After several years of research, I thought I was pretty well-informed about popular representations of the Great War, but I’ve just learned (thanks to Peter Grant) about a thriving genre of songs about the War in recent rock music. Peter’s database has nearly six hundred examples, from Britain, Germany, France and elsewhere.
As regular readers of this blog might have gathered, my interest in popular music doesn’t explore very far beyond 1950, so I had no idea that this music existed. In Britain, the main examples seem to be from heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, God Dethroned and Bolt Thrower.
For a taste of it, see this video of Iron Maiden’s live stadium performance of Passchendaele (2003). It is spectacular, with an attacking light show, violent sound effects, and a lead singer in a German helmet, who eventually falls dead on the barbed wire. The huge crowd, holding horn-sign fingers high, enter wildly into the spirit of the song.
As a rule of thumb, I always assume that any representation of the Great War will tell us less about the War itself than about the time in which it was created.
So what does this say about twenty-first century Britain? The evocation of war’s violence is ferocious. The lyrics stress noise, horror, loss, futility:
Whistles, shouts and more gun-fire
lifeless bodies hang on barbed wire
battlefield nothing but a bloody tomb
be reunited with my dead friends soon
many soldiers eighteen years
drowned in mud, no more tears
surely a war no one can win
killing time about to begin
There is no indication that this is a war that one side did eventually win. The battles are represented as chaotic and meaningless – as they must sometimes have seemed to individual soldiers, though even Passchendaele had a shape and intention, despite its awfulness, and the objective was finally reached.
The singer’s choice of a German helmet signifies a refusal of any representation of the War as a particularly British experience. This was performed near to the time when Andrew Motion was defining the canon of war poetry as a ‘national sacred text’, but Iron Maiden, despite the initial reading from Wilfred Owen (in a rather vicarish voice) will have none of that. The abrasive tone has something in common with the harsh German literature of the twenties, which rubbed readers’ and audiences’ noses in the horror and squalor of the fighting. I’m thinking of Brecht and Toller here – and the performance has something of early Brecht’s ambivalence about his material; often you suspect him of taking a pleasure in the horror he deplores.
It’s not at all my kind of music, and it’s not my interpretation of the War, but it’s powerful stuff that has reached a large audience. I shall find out more about it.