CRAVEN’S NOTES: How Morse Code has made its mark in music
Free Press Music Columnist
Old codes don’t die, they just -.. .- … …. .- .– .- -.–
In case you’re not a former sailor or ham radio operator, the above is not a typesetting snafu. Those are the dashes and dots (or “dits” and “dahs,” as telegraph operators often vocalize them) that comprise Morse Code.
Nowadays, Morse Code is pretty much a dinosaur, a moribund artifact of a past era. But the modern world wouldn’t be what it is today if, back in the 1830s, Samuel Morse hadn’t created the binary cipher which bears his name. Until the invention of the telephone in 1875, it was the only means by which to quickly transmit data over long distances, and it continued to be used in maritime communications until 1999, and is still practiced by ham enthusiasts to this day.
Surprisingly, there is another area of modern life which has also been affected by the use of Morse Code. And that’s the world of popular music.
It’s astonishing how many songs and albums have incorporated Morse Code. Sometimes, it’s in the use of Morse Code “words,” especially “S.O.S.,” the three-character distress call which originated in Morse and which lent itself to the title of a popular ABBA song in 1975 as well as dozens of other lyrics by artists like Rihanna, Good Charlotte and Jordin Sparks.
But Morse Code has also found its way into dozens — possibly hundreds! — of songs, by artists including the B-52s, Roger Waters and Kraftwerk, either as a sound effect or actually built into the musical structure of the song.
Sometimes the Morse Code in question spells out nonsense, as in the case of the insistent pseudo-Morse Code of the Five Americans’ 1967 hit, “Western Union.” Likewise, it’s unclear that the Morse Code snippets present in two hits from the following year, Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” and “Captain of Your Ship” by Reparata and the Delrons genuinely spell anything meaningful — although years later, Jimmy Webb, writer of “Wichita Lineman” would joke that the Morse Code played by Campbell on his bass guitar actually says, “Bring me beer.”
Occasionally, Morse Code has musically “seeded” songs. The rhythm track of “Lucifer,” the opening instrumental on the Alan Parsons Project’s 1979 concept album, “Eve,” is constructed on the Morse Code pattern which spells the album’s title. And Rush famously used the Morse Code characters for “YYZ” to create the odd rhythm of that song. (“YYZ” is the Morse Code signal for the Lester B. Pearson International Airport in Toronto, and the inspiration to use the code snippet came to Rush’s guitarist Alex Lifeson, who is a licensed pilot.)
More than once, Morse Code has been used to plant naughty words and messages in a song. In 1967, the psychedelic group Pearls Before Swine used Morse to spell a common epithet starting with the letter “F” in the chorus of their “(Oh Dear) Miss Morse.” And 23 years later, Mike Oldfield would send a rude personal message (using the same epithet!) to Richard Branson, the owner of Oldfield’s record label, Virgin Records, on the track, “Amarok.” That may seem shocking, but what can I say? Dit happens.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog and also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog at http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog/. You can also find him on Facebook.
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