JUNE/JULY 2005

THREE SONGS FROM
THE END OF HISTORY

BILLY JOEL, THE SCORPIONS, AND JESUS JONES

by Hua Hsu
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

“I’ll show this punk,” Billy Joel thought to himself. Each American generation thinks theirs is the most exceptional, and the twenty-something talking to Joel was no different. The kid lamented the troubles of his day—AIDS, crack, “the world situation.” At least Joel had grown up in the 1950s and 1960s, the kid observed, and nothing had happened. The Piano Man was not amused: “I got my back up. I said, ‘Did you ever hear of Korea, or Hungarian freedom fighters and the Suez Canal?’ I started writing down sound bites from my own life in what started out being a rap song.” The kid had probably never even heard of John Dos Passos.

In musical terms, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is objectively terrible. The song begins with great self-importance, with the fake applause of one million public school history teachers; prattling, trash-can percussion is met by Joel’s didactic synth line; the whole warm-up is leveled by a mighty kick of guitars and slap bass. The scrum surges forward to meet each of Joel’s verses, which crescendo from flat, free-association re-portage (“Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac”) to vein-in-my-forehead social rupture (“JFK! Blown away! What else do I have to say?!!”), before all returns to normalcy.

The song’s ebb and flow imposes an illusion of cycles on the fickle, irrational scatter of history. “Belgians in the Congo!” might be a reason to shout, but a chorus arrives to remind us of the big picture, and things lapse back to the trivia of daily life: “Hemingway, Eichmann, Stranger in a Strange Land…” The song was timed perfectly, arriving in the fall of 1989. “Right now we are looking at what could be the beginning of the end of the Cold War,” Joel observed. “I wanted to comment on it because I’m a little surprised at how blasé people seem to be about it. When I was a kid we all thought we could all be blown to smithereens at any minute.”

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

As forecasted by Billy Joel, the beginning of the end was upon us. But the collapse of East and West into just plain Germany was still hard to fathom for someone born in the late 1970s. By 1989, the Berlin Wall seemed like a quaint defense against a world in motion. What use were bricks and mortar when it was ideas and hopes that were being trafficked?

Someone had brought a bagful of Berlin Wall filings back to the United States and encased each of them in a cube of Lucite. One of these cubes of historical debris found its way to Miller Jr. High in San Jose, California, where it sat outside the principal’s office, giving any delinquents awaiting judgment something from the real world to think about. I held it in my hand, thinking it seemed a lot more magical that the chunk appeared to float in a clear cube; the chunk itself was as drab as it was grey. The significance of it all wouldn’t quite arrive until the following year.

At first, “Wind of Change” seemed like a weak move for a band with a font as threatening as the Scorpions. But this song’s sentiment was undeniable; it was not another lame campfire ballad shrouded in power chords. The song opens mid-thought, with flickering whistles rising steadily until they are met by Klaus Meine’s vocals, all wispy and wasted from an all-night session of CNN. It felt poignant, especially that inscrutable first line: “I follow the Moskva, down to Gorky Park.” (No twelve-year-old knew what “Moskva” meant. And were they taking shots at fellow Russian rockers Gorky Park, or was Gorky Park an actual place?)

It was impossible to misread Meine’s teleology: “The world is closing in / And did you ever think / That we could be so close, like brothers?” The previous November, the Scorpions had witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now it was time for the Soviet Union to implode, the secret mission of glasnost fulfilled. To Meine and his woolly comrades, it was the natural order of things—“The wind of change blows straight / Into the face of time.” Matthias Jabs followed with a lengthy guitar solo, a more direct expression of what freedom sounded like. The future was in the air, and Meine could feel it everywhere. By sheer coincidence, the Soviet Union collapsed the very next year, in August 1991.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

It is safe to say that the tiny congregations Jesus Jones play to nowadays contain quite a few people who are there against their will. It’s not the band’s fault; the phrase “Put your hands in the air, Xilinx!” lacks any intrinsic zing. Fourteen years after “Right Here, Right Now,” the British band now pays its bills playing private corporate gigs. These gigs are usually part of some kind of company retreat held at some amusement park that has been rented for the day. The band plays their hit twice, once in the morning, as a way of welcoming the loyal foot soldiers, and then once more at day’s end, after everyone is slump-shouldered from play and sunburned.

When it was released in 1991, “Right Here, Right Now” was all about the thrill of contingency. The march of history feels constant, tracked by a sampled backbeat and Mike Edwards’s breathy, overcommitted observations about how exceptional the end of the 1980s felt. “I was alive and I waited for this,” he reaches in the chorus, the tiptoeing guitars giving way to a triumphant horn refrain. Edwards’s image of “watching the world wake up from history” gave language to the images scrolling across your personal camera-eye: Romania, Tiananmen Square, Gorbachev, the Berlin Wall, etc. People sat in front of their televisions, taking it all in like parched bettors slowly realizing their Cinderella picks just might take the race. History became a rooting interest and war was over, if we wanted. “Right Here, Right Now” was vague and modern-sounding enough to de-scribe anything we wanted it to.

Liberal democracy had won, meaning we no longer had to talk about it. Instead, over the years Jesus Jones’s most notable hit evolved into a carpe diem anthem deployed to spur productivity and lift spirits. Nowadays, someone from the home office usually in-troduces the band for fear that Edwards will restore the song’s quasi-political bent, or utter the name Jesus with too loose a tongue. Most of the salarymen and women remember it from their childhoods, mentally coupled with EMF’s “Unbelievable.” It was a time when the world did indeed seem as if it could change in the blink of an eye. Others recall that Bill Clinton used the song during his first presidential campaign. Some linger on Edwards’s words and wonder what the future might still bring. Almost everyone looks right past the band at something more immediate waiting behind: Sea World.

Hua Hsu writes about various things for Slate, the Village Voice, the Wire, and other publications. He is working toward a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization Program at Harvard.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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