Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Then and Now: Middle of the Road: "Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum"

And now, dear readers, I have the pleasure of presenting to you one of the oddest of all songs to appear so far in this blog; strange as (to me, at least) it takes an event from history and places it, wittingly or unwittingly, right there in front of everyone.  It – the Glencoe massacre – wasn’t a pleasant event, to say the least; and yet here it is, centuries later, appearing in a pop song.

This has caused me to reflect on various things, including collective memory and what can be done with it.  People can decide to remember and mourn; people can hold a grudge, telling and retelling a story, exaggerating here or there, to keep the grudge fresh, as watering one does a houseplant.  Eventually enough space and distance from the original event makes even the most devoted militant give in, unless…

…something new happens.  Glencoe was about Protestants vs. Catholics; it was also about something even more primal than that – the betrayal of hospitality, an offence the ancient Greeks and Romans would have found hideous and just about the worst thing possible. 

So for Middle of the Road to take this – and knowingly make it into a hit record when the Troubles are sadly well underway – is one of two things.  It’s either them trying to take this event and somehow neutralize it (the way little kids who sing “Ring Around A Rosie” or “London Bridge” have no clue as to what they are singing about; it just sounds good) or they are perhaps – since it was a Scottish event and they’re a Scottish band – trying to gaily point out that going around killing someone else because their faith is different* was and is something that didn’t really work then and sure isn’t working now. 

Unlike the Schoolhouse Rock series of pop songs**  (albeit cheery ones like “No More Kings” or “The Shot Heard ‘Round The World”) where history is celebrated and passed on to the next generation in a fun and educational way, this song isn’t supposed to be anything but a fun pop song.  Whether little kids picked up anything here I don’t know, and that is the litmus test I suppose – do the kids know?  Should they?  Do lyrics matter that much, at any age, 7 to 70? Are there two audiences – ones that just want a tune to hum and like and those who like to delve further and get to the bottom of a song, memorize the lyrics and try to figure them out?

To be blunt, yes.  There will always be those happy enough to dogpaddle along in a song’s waters, and those who are going to get their snorkelling gear to see what’s really going on (if anything).  Middle of the Road are sneaky here, getting this song for kids heard by adults – or so they think.  But what if the adults don’t have much more of a clue than the kids?  Then the satisfaction is the group’s (for getting one over) and a different satisfaction is the public’s (for simply enjoying the song enough to buy it). 

Of course, there’s a reason the song is called what it is called.  Both Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are, well, dumbasses, plain and simple.  Their fighting is stupid and yet they cannot stop fighting, mainly because they are almost – but not quite – the same.  (That ol’ narcissism again.)  Middle of the Road are saying what The Cranberries – two decades later, in a far more stentorian way – will simply say:  these guys are idiots.  They were dumb in the 17th century and dumb in the 20th and we are going to reduce them to Carroll’s sniping duo as in the end they are about as interesting and effective as them.  (In my mind these two figures merge with a 70s toy called the Weeble, which famously wobbled but never fell down; seemingly charming figures but actually kind of scary, not unlike the larger figures like them – were they clowns? – I came across elsewhere that could be pushed around but never fell over.)

Middle of the Road assume that we know the story, know that the tartans and claymores and piping and plots are all grand history, but – again – does this story have any meaning beyond some kind of anti-IRA slant***?  (Note the camouflage chic in the band’s clothing – I guess this means they are serious about all of this, right?) 

This may seem to be a lot of important questions asked of a song that wasn’t even written by those performing it; it can’t hold that much weight.  To serious folk musicians or progressive rock types the idea that this is as serious a “statement” as anything they are doing would seem laughable.  But in the 70s the growing issue was one of the audience’s reactions to songs, on whether the public in general “got” what was being said.  And that issue, I feel, starts right here, with an ugly historical event being used to make a point about current events.  How much can be said?  How much will the audience understand?  Does anyone really care what time it is (as Chicago immortally asked)?  Slowly but surely we will find out.

Next up:  the season of the witch begins.

*And, considering they’re both Christian faiths, not all that different (Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” applies here).

**It is interesting that there is no real UK equivalent to these songs, unless the basics of grammar, math, government and energy (not forgetting environmentalism and new math – this is the 70s, after all) were covered already in shows for 7-12 year-olds elsewhere. 

***In truth it’s more of an anti-war song, but I’m guessing the UK public’s sympathies were more with their troops than the IRA.  I could be wrong here, though.


MikeMCSG said...

Some interesting ideas here Lena but I think your linkage to the Irish troubles is a bit of a stretch. Firstly the Glencoe massacre was not primarily about religion ; the Campbells supported James VII because he was a Stuart not because he was Catholic. Secondly, outside Scotland it's not an event that gets much coverage in schools. Finally, in 1971, before Bloody Sunday and the Birmingham pub bombings I don't think that, outside the province and the Irish diaspora, the Ulster situation loomed very large in people's consciousness.

On a more flippant point if one can link political awareness with wardrobe sense, Sally Carr's mumble pants indicate the band weren't capable of such profundity.

Lena said...

From my point of view, it's interesting to see a song about something that in the lyrics is a story the audience is supposed to know do so well whether or not the actual event is "known" to them or not. I think that the massacre stands well enough on its own as a warning of sectarian strife, whether it be warring clans or warring religions.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this is about the massacre of Glencoe, which was a surprise attack not a planned fight. The lyric "If you knew the reason for the fighting/you would never understand" doesn't really suit Glencoe either, as it's fairly well known that the massacre was a product of the Jacobite-Williamite war.

Also Glencoe was Campbells vs MacDonalds while the battle in the song is MacDougalls vs MacGregors. The song is really just about a non-specific episode of clan warfare. The reference to Tweedledee and Tweedledum suggests that the clan feud may have arisen from some small personal slight, as happened between the Tweedle twins.