Perspectives from the Himalaya

Capturing the Sound of Violence: Zombie

1994 was a year when the unique sound of Dolores O’Riordan, the lead vocalist of Cranberries sang through the charts globally and could be heard on the radio daily. “Zombie” was the Irish alternative rock band’s response to the Provisional IRA’s bomb attacks on Warrington in Cheshire, England in 1993 that resulted in the deaths of 2 young boys and wounding 54 others. The emergence of the Provisional IRA since 1969, due to a split of the previous incarnation of the IRA (1922-1969), had sought to use violence to end British rule in Northern Ireland.

1994 was a time when I remembered carrying my litter in my pockets whilst on the streets of Belfast until I got back to boarding. Attacks had been carried out in both Northern Ireland and England since the early 1970s and it was not unusual for bombs planted in litter bins to blow off like the ones in Warrington. British soldiers with guns and tanks were deployed and fused into the urban landscape whilst litter bins were obliterated. Peace barricades were erected as temporary barricades to quell the violence – separating nationalist Catholic neighbourhoods from unionist Protestant areas. Even though peace talks were beginning to look promising in the mid-1990s, sound advice stood grounded: keep away from troubled areas and streets especially when the sun has gone down. The smell of bitterness still lingers.

The Cranberries captured the atmosphere of violence, anguish and desperation artfully through their music and carved “Zombie” into a hauntingly eerie, electronic grungy soundscape. It sends shivers to the bones. Pierced out by Dolores’ distinctive Irish lilt, it is a fierce, angry and passionate piece of iconic music that offers no closure but reverberates on in your head after the last note has long played out.

Zombie by the Cranberries

The first line instantly sets a sinister mood. “Another head hangs lowly, child is taken. And violence causes silence, who are we mistaken.” She continues the next stanza with a higher shrill, “It’s not me, it’s not my family, in your head, in your head they are still fighting,” asking for empathy for the bereaved families and for the killing of children as collateral damage. It could also mean as not wanting herself and her family to be represented by the violent actions of the IRA.

The chorus sets in, “In your head, in your head” and unexpectedly, with a guttural effect she snarls the word “Zombie.” She pronounces the word “Zom-bih instead of “Zom-bee” as if shouldering an inner turmoil. The chord reverberates with agitation and then raw fury, hollering to the people who carry out killings as a duty.

“It’s the same old theme since 1916, in your head, in your head they’re still fighting” refers to the 1916 Easter Rising, an armed insurrection in Ireland launched by The Republicans against the British forces with the aim of establishing an independent Irish Republic while the United Kingdom was fighting the First World War. Dolores wrote this at the age of 22 in 1993 and the tumultuous situation then had not changed much.

The final chorus comes crashing in when Dolores belts out “What’s in your head?” to the perpetrators of violence. She may be pleading to them: what is going on in your head to have no consciousness of military murders of children. Are we the zombie? The one who has no control over mind and body? Have we not the capacity for independent thought blinding ourselves to centuries-old prejudices? As she sings the word, she howls in a spluttering of rage, ”Zomb-ih-eh-eh-eh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-ey-ya-ya-ya-yow…” Her voice trails, the guitars take over, expanding and contracting the chorus and culminating in a wave of drum beats and cymbals.

And just as when you thought the band had emptied itself out, the bass fills the void. She picks up another sinister guitar line. The metallic tune rumbles on, not quite wanting to give up. Eventually, the piece dissolves in an ominous, open-ended sound and the drummer puts a halt.

It is powerful when music can convey a political message to the people and bring awareness to the plight of war to all ends of the planet. The release of this song highlighted the conflict to the world as “Zombie” began topping the charts in 8 countries. Girls in my dormitory swoon over the song and when it was played on the radio, everyone sang to it. My late teen years in Belfast came attached with memories of wheaten bread, apple crumble in hot custard and the music of Cranberries.

Zombie (original lyrics):

Another head hangs lowly
Child is slowly taken
And the violence caused such silence
Who are we mistaken?

But you see, it’s not me, it’s not my family
In your head, in your head they are fighting
With their tanks, and their bombs, and their bombs, and their guns
In your head, in your head they are crying

In your head, in your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie
What’s in your head? In your head?
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie-ie, oh

Another mother’s breaking
Heart is taking over
When the violence causes silence
We must be mistaken

It’s the same old theme, since nineteen-sixteen
In your head, in your head they’re still fighting
With their tanks, and their bombs, and their bombs, and their guns
In your head, in your head they are dying

In your head, in your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie
What’s in your head? In your head?
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie-ie, oh
Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, eh-eh-oh, ra-ra

In the 3 decades of conflict known as the Troubles, the initial barricades dividing neighbourhoods eventually became walls. And periodically as the violence built up, so did the walls. Some hover at 20 feet high and extend for miles through the backyard of houses and schools. Brick and mortar were reinforced with metal sheets and at its peak, additional steel fencing and barbed wires were added. Most still remain in place and have hardened into permanent lines of demarcation. Today, it is a depository for art and messages. Murals of the nationalists depict political prisoners, heroes who died fighting for their cause, and global icons of a campaign against oppression. On the other side, images of peace and cooperation paint a contrasting sentiment.

Although the IRA announced an end to the armed campaign in 2005, the fundamental differences remain. Twenty years later, the peace wall still stands. The streets may be quieter, the sounds of gunshots or bombs silenced, but the people are still divided and haunted by tragic memories.

In 2018, following the sudden death of Dolores, the band Bad Wolves released their version of “Zombie.” It is a beautiful rendition in its own right, portraying both a tribute to Dolores’ passing and as a continuous message to the world about wars that scars the planet. The lyrics do not point to one specific war and therefore could address any current war, making the song more poignant and relevant in today’s political climate. Bad Wolves respectfully kept the sentiment of the song, perhaps punching it with more emotion with the loss of Dolores. But they changed the lyrics in 2 instances – replacing “guns” with “drones“, and bringing the song to date by replacing “Since 1916” with “In 2018″.

Bad Wolves’ version of Zombie

It was touching to see the comeback of the golden lady from the original video in the cover version. But this time with Dolores on the other side of the glass – the other realm – being there but not quite there and reflecting on how close she was to reprising her voice to Zombie once again but tragically leaving us a day before she was going to record it with Bad Wolves. The symbolism, a double whammy hits so much deeper and harder.

“Her lyrics, confronting the collateral damage of political unrest capture the same sentiment we wanted to express a quarter century later. That is a testament to the kind of enduring artist Dolores was, and will remain forever. “ Tommy Vext, Bad Wolves.

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