There were a lot of women considered eccentric in their time because they wanted crazy things like the ability to vote or work or love another lady.
This list is not about those women, because history is littered with examples of eccentric women who were really were just plain weird. They were usually rich: wealthy people get to be eccentric, while weird poor people tended to end up in asylums.
Here are nine eccentric women who made being strange a lifestyle.
Hetty Green loved money in the same way most people love breathing. Born in into a wealthy family in 1834, her idea of fun as a child was reading financial reports and doing accounting for the family business.
When her father decided it was time to marry his weird daughter off, he bought Green a bunch of expensive dresses, so she’d look pretty for rich suitors. Instead, she sold the clothes and bought government bonds with the proceeds.
Green was afraid men only wanted her for her money (to be fair, they did). She was 33 when she finally married and took the then-almost unheard-of step of drawing up a prenuptial agreement to protect her wealth. When her husband tried to spend her dough anyway, she threw him out of the house.
Despite being so rich at this point she was compared to people like John D. Rockefeller, Green was pathologically stingy. She lived in cheap, unheated, rented rooms and her children wore second-hand clothes.
Her son’s leg had to be amputated because she refused to pay for medical treatment after he injured it in an accident. But she was equal-opportunity terrible when it came to health care. Green lived with her own painful hernia for years because she thought doctors were just trying to rip her off when they told her to do something about it.
When her husband died, Green wore black for the rest of her life. She’d walk around NYC in a tattered dark dress (and dirty underwear), earning her the fabulous nickname “The Witch of Wall Street.”
The Witch swore she wasn’t as stingy as everyone said, but that’s debatable. When her aunt died, leaving a fortune to charity, Green challenged the will, forging documents to try to make it looked like she deserved the millions instead.
Lady Hester Stanhope had good reason for wanting to leave England in 1810. Two fiancés ditched her, then when she finally found one who didn’t dump her he was killed in battle, plus her brother and favorite uncle died, all in just a few years. So, she got the heck out of Dodge.
Stanhope set off for Constantinople with a convoluted plan that she would take down Napoleon (who was not in, or anywhere near, that city). When that understandably went nowhere, she stayed in the Middle East and traveled extensively, always wearing Turkish-style men’s clothing, meaning she was constantly mistaken for a young boy.
Once she finished with traveling and settled down in Lebanon, in a house full of secret passages and chambers, things got really weird. Stanhope claimed she’d been crowned “Queen of the Desert” in an elaborate ceremony (she hadn’t) and made her servants treat her like royalty. She believed the fabled redeemer of Islam was about to appear, and thought she was obviously the logical choice to be his bride.
Stanhope took up alchemy and astrology, dumping weird potions on unsuspecting guests while she talked manically. She kept one of her horses in a stable that was lit up 24-hours a day and fed the mare ice cream and other human treats.
At one point, Stanhope managed to start a war between two local tribes and at least 300 people were killed. Then she believed she’d found a treasure map, and set out to dig it up, but the expedition was a “complete fiasco.”
Stanhope also stopped paying for stuff. When debt collectors finally came for their money, she just walled up the entrance to her house so they couldn’t get in. Of course, that meant she couldn’t get out, either. She stayed in her home until she kicked the bucket in 1839.
Mrs. Giacometti Prodgers found her one true love during her divorce in 1871. It wasn’t a new man: it was taking people to court.
Over the course of her life, Prodgers was involved in over 50 lawsuits. Despite being extremely wealthy, a lot of them were over refusing to pay people. Her ex-husband and a secretary both dragged Prodgers through the legal system for not paying them what she owed (the ex had to do so repeatedly).
But going to court over money was way too pedestrian for Prodgers; she could get way more creative than that. She sued someone who accidentally ripped her dress, a watchmaker for mistakenly returning the wrong watch to her house, and a cook she’d fired for singing too much.
Even when Prodgers wasn’t suing people, she was rude to almost everyone she met, except, for some reason, the famous explorer Sir Richard Burton.
