Jan 14

DUNBLANE – “Throw These Guns Away” / “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

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#754, 21st December 1996

guns In the 12 years since Band Aid, the charts have hosted a lot of charity singles – more than enough to give you a cynical familiarity with the shape of them. A terrible thing happens; the public is horrified; a number of pop stars make themselves available to help – some selflessly, some perhaps not; a sombre track is found and a dirge of a cover recorded; Number One is reached; the proceeds are (we trust) distributed; the matter is closed, and if any good is done we do not hear about it. The Dunblane single is almost completely different from any of this.

The background: in March 1996 a terrible failure of a man walked armed into a Scottish primary school and murdered sixteen children and one adult. In the aftermath of this atrocity, public disgust and general political will made some kind of handgun ban inevitable. The question was – how far would it extend? A commission made recommendations which the waning Conservative government accepted: most handguns would be banned. A petition, circulating since the massacre, argued for stricter legislation: outlaw all handguns. As of December 1996, however, this was not on the table.

If the Dunblane massacre had been the kind of tragedy to inspire a standard charity single, we can imagine what it would have been like. It would have charted in May or June, with the horror fresh in public minds. It would have involved a number of Scottish stars – Marti Pellow if available, certainly a Proclaimer or the fellow from Del Amitri. It’s entirely likely “Knockin’ On Heavens Door” would have been the song.

It sounds – and would have been – obscene. The charity single we did get is not, because Dunblane was not that kind of event. The reporting of these crimes – honed by the British press with the Hungerford massacre in 1989 – takes place first at a horribly intimate level, tracing the murderer’s movements second by second, step by step, death by death, using maps and photos to tempt the reader into imagining what the mind wants to flinch away from. After a few days of this the media zooms out, and focuses instead on the aftermath. How does a family cope with the murder of a child? Nobody wants to see or show the real answer to that (“it doesn’t”) so instead the story becomes how ‘the town’ or ‘the community’ deals with it. Mostly the community wants the media to get the hell out, and the story begins to slip away.

There is nowhere into this schema for music to fit, no celebrity response that wouldn’t seem like the most grotesque exploitation. But “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” invents a place for music, by taking the media’s prurient interest in ‘the town’ and making it tangible. The record is credited not to some one-off team, but to ‘Dunblane’ – the single is by and from the community, not just for it. This was genuine, to some degree – Ted Christopher, the musician behind the single, put together a band of Dunblane musicians to play (Mark Knopfler helps, but to lend professionalism as much as star power). The children’s choir on “Throw Those Guns Away” even includes classmates of the murdered kids. However sentimental the end result, this is an attempt at catharsis, not the kind of pat closure I’ve criticised on other event-led charity hits.

“Throw Those Guns Away” also points to the other thing that makes the Dunblane single unusual. It is an explicitly political charity record – perhaps the most focused political Number One ever. Most charity hits obscure the controversy and political wrangling that comes in tragedy’s wake: not so Dunblane. It is a specific intervention in an ongoing policy debate, a petition as much as a record: all handguns should be banned. Tony Blair adopted that policy, and it was law within six months of New Labour coming to power. Now, it’s not likely Blair adopted the policy because of this record, and the single isn’t taking a difficult or unpopular stand. In fact it was the kind of emotional open goal his opponents were regularly terrible at spotting. But the massive response to this single – nine months after the massacre – would at least have confirmed his instincts, and helped cement the policy as part of the UK political consensus. Nowadays, only Nigel Farage makes serious noises about loosening the handgun ban.

In the end almost none of the standard objections you might have to a charity single apply here. It’s no celebrity junket, it’s a genuine response by (some of) the people affected, it’s pointedly specific in its demands, and it’s about its events in a way nothing since Band Aid has been. Its very success in those areas makes it virtually unlistenable – alone in the charity hit ledger I can’t hear it without thinking of what prompted it. Really though, the only thing it has in common with other charity hits is that the music isn’t any good. For once that doesn’t matter: this is as close to an unmarkable record as I’ll see. It gets an arbitrary number: these songs did the job they set out to, and now I will never play them again.



