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Jan 14

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

Popular85 comments • 10,153 views

#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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Comments

  1. 1
    Weej on 28 Jan 2014 #

    RELATED POSTS – MR BLOBBY – “Mr Blobby”. Does the algorithm have some sort of pro-gun political agenda to push here? (Sorry for the silly first reply, this might turn out to be a fairly serious thread.)

  2. 2
    To Mewing! (@tomewing) on 28 Jan 2014 #

    New Popular post on the limits of charity records and the borders of political pop. http://t.co/TYNDjL3hEv

  3. 3
    enitharmon on 28 Jan 2014 #

    I put my farewell to Pete Seeger under Mr Tambourine Man for want of anything better, but I suppose as the epitome of political pop he could well go here too.

    I suppose it might be too much to hope that Andy Murray sang on this.

  4. 4
    Jimmy the Swede on 28 Jan 2014 #

    Indeed Andy Murray did not sing on this but the near nine-year-old was alas present during the massacre, taking refuge under a desk. Not surprisingly, he does not talk about it today. His mother Judy knew Thomas Hamilton quite well and doesn’t talk about it either. The whole thing must have been dreadful for them both.

  5. 5
    mintness on 28 Jan 2014 #

    For all this was notionally a double A-side, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” was very much the lead track in terms of radio/TOTP etc., right? I remember little if nothing about “Throw These Guns Away”, in any case, and the Turkish cover version on YouTube offers only limited help…

  6. 6
    lonepilgrim on 28 Jan 2014 #

    according to wiki John Major’s government introduced the original Bill banning the ownership of handguns except for the smaller caliber .22 guns. The new Labour government introduced a bill that banned those as well.
    My dad owned a couple of guns that he used for target shooting and had to give them up. He wasn’t best pleased about it. I’m ambivalent about the decision. Incidents like Dunblane were extremely rare in this country and the new law appeared to be a case of politicians playing to the gallery. However, it may have created a safer country.
    As for the record, the original KOHD benefits from being short. Subsequent covers always tend to drag it out, emphasising its maudlin qualities. This throws in Psalm 23 and a kids’ choir as well. Good cause, poor record.

  7. 7
    Weej on 28 Jan 2014 #

    Just to put a hypothetical cat among the pigeons; how would people feel if this song had been successfully campaigning for the reintroduction of the death penalty rather than the banning of handguns? Not sure if this is a realistic proposition as it would require a different kind of narrative, but it’s not impossible to imagine.

  8. 8
    Nanaya on 28 Jan 2014 #

    I remember being very cross about this record for both the usual reasons & because I thought the law was pointless in safety terms. The community connection was something I hadn’t considered as a distinguishing feature before, so ta for that extra perspective there Tom.

  9. 9
    thefatgit on 28 Jan 2014 #

    Due to the corporate firewall, I shall comment further on this once I have listened to both tracks.

  10. 10
    Tom on 28 Jan 2014 #

    Weej’s counter factual question is a very good one – the point is that pop singles aren’t generally expected to be politically effective: this offers a new way for how charity records work, and one I think is admirable, but it’s a way that repeated at scale would break the charts.

    So in that sense my rating for this should be a reflection of the political position it supports – and it’s not, because I don’t have a thought out position on the specific difference between the Tory and Labour handgun bans in 1996. I like living in a culture where impulsive gun violence is rare and made more difficult by law. On the other hand the law didnt actually change the gun homicide rate long term and it’s also very clearly the first step in New Labour’s emotional appeals to public safety as a cover for authoritarian laws.

  11. 11
    Rory on 28 Jan 2014 #

    I can’t hear it without thinking of what what prompted it prompted.

    I flew home to Tasmania on Sunday 28 April 1996 for a job interview the next morning. Switching on the news in my hotel room that night, I saw an old school friend, a nurse, meeting ambulances at the Royal Hobart Hospital, where victims of our Dunblane-inspired massacre were being taken. At that point the killer was still at large. He had shot 58 people, killing 35, in and around a popular tourist location that I and every other southern Tasmanian had visited many times. When I read descriptions of the events in the cafe and gift shop (since demolished), I can visualise the rooms.

    In an email earlier that week my parents had said they were thinking of going for a drive down there on the weekend. I spent the night wondering if they had.

    I was a bit subdued in the interview, and didn’t get the job. Mum and Dad had driven to Port Arthur and back on the Saturday. Several years later, they moved to a town nearby, and I’ve visited the area many times since. Fortunately, the place has taken on a new significance for me.

    Australia passed strict gun laws in the wake of Port Arthur, and bought back and destroyed three-quarters of a million guns, including the air-rifle my Dad had taught me how to shoot as a teenager, and the vintage rifle he had inherited from a 19th-century ancestor. I don’t lose any sleep over that; there are other family heirlooms, and what the hell would I or my brother have done with it. If we compare firearm mortality rates between 1996 and today, around four or five thousand gun deaths have been prevented in Australia as a result of those laws.

    I’ve passed through Dunblane, on a cycling trip to Loch Katrine a decade ago. Now that I’ve got a son of my own in primary school, I can hardly bear to think about what happened there.

    I have no idea what to give this record, and can’t find the less-famous track on YouTube to judge. The additional lyrics to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” are jarring next to Dylan’s, authorised or not, and the performance is nothing exceptional. But the lack of celebrity guests is refreshing, and the notable exception of Mark Knopfler on guitar makes perfect sense on a Dylan cover. The musician behind the single has remained committed to the cause, travelling to Tasmania, America and Turkey to support families of victims and campaign for gun control, and deserves credit for his efforts. I think I’ll give this 5.

  12. 12
    wichita lineman on 28 Jan 2014 #

    Likewise, I only remember KOHD from the time and can’t find the far more interesting sounding side on youtube. Does anyone have a link to it?

  13. 13
    Cumbrian on 28 Jan 2014 #

    As Rory at 11, Cumbria has had its own brush with gun violence, and, as with Rory, I spent a (thankfully very brief) amount of time wondering whether my Dad was anywhere near the incident due to his travels around the county (he wasn’t). Nevertheless, when something like this happens in an area you know, it does make a difference in some small way; it all becomes less abstract somehow – even if you are not involved personally in any way and, at least speaking for myself, can’t really appreciate the terror and then the grief that the families go through when these events happen. Anyway as a result of the now slightly less abstract nature of the shootings for me, doing the reading around this and listening to the record (KOHD – still can’t find TTGA online), whilst not actually in tears, I could feel them prickling the back of my eyeballs.

    I’d go further than Tom and say this record actually is unmarkable – but then I am not committed to having to put a mark at the end of my comments, so I can appreciate why Tom did give it a mark and found rationale to do so. Fortunately, I don’t have to, so I’m simply not going to mark it.

