an alan smithee war

Watch out, this starts off being almost insultingly elementary, but then gets complicated and probably even self-contradictory quite quickly.*

*a perhaps necessary note; “Allan Smithee” is a pseudonym used by film directors when they wish to disown a project

Countries, States and religions are not monoliths and nor are they sentient. They don’t have feelings, aims, motivations or opinions. So whatever is happening in the Middle East isn’t ‘Judaism versus Islam’ or even ‘Israel versus Palestine’, any more than “the Troubles”* were/are ‘Protestantism versus Catholicism’ or ‘Britain versus Ireland’.

* a euphemism, which, like most names for these things is partly a method of avoiding blame – as we’ll see

Places and atrocities aren’t monoliths either; Srebrenica didn’t massacre anybody**, the Falkland islands didn’t have a conflict, ‘the Gulf’ didn’t have a war and neither did Vietnam or Korea. But somebody did. As with Kiefer Sutherland and Woman Wanted in 1999 or Michael Gottlieb and The Shrimp on the Barbie in 1990 and whoever it was that directed Gypsy Angels in 1980, nobody wants to claim these wars afterwards. But while these directors have the handy pseudonym Allan Smithee to use, there is no warmongering equivalent, and so what we get is geography, or flatly descriptive terms like ‘World War One’, which divert the focus from the aggressor(s) and only the occasional exception (The American War of Independence) that even references the point of the war. But, whether interfered with by the studio or not, Kevin Yagher did direct Hellraiser: Bloodline just as certain individuals are responsible for actions which are killing human beings as you read this. Language and the academic study of history will help to keep their names quiet as events turn from current affairs and into history. Often this evasion is done, perhaps even unknowingly, for purely utilitarian reasons, but sometimes it is more sinister.

** see?

As the 60s drew to its messy end, the great Terry “Geezer” Butler wrote lines which, despite the unfortunate repeat/rhyme in the first lines, have a Blakean power and truth:

Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses

Black Sabbath, War Pigs, 1970

There is something sinister and even uncanny in the workings of power, in the distance between avowed and the underlying motivations behind military action. Power politics feels like it is – possibly because intuitively it seems like it should be – cold and logical rather than human and emotional. It doesn’t take much consideration though to realise that even beneath the chilly, calculated actions of power blocs there are weird and strangely random human desires and opinions, often tied in with personal prestige which somehow seems to that person more important than not having people killed.

Anyway, Geezer went on to say:

Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor

Still Black Sabbath, War Pigs (1970)

And that’s right too; but does that mean Butler’s ‘poor’ should take no responsibility at all for their actions? In the largest sense they are not to blame for war or at least for the outbreak of war; and conscripts and draftees are clearly a different class again from those who choose to “go out to fight.” But. As so often WW2 is the easiest place to find examples; whatever his orders or reasons, the Nazi soldier who shot a child and threw them in a pit, shot a child and threw them in a pit. His immediate superior may have done so too, but not to that particular child. And neither did Himmler or Adolf Hitler. Personal responsibility is an important thing, but responsibility, especially in war, isn’t just one act and one person. Between the originator and architects of the Final Solution and the shooter of that one individual child there is a chain of people, any one of whom could have disrupted that chain and even if only to a degree, affected the outcome. And that degree may have meant that that child, that human being, lived or died. A small thing in a death toll of something over 6 million people, unless you happen to be that person.

