Generals and Majors (Moulding)

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Black Sea

GENERALS and
MAJORS





 

Now here XTC are challenging for that mass audience with another volume of razzle-dazzle imagination in sound and word. In fact, their lyrics are their best and most interesting yet by quite a distance, not least because they’re so clear

Stand, M. (1980), Review of Black Sea

In Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant and intensePaths of Glory‘ three blameless foot soldiers are chosen at random to serve as sacrificial lambs for the (supposed) failures of their regiment during a key World War I battle. Kubrick pulls no punches – by the film’s close the three are executed by firing squad – and the Generals and Majors who originally ordered the futile attack are left blameless, morally unchallenged and free to command and destroy more lives. It is little wonder that the final scene of the film focuses on a tender song sung by the enemy (played by Kubrick’s future wife) with tears and grief the only fitting response to the events of 1914-1918 and all wars.

Colin Moulding’s ‘Generals and Majors’ – the second cut on XTC’s brilliant fourth album Black Sea and the first single taken from the album (scoring well on the music charts of the known universes circa August 1980) – is a scintillating piece of pop that is so well composed, arranged and played by the band that you can forget at heart it is as dark as any Stanley Kubrick WWI nightmare. In this sense, ‘Generals’ has more in common with Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bombwith its cast of American military bumblers (Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper) and Terry Thomas-type upper crust British buffoons (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake). Strangelove is pure farce – the plot examines what would happen if a deranged American general ordered a nuclear attack – and in ‘Generals and Majors’ Moulding presents us with a similar absurdity exemplified by the type of men for whom killing is a career choice: those ‘in a world of their own’ who seem unhappy ‘less they got a war’:

Generals and Majors ah ah
They’re never too far
From battlefields so glorious
Out in a world of their own
They’ll never come down
Till once again victorious

Choosing a career was obviously very much on Colin’s mind in the late 70s, and Generals & Majors does for the British Army what Making Plans For Nigel did for British Steel: shines a critical light on the soullessness of British public education (getting your hands lashed with a thick leather strap did little to instill confidence in the wisdom of our elders). Clearly Colin & Co. could be excused for wanting a career in music, as none of them (one assumes) had the necessary skills to play soccer for Swindon Town F.C…

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An additional career option for kids of school-leaving years – besides steel and the pigskin sport – was to join the Army or Navy, an option that was made to look so glamorous by television and magazine advertising campaigns that you’d think you’d by-passed the grunt work and joined the cast of the TV show The Avengers – all stunts, foreign lands, and cool things to kill people with. Indeed, the by-line for the Army advertisements was “Join The Professionals” a flagrant tip-of-the-hat to a popular crime-action show of the 1970s called The Professionals, were the lads would get together, pout and virtually destroy everything in their path. (Wow. Where do I sign up?) The Professionals was written by no less than Brian Clemens, the creator of The Avengers, so the glamour card was being played pretty hard by the British Government, not to mention delighting in the sheer carnage, as The Professionals was often criticized for its violence – with shootings, martial arts and asphyxiation the common means of mayhem in the show.

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Interestingly enough, the ad campaign was so wide-spread and influential in the late 70s that a few key bands and artists chose to single it out for ridicule, The Stranglers and Kate Bush among them. The Stranglers took on the British Army campaign with their intentionally ferocious song ‘Tank’ (Black and White, 1978), the focus being the cynicism of the Government in attracting young men to the glamorized world of machinery and technology – the alternative to a dead-end No Future was that you got to  drive your very own tank: 

Don’t care whereabouts they send me now
Send picture postcards
To my old mother and father
So when I get home
They’ll have someone to be proud of
‘Cause I can drive my very own tank
Yes, I can, yes, I can maim!
 
– The Stranglers (comp: Cornwell, Burnel, Greenfield, Black)
 

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In blunt musical contrast, Kate Bush released her anti-war Top 20 single  ‘Army Dreamers’ in September 1980, one month after ‘Generals and Majors’ was released in August of the same year. While Colin Moulding took the approach of mocking caricature – his Majors are buffoons and jocks – Kate approached the subject from the perspective of motherhood, applying both emotional empathy and biting clarity in equal measure. Her “little army boy,” is cold dead at the beginning of ‘Army Dreamers’ as his mother mourns “in the aerodrome” (“The weather warmer, he is colder/Four men in uniform/To carry home my little soldier”). While The Stranglers use male aggression to drive home a point, Kate’s criticism is observational, keeping the lid on the emotions to look at the entire picture and society’s culpability in the slaughter, from the naiveté of boyhood dreams to the socioeconomic reality of a generation without options. In ‘Army Dreamers’ Bush presents us with a kid who never stood a chance:

What could he do?
(Should have been a rock star),
But he didn’t have the money for a guitar.

What could he do?
(Should have been a politician),
But he never had a proper education.

What could he do?
(Should have been a father),
But he never even made it to his twenties.

