Description: David Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs was inspired by the dystopian fiction of George Orwell’s 1984 (as well as Big Brother, discussed here, there is another track on the album called 1984). As the album draws to a close, the penultimate track of the original release has Bowie’s persona begging for ‘steel’, more unreality and less personal freedom. It seems as though Bowie is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome brought on by too many William Gibson novels. It is in the chorus where we are confronted by the anachronistic cry of “someone to claim us, someone to follow, someone to shame us, some brave Apollo...”. In a vision of the future it seems odd to see a Classical god being called upon. However there is some sense in Apollo’s inclusion. Perhaps most obviously, a dystopian future would be a morally corrupt one. A simple way to help a listener imagine this society is to start calling on Pagan gods which automatically creates echoes of un-Christian (and therefore dystopian) behaviour. But the use of Apollo makes this specific deity’s inclusion in the lyrics more interesting. Firstly, Apollo had his own oracle at Delphi where there were two famous inscriptions: “know thyself” and “nothing in excess”. Is Bowie suggesting that such advice is what the future needs? They are certainly sage pieces of advice when dealing with issues today, especially in regards to technology. Perhaps Bowie is also thinking that Apollo could provide the cryptic clues needed for a better life; many who journeyed to Delphi thought he would reveal the guidance that they needed to make life-changing decisions. Secondly, and perhaps most interestingly in the context of Bowie’s chorus plea, is Apollo’s link to the Lydian king Croesus. Croesus tried to invade Persia and was captured by King Cyrus. He was about to be burnt to death until he managed to pique Cyrus’ interest in Solon’s advice. Cyrus decides to free Croesus, inspired by Solon’s wisdom, but it is too late - his pyre is already lit. Croesus then calls out to Apollo, begging him to save him - and miraculously he does! Is Bowie suggesting that we are standing on a fire created by our own hubris and now we need the power of Apollo to save us?
Contributor: David Hogg
Reference: Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, Tacitus, Pliny, and Dante
Description: The Last Ship is an album of songs written for Sting’s musical (also called The Last Ship), which ran on Broadway between 2014 and 2105, and received two Tony Award nominations.
In the Public Theatre performance in New York, Sting introduces the audience to his musical by explaining that he wrote it about his own experiences growing up in the shipbuilding community of Wallsend in Northern England. He relates that Shipyard, the first song he wrote for the project, includes personal introductions by special characters that come to life in the performance. Several characters introduce themselves, including the tough taskmaster Jacky White who is the Foreman of the shipyard (presented by British actor and singer Jimmy Nail); Sting next presents Tommy Thompson, the Shop Steward for the Union, who dreams about a proletariat revolution to improve workers' rights; and Australian-born, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Jo Lawry presents Peggy White, Nurse of the shipyard sickbay, who hands out aspirins to men coughing up their lungs.
These are all wonderful, colourfully portrayed characters of the shipbuilding community, but my breath caught in my throat when Sting next presented Adrian Sanderson, a riveter by trade. I have included the lyrics because a paraphrasing won't do justice to the words:
My name is Adrian Sanderson and riveting's me trade,
But it's intellectual discourse I'm known better for,
And I may forego English grammar when I'm injured with a hammer,
But I've a preference for the deference of a metaphor.
I've read the Odyssey by Homer and the Iliad as well,
I read Tacitus and Pliny and the Scarlet Pimpernel,
I put a night shift in with Dante on his journey into Hell,
And that's what we'll all be facing if the yard's put up to sell,
For the only life ye've known is in the shipyard.
Now what about those Trojan wars? And the troubles that they caused?
When they sailed off on that summer's afternoon?
Aye, the ship they had was crap and they'd lost the effin' map,
When they tried to get their selves back to the toon.
There's a lesson in these tales although they happened ages past,
Just like in "Spartacus" that film by Stanley Kubrick.
First it's tragedy then farce then they'll kick you in the arse,
When you tempt the gods with arrogance and hubris.
Well it's obvious I'm gifted with the rhymin' and the meter,
And hereabouts I'm thought of highly as a bard.
If I wasn't shooting rivets I'd be famous in me time,
All those literary circles I could dazzle with me rhyme,
And I never lacked ambition you could say it was a crime,
And rivets may be riveting but sonnets are sublime,
But the only life I've known is in the shipyard.