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  1. 76
    Tom on 30 Jan 2014 #

    #72 I’m not sure it’s that the artists don’t want confrontation (though it might be true in some cases) – it’s that in a strongly pro-gun culture making that kind of specific blanket statement would be as practical as “feed the world” or “give peace a chance”, so they feel the point is better made artistically through metaphor etc. You could record a song backing a specific piece of gun control legislation, but “Tougher background checks now!” (for instance) is unpromising pop material.

    Whereas in this case the record is pushing on an almost-open door – SOME kind of gun control law was inevitable after Dunblane – so throwing weight behind a particular outcome made sense.

    If a specific goal looks achievable and is suitable for a protest song you’ll find people making it. Vietnam era rock had a fair bit of stuff like “Bring the boys back home”.

  2. 77
    Cumbrian on 30 Jan 2014 #

    76: I’m not so sure, now that I have had further thinking time about this, that I am right to say that gun control is the obvious thing that each of the artists could have been writing about. They could have pushed against an open door (Neil Young’s would be – stop shooting protesters, Bruce Springsteen’s would be – stop indiscriminately shooting black people, Marilyn Manson’s is something different but would be along the lines of – stop glorying in tragedy, media outlets) but chose not to. I wonder why? An open question for them – which will be presumably be answered with something along the lines of “well, this is what I wanted to write about, in the way I wanted to right about it” – the freedom to do so being difficult to deny, I’d have no problem with this. But still, if you’re going to go down this route, you could be more bold should you want.

    What I am pretty sure about is, as I said, that what marks Dunblane out is the intensity of its focus – you’re right too that it makes sense, given that some sort of gun control was inevitable following the events in Scotland.

    What Vietnam era rock stuff are you referring to? All the stuff I can immediately think of, principally by CCR, is just as bound up in metaphor (e.g. “Who’ll Stop The Rain?”) and oblique protest (like “Fortunate Son”) as the stuff I marked out at #72 rather than explicitly saying “bring them home” – which seemed to be Pete Seeger and the rest of the folk movement’s role. I suppose there is Country Joe’s stuff but who else are we talking about here?

  3. 78
    Tom on 30 Jan 2014 #

    I was thinking of No.1 hitmaker Freda Payne’s “Bring The Boys Home” – I think there’s a couple of other soul records which are very non-oblique. (i.e. I shouldn’t have used the word “rock”!)

  4. 79
    punctum on 30 Jan 2014 #

    From 1999, one of the greatest pieces of music ever created: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_Ze2yAY4kA

  5. 80
    Tom on 30 Jan 2014 #

    & If only “stop indiscriminately shooting black people” was an open door. “Prosecute [cop who did it]” is probably closer to the specificity you’d need for comparison, I guess.

    (xpost with Punctum)

  6. 81
    glue_factory on 30 Jan 2014 #

    A more recent(-ish) example would be The Beat’s Stand Margaret. Although even with the ‘please’ in the lyrics, I suspect this one was pushing on a very closed door. And the door probably wasn’t even aware of any pushing.

  7. 82
    Andrew Farrell on 30 Jan 2014 #

    The handle’s not for turning.

  8. 83
    Tom on 30 Jan 2014 #

    “No Clause 28” is an example of the classic slebs-together charity record model being used for a specific political goal (short-term failure, long-term success I guess).

    (Except I’ve misremembered it completely and it was just Boy George. It still fits the specific-policy protest song definition though.)

  9. 84
    CriticSez on 3 Feb 2016 #

    I’ve heard both sides. I personally think this rendition of KOHD is a true masterpiece (a very rare perfect 10); the hard-to-find flip side gets 8.4/10 from me.

    Both are truly inspirational and deserve to be listened to again, since these problems persist in the modern world.

  10. 85
    G.S. on 21 Aug 2016 #

    For the reasons stated in #28, 1. A loathsome artefact – probably the only thing I agree with my 11-year-old self about.

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