Everyone knows that Leonard Nimoy’s greatest achievement was his participation in the music video to The Bangles’ song Going Down to Liverpool[1]. This song was actually written by Katrina and the Waves, a British band, and covered by The Bangles in 1984. I have been a big fan of The Bangles ever since I first heard Manic Monday (and fell in love with Susannah Hoffs’ sly sideways glances from those smouldering eyes), but had never seen the video – my partner showed it to me this morning and mentioned that “it has that guy from Star Trek in it.”[2] Listening to the song, I was again confused by the lines

Hey now
Where you going with that UB40 in your hand
I said hey now
All through this green and pleasant land

To the best of my knowledge UB40 is also a band, but surely you don’t write a song about carrying another band’s CD in your hand? My partner told me she thought it must be the name for a gun or something, some kind of street slang of the time. So this issue got me thinking about a) what this line actually means and b) how a kid in the 1980s could possibly work this out.

What it means

So according to Wikipedia (and the song facts I linked to above) a UB40 is either a World War 2 U-Boat, the band of the same name (an execrable effort they were too), or … the name of the form that British people used to apply for unemployment benefits in the ’80s. The Bangles are a US band but Katrina and the Waves are British[3], so the likely interpretation of this is that the song is referring to someone going to collect unemployment benefit. This then gives proper meaning to the combination of lyrics “Where you going with that UB40 in your hand… going down to Liverpool to do nothing, all the days of my life.” Once again we see the collapse of the British manufacturing industry[4] pervading 80s music, in this case getting all the way to New York. The Bangles’ Kim Peterson supports this interpretation of the lyrics in her interview (linked to above), so it’s all pretty clear.

How would you find this out?

Imagine that you’re a teenager in some US rust belt town in 1986, you’ve stumbled on the Bangles and love everything they do, but whenever you hear this song the only meaning you can ascribe to the word “UB40” is the band of the same name. You know nothing about British culture and history, let alone the modern British angst about their collapsing manufacturing base or the stereotypes of Liverpudlians as dole-bludging[5] losers. So naturally, you would, like me, suspect that the Bangles are not referring to some other godawful band; instead, you would wonder what they really meant. At this point, what do you do? You want to find out the information but you don’t have access to an indexed, searchable database of any kind. You could go to your library and try and find it out, but they only have card catalogues – it’s unlikely that they have a computer database of any kind in 1986, and even if they do it won’t be searchable on the sorts of key words that pull up something as subtle as “UB40”. So you are limited to searching through the titles of the books, which if the library is big is going to be very tedious. You could just restrict your search to the Us, but this is unlikely to turn up much. You could ask a librarian, who might know what “UB40” means or might, alternatively, have an idea like my partner’s (“maybe it’s a kind of gun?”) Then you could start doing the long search through books on war, armaments and the like, and might eventually stumble on a book with UB40 in the index.

Alternatively, you could ask your friends. One of them might have heard something. But friends are as likely to be wrong as right, and there will be many urban myths about this sort of thing. Chances are your friends think it’s a gun, and you take the song’s meaning to be something to do with gang crime, which it is not.

Or, you might look through a Melody Maker magazine. If you are the proud owner of a back catalogue of these, you might remember the interview where it was discussed – or maybe your friends do. But if not, you again have to go down to the library and search the back catalogue of Melody Maker magazines – without any keyword search functionality. To do this rigorously is going to require some special search logic – first you identify the dates when the song and its original version were released, and you search the magazines published in the months after that release for any interviews with the bands in question. This is going to be a couple of hours’ work, realistically. And of course Katrina and the Waves are British so you may need to run through NME as well.

All this to investigate one line in one song.

How the world has changed

Now, of course, you don’t have to do anything like this. You scoot over to your desk, type UB40 in google, and up comes the disaggregation page on Wikipedia, problem solved. What was, in the 1980s, an afternoon or more of work with quite limited chances of success has been reduced to a couple of seconds in front of your computer. Thus it is that there is only one question in the modern age that is truly unanswerable: “How did people live before the internet?” I was there, and god knows I don’t have the answer to this question!

fn1: We like to start sentences with uncontroversial statements of fact here at the Faustusnotes Institute for the Study of Very Serious Topics

fn2: Chicks, mate…

fn3: Which could have fooled me. It’s a really California-sounding name and they also wrote the song Walking on Sunshine, which just sounds American…

fn4: Or its destruction, depending on your view of Thatcher and Britain’s long march into the GFC

fn5: for my non-Australian reader(s), this is the second time in two posts that I have used the verb “to bludge.” By way of explanation, this is an Australian word meaning “to hang around doing nothing,” to “skive off” or “shirk responsibility” and can have a good meaning (“I bludged at the beach with Kylie Minogue and a box of condoms”) or a bad meaning (“Kevin Rudd is bludging at the beach with Kylie Minogue and a box of condoms instead of visiting the flood-affected areas”).