I love the character of Adrian Sanderson. He is just a local bloke making a living as a riveter at the shipyard, but he is also so much more than that. Literate, creative, philosophical, ambitious – he is a poet with dreams as big as Homer's, but with a future constrained by a working man's fate. There seems to be a deliberate juxtaposition between the reality of Adrian’s ship-building job and the epic mythology of the Homeric classics. Adrian dreams of sailing away, but is stuck creating vessels for other people to explore the world and live their dreams. Adrian uses Classics to escape his own mundane life and no doubt imagines that his life would be better if he could have his own Odyssey – a belief that every back-packer, tourist and traveller still holds today. Sting’s focus on the shipyard and the toil therein seems more Hesiodic than Homeric, but why would the character of Adrian want to read about Works and Days when he was living that life already. Homer provides Adrian with escapism, as it has done for countless other mortals ever since the Iliad and Odyssey were first performed.
In micro-poetic essence, Adrian Sanderson's character (as well as The Last Ship, in its brilliant entirety), sum up very wonderfully my deep admiration of Sting's creative genius. I've been a fan of Sting since he launched his solo career in 1985. And, as a devoted lifetime fan of Ancient Greece, especially the worlds of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, it’s an extra special bonus to feel I share this bond with Sting.
Contributor: Kathleen Vail
Description: Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love seems to be about the fear of falling in love and having to find the strength to handle such an all-consuming emotion. However, the imagery of the hounds chasing the narrator through the forest echoes the myth of Actaeon so strongly that it is impossible to look at the lyrics and not see his presence there and, therefore, what the myth might add to the meaning of the song. In mythology, Actaeon is a huntsman who unwittingly stumbles across the goddess Artemis bathing and is punished for this accidental transgression by being turned into a stag – he is then hunted by his own dogs and is torn to pieces by them in front of his friends. Actaeon is unable to vocalise that it is he, their friend and master who is dying by the jaws of his loyal dogs and in front of their eyes. Kate Bush’s song starts with the line, “It's in the trees, its coming” and we are immediately made to feel that the singer is under threat; something is pursuing her from within the trees. For Actaeon it was Artemis, who turned the hunter into the hunted; for the narrator of this song, love hunts you and takes away your strength as you become dependent on the love of someone else. Bush sings “Now the hounds of love are hunting” and for Actaeon it must have been a mixture of heartbreak and fear as he was pursued by his own ‘hounds of love’. He would have known their killing capabilities, yet he would have been doubly distraught that they could not recognise their master. Someone who opens their heart to love can expect this same fear as there is always the potential for heartbreak at the hands of the person that you trust the most. The scene set in the song becomes very visceral as the narrator seems to step out of her body and watch herself in real-time with the phrase “Here I go” – an out of body experience which again echoes Actaeon. His human thoughts were still there, but his animal form prevented him from communicating; he would surely have felt disconnected from the body he was in whilst at the same time feeling like a prisoner within and bound to it. When Bush sing “Help me someone, help me please”, it is impossible not to hear Actaeon’s desperate cries that would have been heard as animalistic screams. There is also the idea in this song that Actaeon’s experience taught him empathy. In the line “I found a fox, Caught by dogs, He let me take him in my hands, His little heart, It beats so fast, And I'm ashamed of running away” Bush seems to be suggesting that there have been braver people than her, prepared to face the fate of the hounds and Actaeon too must have had a moment when he realised what it had been like for the animals he had pursued. But perhaps the most telling line in the song is “I’ve always been a coward and never know what’s good for me”; Actaeon has become a symbol for human curiosity – an innate desire to peak through the trees and to see what’s there – even if it is no good for us. It is a conundrum that scientists deal with all the time – just because I can do something, should I? – and Actaeon, if he had his chance again, would still look through those trees. Kate Bush sings at the end of the song, "Do you know what I really need? I need love" and it is clear that despite the dangers and her reservations, she will let the hounds of love chase her, because it is in these moments when we are most worried about pain that we realise just how alive we are. For Actaeon, his life was always about the chase, but it was not until his final moments that he perhaps realised how precious life was, an insight that makes the suffering worthwhile – much like allowing the hounds of love to catch you. After all, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all… isn’t it?
