Of course, there’s being involved and being involved. “Don’t Let It Die” was a charity single for the World Wildlife Fund (celebrating its tenth anniversary in ’71) and the scope of its work – protecting endangered species, fighting pollution, etc. – was beyond anyone’s simple ability for the most part*. Helping pandas and bald eagles was as easy as buying a single; perhaps some were moved to join the WWF, but I am guessing the single did well as it was a way to help easily (through consumer culture as opposed to reading-The Silent Spring-culture) and it helped that it was a good song; so many charity songs aren’t (the last good one I heard was the US single for Haiti) and as such they tend to go straight into The Void, having accomplished whatever their purpose was, raising money for their cause, and making their various points.
Charity singles usually err deeply on the side of sentimentality – after all, they are supposed to pull heartstrings – but Smith’s voice here is elegantly plaintive, sketching out the song (which he intended to give to John Lennon**; so if it sounds like something he could have sung, that’s why) as clearly as he can, but almost shyly as well. Thus the bold lyrics, simple enough for everyone to understand, are slightly blurred, and the whole thing sounds as if it was recorded quickly, most likely at Abbey Road (where Smith had worked so closely with The Beatles and guided Pink Floyd from the start). But it’s a muffled sound, as if the studio was down a well, or perhaps the mikes were next door; this is no “War” militantly proclaiming itself, but something nearly oblique. Smith played his demo to Mickie Most, who said it was good enough to release as a single; and the roughness of the demo works with the lions and kangaroos and beauty of nature itself.
This is a man in his late 40s, a man who’d served in WWII in the RAF, a man who knew about death, singing about the ecological necessity of keeping things alive; appealing to one and all to do their bit – not in a patriotic way, but as a way to show that you, the individual, who actually knows and cares about tigers and elephants, and think of them as a gift to the world, are willing to stand up and at least buy this single. That death is a possibility haunts this song, a very grown-up one, very British as opposed to the more sentimental US version of the ecological movement, which could be just as “lite” and dippy as you could imagine***.
The listener has the power to keep all of nature going; it is a stewardship that goes back to the Bible, back to Adam naming all the creatures. They are yours; you should look after them. Creatures that are wild and endangered have to be looked after; they are beautiful and rare, and can startle you when you least expect it. Whether they are in the wild or in Chelsea Cloisters, down the street or in a nearly inaccessible place, those creatures deserve respect and protection, encouragement and yes, love. This song is like a muffled echo from the studios and halls of Abbey Road, a rough and hopeful voice that speaks up for itself, modestly, in favor of those who can’t speak at all.
Next up: well, everyone’s got to start somewhere.
*In the early 70s in Los Angeles, our kindergarten class went to another school to learn about the importance of keeping the Earth tidy from Woodsy Owl: “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” was the catchphrase, and this particular Woodsy was so big and serious that it was a genuinely frightening experience. I thought something terrible would happen to me if I littered, and I haven’t since.
**”Across The Universe” by The Beatles, a John Lennon song, was donated to the World Wildlife Fund charity album (No One’s Gonna Change Our World, 1969, organized by Spike Milligan) as the group didn’t really know what to do with it. On that album it was sped up a little and bird noises were put on the track, which may not make a lot of sense but that’s the ecological movement for you.
***As Pagan Kennedy says in her great book about the 70s, Platforms: “Ecology connotes the connection among living organisms – cute organisms like baby seals with tears dripping from their big black eyes. Seventies ecology was about saving endangered species and local beauty spots, picking up litter and cleaning the air; if you were sensitive, it was about feeling kind of weepy when you thought about the plight of the earth…the word environmentalism, on the other hand, is not cute.” She says the ecological movement did have some benefits – the founding of the EPA and passing of the Endangered Species Act among them – but that this phase passed and became a fashion movement instead, and that the ecological movement’s coverage by the press was the ‘safe’ option as the Vietnam War continued on and people grew tired of it and yearned for, well, cuteness instead.)
I may as well add here that the whole idea of nature’s usual state being ‘in balance’ (y’know, the whole circle of life business) was also part of the 60s-early 70s ecological movement, a movement that influenced everything from cybernetics to those communes where people tried to mimic this so-called balance inside geodesic domes. That this was all something of a sham was revealed eventually, but Adam Curtis’ series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace ( esp. “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”) shows how messed up a lot of things got, including the whole Population Boom idea, which meant I didn’t get to have a brother or sister. Thanks a lot, guys.