"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Imagine that a popular American rock band – say, the Black Keys – wrote a song about immigrants. There are too many of them, the lyrics suggest, and they take jobs away from native-born workers. The chorus recommends that they go back to their countries of origin, where they really belong. Though the song was meant to satirize xenophobia, “No Mexicans” could be easily interpreted as an anthem of racism.
This was the situation that the Beatles faced in 1969, when they first concocted the song that would become “Get Back.” Better known as a playful take on counterculture, starring the gender-bending Sweet Loretta Martin and the grass-smoking Jo-Jo, the song originally dealt with South Asian immigration to the United Kingdom. The strange story of “Get Back,” its politics, and its bootlegs tells us much about the limits of what musicians, even hugely popular and politically engaged ones, can say in popular music — and what’s at stake in the battle over file-sharing and free culture today.
An early version of the song, known to bootleggers as “No Pakistanis,” began with Paul McCartney muttering, “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs.” Many Americans have heard similar complaints, having listened to the anti-immigrant invective of Joe Arpaio and Tom Tancredo for years. Brits are also familiar with such rhetoric, seeing the British Nationalist Party ride their slogan of “British jobs for British workers” to prominence in the last decade.
Many who hear the song today are startled to hear this sort of cranky posturing from the Beatles, the lovable moptops who told us that “All You Need Is Love.” Bootleg versions of “No Pakistanis” have even won the hearts of neo-Nazi groups like Stormfront, who believe that the Beatles were really on the side of the white man’s cause all along. (The white supremacist band Battlecry even recorded its own clueless version of the tune.) If released today, a similar song would likely ignite controversy, regardless of the songwriter’s intentions.
The year, of course, was 1968 – a time of race riots, political assassinations, and social ferment. Into this heady atmosphere walked a British M.P. named Enoch Powell – the Tancredo of his day.
The immigrant-bashing ex-congressman, though, cannot be said to share Powell’s capacity for a Latinate flourish. Enoch borrowed the words of Virgil to describe the threat of continued immigration to the United Kingdom. “As I look ahead,” he said, “I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’” For maximum poignancy, he told the story of a gloomy constituent who wished he could afford to leave the country, because the influx of immigrants meant that “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” A friend recalled that Powell expected the speech to “go up ‘fizz’ like a rocket,” and a local TV crew rushed down to tape what they expected to be a much-discussed news item after seeing an advance copy of speech.
The so-called “Rivers of Blood” speech caused the media firestorm that Powell had wanted. Accusations of racism led to his cabinet ouster by Prime Minister Edward Heath, but some citizens maintained that “Enoch was right” – a slogan that became a commonplace of racial resentment in the following decades. The Beatles, however, did not share this view, and Powell became the target of several songs the band recorded for their new album, which eventually saw release as “Let It Be” in 1970.
In a recording known as “Back to the Commonwealth” or “The Commonwealth Song,” the band blasts the politician by name. “Dirty Enoch Powell said to the immigrants, immigrants you better get back to your commonwealth homes,” McCartney warbles over a skittering beat. Soon enough, however, we learn that “Heath said to Enoch Powell you better get out, or heads are gonna roll.” As the song slides into a rollicking boogie, McCartney recounts his travels around the old British empire, from the West Indies to India and Pakistan, as Lennon chimes in occasionally, in the voice of a prim old English woman, “The Commonwealth is much too common for me.”
“Getting back” was a major theme of these recording sessions. Powell tells the immigrants to get back to Britain’s former colonies, and the party leader tells Powell to get back in line. The Beatles, for their part, intended the new album to be a back-to-basics affair, trading the experimentalism of “Sgt. Pepper” and the “White Album” for the simpler rock they abandoned in the mid-1960s.
The politics of race and immigration, however, played on their minds too. “Get Back” itself went through several distinct iterations before it became the commentary on counterculture that the public heard in 1969. One mumbled verse mentions a “Puerto Rican living in the USA,” and appears to rhyme “Rican” with “Mohican.” Another version, closer in style and tempo to the final recording, refers to people “living in a council flat” – the British equivalent of public housing – where “the candidate for Labour tells them what the plan is, then he tells them where it’s at.”
Who McCartney was actually referring to is difficult to determine from the recording, but the Beatle later insisted that any pejorative racial tone was not intentional. “There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living 16 to a room or whatever,” McCartney said in 1986, one of the rare times he talked about the songs. “If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles. I mean, all our favorite people were always black.”
Then there is the matter of “White Power.” In this recording, Lennon and McCartney free-associated names of popular figures over a blues jam, drifting from Malcolm X and Cassius Clay to the likes of Judy Garland and British pop pianist Russ Conway. The juxtapositions are intriguing: Mary Whitehouse, a British crusader for morals and decency, comes up, as does Dusty Springfield, the legendary soul imitator. The Beatles were up to something when they coupled Richard Nixon and Malcolm X with the incessant refrains of “white power” and “can you dig it?” but it was not something they intended to share with the public. The recording has never seen release. A somewhat similar song, “Dig It,” made it onto the “Let It Be” album, but the racial dimension was missing. Instead, Lennon rambled about the BBC, B.B. King and soccer player Matt Busby.
“Get Back,” for its part, also shed its racial implications on the way to wide release. Instead of a Puerto Rican and a Pakistani, the official version deals with Jo-Jo, who “left his home in Tucson, Arizona, for some California grass,” and a cross-dresser named Sweet Loretta Martin. McCartney advises Jo-Jo to get back to his roots, while warning that Martin will “get it” some day if she keeps up her transgressive ways. The Beatles evidently felt more comfortable addressing counterculture and sexual liberation in the song, rather than risk releasing a recording whose satirical intent could be misconstrued as an anthem of racial backlash.