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: The Flight of Icarus was the first ever single released by Iron Maiden in the USA and remains their highest charting single in that country. It also did reasonably well in the UK charts, reaching #11. The myth of the Icarus mixed with heavy metal sensibilities is a match made in allegorical heaven. In mythology, Icarus and his father Daedalus are being held as prisoners on the island of Crete. Daedalus is a brilliant inventor (who had previously designed the Labyrinth of the Minotaur) and manages to make a pair of wings for both himself and his son out of wax and feathers so that they can fly away and escape. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun as the wax will melt and he will plummet to his death, but Icarus does not listen – he flies too close to the sun and plummets to his death. The myth seems to be a warning to all arrogant youths that the older heads are wiser and need to be listened to. However, this is not a message that appeals to teenage fans of heavy metal bands and it appears Icarus has been appropriated by Iron Maiden as a symbol of teenage rebellion encouraged by the vocals to “fly as high as the sun”. The messages in the song are, of course, ambiguous. In the song, Icarus adamantly declares, “In the name of god my father I fly” and seems to be telling the watching crowd that he will do what he wants when he wants. However, we later hear that, “Now his wings turn to ashes to ashes his grave” and his rebellion is brought to an abrupt end by his untimely death. There is also a less ‘rock n roll’ interpretation that this is an anti-drugs song. The symbolism of Icarus within the song allegorically ‘getting high’ is an obvious metaphor. Add to this the story within the lyrics of a young man refusing to listen to the advice of people who may well know what is best for him, leading to his death, and it seems that this song has a definite ‘just say no’ undertone. The songwriter (Bruce Dickinson) has never been a drug user, so rather than being a call to arms to all of his teenage fans to rebel, it is not unthinkable to believe that he was perhaps suggesting a more moderate lifestyle would be better for them.
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: In Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now by The Smiths, Morrissey is clearly unhappy! He seems to chase what he thinks will get him out of the doldrums and when he finds himself sailing along again, he wants to return to his inertia. He wants a job, he finds a job, but he’s still unhappy. He wants to get drunk, he gets drunk, but the hangover makes him unhappy. He’s nice to people that he doesn’t really like thinking this will bring him happiness and it does not. One of the most intriguing lyrics in the song though is, “What she asked of me at the end of the day, Caligula would have blushed”. Caligula has gone down in history as a deeply unpleasant human being. He was meant to have had imperial family rivals killed, tried to make his horse a consul and had intimate relations with his own sister. So when Morrissey sings about Caligula blushing, we begin to wonder what this woman could have suggested; what could possibly make a vile human-being like Caligula feel embarrassment? If Morrissey’s persona in this song followed the pattern of the previous lines, he probably through with whatever it was that would have made Caligula blush and then felt unhappy afterwards. It is worth remembering though that what we know about Caligula is almost entirely written by non-contemporaneous sources – often by sources that would have been actively seeking a debauched angle for their writing because of some personal or political reason. Even the name that we remember Caligula by is a derogatory retro-fit. Caligula roughly translates as ‘little boots’ and was a nickname given to him when he was a child by the Roman soldiers who he was on campaign with. How many people remember that his actual name is Gaius? By comparing himself to Caligula, it could be argued that Morrissey unwittingly foreshadowed his own current tumultuous relationship with his ‘history writers’ (the press). Morrissey has recently stated that he will no longer be giving press interviews after controversial statements about Brexit and #metoo have found him on the end of strong backlashes from the press and the public. Whether Morrissey speaks to the press again or not will ultimately make no difference to what is written and what is remembered about him; Caligula’s salacious story has shown that in the future, somebody’s past always belongs to the person writing about it in the present – and there’s nothing that you can do about it, whether you’re a Roman Emperor or one of the biggest musical icons alive. That is perhaps what could be making Morrissey miserable now.
Contributor: David Hogg
Reference: Orpheus and Eurydice
Description: This song from the 2010 album Volume 2 makes a very beautiful, poignant and sad reference to the myth of the talented poet and musician, Orpheus, and his success in persuading Persephone (Queen of the Underworld) to allow him to bring Eurydice (his wife), back from the dead and its unhappy conclusion.
