BETWEEN ROCK AND ROLL and military music there has always existed a clandestine kinship that neither relation would want acknowledged. The ancient Greeks prescribed the Dorian mode for their soldiers' warm-up music, but since then, the West has recognized martial music by its 4/4 march time--the same rhythm that, one way or another, propels the traditional rock song. Martial music is supposed to excite sentimental feelings of patriotism and community, then harness them to aggressive instincts; rock songs stir up adolescent anger and lust, and--depending on which side of 1970 you grew up on--either ignite or dissipate them. During the heyday of today's rock idiom, in the mid-'60s, the goals of the two types of music were identical: if you listened to the Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers," you were supposed to get out in the street, join the volunteers of America" and fight for the revolution.
Whatever the ties between these genres, however, the essential anarchism of the rock song made it less politically potent that its patriotic cousins: a rock concert is far more likely to end in a street fight or a brawl than in a march on some contemporary Bastille. When the revolution of the '60s derailed, its music as well as its ideology having proved vulnerable to compromise and commercialization, rock and roll slunk away from the topic of war. America's popular music forgot about Vietnam long before the last helicopters left, and by the mid-'70s war appeared on disc only as tongue-in-cheek posing--the Ramones sang "Blitzkrieg Bop" in 1976--or historical ballad--Al Stewart's "Roads to Moscow."
Now, in 1980, with the world's eyes trained on Iran, Afghanistan and Ronald Reagan, the war song is returning to album-sides and radio stations in a torrent as remarkable for its suddenness as for its size. There's been no similar topical fascination in rock music since the Beatles set off the psychedelic-drug-song craze in 1967. Listen to the titles: "Generals and Majors" (XTC), "World War" (The Cure), "Cold War" (Devo), "Battleground" (Joe Jackson), "Life During Wartime" (Talking Heads). There are songs about war in the Middle East, songs about nuclear war, political songs against war, jingoist songs for war, songs that use war as a metaphor for everything from love to race relations. Our songwriters have war on the brain.
On the most vulgar and least creative level, this preoccupation has surfaced in a slew of war-fever songs, spearheaded by Charlie Daniels' trigger-happy redneck anthem, "In America," and including "Bomb Iran"--a remake of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" that made the rounds of local radio stations last spring. Such songs are the contemporary analogues to the Hearst newspapers' "Remember the Maine" campaigns, somewhat less strident but equally irresponsible.
THE MORE IMPORTANT strain of military-minded popular music has cowered passively before the prospect of world war, not promoted it with a whoop and a shout. New wave music, with its hypnotic repetition, machine noises and nihilism, had always rejected a rosy view of the future in favor of visions of chaos and destruction. But "Life During Wartime," the Talking Heads' 1979 hit, was the first indication that New Wave music dealing in the particulars of war not only could be popular, but seemed to satisfy some collective hunger of the public imagination.
A cyclical song that continuously repeats the same sinister keyboard sequence behind David Byrne's neurotically high-pitched vocals, "Life During Wartime" pictures was as an inalterable given, a backdrop to the singer's life that he can no more protest against than escape:
Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock
We blended in with the crowd
We got computers, we're tapping phone lines,
I know that ain't allowed
We dress like students, we dress like housewives
Or in a suit and a tie
I changed my hair style so many times now
I don't know what I look like
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