How I wrote ‘Everybody’s Gone To War’ by Nerina Pallot
What inspired the British singer-songwriter’s biggest hit to date? Bob Dylan, Red Hot Chili Peppers and bumping into a friend
Nerina Pallot’s career has been full of bold moves. When her second album Fires went Gold and earned her an Ivor Novello nomination for the song Sophia, it looked like she was destined for a career as a singer-songwriter of catchy pop anthems. Instead, the London-born artist has forged her own path, including releasing an EP every month in 2014. Her latest album, 2015’s The Sound And The Fury, continued this evolution and offered her most adventurous record to date.
Despite its political nature, Pallot’s 2005 single Everybody’s Gone To War remains her biggest hit, peaking at No 14 upon its re-release in May 2006. The song was also hugely popular on the radio, reaching No 3 in the UK airplay chart. Here, she talks about the personal relationship which inspired the song’s message, as well the impact writing the track on a bass had on its final sound.
“I wrote it the first week that we sent forces into Iraq in 2003. I’d gone to a school with strong military ties – it was a feeder school for Sandhurst and a lot of people I’d grown up with were deployed in the armed forces over there. I was thinking about those people I knew, people I’d knocked around with when we were kids. There was one specific person I’d known since I was 14. We first met at a party and we’d got drunk on snakebite and had sung Bob Dylan songs to each other. It was really sweet and we were two little hippies, but then life changes.
“I hadn’t seen him for a long time and we bumped into each other one day when we were in our 20s and spent an afternoon catching up. By this time, he was in the army and I asked him how it was going. He said ‘I’m a bit bored, really. I’m a fully trained killer and there’s nothing to do. I need a war!’. He’s one of the loveliest people you could meet and he meant that in a dry way, but when he said that I thought ‘Blimey!’ and came up with the line ‘pure-bred killing machine.’
“I was also thinking about With God On Our Side by Bob Dylan because I think it’s one of the greatest lyrics about the craziness of religion and that’s what I nod to in the chorus, ‘If God’s on our side then God is a joker.’ So Everybody’s Gone To War is an homage to another song. It’s also directly inspired by a human being who is living and breathing, and it’s also a general protest about war. The second verse is about the condition of man, that no matter what we do we seem to f**k it up!
“It wrote itself really quickly, in about 10 minutes, on a really old 1965 Hofner Senator bass. The fact that I wrote it on a bass, which is not my first instrument, meant it was very limited harmonically. It’s just three chords. If I write on piano you’ll get 30 chords, so I would say one of the interesting things about the track is that it made me write in a different way.
“The final version is the third or fourth attempt at the song. The demo was a lot longer and then the next one was more organic, it was going rockier but ended up much more power pop. I’d been religiously listening to Queens Of The Stone Age’s Rated R album and I really loved them. I’d always been a bit of a Chili Peppers fan, I always thought Flea’s playing was exceptional and I was sitting there with the wrong kind of bass, trying to play like Flea and thinking how could I write a bassline that he would write? The melody of the song is my bassline and the whole of the song came from that bassline.
“When I hear it now I still think, ‘That’s a great radio record,’ which it was. I still have a tenderness for the first demo because it was odder and a bit more heartfelt, but sometimes you have to make those decisions and I’m glad I made it. It was the start of the period where I started to make much more commercial work.
“Sometimes you have to do those things. You don’t always have to – sometimes you can make wildly mad, odd records and have success and that’s the dream, isn’t it? But the radio landscape doesn’t work like that. I wouldn’t know how to make that kind of song now, even though I really love those sorts of records.”