It was her pathological hatred of cab drivers that made her infamous, though. Prodgers memorized the fares for exact distances and would take a cab (the horse-drawn kind) right up to the edge of where the price increased. If the cabbie tried to charge her the higher amount, she would refuse to pay, picking a fight until the cabbie was screaming and cursing. Then she would sue him for both being overcharged and the verbal abuse.
Soon, cab drivers fled at the sight of “Mother Prodgers.” One of them was arrested for burning her in effigy. During one lawsuit, a judge pointed out that with her wealth, it would be cheaper to buy her own horse and carriage than to keep taking cabbies to court.
An entire occupation rejoiced when her obituary bluntly declared, “Mrs. Giacometti Prodgers, the terror of London cabmen, is dead.”
Gwyneth Paltrow has nothing on Helena, Comtesse de Noailles when it comes to alternative medicine. Born in 1826, Helena spent her life experimenting with increasingly bizarre health fads.
The comtesse was the basically the original antivaxxer, against vaccination when vaccinations were barely a thing yet. She also believed in walking barefoot everywhere, something some people embrace today. But not all her ideas caught on.
Helena slept with dead squirrels tied around her neck if she was at home; if she was staying a hotel, she made the staff tie a string of onions outside her door so she wouldn’t get sick (vaccines would help with that, too.) When she caught bronchitis, she “cured” herself with a diet of caviar.
For reasons that remain unclear, the comtesse believe breathing methane gas was good for her. She kept a herd of cows under her bedroom window, so she could inhale their health-giving farts and burps.
It wasn’t enough to inflict these bizarre treatments on herself. Helena had no biological children, so she adopted (some say bought) a young Spanish girl named Maria.
The poor child was sent to a convent school, where her mother ordered Maria to wear a Grecian tunic and sandals, instead of the uniform the rest of the students wore. Maria could only drink milk from cows selected by the comtesse and learned grammar through a system she’d invented.
Helena did live to be 82 though, so maybe she was onto something with those dead squirrels and cow farts.
Marchesa Luisa Casati was the archetypal eccentric aristocrat. From a young age, she had a “horror of the mundane.” Or you could see it as a desperate cry for attention.
Saying she wanted to be “a living work of art,” Casati spent huge amounts of money on clothes. And not normal clothes: her regular outfits included a suit of armor pierced with hundreds of electric arrows and a headpiece made of peacock feathers covered in chicken blood. If someone noticed her necklace moving, that was probably because it was really a live snake wrapped around her neck.
Sometimes the decision of what to wear must have overwhelmed her, so Casati just went naked. The residents of Venice were used to seeing her strutting around in nothing but a fur coat—while taking her two cheetahs for a stroll.
Clothes and exotic animals were just two of the many things Casati threw money at. By the time the Greta Depression rolled around, she was $25 million in the hole, having spent her entire fortune on “palaces, parties, antiques, cars, clothes, jewels, travel, and art.”
Casati ended up losing everything and spending her last days in a cheap apartment in London. She’d gotten into spiritualism and visited mediums in her youth, so she spent her old age casting spells on the people she thought had wronged her.
The famous campaigner against alcohol, tobacco, and Freemasonry, Carrie Nation was born in 1846 into an equally eccentric, or rather completely crazy family. Nation’s mother thought she was Queen Victoria and would wave to slaves on their plantation from a gilded carriage.
Nation’s first husband was a drunk, chain-smoking Freemason, and she hated him so much that when he died, she tried to stamp out everything he loved. This included sex: whatever they’d done in the bedroom, it made Nation so angry started stalking young couples and attacking them with her umbrella, seemingly to scare the libido out of them.
She firmly believed in ghosts and her powers as a clairvoyant, claiming she had her first vision age 8. Nation tried to heal sickness using hocus pocus, used charms to protect buildings from fire, and claimed she used her powers to end droughts. In her autobiography, Nation wrote she regularly conversed with Jesus and called him her “big brother.”
