Wednesday 3 April 2024

One Track Mind #4: Cannonball

I approach Cannonball with some trepidation. It seems far easier to write about songs, and artists, with whom I've had a lifelong connection - like Prince and Billy Bragg - or to select huge chart hits ready for reappraisal, like When You're In Love With A Beautiful Woman. than to risk confronting a track that's so beloved by the cognoscenti, but that - until recently - I'd never really appreciated in all its glory. Then again, who said writing about music was supposed to be easy?

Let's backtrack. I was always a huge fan of The Pixies, but I never really paid much attention to Kim Deal's splinter / replacement project. Of course, when I say "always a huge fan", I don't mean that I was into the Pixies back in the late 80s when all the Cool Kids were. No, I probably discovered them just about the time the original line-up was breaking up, but as soon as I did I went out and immersed myself in their back catalogue, and that presumably kept me so busy that I didn't pay much attention to what the individual band members did next. Around that time I was also a big fan of Tanya Donnelly's Belly, but this was after Tanya had left The Breeders, so again, another missed opportunity.

Of course, it was impossible to ignore The Breeders - and Cannonball in particular - altogether in the 90s, and I'm sure they made their way into my record collection via indie compilations like Shine or The Best Album In The World Ever, so if you'd asked me back then, I would have told you, "yeah, good song... Kim Deal from the Pixies, right?"... but that would have been as much as I could have written. Right now, you may be wishing I'd submitted this post back then.

So why the reappraisal after all these years? The simple answer is that I finally started to listen to Cannonball in depth when I got round to adding it to one of Sam's in-car compilation CDs. And the more I listened to it, the more I wondered... what the hell is going on in this song? 

Spitting in a wishing well
Blown to hell, crash
I'm the last splash
I know you, little libertine
I know you're a real cuckoo

If you were to ask me what first draws me to a song, my answer would always be the lyrics. I love songs that tell stories...

Or songs that express or examine complex emotions, or that bare the soul of the songwriter...

And I like songs that say something about the world we live in, that take arms against the terrifying zeitgeist...

That would be my answer, anyway: that meaningful words maketh the song.

Clearly though, this isn't always the case. I mean, I haven't a chuffing clue what Michael Stipe's on about half the time, and yet REM are one of my favourite bands.

(I always presume that Country Feedback is about the time that Michael went on Bullseye with Jim Bowen. He didn't win the caravan or the speedboat. That's why he sings, "It's crazy what you could've had" repeatedly towards the end of the song.)

Also, if words were everything, then why the hell do I like this?

I mean, that's just nonsense. And it's not even The Beatles ripping off Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll nonsense. It's just nonsense. Don't try and explain it to me.

All of which brings me back to Cannonball, a song with lyrics that, on the surface at least, are complete balderdash... and yet, that doesn't stop it being an addictive listen.

But wait! Detailed lyrical analysis has been provided by the web of lies, so let me clue you in on what Cannoball is really all about. First off, it transpires that when Kim Deal wrote the song, her sister Kelly was spending a little too much of her free time reading the complete works of the Marquis de Sade. Those crazy alt-rock chicks, right? Here's an extract from an interview with the Phoenix New Times in 1996...

KD: This magazine in Britain keeps faxing me the same question over and over. Let's see what they want . . . (Laughs) Check it out--they want to know what author has been a major influence on my work. Hah!

NT: You don't care for the question?

KD: I've just never connected music with books. Wait, that's not entirely true. "Cannonball" was inspired by the writings of Marquis de Sade.

NT: What? "I'll be the bong in your reggae song" was inspired by Marquis de Sade?

KD: Well, not that line specifically. But the message of the song as a whole was making fun of Sade and his libertarian views that if he was better off than someone, then they were just fodder for him. Playthings. It was saying, "Come on, life's not a contest."

NT: So you're pretty much anti-Sade.

KD: Well, I don't know. Later on I found out he used to suck the snot out of people's noses, and I thought that pretty much ruled.

I think I could pretty much end this post there and call it a win, don't you?

However... that's not the only lyrical interpretation of Cannonball to be found on the interweb. Pop over to Genius, a website I spend far too much time perusing, and you will discover the theory that Cannonball is actually a barbed riposte to Pixies frontman Frank Black, who famously fired Deal, and Pixies drummer David Lovering, via fax in 1993. Speculation has it that Kim was sick of being beholden to Frank's vision, rarely allowed to contribute to the songwriting in the Pixies, creatively stymied until she started a band of her own. Which supposedly explains the repetition of the line "In the shade" and even the aforementioned "bong in this reggae song" bit. 

If any of that's true, then I think there's a slight irony in connecting Deal's Marquis de Sade references in the most famous Breeders song with the references to an equally contentious piece of "art", Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou in arguably the most famous Pixies song... but I may be reaching here.

None of this helps explain the allure of Cannonball though... and if I can't put it down to the lyrics, then it must be the music, right?

Except... musically, from a layman's perspective at least, Cannonball is all over the place. It sounds like three or four different songs edited together - and they even left gaps at some of the edit points! Iffypedia informs me that the "demo was originally called 'Grunggae' as it merged 'island riffs and grunge'". 

I can hear the grunge - that's when the really loud buzzsaw guitar cuts in out of nowhere, right? But try as I might, I can't hear the reggae influence in Cannonball, nor can I comment on the tempo, chord progression or the "bubbling bass line", "slithering guitar lick" or "slyly humorous vocal melody" delivered "with a seductive shyness". I mean, there's cuckoos and bongs, and they're quite funny, I guess... but that just brings me back to the lyrics. Despite getting a C at GCSE Music and doing Music Theory exams up to Grade 8, I've forgotten more than I ever learned about time signatures and major / minor keys... I'm always envious of bloggers like Swiss Adam for their ability to write about the musicky bits of popular music. As an English teacher, I have some confidence in commenting on lyrics, but sounds are much harder to analyse. 

In closing then, I've written well over a thousand words about this song, but not come close to answering the question of why I like it. Maybe that's an answer in itself.

P.S. If you're ever putting together a mixtape and want the perfect track to follow Cannonball, can suggest the following, from Sam's 153rd CD... it works surprisingly well.


  1. So nothing about the Cannonball Run then?

    1. That's an interpretation I didn't consider.

      Back to the drawing board...

  2. I seem to recall it being single of the year in MM, and the write-up at that time saying that it had more going on in the first 45 seconds than most songs manage altogether. That’s possibly not always a good thing but in this case, I think it is

    Steve M

  3. I got it wrong - it was first 90 seconds. Sounds like they have the same problems as you summarising why it’s so great though -

    1. Well, they use a lot more hyperbole. And I worry sometimes that I over-use it... but I'm nothing compared to the MM.

  4. A superb (as usual) piece of writing. I once tried, unsuccessfully, to pull together what it was that made 'Cannonball' such a great tune.

    Best I came up with was:-

    "It’s one of those songs that has an unnerving ability to lodge itself into your brain. Go on…..give it a listen right now, and I bet you find yourself singing or humming snatches of the tune later in the day as you go about your business."

    The thing is, I'll now be singing and humming and trying to dislodge the Marquis de Sade out of my thought processes.


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