    On a different note, though still dealing with gun violence I suppose, I’ll say that “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid” is pretty good. I prefer it to Peckinpah’s more lauded other works at least (definitely PG&BTK for me rather than The Wild Bunch).

    And on KOHD, I’ll open myself up to accusations of blistering cock-rockism by saying my favourite version is the Guns N’ Roses version. Axl revving himself up from his growly voice into full cry – possibly his most thrilling vocal moment.

    These last two comments possibly well besides the point. Apologies, if so thought.

  14. 14
    Tom on 28 Jan 2014 #

    Um sorry if the review made TTGA into some Rosetta Stone you need to fully understand the record – it’s not: the title pretty much says it all, and musically and emotionally its very much a cousin of the extra verse on KOHD.

  15. 15
    wichita lineman on 28 Jan 2014 #

    I wasn’t expecting a revelation Tom, but it’s a rare charity single that doesn’t plump for a (very loosely in this case) relevant cover. On musical terms KOHD isn’t good*, and I don’t feel I want to give Dunblane preferential treatment over other human tragedies. So I’m intrigued to hear the other side, and can’t get this single into perspective without knowing how it sounds.

    *The cause aside, I’ve always found the song to be a huge drag, closer to Eric Clapton’s work in the 70s than Blood on the Tracks.

  16. 16
    Chelovek na lune on 28 Jan 2014 #

    I have to agree that in essence this is ungradeable: I don’t think the music is actually “bad”: it’s just what you might hear in a pub on a Friday evening in a small Scottish town – like Dunblane. Straightforward enough, ordinary enough with no whizzo artistry or expensive effects. Which is precisely why, in so closely recalling the acts of evil that inspired it, the record succeeds in tugging so strongly on the heartstrings, as it does. One might call it manipulative, if one were looking to be harsh: but I find it still an extraordinary act of remembrance, with the “political campaign” aspect being quite secondary to that.

    (Horrific TOTP presentation of Sean Ryder presenting the group when they were at no 1 on Youtube, and then returning after the song, with a tinsel wig on, describing himself as “Junior Jimmy” – I think we know which one)

    Also, a small correction: the Hungerford massacre was in 1987.

  17. 17
    mapman132 on 28 Jan 2014 #

    For those who wish to hear “Throw These Guns Away”, I just found this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zsm6dheb-gY It’s the second track played.

    I will be making my own comments on this single and its subject once I have time to collect my thoughts.

  18. 18
    Tom on 28 Jan 2014 #

    #15 I don’t think it’s a case of giving Dunblane preferential treatment – Dunblane really is a different kind of event from the ones that usually get charity records. In fact a criticism you can make of records like Band Aid and “Ferry Cross The Mersey” is that they reduce the avoidable consequence of actions and policies to a kind of ‘natural disaster’ status. That isn’t possible with Dunblane and my argument is that by putting an (arguable) cause as central to the record – and by rooting the response in the community and culture affected – it achieves an integrity most charity records miss.

    I agree that KOHD is a weak song, and it’s annoying that it’s probably Dylan’s most busker composition!

  19. 19
    Tom on 28 Jan 2014 #

    Busker-friendly, sorry

  20. 20
    Rory on 28 Jan 2014 #

    Thanks Mapman132, that’s really helpful. Listened to it just now, and found it even more affecting than the KOHD cover, for the reasons Chelovek na Lune gives.

  21. 21
    MikeMCSG on 28 Jan 2014 #

    #7 The death penalty argument would be completely inappropriate given that Hamilton executed himself.

  22. 22
    Cumbrian on 28 Jan 2014 #

    TTGA sounds a bit like it could have been by Neil Young (and I like Neil Young – I offer this as no positive or negative criticism of either, merely an observation).

  23. 23
    punctum on 28 Jan 2014 #

    The extended scene in Peckinpah’s uncut Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid:, or as near uncut a cut as we are likely to get of that least tangible of films, where Slim Pickens' exhausted, shot sheriff takes his time to die, slowly blending with and melting into the river, the rugged terrain, the past, finally drifting away, as though solidifying into sepia, to the soundtrack of Dylan's original "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" is one of the most sheerly beautiful sequences in all cinema, seeming to bid a bleeding farewell to goodness and mobility. Yet we have to be suspicious of applying nouns like "beauty" to what could from another perspective seem a bewitching romanticisation of violent death; the sort of groin-tightening allure which inclines unstable people towards owning and using guns.

    If you travel northeast by train out of Glasgow's Queen Street Station you will pass Dunblane en route to Stirling; a quiet, tidy, unassuming, solvent village much like the one where I went to school and grew up. One Wednesday morning in March 1996 a frustrated middle-aged scout leader and gun club member named Thomas Hamilton walked into the first year gym class of Dunblane Primary School with two Browning pistols, two Smith and Wesson revolvers and an estimated 743 cartridges of ammunition and opened fire, killing fifteen children, all aged between five and six years, and one teacher. He wandered around the school firing some more shots, particularly through the door of a Portakabin into a class where the children were obliged to hide under their desks for protection. One of these children died from their wounds; the young Andy Murray took refuge under another desk, in the headmaster's office. Hamilton finally returned to the gym and used one of his revolvers to dispense with himself.

    The outcry started almost ahead of the grieving, and vigorous efforts by the victims' families eventually ensured, with the advent of the Blair administration the following year, that handguns were legally outlawed. But how difficult is it, short of total totalitarianism, to militate and regulate against the chance that a distressed societal outcast with decades' worth of pent-up frustration and perceived feelings of inferiority will one day opt to take brutalist revenge, to ensure that people remember his name? As the 1987 Hungerford massacre – in which my erstwhile parents-in-law were exceptionally fortunate not to get mixed up; it was their habit to travel into Hungerford on Wednesday afternoons for shopping, but on that particular Wednesday my then mother-in-law was feeling under the weather and so the trip was cancelled – confirmed, Columbine-type scenarios in Britain will tend to be inaugurated by "grown" adult members of the community, their long-term smouldering resentment finally igniting.

    Ted Christopher, a Dunblane-based singer/songwriter, organised a charity record to help with the anti-firearms petitioning, and also arranged for its proceeds to go to various children's charities, including Save The Children, Childline and the Scottish Children's Hospice Association. He chose to couple a revised version of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" with his own "Throw These Guns Away." Dylan gave his personal consent for Christopher to alter the lyrics and, in tow with a group of pupils, all brothers and/or sisters of the victims, recorded the single in Abbey Road Studios, sometime Dylan collaborator Mark Knopfler helping out with lead guitar, arrangement and production.