When she was 53, famous wine-drinker Jesus told her to do something about all the boozing in America. The 6-foot-tall teetotaler grabbed a sledgehammer, went into a drugstore, and smashed its whiskey barrels to bits. More destruction would follow, with Nation moving from town to town, smashing up saloons with bricks, hammers, rocks, billiard balls, and her cane, which was specially designed for easy destruction.
But when Nation started destroying bars with a hatchet, she became famous. She even had her own catchphrase, “Smash! Smash! For Jesus’ sake, smash!” She sold mini-hatchets as souvenirs, and the proceeds helped pay the legal bills from more than 30 arrests.
Soon Nation was a media sensation. People wrote songs about her. She starred as herself in a play (complete with hatchet) and went into vaudeville. Crowds flocked to her speaking tours.
Her downfall came when she traveled to England and tried to destroy pubs. Unlike Americans, Brits were never going to give up their booze.
Anne Lister is known as the “first modern lesbian.” Obviously, there’s nothing weird about being a lesbian now, but in early 1800s England it was not talked about. Being gay was totally illegal.
Lister wasn’t down with laying low, though. An “unmanageable tomboy” as a child, at school the teachers separated her from the other girls so she wouldn’t corrupt them with her unfeminine cooties. She started hooking up with other women as a teenager and boasted she’d “never been refused by anyone.”
The landowner and businesswoman always wore black, even in the summer, with boots and a hat. She thought it was a compliment that people said she looked like a man. She got the nickname “Gentleman Jack” and received hate mail from anonymous trolls.
“Jack” kept an exhaustive diary, where she recorded everything about her day in minute, boring detail. This included lots of stuff about her sex life, although those bits were written in code. She was “promiscuous and arguably predatory,” going through ladies like tissues. When she got tired of someone, she threw them away without another thought. These days she’d probably ghost you on Tinder.
Lister did fall deeply in love with Mariana Belcombe and was pissed off when Belcombe got married to a man. Lister was at the wedding and even went on the honeymoon with the happy couple. In her diary, Lister called the marriage “legal prostitution.”
Lister had her own money, but she was a complete gold digger. She wanted a rich wife and found one in heiress Ann Walker. Lister informed her family she was going to live openly with a woman, but they were all the opposite of shocked by that point.
The women moved in together, changed their wills, and even had a church ceremony where they exchanged rings. Everyone in Yorkshire freaked out, but the word “lesbian” didn’t exist yet, so they couldn’t accurately describe what they were so disgusted by.
Lister died from an insect bite while traveling with Walker. When her diaries were decoded by a distant male relative in the 1890s, he was so shocked by all the talk of lesbians that he hid the journals for decades.
The weirdest thing about how strange writer Edith Sitwell was is that she was desperately trying to rebel against her equally bizarre mother and father. Her review, which would have gotten one star on Amazon, was succinct and bitchy: “They weren’t parents I would recommend to anybody.”
Sir George Sitwell wrote a bunch of strange books, including a history of the fork. He hung a sign on their estate that said, “I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.” Sir George, in a nutshell, “did not like real life … so he avoided it.” Rich people can do that.
Lady Ida made her daughter wear a brace on her nose to fix her features and ended up in prison for fraud. The couple could only have relations after Sir George read a book to get him going, and then he would announce, “Ida, I am ready.” They were very upset when after all that effort their first child was a girl.
Edith was a brat as a kid, once announcing she was going to grow up and be a genius. She left home as soon as she could.
When the poetry she wrote started becoming successful, Edith’s father said she had made “a great mistake by not going in for lawn tennis.” Erstwhile sporting career aside, Edith is credited with the first rap performance, when she recited a bizarre, almost gibberish poem onstage to music. It was so strange, audience members complained they’d been punked.
Besides her strange poems, Edith was known for being “fabulously rude,” plus always wearing flowing robes, a turban, and tons of jewelry, to the point she would make “Lady Gaga look tame.”
Edith never got married, probably because she fell madly in love with a Russian painter who was openly gay. Whoops.
