“Woodstock. Watergate. Punk Rock.”

26ED6D80-D095-4A3D-81CC-46AF89CD838B.jpeg…is a quote lifted from Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ from 1989. It is part of a line from the last verse. The whole song strikes me now as an appeal to my generation: please forgive the baby boomers for the corrupt world they’re passing on to their children; ‘we tried to do something about it,’ they’re telling us, ‘and we failed. But we tried.’ I wonder whether my generation is framing up its document(s) of this kind?

It has been fascinating to see my son become as obsessed by the hypnotic quality of the song as I was in 1989. The tune hasn’t got much going for it, and the session musicians trudge through an often syrupy mix. What pulls the listener’s attention is the driving force of the amount of words that are being propelled out of the song. In short, Joel lists key events chronologically; it is the story of  the background to his life – the American Century. Obviously, there is a slant on the events relayed – and it may be that it becomes as much of a ‘text’ as Kipling is for post-colonial studies looking at British colonial operations.

The only songs I have played recently that seem to have as many words are tracks from ‘Fear of a Black Planet’, Public Enemy’s album from the year after, and ‘They’re Trying To Build A Prison’ by System of A Down. Interestingly, they are overtly political examples.

The sheer number of words was utterly captivating for me, as a child. In fact, it probably shaped my understanding of the Twentieth Century, in that I knew famous places and people (and their chronology) long before I knew the details about them. This has its shortcomings, obviously. But the volume of rhythmical words had me listening to the copy I had. It so captivated me that I memorised it.

What strikes me now, when it goes on the turntable, are the juxtapositions – like the ones at the top of this blogpost. Or there’s ‘AIDS. Crack. Bernie Goetz.’ That’s some meaning leeching from one utterance to the next! Listen to it yourself – the ear can’t help it. I was also transfixed by the sleeve, this time around: because the juxtapositions are different: have a look at the picture. There are, in effect, two quite different sets of meaning created by both versions of the text.

Neighbouring (as a verb) ideas, motifs and words makes lots of interesting things happen.


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