As with the naming of wars and atrocities, terms like “genocide” and “the Holocaust” are useful, especially if we want – as we clearly do – to have some kind of coherent, understandable narrative that can be taught and remembered as ‘history’. But in their grim way these are still euphemisms. The term ‘the Holocaust’ memorialises the countless – actually not countless, but still, nearly 80 years later, being counted – victims of the Nazis’ programme of extermination. But the term also makes the Holocaust sound like an event, rather than a process spread out over the best part of a decade, requiring the participation of probably thousands of people who exercised – not without some form of coercion perhaps, but still – their free will in that participation. The Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder’s famous saying,  whosoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world is hard to argue with, insofar as the world only exists for us within our perceptions. Even the knowledge that it is a spinning lump of inorganic and organic matter in space, and that other people populate it who might see it differently only exists in our perceptions. Or at least try to prove otherwise. And so the converse of Hillel’s saying – which is actually included in it but far less often quoted – is Whosoever destroys one soul, it is as though he had destroyed the entire world. Which sounds like an argument for pacifism, but while pacifism is entirely viable and valuable on an individual basis as an exercise of one’s free will* – and on occasion has a real positive effect – one-sided pacifism relies on its opponents not to take a cynically Darwinian approach, which is hopeful at best. Pacifism can only really work if everyone is a pacifist, and everyone isn’t a pacifist.

*the lone pacifist can at least say, ‘these terrible things happened, but I took no part in them’, which is something, especially if they used what peaceful means they could to prevent those terrible things and didn’t unwittingly contribute to the sum total of suffering; but those are murky waters to wade in.

But complicated though it all is, people are to blame for things that happen. Just who to blame is more complicated – more complicated at least than the workable study of history can afford to admit. While countries and religions are useful as misleading, straw man scapegoats, even the more manageable unit of a government is, on close examination, surprisingly hard to pin down. Whereas (the eternally handy example of) Hitler’s Nazi Party or Stalin’s Council of People’s Commissars routinely purged heretics, non-believers and dissidents, thus acting as a genuine, effective focus for their ideologies and therefore for blame and responsibility, most political parties allow for a certain amount of debate and flexibility and therefore blame deniability. Regardless, when a party delivers a policy, every member of that party is responsible for it, or should publicly recuse themselves from it if they aren’t.

The great (indeed Sensational) Scottish singer Alex Harvey said a lot of perceptive things, not least and “[Something] I learned from studying history. Nobody ever won a war. A hundred thousand dead at Waterloo*. No glory in that. Nobody needs that.” Nobody ever won a war;  but plenty of people, on both sides of every conflict have lost one – and, as the simple existence of a second world war attests, many, many people have lost a peace too.

*Modern estimates put it at ‘only’ 11,000 plus another 40,000 or so casualties; but his point stands

But the “causes” of war are at once easily traced and extremely slippery. Actions like the 1939 invasion of Poland by the armies of Germany and the USSR were, as military actions still are, the will of certain individuals, agreed to by other individuals and then acted upon accordingly. You may or may not agree with the actions of your government or the leaders of your faith. You may even have had some say in them, but in most cases you probably haven’t. Some of those dead on the fields of Waterloo were no doubt enthusiastic about their cause, some probably less so. But very few would have had much say in the decisions which took them to Belgium in the first place.

The buck should stop with every person responsible for wars, crimes, atrocities; but just because that’s obviously that’s impossible to record and even if it wasn’t, too complex to write in a simple narrative, that doesn’t mean the buck should simply not stop anywhere. Victory being written by the winners often means guilt being assigned to the losers, but even when that seems fair enough (there really wouldn’t have been a World War Two without Hitler) it’s a simplification (there wouldn’t have been an effective Hitler without the assistance of German industrialists) and a one-sided one (it was a World War because most of the leading participants had already had unprovoked wars of conquest). But does the history of Western colonialism, the treatment of Germany by the Allies after WW1 and the dubious nature of the allies and some of their actions make Hitler any less responsible for the war? And does Hitler’s guilt make the soldier who shoots a child or unarmed civilians, or drops bombs on them any less responsible for their own actions?