The famous traveler and author Alexandra David-Neel wrote that her wanderlust started in 1873, when she was 5. It probably didn’t help that her parents were upset she was a girl and paid virtually no attention to her. At 16, at a time when women traveling alone was scandalous, she ran away for the first time to do some exploring.
After a few years, her father got tired of all his kid’s disappearing acts and sent her to train as an opera singer. David-Neel was actually really good and managed to combine singing and traveling by touring with an opera company.
In between all this, she started studying the occult. That lead to an interest in Buddhism, which doesn’t seem odd now, but at the time she converted, David-Neel said she was “the only Buddhist in Paris.”
Despite the fact David-Neel was probably “repulsed by sex,” she finally got married at 36. She then proceeded to avoid her husband Philippe for the next 40 years.
They spent the beginning of their marriage apart while she worked on her writing career. He didn’t understand her desire to travel, and in 1910 told her to take a trip to “get it out of her system.” David-Neel took him up on it, not bothering to come back to Europe until 1924.
David-Neel had a fabulous time in the Far East, doing cool stuff like meeting the 13th Dalai Lama, but also living in a cave for a year eating one meal a day. She disguised herself and snuck into Tibet illegally, becoming the first Western woman to see Lhasa. The journey took two months, in the winter, mostly at night. She was attacked by robbers, had to boil her boots for food Charlie Chaplin-style, and almost died numerous times.
When David-Neel finally came back to Europe, she brought an adopted son with her, and her husband was extremely confused. Living together wasn’t working out, so she ditched him again, moving into her own house with her adult kid. She wrote books about her exploits and became super famous.
At the age of 100, she asked for a new passport so she could go back to Tibet. But dying finally put an end to her wanderings.
Barcelona has some of the best dining experiences in the world. The Michelin Guide awarded 24 restaurants in the city at least one Michelin star in 2019. That’s a lot of seriously good food you could get very fat on.
But dinner isn’t always about quality. Sometimes, you want an experience to go along with your food and drink. That’s when a guide to the weird, wonderful, and most unusual restaurants in Barcelona would come in handy.
You’re in luck, because that’s what you’re reading right now! If you want a show, puzzle, or demon from the bowels of hell with your meal, here are seven unusual restaurants in Barcelona you won’t want to miss.
If you’ve always thought looking at your food was the least interesting part of a meal, Dans le Noir? Is the restaurant for you. The dining room is shrouded in complete, pitch-black darkness. The idea is that when your sight is taken away, your other senses are heightened, turning your meal into a “uniquely sensory experience.”
It also presents problems, obviously. While cutlery is provided, it’s easier if you just eat everything with your hands. The restaurant says not to wear nice clothes (no one will see them anyway) because of the high chance of spillage.
If you need to use the bathroom, one of the vision-impaired waiters has to escort you to stop you from bumping into all the other tables (the toilets mercifully have lights, or there would be a whole different kind of mess). And to keep patrons from being robbed in the dark, everyone puts their valuables in lockers before they go into the dining room.
You don’t even get to order off a menu. The waiters bring you food and you have to guess what it is as you eat it. Same with the wine. It’s so hard to tell red, white, and rosé apart by taste alone that the restaurant made it a game, and 90 percent of people fail.
Calling itself the “most cursed place in the province of Barcelona,” La Posada Maldita works hard to live up to that eerie promise. At this restaurant, it’s Halloween every night, where you eat in a “dungeon-like” atmosphere and pass a graveyard on your way to the bathroom. Nothing like the specter of death to make you hungry for life-giving sustenance.
The waiters are just as creepy as the décor, dressed up in wigs and makeup that make them look like the undead or demons from hell, which might make you rethink eating anything they serve you. Despite obviously not making it as Hollywood actors, they take their roles seriously, put on a show while you eat, and never break character. Hopefully, no one needs the Heimlich when their waiter is “hopelessly insane.”
The terror extends to the menu, where your choices include such stomach-turning courses like “grimy zombie acne foam” and “weeds from our graveyard with crispy worms” (which you might think were pates and prawn cocktail, respectively, if you’re boring.) If you like a bit of terror to liven up your meal, this is the place for you.