    The Dunblane "Knockin'" is a numbingly raw listening experience. The original could also be seen as a postponed farewell to the ideals of '67 (with Roger McGuinn also appearing on guitar) and given that calls for revolution in '67 frequently involved the open citing of guns in the street, this recording helps close an extremely sad circle (since this is what ends up happening when you let people walk about with guns on the street). Christopher's hoarsely passionate lead vocal owes rather more to Guns N' Roses' somewhat overwrought 1991 reading, though Knopfler is very careful not to let the music turn hysterical. The lyrical alterations are clumsy but burn with an unavoidable fire: "So for the bairns of Dunblane," Christopher intones, "We ask please – NEVER AGAIN," those last two words sounding as though he's ready to blow his own head off. There is an interlude where Psalm 23 ("The Lord Is My Shepherd") is invoked, and then the children's voices, unruly, defiantly Central Scottish, waft into the mix like ghosts; it is a chilling moment. Christopher sings of the exhaustion and slow death of goodness in the manner of someone who can no longer fend off savagery and devil take the hindmost – at the very end he sighs, rather curiously, "I've been there too many times before." "Throw These Guns Away" can't and doesn't compete with Dylan, but voices many of the same intended sentiments ("Lost familiar voices softly whispering in the wind/Pleading that this time we will hear") in an easy singalong format.

    This is one of the most uncomfortable number ones to assess, given that I was born and brought up in Scotland and that this event touched everyone in Scotland (except for pro-huntin' and shootin' and fishin' idiots like Sir John Junor who fulminated that the Dunblane campaigners should go to hell; happily he himself did so shortly thereafter); it defies concepts such as critical analysis, since the execution is imperfect but the emotions could scarcely be less real or palpable. And, as more recent spates of shooting and worse have confirmed, the addressing of the circulation of firearms in those connected with organised crime is a far thornier issue. For now I will merely note that the act responsible for the next Popular entry obligingly delayed the release of their next single to allow “Knockin'” a fair run at the top, and that for once this is too, too personal a situation to despoil with a rating. I think it’s ungradeable, which in this context I will translate into not giving it a mark.

  24. 24
    wichitalineman on 28 Jan 2014 #

    Thanks Mapman. Throw These Guns Away is pretty affecting – a simple structure and arrangement, pitched between Neil Young and Van Morrison, which avoids sentimentality and swaps gentle reason in its delivery for the uncomfortable/unlistenable raw vocals on KOHD. The lyric’s directness and chanted chorus remind me of Give Peace a Chance.

    Like Give Peace A Chance, this is a straight protest record, which makes it a very different thing to other charity singles. It has one direct political objection, rather more achievable than GPAC – the fact that the proceeds went to various children’s charities seems quite incidental.

    I agree that that it isn’t like any other ‘charity’ number one, because it isn’t one, though that is certainly how I (and others?) perceived it at the time – an easy enough assumption when one side is a melancholy over-familiar song in the same vein as Let It Be, You’ll Never Walk Alone or Ferry Cross the Mersey.

    Does anyone remember hearing Throw These Guns Away on the radio, ever?

  25. 25
    iconoclast on 28 Jan 2014 #

    I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of the shooting, but that isn’t really important; this song is unrateable for me, for much the same reasons as it is for others who have already and more eloquently commented, plus the fact that the town of Dunblane is a bit too close to some members of my family.

    Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, opinions were voiced that if the teachers and/or children had been armed themselves, none of this would have happened. Your mileage may vary.

  26. 26
    thefatgit on 28 Jan 2014 #

    I was going to mention something about guns and the pop landscape, but there will be a more apposite #1 in 1997 to discuss that, somewhat distant in time and space from Dunblane. There’s nothing useful I can add to this discussion, other than add that my preferred reading of KOHD is the G&R version.

    Having heard both songs, I feel I have no desire to hear either of these recordings again in my lifetime.

  27. 27
    mapman132 on 28 Jan 2014 #

    Due to the subject matter and my strong opinions on it, this is the first Popular posting I’ve edited on and off over the course of multiple hours rather than written and posted all at once. I’ve tried to convey my thoughts as accurately as I can without going overboard, so here goes:

    The Dunblane massacre was news in the US in 1996, as were the subsequent events in Port Arthur. As everyone here is no doubt aware, gun violence is sadly an everyday occurrence in America, and I’m not just referring to the large scale events that make the international news, but the regularity of homicides, suicides, and fatal accidents (often involving children) that would simply not occur if not for the presence of guns. Fortunately none of my close friends or family are gun owners and I live, work, and generally travel in safe neighborhoods, so I have no real fear of being victimized in my personal life. But many other Americans aren’t so lucky.

    I don’t need to go one by one through the long list of American massacres in recent years to explain why I’ve grown somewhat numb to them. But 2012’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut shocked even me. Perhaps it was the young children victimized or the fact that I was already dealing with a (non-gun-related) tragedy close to home that week, but Newtown affected me as much as any news event since 9/11. And worst of all, it was completely preventable.

    The sentiments expressed in the Dunblane record are therefore pretty much what I was feeling in the wake of Newtown, with the fortunate (for me) exception that I didn’t live in the affected town(s) and didn’t know any of the victims. The fact that the performers were very close to the events washes away the cynicism that I sometimes feel about a post-tragedy record and makes for a very poignant listen.

    However, what takes this record from total sadness to at least a feeling of hope is the knowledge that the UK learned from the tragedy and has taken steps to prevent it from happening again. While these steps may not have eliminated the problem entirely, it’s far, far more than my country has done. Obviously, I have much less feel than most on this forum as to whether this single had any direct effect on gun control accomplishments, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt.

    I considered going on a rant about the state of gun politics in the US, but that seems well outside the scope of this blog. So I will simply say that Britons and Australians should feel proud of having the political willpower to effect real change in the wake of their respective tragedies. Undoubtably lives have been saved. I wish that I could say the same of my own country.

    I’m going to vote for this in the year-end recap, but agree with others that it’s essentially ungradeable with an actual number.

  28. 28
    Kinitawowi on 29 Jan 2014 #

    I can’t.

    I mean, I really want to. But this disc sums up everything that I hate about charity records – it bludgeons you into agreeing with the cause and makes you out to be a heel if you don’t. This feels like one of those RSPCA adverts you always see every year at Christmas (the timing of the release of this record is not coincidental). And I find them to be needless attempts at manipulation that just roll off me too.

    The fact that it’s not technically a charity record makes scant difference; if anything, it makes it worse. Law and politics are hard and there’s a reason why our elected representatives are cold and calculating rather than emotionally hysterical. Gun politics aside (broadly speaking – I’ve never handled anything more powerful than an air rifle and nobody in my family or social circle has ever been affected by gun crime), populist knee-jerk reactionary policies don’t typically result in long-term success.