Again; only human beings do these things, so the least we can do is not act like they are some kind of unfathomable act of nature when we discuss them or name them. Here’s Alex Harvey again; “Whether you like it or not, anybody who’s involved in rock and roll is involved in politics. Anything that involves a big crowd of people listening to what you say is politics.” If rock and roll is politics, then actual politics is politics squared; and for as long as we settle, however grudgingly or complacently for pyramidal power structures for our societies then the person at the top of that pyramid, enjoying its vistas and rarefied air should be the one to bear its most sombre responsibilities. But all who enable the pyramid to remain standing should accept their share of it too.

So when you’re helplessly watching something that seems like an unbelievable waste of people’s lives and abilities, pay close attention even if you don’t want to, because the credits at the end may not tell you who’s really reponsible.




For Whom The Cowbell Tolls…


Thanks for this article are owed to Jamie Cowey (for the title) and the anonymous person whose enlightening comments on my original version of this have been incorporated into the section on Honky Tonk Woman


The cowbell has presumably been part of the percussionist’s arsenal since early in the Jazz period, but it really came into its own in the 60s and 70s; but that’s not what this is really about.

‘Cowbell rock’ is, as well as being a hugely irritating electro classic by Pyramyth, almost a genre of its own, and this is a brief (mostly unresearched, therefore probably mostly wrong) glance through it.The obvious disclaimer here is that rock comes from blues  and R&B music and therefore the true history of the cowbell in popular music should feature many more black musicians than are included here. But this isn’t a true history of anything really.

There are notable uses of the cowbell in mid-late 60s pop and rock, notably The Beatles’ Drive My 1 beatlCar (1966), which perhaps surprisingly prefigures the genre with its funky soul influence.  The Spencer Davis Group’s equally soulful Gimme Some Lovin’ (1966) also features possible cowbell* although to my ears it sounds more like a tambourine. *see note on Honky Tonk Woman below

Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic rock monster In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida  is often cited too (including by me elsewhere), though a proper listen to the song reveals that although there may be cowbell there (and it is certainly implied by the beat etc) it mostly sounds like straightforward snare/toms.

So to me (and I am happy to be put right on this), the art of true cowbell rock begins…

The Rolling Stones – Honky Tonk Women (1969) –  before anything else, the intro is purely cowbell 2 stoneand from then on the song establishes cowbell rock;  a rocking, yet laidback beat that holds everything else together. It was to prove hugely influential on the rock of the 70s and every revival thereof up until the present day. Interestingly (this is the part alluded to in the introductory note; thanks anonymous person), it is most likely erstwhile Spencer Davis Group producer Jimmy Miller, rather than the undoubtedly brilliant Charlie Watts, who plays the cowbell.


The 70s was the cowbell era and the classics are many and (to a degree) varied:

3 freeFree – All Right Now (1970) – picks up where Honky Tonk Women left off, with even bigger gaps in the riff; more room for cowbell.  Most of Free’s early work should really be in the ‘implied cowbell’ list below



Velvet Underground – Sweet Jane (1970) – an honorable mention really;  the cowbell (if there is 4VUany) is not very audible but this should be a cowbell classic based on the riff alone (more such nonsense below).





5sladeSlade – The Bangin’ Man (1974) – a tongue in cheek, slightly sad song, seemingly alluding to the memory problems the great Don Powell suffered when recovering from a  horrendous car crash; but his  drum/cowbell playing here is peerless.



David Bowie – Diamond Dogs (1974) – the sleazy death throes of Ziggy provide the

6bowieperfect backdrop for some classic cowbell courtesy (I presume) of the great Aynsley Dunbar. Interestingly, Bowie’s flirtation with cowbell rock outlasted his glam period; check out the Young Americans-era outtake I’m Divine for some classic cowbell with more of a funk flavour.


7 the nazNazareth – Hair of the Dog (1975) – basically a compendium of everything cheesy-but-good about mid-70s hard rock; and they came from Dunfermline!




Kiss – Calling Dr Love, Ladies Room, Take Me etc (1976) –  Presumably Peter Criss got a new 8 kisscowbell in 1975/6 because it’s all over the classic Rock & Roll Over album (released November 1976), giving it a looser, warmer feel than the also great but clinically orchestrated Destroyer (released March 1976, shockingly; When they were good, they were productive!)



