Almanac Music: New Lost World

Into the new
Into the new lost world

The final scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb show Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickins) bronco riding an atomic bomb to oblivion. Then, as the mushroom cloud rises and spreads, Vera Lynn’s voice is heard singing We’ll Meet Again. The ultimate destruction of mankind is linked to a World War II song of hope for the future in brilliant irony.

Protest songs have always formed an integral part of the musical cosmos. The cold war period from the 1960s onwards provided plenty of examples of songs concerned with the feared onset of a nuclear war.

In 1965 the British group Hedgehopper’s Anonymous released Good News Week, a song that dealt with the fixation of the media on bad news. The up-tempo beat of the tune mimicked the somewhat breezy manner in which bad news is often delivered in TV reports.

It’s good news week
Someone’s dropped a bomb somewhere
Contaminating atmosphere
And blackening the sky

There have been many other examples over the years, including Barry McGuire’s ubiquitous “loot protest” Eve of Destruction and more sombre post apocalyptic songs such as David Crosby’s Wooden Ships from the Woodstock era

If you smile at me, I will understand
‘Cause that is something
Everybody everywhere does in the same language

Horror grips us as we watch you die
All we can do is echo your anguished cries

Bob Dylan provided many illustrations and many verses that unleashed sardonic lyrics on the hypocrisy of it all A Hard Rains Gonna Fall, Talkin’ World War III Blues, Masters of War, With God On Our Side

 But now we got weapons
Of chemical dust
If fire them, we’re forced to
Then fire, them we must

The album cover of Midnight Oil’s Red Sails in The Sunset featured artwork by Japanese artist Tsunehisa Kimura depicting the devastation of Sydney Harbour in the aftermath of a nuclear attack together with biting lyrics in songs such as Short Memories and Minutes to Midnight

… the silence of Hiroshima

We live in unsettling times. From the detante of many years, a sabre dance has suddenly resurrected and the onset of a nuclear confrontation has become seemingly more possible. The recent outburst from the leader of the free world was chillingly all the more scary given that it was broadcast from the conference room of a New Jersey golf course. The speech was Monty Pythonesque – the Spanish Inquisition skit all over again. Life imitates art?

“They will be met with fire and fury, like the world has never seen
… like I said with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which the world has never seen …”

The question can be posed – what is the significant piece of contemporary music that appropriately accompanies these difficult times? The theme tune from Monty Python is actually a marching band tune entitled The Liberty Bell so that can’t be the one.
As Bernie Taupin wrote and Elton John sang so long ago, there is a Madman Across The Water. In fact there are at least two, one in Washington, the other in Pyongyang. Mick Ronson’s searing, strident guitar solo guitar on the extended version matches the noisy, manic rhetoric emanating from the two Madmen.

Is the nightmare really black
Or are the windows painted

And at least one of the Madmen has studied Political Science

They don’t respect us
So let’s surprise them
We’ll drop the big one
And pulverize them
(Randy Newman)

Which brings me to the late Chris Whitley, whom I first heard on Dislocation Blues, his brilliant, modern blues collaboration with Jeff Lang. Whitley’s music is often discordant but much of it is mesmerising. The surreal, minimalist tone of his New Lost World from his 2003 album Hotel Vast Horizon evokes a lost soul in a dark, foreboding landscape. Recorded in Dresden, no less, it contains sparse instrumentation complementing the biting resonant sound of the National steel guitar and the at-times ghostly whispered refrain that characterises much of Whitley’s music. As he has said, “I’m trying to articulate what is not rational”.

That statement could well summarise the current situation that, collectively, the world finds itself in. At this time do we, like Whitley, stand

… underground at the edge of time
desire alone forgoes the crime
… unscathed against the sky
empires and nations flyin’ by
over the hills the truths divide
… In the new, the law in the new lost world
into the new, into the new lost world

 Will our society, to paraphrase Chris Whitley, recede into the lonesome future” with a decimated planet spinning through space to the sounds of Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark is the Night?

Or is there cause for optimism?

As ever, a cautionary word from Bob Dylan, from Talkin’ World War III Blues

Well, I spied a girl and before she could leave
I said, let’s go and play Adam and Eve
I took her by the hand and my heart it was thumpin’
When she said, hey man, you crazy or sumpin’
You seen what happened last time they started

 

Chris Whitley New Lost World

About Peter Crossing

Peter Crossing loves the pure 'n natch'l blues. A conflicted Crows supporter and former resident of Canberra, he has enjoyed the fact that GWS brought an exciting style of Australian football to the National capital. He is a member of the silver fox faction of the Adelaide Uni Greys.

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