This next #1 sounds like a blast from the past… Originally released in 1970, the theme from ‘M*A*S*H’ took a full decade to make the top of the charts…
Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless), by The Mash (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, 25th May – 15th June 1980
The why and wherefore of that we’ll get to in a bit. To the song first, though. It’s a simple enough, folksy ditty. It’s got a very late-sixties, post-Woodstock comedown feel to it. It’s also very melancholy. A song titled ‘Suicide Is Painless’ was always going to be a bit depressing…
Through early morning fog I see, Visions of the things to be, The pains that are withheld for me, I realise and I can see… The main thrust being that life is shit, and that suicide is always an option. By verse three, the ‘sword of time’ is piercing our skin, and everyone’s feeling thoroughly miserable. The singers, meanwhile, harmonise on the choruses like creepy Beach Boys.
I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this would never have been a hit had it not been associated with a huge film and TV franchise. It was the theme to the movie first, in 1970, and then the spin-off TV series between 1972 and ’83. I guess demand had built up over the years thanks to the show’s success, and this re-release sent it crashing up to the top of the charts.
The record is credited to ‘The Mash’, but in reality it was performed by some uncredited session singers who probably never received a belated dollar for their huge hit. One person who did make some money from it was Michael Altman, the fourteen-year-old son of the film’s director Robert. His dad allegedly requested ‘the stupidest lyric ever’, and the kid obliged in five minutes flat.
I think ‘stupidest lyric ever’ is a bit harsh, but the second you realise it was written by a moody teenager then lines like: The game of life is hard to play, I’m gonna lose it anyway… suddenly make complete sense. I think the dumbest bit of the whole song is actually the chorus: Suicide is painless, It brings on many changes… One of pop music’s great understatements there.
I wonder if there was any controversy at the time, either in 1970 or ten years later, around the theme of suicide in a #1 single, or TV theme, and the idea that it might be ‘painless’? It’d raise a few eyebrows nowadays for sure. Either way, it’s a song that’s been covered many a time. In the UK, the most notable has been The Manic Street Preachers’ version, which returned the tune to the Top 10 in 1992. It’s quite a haunting take on the song, too, given the Manics’ guitarist Richey Edwards’ still-unexplained disappearance a couple of years later.