There are no reasons

A rare revisit here on WMMCM, since I wanted to get a little more deeply into a song that Pete slyly slid in as a quick Monday post in our ongoing series on songs about real people. Though in this case, the songwriter has some doubts about the humanity of his subject.

(And the customary link)

I’m getting into this a bit more deeply because I’m not sure how many people who’ve heard this song on the radio have heard the story behind it. The incident has rather fallen from popular memory in the wake of more recent horrors — though nobody who was in California in 1979 is likely to forget it.

In 1979, Irish band the Boomtown Rats were beginning to see some success in the UK. This was long before Band Aid and Live Aid and Sir Bob Geldof — I had the Rats’ first album (didn’t like it much), but they hadn’t made much of an impression in the U.S. It was a few years after the shocking Chowchilla kidnapping, but all the kids had come out of that alive and most people could take for granted that if their kids were in school, they were safe and would be protected (Columbine was of course a long way off).

On the morning of Monday, January 29, down in San Diego, someone took out a .22 caliber rifle and fired, from the front window of a house, about 30 rounds at the elementary school across the street. The shooter killed the school principal and the custodian who ran to help him and injured eight students and, after police came, shot a cop. After an all-day standoff, she surrendered. And all of us who’d been riveted to the all-day coverage were stunned to see the killer: a small, pale, long-haired 16-year-old girl.

Brenda Spencer’s explanation? “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” She later added, “It was just a lot of fun.”

That caught the imagination of Bob Geldof, who in “I Don’t Like Mondays” tells us, after a strange opening keyboard glissando that ends in an almost Who-like echoing piano:

The silicon chip inside her head
Gets switched to overload.
And nobody’s gonna go to school today,
She’s going to make them stay at home.
And daddy doesn’t understand it,
He always said she was as good as gold.
And he can see no reason
‘Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need to be shown?

Geldof is being even more ironic than it appears with the reference to “daddy” — Spencer later claimed that she asked for a radio for Christmas (in 1978?) and her father bought her the gun instead. That’s Cheap Irony 101, and I don’t see any particular reason to believe it, under the circumstances. But Geldof does report on what she told the cops:

Tell me why!
I don’t like Mondays.
Tell me why!
I don’t like Mondays.
Tell me why!
I don’t like Mondays.
I want to shoot
The whole day down.

Later, we hear about the long standoff:

All the playing’s stopped in the playground now
She wants to play with her toys a while.
And school’s out early and soon we’ll be learning
And the lesson today is how to die.
And then the bullhorn crackles,
And the captain crackles,
With the problems and the hows and whys.
And he can see no reasons
‘Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need to die?

The police were exceedingly patient, in fact, and stayed outside the house for seven hours, trying not to shoot her. Spencer later said she hoped they’d shoot, but again, it’s questionable how seriously one should take that.

In this strange song about a strange incident, the tone shifts continually — there’s that ridiculous glissando (which tends to disappear in radio play) that suddenly breaks off to quick piano chords and handclaps, and Geldof presents an expressive and intentionally unpolished vocal while a piano player who’s suddenly gotten dead serious lurks behind him.

Ironic “aaaaahs” chime in as the piano grows more earnest, and by the time the first refrain comes in, a deep, rolling string section arrives — but so does a mocking chorus to demand: “Tell me why.” As Geldof sings “I wanna shoot the whole day down,” timpanists provide a cannon-fire effect.

The last verse is backed by a music box piano to suggest the youth of the victims and of Spencer — it’s gimmicky, sure, but it works. An angelic chorus comes in with “And the bullhorn crackles,” and the last moments of the verse are devoted to a fierce buildup of tension, released finally in the last refrain, as Geldof repeats, “I don’t like, I don’t like, I don’t like Mondays.”

It’s a powerful song, a bit elliptical and glib perhaps, but it’s just a small pop attempt to describe and perhaps understand something about a bewildering crime. Well enough, on those terms.

So what happened to Brenda Spencer? She was tried as an adult and sentenced to 25 years to life. She has had several parole hearings, at which she has tested out a number of excuses (she was high and the police hid the results of her drug tests, her father abused her — but she didn’t get around to mentioning it for a couple of decades after the crime). She has attempted to have her conviction overturned and is on record as saying she was “responsible for the death of two people,” but adding, “I am not a murderer.”

She was denied parole last year, and won’t be up again until 2019. Prison seems to me an excellent place for Brenda Spencer. Long may she remain there.

About Bridey

Bridey has been a music nut since falling in love with Elton John's "Caribou" album in grade school (why that one? I was nine). She's a magazine editor by trade who writes regularly about radio, music, and related industries.
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One Response to There are no reasons

  1. Michele says:

    I can see why you revisited this song, and the story is hauntingly familiar now days. Why does any kid bring a gun to school or worse fire it at others? I could write to that topic alone, pagers and pages, having dealt with such juveniles. Their excuses all sound the same after awhile, nonetheless, there really is no rhyme or reason to it.

    The song, given the context, is a pretty incredible piece of work. ♫

    Thank you for this one Bridey