Orpheus' wife Eurydice dies at their wedding after being set upon by a satyr and falling into a nest of vipers, suffering a fatal bite. Orpheus discovers her body and in his grief for her plays such sad, mournful songs that all the nymphs and Gods weep. On their advice, Orpheus travels to the Underworld to retrieve his lover. Orpheus’ music softens the hearts of Hades and Persephone and they allow Eurydice to return to Earth with Orpheus - on one condition - Orpheus needs to walk in front of Eurydice and not look back at her until they have both reached the surface. Orpheus sets off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he nears the upper world he turns to look at Eurydice, momentarily forgetting the conditions placed on her return. Eurydice vanishes into the Underworld for a second time, but now it is forever.
In She & Him's song, Zooey Deschanel opens with:
"Orpheus melted the heart of Persephone
But I never had yours
I followed you back to the end of the path
But I never found the door."
The song essentially seems to be about looking back on the past and trying to move on, even though it will be hard. The singer is perhaps holding onto a love that is not quite there anymore. Perhaps the lovers are in different places, one with their back to the other, but neither are quite prepared to say it is over. The song becomes even more poignant when you consider in the myth that Eurydice did not know Orpheus was not allowed to look back at her. She would have been calling out to him, desperate to see him, hold him and kiss him. Yet, inexplicably, he just keeps moving away. She would have been wondering why he had come back if this was how things were going to be. Anyone who has been in a malfunctioning or dying relationship will know the break-up/make-up pattern that can often prolong the pain until the relationship is eventually put out of its misery. This sentiment can be seen in the song when the lyrics finish with the lines:
"Don't look back all you'll ever get
Is the dust from the steps before."
Check it out if you have not already... beautiful, haunting.
Contributor: Keeley Hickin
Description: Something of a tomboy, Atalanta grows up in the wilderness after being left to die on a mountaintop by her father, who had hoped for a boy. It is said that she was bear-suckled and became a fierce huntress. She was loved by the hero Meleager who, although he was married, allowed her to join the Calydonian boar hunt (to kill a beast Artemis had sent to trash the land because she was angry at being forgotten during a sacrifice). The inclusion of a female on the hunt raises many objections from other male hunters. It is however Atalanta who draws first blood when she hits the boar with an arrow, whilst many of the male heroes perish trying to kill the beast. Meleager finishes the job and gives the boar’s hide to Atalanta, an act which greatly angers his uncles; in fact, they try to take the hide from her. Meleager then takes revenge on his uncles, which in turn angers his mother, who (in a final turn) kills him.
Chairlift's song follows Atalanta's journey after the hunt when she is reunited with her father who wishes for her to be married. She is unwilling, but agrees on the condition that her suitors must compete with her in footraces; they must win the race to win her hand in marriage and if they lose, they die. The suitors all lose until Hippomenes arrives on the scene and with the help of Aphrodite and some golden apples (which he drops on the floor to attract Atalanta, thus slowing her down), he manages to snare her. It is said that Zeus (or his mother) turns Atalanta and Hippomenes into lions when the couple make love in a temple; they are thereafter forbidden to be together. Atalanta had one son but it is not clear whether Meleager or Hippomenes is the father. The lyrics of Chairlift’s song contain clear references to this myth when Caroline Polachek sings “If I win, you’re done with, but if you win, you win my heart”. Other lyrics that point to the myth are, “The only way he can catch me up is to cheat” and “I’m gonna run ‘til you give me a reason to stop, to fall on my knees”, both of which also seem to echo the melancholy of Atlanta’s life. She is an independent woman, outside of the confines of her patriarchal society, yet destined to never be free. Men chase her and push her away in equal measure. They want her, but only on their terms, which is a sentiment also echoed in the allure/repel conundrum of Medusa. Atalanta may not have gotten away in the end, but she started a race which is now ours to finish.
Contributor: Keeley Hickin
Description: This song by folk singer and songwriter Heather Nova from her 1998 album Siren references Greek mythology's gorgon monster Medusa in the verse:
And I'm a siren; I'll wreck you on my shores
And I'm Godiva; I'll call you back for more
And I'm Medusa; and I'm your favourite doll
And I'm a Georgia O'Keefe
Hanging on your wall
A strong theme of infamous female figures runs through the entire song (Joan of Arc also gets a nod along with heralded/controversial female figures such as Georgia O'Keefe and the mythological sirens), as well as intoning that all women are of importance with the mention of the “girl next door”.
