#SaturdaySongs No.12 – Songs for Bonfire Night

When I brought back this #SaturdaySongs series I said I would be doing it a little differently. So today, instead of a song with meaning from somewhere in my life I’m doing a themed set for Bonfire Night, aka Guy Fawkes Night.

Earlier this week we ‘celebrated’ Hallowe’en. As I said then, this is largely imported to these shores from the US, in its current form, although parts of the British Isles do have a tradition going back many hundreds of years – the whole thing derives from the pagan festival of Samhain, if you want to follow it up. Our real celebration for this week comes tomorrow, when we mark what is known as Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, if you prefer. This is still a big night in the UK – understanding of it is perhaps declining, but it marks a momentous event in British history. Bonfires will be lit all over the country, and thousands will attend to watch them and the accompanying firework displays. Why?

As the majority of readers here are based outside the UK it would be presumptuous of me to assume that you would know why we do this. Briefly, on 5th November 1605 a man called Guy Fawkes was discovered in the vaults of the House of Lords guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder. He was there to blow the place up during the State Opening of the English Parliament, as part of a plot by Catholics to murder the King – James I of England and VI of Scotland – and install his 9 year old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as a Catholic monarch. The details of this are well documented so I won’t bore you with them here, but if you want to know more there is a good article in Wikipedia which draws on a number of authoritative sources to give a full description of the plot and its aftermath, which resulted in trials for those who had not been killed as they tried to make their escape, and subsequent executions by the barbaric method of hanging, drawing and quartering. Perhaps ironically Guy Fawkes managed to escape this end – weakened by having been tortured during the investigation into the plot he jumped from the gallows and broke his neck. This all sounds very gory to me. To illustrate that, an admission: the BBC has been running a dramatisation of these events, which finishes tonight – I recorded the first episode but when I read how people were complaining about its graphic detail I went into full wuss mode and deleted it, unwatched!

In the following years the foiling of this plot was celebrated on its anniversary by the ringing of church bells, special sermons and the lighting of bonfires, and it became a part of traditional British culture as a result. This tradition included the burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes on top of the bonfire, although in recent times there have been occasions when masks of modern political figures have been put on the guy – we may love our democracy but it doesn’t stop us hating the politicians! When I was growing up it was commonplace to see groups of children on the streets with their guys, quite often being transported in their dads’ wheelbarrow, asking for a ‘Penny for the guy, mister’ but this is seen much less nowadays. In our current Health and Safety conscious era I guess they are most likely to be arrested for begging!

I thought I’d mark the event with a few songs, none of which has anything to do with Guy Fawkes but all of which have the word ‘fire’ in their title. I’ve really thought this through, haven’t I! First up, and one which has a place in my life as being one of the earliest songs (and bands) that introduced me to American rock music, is this:

See what I mean about there being no influence from Guy Fawkes? It’s still a great song though.

The events we are remembering tomorrow took place 412 years ago. But there are, sadly, echoes in modern day life: religion as the basis for differences and even violence; a threat to democracy from those who want another form of government and are prepared to go to illegal and destructive ends to attain it. Sound familiar? We don’t learn as much from history as we would like to think, do we? For a potted history lesson, we could all do a lot worse than listen to my second choice for today:

And when I say ‘all’ I’m thinking in particular of a certain orange president who seems determined to ignore any lessons he might have learned from history, assuming he has ever read about it. Sadly, he is far from alone in that.

My final ‘fire’ song just has to be this. Utterly bonkers, the archetypal one hit wonder, from 1968:

They don’t really make them like that anymore, do they? Somehow, though, Arthur Brown best fits the theme for tomorrow: he’s a kind of walking bonfire, really.

I’m sorry if I haven’t included your favourite fire song, but I didn’t want to overburden you (and as it’s my blog I can choose what I want 😂). Two other obvious candidates are Great Balls of Fire and Ring of Fire (nothing to do with curries). No doubt you can think of many more, all of which will share one common denominator: they are not about Guy Fawkes. There are a number of traditional folk songs and ballads going right back to the early 17th century but sadly, for some reason, none of these appears to have found their way onto YouTube – what were they thinking! There are also a few modern day efforts which mostly share the characteristics of being loud, tuneless and not good enough to meet the high quality standards I apply to this blog (ahem). So I’ve decided to end with a little history lesson instead:

If you’re out tonight or tomorrow, stay warm, stay safe, and enjoy yourself. And please remember that pets (and ageing bloggers) need to be looked after during the fireworks and explosions.

