Wings

Lyrics

Day by day the moon gains on me
Day by day the moon gains on me

Purchased a pair of flabby wings (1)
I took to doing some hovering
There is a list of incorrect things (2)

Hovered mid-air outside a study
An academic kneaded his chin
sat in the dust of some cheap magazines
His academic rust could not burn them up

Recruited some gremlins
To get me clear of the airline routes
I paid them off with stuffing from my wings
They had some fun with those cheapo airline snobs (3)

The stuffing loss made me hit a time lock
I ended up in the eighteen sixties
I've been there for one hundred and twenty five years (4)

A small alteration of the past can turn time into space

Ended up under Ardwick Bridge (5)
With some veterans from the U.S. Civil War
They were under Irish patronage
We shot dead a stupid sergeant, but I got hit in the crossfire (6)
The lucky hit made me hit a time lock (7)

But, when I got back, the place I made the purchase no longer exists; I'd erased it under the bridge.

Day by day the moon gains on me
By such things, the moon gains on me

So now I sleep in ditches
And hide away from nosy kids
The wings rot and feather under me
The wings rot and curl right under me

A small alteration of the past can turn time into space

Small touches can alter more than a mere decade

Wings, wings

Notes

1. On the live version included on the bonus disc of Perverted by Language, recorded in London on March 25th 1982, Smith sings the more pedestrian lyric "Purchased a pair of webbed wings." I assumed that "flabby wings" was something only MES ever said, but Dan did some research on the subject:

"'Flabby wings' do have precedents in literature; I think the element of surprise is that it's a bit archaic. These days I think most people would understand 'flabby' to mean 'fatty and floppy' [cf flab, 'fighting the flab' = dieting], which is not quite the sense intended here.

Alexander Pope, 'The Critical Specimen: 1 A Simile':

So on Maeotis' Marsh, (where Reeds and Rushes
Hide the deceitful Ground, whose waving Heads
Oft' bend to Auster's blasts, or Boreas' Rage,
The Haunt of the voracious Stork or Bittern,
Where, or the Crane, Foe to Pygmoean Race,
Or Ravenous Corm'rants shake their flabby Wings...

Charles Kingsley, writing about the alder fly: 

Songs have been written in praise of thee; statues would ere now have been erected to thee, had that hunchback and flabby wings of thine been "susceptible of artistic treatment".

From Buchanan's A Technological Dictionary (1846), entry for Caterpillar:

After a time the skin of the chrysalis splits, and the butterfly issues forth, with humid and soft flabby wings..."

Because, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, 'flabby' comes from an obsolete meaning of the word 'flappy':

Flabby:

Etymology:  An onomatopoeic modification of the earlier flappy adj.; the voiced ending in flab- as compared with flap- gives to the syllable a feebler effect suited to the meaning. Compare Dutch flabberen (of a breeze) to flutter; Swedish dialect fläbb the hanging underlip of an animal....

1. Hanging loose by its own weight, yielding to the touch and easily moved or shaken, flaccid, limp, soft; said chiefly of or with respect to flesh.

2. Of language, character, etc.: Weak, wanting ‘back-bone’; nerveless, feeble."

The manuscript of the song reproduced in the blue lyrics book has "flabbly wings," and there is also a typed version which duly repeats this spelling.

See the comment section for, believe it or not, more on this subject.

Early versions featured an entirely different riff; Scanlon's introductory riff on the studio version is widely praised as a classic among Fall fans.  

^

2. In early live versions, MES said "I made a list of incorrect things." It's not clear exactly what "there" refers to in the final version, but as delivered the line has more snap, so it must be considered an improvement in that regard.

^

3. Gremlins are mythical creatures that cause equipment failure, particularly in airplanes. The term seems to have originated among British pilots in the 1920s; etymologically, it may derive from the Old English gremian, which means "to vex," but the origin of the word is not known for certain.

