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Robert Hilburn : The Vietnam War, Disco Style

June 08, 1985

In 1965, Vietnam seemed like just another foreign war. But it wasn't. It was different in so many ways . . . . In World War II, the average age of the combat soldier was 26. In Vietnam, he was 19. --from Paul Hardcastle's "19"

The last thing English musician Paul Hardcastle expected late last year when he began watching a TV documentary on the Vietnam War was that he'd be inspired to make a record about the war.

But Hardcastle is even more surprised that the record, "19," has become a major international hit--and that it is embroiled in controversy.

As soon as "19" began getting airplay, it became the target of attack on two fronts. In this country, some listeners argued that the mix of message and disco music trivializes the Vietnam veterans' situation, while liberal observers in Britain maintained that the record glorifies the wrong "victims" of the war.

In this month's issue of the English pop journal The Face, a writer asks, "Does the success of '19' mean that the 'liberal age' is back and that the

British public will agonize over the plight of 'murderers' instead of their victims? Or would a record about the average age of Vietnamese civilians killed by the Americans have done just as well?"

Hardcastle, who says he expects to give a portion of the record's royalties to veterans' groups, was caught off guard by the criticism. He said he put the disco backing on the narration because that is the style in which he works.

About the political slant, he said by phone this week from London: "I just wanted to inform a few people about something that shouldn't be forgotten. I don't know how it is in America, but the facts about what happened (to these soldiers) aren't well known in England. I don't see it as pro- or anti-anything.

"I didn't want to make it into a political statement because I don't feel I can really make statements like that. I don't know whether it (the American involvement) was right or whether it was wrong, and it would be sort of silly for me to try and make that judgment. To me, it's just a musical documentary . . . a very human--and sad--story."

The project began when Hardcastle, who specializes in synthesizer-based, dance-oriented music, was deeply moved by an award-winning ABC-TV program, "Vietnam Requiem."

Two facts especially haunted him:

--that the average age of the American soldier in Vietnam was 19;

--that so many of those soldiers were considered outcasts when they returned home.

"I remembered what I was like at 19 so I identified with the people in the program," Hardcastle, 27, said. "I also couldn't believe that anyone could be made to go through hell like they did and then get treated like they were aliens or something when they got home."

Hardcastle was so touched by the documentary that he began experimenting with putting those facts on record--mixing actual narration from the program with music. When he played a trial tape for friends, they responded favorably, but warned that it would be too touchy a subject for a pop record.

As soon it was released in England, "19" went to the top of the sales charts, where it has remained for five weeks. It is also No. 1 in Germany and Ireland.

The Chrysalis Records single looks like it will be a smash here too. It jumped 20 places this week to No. 46 on Billboard magazine's national sales charts and it's in the Top 10 on the U.S. dance club charts. A video--featuring Vietnam footage and put together by Jonas McCord and Bill Couterie, the writers-producers-directors of the TV program, is also being shown on MTV.

Hardcastle's record isn't the first hit this year to reflect on the Vietnam veteran in very human terms: Bruce Springsteen's recent Top 10 single, "Born in the U.S.A.," also concentrated on the moral wounds that linger from that period. And "19" isn't the first disco-protest record to top the charts in recent months in Britain: Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes" warned about the warlike tendencies of major powers, but that message was buried beneath a disco beat. The message is far from buried in "19."

Despite the immediate attention "19" attracted in Britain, Hardcastle wasn't satisfied with it and went back into the studio to do two other versions. The best of the three, "The Destruction Mix," features additional narration and musical elements. It's the flipside of the 12-inch version of "19."

Whatever Hardcastle's intent, his record serves as an anti-war statement. Even after all the media coverage and national soul-searching over Vietnam, the fact that Hardcastle could focus our attention once more on the lingering nightmare is a rather remarkable achievement.

What about reaction from Vietnam veterans?

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