Indeed, these three remarkable songs have remained “in the vault” for decades, even after the passions and politics of 1969 have faded. The surviving Beatles chose to release three double albums of unreleased material in the mid-1990s, yet “Back to the Commonwealth” did not find a place on the six discs of the Anthology series. Two mediocre tunes – “If You’ve Got Trouble” and “That Means a Lot” – were included as heretofore-unreleased Beatles gems, yet “White Power” went unacknowledged. In late 2008 McCartney goaded the press into another round of hoopla by hinting that the last unreleased Beatles track – a 14-minute sound collage called “Carnival of Light” – might be released, as if several other noteworthy songs did not exist.
The vault, however, is (and has always been) leaky, because music and people have proved hard to keep apart. Even in the age of the shellac record, jazz heads exchanged homemade copies of obscure and out-of-print recordings. Classical aficionados in the 1950s captured performances from the radio using disk-cutters and reel-to-reel machines, and 1960s bootleggers snuck tape recorders into concert halls from Lincoln Center to the Whisky-a-Go-Go.
In fact, the Beatles’ controversial “Get Back” recordings were among the first to find release when rock bootlegging exploded in 1969. The movement was touched off by the release of Bob Dylan’s so-called basement tapes, which emerged in Los Angeles and soon spread throughout the country, with various compilations appearing under names like The Great White Wonder, Troubled Troubadour, and Stealin’. Soon, a Beatles album called Kum Back appeared on the streets of San Francisco, and live bootlegs of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and numerous others followed. The profusion of new and unauthorized music helped the record industry push through its long-desired goal – a 1971 law that provided federal copyright for sound recordings for the first time.
Despite the new ban on piracy, “No Pakistanis,” “White Power” and the other songs of the “Get Back” sessions continued to circulate. Collections like Sweet Apple Trax and T’anks for the Mammaries moved through the underground throughout the 1970s, and mp3s of “Back to the Commonwealth” can be found through file-sharing networks today. Bootlegging provided an alternative channel for subversive and potentially controversial music to reach the public, albeit in a limited way. Those who sought it out could hear “No Pakistanis” and evaluate it for themselves, without the song providing a soundtrack for racism or fodder for public debate. Without bootlegging, we would only know the version of the Beatles that John, Paul, George, Ringo and Yoko wanted us to know: the canonical hits and pseudo-bootlegs of the Anthology series.
That being said, unrestrained reproduction can have its drawbacks. No writer wants her early, unedited drafts to drift around the Internet, no more than Paramount wants its rough cut of “Star Trek Into Darkness” to circulate before the film’s release. Bootlegs revealed an unvarnished side of the artist, for better or worse. They can also pay off in buzz and publicity; Great White Wonder generated considerable curiosity about the basement tapes by the time Dylan chose to release them in 1975.
The persistence of “No Pakistanis,” despite its official suppression, represents an early chapter in the story of uncontrollable culture – the same culture of constant documentation and distribution that gave us Mitt Romney’s 47 percent screed and Amy Winehouse’s crack-smoking cellphone videos. And though more than 40 years have passed, the remaining Beatles still prefer not to release these songs. There are subjects, it seems, that even the most popular band in history cannot broach in public.
Could any artist deal with today’s explosive debate over immigration in popular music, or is the topic too sensitive for satire? Bruce Springsteen attempted to address the issue nearly 20 years ago on his “Ghost of Tom Joad” album, but with little popular success. Commentary and satire have been left to conservative voices like Rush Limbaugh, who ridicules immigrants with the appallingly racist “Star Spanglish Banner” on his radio show. (A video for the song can be found on YouTube.)
One group has tackled the question of immigration with candor and wit, in a way that the Beatles demurred. The veteran norteno group Los Tigres del Norte released the song “Somos Mas Americanos” in 2001, and the meaning of its title – “We are more American” – raised the hackles of anti-immigration activists in the U.S. “What would happen … if a successful recording artist or group released a song that relegated some Americans to second-class status?” the conservative writer Allan Wall asked in 2003. Wall, an American expatriate who teaches English in Mexico, pointed to “Somos Mas Americanos” for the answer to that question. The song had become a hit in Mexico and on U.S. Spanish-language radio. Its lyrics merit lengthy quotation:
A thousand times they have shouted at me,
“Go home, you don’t belong here”
Let me remind the Gringo
That I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me
America was born free—Man divided her
They drew the line so I would have to jump it
And they call me Invader
That’s a big error
They took eight states from us—who is the invader here?
I am a stranger in my own land
I don’t come to make war—I’m a working man
Los Tigres del Norte flipped the script of “Get Back,” demanding the right for Mexicans to return where they once belonged – the land their ancestors lost in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of the 1840s. Los Tigres could go where the Beatles feared to tread because their song did not travel far beyond the limits of Spanish-language radio or anti-immigrant websites. The band made its defiant statement without the dominant Anglo culture taking note in the U.S. The song also spoke from the viewpoint of those being told to “get back,” rather than speaking about them.
Most important, though, both “Somos Mas Americanos” and “No Pakistanis” flew below the radar of mass culture; neither song was heard by listeners outside of a particular subculture, whether collectors of Beatles bootlegs or fans of norteno music. The day still waits when questions about who “belongs” where, who is “more American” than someone else, and whose jobs are being taken by who can be addressed in popular music. In the meantime, bootlegging and file-sharing can create an outlet, however small, for that music to be heard.
Alex Sayf Cummings is an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University and the author of the new book "Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the 20th Century." He is also a co-editor of the blog Tropics of Meta.More Alex Sayf Cummings.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)