicide is Painless” is tops for sure. The theme from Mash reinterpreted as funky cop show theme!

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