By Baruchi Malewich
This week marked the end of the conference with the worst abbreviation in history, or the UNFCCC COP 22 (standing for the 22nd Conference of Party as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Which is why we thought we might make this playlist about climate change or more broadly about environmentalism. Now I’ll be frank—I was a bit ambivalent about it. On one hand, there’s so many beautiful songs I know that concern the environment and what we’re doing to it. On the other hand, some songs about the environment tend to glorify a ‘return to nature’ of sorts and be a bit enviro-nostalgic. Now, don’t get me wrong, I obviously believe that we need to find better ways to live with nature, and I realize that we are doing irreversible harm in our current conduct. It’s just that I associate this ‘return to nature’ either with pan-Aryan romanticization of warring tribes or with hippie naivety that results in very little actions. Not only do I think that this approach is wrong because it won’t lead us in the right direction, I also think it stems from some mystical beliefs that abolishing technology and moving ‘back’ to the wilderness (the ‘back’ can also be debated) will serve as a panacea to the issues we face today. Now, after I have stated my reservations, I will get on with this week’s segment and talk about the reason we all gathered here today: the music, and perhaps through it, some insights about the environment.
Song 1: Jethro Tull—Wond’ring Again
The moment I was presented with the theme for this week’s playlist I thought ‘Good! I could play a Jethro Tull song!’. And indeed, the British progressive rock band had more than their fair share of environmental awareness songs throughout their long years of making music. Luckily, the choice wasn’t difficult, as ‘Wond’ring Again’ is, to my humble opinion, one of their most beautiful songs ever, and maybe one of my favorite songs of all time. The ‘Again’ is not there by mistake: in 1971 Jethro Tull released ‘Aqualung’, an album that was a harsh social critique on the welfare system and on religion in the UK. However, standing out in that album was the beautiful, melodic and romantic ‘Wond’ring Aloud’ in which Ian Anderson—the lead singer of the Tull—expressed his love to his better half. The song ended on the positive note, ‘and it’s only the giving that makes you what you are’. A year later, in 1972, Jethro Tull released ‘Living in the Past’, yet another album with severe social statements. This album featured ‘Wond’ring Again’, a song that ‘appropriated’ the melody and structure of the original and turned it into a harsh critique on overpopulation and consumer culture, ending it on the ironic note: ‘and it’s only the taking that makes you what you are’. The severe critique that the song brings forward is, to me, more than painfully beautiful, but is also a great reflection of how we destroy eco-systems and how our lack of care to our environment also translates to lack of care to our peers.
Song 2: Joni Mitchell—Big Yellow Taxi
I think I belong exactly to that awful generation who associated the line ‘paved paradise // put up a parking lot’ to the Counting Crows, long before we knew who Joni Mitchell was. But ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ is, of course, a kicking 70’s anthem before anything else, and one that highlights environmental awareness. According to Joni Mitchell herself she:
‘…wrote 'Big Yellow Taxi' on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart... this blight on paradise. That's when I sat down and wrote the song.’
Gorillaz, the supergroup headed by Blur’s Damon Albarn, broke into public awareness with their breezy hip-hop tunes in 2001 with their self-titled debut album which featured songs like ‘Clint Eastwood’ and ’19-2000’. Their true masterpiece however, I assert, was their sophomore ‘Demon Days’—a mature, musically-hypnotizing concept album that revolves, in a great way, around environmental issues. And indeed, ‘O Green World’ isn’t the only song that calls for awareness to global warming and depleting resources. It is, however, one of the best tunes of the entire album (alongside heavy-disco ‘DARE’ featuring Shaun Ryder) and perhaps one of the most underrated of their repertoire. While the lyrics are quite cryptic for this one, it’s worth to have a look at the excellent live version of the song and the accompanying video art to see its environmental theme.
‘LOOOOOOOOOOORD!!!!!!!!!!!! HERE COMES THE FLOOOOOOOOOOOD’, I roar every time this song reaches its climactic crescendo, perhaps one of the most dramatic moments of modern music. The song paints a biblical-scale post-apocalyptic picture of the world, and adds a warning to the willfully ignorant: ‘Drink Up, Dreamers, You’re Running Dry’. In 1975 Peter Gabriel left supergroup Genesis which he originally founded, and started his solo career. His first album, ‘Peter Gabriel’ (I know, original) was released in 1977 and featured some of his best solo materials, namely ‘Solisbury Hill’ and ‘Here Comes the Flood’ (to this day I’m not sure if it’s an ironic take on the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’; how cool would it be if it is though?). Gabriel was joined by King Crimson member and music legend Robert Fripp which, I have no doubt, added a lot of the dramatic flair to the album. A piano-and-vocals version of the song features Gabriel and Fripp alone and opens with a radio interview about the possibility of an impending ice age.
Song 5: Neil Young—Cortez the Killer
I’ll start with a bold statement: Cortez the Killer is one of the best rock songs of all times. Every time I listen to it, or to a cover version of it (especially this one), I find it mind-boggling that it was released in 1975. Its sound, its savagery, its raw power sounds like something timeless from an outer dimension. Which is why I justify fitting it in to this category even though it isn’t, in the conventional sense, an environmental song. The song mainly speaks of the conquest of the New World by the colonial powers (especially Spain, as the song pertains namely to Hernan Cortes) and how the indigenous people were murdered by the conquistadors. However, the world which Neil Young describes in the song—the world destroyed by Cortes—is one in which social and environmental harmony is achieved. The destruction of such a world at the hands of greedy powers looking to become richer and even more powerful may be seen as a critique towards our environmental conduct today, or lack-thereof. I know it may go slightly against what I said earlier, about how I refrain from idealizing the past, but I mean—this is one of the best rock songs of all times, give me a break!
Baruchi Malewich is an Israeli expatriate currently residing in the UK. He completed his BA is Government and Diplomacy from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya and his MPhil in International Relations from the University of Cambridge. He was a DJ in the student radio of both schools, and is an avid music fan. He is currently working on PhD applications and on an online publication devoted to researching the role of theory in the