The song could simply be a homage to women throughout the ages ("I have a memory a thousand years old") or it could be an illustration of what 'woman' is, has been and continues to be; with the battles they face, how they are persecuted for their beliefs and values, or how they are portrayed in a negative fashion for committing an act that a man would be championed for.
These multi-faceted complications for women are all the more pertinent in today's culture, and can be traced back to Medusa (who is mentioned several times in this song). Medusa was once a beautiful maiden who was wooed by Poseidon, who she then married. This angered Athena, who cursed her by tinging her skin green, making her eyes bloodshot and giving her snakes for hair. Medusa would turn people to stone by looking at them; she went to dwell in a cave out of sight but Perseus sought her out and beheaded her. Why this happened is another story but what is interesting is that Athena chose to punish Medusa rather than Poseidon! It is also interesting that despite her powers, she was reduced in mythology to a trophy for men to fight over – a difficult woman that needed to be conquered.
The song ends:
"Every ruby-lipped girl baby, old lady, squaw junkie,
Girl after girl after girl, every muse, whore,
Good witch, princess, back arching, year after year after year"
The lyrics reference Medusa’s fate and therefore the lives of all women - women have strong depictions in history but the reasons for the depictions are not always positive; the hypocrisy is that the traits that make these women seem like villains, are the same traits for which men are commended.
Contributor: A Girl
Description: This harp song by Joanna Newsom is quite difficult to interpret, but seems to be linked to the bedroom and a relationship in some way. A simple interpretation of the lyrics appears to be that it is referencing the beauty of sleep (or perhaps insomnia). It possibly also explores the comfort of sleeping next to the one you love and not wishing to leave that haven. However, there are darker interpretations; does the song allude to an abused woman killing her abuser as he sleeps? The song ends with the words "hold your breath and clasp at Cassiopeia", which seems to be about reaching for or holding onto the magical power of the stars. In Greek mythology, Cassiopeia is the mother of Andromeda and boasts so much about her daughter's beauty and her own unrivalled beauty that she incurs the wrath of Poseidon. As a punishment, Poseidon sends her to the heavens, chained to her throne. It is from this vantage point that Cassiopeia has to watch the fate of her daughter (Andromeda) who is bound to the sea-rocks as prey for the monster Cetus. Andromeda is saved by Perseus, but Cassiopeia is forced spend the rest of her life circling the Earth, sitting upright for 6 months and upside-down for the other half of the year. The Cassiopeia star constellation imagines the shape of her sitting on this chair. It is interesting Newsom chooses this Greek myth because if the darker analysis of her song is true, it could draw parallels with a woman being persecuted by a man who is irritated by her beauty or womanliness (perhaps jealousy?) and she is at the mercy of his power. Is it not Poseidon who is vain and arrogant to feel he can punish Cassiopeia? If the song is about a destructive relationship, the Cassiopeia inclusion could refer to the person who knows that they with an abusive partner, but cannot leave - like Cassiopeia chained to her throne in the sky and unable to escape her fate. Or perhaps the Cassiopeia in this song deserves her punishment in some way for her vanity and arrogance, Dorian Gray style... Maybe Newsom just referred to Cassiopeia in its constellation context because of its resonance to the heavens and the stars. Whatever the case, please indulge in the sheer poetry of this sweet song!
