Monday, January 8, 2007

Songs of the Spanish Civil War

"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Contrary to what you've just seen, war is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners, only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: The American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars Trilogy. If you'd like to learn more about war, there's lots of books in your local library, many of them with cool, gory pictures." -- Bart Simpson

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When you watch the news from Iraq or Afghanistan, you can’t help but agree with young Bart. There’s nothing enviable happening in Basra or Kabul. And yet, sometimes I wonder why there isn’t a “good” war that an energetic young man, like me, could die in.

Sandwiched between the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is one of the more overlooked conflicts of the 20th century. Following a humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American War 40 years earlier, Spain made the difficult transition to democracy. The country became a loose federation of autonomous communities, with special provisions for the historically independent Basque and Catalan provinces. Tragically, political instability and a crippling international recession sparked civil war. Catalonia and Aragon were Republican strongholds, while the rest of the country fell quickly to the Fascist supported Nationalists.
In an unprecedented show of solidarity, communist and anarchist parties from across Europe and the Americas sent volunteers to support the Republican cause. But, as evidenced by Picasso’s “Guernica,” idealism was not enough to guarantee a win. Spain fell to Franco in 1939 he remained in power until his death in the 1970s.

While doing my research, I began to realize that there are some really great songs that were influenced by the war. I started drafting this around Christmas time, but was interrupted by the holidays. Then James Brown died and I would’ve felt wrong if I didn’t give him some praise. Then I got so caught up in New Years, and returning to DC and all this other stuff came up…Ugh, you get the picture. I apologize for the delay, and as a bonus, I’ll be posting a little something about David Bowie to commemorate his 60th birthday.
Submitted for your approval: Three songs about the Spanish Civil War

“Spanish Bombs” The Clash (Epic 1979, or 1980 if you lived in the US)
I hate listening to old punks talk about how the Clash “sold out”. These guys are particularly unforgiving about London Calling. Hell, one geezer had the gall to compare it to Green Day’s Dookie. I argued that The Clash’s decision to expand their sonic palate was what set them apart from the Class of ’77. If the Clash had clung to the parochial punk ideology, they would’ve become boring and repetitive (the Exploited) or run out of ideas (Stiff Little Fingers).
I never paid much attention to “Spanish Bombs” when I first got London Calling. The more upbeat reggae-influenced songs, like “Rudie Can’t Fail” and “Guns of Brixton,” always got priority. Let us not forget that The Clash were one of the few white bands that could play reggae well. It wasn’t until one day when I was hanging out with my friend Ed that I finally took notice of the most saccharine track on the first part of the album.
The Clash were often misguided in romanticizing rebellion and outlaw stories. Joe Strummer foolishly wore a Brigate Rosse T-shirt at Rock Against Racism in 1978. (Ed. Note: In his defense, it should be noted that in the late 1970s the international community had yet to agree upon a proper definition of terrorism and leftits groups like Brigate Rosse and the Baader Meinhoff Gang were seen as chic.)
The Spanish Civil War provided a less controversial source of inspiration for Strummer and Mick Jones. The valiance and bravery of the Republicans was inspirational to a band that viewed their very existence to be a battle. If you pay no mind to the refrain of “Yo te quiero infinito, o ma corazon”, and references to DC-10s, “Spanish Bombs” reads very much like a history lesson. Guy Stevens’ production, denounced as being “too slick” in some corners, actually makes the song more appealing. The interplay between the acoustic and electric guitars on the studio version still sends chills down my spine. It’s absolutely magical, and quite mind blowing when you compare it to anything on their very raw debut.

