By Tom Anderson
Song lyrics and band names reveal clues about the past. This should be obvious, on the face of it. Naturally bands take inspiration from past events, and sometimes pay tribute to their predecessors. For example, the band The Hollies, which started in the 1960s, is named after 1950s rock martyr Buddy Holly—who also lent his name to songs by Weezer (1994) and Alvin Stardust (1984). Happenstance observation of relatively recent events can also provide inspiration for band names and song lyrics; the band Frankie Goes To Hollywood named themselves after a newspaper headline about Frank Sinatra (the original words being ‘Frankie Goes Hollywood’) and the Beatles song A Day in the Life is inspired by John Lennon reading in the papers of the death of wealthy socialite Tara Browne. The band Level 42 (founded 1979) named themselves after the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), and Radiohead named their song Paranoid Android after a phrase in the same book—taking their own band name from a song on the Talking Heads’ album True Stories. This is not so surprising, but music can also preserve and keep alive events and quotations from much earlier events and works. One good example is the band name Franz Ferdinand, referencing the Austro-Hungarian Archduke whose assassination, almost a century before the band was founded, led to the First World War. There are many, many examples of this, and this brief article will only attempt to cover a handful. Before starting, it should be made clear that one can draw the line in a variety of places when considering what constitutes a ‘reference’. For example, as was observed in a previous article in this series, the phrase ‘a broken heart’, now commonplace in English, originally comes from the Bible (Psalm 34:18). Does this mean that every love song that uses the phrase, from Jimmy Ruffin’s 1966 Motown tune What Becomes of the Brokenhearted? to Billy Ray Cyrus’ ear-wormy 1992 hit Achy Breaky Heart, is referencing the Bible? Are they all, in fact, quoting song lyrics written three thousand years earlier by a man named David ben Yishai about the time he feigned insanity whilst confronted by Abimelech, King of Gath? It is possible to argue the answer is yes, but lest we be deluged with more distant examples of this type, let’s focus on more direct cases. Even these, however, can be surprisingly far removed from the present. Perhaps we expect references to Shakespeare, such as Iron Maiden’s The Evil That Men Do (quoting the play Julius Caesar) or Elbow’s My Sad Captains (whose title and lyrics stem from Anthony and Cleopatra). We might even expect more direct references to the Bible than those mentioned above; perhaps the best-known example is The Byrds’ song Turn! Turn! Turn!, which almost entirely consists of simply setting the first eight verses of the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes to a tune.
Yet even the most seemingly obscure sources can be resurrected in the present day—albeit sometimes, as I discussed in my previous article “The Garibaldi Problem”, overshadowing the original. For example, the phrase ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ used to be commonplace in English (it shows up in Swallows and Amazons (1930), for instance) yet nowadays it has become overshadowed by being used as the name of the long-running, some might argue inexplicably so, band The Rolling Stones. In fact the root of this was that the saying was first referenced by blues singer Muddy Waters in his song Rollin’ Stone and the band named themselves after the song. Yet ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ isn’t even just an old English proverb. (Its meaning, for those unfamiliar, is that someone who travels around a lot does not put down roots or take on long-running responsibilities). It is first recorded in English in a collection of proverbs by John Heywood in 1546—which would itself be impressive enough, yet Heywood attributes it to the Syrian-born Roman writer Publilius Syrus, who died 43 years before the birth of Christ. There is some debate about whether he actually wrote it, but it certainly appears in the Adagia, a collection of proverbs gathered by the genius polymath Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1500. Opera is a rich vein of such influence on later music. Though often portrayed today as a stuffy and elitist form of entertainment, historically opera was a popular and often raucous mainstream form of musical and dramatic media, and this has been recognised by some more recent forms of music. There is, of course, the genre of the ‘rock opera’, and there are bands which have focused on bridging the gap between classical and rock music, such as Electric Light Orchestra and (in the album Days of Future Passed) the Moody Blues. But there are also more direct links. Queen, whose frontman Freddie Mercury had operatic connections, quote the aria Vesti la giubba (“Put on the costume”) from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera Pagliacci in their song It’s a Hard Life (1984). The subject of that aria consists of the protagonist Canio learning of his wife’s infidelity, yet still putting on his costume to be the clown Pagliaccio because ‘the show must go on’ (which also became the title of a Queen song). In fact, Queen named an entire album A Night at the Opera, although that is more directly a reference to the Marx Bros film of the same name (1935). There are also briefer operatic references in their best-known song, Bohemian Rhapsody. Other songs from the turn of the century live on through reference. There are too many of these to count, but two examples involve popular Neapolitan songs. In the 1960s, Elvis Presley recorded the songs Surrender and It’s Now or Never, which use the tunes from Torna a Surriento (1902 by the de Curtis brothers) and ’O sole mio (1898 by Eduardo di Capua and Alfredo Mazzucchi). Remarkably given Elvis’ global fame, the latter song has not been entirely displaced by its English counterpart; it was brought anew to a global audience by Luciano Pavarotti’s iconic cover in 1980, which became his signature song in the English-speaking world. There are even more unexpected sources of references, and I may return to this subject in a future article. But for now, let’s close out with what some would describe as the greatest and most influential band of all time—the Beatles. John, Paul, George and Ringo crammed a terrifying level of varied output into a decade’s worth of existence as a coherent group. Despite this, it is all the more remarkable that I can without effort pluck out songs with references to the three centuries that preceded the one to which their music will form an eternal soundtrack.