Contributor: Keeley Hickin
Description: This song from Bat for Lashes’ 2009 album Two Suns is definitely somewhat of an enigma. The first few verses certainly seem like a ‘modern siren song’ for a not-so-modern man. Natasha Khan sings that, “In the morning I'll make you breakfast, In the evening I'll warm the bed, And I'll always be happy to kiss you, Promise I'll never get sad” and we are being presented with the ‘ideal woman’, straight from a 50s commercial for soap powder. This is an appealing offer to a ‘modern Odysseus’ who is trying to steer his ship safely through the dangers of hedge-funds and high-cholesterol living. However, just as we think we know what point she is trying to make, the song takes somewhat of an unexpected turn when Khan sings, “Till the siren come calling, calling, It's driving me evil, evil” and we start to realise that the singer’s persona in this song (named Pearl) is not the siren that lures men to her with promises of a pre-feminist household, but it is in fact she who is the victim of the sirens’ calls. The song challenges the listener’s gender expectations; some will happily go along with the idea that the woman can lure the man – such is his shallowness and slavishness to his base instincts, but Khan is perhaps telling us that women have exactly the same desires, are just as fallible as men and are therefore just as likely to be tempted from their ‘perfect path’. Khan’s lyrics are deliciously ambiguous as she sings at the end of the song, “It won't be long until you'll break” and we cannot know if she is talking about the man or the woman in the relationship inevitably succumbing to the temptation of the siren. She finishes with, “Cause I'm evil, 'cause I'm evil” and we are left to ponder what or who the “I” is. Is it the man/woman in the relationship? Desire? Jealousy? Addiction? The song remains poignantly unresolved and as a listener we are free to superimpose what reasoning we like onto the words. It is at this point when we tend to layer our own fears onto the lyrics. And this is what the Siren’s Song does - it lures you towards your own insecurities and therefore, a definite oblivion.
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: This track appears on the eponymous Stephen Malkmus debut solo album. It was a bittersweet release for me at the time as it signalled the end of my beloved Pavement, but was good enough to assure me that all was not lost. The lyrics to this somewhat puzzling song seem to imagine an ancient time when "Greek gods are communing, Beneath the Doric arch, And they talk how small we humans are". The Classical references continue with mentions of Agamemnon, a 'Pyrrhic march' and sacrifices. This image of Hellenistic gods mulling over life is juxtaposed with the shepherds in the next verse who "herd in real time"; the listener is reminded that there are an infinite number of voices from the Classical world who never had the time to contemplate the insignificance of humans, let alone write down what they thought. The lyrical passing of 'real slow' time mirrors the languid music perfectly and when Malkmus states "Troy will prevail", I almost accept this because I want his world to exist as it seems so relaxed and peaceful. The final verse brings the listener into modern times and the 'drinking gods' have been replaced by drunken humans and it seems time may pass, but the pastimes stay the same around the "Doric arch". People will always have simple conversations about difficult topics over a glass of wine while the the "converging waves" continue to roll, in the same way that they have always done. Perhaps when Malkmus reminds us again that "Trojan curfews prevail", he's referring to a Troy that still has a chance to grow out of the infinite time that is still available to history.
Contributor: David Hogg
Reference: Alexander the Great
Description: This track from Iron Maiden's sixth album is essentially a chronological description of Alexander's empire building. The lyrics come straight from a history text book as we are told his father is called Philip of Macedon, he became king at ninteen, in 334 BC he utterly beat the Persian army and so on. The verses manage to squeeze in references to Darius, Scythians, Egypt, Alexandria, Jaxartes, Arbela, Babylon, Susa, Persepolis, the Gordian knot and the fact that his army would not follow him into India. Not content with summarising the history of Alexander's military campaigns in just under 9 minutes, lyricist Steve Harris also manages to propose that, "Hellenism he spread far and wide, The Macedonian learned mind, Their culture was a western way of life, He paved the way for Christianity". The ideas contained in these lines could certainly fill up a 'Comments' section (if I had one). Disappointingly there are no references in the song to Hephaestion, Bucephalus or Roxana, but it is still a comprehensive introduction to this historical figure and is a topic unlikely to be tackled by any other musical act so comprehensively any time soon.
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: This is quite clearly a song written by a man in love to the woman that he is in love with; and what could be more complimentary to your loved one than calling her the Goddess of Love and Beauty. And at over 8 minutes, Moore is not embarrassed about highlighting his infatuation to his listeners. In the first verse, the words "pebble cast..." seem to make an reference to the beach where Aphrodite emerged from the sea-foam. The second verse seems to move the description onto the lover as opposed to Aphrodite and the lyrics hint at Hephaestus, "She first saw him there, Irons adorned the mystic sear", but perhaps there is also an echo of her lover Ares in the line, "Blood and ink blots for you". I have to admit that I had to try hard to find Classical references in the lyrics - perhaps it is enough to say that Moore has found a goddess for his muse.