^ 

4. Another curious statement; the implication is that the song's protagonist was in the 1860s for 125 years, since there is no other antecedent of "there." MES has often expressed his love for fantastic literature, and the lyrics here are chock full of weird and counter-intuitive plot elements. In any case, the song was released in 1983, so if he arrived in 1867 (see note 5 below) and time had run its course normally for a period of 125 years, this would place the protagonist a few years in (what was then) the future--specifically 1992--a year in which, as it happens, the Fall released a song called "Time Enough at Last." On the other hand, as Dan points out, he may have initially arrived in 1860, which would make it 1985, and if he rounded up from 123 it would be right in 1983, in time to release PBL. But, as I mentioned above, there is no place mentioned in the verse, so "I've been there..." could suggest some sort of time loop or "groundhog day"-type scenario. Dan imagines another interesting possibility:

"Or, thinking about what happens when he gets shot, might it mean that he has "been there" in the sense of being buried there? I wonder if, when he's shot and hits the time lock again, in one time stream he is propelled forwards to the 1980s, and in another his body is buried."

^

5. Ardwick is a district in Manchester.

^

6.  A lot of Irish immigrants served in the U.S. Civil War, most of them on the side of the North; the first two casualties of the Civil War were reportedly Irishmen. The lyrics here, however, are certainly a reference to the "Manchester Martyrs," three members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a Fenian organization, who were hung for killing a police Sergeant while (successfully) freeing two Fenian prisoners. Both of the freed prisoners were veterans of the Civil War, as were two of the five men eventually convicted of the murder. The attack took place in 1867 under the railroad bridge in Ardwick, which subsequently became known as "The Fenian Arch." The police Sergeant, who was reportedly the first Manchester policeman ever killed in the line of duty, had refused to open the door of the police van when he was accosted by 30 or so Fenians demanding the prisoners' release. He was not intentionally murdered, but was shot through the eye as he peered out the keyhole at the very moment a member of the crowd shot out the lock on the door of the police van. None of the five defendants who were convicted of murder (two were subsequently reprieved) were actually accused of firing the fatal shot. 

^

7. The precise mechanics of a "time lock" are difficult to ascertain from the lyrics above, but it is clear that when the protagonist hits one he is transported to a different time. Ordinarily, the phrase "time lock" refers to a lock with a timer that prevents its being opened until a certain period of time has elapsed. The 1950s George Jones song called "Time Lock" basically uses the phrase in this sense; rather than a safe, however, "the door" to the singer's "heart" is locked in this way. A relatively young Sean Connery, yet to make his name as James Bond, plays a small role in a 1957 British movie called Time Lock. The plot, which has nothing to do with time travel, is the story of a six year old boy trapped in a bank vault.  A more likely source for the phrase than either of these is an episode of the 1960s television series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea entitled "Time Lock." The details of the plot of the episode, which aired in November 1967 (an even century after the Ardwick Bridge incident), are not really relevant here; the important point is that "lock" is clearly used in a way that is analogous to the nautical sense of the word. A "lock" is a chamber in which the level of water can be raised or lowered in order to allow a boat to pass through a place where there is a waterfall or some other impassable and precipitous change in the elevation of a waterway. It is probable that MES is using "time lock" in a similar manner, whether or not he was aware of the aforementioned television episode.    

^

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Comments (28)

John
  • 1. John | 01/08/2013

I am very convinced that the gremlins bit with "having fun with those cheapo airline snobs" is a reference to Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the Twilight Zone episode with the gremlin taking apart the wing (the one with William Shatner).

Martin
  • 2. Martin | 01/03/2014

For what it's worth, I can pinpoint almost to the day the change from "webbed" to "flabby" (see above) in the lyrics. In the first of three gigs at Band on the Wall, Manchester (3-5 May 1982) MES sings "webbed". Two days later he sings "flabby". Unfortunately, only four songs have been preserved of the in-between gig on 4 May, Wings not being one of them, so we don't know if "flabby" had replaced "webbed" by then or if the latter was having its swansong. If Dannyno can find the word "flabby" in some newspaper printed around these dates he should go to heaven immediately!

dannyno
  • 3. dannyno | 03/03/2014

There's a "flabby" in the Guardian of 2 May 1982. But not between the dates suggested. And it's not a "flabby" of the kind required.

