All songwriters will probably find themes that they keep coming back to. Pop music is powered largely about songs about love and lust, the blues has an enduring fixation on writing about loss, whilst heavy rock bands love a lyric that’s about drinking and having a good time. Okay, those are generalisations and there is always room for originality and artists who swim against the flow.
One theme that I find that I enjoy coming back to is writing songs about war. Not in a way that glorifies it but rather to examine the impact that it has upon all those who get caught up in its destructive path.
In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on some songs and lyrics about war and conflict that have inspired and influenced me. Then, in part 2, I will share some of my war-related lyrics and some comments on how some of those lyrics evolved.
Some inspirational songs about war
How many songs about war can you think of? Try taking one minute to write down all the songs that come to mind when you think about war songs. You’ll probably find that there’s quite a few and some where you remember a chorus or refrain but just can’t quite bring the song title to mind!
When I tried this exercise I found that it brought to mind a number of really obvious examples. There was ‘Born in the USA’ by Bruce Springsteen, ‘Blowin’ in the wind’ by Bob Dylan, and ‘War’ by Edwin Starr. That’s the song that has that amazing ‘War, huh, yeah. What is it good for?’ chorus that you’ll not get out of your head for a few days.
Another song that popped into my head was ‘19’ by Paul Hardcastle, which was a hit in the 1980s. I recalled it not because I particularly liked it but because it’s refrain of ‘The average age was 19’ had drilled its way into my subconscious. 19 was written about the Vietnam War and that controversial military campaign spawned a lot of songs. Other examples include ‘Machine Gun’ by Jimi Hendrix, and the excellent ‘Johnny come lately’ by Steve Earle.
You don’t have to go back to the 60s though for inspiration. Sadly, war and its horrible consequences are all too familiar to us and you just have to turn on the TV to see the consequences, whether it is wars between countries, civil unrest within countries, or terrorism. ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries and ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ by U2 are just two of a number of songs about ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, a conflict that played out as a backdrop to my own childhood.
Songs influenced by the First and Second World Wars
But some of my favourite war songs take their inspiration from further back in time. ‘Holy Mountains’ by System of a Down is about the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Another song that references 1915 is ‘The band played Waltzing Matilda’ which was written by Eric Bogle and has been covered by various bands, including The Pogues. And then, taking its inspiration from one year later is ‘1916’ by Motorhead, an unusually tender song by the inimitable Lemmy Killmister.
And a final song that needs to be mentioned is ‘One’ by Metallica. It’s another song that was influenced by the butchery that typified World War One. It tells the story of a soldier who has lost all his limbs and much more beside and is left trapped inside his body, wishing to be able to tell the outside world of his one wish, to die. Both the lyrics and music are very powerful and it’s one of those songs that really made me want to sit down and write lyrics of my own.
Why the enduring fascination with war songs?
War is obviously an occurrence that is packed with emotion. There are so many stories that we can learn about that cause an outpouring of emotion, whether that’s sadness, anger, compassion, etc. We can read stories of great human loss or heroism, of people showcasing the worst or best of human behaviour. And we can watch films or listen to songs that also take us on emotionally powerful journeys. Wars also, of course, can make us think about parallels with our modern world, even though mankind still seems to be largely incapable of avoiding the repetition of previous calamities.
The fact that war and conflict provide great opportunities for storytelling and the creation of emotional impact means that we shouldn’t be surprised that war songs often linger long in the minds of music fans. All societies also have experience of conflict and fears about its repetition, so as a songwriter there’s an immediate universal relevance that he or she can tap into.
Of course, the great challenge for lyric writers is to create songs about war that feel genuine, that make the listener think and that treat the subject matter with the right degree of sensitivity. So I guess my takeaway for songwriters is to think about whether you have an idea that you are passionate about, that you think is a story that needs to be told and then to make sure that you do it full justice. Hopefully, if you decide to go down this path, you will end up with a lyric that you are really proud of and a song that listeners will remember for a bit longer than the typical chart pop songs
Next up, in part 2, I will tell you about some of the lyrics that I have written that are on the theme of war or conflict and its consequences.