    The record doesn’t help, because it starts a horrible, horrible trend; that of the sob story being more important than the record. Granted, it’s one hell of a sob story this time round, but the makers of this record are asking us to vote for the singer, not the song. The coming decades of Popular – particularly later Christmases – will show us the issues with that path.

    Maybe I thought it was too far away. Maybe I was watching something else. Maybe I was too old. Maybe I’m just cynical (16 year old me was very cynical and 33 year old me remains so). In a few Popular years’ time, my region of the country *will* reach the national press with a story about a man with a gun. Nobody will make a song about that.

    The massacre at Dunblane was a horriffic event, perpetrated by a madman at the end of his rope, who would have done what he did even with a handgun ban; and I’m incredibly sorry for those whose lives were personally affected – those who knew the people, the area, the time, those who even sung on this record. Watching Andy Murray struggle to talk about it with Sue Barker and his dog was a truly harrowing experience. But the number of people who say this record is “ungradeable” tells the true story; it’s rubbish of the highest order, but we’ll all feel like bastards for saying so.

    1.

  29. 29
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #27 Thanks for the eloquent post (and thanks to everyone else, even when I disagree, for some heartfelt responses). I basically think there’s almost nothing useful anyone outside the US can say about US gun politics, so I’ll say nothing.

    #28 I did grade it, so I’ll let others take you up on your interpretation of “ungradeable”. But as for letting the ‘sob story’ sway the song – first off, that ship obviously sailed a long time ago, it’s the principle not only behind every charity record but behind every posthumous hit and most protest songs. And one of the themes of Popular (as I pointed out on one of the sidethreads a while ago) is that if you want context to count, it counts. Pure just-the-record-please listening isn’t generally possible or desirable.

    “Free Nelson Mandela”, for instance, is a sob story. “It’s a good song, though”, someone might say. But that’s not the point – it’s indivisible from its context, assuming the basic knowledge of who Mandela was. There is no magic non-contextual version of “Free Nelson Mandela” which could be subjected to purely aesthetic judgement, any more than there’s a non-contextual version of Dunblane which is “rubbish of the highest order” until you bring all that sob story content in. The artificial, ‘manipulated’ reading of any song is the one that tries to strip out its context as much as possible, not the one that allows it in.

    (I’m not saying you’re not allowed to dislike it, of course – and the rest of your post is full of entirely contextualised reasons! I just don’t think “this is bad because people were buying it for X not the song” is ever a strong argument, even if it’s almost impossible not to reach for with stuff you detest)

  30. 30
    Kinitawowi on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #28: I take the argument, and I broadly agree with it; you mentioned posthumous hits, usually rereleases of earlier work that came back out because the artist happened to be in the news, and ultimately my problem with them is similar; if it’s not new material (which, you know, “posthumous”; unless it’s Tupac, of course) then it’s serving no purpose. I’m (keenly?) anticipating interesting reviews of several posthumous bunnies in the years to come – particularly those that we’ve already met – and seeing how the analysis will come any further than my gut response of “Why?”.

    Protest songs as a genre are, I suspect, a thing I’ve just never Got. Wrong age, wrong time, wrong place, wrong something, I suppose I didn’t have enough to complain at. Some might say I’m incredibly lucky in that regard, and doubtless they’d be right. (A much later bunny was clearly on to something, talking of a whole generation with nothing much to complain about…) But a protest song needs to be able to hit the listener in the right place at the right time, and so far none have really managed it. Nelson Mandela didn’t – I was three at the time that was released, I barely had any idea that it even existed, never mind the subject matter it was protesting. (Not picking on Nelson Mandela itself – it’s clearly pretty good, if surprisingly upbeat for a sob story of a song, as opposed to the dirgy covers you mentioned up top – more about my personal ability to contextualise any given track.)

    For the context of any protest or posthumous song (or any other song, for that matter) to matter to the listener, there has to be some way for them to personally and directly connect with it. This is why I loved Three Lions, why Tales From Turnpike House is my favourite St Et album (and damn near my very favourite album), etcetera. Without the context it’s just song to me, and when the context overrides the song completely it can’t help but rankle.

    In later times (on the Popular timeline), we’ll meet the reality TV model, where a decent sob story as backup will be part of whether a song gets to exist at all, and eventually even Simon Cowell will claim to be sick of the idea. Mix the children into this record, strip away the context of the event, and I’m left feeling like this is the meeting place between The X Factor and There’s No One Quite Like Grandma.

    That’s an artificial reading, of course. But that’s the context that counts for me.

  31. 31
    Weej on 29 Jan 2014 #

    MikeMCSG @ #21 – Yes, I’m perfectly aware that it isn’t applicable in this case, that’s why I said it would need “a different kind of narrative.” – but the conversation has come around to the same point anyway, that if the purpose of a song is to use emotions (I don’t like the term “sob story” and it seems quite inappropriate in this case) to put forward a political message then your response depends on whether you agree with that message rather than whether you like the song – that’s why it’s basically ungradable. Of course we could also object entirely to the use of emotion in politics, or the intrusion of politics into music, and on the other hand there’s the argument that everything is political, and that being open about it is healthier than hiding it – but the point remains that the music itself is here reduced to a side-story – the context and the message are basically everything.

  32. 32
    AMZ1981 on 29 Jan 2014 #

    A very hard song to review and a near impossible one to rate. Viewed dispassionately it does have some interesting chart markers – Mark Knopler’s only involvement with a number one singles and (I think) the first Bob Dylan composition to hit the top since The Mighty Quinn in 1968 and the last direct cover to do so (KOHD would return as a sample but I bunny).

    A few recent threads have touched on Toni Braxton’s massive American chart-topper Unbreak My Heart which had spent a good few weeks touring the top five and, during Dunblane’s week at the top finally rose to number two – it would return there two weeks later on the dead end of year chart.

    During the chart run down Mark Goodier always used to play the dance remix of Unbreak My Heart which annoyed me and I remember a contributor to The Vibe on Ceefax (God I’m showing my age) accusing him of `inflicting his narrow minded musical tastes on the rest of us`. Goodier once commented – possibly defending himself against similar complaints – that the remix was the version selling the record. I’ve wondered if this was fair comment.

  33. 33
    Chelovek na lune on 29 Jan 2014 #

    I don’t agree that this is “ungradeable” (for all that I did in fact give it a, pretty decent, grade) because of the use of emotions to put forward a political message, as such: would, for example, “Strange Fruit” be ungradeable on those grounds? (I think one can still draw a line between “manipulation” – to be deprecated – and a more measured use of emotion – to engender fellow-feeling – , regardless of whether one agrees with the message being conveyed or not: the (post-Internationale) Soviet national anthem was a cracking composition, even if the uses to which it was put were often more to do with…well, cracking heads, be that, less frequently, physically, or, more commonly, psychologically.). And one can readily enjoy or approve of some totalitarian architecture (oh! for the square Colosseum at EUR on the edge of Rome) without being necessarily converted to the ideology behind the aesthetics…

    It is rather the rawness, the closeness to the horrific event, that the record commemorates, that makes it such.

