Sunday, 29 January 2017

My Top Ten John Hurt Songs

I'm not going to go off on one about losing another hero of my youth. Last year was a bad one, but I think we all have to accept now, this is going to happen with greater frequency as we count down to our own departures. Facts of life, and all that.

Never mind, here's ten songs in tribute to The Elephant Man, Kane, Winston Smith and The War Doctor...

10. Johnny Cash - Hurt

Let's start with the best song on the list, though in some ways the least relevant. It's a John, and he's Hurt. It seemed to fit the mood too.

9. Biff Bang Pow! - Chocolate Elephant Man

There will be more references to The Elephant Man in this list than any of John Hurt's other films. I'll explain the main reason for that shortly, but there's another reason. The story of John Merrick touched a lot of songwriters and became a metaphor for loneliness, bravery and prejudice.

Released in 1985, Biff Bang Pow!'s song was obviously inspired by John Hurt's starring role in the 1980 film.

8. Todd Rundgren's Utopia - Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw

I read the other day that Amazon in the USA has currently sold out of George Orwell's 1984.

Todd Rundgren released this, as part of the Utopia album Oblivion back in the actual 1984. When we only had Ronald Reagan to worry about.

See also David Bowie's 1984 and 1984 (Sex Crime) by The Eurythmics, obviously.

7. Catatonia - Hooked

Very early Catatonia single which ends with the Elephant Man sleeping. Shush,

See also Rufus Wainwright's In My Arms for more Victorian hospital beds John Merrick might sleep in.

6. Pet Shop Boys & Dusty Springfield - Nothing Has Been Proved

From the soundtrack of the movie Scandal, in which Hurt played Stephen Ward, the man who took the rap for the Profumo affair, and ended his own life as a consequence.

5. Sparks - I Wish I Looked A Little Better

Another Elephant Man reference, though Ron and Russell turn it into an ode to teenage insecurity...
Turn out the light, yeah, the light
And I might have a chance
I guess I look slightly worse
Than the Elephant Man
Whoa, oh, oh, I wish I looked a little better
4. The Beautiful South - I May Be Ugly

Paul Heaton does the same, for a slightly older man. Full of cruel jokes, masking a much deeper sadness. Which is a great metaphor for the pain we cause when we judge others by their outward deformities.
When you feel like London
And you look like Hull
You think Travolta pulled Newton-John
Who did John Hurt pull?
3. Alt-J - The Gospel of John Hurt

Sigourney Weaver recalls, "All it said in the script was, 'This thing emerges.'"
No space
Tile seeking
Oh somewhere
To fit in
Oh, coming out of the woodwork
Chest bursts like John Hurt
Coming out of the woods
2. The Pogues - Sally Maclennane

As you might have guessed, The Elephant Man is my favourite John Hurt performance, and not just because it's directed by David Lynch. A lot of actors would have turned this role into caricature; he found real pathos. I cry every time I watch it.

I already did My Top Ten Elephant Songs though, which included two songs called Elephant Man. I skipped those this time for deeper lyrical references,
But Jimmy didn't like his place in this world of ours
Where the elephant man broke strong men's necks when he'd had too many pours
So sad to see the grieving and the people that I'm leaving
And he took the road for god knows in the morning
1. Art Garfunkel - Bright Eyes

And if you don't fill up every time you hear this, you didn't grow up in the 70s.
There's a high wind in the trees
A cold sound in the air
And nobody ever knows when you go
And where do you start?
Oh, into the dark
Rest in peace, Hazel.


  1. Inspired
    Can I offer Iron and Wine with Naked As We Came in tribute to the
    brilliant The Naked Civil Servant

  2. Nicely nicely - especially as you avoided Englishman in New York by old bumblebollocks himself, the lute bothering twat that is Sting

  3. As above, nicely (brilliantly!) done - not an easy one to compile, I'm sure! I had no idea there were so many references to the Elephant Man in song. I'm the same re. the crying thing.

  4. Dude, hats off. One of the things about John Hurt was the fact that he never let himself be cast-typed, every role is as different from the last, hence it's almost impossible to nail down one particular performance for which he was best known - there's just so many, be it Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, or The War Doctor in Dr Who (which he'd never watched when he played it). I first remember him from THAT scene in Alien, where the rest of the cast had no idea what was about to happen. A genius, no arguments, a very sad loss, and a very fitting tribute.

  5. Loving The Alien (David Bowie) - or is that just too obvious

    John Hurt reprised THAT scene from Alien in Spaceballs - preceded by the words "Oh No Not Again", the alien burst forth from Hurt's stomach, donned a top hat and cane and waltzed along the bar singing "Hello My Baby"

    Never heard much of Todd Rundgren's Utopia before - I think I'm off now to have a deeper listen.

  6. Very clever - had no idea this top ten would be possible and I had totally forgotten about his portrayal of the Elephant Man - quite a role. Nearly the end of Jan now though and so far so good as far as tragic demises go. Cross fingers that will continue into the year as last year was a bit freaky.

  7. Thanks, all. Sometimes the Top Ten theme of this blog can be a curse (particularly when it's the end of the month and I've already used but my ten free choices). But it also forces me to think outside the box sometimes and I was surprised by how many John Hurt-related tracks I found.

  8. Wow. Now that's a list! I don't know how you do it. Utopia was the first band I ever saw, and it was on the Oblivion Tour in '84. Loved that album then and love the album now. Completely agree the first song is the best of the bunch. Any excuse to highlight it works for me.

    1. I have to confess that Utopia is a new discovery to me. I've enjoyed some of Rundgren's solo work in the past (and weirdly, he'll feature in next week's Top Ten too) but I need to investigate Utopia further.

  9. Top choice for number 1. Proof positive that all Art Garfunkel needs is someone to write songs for him...

    John is a huge loss. Patron of my local cinema, and very involved in it he was too. An extraordinary actor and, more importantly, a good bloke.

  10. A fine tribute to a great actor. I'm old enough to remember Mr Hurt give an amazing performance as the Roman emperor Caligula in the marvellous BBC TV series "I, Claudius" - a televisual feast featuring a cast of Britain's finest actors. And there was his sympathetic portrayal of Stephen Ward - a man who killed himself after being stitched up by minor royalty, lawyers, politicians and senior police officers - in the film "Scandal".


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