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Door 2: Heigh-ho, or Geology in Popular Music

Friday, December 2, 2016 4:47
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In a previous blog I listed the rocky relationship between geology and the Eurovision Song Contest.  It turns out that just by mentioning the word ‘rock’ in a song almost guarantees a win.  On the other hand writing an entire song about how wonderful petrol is doesn’t really get you anywhere in the competition and your county suffers a military coup.

Given the name, you might have thought that geology had a great impact on rock music more generally.  Unfortunately this is not the case.

For starters, there are several songs that use geological terms as their title, but either that turns out to be a once-used metaphor for something else, or it’s not mentioned in the song and seems to bear little or no relation to the lyrics.

Examples of this are ‘Continental Drift’ (see below) by the Rolling Stones, ‘Asbestos’ by Suede, ‘Magma’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (it’s an instrumental) and ‘Plate Tectonics’ by the expletive-prone Spose (although he does apologise for his language towards the end of the song).

The most extreme case of this phenomena is the song ‘Reverend William Buckland’ by Tigers on Trains. Why it’s named after William Buckland is a mystery given the complete lack of relationship between the song and the gown-clad, dinosaur-discovering, eat-anything  man himself.

Moving on, there are a few songs that have geological titles which then do reference the phenomena in question, or at least embark on a detailed and extended metaphor involving it.

For some reason, this category is full of bands with four-letter acronyms for names, with songs such ‘Supervolcano’ by MGMT and also ‘Hot Lava’ by DVDA as featured on the South Park ‘Chef Aid’ album.  That last one gets points not only for pushing a metaphor way too far in its graphic comparison between the eruption of mount Pinutabo and the bedroom activities of the singer, but also for managing to fit in a lesson on basalt formation, noting how hydrostatic pressure tends to reduce size of the vesicles contained within it.

Dinosaurs and mining are both rich veins of material to exploit (sorry).  Dinosaurs have given us band names (Tyrannosaurus Rex, Dinorsaur Jr., etc.), but also songs such as ‘Brontosaurus’ by The Move, and ‘Peter the Stegosaurus’ by Brian Dullaghan…

Mining has been the subject of folk songs father back that I care to research.  Safe to say that if they don’t end tragically, that’s because they began tragically and consist mainly of a lament sung by the survivors.  A classic example is the ‘Recruited Collier’ sung here by Kate Rusby, which in a twist sees the heroic collier pressganged instead of being trapped underground.  There are also more modern takes on the theme such as ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941’ by the BeeGees and ‘Springhill Mining Disaster’ by U2.  Or by Peter, Paul and Mary.  Or by The Dubliners.  On a more upbeat note, Walt Disney has the ultimate feel-good-mining song in ‘Heigh-ho’ as featured in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’.

Folk has always specialised in protest songs and some of the more pointed geological references in music fall into this category.   Examples include ‘North Sea Oil’ by Jethro Tull, and ‘North Country Blues’ by Bob Dylan .   A more particular example is ‘Gypsum Oil Field Fire’ by The Olivia Tremor Control.  Perhaps the most niche geological song of all is a parody of the 1950s dreams of a gleaming  future; ‘I.G.Y.’ by Donald Fagen made the US top 30.  I.G.Y. here stands for International Geophysical Year and the hopes for the future it encapsulated in 1957/58.

Lastly, there is the realm of comedy.  Geology makes for a good pun, particularly with that very dry and wry sense of British humour that occasional finds its way into the lyrics of some songwriters.  Jarvis Cocker starts his song ‘Leftovers’ with the line ‘I met her in the Museum of Palaeontology and I make no bones about it’ and continues by comparing himself to the dinosaur remains they are looking at.  The undisputed kings of the comic geological reference are without doubt Half Man Half Biscuit.  In ‘Fix It So She Dreams of Me’ the object of the singer’s affections likes walks on Chesil Beach and has a collection of ammonites under her bed.  Several of their songs make casual references to classic areas of British geology such as ‘Evening of Swing (Has Been Cancelled)’ which starts with the singer sleeping amidst the boulders strewn between Glyder Fach and  Glyder Fawr.

Their rocky magnum opus though has to be ‘The Ballad of Climie Fisher’ which sees one-half of the 1980s pop duet going into the aggregate business after the band splits, supplying white dolomite, Canterbury spar and various gravels.  However he soon falls prey to jealousy of his more successful ex-partner, culminating in a series of events that sees him publishing death-threats in ‘Asphalt’ and using shale as a weapon.

All in all, it’s not a grand showing for geology in the annals of rock music.  But perhaps all is not lost.  While researching this blog, a thought struck me.  Just how much actual rock is there in rock music?   And in what varieties? A short research paper will feature in a forthcoming advent blog.

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