I can do "nerd" with the best of them, so here's 20 songs that combine two of my favourite things ... history and great music.
1200BC: Achilles' Last Stand (Led Zeppelin)
A bit of a cheat, as it is linked to Greek mythology rather than out-and-out history and also alludes to Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant's travels and battle with a foot injury (get it? The Achilles heel link?) But it is one of the great (and longest) LedZep songs. It references one of the great heroes of Greek story telling - Achilles who killed and was killed before the gates of Troy.
1000BC: Samson (Regina Spektor)
Well, you didn't think you'd get out of this without a Biblical reference? Here it is, my favourite Regina Spektor song. My daughter introduced me to Spektor and immediately I loved her curious work. The song references Samson, whose strength was linked to the length of his mullet. He was brought undone by Delilah, but I reckon, unlike many online interpretations, it is about an earlier lover of the Biblical strongman ("I loved you first", "And, the Bible didn't mention us, not even once". I'm probably wrong ... but it's music and I don't care.
450BC: Hanno The Navigator (Al Stewart)
Al Stewart of Year Of The Cat fame is one of my favourite singer/songwriters. He has written dozens of songs based on historic events. This is one of his more obscure efforts, but I really like it. It's a bit like a sophisticated nursery rhyme. It tells the story of one of the most accomplished explorers of ancient times, Hanno The Navigator of Carthage, who sailed down the west coast of Africa way back in the 5th Century BC.
330BC: Alexander the Great (Iron Maiden)
There is a massive crop of history-based metal music. This lengthy classic of the genre is basically an ancient history lesson. It is the story of the classical world's most successful conqueror - Alexander of Macedon - from birth, through the establishment of his empire, to his death "of fever in Babylon". Unlike most history lessons this one comes with impressive metal riffs and guitar solos.
1519: Cortez the Killer (Neil Young)
No hiding Neil Young's thought on the famed conquistador Hernan Cortes de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, or as Young puts it ... Cortez The Killer. Using his army's superior technology he destroyed the glorious Aztec Empire and brought much of Mexico under Spanish rule. As Young puts it "He came dancing across the water, Cortez, Cortez, what a killer".
1709: The Coldest Winter In Memory (Al Stewart)
Another quirky historic tale by Al Stewart (he of Year Of The Cat fame). It merges the story of one of Europe's coldest recorded winter in 1709 with the military campaigns of Sweden's great soldier king, Charles XII. Under Charles, Sweden was one of the leading powers of Europe until he overstretched his ambition by invading Russia, which has proven to never be a good idea (eg Napoleon and Hitler).
1866: Buffalo Soldier (Bob Marley and the Wailers)
Recalls the story of black American soldiers recruited after the American Civil War to fight Native Americans on the frontier. The name was apparently given to the black troops by the Native Americans and was reportedly embraced by the soldiers themselves. They fought in dozens of skirmishes and battles between 1866 and 1896. Marley touches on the irony of a stolen people fighting for the people that stole them from their traditional lands: "Stolen from Africa, brought to America ... fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.".
1880: Billy The Kid (Billy Joel)
From Billy Joel's classic Piano Man album, the song retells the story of one of America's most notorious, and celebrated, criminals - William H Bonney, or Billy The Kid. The young outlaw killed at least eight men before he was eventually tracked down, for a second time, by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Garrett had captured him once before but he escaped before he could be executed. Joel's song takes us from his early crimes to his end when "he finally found a home; Underneath the Boot Hill grave that bears his name".
1893: Virgin Ground (Redgum)
One of the weirdest events in Australian history was the establishment of an Australian colony in Paraguay in 1893. Called New Australia, it was meant to be a utopian socialist settlement and was launched by a group of 238 idealists. But it soon collapsed, partially because many of the idealists found it less than ideal that they were banned from drinking booze. Redgum were an extremely political, Australian bush band that crossed over into pop/rock music at times. In this song they identify the futility of the dreamers who abandoned Australia in 1893: "Under Paraguay skies and the nights so cold;
You can forsake your country and lose your soul".
19th-20th Century: The Dreaming (Kate Bush)
The Dreaming describes the rape of traditional Aboriginal lands in Australia by European settlers, generally and mining interests, specifically. It's a weird mix of sounds and music, that seems to reflect the chaos that descended on the first nations of Australia. "Erase the race that claim the place; And say we dig for ore; Or dangle devils in a bottle; And push them from the; Pull of the bush." Haunting stuff from one of the best female voices of our time.