Contributor: David Hogg
Reference: Julius Caesar
Description: There are no lyrics to this song, so my job here is to infer the significance of the title, by surmising why a band would name a track after the day of Julius Caesar's assassination. This instrumental appeared on Iron Maiden's second album Killers, a title that links overtly to Brutus and his co-conspirators' actions. It is the shortest Iron Maiden track ever, which perhaps references the speed of the attack by the killers on the would-be emperorIt is also the last album to include original vocalist Paul Di'Anno before the band sacked him and he was replaced by long-term frontman Bruce Dickinson; perhaps the song is accidentally prophetic. Could the title presciently reference the future of the band's lead vocalist and the upcoming changes to the line-up by recalling the assassination of Julius (who was followed by a long-term successor in the form of Augustus, just like Dickinson followed Di'Anno)? If so, what else do Iron Maiden's song titles correctly predict?
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: The lyrics of this 80s pop classic are not wholly robust under scrutiny (I can’t find evidence of Venus burning like a silver flame - although this might be a simile used to represent her passions), but the most important piece of information about this Goddess is abundantly present: she is a “Goddess of beauty and love. And Venus was her name”. Helpfully this is repeated many times and probably means that there is a generation of people (in Britain at least) who have a Pavlovian response when confronted with the words Venus, goddess of… There is also a hint of Mount Olympus in the lyrics when the trio state that she’s a "Goddess on the mountain top". I wish more pop songs repeated the names of gods and their patronage – there are certainly enough gods and goddesses for an album and it would make remembering them all a bit easier.
I’ll start: Mars, huh, God of War, what is he good for? Absolutely nothing, say it again!
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: This brilliant song on the eponymous debut album from The Doors is an Oedipal nightmare that is anchored to this Sophoclean play so much more than simply “Father… I want to kill you. Mother I want to…”. The lyrics of this opus are steeped with the influence of this great tragedy throughout. At the start of The End Morrison states that he will "never look into your eyes again", which opens a circle which is nicely closed in the final verse when he sings, “It hurts to set you free… you’ll never follow me…” as he wanders off into the world, blind. Tiresias may even get a nod in the final lines (and perhaps a portion of blame) when he states “the end of laughter and soft lies”. The theme of fate gets acknowledged when we the Lizard Kings states “No safety or surprise” and we are walked towards the location of the narrator's doom in Thebes when the “desperate land” is mentioned and the singer takes the “strangers hand” (Jocasta?). And just in case you’re still not convinced by my proposal, we are told that “all the children are insane" and we all know what the children of Oedipus did next. Perhaps When the Music’s Over (turn out the lights) is an Antigone-themed sequel that references her sepulchral fate?
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: This 70s classic features Jerry Hall on the album art as the eponymous siren. So the story goes, Hall and Bryan Ferry were not an item at the time of the photo-shoot, but got together during the photography session. It would be satisfying to say that Hall lured Ferry towards her, sirenesque. It would be particularly gratifying because of Ferry's 'nautical' name, which would neatly complete the circle. However, Hall's biography states that it was actually Ferry who took on the role of siren in this instance. Apparently, Hall struggled to remove the body-paint that she had been covered in for the photo-shoot and Ferry offered to help in its removal. The rest then becomes part of rock history. The opening track, Love is the Drug, suits the iconography of the album art because the allegory of the siren has been used throughout time to explain the inexplicable behaviour of those suffering from the narcotic effects of this stupefying emotion. Several years later, Roxy Music moved away from Classical references and found inspiration in British mythology with their final album, Avalon (the final resting place of King Arthur). There were also no supermodels on the artwork (a Roxy first) which perhaps shows that, as you get older, all you really want to do is stay at home and, when looking back at those bygone days, you realise that there is More Than This.
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: The phrase Ars Longa Vita Brevis is used for both the name of the album and an instrumental track released in 1968.
"Ars longa, vita brevis" is a Latin translation of a phrase that came originally from Greek. The Latin is often translated into English as 'Art is long, life is short', which can force us to think about the contributions to the world that we want to leave behind after we die. If we want to be remembered for doing great things, then we must do great things. However, one person's definition of 'great' can often differ wildly from another's; history has shown us that 'great' does not always mean good. In fact in today's celebrity culture, the word 'art' in this phrase could now be seen defunct. Perhaps 'fame is long' would be more resonant to the modern reader?