Dan

Mark
  • 4. Mark | 21/05/2014

"Kneaded his chin" or "needed his gin"?

dannyno
  • 5. dannyno | 23/07/2014

"Here is a list of incorrect things"

It's "There is a list..."

dannyno
  • 6. dannyno | 23/07/2014

Mark:

I'm hearing "kneaded his chin".

H. Ashly Oneskin II
  • 7. H. Ashly Oneskin II | 24/10/2014

it says 'Flabby Wings' on the front cover of Hex Enduction Hour, released 8/3/82. theres a big arrow pointing to it.

dannyno
  • 8. dannyno | 13/02/2015

H. Ashly Oneskin II: good observation skillz! Combine that with the knowledge that the lyrics to the song change... and,er, well I don't know what it all means. Clearly the phrase was in MES's head, but was it always intended to be part of this lyric?

romana
  • 9. romana | 02/06/2015

kneaded his chin - in some live versions MES actually sings "k-neaded his chin" as if to clarify.

Antoine
  • 10. Antoine | 22/09/2015

I've raised another point on the page for Spectre vs. Rector regarding Malcom Lowry's novel Under the Volcano, a book Mark's spoken highly of on a few occasions I can remember (quick reference - there are a few others out there - http://www.pipeline.com/~biv/FallNet/articles/wire_interview.html). I feel that this one is a bit more of a stretch, but it's still quite interesting - A few lines refer to vague "wings" in relation to the passage of time: "Somewhere in the distance a clock was striking; the Consul still stood there motionless. "Oh Yvonne, can I have forgotten you already, on this of all days?" Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one stokes. By his watch it was a quarter to eleven. But the clock hadn't finished : it struck twice more, two wry, tragic notes : bing-bong : whirring. The emptiness in the air after filled with whispers : alas, alas. Wings, it really meant."

Antoine
  • 11. Antoine | 23/09/2015

Ah - and regarding the infamous "flabby wings," two passages a few lines apart in the more or less climactic scene of The Call of Cthulu are also quite interesting. The beastie emerges from its long-sunken city, "...visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings," shortly followed by "Three men were swept up by the flabby claws before anybody turned." I can certainly see these general physical descriptions of "Dread Cthulu" striking young Mark as a means more oblique and perhaps, "in-the-know," culturally, of referring to the slack, fleshy quality of wings webbed (and I have not looked into whether or not that is the right way to refer to bat wings and the like) rather than feathered.

Antoine
  • 12. Antoine | 04/10/2015

I've just come across one more incongruous use of the word "flabby" in another major Smith influence, Wyndham Lewis's BLAST - interestingly enough in the context of the song, this time it's the sky which is flabby: "CURSE the flabby sky that can manufacture no snow, but can only drop the sea on us in a drizzle like a poem by Mr. Robert Bridges." I've kept Lewis's stylizing for fun.

Cobwebeyes
  • 13. Cobwebeyes | 29/12/2016

I've always thought that 'cheapo airline snobs' referred to the whole Freddie Laker/Laker Airways 'no frills' air travel thing (I'm sure Smith had good reasons for refering to enthusiastic customers of an economy airline as 'snobs'). Interestingly Laker Airways went bankrupt the year before Wings was released.

dannyno
  • 14. dannyno | 07/01/2017

re: Note 3.

I think we might be a bit clearer about what we're looking at re: timescales.

1992 is 125 years from 1867, which is the Ardwick Bridge incident. But the song doesn't say, first, "I ended up in 1867". It says "1860s". Which could be any time from, er, 1860. The subsequent verse says "I ended up under Ardwick Bridge", it is true, but the two "ended up"s are not necessarily referring to the same time travel incident. He could have gone back to 1860 and then through a series of unfortunate events ended up under Ardwick Bridge. 125 years from "the 1860s" could therefore literally mean 1985, rather than 1992, but I wonder if the narrator is not just rounding up.

However, time clearly hasn't run normally. The narrator has not lived through time for 125 years. We are told, after all, that he was shot, which somehow sent him back to his original time stream.

If we can rule out, therefore, the idea that the narrator lived through a century and a quarter, we're still left with the problem of what it means to say "I've been there for 125 years".