It’s amazing Enigmatium stays in business, considering they don’t even tell you where the restaurant is. Knowing how to get to the place you plan on eating is kind of key to the whole dining out experience, but Enigmatium lives up to the “enigmatic” in its name by making you solve a puzzle to figure out the location.
A few days before your reservation, you get a document with clues and if you can’t crack the riddle then too bad, you’re going hungry.
If you do manage to find the place, you’re treated to a three-and-a-half-hour show with actors and magicians. The puzzles don’t stop, either. Throughout the night guests are given more riddles to solve, competing with other tables to see who can figure them out first. You’re supposed to interact with people you don’t know, and it gets very lively. It’s definitely not the place for a quiet date night.
To make sure you are fully immersed in the show and disconnected from the outside world, phones are prohibited, which makes sense these days. What makes less sense is they make you remove your watch as well, so that time “stands still” the whole night.
Sometimes you sit down at a restaurant, catch a glimpse of the dessert menu, and wish it was socially acceptable to just eat three courses of sweets. Thankfully, Barcelona has a restaurant where no one will judge you if most of your meal is dessert, because that’s their specialty.
Essence at Espaisucre is extremely exclusive, serving just 12 people a night. That already makes it cooler than most other restaurants. If you manage to be one of the select dozen diners, you’re served three salty tapas, three sweet tapas, and a whopping five desserts.
“The world’s first dessert restaurant” is attached to a pasty school and eating there is supposed to be a learning experience. Each dish is explained to you so that you understand the origin and reason behind all of them. Everything from the order of the meal to how the table is set up is “designed to enhance [your] consciousness of what [you] taste.”
That’s the official line, anyway. Unofficially, it’s a great way to stuff your face with loads of sugar.
Technically, the coolest place in the city is Icebarcelona, since it’s literally made of ice and kept at a freezing 2°F/-10°C. Okay, they serve drinks, not food, but it’s still worth heading to on a night out if you’re trying to hit up the unusual places Barcelona has to offer.
And if you’ve just come in off the warm streets in very little clothing, don’t worry, they supply you with a puffy jacket and a pair of gloves. (They don’t give you shoes for hygiene reasons, though, so maybe skip it if you’ve got flipflops on, unless you want to lose a toe to frostbite.)
Inside, everything is made of ice, from the bar to the stools to the shot glasses. There are even ice sculptures of polar bears and a mini La Sagrada Familia. It all has to be re-carved every year, so the designs stay fresh and, well, cool.
Even with protective clothing, 50 visitors at a time are only allowed inside the ice bar for 45 minutes. After that you’ll need to head out to their normal-temperate beach terrace.
A wax museum isn’t the first place you’d think to go if you were hungry, but if you’re looking for an unusual restaurant experience in Barcelona, El Bosc de les Fades café is not to be missed. It’s extremely popular, especially with tourists, so get there early.
Once inside, you’ll find yourself eating and drinking in “a forest inhabited by strange trees, gnomes and other unexpected creatures.” The designers tried to put interesting and unexpected details on every surface and in every corner, like waterfalls, a haunted house, and a creepy-looking child’s room where you “go back in time.” Assumedly this is so you can return to a time you were hungry and thirsty, so you’ll spend more money on food and drink in the weird fairy forest.
Described by various guides as everything from “esoteric” to straight-up “sinister,” the café is filled with relaxing forest sounds. That is, until they turn out the lights and there’s a fake thunderstorm, which is “your cue to scare the bejeesus out of your mates.”
The moral of The Great Gatsby is that the American Dream of wealth, luxury, and happiness is ultimately unattainable, but that’s no fun to reflect on during a night on the town. What is fun is partying like it’s 1920s America, and you have plenty of money to enjoy yourself.
As Gatsby Barcelona quotes on their homepage, “a little party never killed nobody.” (Except, spoiler alert, it did, in fact, end up killing Jay Gatsby. It’s like these people were never forced to read the book in high school.) And they give you one heck of a party, with dinner and a show full of “music, dance and song” that changes numerous times a week.