  34. 34
    Cumbrian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    For me, it’s ungradeable on the basis that despite looking like, sounding like and having the trappings of a pop record, it’s actually the de facto petition that Tom refers to his review, just one that is more easily able to go viral in the specific period that this happened. I don’t think a record specifically like this would exist in this day and age – more likely someone would start an epetition at the relevant website and things would go from there.

    I don’t think other charity records behave in the same way. Yes, the money from this went to charity, like the others, but I don’t think that was the point. It was to say “this many people bought this record, which is explicitly arguing for this specific action. Count them too”. Other charity records make, imo, some play at being entertaining. This isn’t making that play, I would argue. As such, it shouldn’t be graded on entertainment, which, in my view, is largely what the mark scheme for Popular is about.

  35. 35
    Chelovek na lune on 29 Jan 2014 #

    No, it’s certainly not “entertainment”. I was wondering further if it should even be categorised as any relative of “art” (which label I think is perfectly fitting of the more high quality outposts of popular culture that we occasionally get to discuss here) – – because of the implication in “art” of “artifice”, playfulness, pretence, even intellectual detachment (which cleverly done can even strengthen the expression of an intended message – as our shiny suited totalitarian antecedents knew too well) : there are absolutely none of these things here, and no room for them here.

    (This is separate from another, but related discussion, that would remove the record from all context and discuss it on purely musical terms – is it “craft” rather than “art”? Or does one have to be irredeemably lost in the 19th century to make such distinctions? And do they apply to subsequent, say, seemingly mass-produced items of dance music that we will encounter in years ahead, too….it’s a long way from William Morris to those bunnies, but maybe it’s a journey worthy of consideration)

  36. 36
    wichitalineman on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Personally, I think ‘grading’ is a lot less interesting than the conversations usually generated by Tom’s posts.

    This is arguably the most successful protest record in history – that’s a real achievement. Craft rather than art… that a renowned guitarist has been drafted in, and that an appropriate and moving fiddle line gives Throw These Guns Away its flow and emotional feel, that surely makes it art.

    Chelovek’s point about Strange Fruit is a very good one – and I’d have given Robert Wyatt’s Strange Fruit/At Last I Am Free a 10 if it had troubled Popular.

  37. 37
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Re Kinitawowi@30: “if it’s not new material (which, you know, “posthumous”…) then it’s serving no purpose.”

    No purpose for whom? Surely it is new material to the audience making it a hit. Few if any people who already owned “Imagine” would have bought the single after John Lennon’s death, and few of Michael Jackson’s original fans would have bought the compilations of his hits after his. It’s being bought by a new audience hearing the music for the first time, thanks to the exposure it gets from stories about the artist’s death or some other event that brings it to everyone’s attention.

    I’ve done it myself. When Elliott Smith died I read a lot about him, got curious about the albums I hadn’t heard beyond XO and Figure 8, and ended up purchasing his entire back catalogue. You might say those purchases served no purpose, but they did for me; for a start, my favourite Elliott Smith albums are no longer XO and Figure 8. If he had been a Madonna-level star instead of an Elliott Smith-level star, those same purchases might have helped create some posthumous hits.

    This effect will surely only increase in the digital download era, as every individual track is now immediately available for the newly curious to buy, and (to put it bluntly) there are a lot of big music stars yet to die. No need now for a record company to press up a new run of singles to meet demand.

    Or maybe some of Jackson’s old ’80s fans had lost their copies of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”, and picked up a Best Of after he died out of nostalgia, having been reminded how good they were. That’s not “serving no purpose”, either. That effect is likely to diminish, though, once all music collections are digital – our old loves are likely to linger in our mp3 libraries, because who has the time to weed them out, and they’ll be waiting for us when we want that nostalgic fix in future.

  38. 38
    thefatgit on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Yesterday, I felt unable to contribute anything useful to this thread. Today, I’ve given it some thought…

    Was it a couple of years back, Tom posted something on FT re: difficult listening? In that context, this #1 is excruciating, precisely because of the emotional heft of TTGA and being invited to remember the children of Dunblane were slain for no reason. Additionally Port Arthur, Columbine and Sandy Hook when they happen, the media usually only asks us to view these events in isolation from each other. What TTGA does now is bring all these events and ones I have failed to mention, into sharp focus and it’s message is far too powerful a message for me at least, who was profoundly humbled by listening to 2 songs on a YouTube clip. Dunblane is the very essence of difficult listening.

  39. 39
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    [Shifted my comment into my one above.]

  40. 40
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #35 Well this is kind of the whole background concept of Popular – in creating a chart of top-selling records, the NME (and subsequently everyone else) accidentally invented a space where a whole lot of different uses for music could overlap (and sometimes clash) – dissolving any art/craft etc binary, or at least making it not-that-useful as a filter. So as well as a tour of genres, generations etc. it’s a set of answers to the question “why might people buy music?” as well as “why might artists want people to buy it?” (sometimes less interesting, sometimes more).

    Re. “manipulation” – the main reason I don’t think it’s that useful is that it tends to be something that only happens to other people – it’s like how people tut-tut over other people’s ‘irrationality’ and don’t really think about their own biases.

    This particular record doesn’t strike me as ‘manipulative’ or ‘artificial’ at all but to some extent its intentions are suborned anyway to the wider media coverage of both the tragedy and its aftermath, which it’s hard to argue isn’t on some level detached or created in a sense of artifice (to use Chelovek’s definitions), just because that kind of selectivity is what media and news DO.

  41. 41
    Cumbrian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #35: I feel I am on very shaky ground when discussing these sorts of philosophical questions (I’ve done just enough study of Philosophy when at uni to feel really uncomfortable about saying stuff in these broad areas without having a bloody good think about what I am saying and why I am saying it), which is principally why I grounded my thinking on this in terms of “is the point of this to be entertaining?” My initial reaction is probably closer to Lino’s that it is art, inasmuch as, to pick only one of the things you’ve mentioned, there is some intellectual detachment to the making of the point – getting Knopfler in to help add form being one expression of this, rather than just bashing it out and hoping for the best.

    As I said though, my thoughts on this are very far from fully formed and I could be easily swayed by persuasive argument one way or the other.

    #36: I would agree that the conversation is more interesting than the mark.

  42. 42
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Excellent point, thefatgit @38 – it’s a cumulative effect. But even in 1996, Dunblane and Port Arthur built on earlier examples (in Australia, we had the Hoddle Street massacre in 1987, which messed with my head when I lived briefly in Melbourne because it’s a major arterial road I needed to drive on all the time). If the 1996 events in the UK and Australia had been isolated ones, I’m not sure the moves to greater gun control would have been as swift.

