Nov 08

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

FT + Popular53 comments • 6,718 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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  1. 1
    lonepilgrim on 10 Nov 2008 #

    It was a hit at this particular time due mainly to relentless plugging by Noel Edmunds on his Radio 1 show.

  2. 2
    johnny on 10 Nov 2008 #

    always loved this one. one of the truest expressins of melancholy ever to hit number one. if only manic street preachers hadn’t covered it…

  3. 3
    rosie on 10 Nov 2008 #

    Thank you, lone pilgrim. I was about to say that somebody was plugging it to death on R1.

    I always had a funny relationship with MASH on the TV. I never felt much inclined to watch it, and would never feel hard done by if I didn’t, but if I happened to catch it I enjoyed it. I had the same feeling years later about The X-Files.

    Nice as a TV theme. Bland outside that context. I take johnny’s point about the expression of melancholia but by 1980 this was as familiar as the shipping forecast.

  4. 4
    Erithian on 10 Nov 2008 #

    Round about this time, when I was a regular at Manchester United games, I’d have my trusty transistor with me as I approached the ground, listening to Piccadilly Radio, and I’d always listen out for the record that was playing as I reached the forecourt of Old Trafford. If it was one I liked, it’d be a good omen for the match; if it wasn’t, another frustrating afternoon lay ahead (and believe me, you didn’t go to Old Trafford in those days with anything like the confidence you would now).

    I used to extend that principle to other areas, such as noting what was the last song on the radio before an exam (as I’ve already mentioned, the last song I heard before my London University interview was “London Calling”, which turned out pretty well). And so, to fall in with this mild superstition, what was number one when I took my A-levels? “Suicide is Painless”. Thanks a bunch, British record-buying public…

    Yes, it’s a strange one, bleak if you want to take it that way, but rather easy listening, the kind of dreamy stuff you might have heard near the top of the US charts during the summer of love. No doubt it meant more to fans of the show, but it was one I never got into despite seeing the odd episode. Even so, it’s hard to hear it without visualising the opening credits. As lonepilgrim notes, it was another success to be chalked up to Noel Edmonds’ Sunday morning show, which got a devoted following, Edmonds being able to take it easier and expand features of his show more than he could on the breakfast programme. This and “Captain Beaky” were among the main beneficiaries.

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    lonepilgrim on 10 Nov 2008 #

    You pretty much nail it Tom. A chirpy tune with a sour, adolescent lyric written by original film director Robert Altman’s 14 year old son. According to Wikipedia there is a version by Bill Evans which might be worth listening to. However, the site also reckons Nick Drake covered it which sounds like misinformation.
    In 1985 I worked on a summer camp near Toledo, Ohio and was taken to a Chilli Dog restaurant called Tony Packo’s which Jamie Farr in the role of the transvestite character Klinger mentioned on the TV show. Farr’s mugshot was all over the place along with shots of other celebrities who’d eaten there. It’s one of Toledo’s cultural highpoints.

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    Matos W.K. on 10 Nov 2008 #

    As a Yank who’s very familiar with the TV show, I have to ask: was it the TV version (an instrumental) that went to No. 1, or was it the film version (with lyrics)? They’re very different pieces of music, in any event.

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    Matos W.K. on 10 Nov 2008 #

    (Or rather, they’re very different recordings–obviously, they’re the same “piece of music,” duh.)

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    Vinylscot on 10 Nov 2008 #

    Worth noting (because it makes this all the more bizarre at #1), that this was not the tv series’ theme tune – that was the instrumental version.

    The vocal version comes from the opening credits of the movie, and is also played during an appropriate scene later on.

    It was always one of these songs people wrote in to newspapers about – who sings it? where can I get it? etc., so it’s maybe not a surprise it was a hit, but #1??

