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Johnny Got His Gun

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Unforgettable: 20 popular songs inspired by the First World War, Part 1

The ‘War to End All Wars’ has inspired many songwriters through the present day, as this survey (with video) of 20 modern songs illustrates.

Welcome to the first of a series that examines “recent” popular songs inspired by events or themes of World War One.

With one exception, the songs featured in this series were produced after – usually long after– the war’s end in 1918. The earliest song dates from the 1920’s. Most were written after 1980. The most recent appeared in 2009.

Each installment will showcase three songs, presenting a little information about each one and the events that inspired it. Where possible, a link to lyrics will be provided.

Most of these songs are understandably poignant, tragic, haunting… and anti-war. It’s hard to imagine how they could be otherwise.

I’ve selected video clips for sound quality and for the way their visuals heighten the emotional impact of the song.

Without further ado, I present to you, gentle reader, in no chronological order, the first three of 20 songs inspired by the First World War…

“The Accrington Pals” – Mike Harding (1984)

The Accrington Pals was a part of the 11th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, one of many Pals battalions raised throughout Britain in response to Lord Kitchner’s call for a voluntary army. The Pals battalions were so-called because members were recruited with the promise they could serve alongside their friends, neighbors and co-workers, rather than being allocated arbitrarily to regular army units. The Accrington Pals were raised from in and around Accrington in Lancashire.

Following a brief deployment in the Suez in 1916, the Accrington Pals were moved to France where they took part in the ill-fated first day of the Battle of the Somme. The 31st Division, of which the Pals were a part, were to attack the village of Serre and secure the Army’s left flank, but the mission, like so much else for the British that day, was doomed to failure. Some of the Accrington men actually made it to the village, only to become casualties themselves. Of the 700 Pals that went into action, 235 were killed and 350 were wounded. Within the first half-hour of action, the unit was effectively wiped out. One rear-guard observer later wrote:

We were able to see our comrades move forward in an attempt to cross No Man’s Land, only to be mown down like meadow grass. I felt sick at the sight of the carnage and remember weeping.

Here is a site dedicated to the memory of the the Accrington Pals.

The Accrington Pals have also been the subject of a play by Peter Whelan.

Here are the lyrics to Mike Harding’s The Accrington Pals.

* * *

“1916” – Motörhead (1991)

The year 1916 was especially terrible in the long stalemate that was WW1, largely because of the awful slaughters of Verdun and the Somme. These campaigns alone accounted for some 802,000 casualties.

I am not too familiar with Motörhead, but from what I’ve read, this song, written and sung by group founder Lemmy Kilmister, is quite atypical of their usual heavy metal style. The music may be understated, but Motörhead’s so-called “sledgehammer” approach remains, however, in the lyrics’ unrelenting take on the horrors of war, and how easily youth are enticed to enter the sacrificial flames.

We were food for the gun, and that’s
What you are when you’re soldiers

The accompanying (non-official) video renders the lyrics all the more powerful. I must admit, the lyrics and images combined in this one cut me to the quick.

Lyrics to “1916”

* * *

“One” – Metallica (1988)

Dalton Trumbo’s 1931 anti-war classic, Johnny Got His Gun, is one of two books that turned me against all war unconditionally, the other being “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Trumbo’s novel details the experience of a young American soldier who, hit by a shell, has lost arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth and nose. Kept alive in a hospital bed, he remains conscious, with no companion but his thoughts. Condemned to such an existence, he experiences life only through dreams, memories and increasingly embittered reflections. He remains thus locked away from the world outside, until, one day, he discovers a way to communicate with his keepers.

Inspired by the Johnny Got His Gun, “One” was the last single to be released from Metallica’s …And Justice for All album, and it became their first Top 40 hit single.

It was also the first Metallica song to be made into a music video. The band went so far as to secure the rights to the 1971 film version of Johnny Got His Gun, with the result that scenes from the film are prominent throughout the video.

Readers of Guitar World magazine, incidentally, voted “One” as 7th of the “100 Greatest Guitar Solos” of all time.

Lyrics to “One”

All text Copyright ©2011 Rick Koobs

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