BOCultBlue Oyster Cult – Don’t Fear The Reaper (1976) – the tempo is slightly too frantic to be classic cowbell rock (though the cowbell is very audible!), but this has to be mentioned thanks to the excellent Saturday Night Live sketch with Will Ferrell.


Aerosmith – Last Child (1976) Many early Aerosmith classics have implied cowbell (see footnote),aerosmith but this slow & dirty-sounding masterpiece has the real thing.


warWar – Low Rider (1975) – somewhat out of genre being funk, but this song belongs in any discussion of the cowbell in popular music. I’m sure Funkadelic must have used it too, but nothing comes to mind so I’ll leave that for now…

Beyond the 70s there’s still plenty of cowbell action but on the whole not in the classic mould, but a few nice examples are:

Motley Crue – Wild Side (1987) Tommy Lee is not as good a drummer as he or his fans think he is but although he doesn’t use the cowbell properly here, he uses it well.


AC/DC – half of their songs (you would think, examples are rarer than one would hope), they kind of built a career on it.


Pixies – U-Mass (1991) Who’d have thought? But they do it well.


Nowadays there’s probably more cowbell rock than ever, but as far as I’ve heard it’s mostly a purely retro/pastiche/tribute thing so  worthy of consideration, but not here…



The list of songs that are, to all intents and purposes ‘cowbell rock’ but have little or no actual cowbell is distressingly long; someone should add some posthumous cowbell to these at the very least:

Edgar Winter’s White Trash – Give It Everything You Got  (1971) Dirty, nasty, gritty, funky rock, oddly the intro is kind of Stooges-like, but anyway; no cowbell.



Black Oak Arkansas – Hot And Nasty (1971) – The title says it all. Would have been hotter and nastier with cowbell though

Alice Cooper – Be My Lover (1971) – Great anyway, but how much greater would it have been a tiny bit slower and with


ZZ Top – Waitin’ For The Bus  (1973) It nearly has cowbell on it. Let’s just pretend it does.


Foghat – Slow Ride (1975)  – come on, this blues rock classic has everything except the icing on the cake; where’s the cowbell Roger?


Ted Nugent – Cat Scratch Fever  (1977) – same principle as above, maybe Ted is too much of a guitar guy to care about getting the percussion right? Ditto Stranglehold, but that said, I haven’t heard a huge amount of early Ted,  isn’t there bound to be at least one cowbell anthem in that oeuvre?

Whitesnake – Come An’ Get It  (1982) – Whitesnake’s work is a bridge between 70s rock and the harder, more modern 80s version; this would have been a tiny bit better with cowbell though, no?


Judas Priest –  You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’ (1982) – The beat is right, Rob Halford gives the perfectly assured performance the song needs, but Dave Holland does everything right except play the cowbell; possibly they wanted to distance themselves from the 70s at this point

Manowar – Metal Daze and  Shell Shock (1984) Great, great testosterone fuelled nonsense/genius, the former song may have to be featured in a ‘best notes ever hit by a vocalist’ article at some point. But should have got out the cowbell guys; not metal enough I expect.

The Rolling Stones – Start Me Up (1981) and The Cult – Love Removal Machine (1987)  The same song, more or less. Both bands forgot the cowbell though.

In fact, The Cult’s transformation from moody goths to leather-clad rock gods was generally lacking in cowbell, despite the potential of songs like the awesome-anyway Wild Flower. That does however have some tambourine or something similar on the choruses to give that faux cowbell flavour.The-Cult-Electric-Press


Overall though, it is the 1970s that is the true era of the cowbell, and this is all just the tip of the iceberg. One of the great things about 70s rock is how much of it there is – and surely there must be many cowbell classics lurking out there, just waiting to be rediscovered by modern ears…