Designed to look like a glamorous speakeasy, the “clandestine entrance gates” lead to a club full of glittering gold and shiny light bulbs, totally 1920s aesthetic.
Just like Jay Gatsby’s parties in the book, this club is very exclusive. There’s even a dress code: women need to look fashionable and men are required to wear collared shirts. There’s no slumming it if you want to feel like you’re back in Prohibition America, drinking illicitly and living the high life.
Violence and war aren’t the obvious choices of inspiration when composing a song. Usually people sing about love, or losing love, or wishing they had love, or basically anything love-related. Barring that, they might write lyrics reflecting on partying, or how awesome the party they are at is, or how they are going to make a party awesome once they grace it with their presence.
But sometimes musicians delve into the unpleasant, dark side of human nature. That doesn’t mean the songs have to be depressing; some of the ones on this list are happy, or at least upbeat tunes. But they all explore what happens when people turn on each other and cause a lot of pain.
Here are seven songs about violence and war, plus the fascinating stories behind them.
If you were old enough to be dancing around to Prince’s megahit “1999” as the Millennium dawned, you probably relate it to New Year’s Eve, partying, and possibly a slight fear of planes falling out of the sky due to Y2K. But when he wrote it in 1982, the artist still known as Prince at that point had something even scarier in mind: nuclear war.
Behind the groovy beats are some seriously disturbing lyrics. From an opening that says it looked like “judgment day” and people were “tryin’ to run from the destruction,” to the realization that “war is all around” and everyone must prepare to fight and die. As for addressing nuclear war more directly, Prince opines that, “Everybody’s got a bomb/we could all die any day.”
Pitchfork reminds us that while the 1980s is remembered now as a quirky decade full of terrible hair, terrible fashion, and the terrible New Coke, it was also a time that was “full of dread—bad guys lurked around corners, and the threat of nuclear war hovered over the world’s geopolitic.” The album 1999 was a middle finger in “the face of near-assured annihilation,” and its title track was the biggest F-U of all.
Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to think that since no one got nuclear bombed to death then it must not have been that bad. But 11 months after Prince released his album, a malfunction in the Soviet Union’s missile attack early warning system brought the world thisclose to ending. Prince was singing about something very current and very real.
While Prince was clearly influenced by the fact the “fear of nuclear war was in the air,” the lyrics also give a nod to his Seventh Day Adventist belief in Armageddon. Maybe he was worried about a lot more than a few nukes.
Bob Marley only had 36 years on this earth, but in that time he released over a dozen albums, made reggae music mainstream, and brought hope to oppressed people all over the world. Not too shabby.
While Marley was proudly Jamaican, one of his most famous songs, released after his death, was about a decidedly American incident. “Buffalo Soldier” told the story of African American cavalry in the 1800s forced to fight Native Americans.
If this isn’t something people are that familiar with today, it was almost completely unknown when Marley sang about it. Listeners wouldn’t have learned in school about the men “Stolen from Africa/Brought to America/Fighting on arrival/Fighting for survival.”
While Marley doesn’t go much deeper into history than saying these men were told to “win the war for America,” the story of the Buffalo Soldiers is fascinating. While all-black troop units served as early as the Revolutionary War, it wasn’t until 1866 that Congress created six African American cavalry units whose main job was to “control” or “subdue” the Native Americans out West, particularly the Apache and Cree.
It’s not clear why, but the Native Americans dubbed these black regiments “buffalo soldiers.” All we have are theories, like the one that says they thought the men’s hair looked like buffalo fur, or that the soldiers fought so hard that they were revered as much as the buffalo. Wherever it came from, the name stuck around.
The mid to late-1800s in the West was a period known as the Indian Wars. Native Americans were, understandably, pissed off at the US government for all their broken promises. Around 20 percent of the troops who fought the Indian Wars were buffalo soldiers, who notched up 177 conflicts.
While the soldiers were free men by 1866 (barely) and were said to be “willing” to carry out their orders, Marley reminds listeners that ultimately, they had little choice.