  43. 43
    Cumbrian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #40: I’ve said elsewhere and repeat here that manipulation is not that useful a word. Quite a lot of the best art is manipulative, in that it is designed to try to make you feel a certain way about things. The question is whether you mind being manipulated in that way or not. I don’t see many people minding being encouraged to care about what happens to George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” for instance, but it is surely still manipulative. Frankly, in my view, it’s a loaded word that is only really used when people mean “I can see what this is trying to make me feel and I don’t like it”.

  44. 44
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    It’s a crap word, but the “I don’t like the sense of being expected to feel something” vs “I am happy to be carried along” is a reaction worth exploring – so it’s a crap word because it reduces the reaction to a word rather than encouraging people to dig in a bit more.

  45. 45
    Cumbrian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    I would agree with that and why the word is crap. More efficiently and elegantly expressed than I managed, which is probably why you’re the writer and I am the commenter.

  46. 46
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #35: if the high quality stuff is art then surely so is the low – bad art is still art.

    #37: While I agree with disagreeing with #30 (by any standards, any record that pops up here serves a purpose for a lot of people), I’m not entirely sure about the examples you’ve picked: there’s a lot of different ways to be a Michael Jackson fan: not a lot of people who’d have bought Ben, quite a lot of people who bought Thriller, an awful lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily have thought of buying his albums simply because he was so omnipresent in pop culture. To be a little ghoulish, the posthumous hits compilation is generally the definitive one – no “we stuck their new single in to get them back in the charts”, no “oh he’ll have one more big hit after this from a duff album”.

  47. 47
    Chelovek na lune on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #46 Perhaps, but surely a distinction can be made (even on something approaching objective grounds – rather than purely on grounds of “taste”? – and even in material that is intended to be part of popular culture) between something that constitutes “art”, something that constitutes “entertainment”, and something that combines elements of the two?

    (I think this is something that recent, and especially New Labour-supported approaches to art and the role of culture in public life have tended to get wrong, precisely by overplaying the “entertainment” aspect – familiarity being emphasised over the cerebral or potentially challenging – this is seen above all in works of “public art” that have no real meaning or substance but are intended to distract or raise a smile but no deeper engagement – I cannot be the only person here to be familiar with the Giant Fish of Erith (http://www.drostle.com/erith.html) : the debacle of the short-lived “The Public” art gallery in West Bromwich (which in reality, IMVHO, contained little stuff that might actually be reasonably defined as art – interesting artefacts, yes), is another example, but there are countless others. (probably the first incarnation of the Millennium Dome, too…) The idea of art as a focus of state-directed societal regeneration being reduced to a promotion of a kind of safe and comfortable feel-good factor…..the X-factorisation of culture, if you like?: and the rejection or downplaying of the highbrow or complex – or of aspiration to being either of those things…..

    (I think, like many things – and indeed the art/craft , the distinction makes more sense understood as a continuum, rather than a binary either-or, but I still think it is a purposeful and real distinction.)

    [apologies for the slightly incoherent nature of some of these ramblings. Not sure quite how we got here from Dunblane, but still.]

  48. 48
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #46 I don’t think we’re disagreeing here – there are many different reasons for wanting to buy posthumous releases, so they serve plenty of purposes. The posthumous hit compilation is valuable for being definitive, as you say. But the posthumous hits Kinitawowi objects to aren’t exactly that, are they? Those hits can happen before the definitive collections are compiled – they might be the most recent compilation (missing the artist’s more recent hits), or their most famous album, or (most relevant to Popular) one of their old songs becoming a posthumous hit single.

    And in the case of singles, I really can’t see them being bought by people who already own the song; such hits must be driven by people who don’t, whether they were too young to hear it the first time round, or didn’t buy it first time round but have decided they like it, or bought it first time round but lost or disposed of it and now want it again. Whatever the reason, they don’t have the song, they want the song, they buy the song, it becomes a hit. I don’t see learning about an artist’s death as an inherently objectionable reason for wanting to buy a song or an album (or a book, or a DVD). On the contrary, the career retrospectives that follow an artist’s death can be a helpful guide to what’s worth getting. I’ve bought many singles and albums unheard just because a favourite living artist released them, and my strike rate with those has probably been a lot worse; I might even have helped a few dud albums to number one that way. (Sorry about that, punctum. )

  49. 49
    wichitalineman on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Re 37: “our old loves are likely to linger in our mp3 libraries, because who has the time to weed them out…” I’ve got to the stage where I’m having to ‘weed them out’ because my laptop is starting to crawl to a snail’s pace. There’s not much stored in it apart from music. Rockabilly and Toytown Psych have now been heavily edited. Technology is failing me.

    There have, of course, already been several Popular entries which were posthumous. That Eddie Cochran’s Three Steps To Heaven was his only number one, possibly as a ‘tribute’ soon after his death, doesn’t diminish the song’s worth, or make the reasons people bought it at the time “objectionable”. Forty-odd years on, few people other than pop nerds will know that it was a posthumous number one (or even that it was a number one, for that matter).

  50. 50
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #48 No, I think we are largely agreeing, I was just raising an eye at the tying of “is a fan” with “owns a previously released single” – particularly for big popstars, there’s a lot of people in the first category but not the second. “a new audience hearing the music for the first time” – surely there can’t have been enough of these on the planet to fill a phonebox by the time of MJ’s death?

    I am amused though by the fannish completion of the loop as regards exposure to music – the two highest level of fans being those who have heard the music for months before they buy it and those that have never heard a note.

    #37/49 – of course there is also the tendency towards moving towards music as a service, Spotify being the big name, where simple curiousity can be answered without having to actually buy anything.

  51. 51
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #47 attacks on the idea of art tend to be disguised attacks on the gatekeepers of art – which can come from several different angles, some sympathetic and some not (market-driven assaults on “elitism” vs attempts by the marginalised to rewrite the ‘canon’, to name two obvious ones). And successful attacks motivated by one cause will often have the unintended consequence of helping other causes, even if the people supporting those causes really hate each other. Again, it’s a hidden underpinning of Popular: when I euphemistically call the charts a ‘space’ in which all sorts of ideas can mix, I’m covering up their explicit identity as a market. “Let’s show the highest-sellers every week” is market logic: X-Factorisation 50 years before the fact! But it’s market logic which had the unforeseen effect of helping to open up popular culture to massively wider representation, voices from a range of backgrounds which a more curatorial approach simply would never have managed.

  52. 52
    James BC on 29 Jan 2014 #

    I remember wondering at the time this was released whether it would get the sales needed to be number 1. Between Band Aid and this, had there been any big charity singles that didn’t make number 1?