Does it mean that somehow he was trapped in a 125 year groundhog day before managing to get himself shot and released from the trap?

Or, thinking about what happens when he gets shot, might it mean that he has "been there" in the sense of being buried there? I wonder if, when he's shot and hits the time lock again, in one time stream he is propelled forwards to the 1980s, and in another his body is buried. Otherwise he would be shot and just vanish, which you imagine would generate some adverse comment.

Or, more likely, is the line a throwaway that actually has no meaningful narrative function?

dannyno
  • 15. dannyno | 07/01/2017


An academic kneaded his chin
sat in the dust of some cheap magazines
His academic rust could not burn them up


This verse has always intrigued me, but I don't feel anyone has really looked at it closely enough. I suspect the "academic" is somebody we should know, maybe a figure from literature or an image from cinema, or a famous scientist or something. But it may be entirely MES's own invention. But it's just an odd image, a man with wings spying on an "academic". Why? What that academic? Who is it? It's somebody contemporary to the narrator. And we're told there's a "list of incorrect things". What's that? Is this something the narrator was going to sort out? Is the professor associated with that somehow?

We have this image of an academic sitting amidst lots of dusty "cheap magazines" (not academic journals, note, these seem to be popular publications - comics?), thinking. And is he trying to destroy them? Why? Is "academic rust" a reference to thermite with iron oxide, used as a pyrotechnic? Is it failing to set fire to the magazines? Or are the magazines a reference not to publications but to ammunition? Or does "academic rust" mean that the academic is old and tired, and is failing to "burn up" the magazines in the sense of read/consume them?

dannyno
  • 16. dannyno | 07/01/2017

Thinking about academics of the early 1980s who may have had a thing against magazines, one name leaps out - Frederic Wertham. He spent much of his career attacking the influence of comic books, and died in November 1981, just a few months before the debut of this song.

Is it being hinted, then, that the hovering be-winged narrator has taken revenge on the academic for his position, perhaps as a proxy for the pro-comics MES?

On the other hand, having taken a look at the newspapers of the time, there wasn't much UK coverage of Wertham's death.

dannyno
  • 17. dannyno | 07/01/2017

"Cheapo airline snobs"

Cobwebeyes in comment #13 links this line to Laker. The song debuted in March 1982, and Laker Airways went bankrupt in February, and you'd have to think that anyone hearing the line at the time would probably have thought of Laker. Is the implication that the gremlins brought down Laker?

But is the line about people who are snobbish against cheap air travel, or snobbish advocates of it? Surely the former would make more sense. In which case the gremlins target is a different one.

"Airline" was also an ITV television series which began in January 1982. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airline_(1982_TV_series)

bzfgt
  • 18. bzfgt | 04/02/2017

Antoine, sorry for the belated response, but first of all thanks for your excellent comments which are very valuable here. Secondly, the Lovecraft quote seems to use "flabby" in the same way as the song, on the other hand the Wyndham Lewis usage seems clearly to be the more usual sense of loose and fatty. The "flabby sky" line is really striking, though. Anyway, the juxtaposition of Lovecraft quotes is very suggestive!

bzfgt
  • 19. bzfgt | 04/02/2017

Great (long ago) by Martin, what a dramatic change when we get "flabby" and the riff to boot! It was already a good song but man the final iteration is a classic. I haven't listened to it in a coon's age and now I'm really blown away.

I agree it sounds more like "there is a list" and it makes more sense in a way since the lyrics are a narrative and not just a list. On the other hand I'm not sure exactly what that "there" means. In any case the bonus live version from "PBL" has "I made a list of incorrect things" which may be truer to the narrative, but the change gives the lyric as delivered a little more snap so in that sense it's the right move. Anyway I finally corrected it, I'm not sure where I've been on this page but I don't remember any of these comments, and I can see I've never commented here before my above comment a few minutes ago. Well, better late than never. I'm still going through the comments to see what I can do, but thanks to all of you for such excellent comments that really enhance this page.

If you guys are out there, I'm not entirely convinced by either "airline snobs comment," although MES surely is a fan of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," I think we can assume.

