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Music History #8: "New York Mining Disaster 1941"

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“New York Mining Disaster 1941 (Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones)”
Written by Barry and Robin Gibb (1967)
Performed by Bee Gees

The Music

When the Bee Gees debut US single was released in April 1967, a lot of people thought it was The Beatles masquerading as another band. Even the name Bee Gees was read as code for “Beatles Group.” But within a year, brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb established themselves not only as hit makers in their own right, but as chart rivals to the Fabs. “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” the first of thirty-some hits, is one of those rare pop songs in which the title never appears in the lyrics. Most people still refer to it by its subtitle “Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones.” Inspired by the Aberfan mining disaster of 1966, the song was an international hit, reaching #14 on the US Charts. It has since been covered by David Essex, Chumbawumba and Martin Carthy.

http://youtu.be/KCRqAzCevsY

The History

On the morning of October 21, 1966, a massive heap of coal waste tumbled down a mountainside into the small village of Aberfan, South Wales, demolishing an elementary school and several houses, and burying three hundred townsfolk, most of them children.

As word of the disaster spread, hundreds of people from neighboring towns came to Aberfan, picks and shovels in hand, hoping to help with the rescue. 145 children were pulled and rescued from the rubble. Local miners continued to work around the clock for days to clear the debris.

In the end, 144 people died. 116 of them were kids, mostly between the ages of 7 and 10.

Coal and Water Don’t Mix

Coal mining in Aberfan began around 1869. A hundred years later, one of the biggest problems the town faced was how to dispose of the waste material generated from the mining. Their solution, as in many coal mining towns, was to pile it in trash heaps – or “tips,” as they’re called in the UK – close to the mines. In Aberfan, the tips were situated on the slopes of the mountains surrounding the town. It was a painstaking process to transfer tons of coal waste up the side of the mountain. A series of trolley cars hauled it to a crane, which then dumped the waste on the tip.

There was a problem though. South Wales has a generally wet climate, which keeps the soil moist. On top of that, many of the coal tips were placed over underground springs. In the years before the disaster, water from the slopes had been a perennial issue for Aberfan. Regular floods caused much damage, leaving behind slimy black deposits of coal sludge. The townspeople repeatedly asked the National Coal Board, who owned the mine, for help in addressing the water problem, but nothing was done.

The resulting wet ground made for an unstable base, and that’s ultimately what caused thousands of tons of coal sludge to break free of the tip and rush into the town below. The landslide was described as moving like water, but with twice the density.

After the disaster, Aberfan’s flooding problem was solved through the construction of a simple culvert.

Aberfan Then and Now

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On October 25, 1966, a mass funeral was held for the children. The Aberfan Disaster Fund raised over $1 million with donations from around the world. The money was used to help rebuild the town and compensate the grieving families. (Shamefully, the National Coal Board demanded that a large chunk of the funds be used to pay for removal of the tips that they had built.) As a result of the disaster, The Mines and Quarries Act of 1969 was passed, which helped to ensure that no disused tips would pose a danger to other mining towns.

For Aberfan, it’s been a slow rebuilding process. After the tragedy, a sense of guilt settled over the town for not taking stronger measures to address the problem with the tips. Over half the survivors of the disaster have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As of 2011, all of the coal mines are closed. But that has robbed the town of its main source of income.

In April 2012, forty-six years after the disaster, Queen Elizabeth visited Aberfan to open a new primary school. Back in 1966, the Queen was criticized for waiting eight days to visit the scene of the catastrophe. She has called it her “biggest regret” in her sixty years on the throne.

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Pop Culture
How Phil Collins Accidentally Created the Sound That Defined 1980s Music
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Unless your technical knowledge of music runs deep, you may have never heard the phrase “gated reverb.” But you’ve definitely heard the effect in action: It’s that punchy snare drum sound that first gained traction in music in the 1980s. If you can play the drum beat from “I Would Die 4 U” by Prince or “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen in your head, you know what sound we’re referring to.

But that iconic element of pop might not have emerged if it wasn’t for Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. As Vox lays out in its new video, the discovery was made in 1979 during the studio recording of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled third solo album (often called Melt because of its cover art). Gabriel’s Genesis bandmate Phil Collins was playing the drums as usual when his beats were accidentally picked up by the microphone used by audio engineers to talk to the band. That microphone wasn’t meant to record music—its heavy compressors were designed to turn down loud sounds while amplifying quiet ones. The equipment also utilized a noise gate, which meant the recorded sounds were cut off shortly after they started. The result was a bright, fleeting percussive sound unlike anything heard in popular music.

Gabriel loved the effect, and made it the signature sound on the opening track of his album. A year later, Collins featured it in his hit single “In the Air Tonight,” perhaps the most famous example of gated reverb to date.

The sound would come to define music of the 1980s and many contemporary artists continue to use it today. Get the full history of gated reverb below.

[h/t Vox]

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entertainment
‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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