  53. 53
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #52 Wikipedia suggests loads of Comic Relief and Sport Aid ones, but those don’t necessarily count – they aren’t in the Band Aid multi-artist bespoke-group genre (but nor is this really) (the next No.1 that IS is the weirdest).

  54. 54
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #52: Sun City didn’t. Another “charity” record that was first and foremost a protest record.

    #50: I dunno, almost eight years since Invincible by the time of his death, and that was hardly his biggest album – a lot of young pop fans could have been oblivious to his music by then, depending on where they were, what radio stations they listened to, etc. The point isn’t so much that they would never have heard of the man, just that they might not have heard the music, or more than a song or two – or might not have been prompted to listen to it closely enough to want to acquire it. Even old fans of an artist who know perfectly well who they are can fall out of touch with what they’ve done in the interim.

  55. 55
    mapman132 on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Broadening the discussion a bit, I’ve long noticed a fundamental difference between the UK and the US wrt the cultural position of the pop singles chart, or perhaps pop music in general. By following the Hot 100, you basically get one thing: what music is popular in America at a given time, and arguably it doesn’t even do a great job at that. Politically oriented singles, charity records, and posthumous hits occasionally show up, but rarely, and when they do, they almost never make #1. Related to this is the fact that following the Hot 100, or any music chart, closely is very much a geeky niche thing. The average American music fan is almost proud that they have no idea what the number one song is at a given time.

    The UK chart by contrast seems, to my eyes at least, to be a much more mainstream interest to the point where it’s almost a national sounding board. Therefore we get #1’s related to recent tragedies, charities, (attempts at) comedy, advertisements, sports (Man U), random cultural trends, political commentary (both direct and indirect), etc.

    I’m not sure why this is entirely. Certainly part of it is difference between a sales/airplay vs. a sales only chart. The relative geographic compactness of the UK may also play a part. But these things exist in other countries whose charts, which admittedly I don’t follow closely, don’t seem to reflect their overall culture quite as strongly. Or maybe I’m totally wrong about this. Thoughts?

  56. 56
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    This is really Bob’s wheelhouse. The charts don’t play that public role any more really – though I’d argue they still *work* in mostly the same way as they did then. (many would disagree – this is likely to be a running discussion across a lot of entries)

    The difference in terms of the freak cultural significance of the UK singles chart is Top Of The Pops, though. A 30-year run of show devoted to something and watched by millions each week is a good way to make that something seem important.

  57. 57
    Cumbrian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #55: What I am about to say is only one component of this (and I will bet others will chuck in their views on it) but I would wager that a large measure of this is to do with the fact that Top Of The Pops ran weekly in a prime time slot on first one of only 3, then 4, then 5 TV channels available to all in the UK – which meant that there were large swathes of the UK population seeing what was #1 every single week, just by virtue of switching the TV on at the relevant time – even people who were not that interested but wanted to watch the following programme (because the #1 was always right near the end of the show) might well turn on the TV early and see what the UK’s #1 pop record was.

    Edit: Tom ninja’d me.

  58. 58
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    The Australian Countdown functioned the same way (Sunday night viewing on the national broadcaster), but its reign was much shorter, only 13 years from 1974 to 1987. The alignment of that reign with my childhood and teen years is probably what made me interested in Popular.

  59. 59
    TriffidFarm on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #57: Definitely – during my early childhood, the programme that followed Top of the Pops was Tomorrow’s World, and 8pm on a Thursday came to represent the divide between my sister’s interests and my own. So even though standard sibling-rivalry meant I had a principled rejection of pop music for a while, even I knew what was at number one from one week to another.

  60. 60
    Erithian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    I remember a piece published by the NME circa 1973 which commented “there’s nowhere you can escape the current Top 20 except perhaps a nunnery” – in a tone which suggested the writer wished it were otherwise. You certainly wouldn’t say that today, it’s a lot more of a niche market except with the biggest hits.

    Mapman #55 – I forget which thread this cropped up in recently, but I was amazed to read about YouTube views of tribute or spoof videos counting towards a Hot 100 position, which meant that a daft spoof of the Wrecking Ball video was enough for Miley Cyrus to deny Lorde a 10-week run at number one. Time for a rethink there, I reckon.

    Back to the topic in hand, Mapman – the Newtown shooting was shortly after Andy Murray won the US Open to break his Grand Slam duck, and many parts of the US press made the connections referred to above. Murray himself sent a message of sorrow and support to the Sandy Hook families.

  61. 61
    mapman132 on 29 Jan 2014 #

    #56-57 Makes a lot of sense actually. In the US, we had American Top 40 which used the actual Hot 100 until Soundscan kicked in in 1991, but it was only a radio show, had a lot of competition, and was played at different times in different cities (Sunday morning in my locale – which caused some conflict with my parents when I wanted to skip church to listen to it).

    There was also American Top 10 which was a TV show that broadcast video clips of the top 10 records every week, but again, appeared at odd off-hours and had a lot of other shows to compete with.

  62. 62
    Izzy on 29 Jan 2014 #

    55: Top of the Pops is the answer, but I also think the almost completely objective nature of the chart give it an enhanced status compared to e.g. the US. When one sale = one chart unit, it means something, y’know? Otherwise only the broadest trends show up – disco at no.1 for two-thirds of 1979, and never again – and the charts tell you nothing new about that.

    Aiui the US charts, by including airplay, meant that labels could use them as a reliable marketing tool – to the extent that The Spice Girls could have an optimised itinerary scheduled, weeks in advance, to coincide with Wannabe reaching no.1.

    In a sales-only chart that event might or might not happen, so in short it’s more interesting. When the mid-nineties hit and the charts could be decisively gamed, they meant nothing, and Top of the Pops died with them so the causation wasn’t all one-way.

  63. 63
    Iain Mew on 29 Jan 2014 #

    It’s interesting for me to read comments about the ’90s being when the rot set in for the charts. I started watching Top of the Pops in 1999 and listening to the chart show in 2000. As far as how they worked, I didn’t know any different, but they meant a lot to me for the few years afterwards, both in hoping for my favourites to do well and just being interested in the patterns of everything else.

    What reduced my interest in both shows later wasn’t a change in what was charting (even when the part introduction of downloads was a bit of a mess) but the move away from being where you’d see/hear what was in the charts, in favour of interviews and chasing an idea of what people wanted to hear. William Swygart’s angry response from the time the Radio 1 chart switched is spot on: http://stylusmagazine.com/articles/the_singles_jukebox/the-way-we-were.htm

  64. 64
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Jan 2014 #

    I think that The Chart Show should get a minor mention here – you’d watch it to see if “your” chart was one of the featured ones, and see the trends in it spill over to the main chart.