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#SaturdaySongs No.11 – A Higher Place (and a few more)

This is going to be a #SaturdaySong piece with a bit of a difference. I won’t follow the usual pattern of telling the story of why a song is important to me: instead, I’ll be focusing on an artist and there will be more than one song. Because he’s worth it.

Anyone who knows anything about rock music can’t fail to have noticed the sad passing of Tom Petty on Monday evening. I treated my Facebook friends and Twitter followers to a couple of his songs to mark the event – prematurely, as it turned out, as the initial reports were a little too quick off the mark. But, by Tuesday morning, his death had been confirmed.

Tom Petty started his band, the Heartbreakers, in 1976, and I was fortunate enough to be introduced to his music from the beginning – their first album was released at the end of that year. Since then, I’ve got every album he has made and play them often. In the mid-1990s I spent a lot of time driving to and from work around the dreaded North Circular Road in London, and Tom’s music was the ideal accompaniment for this. He carried on making albums throughout his career, and these add up to an amazing body of work. His style is described as ‘heartland rock,’ and is representative of the quintessential American rock style: consummate songwriting, brilliantly played with guitars that twang just like the Byrds (another favourite of mine). All being done in his own unique style: when a Tom Petty record comes on the radio you know instantly that it’s him. In style and subject matter he is often bracketed with Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp: I’m not a great believer in labelling music and musicians but I can see the justification for the comparison. It’s no coincidence that I have every album by both of those two gentlemen as well!

Tom was only 66 when he died, taken by a cardiac arrest exactly a week after the end of his 40th Anniversary tour. He had described this as his final tour, and said that he wanted to spend time with his family and grandchildren. He deserved more than a week of doing that, but it wasn’t to be. I guess it’s because my musical tastes were formed when I was in my teens, so the artists are now many years older, like me, but there have been a number of my musical heroes taken in the past 18 months or so. I can’t explain why, but none of them seemed to affect me quite as much. I usually find myself revisiting the artists’ music when they pass, as part of the process of mourning their loss, and I tried to do this on Tuesday. But I couldn’t: it was too painful. That, to me, is the measure of how much his music means to me. It seems that I’m not alone in this, either: there have been many tributes by fellow musicians, both in words and by playing his songs at their own shows, and the front page of Tom’s website is a huge tribute wall from fans.

But I’ve now managed to listen to his music again and, as I said at the beginning, I want to post a few of his songs in his memory and as my own small tribute. The difficulty was where to begin. He has so many well known songs to choose from, and a great many hits. But I’ve chosen as the title piece a track from his Wildflowers album. It is, to me, a typical Tom Petty song, and the title feels very appropriate. This is where he is now:

Possibly my favourite Tom Petty song, even after all these years, is the opening track from the band’s fourth album, Hard Promises, which was released in 1981:

This was one of the two I shared on Monday. That Mike Campbell guitar solo still gets me every time, and I just think that is one of the all-time great rock songs – by anyone. The other song I shared isn’t actually a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song, or even a Tom Petty song. For a couple of years Tom was a member of the most stellar supergroup ever when, with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne he formed the Travelling Wilburys, and this is one of George Harrison’s songs. Sadly, Tom is now the third member of that band to have reached the End of the Line:

If you look closely you’ll see their tribute to Roy Orbison, who died before this video was made. The photograph on the side, and the gently rocking chair and his guitar, are a poignant salute to their friend. I hope that Roy and George were waiting to get the beers in with Tom on Monday night.

I was never fortunate enough to see Tom play live, but anyone who is a fan will know that he closed his shows with the track that was the closing track of their first album, all the way back in 1976. This footage, shot by a fan in the audience, is the final song from the band’s show at the Hollywood Bowl on 25th September, which turned out to be their last show ever:

The sheer enjoyment and exuberance of the band is wonderful to see, and is how I will remember him. Those fans who got autographs at the end really do now have an especially poignant memento. Thank you Tom: we’re heartbroken, but we have your music to treasure for always. I hope that you’ve found your Higher Place.