Bonfire Night Tunes

Over the years I have posted several times for Bonfire Night, using ‘fire’ as the excuse for some terrific tunes. Last year I updated and expanded the selection but as there are so many songs with ‘fire’ in their title I thought this year I would do this with an entirely new set. About time, I hear you murmur. But first, for the uninitiated, unwary or just plain unwilling, here is a re-run of my potted history lesson. If you’ve seen this in previous years please feel free to skip to the music 😉

Last 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 time of year comes today, 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. In ‘normal’ years bonfires are lit all over the country, and thousands attend to watch them and the accompanying firework displays. This year, those of us in England have just gone back into a national lockdown, which must have tempted a few to think about blowing up Parliament. But it means that big public bonfires are off this year – so why not stay in and enjoy some great music instead?

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 have our Bonfire Night. 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 – a Protestant – 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.

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! We have also occasionally expanded to include other countries – guess whose image has been created with pumpkins left over from last week?

When I was growing up it was commonplace to see groups of children (including me) on the streets transporting their guys 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, even without the requirements for social distancing which have interfered with things this year.

To round off my little history lesson there is one video which I’ve retained from previous years, as it gives a far better explanation than I could ever give:

‘Gutted,’ indeed.

So, where am I starting my new selection of songs which have absolutely nothing to do with Guy Fawkes, but do mention ‘fire?’ Having given this nanoseconds of thought I went for someone who featured in my monthly review post – October Road – last Sunday:

I’ve loved that ever since I first heard it, probably some fifty plus years ago – I was nearly 10 when it was released. Nothing says ‘fire’ quite like an invisible mariachi band, does it? And the song is nothing to do with curry either, in case you were wondering. 

My next ‘fire’ song for this year is only a couple of years younger:

That is a fairly recent video for the song, which actually dates back to early 1965. It was the B-side of The Last Time single (UK #1, US #9), and was also included on the US version of their album from later in 1965, Out Of Our Heads, though not on the UK version – we were expected to buy the single too! It subsequently appeared on several compilation albums in the US, but we had to wait until 1971 before we got an album version here.

I thought I would balance things out with a couple of tunes from female vocalists. They don’t come much better for me than Stevie Nicks:

That was on Stevie’s fourth solo album, The Other Side Of The Mirror, from 1989, and was her first UK Top Twenty single, reaching #16, as it also did in the US. The album was a UK #3 and US #10, but I think her first solo album – Bella Donna – is still my favourite: they were all good, though. The fact that she was gorgeous has nothing to do with my choosing this song, of course.

My other female vocalist is much less well-known. A solo artist and actress, she had a number of musical collaborations, including this one:

Some strange editing going on there! The rather bemused guy at the beginning was Simon Dee, a DJ and TV host from that time. As for the guy at the end, I have absolutely no idea who he is and why he was there – he looks as though he was in the process of failing the audition for Monty Python! You may well know that the song was written by Bob Dylan, with Rick Danko of The Band. The Band’s version is on their 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink, a great record. Dylan released a version on The Basement Tapes, in 1975. This cover was a UK #5 in 1968 – a classic one hit wonder.

I don’t know why I haven’t featured this next singer more on my blog, as he has long been one of my favourites. His albums are all superb, and this is typically great:

If you don’t know John Mellencamp’s music, you really are missing out. He began as Johnny Cougar, then John Cougar, via John Cougar Mellencamp into just using his real name. That was the opening track from his 1987 album The Lonesome Jubilee, which reached #6 in the US and #31 here. It was released as a single, peaking at #9 in the US but only staggering to #86 here. We can, as a nation, sometimes be remiss with our musical taste!

My last bonfire song for today – and this year – is one of the obvious choices I have somehow managed to omit from previous selections:

As you can see, I went for a later version of the song rather than an original. I did so deliberately, to show how well he had survived over thirty years in the business by then – this was 1989 – and how respected he must have been to have assembled a backing band like that! I’m sure you don’t need reminding that this one goes all the way back to 1957, when it was #1 in the UK and #2 in the US, a few short months before his UK tour was cancelled after just three shows when it came out that his third wife (at the age of just 22!) was only 13, and was a first cousin once removed (don’t ask, I’ve never understood that either). I suspect that even after all these years, that might happen nowadays too. It doesn’t seem to have done any long term damage to his career, though!

