This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #442: Zombie by The Cranberries.
When the full history of modern music is written, there will be a special section reserved for political protest songs. All throughout our modern times, there have been issues of injustice, violence and discrimination that have been counter-acted by the words of some of our best poets, authors, artists and musicians. Songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, “Beds are Burning” by Midnight Oil, “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, “White Riot” by The Clash and that seemingly innocuous chestnut, “Nine to Five” by Dolly Parton, are all examples of singers/bands using their public platform to speak up and speak out about a cause that was important to them. Taking its rightful place on this list is today’s song, “Zombie” by The Cranberries.
“Zombie” is a song written in response to a series of real events in England in 1993 called The Warrington Bombings. In order to understand the context in which these bombings took place, an extremely simplified overview of Irish history is necessary. I will start with a line from “Zombie” that states…..”It’s the same old thing, since 1916….”.
1916 is an important date in recent Irish history. For a very long time, England ruled Ireland. In doing so, the British Army conducted regular patrols throughout the country. Many Irish (especially, Catholics) considered the British to be an “army of occupation” and, as such, they actively sought to force them out by any means necessary. In 1916, in the middle of WW1, an organized revolt took place called The Easter Rising. England responded with overwhelming force. They captured those who had organized the Uprising; charging them with treason and executed them in public to send a message of deterrence to anyone else who had thoughts of sedition. While there is a more nuanced history to what happened next, The Easter Rising, in turn, gave rise to a para-military organization called The Irish Republican Army. The IRA, as they became known, began a campaign of terrorist bombings throughout Northern Ireland and England in hopes of forcing the British Government of the 1960s and 70s to enter into negotiations for Irish sovereignty. Many innocent civilians were killed in Northern Ireland, (which split along religious lines; pro-British Protestants on one side and pro-Independence Catholics on the other.) Most of the early bombings occurred in Northern Ireland but, eventually, the IRA took its campaign right into the heart of England, itself. The Warrington Bombings were part of that campaign. There were two different bombings as part of The Warrington Bombing initiative. The first was at an oil refinery. It caused damage but no injuries. A month later, a second bomb was planted in a rubbish bin (or, garbage can, as we like to say in Canada). This blast killed two children and injured 56 others. The outcry that went up as a result of the two children being murdered was instantaneous. The IRA were roundly condemned. One of the people swept up in the outrage that followed was Dolores O’ Riordan, lead singer of the Irish music group called The Cranberries. The deaths of those two children, in particular, seemed to be a breaking point for O’Riordan and many others who were so very tired of the seemingly endless cycle of violence and destruction. She claimed to have written and composed the song very quickly; her passions being as enflamed as they were, the words simply poured out of her. While I always knew that “Zombie” was about the violence that took place in Northern Ireland, I was not aware (until doing research for this post) exactly how timely this song was. The Warrington Bombings took place in 1993. “Zombie” premiered in 1994. While it was not exactly released in “real time”, it was released at a time when the physical and emotional wounds were still very fresh for all involved. Releasing as powerful a song as “Zombie”, as quickly as they did was a brave political act for The Cranberries. As it turned out, it was an act that was not without consequences for the band and for the song.
The “official” video for this song has been the subject of ongoing attempts by British and American governments (particularly, right-wing, Conservative governments) to censor it. In the video, Dolores and a group of children sing/sit by a cross. The images of her singing with the children are inter-mixed with documentary-style film footage taken throughout Northern Ireland neighbourhoods, showing real British soldiers on patrol, as well as, local shrines/murals that exist as memorials to IRA “soldiers” who have been killed in action or else, who have sacrificed their lives in hunger strikes and the like. The British Government refused to allow the video to be aired in England (claiming it was pro-IRA….a charge O’ Riordan vehemently denies); only showing the band performing live. In the U.S., the song was used in the reality show, “Rock Star: INXS” but none of the song’s references to “tanks and bombs and guns” were allowed to be aired on tv because it was the time of the Gulf War and the song was viewed as being “anti-military”.
Dolores O’ Riordan passed away a couple of years ago. She had actually been living not too far from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, just north of a city called Peterborough. It is said that she had been suffering from mental illnesses, of one form or another, during her later years. There is no direct evidence tying her experiences with the intense politics of “Zombie” and the violence of Northern Ireland, to her struggles later in life but, the toll taken on all those who speak out against those in power is not to be under-estimated. Not to be lost in all this talk of violence and politics is the fact that, as songs go, “Zombie” is a heck of a song! The guitar work is terrific throughout the song but, I am particularly drawn to the drumming. The drums are played by Fergal Lawler in a way that conjure images of exorcising demons. It is a ferocious display that captures my attention in the official video, as well as, any live performance I have watched. Over the course of their career, The Cranberries had several Top Ten hits but none were as overtly political nor, as emotionally-charged as, “Zombie”. Music critics have hailed “Zombie” as being one of the best and most important political anthems of the past quarter century. Please take a look at the video and find out what all the fuss is about for yourselves. As I like to say, sometimes a song is more than just a song…..”Zombie” is certainly a case in point.
The link to the official music video to Zombie by The Cranberries can be found here.
The link to a live music video for Zombie by The Cranberries can be found here.
The link to a video of Zombie being used an an “entrance song” for an Irish MMA fighter (and the gorgeous crowd sing-a-long) on the day after O’Riordan’s death can be found here.
The Cranberries have a website that can be accessed by clicking on the link here.
Thanks to KEXP for helping to inspire the writing of this post. A link to their website can be found here.