#31Songs (extra): Gunning the Works, by The Blue Aeroplanes

#31Songs (extra): (No particular cue)

‘Gunning the Works’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Bop Art (1984) and Friendloverplane (1987)

(This is the point where the highly engineered 31 Songs master plan falls apart: I like this song, but there’s no suitable cue for it.  So I’ll write about it anyway.)

There are two versions of this song, significantly different in pace, one on Bop Art (1984), and the other collected on Friendloverplane (1988).  I heard the Friendloverplane version first and still vastly prefer it: it goes at a much higher tempo, and Gerard’s vocal performance feels  more confident and committed.  If there’s a slight loss it’s that the bass gets somewhat buried in the mix, but it can have its effect even when the listener isn’t particularly conscious of it; it’s a very busy bassline, especially at the faster tempo.  In the Bop Art version the bass has a fatter, softer sound, and is more prominent.  The Bop Art drums have a crude echo on them that makes them sound like a weird kind of rockabilly.

Bop Art version on Spotify

Friendloverplane version on Spotify

I like the way they’ve more or less abandoned conventional verse-chorus structure, and yet it’s still a catchy pop song.  There’s the ghost of a refrain, in that the song returns several times to ‘I didn’t know people could be so unkind / divided’, but it’s just the one line.  Musically speaking, on the first appearance it seems as if this phrase will be marked by the repeated pair of chords played in unison in power-chord style; but on the first repeat those chords come after the refrain phrase, and then lie beneath a sort of guitar solo (though the instrument could be a mandolin); on the next repeats of the chorus the power chords don’t appear at all.  On Friendloverplane the guitars are very distinctive: not altogether likeable, in that they’re tinny and thin sounding, but riffs they play have a kind of demented energy to them, like flies spiralling around inside a glass bottle, occasionally hitting the sides.

I’d known this song for some years before I heard the phrase ‘gunning the works’ explained. It seems to be Gerard’s variant on ‘gumming (up) the works’, but what really matters is the idea of throwing a spanner in the works. It dates from an era of industrial relations and worker-power that perhaps disappeared in the late 1970s: if management were pissing off the workers on the factory floor, as a last resort someone could always ‘accidentally’ drop a spanner into a crucial piece of machinery and cause a partial closedown. The device that ought to be constructive becomes destructive.  Whether ‘gunning’ is a local variant on ‘gumming’, or a mishearing of it, or  whether it’s a deliberate reworking of the phrase to give something more aggressive, there’s no way of telling.  It works, and I was surprised that I can’t find any trace of ‘gunning the works’ as an accepted variant of ‘gumming’.

Here it’s the central metaphor for destructive impulses in relationships, though if we follow through the industrial-relations roots of it, it could be a metaphor for the things we do to secure some self-determination in a potentially oppressive space.  In this song, at times the destruction is self-destruction: ‘she wants the thing that holds her back’, and later ‘the boy’ who does so.  The narrator, likewise, likes not only to see ‘you’ sing and dance, but also to point him out.  The ‘crook’d and pointed finger’ is odd: is it supposed to be witch-like?  Or a crook that captures him and draws him in?  Even odder is the baby behind glass, ‘eating dirt and being independent’.  This comes across as a parody of liberal parenting: the parents observe, but remain non-interventionist, letting the baby do stupid and self-destructive things while congratulating themselves on its impressive independence. Is it the same for the factory workers who wreck the machinery and the lovers who wreck their relationships, but who pride themselves on their new-found autonomy?

With the exception of the slower pace for ‘She wants the boy that holds her back’, the mood of the music is determined by the opening line, ‘I like to see you sing and dance’. It’s exuberant and joyful, even when the song is about destruction, and so there’s a curious contradiction: the lyrics hint that this behaviour is stupid and regrettable, but the music is gleefully committed to it.




(from lyrics.wikia.com, revised: I have ‘eating dirt’ where it has ‘heading death’)

I like to see you sing and dance

I like to see you jump and shout and point
your crooked and jointed finger at me

I didn’t know people could be so unkind

It’s you they call disillusioned

It’s not their fault
But they do want someone to blame

I didn’t know people could be so unkind

His body is sprung and loaded
She wants the thing that holds her back

His shoulder, a holster
Her head on his shoulder
Her shoulder, a holster
His head on her shoulder
Her shoulder, a holster
His head on her shoulder
Her shoulder, a holster
His head on her shoulder

I didn’t know people could be so divided

At the crossroads by Mothercare
Clicking heels in earnest
They shows she knows what a spanner is for

It’s for gunning the works

And I didn’t know people could be so unkind

It’s you they call desperate
It’s not their fault
But they do want someone to blame

It’s cold and the baby’s behind glass
eating dirt and being independent

At home everything’s

She wants the boy that holds her back
You know it’s not his/her* fault
But she does need someone to blame

(*his on Bop Art, her on Friendloverplane)


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