Although there's not really much here to help us decide on the accuracy of the other reading, Cobwebeyes makes an interesting suggestion which makes me read the line not as before, "cheapo" airline snobs, but as "cheapo airline" snobs...this is suggestive but again, I'm not sure how it could be decided on without some sort of extra-textual evidence, like testimony from MES or a band member that he was referring to a cheapo airline.

And why Laker airlines specifically? There have been other no frills airlines, is there something particularly "Wings"-y about that one?

bzfgt
  • 20. bzfgt | 04/02/2017

Too bad Lovecraft is not an academic in any sense, and the narrator had not yet time traveled, I thought of him and his somewhat highbrow work (I mean that's a stretch but he was more of a literary author than any of his stablemates at Weird Tales, a "cheap magazine." But it could be a Lovecraft scholar, rare even now but probably already in existence in 1982...we'll never get much further without some sort of comment from MES or someone in the know, of course.

"Or, more likely, is the line a throwaway that actually has no meaningful narrative function?"

I don't like this. Even if MES was just riffing and wasn't sure what he meant, now that we have the text we have to treat it as an interpretable whole, I think. To some extent we would be warranted in making interpretive decisions even if MES wrote it in a trance and has no idea what it refers to. But again, there is not much to go on in lieu of some sort of statement from the author, so the more robust or daring interpretations are for this part of the page rather than the notes.

bzfgt
  • 21. bzfgt | 04/02/2017

Sorry for the flood of comments, I'm working my way through the above. Dan, we are assuming that the "academic rust" line is why you are assuming the academic is against magazines or comics. On the other hand, if it is a comic-studying academic the line would equally apply, as academics, like critics, are often accused of stultifying that which they survey. Surely there weren't as many pop culture studies in 1980s academia, but I think it must have existed already, no? I have a vague idea this sort of thing got started some time in the late 60s, but I can't really think of anything concrete offhand.

bzfgt
  • 22. bzfgt | 04/02/2017

In the version I'm listening to--Rotterdam 2/12/83--he says "PC sergeant." What is "PC"? "Police Constable" or something? Wouldn't that be a different rank from "sergeant" though?

dannyno
  • 23. dannyno | 04/02/2017

Bzfgt: re academic rust. Well, I'm just asking the question. But I do think "could not burn them up" would seem to suggest an arson attempt rather than "stultification". But I take your point. However, do we then agree that the academic is up to no good, in the eyes of "batman"/birdman? It's odd, isn't it, that we never find out quite what action is taken, if the academic is on "the list", unless not-burning is it...

dannyno
  • 24. dannyno | 04/02/2017

"pc sergeant", is contradictory, yes. I'd take it to mean "police sergeant".

lynelpoerie
  • 25. lynelpoerie | 20/03/2017

intrigued by the final verse where the narrator "sleeps in ditches hiding away from nosy kids"

Dr X O'Skeleton
  • 26. Dr X O'Skeleton | 17/05/2017

My take on the "list of incorrect things" is the health and safety checklist he's been given when buying his wings. Of course, he hasn't read it, he's just flying about enjoying himself

dannyno
  • 27. dannyno | 01/06/2017

I think it's more likely that familiar science fiction trope of using time travel to put history right. cf Stanislaw Lem's "The Star Diaries", and the story entitled "The Twentieth Voyage" therein. And numerous other examples.

dannyno
  • 28. dannyno | 05/07/2017

In comment #16 I speculated wildly that you could read the lyric as referring obliquely to Frederic Wertham. It wasn't a link that seemed particularly plausible.

So it is of interest to note that in "Gulcher", the book by Richard Meltzer that MES cited in his "Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer", NME 15 August 1981 [comfortably before the debut of this song], is the following passage (in the chapter titled "Those Pre-Code Tits").

There's at least two guys to blame for all these years and one's that Wertham character (the guy about how comics fuck up young minds), he was a real surly doodyface.


Image

So I think that marginally increases the plausibility that MES could have referred to Wertham, since he's in a book that MES seems to have read, but my wild interpretation remains a wild one.

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