“If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” the Manic Street Preachers (Epic 1998)
Being Welsh and overtly socialist during the apolitical Britpop 1990s set the Manic Street Preachers apart from their contemporaries. Despite a mainstream breakthrough towards the end of the decade, the Manics refused to conform.
“If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” was an unlikely candidate for a number one hit single. It’s driven by a heavily distorted Wurlitzer organ and its lyrics are far from fun. It’s even more amazing that it became a hit during a time when teen pop ruled the charts. The week previous to its release, Boyzone’s “No Matter What” held the #1 spot.
The title was taken from a poster circulated by British Communist parties at the onset of the war. Some 2,000 volunteers left the rainy moors of Britain to join the International Brigade. Few were trained soldiers. In fact, many were farmers, hence the line “So if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists.” The poor bastards didn't have a chance. They were doomed from the start, but their intentions were noble.
IYTTYCWBN proved that the Manics had fully emerged from the shadow of Richey Edwards, the troubled architect of their painfully dark masterpiece, The Holy Bible. (1994). Following Edwards’ disappearance in early 1995, the band had to change their approach in order to soldier on. They never abandoned his memory and continued to push the envelope of what an activist rock group should be. For their efforts they were handsomely rewarded with several more hit records, and later a trip to Cuba, where they were the first Western rock group to play a Castro approved concert!

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“Start!” The Jam (Polydor 1980)
“Start!” is a piece of shit for two reasons. First, it knocked David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” out of the UK number one spot in April of 1980. Second its bassline was plagiarized, note-for-note, from the Beatles' “Taxman.” This song pretty much sums up the Jam: An annoying trio of Mod revivalists intent on gumming up musical progress with their relentless aping of the 1960s.
It’s also a very very very catchy song.
Homage to Catalonia was based on George Orwell’s experience as a volunteer in the Republican army. Paul Weller was inspired by Orwell’s description of Barcelona, which is described as "a town where the working class were in the saddle.” And to some degree,it was. Folks addressed each other as 'comrade' and for a while it seemed like the socialist dream was alive. Weller asks the listeners if it’s possible to carry that attitude every day, not just in a time of war. In spite of being a bunch of unoriginal louts,The Jam could put together some brilliant music. And because “Start!” is based off one of McCartney’s best grooves, you automatically wanna get up and dance. The backwards guitar solo, however, sort of ruins the song. Almost makes you feel like Weller and co. were trying a little too hard to rip off Revolver...
Perhaps I’ve given the impression that I dislike the Jam. Nothing could be further from the truth: I adore the Jam. I used to sit for hours just staring at photos Paul Weller in his sharp suits and Rickenbacker guitars and just wishing I could be that cool. It’s just that their early Who/Kinks copycat stuff sorta bores me. I prefer their more soulful R&B songs like “Town Called Malice” and “Precious.”

If you're waiting for a clever ending, too bad. I'm tired.

Fact: The Durutti Column took their name from an anarchist resistance group, or column, led by Buenaventura Durruti. He died in combat towards the end of 1936.

The Struggle Continues
Republican Propaganda poster that inspired the Manics tune

1980 promo clip for “Start”

The Manics performing their first #1 in Brussels, 2002

Producer Dave Eringa gives some detailed insight on the recording of "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next"

Unrelated BUT you can see the now infamous Brigate Rosse t-shirt.The Clash's BRILLIANT Performance of "London's Burning" in 1978


meg said...


I enjoyed this, por su puesto.

It is true, Americans do not know enough about the Spanish Civil War.

"Homage to Catalonia" is a great book and personal account by Orwell.

You should read some of Federico Garcia Lorcas poetry- he was ordered to be shot by the Falangists in a small town outside of Granada for his oppostition to the war, and his open homosexuality.
The most sacred bread of Andalucia is said to come from there; myth says the earth carries the tears of the murdered poet.

I love Spanish Bombs. I love that song.

I love this entry, and your use of music as a history lesson.

Now for Billy Idols "we didnt start the fire"...(una broma)

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why you appear to be glorifying the republicans as having "valiance and bravery" and saying the British farmers who joined the war ad "noble" intentions. It seems you have purposly left out that it was the republicans who provoked the nationalists into war with their fanatical anti-clergy and anti-christianity. I didn't enjoy having bias republic propaganda shoved down my throat. Maybe next time you can do your research properly and in an un-bigot way.

Anonymous said...

hey dude iam doing a dissertation on punk music and how its been influenced by the spanish civil war i really liked ur article could u send me the links u used to verify where the lyrics from the jam start are about the spanish civil war please cheers