By The Landlord
In my junior school playground topics of conversation were limited. On a Friday it generally concerned what was on Top of the Pops the previous night, and what would be No 1 next in the charts. It might have been about football, and where it had all gone wrong for George Best. It might have been, in our Victorian brick outdoor school toilets, finding which of the lads could piss up the wall highest, or even over it. You know, elevated topics. But the greatest excitement, about the greatest of heroes, inspiring more banter and debate than anyone, always came from the latest bout or remark by Muhammad Ali, whose passing last week has prompted this topic. All the kids loved Ali. We all wanted to be him. So much so it often ended up in fights …
So this week’s topic is all about physical fighting, from basic street brawling and scrapping to all the various disciplines and cross-pollinations of refined martial arts, cage fighting to Chinese wing chun, Japanese judo to Indian Inbuan wrestling to Thai krabi-krabong. Fighting can come in all forms, and always includes a mental struggle as well as physical one, with various weaponry – physical, psychological and tactical. In the growing sport of chess-boxing, for example, particularly popular in eastern Europe, Germany and Russia, it is no surprise in interspersed three-minute rounds between gloves and chess set, the knockout blow often comes on the board, not in the ring.
But first, to Muhammad Ali. It’s impossible to underestimate how famous Ali was, particularly in the 60s and 70s. He was bigger than the Beatles. His personality transcended culture, race, sport, and nationality. He annoyed, fascinated, and inspired the world. He was a giant in all realms, physically, mentally and spiritually and politically. So much has been said about him by so many, including many great writers, it’s hard to top it. He was beautiful. He moved a like a cat. His eyes flashed like beacons. He was so fiercely intelligent and incisively funny. Let’s see a glimpse of one of several great documentaries, When We Were Kings, this all about the Rumble in The Jungle in Zaire against George Foreman in 1974.
Other than being the key player in a tremendous story, what’s clear is also how much Ali, and boxing in general, has inspired and indeed gone hand in glove with music. When We Were Kings includes footage of James Brown, BB King, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz and more who were all part of the pre-fight entertainment. All martial arts are steeped in public performance that is heightened by music from the brash entrance songs of US professional wrestlers to the surreal sounds heralding Muay Thai rituals. But it was Ali’s ability to deliver knockout lines, from “I've seen George Foreman shadow boxing, and the shadow won”, to “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick,” that certainly inspired so much hip-hop with its poetic jabs, from the Sugarhill Gang to LL Cool J, Public Enemy to the Fugees to the Wu-Tang Clan. Hip-hop itself is a form of verbal sparring, and no one did it better than Ali.
Ali’s story contains colossus-sized amounts of tragedy, triumph and controversy. “Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up,” he said. George Foreman, the giant he felled, could barely get a word in pre-fight, but years later came out with many interesting remarks: “Boxing his like jazz. The better it is the less people appreciate it.” Boxers always inspire headlines. Boxing is a talking sport where everyone has something to say, on its brutality, as entertainment, and of course its promotion and corruption. It is absurdly hyped, but there is so much musicality to its theatre.
Boxing, like many fighting forms, also portrays, to the audience, human fear, loneliness, and struggles in the extreme. Ali was hit hard, in all sorts of ways by Joe Frazier when the latter defeated him. And after this, the greatest of bouts, he was still positive. “Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.” He even had the same upbeat attitude to Parkinson’s, which hit him for the rest of his life. Yet when Ali’s narrow revenge victory came, the Thriller in Manila in 1975, he later called it “the closest thing to dying that I know of”.
But perhaps his decision to refuse draft to Vietnam war stands out as Ali’s greatest controversy, with his subsequent ban from boxing for three years during his peak period. It would be like a magnified version David Beckham, at the height of his fame in the 2000s, speaking out against the Iraq war and refusing to play for England. Ali was yet far more famous. The Ali ban, and it’s absurdity, was highlighted very well by the comedian George Carlin in 1971, saying that the government wanted him to stop beating people up and kill them instead …
But Ali of is not the only boxer. Joe Louis (Ali’s “greatest”) Sonny Liston, Sugar Ray Leonard, frightening Mike Tyson and Roberto Duran are also among many fighters who have inspired all kinds of music and mentions in lyrics. Grace, brutality, and mental health issues run throughout many of their stories. Here are just a few of many controversial moments that have fuelled songwriters’ imaginations.
But there’s a whole world of fighting outside of boxing to inspire yet more music. The other great hero of the 1970s was of course Bruce Lee. While becoming a sadly short-lived film star, there was nothing fake about his level of skill or fitness, nor indeed his ability to use the energy of his opponent to his advantage. So enjoy a few outrageous Lee moments here, almost comical in their brilliance. What young man did not pose in front of a mirror at some point in their lives and wish to be him?
Now let’s watch and listen to Muay Thai pre-match rituals. They are strangely beautiful and somehow raise this game to higher level of respect and spirituality beyond the brutality.
Brazilian capoeira is also a particularly musical martial art, originating in Angola in the 17th century, it is rooted in slavery as an expression of fighting back in dance-like form.
In the very opposite corner, the 1970s and 80s was also steeped in the surreal shouting theatre of British professional wrestling. No Saturday afternoon was complete for me without a trip to the sweet shop and then sitting down to watch those fine athletes Big Daddy, or indeed Giant Haystacks in action on ITV's World of Sport.
Perhaps that period’s most surreal moment came with the unmasking ceremony of the mysterious Kendo Nagasaki, in … Wolverhampton, and in front of millions of viewers on TV. Unlike some of the heavyweight fridges described above, this mystery man was a very skilled martial artist indeed, but what’s going on with those red eyes?
Inspired by this scene, you might like to check out songs from Luke Haines’s concept album, 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early ‘80s, each song devoted to a different fighter from the era.
But let’s now finish with the hopes and dreams of those who wish to be like many of the heroes above. You wanna see something? I hope you like pain….
And so, laaayyydies and gentlemen! Let’s make this a good clean fight. And don’t forget when you nominate songs on this theme, there can also be tag-team donding! And like all great martial arts, in music form, you can positively use the energy of others. We’ve seen the blue corner, the red corner, in fact there are many corners here from all around the globe. So who is your marshall of martial arts, your referee ready to wrestle with your song suggestions? For this week’s bout it is the Wondrous Ever Ready Raconteur Ravi Raman, who will no doubt promote this event as well as choose a playlist from your suggestions. Ravi’s playlists will appear here next Wednesday, after the bell is rung on Monday. Ding! Ding!
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.