This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, 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. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone 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.
KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Honourable Mention Song #15: Johnny Was by Bob Marley and the Wailers (+) covered by Stiff Little Fingers (as Nominated by John Barr).
To make a bit of an editorial comment: I have always felt that those artists and bands who first had a hit with a particular song should be the ones given credit for it. This was the case just recently with the song, “Hound Dog” *(which you can read here), that many people associate with Elvis but, in fact, was first sung by “Big Mama” Thornton. So, when I published that post, I did so as “Hound Dog” by “Big Mama Thornton. I certainly gave Elvis his due in the body of the post but, I felt it was best to attribute the song where all began and, that was with “Big Mama” Thornton. So, a similar situation has arisen today with our nominated song, “Johnny Was”. My buddy, John Barr, put this song forward as being a Bob Marley cover that gained fame when performed by Stiff Little Fingers. The SLF cover is a very inspired choice. Their version is a searing rendition that I will speak more to below. But, truth be told, it was the great Bob Marley who wrote this song…..there are some who say it was actually written by Marley’s wife, Rita. Regardless of which Marley spouse penned the song, I will give them their credit. I just wanted to be clear; especially to John, that I actually like the Stiff Little Fingers version a lot and that I recognize that this is the version John wanted me to showcase…..which I am happy to oblige……but, Bob Marley first because, after all, it is his song.
As noted in a previous post about the song, “No Woman, No Cry”, *(which you can read here), Bob Marley was raised in a part of Kingston, Jamaica, known as Trenchtown. This area was home to a public housing development in which the various homes were built in the shape of a “U”, with all three or four homes facing inward toward a shared communal space where all of the cooking was done, children could safely play and the bathrooms were housed. When young boys grew too big for the inner compound, they would head out into the streets. In many cases, gang members patrolled those areas and many a young boy found himself swept up in the embrace of these gangs. A life of crime awaited most who joined. Not surprisingly, there were turf wars between gangs and violence was not uncommon. What was, also, not uncommon was for young boys and men to be killed as a result of this violence and then, for their mothers to mourn their child’s senseless death. It was against this backdrop of violence and criminal activity that Bob Marley spoke out in the form of a song called, “Johnny Was”. This song title is short for “Johnny Was A Good Man”, which is the line uttered by weeping mothers for their sons and by neighbours who shook their head at it all and remained thankful that their own family was spared.
“Johnny Was” appeared on an album called, “Rastaman Vibrations” from 1976. It credits the song to Rita Marley on its cover. The first verse of the song was used as a sample by Rapper The Notorious B.I.G. in his song, “Hold Ya Head” and gained a new amount of fame in Hip Hop circles. As you are all, no doubt, well aware, many Hip Hop songs have dealt with the subject of gang violence, drug dealing and the epidemic of street violence which remains so prevalent among Black men, in particular. Thus, it is not surprising that there would be a sort of universal appeal to the subject matter contained within “Johnny Was”.
Furthermore, it should also, not be surprising that, arguably, the most intense and respected cover of “Johnny Was” came from a punk band from Northern Ireland called Stiff Little Fingers. Stiff Little Fingers formed during the late 1970s and shared the same music era as did The Clash and The Sex Pistols. However, unlike their English punk counterparts, Stiff Little Fingers found themselves caught in the middle of the violence that plagued Northern Ireland that became known as “The Troubles”. While English punk bands, like the Sex Pistols, railed against high unemployment and a host of social issues, Stiff Little Fingers felt that they had much more urgent issues to speak out against. Sectarian violence was killing scores of people in cities like Belfast. Whether the dead were British soldiers, I.R.A. sympathizers or, as was often the case, innocent civilians who were caught in the crossfire, Stiff Little Fingers channeled their anger into music and, as such, they came to be known for the intensity of their live sets. One of the songs that seemed to fit their situation like a glove was Bob Marley’s, “Johnny Was”. They took a song that in Marley’s hands read almost like a lament and infused those same words with a sense of anger and frustration. The result was easily one of the most fervent anti-Troubles song to come out of the Irish punk scene.
Sadly, the universal appeal of a song about sadness and anger at the loss of life due to senseless violence allows a song like “Johnny Was” to fit far too many situations all around the world. But, just the same, I am thankful that such words do exist and are at the ready when need be. I just wish that need didn’t happen for often as it does.
Thank you, Johnny Barr, for presenting “Johnny Was” as your song choice. It was a perfect song for me to discuss in this forum of ours. And, just so everyone knows who John is……he and I (and my wife, Keri) were teachers on the same staff at a school in Bowmanville. We have stayed in touch over the last two decades; with education, music and many of the same friends all helping to maintain our personal connection. Johnny used to host his own radio show here in Cobourg a few years ago, too. I am thankful to John for his many comments, questions and song ideas throughout the course of this countdown journey. For example, John was directly responsible for suggesting I cover “All The Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers because of the interesting back story to that song *(which you can all read here). As always, John, it is a hoot and a holler swapping music tales with you. Thanks for helping to make the process of completing these 500 song posts so interesting for me. I appreciate your input, interest and support along the way.
So, without further delay, here is “Johnny Was” by Bob Marley and as well, by Stiff Little Fingers. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Johnny Was” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Bob Marley and the Wailers, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Johnny Was”, as covered by Stiff Little Fingers, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Stiff Little Fingers, can be found here.