Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Neneh Cherry’s first album in 15 years or so came out this week: The Cherry Thing, a collaboration with the Scandinavian free-jazz trio the Thing, built around a set of covers. Some of the songs they perform are by artists with whom they have direct connections –“Golden Heart” was written by Cherry’s father, the jazz cornetist Don Cherry, and “What Reason” is by his frequent collaborator Ornette Coleman. Others are a lot more unlikely, especially a version of Madvillain’s hip-hop track “Accordion.” Here’s the video, for which Cherry was filmed in darkness for a creepy green-screen effect.
(For comparison, here’s Madvillain’s own version.)
If you’ve heard Cherry before, you’ve almost certainly heard her biggest hit, 1988’s “Buffalo Stance.”
The little rising synth figure that heralds the chorus to “Buffalo Stance” came from a 1986 single by Morgan McVey, “Looking Good Diving” — a fun, if generic, new wave single, very much of its time.
The B-side of that single, though, was the real sauce: “Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch,” on which Cherry rapped and sang a little hook. Tim Simenon’s production would make the ’88 version the hit, but “Diving with the Wild Bunch” is pretty much “Buffalo Stance,” two years early.
And parts of “Buffalo Stance” go back four years earlier: its beat and scratch riff were lifted from former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren’s 1982 single “Buffalo Gals,” a mutation of New York hip-hop ideas that was supposedly one of the inspirations behind stylist Ray Petri’s fashion collective “Buffalo.” (Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” single was dedicated to Petri.)
Cherry had sung with a bunch of bands as a teenager in the early 1980s — the Slits, Rip Rig + Panic, Float Up CP, and others. But her solo career was precipitated by an event that ended thirty years ago this month: the Falklands War, a ten-week conflict between the U.K. and Argentina over the Falkland Islands, a tiny archipelago in the South Atlantic with a population of 3000 people or so, and an economy that depends heavily on sheep farming.
The war was pumped up by British tabloid newspapers, and bitterly protested by a lot of artists — and it spawned a string of remarkable protest songs. The best-remembered one is also the most beautiful, Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding,” whose lyrics he wrote during the war (the music was written by producer Clive Langer); he initially wrote it for Robert Wyatt. Here’s a splendid live performance by Wyatt:
And here’s a Costello version from August, 1982, at which he introduces “Shipbuilding” as “a brand new song,” then segues straight from it into “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”:
The strongest reaction to the war in song, though, came from the anarchist punk collective Crass, whose first response was a blistering satirical rocker, “Sheep Farming in the Falklands,” which includes a dead-on and exceptionally cruel impression of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. They had an alternate version of it pressed up as a flexi-disc; friends who worked at the record distributor Rough Trade agreed to surreptitiously slip copies of it into other artists’ albums, just so it would get into the hands of people it otherwise wouldn’t reach.
After the Falklands War was over, though, Crass responded to it with two much grimmer records. The 1983 album Yes Sir I Will was an album-length indictment of the war machine and Britain’s government and royalty; the 1982 single “How Does It Feel” is one of the angriest songs ever recorded, an unbelievably ferocious rant directed specifically at Thatcher as “The mother of a thousand dead … Your inhumanity stops you from realizing the pain/ That you inflicted, you determined, you created, you ordered/ It was your decision to have those young boys slaughtered!”
That scream of “how does it feel” was echoed by a record that sounds nothing like it: New Order’s dance classic “Blue Monday,” released in early 1983. Singer Bernard Sumner has said that he never explains the meaning of his lyrics, but there’s a longstanding theory that “Blue Monday” is, one way or another, about the Falklands War: “I see a ship in the harbor/ I can and shall obey.”
What, you may be asking, does Neneh Cherry have to do with this? She made her own contribution to the Falklands War’s protest music with a single released 30 years ago this week, give or take. As with most of the Cherry Thing’s album, it was a cover — specifically of Edwin Starr’s 1971 single, “Stop the War Now,” a soundalike sequel to his earlier and bigger hit “War (What Is It Good For?).”
Released just as the war was ending, the Cherry-sung version of “Stop the War” was credited to Raw Sex, Pure Energy. Its B-side was an instrumental version called “Give Sheep a Chance,” with baa-ing sound effects. “Enough blood’s been shed by the wounded and the dead,” went a line in Starr’s song. The sleeve of the Raw Sex, Pure Energy version paraphrased it: “Enough wool’s been sheared by the stupid and the weird.” Let’s just call that a near miss.