  9. 9
    lonepilgrim on 10 Nov 2008 #

    re 6 It was the vocal version – one wonders what provoked Noel Edmunds to go overboard about it. Perhaps he just revelled in the power he had to promote such dodgy material

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    Glue Factory on 10 Nov 2008 #

    I always thought the Manson/Beach Boys thing was called “Cease To Exist” (or at least, I thought the Throbbing Gristle track of the same name was named after the Manson/Beach Boys thing).

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    unlogged-in lord soülråt on 10 Nov 2008 #

    a rather annoying fellow student – very clever but unafraid to let you know he knew this, insisting he was a marxist who was going into the City “to bring the system down from within”, etc* — got very tremendously excited by the notion, unheard of as far as he was concerned, of a “song about suicide in the hit parade”! he went out and bought his own copy, to mark the day (and no doubt sharpen the contradictions)

    (i also remember him sneering at julie burchill for being on the telly “wearin a print dress — i have no idea why this was a bad thing in his eyes

    *haha maybe he is the man behind the bolveshiks behind the Great 2008 Crash! sadly i longer recall his name

    the weakest line: “it brings on many changes”

  12. 12
    Erithian on 10 Nov 2008 #

    My understanding was that Manson (who was a buddy of Dennis Wilson’s for a while) presented it to the BBs as “Cease To Exist” and they altered it to “Cease To Resist”.

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    mike on 10 Nov 2008 #

    As Rosie says, the pleasantly/poignantly strummed instrumental version of the MASH theme was indeed as cosily familiar as the shipping forecast. Bearing in mind the Great British Public’s relative unfamiliarity with the movie, I suppose that having a vocal version available in the shops added a Novelty factor to the Souvenir factor, thus doubling the appeal to casual record buyers. As for the lyrical content, I suspect that many zoned out on it, beyond a certain “Ooh, that’s a bit unusual” frisson…

  14. 14
    Izzy on 10 Nov 2008 #

    The Manic Street Preachers’ version is pretty fantastic, actually – very spacious and with nice guitar/feedback throughout, plus they looked terrific at the time. Obviously it builds on how strong the songwriting is (I never knew a 14-year-old was responsible!), but there’s a howl of anguish about it that gives their version a more personal meaning. I heard the original much later, and was consequently surprised at how gentle it is – it sounds more like a genre exercise to me now, which I guess gives it an appropriate certain tension of its own

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    LondonLee on 10 Nov 2008 #

    For a TV/Movie theme it’s terrific (I preferred the earlier episodes of MASH with Trapper John and Henry but hated the movie), but as a chart topper in 1980 it feels as out of place as a pork pie at a Bar Mitzvah. All part of life’s rich tapestry I suppose.

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    Brian on 10 Nov 2008 #

    I’m not sure of the characters name but there was a troubador who appeared occasionally in MASH. That would be Loudon Wainwright III ( of “Dead Skunk” in the middle of the road fame). Father of , you guessed it, Rufus and Martha Wainwright. And I think the mother of both is fellow Canuck , Kate McGarrigle.

    I always enjoyed his off beat appearances.

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    Brian on 10 Nov 2008 #

    I just dug up the character name for Loudon Wainwright III on MASH – and it’s Captain Spalding – not the African explorer, though !!

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    Snif on 10 Nov 2008 #

    That little graphic of the peace sign with women’s legs alternately fascinated/creeped me out as a kid – don’t suppose any designer could get away with that these days…the MASH poster of today would be close-ups of Sutherland’s and Gould’s faces.

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    wichita lineman on 11 Nov 2008 #

    Well, I dunno, cos I know a lot of posters were around at the time… and I was at the vulnerable age of 15… but this didn’t seem totally out of kilter. A no.1 from the black wave before New Pop (there’s another one just round the corner), this was part of a bleak, surrendering 1980 national mindset as much as Mouldy Old Dough etcet had been the beery, stiff upper lip in the face of adversity sound of 72/73.

    I didn’t really relate this to the totally different TV theme (which sounded more like The Rockford Files than Cease To Exist). Another reason it charted out of the blue? A lot of people whose lives were falling to bits might have recalled the film from their gay , carefree youth, and given the chance to buy this on a 45 (it would have been unavailable in any form for 10 years) did so.

