Title: Behold ‘The Colours of the Night’
Post by Sylfest on Today at 19:05
Dontcha love those audacious Atkin/James history and geography songs? I fervently do, sometimes to the extent that I feel bored by love songs that don’t include a cold war, shuttle disaster or global apocalypse in there somewhere.
The Colours of the Night/ Last Ditch is in that thrilling tradition (and the tasty arrangement is too, with Simon Wallace’s Hammond organ and Chris Spedding’s stylish guitar licks adding much to the drama). It has echoes of Sunlight Gate and The Last Hill That Shows you All the Valley – maybe it recalls the long-suffering, guilty Tenderfoot too – in a timeless tale of conflict, but this time seen more directly through a soldier’s eyes.
The scene reminds me of the setting of Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers in arms’. It’s about the last place a soldier gets to know before his death. Not a mountain in this case but a generic place in a time-worn agricultural landscape – a wall, a gate, a ditch, a field of grain. It’s not where their heart is, not where they belong, but it’s where they come to take a stand, defending it to the death.
This return to the theme of war and oppression through history tells the story from the soldier’s point of view. We feel it through their senses – the sights, sounds and tastes of the battleground. In Sunlight Gate the sights and sounds of military activities were sketched by an onlooker who doesn’t know what’s going on. In The Last Hill the ‘you’ was a more slippery character, at times both observer and participant (Cassandra’s your kid, apparently). But in TCOTN/LD the voice is more immediate and compelling – the ‘we’ are ordinary men, scared, brave and committed.
Is this song really about war in general? I think it is, although it doesn’t say directly. There’s a sense of returning to a recurring situation, the last verse echoing the first by subtly ringing changes to switch the rhyme – ” The frozen rain, the swinging gate/The tinge of blood, the hinge of fate” coming back as “The hymn of hate, the cry of pain/The swinging gate, the frozen rain”. Then there’s the symbolism of the gate, which is a little different from the historical Sunlight Gate. That one was the start/finish line, but this is perhaps a hinge of fate, where there is an important outcome, still uncertain.
Unlike The Last Hill, which was full of specific references, TCOTN/LD includes little detail, but it does move between 20th century battle flares back to the time when a wall that was “taller than a man” would seem formidable. I love the line “Before this thing began”. It’s artfully inarticulate. It blows open the ol’ time/space portal – opening up possibilities beyond any particular skirmish, battle, war, country, continent and time in history.
Obviously these soldiers are outnumbered, but that’s an understatement. “Breathing a cloud into the frost” hints that their efforts are quite hopeless in the face of an implacable, overwhelming foe. At the song’s conclusion, “They are the scythe, we are the grain” makes it grimly clear that when these men take their stand, it is with no expectation but death. That fate imbues them with a mythic quality; they go to join the company of the dead of endless violence through history.
There’s another side: that “The dawn burns like the brand of Cain” tells us that these soldiers are not innocent but themselves killers too. (That ‘witch’s brew’ they’ve been drinking might not just taste foul). It hints that even their continued survival may be a curse from God, who has marked them as evil but also forbidden revenge on them. Since we aren’t told of any specific crimes these soldiers have committed (that’s a whole ‘nother bunch of Atkin/James songs), we might conclude that all soldiers bear the mark of Cain.
In the second verse the language gets more florid. Where in particular does the phrase ‘the colours of the night’ come from? I’ve no idea. I’d like to know. It sounds rather ironic, since these colours don’t naturally belong to the night scene. Crimson Lake and China White are names of pigments, which might be blended to make a flesh colour for a portrait I suppose, but here describe the unnatural glare of red and white flares in the sky. White flares could be used to illuminate a battlefield for guiding shells or bombs: red could be a distress signal.
His reflections about pigments set this painter-soldier a little apart from his comrades. And so for me the quiet setting of The Colours of the Night makes for a better fit to the lyric than the rousing march of Last Ditch. It allows more dramatic expression, for example in the bridge section (“The wall that we were sent to guard…”) and in the last verse, which takes on a surging momentum at the finish, picking up the drums and a heartbeat bassline as that last kicker line is delivered (“They are the scythe, we are the grain”: so clear-eyed and chilling), to rock out heroically on Chris Spedding’s guitar solo coda, at the end of which the lone bass heartbeat slows and fades. Does it stop, or does it ‘never wholly disappear’? Maybe they’re still out there.
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