I’m sorry if I haven’t included your favourite fire song, but felt I should restrain myself and stick to just six songs out of the many possibilities. I did actually mention two of these (the first and the last) in last year’s post as being obvious candidates, so it’s probably as well that I’ve selected them today. 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 – I just don’t understand it! 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 – yes, such standards do exist.

If you are doing something for this evening I hope it goes well, and safely. Sadly, as I said, the current restrictions and lockdown will have put an end to public gatherings, but I’m fully expecting some of the locals to be blasting off in their gardens. I just hope that they remember to think of pets, for whom this is a horrible night.

Be safe, enjoy yourself within the rules, and take care. Or just stay in and listen to music: that’s always good advice!

Bonfire Of The Insanities

On Saturday I reblogged last year’s ##SaturdaySongs post of Bonfire Night songs

As this little rhyme that we all learned in primary school reminds us, this is actually tonight:

Remember, remember

The fifth of November:

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

I won’t repeat the potted history lesson here but do take a look if you need to know more: there is also a link in that post to a very detailed Wikipedia article on the Gunpowder Plot. These events took place 413 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 might like to think, do we?

Democracy cannot be underestimated: there still exist too many tyrannies in the world: well, actually, one is too many. But the majority of those of you who read my ramblings are based in countries which are long used to enjoying democratic freedoms. The US, for example, fought to achieve its independence from a British king and government which treated them abominably, and created the free country that has since thrived. And, after a troubled first thousand years or so of the current calendar, during which it seemed to be open season for anyone wanting to invade us, we in the UK haven’t had any such invasion since 1066, despite the best efforts of the Spanish Armada and Hitler. We have gradually built our democracy since then.

The US midterm elections are tomorrow, and it is the great hope for the rest of the world that they might come to their senses and look back to what their founding fathers fought for and established. They might then realise their mistake in electing as President a man completely inexperienced in politics, who has spent the past two years pushing his agenda of lies, hypocrisy and hatred. But at least he was elected by public ballot, rather than by blowing up the seat of democracy. Well, almost, as he actually lost the public vote by nearly 3m votes, but that is apparently ‘fake news.’ In what is largely a two party system, how is it possible that the loser can actually win the election? That Electoral College system needs to be revisited, as it is way past its ‘best by’ date!

We get a lot of news coverage of Trump’s government here in the UK. Allowing for the filters for bias which may need to be applied, one inescapable fact emerges: Trump and his cowardly Republican Party have lost sight of the true meaning of democracy, and are governing in an autocratic manner. Democracy was worth fighting for, and it is to be hoped that enough people recognise this and exercise their democratic right at the ballot box tomorrow before it is too late. Am I scaremongering? I don’t think so: take a look at both Trump’s and John Bolton’s statements about the recent election in Brazil. They have both spoken in glowing terms of the new Brazilian President: how long before they take the US down the same path he is treading, a very undemocratic path indeed. If they hold onto control of the House and Senate tomorrow, having cheated their way to controlling the Supreme Court, autocracy may be closer than you might think. Add in the copious evidence of corruption and it ceases to be a true democracy, as a dubiously elected President exercises his powers to ignore the Constitution.

And we here in the UK know how well the public ballot can result in a terribly bad decision. It is becoming clearer every day that the Leave campaign broke a lot of rules in their campaign funding, which could well end up with prison sentences for some if the legal process is allowed to take its proper course without further political interference – and that’s even without the lies on which the vote was won. What is also abundantly clear is that there is no actual plan for how an organised withdrawal from the EU might be managed, amid growing public disquiet. A few weekends ago an estimated 750k marched in support of a ‘People’s Vote’ on the final terms of whatever deal is eventually cooked up. This is much more democratic than blowing up the Parliament buildings, though we could be forgiven for thinking that our government needs explosive help to shake them out of their collective torpor, indecision and ineptitude.

I wouldn’t mind betting that there will be quite a few ‘Guys’ tonight who will be wearing images of present day politicians. The Gunpowder Plot was far from being a democratic process, but after all this time it retains its place in our history as a reminder of how we as a country are able to celebrate our freedoms. Generally, we live in less violent times than Fawkes and his co-conspirators, and we have adapted our expressions of democracy since then. Tonight is a timely reminder that governments can be unpopular. The problem comes when the people become complicit in taking away their own democratic freedoms, by believing the lies and false promises of the self-interested. Do we really deserve our democracy if we misuse it? I wish I had an answer to that!