Readers recommend: songs about control | Peter Kimpton

Whether losing, gaining, maintaining or fighting it, let the music take over and name songs about all emotional, physical or practical ways we take on turmoil

Chaos. Where isn’t it? The world is a mess of entropy, energy, waste, injustice, and emotion. Chaos thrives equally in war, in corruption, in our hearts, in a pencil case, in ideas mangled or cables tangled. “I accept chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me,” said Bob Dylan, with a shrug. “Darling – in chaos there is fertility,” retorted writer Anaïs Nin, flirtily. But is there also opportunity in chaos? Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, with the imminent return of his adapted books to screens this spring, cuts to the heart of it: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again … the climb is all there is. But they’ll never know this. Not until it’s too late.”

So how to deal with chaos? Climb that ladder and try and take control. One way is to try and frame the mayhem in a format that helps us understand the world, which is precisely where writers, particularly songwriters, have sought to express and control what their perceptions throw at them. Joy Division’s Ian Curtis fought and lost a war with a frightening chaos he perceived, struggling with bipolar disorder and epilepsy, but his all-too-brief career won a few battles, leaving behind some timeless songs and poems, including one inspired by a disabled women, with whom he had worked in his civil service job, and who died after an epileptic fit.

Uniquely moving performer … Ian Curtis with Joy Division on Something Else, 1979

Some perceive taking control in more of political and cultural context. “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind,” said the Doors’ Jim Morrison, whose cocktail of drugs and insights thrived, for a time, in utter chaos. Musical control can also be a more practical challenge. Heavy rock’s Richie Blackmore said, rather comically, “learning to play guitar with a big amplifier is like trying to control an elephant”. Especially when you turn it up to 11.

Ho hum. Glenn Gould controls the fugue

The eccentrically humming but brilliant Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, whose recordings, particularly of Bach, showed extraordinarily gifted control, also wrote much about the theory and future of music. Obsessed until his death in 1982 that home hi-fi equipment would change how listeners perceive and consume music, he predicted that “the electronic age … will forever change the values that we attach to art”. In many ways he was right. The consumer’s array of control in listening and playback has developed multiple options, and every amateur bedroom musician now can mix, loop, sample and compose with a host of affordable controllers and apps. Bjork’s 2011-14 Biophilia project included applications allowing listeners to remix her work.

Introducation to Bjork’s Biophilia app - handing control to the listener

Beyond the actual music, we are all seeking some form of control in our lives, and your nominated songs on this subject can be as much as about losing control as gaining it, having it imposed upon us as trying to put in on others, physically or emotionally. Every song is perhaps, explicitly or otherwise, a cry for control, and plays a note against or into chaos. And chaos can also come from many sources – often those designed to aid control. Who hasn’t at some point had their lives turned upside down by the thoughtless machinations of red tape, banking error, or work bureaucracy? In a world where it is hard to know how stands for what in politics, and austerity measures co-exist alongside quantitative easing, control can often about trying to find meaning where things seem to make even less sense.

But there is a way out. One way is to give in to chaos, allow yourself to be tossed on its stormy winds, just as the painter William Turner enjoyed being strapped to the mast of a ship in a storm to drink in the full force of nature’s elements.

Another is to find patterns in the chaos. The universe is full of beautiful examples on every scale. Morphogenesis is the biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape, and Alan Turing, after his better known war-time work on artificial intelligence and computing with the Enigma machine, wrote a paper predicting chemical shapes in a mathematical context. At a similar time in the 1950s Russia’s Boris Belousov analysed how the oscillating chemicals of sugars self-organised into shapes. In the 60s, US mathematician Edward Lorenz was a pioneer of chaos theory, and first described the butterfly effect. And Polish-born mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot popularised the wondrous never-ending fractal shapes that mimick much in nature and are deliciously musical in their visual intricacy.

Fractal shapes expressing patterns in nature.
Fractal shapes expressing elements of chaos theory Photograph: Stocktrek/Corbis

So then, welcome all, back to the chaotic, but always fertile world of RR, where after a month’s hiatus, it is time to defiantly return with a flurry of song nominations. This week’s guru is the sagacious severin, who will take a benign but firm control on proceedings, and help the glorious chaos take shape. Please put forward your control-themed song nominations by last orders (11pm GMT) on Monday 9 March in comments below and optionally in the Spotify list before the results are published at lunchtime on Thursday 12 March.

As author and poet Maya Angelou put it: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

To increase the likelihood of your nomination being considered, please:

• Tell us why it’s a worthy contender.
• Quote lyrics if helpful, but for copyright reasons no more than a third of a song’s words.
• Provide a link to the song. We prefer Muzu or YouTube, but Spotify, SoundCloud or Grooveshark are fine.
• Listen to others people’s suggestions and add yours to a collaborative Spotify playlist.
• If you have a good theme for Readers recommend, or if you’d like to volunteer to compile a playlist, please email
• There’s a wealth of data on RR, including the songs that are “zedded”, at the Marconium. It also tells you the meaning of “zedded”, “donds” and other strange words used by RR regulars.
• Many RR regulars also congregate at the ‘Spill blog.


Peter Kimpton

The GuardianTramp

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