Sorting through a pile of 7 inch vinyl records, the very first one I bought came to hand. The spring of 1974, Paper Lace’s ‘The Night Chicago Died’. It seemed an oddly inauspicious choice for a first record; it didn’t even make No 1 in the British charts and I remember feeling the sort of intense irrational dislike, of which only a thirteen year old is capable, for their previous record, ‘Billy, don’t be a hero’. Why buy a record that could hardly have been popular amongst other thirteen year old boys? When there were Glam rock bands and serious rock bands around, there cannot have been many of my peers who were buying records by Paper Lace.
Perhaps it was desire for a happy ending, perhaps something else. The storyteller’s father is a policeman caught in a gunfight and his mother sits at home fearing for her husband’s life:
Then the door burst open wide
and my daddy stepped inside
And he kissed my mama’s face
And he brushed her tears away
This is an entry worthy of John Wayne, the door being thrown open with such ferocity that it hits the wall and the hinges nearly break. This is a man who has confronted scenes of killing and carnage, yet still can come home with confidence and composure. He is unaffected by what has happened, concerned only to comfort his wife in her tearful distress.
It is an odd song. What went on in the head of a thirteen year old boy to buy it? Maybe a searching for a hero, or for the right side to win, or for a story that was different from life in 1970s England, or maybe just a desire for a fairy tale end.
Living in Northern Ireland from 1983 until the end of the Troubles, encountering men who had seen horrific violence, there was not one who would have thrown open the door and strode inside. They became quiet, introspective, haunted by the things they had seen.
According to Wikipedia, Mayor Daley in Chicago was less than impressed by the record, a copy of which was sent to him; it is not a hard reaction to understand. The song is set in the city of Chicago around 1929, forty-five years previously. As a teenager, I believed it to be based on a true incident; only years later, did I discover that such a gun battle between Al Capone and the police had never taken place. Imagine how would a Lord Mayor of Belfast react to a song about an entirely fictional gun battle forty years ago during the early days of the Troubles?
To dissect the song four decades later is being pedantic, the band were only trying to make a record, and it became hugely popular in the United States, but at some point I ceased to like the record – maybe when I learned it wasn’t true, maybe because a change of taste. It has probably not been played since 1977, yet if someone suggested getting rid of it, I would resist fiercely. Our past is our past, no matter how odd, or how mistaken it might now seem.