G.I. Blues: A Soldiers' Playlist
Today is the anniversary of one of the truly momentous occasions in popular music: On March 23, 1958, Elvis Presley reported for induction into the U.S. Army, thus opening up a thousand alternate timelines for musical historians to formulate "What if he hadn't?" scenarios. For the next few years, the charts were again dominated by the sentimentally saccharine sounds of Dick Clark-approved teen-idol crooners like Bobby Vinton and Paul Anka, with rock and roll relegated to the margins until its commercial fortunes were defibrillated (and how) by four Elvis-loving lads from Liverpool. Throughout his military service, Elvis continued to chart with songs he recorded before or just after entering the army, mostly ballads like "One Night With You" and nothing approaching his earlier rockabilly rebel-rousers like "Hound Dog." Rocks Off thought we'd head in a little different direction to mark the anniversary, though. Save the title song to his comeback movie G.I. Blues - some of which was filmed on location in Germany before he got out of the army - Elvis never addressed his military service in song much. He wasn't much of a songwriter, period, and no way would manager Col. Tom Parker ever let him get close to a downer of a song like "Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)." Instead, following are a few of our favorite military-themed songs that go a little beyond "If I don't go stateside soon, I'm gonna blow my fuse." Not that we don't still love the King, mind you.
Glen Campbell, "Galveston": One of the true jewels of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb's long-running musical partnership, "Galveston" soars like the sea birds in the lyrics on a bed of meticulously arranged strings. It's been interpreted as a lovesick soldier's remembrances of the girl he left behind to serve in every U.S. armed conflict from the Civil War to Vietnam, but wasn't much of a marketing tool. According to a comment on the YouTube page where Rocks Off found this video, the Texas Tourism office fired Campbell as its spokesman after the clip only convinced a little more than 2,000 people to visit the island city in the summer of 1969. Johnnie Wright, "Hello Vietnam": As a crop of U.S. Marine Corps recruits have their heads shaved at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), Johnnie Wright's 1965 ballad plays in the background, resigned but patriotic: "We must save freedom now at any cost." A No. 1 hit for Wright - country-music legend Kitty Wells' husband for more than 70 years now - "Vietnam" was written by Tom T. Hall, who penned a decidedly less gung-ho sequel a few years later with... Tom T. Hall, "Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)": Kentucky-born Hall, who served overseas around the same time as Elvis, released this heart-wrenching tale of a veteran returning from combat minus his legs and his sweetheart but with a bottle under his blanket on 1971's 100 Children. Suffused with Hall's trademark black humor ("My uncle will be drunk and say, 'Boy, they're doing some great things with wood'"), the song was resurrected for yet another war on last year's The Fine Print by...
Drive-By Truckers, "The Sands of Iwo Jima": The Truckers, however, don't need to cover anyone else's songs to illustrate the cost war can exact on the home front, even generations after the fact. Patterson Hood's ballad from 2004's The Dirty South contrasts his soft-spoken grandfather's WWII experiences with the image Hollywood put forth in war movies such as the John Wayne flick that gives this song its title. The Duke does not get the better deal in quietly scathing lines like "He never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima." Neither did another veteran of that iconic battle... Johnny Cash, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes": Johnny Cash was coming off the massive success of "Ring of Fire" when he recorded Peter LaFarge's tribute to Hayes, who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima - and, ironically, played himself in The Sands of Iwo Jima - for his 1964 album Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian). Although Cash turned out not to be part Native American like he originally believed, it's hard to imagine Hayes having any better advocate than the Man in Black, who was never shy about taking an unpopular stance. Just like... Dixie Chicks, "Travelin' Soldier": Perhaps you've heard what happened when lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience her unvarnished opinion of President George W. Bush at the exact moment this song was America's No. 1 country song. But "Travelin' Soldier" - written by Bruce Robison, then Dixie Chick Emily Robison's brother-in-law - transcends politics, and everything else save simple humanity, with a heartbreaking (and heartbreakingly sung) narrative of a small-town waitress and her ill-fated serviceman pen pal.
The Pogues, "The Gentleman Soldier": The Pogues included an adaptation of this traditional Irish tune about an infantryman who's anything but a gentleman on 1985's Rum, Sodomy & the Lash. A soldier standing guard duty spies a good-looking girl and salutes her; not long after, in Shane MacGowan's typically blunt terms, "He drilled her up in the sentry box/ Wrapped up in a soldier's cloak." Nine months later, the soldier - who informs young Polly he already has a wife and three kids after their night of passion - is long gone; she never even learns his name, and thus has no idea what to call their offspring. Metallica, "One": Based on Dalton Trumbo's 1939 WWI novel Johnny Got His Gun - so graphic and disturbing it was out of print for decades - "One" has to go down as one of the unlikeliest hit singles in history. The centerpiece of Metallica's 1988 album ...And Justice for All, this seven-minute mélange of time signatures and tempos actually reached No. 35 on Billboard's Hot 100; the video, which combined stark performance footage with scenes from the 1971 film adaptation of Trumbo's novel, broke the band on MTV well before "Enter Sandman." The extended barrage of lights, guitars and drums that is "One" in concert is probably the closest Metallica fans who have never served in the military will ever get to an actual firefight. It certainly was for us.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.