  65. 65
    punctum on 30 Jan 2014 #

    #28: It is not a “true story” and who are “we all”?

    #33: If you equate “ungradeable” with totalitarianism then I’m very glad that you’ll never be in a position to make laws for the rest of us to live by.

  66. 66
    chelovek na lune on 30 Jan 2014 #

    #65 Good Lord, no: that is absolutely not my argument- the final sentence at #33 is the key one

  67. 67
    punctum on 30 Jan 2014 #

    “As such, it shouldn’t be graded on entertainment, which, in my view, is largely what the mark scheme for Popular is about.” That depends how you define entertainment. Wiki defines it as “a form of activity that holds the attention and interest of an audience” but Thomas Hamilton might have thought, in his own hopelessly warped and malevolent manner, that was what he was doing.

  68. 68
    Cumbrian on 30 Jan 2014 #

    Correct, it does depend on how I define entertainment. I subscribe to the second part of the wiki definition that you’ve left off. It goes on to say “or gives pleasure or delight”. Which is to say, in my reading, that you can do away with the attention and interest part and read it as “an activity that gives pleasure or delight”. I take no pleasure or delight from this record – but as I have said, I don’t think it is best viewed as a record or, by my definition, entertainment.

    TH might also have taken “pleasure or delight” in his actions, it is true. But, as I am my own judge of what I consider entertaining, I’m also comfortable in saying his actions are pretty far from entertainment. In point of fact, they’re pretty much the exact opposite.

  69. 69
    punctum on 30 Jan 2014 #

    In point of subjectivity, they are. But with “taking pleasure and delight in his actions,” isn’t this why a lot of people remain uncomfortable with Top Of The Pops (squaring the comments circle there) and their gradual realisation that what “entertainment” meant to an audience and what it meant to some of the people within that culture might be pretty horrendous polar opposites?

  70. 70
    Cumbrian on 30 Jan 2014 #

    It probably is. I don’t find the prospect of young women being abused or young children being killed entertaining. Is it possible to divorce the first issue from seeing songs being performed in the TOTP environment? For some, I would guess so. For others, I would guess not. It’s sort of up to the viewer to decide for themselves, isn’t it?

    On the TOTP point, I am not an expert by any stretch as a) I don’t watch the BBC4 re-runs of the era in question (is seeing old performances from TOTP and cutting out DLT and the like not what Youtube is for?) and b) when I was watching TOTP on a regular basis in my youth, the presenters were people like Simon Mayo, Mark Goodier, Jakki Brambles, et al – before they started getting in the likes of Chris Eubank and so on – none of whom, as far as I am aware, are accused of anything like what DLT and Saville are accused of/did. So, whilst I abhor what was going on there, it’s not like it’s a stain on my own experiences of the programme (yet, I might add – who knows what else might end up coming out in the long term).

  71. 71
    punctum on 30 Jan 2014 #

    In the eighties we are due the regular – ahem – “American chart slot” and also a regular(ish) American presenter who is currently also under a legal cloud.

  72. 72
    Cumbrian on 30 Jan 2014 #

    I’ve been trying to think a bit more about this record and its pretty laser like focus on what I think it is trying to achieve – i.e. a ban on guns in the UK – by contrast with some of the other songs I am aware of about shootings.

    There’s CSNY – Ohio (the Kent State shootings). Then you’ve got American Skin (41 Shots) by Bruce Springsteen (a studio version just having been released at the time of writing but probably inferior to the live version that has been kicking around since the start of the century). This is, at least in part about the shooting of Amadou Diallo by NYC police. There’s The Nobodies by Marilyn Manson, which seems to be aimed at the perpetrators of Columbine and the attendant media circus.

    Whilst these all have some element of fury about them, they also hide behind metaphors in some cases, strive for balance in others (41 Shots in particular caught a lot of flak from the NYC police but, to me, seems to both sympathise with the shooters – assuming that they made an honest mistake and wind up praying for him to live – as well as making a wider set of points about the way that certain groups have to prepare their children for the possibility that they can be killed by the police for doing not much wrong) or turn their fire on the media/government/society. There are embellishments and attempts to soften or obscure the point. None of them, and it might be because they’re all from North America “say something should be done about this, this is that something, do it” because the obvious “something” is limiting society’s access to firearms and, down that road, lies serious ruction that the artists don’t seem to want to confront.

    This is what makes the Dunblane #1 so remarkable, I think. There’s no room for argument, no ill-discipline, very few frills. It’s uncompromising and the better for it to meet its aims I think – and to tie with TheFatGit’s earlier comment, is difficult listening. Doubtless there are plenty of songs that do this in folk – a genre with which I have little experience – and I am sure someone like Pete Seeger would have maintained the focus on what should be done had it been up to him, but I am having trouble coming up with many songs in the rock idiom that are quite so precise. I think this is what makes it so uncomfortable – it’s not a usual thing to see at the top of the charts.

  73. 73
    flahr on 30 Jan 2014 #

    Quick note re #70: the reruns don’t cut the links of DLT et al, they cut the entire programmes, so all the programmes they do show are whole (except insofar as they edit things for time, although they reinstate those for the 1am repeat)*.

    *not strictly true I suppose – due to licensing issues we got Legs & Co. instead of the film clip for the Grease songs, and it’s entirely possible they cut individual performances by suspect artists (although they left King in, so who knows) and I’ve just failed to remember.

  74. 74
    punctum on 30 Jan 2014 #

    The reason they cut the entire programmes – and somebody wrote to BBC4 asking why they couldn’t just edit/pixel out the offending presenters and show only the music – is that members of the audiences for these specific episodes may be involved in ongoing legal action, and consequently the BBC are prohibited by law from showing them in any form until this is all resolved.

    I think there are also different rules/policies at the BBC about showing certain people as performers but not presenters, which is why JK popped up during the ’78 reruns but we’re unlikely to see his US chart slot.

    My understanding of the Grease situation is that BBC4 can’t afford to pay Polygram or whoever owns the copyright to the footage now for the rights to show them. If it’s the same situation with Watership Down they’re going to run into an imminent spot of bother.

  75. 75
    flahr on 30 Jan 2014 #

    Ta for the additional detail, Punctum. Hopefully some way of staving off Bunnygeddon will be found and they won’t have to draft in Jemaine Clement in a wig.

    #72: I realise it wasn’t a chart-topper (well, not in the UK), but – I wonder if the closest point of comparison to this record might be “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” by Wings?

  76. 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”.

  77. 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?

  78. 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”!)

  79. 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

  80. 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)

  81. 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.

  82. 82
    Andrew Farrell on 30 Jan 2014 #

    The handle’s not for turning.

  83. 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.)

  84. 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.

  85. 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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