I first heard this record round my cousin Paul’s house in Ipswich after it was released in 1985.
Paul was a townie and a casual, unlike me and my brothers who where from a rural village in Essex. Never as well dressed, we were as unlikely to wear electric blue cords or Fila tracksuit tops as we would listen to Hip Hop or pirate radio.
Paul had 19 on 12 Inch and I can remember us listening to it on Uncle Sam’s Technics stack one Saturday afternoon (Uncle Sam’s classic HiFi separates epitomised the 80s and this particular one was off limits to anyone but Leo Sayer or Paul Simon).
Paul Hardcastle’s 19, I’d never heard anything like it before.
The electronic repetitive beat that would become so in years to come had an metronomic almost hypnotic sound to it that was almost too much to understand.
The shooting and fighting of the past two weeks continued today 25 miles west of Saigon. I really wasn’t sure what was going on.
I didn’t get it and thought the whole thing was some sort of hoax. Somehow though it all started to make sense as the layers of the song began to stack up and play off each other to give a simple but strangely complex sound. Musically, 19 is a perfectly crafted track.
The narrative that sits over the top, an unbiased confession of what 19 meant to young men of that age in that place. A simple story of a number that is fairly innocuous on it’s own but within the context of war is a sad indictment of men who wave their arms around in stupid suits.
Then the samples, real people talking about real events that actually happened. Soldiers and newsreaders, lo-fi sounding authenticity adding weight to the story as it unfolds.
Many vets complain of alienation, rage or guilt
Some succumb to suicidal thoughts.
The track is completed with haunting sirens and bugle samples that juxtapose nicely with the ludicrous female vocals. Sometimes, I still don’t get it, sometimes it doesn’t sit right but it always seems to make sense.
19 would prove to be as influential for me politically as it would musically. It sparked an interest in the anti war movement that still continues to this day. Mum answered questions about why none of the soldiers received a heroes welcome and why they didn’t understand what was going on. There was bitterness and resentment in her voice even then.
Whether that was the desired effect doesn’t really matter, more important was the idea of an unconventional protest that could gain access to a younger audience through music. We know of course that the message was unheeded on both sides of the Atlantic as suited religious men would continue to wave their arms about and plunge us into one disastrous conflict after another.
None of them received a heroes welcome, none of them, none of them.
Like the Vietnam war the conflicts of the last two decades would prove to not only damage us physically but also to cast doubt onto our national psyche in years to come. Whilst pictures of proud men with no legs look great in the tabloids, understanding how these conflicts will haunt us emotionally in the future is far more difficult to quantify.
Paul Hardcastle’s 19 will always be a novelty record, however for myself it also had a profound effect on my life in more ways than one.
In 2005 I blogged about Chickenhawk, Robert Mason’s classic memoir of the Vietnam war.