An Irishman’s Diary on the perils of military music
‘Of their “carefully chosen playlist”, they were on ultra-safe ground with one of their reported tunes: Tom Jones’s It’s Not Unusual. But as for another song mentioned in dispatches, Coldplay’s Viva la Vida, I’m not so sure.’ The Irish Army No 1 Band (in black) and the Band of the King’s Division (red) in the British army at the British ambassador’s annual summer party. Photograph: Dave Meehan
I note that, in their joint recital at the British ambassador’s residence this week (Home News, yesterday), the Army No 1 Band and the Band of the King’s Division “played no rebel songs or triumphalist anthems that might have caused a diplomatic incident”.
Very wise too. And of their “carefully chosen playlist”, they were on ultra-safe ground with one of their reported tunes: Tom Jones’s It’s Not Unusual. But as for another song mentioned in dispatches, Coldplay’s Viva la Vida, I’m not so sure.
As with many rock bands, the meaning – if any – of Coldplay lyrics can be hard to pin down. No doubt Iveagh House and the British Foreign Office both vetted Viva la Vida beforehand and declared it harmless. Yet to my ears, its opening verse has a certain risqué element in the context of a former colonial power revisiting its past, viz:
“I used to rule the world/Seas would rise when I gave the word/Now in the morning I sleep alone/Sweep the streets I used to own.”
Even by the standards of poetry, a suggestion that Britain is sweeping the streets of Dublin would be a flagrant overstatement of the reduction in the UK’s circumstances, post-empire. But remember that the British half of the this week’s recital by from the “King’s Division”. Then consider verse five of the song:
“Revolutionaries wait/For my head on a silver plate/Just a puppet on a lonely string/Oh who would ever want to be king?”
The message of monarchical paranoia is underscored, as Coldplay fans might remember, by the song’s official video, whose backdrop featured a version of Delacroix’s famous painting, Liberty Leading the People. Although the revolution referred to there had nothing to do with Britain, it didn’t end well for royalty in general.
Anyway, maybe the organisers of the recital decided that life was too short to be worrying about what Coldplay lyrics mean, which would be a fair point. But you can’t be too careful when choosing music for a diplomatic event.
Has an ill-chosen song at such a function ever sparked a war, I wonder? Lesser things have: including, famously, a telegram. Or rather the deliberate editing of a telegram by Bismarck, heightening the drama of an exchange between his monarch and the French ambassador in a way that he knew would inflame opinion in France.
Given the power of music, it must surely have had similar results on occasion, whether deliberately used for those ends or otherwise. It has certainly caused its share of diplomatic embarrassments.
The popular Dublin song Monto immortalises an (entirely fictional) occasion when the monarchs of Russia and Prussia visited the Phoenix Park and asked the Metropolitan Police band to play The Wearing of the Green, only to find that the “buggers in the depot” didn’t know it.
But as well as being fictional, that was a minor faux pas compared with a real incident involving a police band on the Caribbean island of Grenada a few years ago. They were playing at the reopening of a sports stadium, destroyed in a 2004 hurricane but since rebuilt by China.
Unfortunately, at an event attended by the Chinese ambassador, the band expressed their nation’s gratitude – as they thought – by playing the anthem of Taiwan. When the Grenadian prime minister said afterwards that the band’s performance “breaks my heart”, he wasn’t talking about the poignancy of the music.
Sometimes, problems arise because people just don’t listen to song lyrics. A famous case in point was Ronald Reagan embracing Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a celebration of American values. And on a US state level, something similar has happened with the old Civil War standard Marchin’ Through Georgia. The song commemorates General Sherman’s “march to the sea” in 1864, which was accompanied by a controversial scorched-earth policy. So popular did it become, however, that it has since been used to regale Georgians in general: including those who might still identify with the “saucy rebels” dismissed in the lyrics.
In fact, even some of those whose side the song was on might now have issues with it: notably its cheerful reference to the “darkies” welcoming Union troops. But the tune offended Sherman himself too in time. He heard it played for him so often after the war that he grew thoroughly sick of it, eventually.
Viva la Vida probably wasn’t the worst choice, all things considered. In any case, it was only an instrumental version. The real test of the peace process would be if the Irish and British armies ever attempt joint choral exercises, especially if this involves singing off the same hymn sheet.