The nineteenth century. On January 31st 1967, while the Beatles were recording promotional films for Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane (both of which reference real places in Liverpool) John Lennon happened to peruse an antiques shop in Rochdale, and purchased a Victorian circus poster. Dating from 1846, the poster described a show put on by Pablo Fanque’s circus, including performances by tightrope walker William Kite and trampoline artist John Henderson. Pablo Fanque was an equestrian performer and later circus proprietor, the first recorded non-white circus proprietor in English history. He was very popular in the English press, who respectfully described him as ‘an artiste of colour’ (it is interesting to note that this Victorian terminology has recently come back into vogue as a polite means of referring to race). The Rochdale show from 1846 was described as ‘being for the benefit of Mr Kite’, as (according to the practice of the time) a skilled performer could be awarded 100% of a night’s takings at least once per year in order to supplement his or her income, in lieu of a pension or other benefits. Lennon latched onto this phrase, and a number of the more grandiose ones on the poster, and produced the song Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite! with its hauntingly evocative circus-organ music produced by complex means (as a later documentary showed). Lyrics such as over Men & Horses, [through] Hoops, [over] Garters, [and] lastly, through a Hogshead of REAL FIRE! were lifted directly by Lennon from the poster. The song, on the incredibly influential album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, had the unexpected side effect of raising public interest in Fanque, Kite and Henderson (who are all mentioned in the lyrics) and the history of the English circus in general. The eighteenth century. The song All You Need Is Love (1967) was Britain’s cointribution to “Our World”, the first live global television link, and later appeared in the film Yellow Submarine and elsewhere. Lennon wrote the lyrics to be deliberately simplistic in order to appeal to the unprecedented mass global audience of 400 million people, many of whom would not have spoken English. During the show, the title appeared in many languages on sandwich boards. The song became an anthem for the Summer of Love and the counterculture movement of the time. It opens with an intro borrowed from the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, which was first written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, just after Revolutionary France had declared war on Austria. Of course, the martial and bloodthirsty lyrics of the republican anthem are rather at odds with the message of All You Need Is Love, and one does wonder if Lennon was aware of this (it would not be unlike him to cheekily embrace the irony).
Finally, the seventeenth century. In 2017, department store chain John Lewis released their hotly-anticipated Christmas advert (which has grown to be a major even in the UK over the years) which included the band Elbow covering the song Golden Slumbers. The song was originally written by Paul McCartney for the 1969 album Abbey Road, and begins a sequence of songs which leads up to the album’s end. Yet McCartney did not write all the lyrics himself; he had help from a man named Thomas Dekker, who lived between about 1572 and 1632, and was a major writer of the Elizabethan period. (One would assume he did not demand half the royalties). Dekker is one of a number of Elizabethan dramatists who have been overshadowed by the fame of Shakespeare. He also wrote a lot of political pamphlets, which predictably led to him being imprisoned – and, even more predictably, led to him releasing a profitable book about the experience, Dekker, his Dreame (1620). But his work returned to the ears of 1960s listeners in the shape of his ‘Cradle Song’ poem from the play Patient Grissel which he co-wrote with Henry Chettle and William Haughton. Its first stanza goes as follows: Golden slumbers kiss your eyes, Smiles awake you when you rise. Sleep, pretty wantons; do not cry, And I will sing a lullaby: Rock them, rock them lullaby. Aside from McCartney changing ‘wantons’ to ‘darlings’ thanks to how the meaning of the former word had changed in the intervening three and a half centuries, this was not so much a reference as pure plagiarism from a conveniently long-dead writer. In fairness, he wasn’t the first to do so; Dekker’s words had already been set to music by WJ Henderson in 1885 and Peter Warlock in 1918. (The latter, born Philip Arnold Heseltine, is a good example of how some musicians were living the rock and roll lifestyle despite being born about five decades too early). Also, it is worth noting that the subject of the Patient Grissel play was itself an existing story that had appeared in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales more than two centuries before Dekker, and that wasn’t the origins of it, either. So to summarise, let us reflect on how music keeps the poetry of phrases alive in the language, long after the original writers may be forgotten. British shoppers tuned in at Christmas 2017 to watch a 2010s band play a 1960s song using 1600s lyrics about a story from the 1300s. And there will always be something a bit magical about that.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth