Music In A Time Of Coronavirus

10 songs that speak to the uniqueness of a once-every-hundred-years situation

Coronavirus Impressions (Art: Ron Hart)

The songwriters of the world have been pretty lazy sods when it comes to writing topical songs about the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) which is all the fuck anybody talks about right now. 

Oh, and for good reason

But where are songwriters? Not on the road. Maybe just bummed out and/or self-quarantining. An ideal opportunity to write songs and chuck ‘em out on YouTube! But maybe they’re just depressed like the rest of us, puzzled about this numbing / confusing / frightening time, and unable to put words and chords together. At least, I am not seeing scads of songs illuminating and bemoaning our present (and future?) state of affairs. 

Which rock band anticipated this pandemic? Why that would be none other than the Liverpool quartet, Clinic. I covered them live 17 years ago at a Cambridge, MA club for the Boston Globe and wrote: Clinic “was all dressed up in their surgical best: green smocks, slacks, hats and masks (with a hole over the mouth for singer/keyboardist/melodica player Ade Blackburn.) A conceptual tip of the hat here to Devo.”

So, here at Rock & Roll Globe, we we have a remedy: For those about to moan, we salute you. We thought we’d dig into the past to find some songs that sorta/maybe/might pertain to the crisis or or at least parts of the song could pertain or, maybe if you stretch your imagination a lot, might vaguely pertain.

The first pick was an easy one.

 

 

“Ghost Town” by The Specials

 As spooky as the Specials ever wrote – “All the clubs have been closed down …” As someone I know said, wouldn’t it be lovely if the only issue here was “too much fighting on the dance floor.” But my town (Boston) and all towns are becoming this now. New closures, new restrictions daily.

 

VIDEO: The Specials “Ghost Town”

 

“Splendid Isolation” by Warren Zevon

Warren’s protagonist wanted nothing but solitude.  It began with, “I want to live alone in the desert/I want to be like Georgia O’Keefe/I want to live on the Upper East Side/And never go down in the street.” And then came the chorus: “Splendid isolation/I don’t need no one/Splendid isolation.” We’re all social creatures, but Warren was pretty darn convincing here, so if we all could inhabit this mindset for, well, whatever it takes, it might be good for our mental health.

 

AUDIO: Warren Zevon “Splendid Isolation”

 

“Why Can’t I Touch It” by Buzzcocks

Now, I’m pretty sure Pete Shelley’s whiny repetitive plaint had a lot more do do with body parts – or, hey, knowing Shelley, maybe some existential part of a would-be mate’s psyche – but probably nothing to do with doorknobs and faucets. Still … that’s our life now.

 

AUDIO: Buzzcocks “Why Can’t I Touch It?”

 

“It’s the End of The World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M

The song was a hurtling, laundry-list song about the end of an era – not a good era really (“Listen to your self churn” … “a tournament of lies”) –  but a feelgood sounding song, a celebration of sorts And when Michael Stipe gets to the Lester Bangs part at the end, yeah, big wow! The tenor of the song had everything to do with looking ahead with optimism. It’s that “and I feel fine” thing Michael Stipe sings after the title. This may be a part of the song that’s hard to sing along to right now.

VIDEO: R.E.M. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

 

“Don’t Touch Me There” by The Tubes

It’s a Phil Spector-ish, sexy wall-of-sound song about, having lots of suggestive foreplay, but ultimately, no sex. The Tubes female singer Re Styles spends the song seductively fending off male singer Fee Waybill’s overtures with a breathy, “If you really care, don’t touch me there.”  I suppose now, you could just sing that refrain to anyone and they’d go, “Yeah, sure, dude I won’t touch.” 

 

AUDIO: The Tubes “Don’t Touch Me There”

 

“Space Oddity” by David Bowie  

Key line: “Planet earth is through and there’s nothing I can do.” Bowie’s Major Tom has shocked Ground Control by choosing to remain “high above the earth,” blissfully “floating in my tin can.” It’s a choice. Separation equals transcendence. Goodbye to you lot, trying to sort things out on this miserable planet. Ultimately, of course, it’s death for Tom but for that time being … it’s escape. 

 

VIDEO: David Bowie “Space Oddity”

 

“Stay at Home” by Too Much Joy

It’s Friday night, but Tim Quirk’s got a book and he’s gonna read it! “Nightclubs, discotheques, got nothing for me/Why pay to be bored? /Baby this is free.” If he wants music, well, he’s got that stereo and he turn it up loud. And, yeah, maybe if he does that, he’ll invite his gal over to dance around naked. Not a bad way to self-quarantine, right?

 

AUDIO: Too Much Joy “Stay At Home”

 

“19th Nervous Breakdown” by The Rolling Stones

The novel coronavirus is branded COVID-19. Note that number. And some of us are suffering and rest of us are likely on the verge of suffering a nervous breakdown or as we now call it a panic attack. Ergo … the Stones predicted 2020 55 years ago!

 

VIDEO: The Rolling Stones “19th Nervous Breakdown”

 

“Isolation” by Joy Division

It’s Ian Curtis, fer Chrissakes, so of course his self-imposed isolation is because of his “surrender to self-preservation” and the fact that “I’m ashamed of the person I am.” The way the song is shaped it seems like this sort of isolation is just a natural state of being and the propulsive hookiness of the song make it almost … attractive.

 

AUDIO: Joy Division “Isolation”

 

“Isolation” by John Lennon

Stark and haunting song from the ultimate stark and haunting album, John’s first post-Beatles foray. He’s singing about him and Yoko – the predominant theme of John’s at the time – but, really, doesn’t it strike a universal chord these days? “People say we’ve got it made/Don’t they know we’re so afraid? … Isolation … We’re afraid to be alone … We’re afraid of everyone.”

 

AUDIO: John Lennon “Isolation”

 

Honorable mentions: “Alone Again, Naturally,” Gilbert O’Sullivan, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” The Police, “Touch Me, I’m Sick,” Mudhoney, “Sick Things,” Alice Cooper, “You Sound Like You’re Sick,” Ramones, “You Got to Take Sick and Die Some of These Days,” Muddy Waters, “Too Sick To Pray,” Willie Nelson, “So Alone,” Johnny Thunders,  “So Alone,” Lou Reed, “Sick as a Dog,” Aerosmith, “Sick Again,” Led Zeppelin, “The Lonesome DJ,” Golden Earring, Alex Chilton, “No Sex,” “Le Freak (Freak Out),” Chic, “Isolation,” Buzzcocks, “State of Confusion,” The Kinks, “Achoo,” Sparks, “Ventilator Blues,” Rolling Stones, “Another World,” Antony and the Johnsons.

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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