What a waste.
Army Dreamers

– Kate Bush

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The Stranglers and Kate Bush highlight in their own unique way the key forgotten subject when discussing warfare: that young boys and teens are the flesh-and-bone fodder of all wars, such as the poor souls murdered by their own government in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. (The New York Times’  Terence Smith, writing about Iran in 1984, described the use of child soldiers by Iran to clear minefields, the kids bound by ropes to prevent desertion). The boys of Iraq were promised eternal life if killed on the battlefield: the boys of England are promised a smooth and exciting passage of transition from childhood to adulthood – but here the lie is exposed. The Stranglers highlight the image of asking young men to prove themselves in military terms (I can drive my very own tank), while Kate Bush argues that the boy has neither the knowledge (Oh, Jesus Christ, he wasn’t to know) nor the correct emotional temperament (Like a chicken with a fox/He couldn’t win the war with ego) to avoid coming home in a “tin box.”

XTC’s Colin Moulding presents the same observations, describing ‘Generals & Majors’ song as “One for all the military types – justify your manhood here, chaps” (Chalkhills). Moulding approaches the subject as farce, presenting the absurdity of a career in the military could mean anything other than killing. “Partly inspired by a school mate’s brother who was a mercenary in Angola and got killed” (CH). The world Colin describes is It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World meets The Beverly Hillbillies, where everything is turned upside down, like Uncle Jed and Granny coming down from the Southern backwoods to terrorize the citizens of Beverly Hills. The idea that something as brutal and inhumane as war is attractive or even glamorous is ridiculed by the band, and they do so by emphasizing the farcical elements of how war as often portrayed in television and cinema. “I tried to introduce a little sarcasm and pomposity into it” Colin noted, “In the style of ‘Oh What a Lovely War’” (CH). Certainly the piss-take is a good one, as the band designs the song to emphasize a host of musical and humorous effects. Whistling, humming, and a jaunty “all is well in Hell” main riff produce an effect that feels like the Seven Dwarfs marching to work, only in this case it’s the star-crossed kids unknowingly marching towards World War III.

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Contrary by nature – ‘Generals and Majors’ is all tightly controlled adrenaline – the song crashes into your Black Sea sound spectrum with no warning, propelled from ‘Respectable Street’ onto one of the best edited segues in rock history. The kap-ash intro of Terry’s cymbals kick-starts three minutes of razor-sharp pop that characterizes the best of the post-punk energy of 1980.

Certainly, the song is designed to come at you like the roller-coaster ride from Life Begins at the Hop, but it’s a year later and you’ve gone off the rails, high-jacked by a manic Richard Branson as he successfully throws Partridge & Co onto the tarmac below. ‘Generals’ is written in the key of F and it carries is musical characteristic like a badge of honor: “furious, quick-tempered, passing regret” (Musical Characteristics). Furious describes the double-tracked Partridge/Dave Gregory guitars to a tee as they lay down the searing riff that clings to the memory long after the song is over. But what is most interesting about ‘Generals in Majors’ is how it uses pop music to wield a knife: “Controlled calmness over the readiness to explode” says the key of F – or, simply, “Deeply angry but composed and sociable.” The vehicle is pop music, the sentiment, ridicule.

A characteristic of Colin Moulding’s writing is the ability to reach into his memories and produce writing that subtle and sweet, tinged with melchoncholy and an abiding respect for the distinct flavours of being alive. After he got ‘Generals and Majors’ out of his system, his disgust of war and male aggression would take expression in the realms of the poetic, with songs like ‘The World is Full of Angry Young Men’ and ‘I Remember the Sun’ tapping into an emotional depth that would mark itself as the very best of XTC. At this point in his career though, his keen observations were pop-focused, with his two Black Sea songs ‘Generals and Majors’ and ‘Love at First Sight’ demonstrate his keen and pertinent interest in those two binary poles of human experience – Love and War.

Someday this war’s gonna end.

Credits: A still from Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Paths of Glory; Dr. Strangelove movie poster; British Army campaign ad for driving your very own tank; out-take of Kate Bush in between takes, ‘Army Dreamers’ video (the song was blacklisted during the Gulf War in 1991 – joining a list of 67 songs simultaneously banned from BBC airplay); the US wanted more men like Mike for the army; Apocalypse Now, Robert Duvall contemplating the future as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore.

Note: It took some time to complete this entry and there is a reason for it.  The intention was to use Andy Partridge’s Twitter feed as promotion for the site; Andy was kind and supportive about the writing. Unfortunately, as is common with online communications, Andy got embroiled in a needless and very public argument, with the unfortunate outcome of his Twitter account being taken down. For the meantime then, I will retire these entries until another suitable promotional vehicle is available. I write another musical blog at roxymusicsongs.com so please join us if you have the time. Also, please see Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame for excellent writing on David Bowie.  Cheers, Kevin

Lyric

Generals and Majors ah ah
they’re never too far
from battlefields so glorious
out in a world of their own
They’ll never come down
till once again victorious

Generals and Majors always
seem so unhappy ‘less they got a war

Generals and Majors ah ah
like never before are tired of being actionless.

Calling Generals and Majors
Generals and Majors everywhere
Calling Generals and Majors
your World War III is drawing near

Generals and Majors ah ah
They’re never too far
away from men who made the grade
out in a world of their own
They’ll never come down
until the battle’s lost or made

Generals and Majors ah ah
like never before, are tired of being in the shade

 

1 Comment

  1. Jeff Norman says

    Sorry to hear of the hiatus – I’ve enjoyed both entries so far.

    Minor point: actually, Terry was a pretty good football player, as noted in ‘What Do You Call That Noise?’…

    Like

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