You may have noticed coverage in the news this past fortnight of what Wikipedia describes as ‘the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the third meeting of the parties to the 2015 Paris Agreement (designated CMA1, CMA2, CMA3), and the 16th meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP16).’ You may well know it better as COP26, as I don’t recall any news source giving it the full title. Back in May, in Tuesday Tunes 57 I gave you a selection of songs about nature, but said that I was concentrating in that post on the beauty of our world, and would leave the protest songs for another time. Given my growing disappointment at the way COP26 went, and how it was hijacked at the last minute by the vested interests of China and India, two of the biggest polluters on the planet, I think that now is the right time for the protest side of things – hence this week’s theme of environment. I am sharing a collection of songs this week which show that musicians have been writing songs for many years about the way humankind has been damaging the natural earth: it’s a pity that politicians haven’t been taking the same degree of interest.
Two of these songs have featured in my posts before, although only one of them was in a Tuesday Tunes piece. I debated whether to exclude them on the grounds of repetition, but decided that they were far too relevant to this theme to omit. And they are both great tunes, which is what this series is about! The first of these is a fairly recent reissue of a favourite of mine from the Seventies:
That is simply lovely. The song’s message is even more powerful now than it was fifty years ago, and the video is terrific. This is one that has never been released as a single, so may not be familiar to you, but I think it deserves to be heard. I saw him play live in 2009, as part of a series of concerts to mark the 50th anniversary of Island Records. He began with a track from his newly released album, and then played this: you could have heard a pin drop, apart from the audience singing quietly along with him. We were all word perfect, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house! This was the opening track on Cat Stevens’ fourth album, Tea For The Tillerman, released in September 1970, reaching #20 in the UK and #8 in the US. The album was reworked, with newly created videos, for a fiftieth anniversary re-release in September 2020, and that is where this comes from. This version reached #4 in the UK, but only got to #85 in the US.
My next two tunes share the same title, and are of similar vintage. They are different songs, but with a similar message. Firstly, The Beach Boys:
Don’t Go Near The Water was the opening track on The Beach Boys’ album Surf’s Up, released in August 1971, and peaking at #15 in the UK and at #29 in the US. The track was issued as a single in 1971, and again in 1981, but didn’t make the charts anywhere on either occasion. I guess the world wasn’t ready for their favourite surfing boy band to go all environmentally conscious on them!
The other song which shares this title is equally bleak in its outlook:
Johnny Cash doesn’t do ‘subtle,’ does he? This was a track on his 47th (!) album, Ragged Old Flag, released in May 1974. The album reached #16 in the US Country chart, but didn’t make their mainstream chart, or anywhere else. The whole album was a fairly political statement, so it may have been his equivalent of the Beach Boys, in that music fans weren’t ready to learn from what they were listening to. I hope they have wised up by now.
The second of the songs which has featured in a previous post is this one:
Amongst a catalogue of some truly wonderful songs, that has always been my favourite of his. This is a performance from 2010, which is when I saw him play live at the Royal Albert Hall in London, three days after this video was recorded. It was fabulous to see him after all the years of loving his music but I did come away feeling a tinge of disappointment: he didn’t play this one. But it was still a great evening. The album it was on, Late For The Sky, was another 1974 release: it peaked at #14 in the US but didn’t reach our charts. He has a loyal following here and has regularly played at the RAH during his tours, but his albums generally only make the lower reaches of our charts. Some of us know great music when we hear it, though! The song’s meaning is still as valid today as it was when first released, perhaps even more so.
I said earlier that the Johnny Cash track wasn’t subtle, but they don’t come much more blunt than this next one:
I have long been a fan of Tom Lehrer’s brilliantly cutting wit and satire, having been introduced to him by a schoolfriend’s dad, who managed to convert a bunch of British teenagers to a particular style of American humour (sorry, ’humor’). This performance dates back to 1965, when the song was first released on a live album called That Was The Year That Was – with a title like that you’d expect it to have been released in December, but in true Lehrer fashion it came out in July! If a satirist was writing songs like this way back then, some of the problems President Biden is trying to address as part of his Infrastructure Bill would appear to be fairly deep-rooted.
I said at the outset that China and India were responsible for derailing the COP26 at the last minute. The reason they did so was to weaken the wording about future dependence on coal as a fuel source. They aren’t the only guilty parties in this respect – America, we’re looking at you, too:
I featured a lovely song by John Prine last week: this one is a little less gentle in its meaning! The video which has been compiled for it emphasises the point well, though – and I say that as someone who grew up close to coal mines, and had neighbours who worked in the industry. It is a fuel which should be confined to history, in the way the coalfields near where I was born have long since been closed. Paradise is a track on John’s self-tilted debut album, which was released in October 1971 and reached #55 in the US charts. He re-recorded this for his 1986 album German Afternoons, but that one didn’t make the charts. The song is about the devastating impact of strip mining for coal, whereby the top layers of soil are blasted off with dynamite or dug away with steam shovels to reach the coal seam below. The song is also about what happened to the area around the Green River in Kentucky because of strip mining. There have been many cover versions, notably by John Fogerty for his 2009 album The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again (US #24, UK #98).
There are other ways in which we damage our environment, too. This is another long time favourite of mine:
This was a track on Joni Mitchell’s third album, Lades Of The Canyon, which was released in April 1970 and made #8 in the UK albums chart and #27 in the US. This song was released as a single to coincide with the album release, getting to #11 in the UK and #67 in the US. It was also a hit in Joni’s native Canada, where it got to #14, but did best in Australia, where it reached #6. There have been a number of cover versions, notably by the Counting Crows (with Vanessa Carlton) but I don’t think any of them has the charm of the original. Joni proved that you can make an important point in a jaunty little song, without losing any of the impact.
I’ve given you another extended set today, and have left out several others that could have been here, notably The Last Resort, by The Eagles – I just couldn’t face that chase around YouTube to find a version their record company would deign to let me use. But, as COP26 concludes with the admission that they are all going to have to keep coming back until they get it right, there is one final question I think we should all be asking ourselves:
This was the closing track on Queen’s album, The Works. I can still recall the first time I played the album, sitting in stunned silence after it finished until the click of the needle going round and round on the vinyl jolted me back to reality. How much power is there in that two minutes of music? I think we should all play that song on a regular basis, in case we are ever in danger of forgetting its message. The album was released in February 1984, and peaked at #2 in the UK and #3 in the US. This track later featured as the B-side to the single release of It’s A Hard Life, which reached #6 in the UK but only #72 in the US. It brings today’s tunes to a fitting finale, I think.
I think today has been the first time that I have been overtly political in my musical selections. I make no apology for that: the future of our planet should be a concern for all of us. In three weeks’ time, all being well, I will become a grandfather for the second time. This really does make me question what kind of world we are leaving behind for our grandchildren, and for their children too, if it survives that long. Governments need to take the correct action now, for everyone’s sake.
See you again soon 👍