Rock and roll and the use of history

I seem to have written quite a lot about what use history is since I started this blog, though partly because so have a lot of other people. I have, more specifically, taken the position that really history better not try to justify itself in practical terms, and that use of history tends to be misuse, and I have struggled to express the idea that really, it’s an arts subject and needs to justify itself simply in terms of making people feel better about something or themselves or existence, to add value and enjoyment to life. Thanks to a heads-up from Dr Virago, I am now able thankfully to point out that someone else has said this far better, and I recommend that you go and see. All the same, I did a little while ago come across another argument for pragmatism, from an unexpected quarter…

Lemmy reading in his dressing room at the Motörhead 25th Anniversary gig

People who only know Motörhead as a byword for greasy high-speed noise which would, famously, make your lawn die if it moved in next door, might be surprised how thoughtful dear old Lemmy can wax sometimes. And like an academic or two, he seems to go through several iterations of an idea, often over years, before hitting his ultimate formulation of it. The 2006 album Kiss of Death (SPV Records) seems to contain one of these:

Listen!

Where are we to go from here in time?
Do you see the future, do you know
What can you expect from years to come
And what can you do now to make it so?

All of history is there for you
All the deeds done in the world are mad
If you don’t know what has gone before
You’ll just make the same mistake again and again and again

Soldier, soldier, see where we were
You have to know the story
Older, colder, life isn’t fair
Got to grab the sword of glory

If you can’t see what bloody fools we were
Then you were also born a bloody fool
Listen to the hundred million dead
They didn’t know it, but they died for you

All you know is that you’re young and tough
Don’t you think those millions thought the same?
If you don’t know where it all went wrong
You’ll just make the same mistake again and again and again

Soldier, soldier, see where we were
You have to know the story
Older, colder, life isn’t fair
Got to grab the sword of glory

Read the books, learn to save your life
How can you find the knowledge if you don’t?
All the brave men died before their time
You’ll either be a hero, or you won’t

Don’t you realise the only way
Is see why all those brave men died in vain
If all that slaughter doesn’t make you sad
You’ll just make the same mistake again and again and again

Soldier, soldier, see where we were
You have to know the story
Older, colder, life isn’t fair
Got to grab the sword of glory

(repeat till fade)

Let the next people who want to mock him for collecting Nazi memorabilia remember that he does this. But seriously. In 2005 I went to Nottingham for a conference and a bunch of squaddies (I suppose the US equivalent might be GIs?) took the seats near me after a stop. I was a bit concerned because they were obviously excited and I didn’t think they’d take kindly to the long-‘aired inter-bloody-lectual sitting in the corner with a book, but actually when the conversation did start they were all kind of awestruck that I’d been to University and so on. They couldn’t have done that, they said, and maybe it was never a practical option I guess. But they were going to Iraq.1 They were all seventeen except one who was a ringleader by virtue of being nineteen and having joined the year before the others. I’ve often wondered if they all came back. And though he wrote it too late, I can’t help wondering if Lemmy’s song might have changed that. That’d be a use for history all right.


1. There were a pair of US tourists in the seats behind us, and the ringleader of the group, who was a loud Geordie, kept throwing contemptous remarks about Americans over his shoulder at them. This bothered me, because I don’t like the US government’s policies much but don’t usually tar the population at large with the brush. But I was reminded that he might have a different perspective when they all got off the train, and he shouted as a parting shot, “f*cking Americans, making me go to war!” (translated from the Geordie, which was more like “fookin’ Mairkans, mekkin’ mae gore tore worwer!”). I felt bad for the tourists still, but I couldn’t help but understand where he was coming from. I hope he made it back.

2 responses to “Rock and roll and the use of history

  1. Pingback: On being one of the barbarians | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: Signs of the End Times, or, Rock’n’Roll is Dead | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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