The Jazz Butcher: Hysteria
‘Hysteria’ is the third track on Big Planet Scarey Planet, and after ‘New Invention’ and ‘Line of Death’ (about the USA bombing of Libya in 1986), it represents a brief change of tone and pace. It runs the risk of being a touring band’s song about life on the road, but the complaints about the hardships of touring are only part of it; it’s really a song about America from viewpoint of a European, and as such it fits well with the first two songs, the first being about an Americanized Britain, and the second being about American paranoid fantasies about Arab leaders.
There wasn’t a video on YouTube, so I’ve made one:
The Jazz Butcher website also has a live version from 1989, which goes at a much faster tempo than the studio version and loses some of the mood:
Musically, there are some unusual things going on here. The 3/4 waltz rhythm is part of it, and the vocal line has some unusually big leaps in it, especially when we get to ‘It’s alright for a while’. There’s a suggestion in this, and in the descending chords, of some Sixties folk-pop classic, but never specific enough to make it into a steal: is it the Beatles’ ‘Hide Your Love Away’, or Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?’ The organ line (funereal at the start, but warbling at the end) takes it out of straightforward folk-pop territory, but also has a sixties ambience about it. The spaciousness of the song also gives it a cinematic feel.
What stops the lyric being simply a touring song, or simply satire, is the way it’s caught between distrust and disdain on the one hand, and longing on the other; and even the longing isn’t resolved. At one point its a longing to join in the luxury and excess, if only as respite ‘We drove the bus through Heaven / There were people in their best suits in the bar. / We’re far from home, we’re far from well, / I wish I could have joined them for an hour’. Elsewhere it’s pity (‘But look at its children, too human and sad’), and elsewhere its a desire to change it. The song builds to a final list:
So what for did we come here?
Well, we came here to learn,
‘Coz somebody told us
You’ve got books here to burn.
And we came for your buildings.
And we came to see your fountains.
And we came for the restaurants.
And we came for your women.
And we came for the Pacific Ocean.
And we came for the drugs.
And we came for your souls.
Sounds stupid, but we came for your souls.
Those ‘fountains’ might be ‘mountains’ (see here), but it doesn’t matter too much. While some of these in isolation might read like straightforward decadent rock and roll (the women and the drugs), taken with interest in books, and architecture, and the fountains/mountains, it’s more complex, and the final touch is both to admit to some sort of reforming mission (‘we came for your souls’) and in the next breath to admit that such a project might have been utterly misguided.