"Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of a stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you."
- Niccolò Machiavelli, 'The Prince' Chapter XII
Back in January 1980, with a nightmare awakening in Afghanistan, Thatcher getting comfortable at Downing Street, Reagan waiting to be inaugurated, and decades of mercenary-assisted bloodshed in Africa, John Cale released a topical single that he'd been playing live for a year or so. A rocking little ditty with prescient and sinister artwork, "Mercenaries (Ready for War)" was a studio recording of the lead-off track of the previous month's live LP of new material, Sabotage/Live.
The circumstances being what they were, then, you may be surprised to know that the song's not about war. It's not about killing and terror and bloodshed and death. It's about money. Sort of the dog-o-war version of Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)", when you get down to it. Just another soldier boy, looking for work, cleaning his rifle, and above all making sure he gets paid. Sure, the song ends with a guitar-based "charge!" bugle call and a run on Moscow, but that's just the new frontier of the bank account.
If the single were the only recording of this song, it would be a highlight of the catalog. The vocal is one of Cale's most intimidating studio attempts; the sound of the band is raw and live like few of his other studio cuts. The guitar tones are exceptional. (The bass could be heavier, but let's not nitpick.) Even the fadeout doesn't sound cheap - Cale goes out screaming. (The b-side is worth a listen too.) Too bad the masters of the single are presumed lost forever.
... but fortunately the definitive version of the song had already been recorded. The live version that opens Sabotage starts with Cale declaiming a much pithier paraphrase of the Machiavelli quotation above over the disjointed solo bassline. Then the guitar storm starts, and every compliment I just paid to the studio version applies tenfold. Cale delivers every word right. In the live/LP environment, the song is allowed to unfold in a more frighteningly relaxed way, and the tension by the ending raid sequence is intolerable.
"Mercenaries" formed a set staple through the geopolitical insanity of the early 80s (e.g. the decent version on Live at Rockpalast), then was left behind with most of the more martial stuff. It was resurrected in odd fashion at a memorable concert at the Amsterdam Paradiso in 2004. Redone as a electronic jazz poetry-slam number with synth backing vocals, with "Taps" replacing the "Charge!" call, the song was one of the more controversial moments of a controversial concert, but it works for me.
Perhaps at that time of madness and paranoia, anything that engaged seriously with the horrifying mistakes my country had made and the amount of money flowing to the Halliburtons and Blackwaters of the world was bound to connect. With a possible invasion of Iran looming, hearing the inspired "Let's go to Tehran / find the back door to the Majlis, kick it down and walk on in..." hit buttons I wanted/didn't want pressed. (This version was released on Circus Live, but with an unnecessary and detrimental layer of "drone" added for reasons I don't understand. To drown out the audience chatter, I imagine.)
The song may not be all that deep, but it still offers us something to reflect on. We still live in the world of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, of the realpolitik American use of coup and assassination and cooperative dictatorship to fight its ideological opponents, of the British partition of India and Pakistan and Bangladesh, of the Mongol destruction of the irrigation canals of Iraq. (And we kill in it.) We even live with some of the mercenary murderers of 20th century - the greatest son-of-a-bitch of them all is still alive! The past is with us always, even when we don't see it; each decision we make could, invisibly, one day prove fatal. Sleep tight.