The original Greek version of the phrase is the first two lines of the Aphorismi by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. The Hippocratic Oath that doctors have to swear today still carries his name. This perfectly proves the idea that a great deed can indeed continue to echo through time long after our deaths. Life maybe short, but it has been made a little bit longer thanks to Hippocrates and those that followed in his footsteps.
Contributor: Ian Desrosiers
Reference: The Lamia
Description: The song is on the concept double-album called The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974). It's an epic story of self-discovery. The lyrics to the track describe three snake-like creatures with female faces, roughly corresponding to a description by Diodorus.
The story that is used as the narrative to this song is strange, frightening and beautiful. The ugly and fearful are described in a sensual and calming way - the three female serpents seem gentle and caring. The poisoners are then poisoned by their 'victim' who is upset at their demise. These terrible creatures are then seen as terribly unfortunate. This playing around with the ugly/beautiful and the hunted/hunter is reminiscent of Keats and his technique of Negative Capability. The Lamia is perfect for this type of poetic writing, as demonstrated by Keats' own poem about the creature called Lamia.
Contributor: Ian Desrosiers
Reference: Poseidon, Atlantis, Kleito, etc...
Level: Overt and Implied
Description: This is a classic space-rock album from Germany released in 1977. There are plenty of Classical references including Kleito and the Columns of Heracles on the album. Even the song titles contain Classical references: Poseidon's Creation, Incarnation of the Logos, Decay of the Logos, Atlantis' Agony at June 5th - 8498, 13 P.M. Gregorian Earthtime.
Ocean is a true classic of progressive rock history in Germany and abroad. Written by drummer Jurgen Rosenthal, the lyrics relate to Greek mythology, combining the tale of Poseidon and the myth of Atlantis. Man lost the paradise on Earth that was Atlantis because of his violent nature. In 1977, the threat of nuclear war was at the forefront of everybody's thoughts, so the metaphor of Atlantis and the destruction of paradise would have been quite fitting. There is a dream within the popular consciousness that we will find Atlantis one day, probably because it would prove that it could be rebuilt and there is such a thing as a 'second chance'. This would give civilization a safety-net and a chance to make at least one 'big mistake'. Atlantis has yet to be found...
Contributor: Ian Desrosiers
Description: Prog-rock legends Genesis recorded this song for their 1971 album Nursery Cryme. It was the first album to include Phil Collins on drums and the song has writing from all 5 members of the band. There is something apt about this union of the musicians considering the myth that they use for the lyrics of their song. There is no need to infer any reference in this song - it simply tells the myth in full with a varied and sometimes challenging musical arrangement. Peter Gabriel was the lead singer in the band at this time and was often a more original stage-performer than Bowie. His costumes and looks could often be quite challenging to a mainstream audience and he, like Bowie, liked to play around with his androgyny. The choice of this myth was more by design than accident.
Contributor: Ian Desrosiers
Reference: Odysseus, sirens
Description: The theme of this song is based on the siren episode in the Odyssey, but with a twist - the chorus of the song almost seems like a lament. The singer also sounds almost annoyed about still being tied to the mast long after passing out of reach of the sirens:
I know this super highway
This bright familiar sun
I guess that I'm the lucky one
Who wrote that tired sea song
Set on this peaceful shore
You think you've heard this one before
Well the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast
Could it be that I have found my home at last
Home at last
She serves the smooth retsina
She keeps me safe and warm
It's just the calm before the storm
Call in my reservation
So long hey thanks my friend
I guess I'll try my luck again
There seems to be an interesting paradoxical clash between what the narrator wants and what he has; he seems to desire both the danger/excitement of the sirens and the comforts and security of his home. This is impossible, unless Penelope is your wife. This desire to 'wander' away from home is seen in Odysseus, who seems to solve Steely Dan's conundrum by saying that he was 'under a spell' and therefore can't be blamed for anything he did (I know that Calypso isn't a siren, but I think it is a valid point). Perhaps Penelope had been getting advice from Dolly Parton's lyrics in Stand by Your Man.
Contributor: Anne Sullivan