While Marvin Gaye added his own lyrical embellishments to the tune, the anti-Vietnam War protest song “What’s Going On” was actually written by Four Tops singer Obie Benson. But it took the two of them to take a song about violence and storm the charts.
It wasn’t the conflict in Vietnam that first got Benson’s creative juices flowing, but violence at home. In 1969, he was on tour in San Francisco and saw police attack a group of hippies, he said for no reason: “The police was beating on the kids with the long hair but they weren’t bothering anybody.”
This led him to the now immortal question: “I saw this and started wondering what the f*** was going on. What is happening here? One question led to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas to Vietnam? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets here?”
Benson started working on the tune, but his Four Tops bandmates didn’t want to record a protest song. While Benson swore it was really about love, in the end the group passed, and Marvin Gaye decided to record it. He’d recently become interested in taking a new, more activist direction with his music.
The singer’s additions were key. Benson said, “[Gaye] made it visual. When you heard that song, you could see the people and feel the hurt and pain.”
With lyrics like, “There’s far too many of you dying,” “We don’t need to escalate/You see, war is not the answer,” and “Don’t punish me with brutality,” the song clearly addresses the violence at home and abroad. Gaye knew something about this; his own brother fought in Vietnam, and when he came back, he was “changed.”
Motown hated the song and refused to release it. Gaye had to threaten to leave the label before they caved. The song blew up, and helped change how people, especially musicians. talked about Vietnam.
Bono may be the expressive frontman, but “Sunday Bloody Sunday” started with The Edge. In 1982, while U2’s lead singer was off on his honeymoon, The Edge had a terrible day. He got in a fight with his girlfriend and started doubting if he was even that good at writing songs.
He did what musicians do in that situation and put all that anger into a guitar riff. Then he added lyrics railing at Irish terrorists, starting with the line, “Don’t tell me about the rights of the IRA, UDA.”
If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” you’ll know that isn’t one of them. The Edge’s musical rant was so “blunt and risky” that it was replaced by a message of tolerance to “ensure the safety of the band and their families.” Or as Bono would put it in 2010, “Over time, the lyric [would] change and grow.”
Even then, the new, nicer lyrics didn’t pull any punches. They drew attention to “Bodies strewn across the dead-end street,” how “the battle’s just begun/There’s many lost, but tell me who has won,” and that “today the millions cry/We eat and drink while tomorrow they die.” Not exactly subtle.
That’s because the Irish band was talking about a pivotal and extremely painful event in the island’s history. On January 30, 1972, the British Army fired on unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland. 14 people died, seven of them teenagers, making it one of the deadliest days of “The Troubles.” Bono called it the day people “[gave] up on peace.” The British wouldn’t admit fault for 38 years.
So no wonder the lyrics were angry. But one lyric they refused to change was the title, repeated over and over in the song. A record exec said “bloody” had to go, because the word “[wouldn’t] bloody work on the radio.” Obviously, it worked out just fine. Surprise, record executives don’t know everything.
You will be absolutely shocked to hear that things didn’t immediately get betting in Ireland after U2 released their song about the violence. That meant there was plenty of Irish violence left to inspire other artists. Like Dolores O’Riordan from The Cranberries.
On March 20, 1993, two IRA bombs hidden in garbage bins in Cheshire, England exploded within a minute. One 3-year-old boy, Johnathan Ball, died instantly, and 12-year-old Tim Parry was badly injured, dying five days later.
The IRA claimed credit for the bombings but was less thrilled about being responsible for the deaths of two young children. They claimed they had given two warnings before the attack (something they often did to give people time to evacuate) and that it was the police’s fault for not acting in time. No one was buying that excuse.
O’Riordan said she was watching TV and saw one of the mothers so upset over losing her son: “I felt so sad for her, that she’d carried him for nine months, been through all the morning sickness, the whole thing and some prick, some airhead who thought he was making a point, did that.”