    Other upbeat numbers to hit the Top 20 when this was no.1:
    Michael Jackson – She’s Out Of My Life
    The Specials – Rat Race
    Roxy Music – Over You
    Gary Numan – We Are Glass
    Kate Bush – Breathing
    Korgis – Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime

    And Ian Curtis threw in the towel a couple of weeks before this reached the top. People, 1980 was grim.

    4 seems harsh. The vocals are too square, even for my soft ears, but the tune is the definition of melancholy, quite beautiful, so I’d give it a 6 or even 7.

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    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Nov 2008 #

    surely numan is saying “we are glass” in a good way

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    wichita lineman on 11 Nov 2008 #

    Hmmm. “we are young, we can break, watch us fall…” Same as The Mash are saying Suicide Is Painless in a good way.

    Tho I’m sure yr not entirely serious.

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    Mark M on 11 Nov 2008 #

    Having grown up on the TV show, I think it was only around the third time of watching that I actually liked the movie. The first time I was baffled by the lack of obvious anti-war sentiment and taken aback by the sheer crudeness of the sexism. It’s not one of Altman’s great films, although it did get his career underway. In retrospect I’ve always thought of the TV show as cloying, but I watched a few episodes on Paramount a couple of years back and they weren’t too bad.
    I’m firmly in the camp that says the song is worth more than a 4.

  23. 23
    Mark G on 11 Nov 2008 #

    Me too.

    The song is entirely in context within the movie: Someone decides to do the deed, and the rest of his friends decide to make it an event, one guy sings and plays guitar (It’s not Loudon, btw).

    It’s also notable that here’s one song that as far as I know has never been blamed for any suicides ever. Unlike MarMans/BlackSab/etc, where the normal people ego “Hey, if I had to listen to that, I’d top meself ay?” ….

    Also, of course, “Why don’t you kill yourself” by The Only Ones, which is plainly a nasty sentiment, as is taken as such by those who hear it, and again no-one’s left an incriminating note citing it.

    (Am I opening a pandoras box here? Good.)

    (OK, I take that back, but it’s a complicated situation. It happened in our street. Not Family. And that’s all I’m saying)

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    Pete on 11 Nov 2008 #

    I too am in the camp of “more than a four”. I’d go for a six or seven. I remember this as a kiddie before I really saw MASH the TV series (and way before I saw MASH the film) and I think I appreciated its pure whistleability. I think I have always been quite awed by its anonymity – though its not the only time the configuration “BAND NAME – Theme From Band Name” will be troubling us. But not knowing who this MASH was sort of troubled me. Pop music was, at this point to me, all about the pop star. I can’t remember how it was done on Top Of The Pops, Pans People I guess.

    As for relative qualities of MASH’s, I think the film stands up quite will in context of the early seventies (and is better than the film version of Catch-22). Its clearly Altman trying to fight against the structure of cinema – which is apt as the original book of MASH (worse that book Catch 22) is a slimly plotted set of annecdotes more than anything else. Resonance for the film comes from Vietnam which is lost latterly though Gould is good value for money. Mark’s right about its sexism though.

    The TV series is a much stranger beast, which oddly works better due to its formatting straight jacket (which is occasionally devestating in episodes where they break the format). Though it is amazing the difference a laughtrack makes to it – the US version with the track seems alien and wrong, where is this audience in Korea and why aren’t they helping. I think the hierachy goes something like:

    TV Series without laughtrack
    TV Series with Laughtrack

  25. 25
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Nov 2008 #

    my critic-archivist friend KH — fans of our slugs radioshow will recognise him from the frank herbert ep — years ago worked up* a nice conceit of helicopter-related pop as a figure for ways music can explore war (vietnam bein the Helicopter War, imagery-wise): i forget if this was in the piece he wrote, but i realise as i think about it that helicopter action is certainly what it puts in my mind (rather than self-harm)

    *he is very thorough

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    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”.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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?”

  30. 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.

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