1915: And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda (The Pogues)
One of the most powerful anti war songs ever written. Penned by Scottish-Australian Eric Bogle, I prefer the version by Irish punk folk band The Pogues. It tells the story of an ANZAC (Australia & New Zealand Army Corps) soldier who fought at Gallipoli in Turkey during World War I. "Then in 1915, my country said 'son; It's time you stopped rambling, there's work to be done'; So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun; And they marched me away to the war." Just awesome.
1941-1945: Red Army Blues (The Waterboys)
The event that perhaps shaped the second half of the 20th Century more than any other was Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941. The Waterboys' epic Red Army Blues recounts the tale of one young Russian soldier's war, from recruitment to fight the Nazi hoards to abandonment in a Soviet gulag "because Comrade Stalin said we'd become too westernised". Lead singer Mike Scott's voice is at its most powerful and emotional in this one. And, the way the band uses a mix of horns and traditional Russian musical grandeur is something to behold.
1944: When The Tigers Broke Free (Pink Floyd)
Taken from the soundtrack to the film, The Wall, the song tells the story of the death of the father of Floyd member Roger Waters during the Battle of Anzio in World War II. Lieutenant Eric Waters was killed in February 1944 as German tanks (Tigers) attempted to repel Allied troops, including Waters' Royal Fusiliers, Company Z, who had landed at Anzio, south of the Italian capital, Rome. The most distressing line comes when a young Roger Waters finds the letter sent to his mum notifying her of Lieutenant Waters' death: "And I found it one day; In a drawer of old photographs, hidden away; And my eyes still grow damp to remember; His Majesty signed; With his own rubber stamp."
19th-20th Century: With God On Our Side (Bob Dylan)
A young Dylan (aged just 23) takes us through the battlefield history of the United States from the Indian Wars, to the US Civil War, Spanish-American War, two world wars and the Cold War, all the time questioning the rights and wrongs of involvement, actions and alliances. I've read critics who didn't like the following lines (not poetic enough or something), but I think they get to the heart of this troubling composition: "The Second World War; Came to an end; We forgave the Germans; And then we were friends; Though they murdered six million; In the ovens they fried; The Germans now, too; Have God on their side".
1963: Murder Most Foul (Bob Dylan)
A much older Dylan (just turned 80 at the time of publication) takes up the story of the assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 and the following five decades of social and cultural change in America. It's a very long song, clocking in at nearly 17 minutes, but when you consider the mountain of information Dylan is throwing at us here it's a wonder he squeezed it all in.
1973: Khe Sanh (Cold Chisel)
This classic recounts the tale of a returned Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD and unable to settle back into civilian life in the so-called Lucky Country. "I've had the Vietnam cold turkey; From the ocean to the Silver City; And it's only other vets could understand". The song features Chisel lead singer Jimmy Barnes at his raucous best. Virtually every Aussie between 20 and 70 knows this song. Not only is it about history, but it has now become part of our collective history.
1972: Sunday Bloody Sunday (U2)
Tells the story of the shooting of unarmed protesters by British forces in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972. Also known as the Bogside Massacre, 26 civilians were shot resulting in 14 deaths. The British soldiers claimed they were responding to attacks by IRA sympathisers. This is generally dismissed as bullshit, to use the technical phrase. The song was written by U2 lead singer Bono, an Irishman. This is part of his lament: "Broken bottles under children's feet; Bodies strewn across the dead-end street; But I won't heed the battle call; It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall."
1977: Biko (Peter Gabriel)
In September 1977, black anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was beaten by white South African police officers in Port Elizabeth and died in hospital soon after. His life became a symbol of the struggle for freedom and equality in South Africa. Former Genesis front man Peter Gabriel recorded Biko a few years later. It has a spartan feel, with a definite African rhythm, tells the story of Biko's death and dreams of the flames of freedom spreading from his loss. That dream eventually became a reality with the end of apartheid in 1994.
1987: Belfast Child (Simple Minds)
Written by Simple Minds lead singer Jim Kerr in response to IRA bomb attack on a Remembrance Day celebration in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland which killed 12 people. The song mashes together the tune of a classic Irish folk song (She Moved Through The Fair) with Kerr's deep-seated anguish for the divided people of Ireland. Another powerful protest against the hatred that leads people to slaughter each other because of perceived divides.
1946-1990: We Didn't Start The Fire (Billy Joel)
Billy Joel's song We Didn't Start The Fire gives a rapid-fire account of 40-odd years of world history. He essentially digs into the highs and lows of international, political and cultural developments during his lifetime to the time of recording. An older person listening to this is reminded of countless radio or TV broadcasts during his or her life; a younger person might be reminded of a confusing history lesson at school or think why the hell is this person throwing a lot of meaningless words at me. Whatever, it's a classic.
PLEASE CONTRIBUTE: There are plenty of other songs that link into history. Do you have any favourites? Let us know in the comments section below.