Forever Young – “A” is for Alphaville (Let’s Get Lyrical – Groups)

If for a song to be successful it must define its time and yet be timely and timeless, then Forever Young is a  tour de force in this category. It distilled and bottled the spirit of youthful optimism, which though sharply tempered by worldwide paranoia  about the nuclear arms race, was ingrained in the fabric of the eighties.  However, those waving their arms to the deathly pale and uninspiring Benjamin Hudson McIldowie (Mr Hudson) featured on Jay-Z’s 2009 Young Forever – for which the first two verses and chorus of Forever Young was the core, if not sole, inspiration – would have little idea of the meaning of the lyrics.

The cold war was at its height when Marian Gold, Bernhard Lloyd and Frank Mertens of Alphaville wrote the song. Though more thoughtful and less apocalyptic than ex- Ultravox lead singer John Foxx’s “Europe After The Rain” the song is punctuated by references to the nuclear threat presented by the cold war, and is clearly an expression of the fear and paranoia caused by the political uncertainty of the time.      

When John Foxx penned his song the Doomsday clock was at 4 minutes to midnight. By the time Alphaville struck up a chord – or more correctly pressed a polysynthetic note – the clock had advanced a full minute closer to midnight, or put another way 3 theoretical minutes to Doomsday.  This level had only once been surpassed since the inception of this barometer of global affairs was created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and that was in 1962 during the Bay of Pigs standoff – and that was no game.  No wonder the song talks of “hoping for the best, expecting the worst”. 

let’s dance in style, lets dance for a while
heaven can wait we’re only watching the skies
hoping for the best but expecting the worst
are you going to drop the bomb or not?

This is not an anthem for “doomed youth” in fact quiet the contrary. Whilst there is an acceptance that times are dark and outcome’s are uncertain this is actually an appeal to youth to not be paralysed by fear, but to engage with life and enjoy it no matter how long its tenure maybe.  In fact there is a sense of exasperation with the oppressiveness of the situation “are you going to drop the bomb or not?”

let us die young or let us live forever
we don’t have the power but we never say never
sitting in a sandpit, life is a short trip
the music’s for the sad men

The tenet that youth has almost exclusive hegemony over is the belief that a young death can be meaningful or glamorous or both: “Let’s die young or let us live forever”.  There is fatalism in these words but also a challenge.  The “live forever” predicts an early death but hints at it being built on a legacy of fame for the achievements and enjoyments experienced in life. It is a rallying cry to action, to dance and enjoy and on that basis alone life affirming.

The optimistic note being sounded quickly darkens again, as the writer offers reflections on political power and the lack of it in the hands of the young – “we don’t have the power”. The inference being by saying “never say never” that the world’s youth could quickly resolve the conflict and that given the tools (“power”) they have the will. However without this power the “music” will still be played by the “sad man”.    

can you imagine when this race is won
turn our golden faces into the sun
praising our leaders we’re getting in tune
the music’s played by the madmen

The “sad man” is quickly transformed into the “mad men”, whose music we are compelled to march in time to, powerless to resist an inevitable march into oblivion. An oblivion where our “Golden Faces” will face the fire-ball euphemistically called in the song “the sun”.

can you imagine when this race is won
turn our golden faces into the sun
praising our leaders we’re getting in tune
the music’s played by the madmen

Doesn’t this explanation seem a world apart from the impression left by Jay-Z’s “Young Forever”?  Strangely Jay-Z’s song which concentrates on the shared themes of enjoying life to full, making your mark in a limited time, and celebrating being youthfulness, uses the first two verses not the more appropriate later two. The kind interpretation is he was making reference to North Korea and the cloud of suspicion that hangs over nuclear weapons being there, the more cynical, that he grabbed the theme of youth – which is trending (i.e. Kawaii) – and completely failed to understand the songs point.

It is high likely that the original message is lost on those singing along to the happy clappy chorus that Monsieur Hudson intones. The probability is that Generation Z associate the “Golden Faces” with the healthy glow gained from a long holiday in the sun, and would not have the remotest idea that it is a description of the moment of devastation caused by the detonation of a nuclear weapon.

This is one of the real problems with sampling and makes me recall the interview given by the Sugar Babes’ about “Freak like Me”. They used a sample from “Are Friends Electric” which had been brilliantly worked by Richard X into an impactful and memorable dance number. The sample dominated the song and gave it its power, but during the interview they referred to Gary Numan as a” relatively unknown 80’s pop star” and implied he would benefit from the renewed interest the chart position created”. I found myself mentally shouting at the TV screen, something to the effect, “there would be no you, and certainly no UK No 1 song, without the contribution of the “godfather of Synth”.

it’s so hard to get old without a cause
i don’t want to perish like a fading horse
youth is like diamonds in the sun
and diamonds are forever

Forever Young could appear dated to contemporary ears because of its slightly cloying tone and nod to new romanticism. Yet “Young Forever” just serves to demonstrate the outlook of youth has substantially changed in the last 30 years and the rational drivers of fame “my name shall survive” and the pursuit of wealth now over powers many other more worthy ideas and ambitions. Gain World Peace and rid ourselves of weapons of mass destruction? Of course we can achieve it we have David Beckham, Ronaldo and the global internet…..

The real teen fear, poignantly expressed poignantly by Lily Allen, in “The Fear” is not the threat of man made or natural disasters but not being noticed like “diamonds in the sun”, included in things, or simply recognised. The need to get either 100 friends on Facebook, 500 viewers of a webcam, 10,000 blog reads or one million hits on You Tube dominates, matching success in life skills or sporting prowess as substantive ambitions for today’s youth.

The other side of the Fear is the inability to find direction in a constantly changing society and managing increasing levels of autonomy. This insecurity is not helped by the big picture for many of Generation Z being primarily a digital global one, and as that implies, a remote – even lonely – and potentially insubstantial one. At least the threat of annihilation during the mid 1980’s worked to concentrate thoughts, or through CND galvanise opinion.     

Morals and ethics maybe in flux in 2010, and hard drug use and sexual exploration and exploitation – “shameless” – amongst the young in the ascendency, but don’t these trends have strong parallels with the 1980’s? Parallels yes, but at least in 1984 similar experimentation with fashion (e.g. cross dressing and male makeup), Sexuality (e.g. bi-sexuality) and drugs (e.g. cocaine, heroin) could be explained as a reaction to the climate of fear and the desire to taste life before it was extinguished, not just a head long rush to sensation.

But there are always similarities and commonalities between periods. The experience, or fear, of getting old and the loss of youth and the “beat” and “heat” is a universal one and one that understandably preoccupies writers in every age.

some are like water, some are like the heat
some are a melody and some are the beat
sooner or later they all will be gone
why don’t they stay young

The duality in the song is the loss of youth through ageing and the abrupt end through weapons of mass destruction. We perceive the possibility of the last one as being remote.

so many adventures couldn’t happen today
so many songs we forgot to play
so many dreams are swinging out of the blue
we let them come true

The writer in the last verse opines that so many adventures couldn’t happen today, with the implication being that they have run out of time “so many songs forgot to play”. The end of the song appears to focus on life’s randomness at that time: “Many dreams are swinging out of the blue”, but it also implies some sense of control because “we let them come true”. Is this about youthful dreams being fulfilled because of proximity and probability because they are “out there” and “up for it?” Or is the dream like sequence being referred to that of the “dream” like quality of the nuclear missiles “swinging” out of the blue skies ready to render those who are now young, forever young.