David Geffen...the man who single handedly tried to destroy Elton's career in the US, unintentionally at first, intentionally at the end made the decision to leave this song off 21 At 33. It subsequently ending up s B-side. Nothing wrong with being as b-side, but this song deserved a better landmark. It's one of my all time favourites, James Newton Howards synth at the end is heavenly, it's cinematic with a widescreen sound. Elton's vocal is one of many unique one's he tried out in this period. Post Thom Bell he experimented more with it, he puts a slight American hint into it, essential when you consider the song is a typical Bernie US inspired lyric. Which brings me to the point of this entry, what exactly the song is about. Or where and when to be exact. The common school of thought is that the US Civil war is the focus and from reading the lyrics it's an obvious deduction. But here's my take on it. If anyone's familiar with the movie M*A*S*H (1970) then you'll know it was about the Korean war of 1950-53. Except it wasn't.
Let me explain. At that time Vietnam was raging at full pelt. And at home it was felt just as much as it was in the heat of South East Asia. 1970 being the year of Kent Sate. Hollywood at this time was in turmoil over the conflict, studios were reluctant to make any sort of film that directly put them one side or the other in supporting or opposing the war. The lesson had been learned from The Green Berets (1968) produced and starring John Wayne which provoked worldwide protests when it was released. So on one hand you had the Duke throwing his weight behind the government policy of LBJ yet a couple of years later in 1971 we had Jane Fonda up on the tank on the other side. So it was a no go area, M*A*S*H used the Korean war as a metaphor for the horrors and madness of Vietnam. It wasn't really until 1978 with the release of Go Tell The Spartans, The Deerhunter and Coming Home that the conflict was dealt with by tinseltown in any depth. Go Tell The Spartans with Burt Lancaster probably the first major film to deal with the conflict on the ground since The Green Berets. But consider the timeline, the war officially ended in 1975 when the last evacuees left Hanoi when the North Vietnamese forces finally over run the city. The evacuation was called Operation Frequent Wind. And that's where it clicked for me that The Retreat may be metaphor for this evacuation. The lines...
'When the bugle blew at breakfast and they knew their ships were in
Signs of grand assurance were carried on the wind'
...could surely be describing the US aircraft carriers that were collecting the evacuees from the landing helicopters, the iconic sight of the Huey's being pushed off the flight decks into the sea is a strong one. An earlier line...
'It was silent on the coastline as the crazy angels danced'
...again could have Taupin comparing the helicopters to crazy angels as they hit the water and bounced, floated and then gradually sunk to the bottom. The references to the flies, a major source of discomfort in the conflict again makes me think of the connection.
'As their flags were torn at half mast in the ruins of the town'
The US embassy was the last stand for the evacuees, Saigon was in bits. The returning GI was a source of confusion for the public at the time. On one hand a nation that prided itself on it's military forces was now being confronted with the idea that they were baby killers and rapists. My Lai and the allegations about Tiger Force in later years had divided a nation. Those who came back were expected to resume from where they left off, ' back to their farms'. But the mental trauma never left them. That's why I feel Bernie was using the US civil war as a metaphor, not in a clear way mind, to say in 1979 when it was becoming more easier in a way to discuss and reflect on what had happened in those years from the mid 60's to the mid 70's. Because the returning GI didn't find the same country that he had left behind....but were expected to have 'just chalked it down in history'. Even though it was still very much the present for them.