The fact that innocent people were being harmed inspired her to write the song, even though she said she never planned on covering topics like that, thinking she would “get in trouble.”
The anguish in her lyrics is palpable, opening with “Another head hangs lowly/Child is slowly taken,” and that “Another mother’s breakin’/Heart is taking over,” because “They are fighting/With their tanks and their bombs/And their bombs and their guns.” She even brings up the historical context of how long the violence has been going on, singing, “It’s the same old theme/Since nineteen-sixteen.”
The BBC banned the original version of the video which showed images of The Troubles. Tim Parry’s father knew the song well but didn’t find out until O’Riodan’s death in 2018 that it was about his son.
Perhaps no war (sorry, not war, “Extended Military Engagement”) in history inspired more music than the Vietnam War. It was long, it didn’t seem to have much of a point, the draft was unbelievably unpopular, and 11,000 Americans died in the conflict every year. While most historians agree it all came to a head in 1969, for John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, that happened the year before.
In 1968, one of the greatest political marriages of all time took place. Then-President-Elect Richard Nixon’s daughter Julia married President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandson David.
Fogerty read about the wedding and got extremely angry. To him, it wasn’t an example of two young people in love, it showed how unfair the war was, because he knew there was no way in heck David, the grandson of one president and now son-in-law of another, would ever be selected to go to Vietnam.
In his 2015 memoir, he wrote about how politicians’ sons were always magically getting deferments if their draft number was called. He told Pitchfork in 2007, that while poor, lower class men were getting killed because of a war the politicians were responsible for, their kids always got “cushy jobs somewhere.”
With that inspiration, he claims he wrote “Fortunate Son” in 20 minutes. Creedence drummer Doug Clifford (who was in the Coast Guard Reserve in the 1960s) says it’s not really an anti-war song as such, it’s just about how unfair the class difference was. Fogerty served in the US Army Reserve in the 60s himself, although he never left the country.
But Fogerty made clear in the lyrics that his good luck wasn’t down to connections, singing, “I ain’t no senator’s son.” The song became intrinsically connected to the Vietnam War, in part because seemingly every Hollywood movie that takes place during that time uses it as part of the soundtrack.
In 2014, there was controversy when Fogerty played “Fortunate Son” at a Veteran’s Day concert. He responded to the criticism saying in part, “I do believe that its meaning gets misinterpreted and even usurped by various factions wishing to make their own case. What a great country we have that a song like this can be performed in a setting like Concert for Valor.”
The British had a very different view of the Vietnam War. That is to say, they were looking at it as outsiders, people who didn’t have the risk of going to fight, but still seeing the tragic disaster for what it was.
In 1965, the US ramped up its military efforts in Vietnam and wanted international assistance. President Lyndon Johnson was pestering the British prime minister to help out. While the American draft was ongoing, the UK’s stopped in 1960. And to put it in perspective, WWII, which devastated Britain, only ended 20 years before, and WWI was still very much within living memory. While British troops were in Northern Ireland, their appetite for war was nonexistent.
But for young British people in the late 1960s, it was like their war was missing, according to The Guardian. Their grandparents fought in WWI; their parents fought in WWII. What war were they going to fight?
The Zombie’s bass player Chris White was interested in WWI, so with Vietnam aggressively knocking on Britain’s door, he wrote a song about the past conflict. It stands out as a serious song on a mostly poppy album and it “succeeds because of its restraint and complete synchronicity of form with content, of music with lyric, of feeling with imagination.”
The lyrics tell the story of a butcher that’s inspired to go fight in WWI by a preacher who says it’s the right thing to do, even though the man of God will never end up under fire himself. He sees his friends die horribly and the flies covering the battlefields. The chorus hauntingly tells how war affects soldiers mentally and physically:
“And I can’t stop shaking/
My hands won’t stop shaking/
My arms won’t stop shaking/
My mind won’t stop shaking/
I want to go home/
Please let me go home.”
While obviously the band “did not experience the western front, but they projected themselves into a terrible event with all the considerable talent at their disposal.” They made a timely anti-war song about the past.