1881 — Modest Mussorgsky dies

Modest Mussorgsky was a member of the Russian Romantic composer’s group known as ‘The Five’ – the other four being Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. They set out to produce music that was specifically Russian. Mussorgsky in particular drew inspiration from Russian folk tales, notably in his best known work, the tone poem ‘Night on Bald Mountain’.

After 1874, Mussorgsky’s career was clearly past its prime. The composer drifted out of touch with old friends, or fell out with them entirely – both largely the result of years of alcohol consumption catching up with him. In early 1881, he was hospitalised after suffering a number of seizures. He died a week short of his 42nd birthday, and was buried in St Petersburg, where he had lived for thirty years.

Referenced in:
Decomposing Composers — Monty Python

1963 — The Beeching Report into British Rail is released

Dr Richard Beeching’s reports into the state of British Rail – 1963’s The Reshaping of British Railways and 1965’s The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes – are two of the most controversial documents of their era in the United Kingdom. The first Beeching Report recommended the closure of a total of 2,363 stations and 9,700 km of track be closed. (Not all the station closures were on lines that closed – some of the surviving lines were converted to use for freight only.)

The public outcry was immense, and in the event, not all closures went ahead – but the majority of them did. Thousands of people lost their jobs, and even more lost access to the rail network. All in pursuit of savings that largely failed to materialise.

Referenced in:
No Use For Him — Eric Bogle

1940 — James Caan born

An American actor born in New York City, James Caan is one of those rare actors to use his real name. His acting career started when he was 21, with roles in off-Broadway productions. Within three years, he was getting regular work as a character actor on tv and in the movies, and the size of his roles increased as fame slowly found him.

Throughout the Seventies, he continued to act, and wound up doing some of his best known roles, notably as Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather” I and II. He also appeared in such films as “Rollerball”, “A Bridge Too Far” and “Alien Nation”.

Referenced in:
The Chanukah Song (Part I) — Adam Sandler

1920 — The “Black and Tans” get their name

The Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force – to give them their official name – were a force of Temporary Constables recruited to assist the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) during the Irish War of Independence. They were the idea of Winston Churchill, Secretary of War for the United Kingdom in 1919. In 1920, the government advertised for men willing to “face a rough and dangerous task”. It would turn out that their roughness would only make things more dangerous for everyone.

The Black and Tans got their nickname from the colours of the uniforms that they wore: khaki army uniforms (usually only trousers) and dark green RIC or blue British police surplus tunics, caps and belts. Christopher O’Sullivan wrote in the Limerick Echo on 25 March 1920 that, meeting a group of recruits on a train at Limerick Junction, the attire of one reminded him of the Scarteen Hunt, whose “Black and Tans” nickname derived from the colouration of its Kerry Beagles. Ennis comedian Mike Nono elaborated the joke in Limerick’s Theatre Royal, and the nickname soon took hold, persisting even after the men received full RIC uniforms.

Referenced in:
Bug Powder Dust — Bomb The Bass


Turgidol is a Canadian-made erectile dysfunction treatment. It is a prescription medicine that is made in pill form. Canadian customs takes a dim view of anyone trying to smuggle it.

Readily available in Canada and the United States, Turgidol is rumoured to provide some sort of high when taken by men who do not need it for its intended purpose, but details are understandably hard to come by.

1989 — The Exxon Valdez runs aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska

One of the worst oil spills in history, especially in terms of the difficulty of cleaning it up, the collision of the Exxon Valdez with the Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound is the second worst oil spill in US waters (exceeded only by the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010). It took place, as most oil spills do, because an oil company decided that saving a few dollars by cutting safety margins was more important than the health of their employees or the environment.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was incredibly remote, in a bay with virtually no land access, meaning that everyone had to come in by sea (through the oil slick that grew to cover 28,000 square kilometres) or by air. Taking place in the Alaskan spring, the clean up was further complicated by the melting of the ice floes and the occasional calving of icebergs. More than 25 years later, much of the oil still remains on the coasts and in the waters of the area – and Exxon is still to pay $92 million in compensation.

Referenced in:
Black Sea — John McCutcheon
Raven’s Child — John Denver
Dirty Pool — Spirit of the West
Barren Ground — Bruce Hornsby and the Range
The Wreck of the Exxon Valdez — Geoff Bartley

1286 BCE — Zeus seduces Alcmene

Alcmene was the grand-daughter of Perseus, one of the earliest Greek heroes, and himself a son of Zeus. Perhaps this is why Zeus, in seducing his great grand-daughter, chose to do do by assuming the form of her husband, although it’s likely that Alcmene’s famed fidelity had something to do with that.

Be that as it may, Zeus (in the form of Amphitryon, Alcmene’s husband) lay with her for three nights (in contrast to his usual “wham-bam-thank-me-ma’am” style), and the product of their union was the mighty Herakles (or Hercules, to use the better known Latin spelling), greatest and most-famed of all the heroes of Greece.

Referenced in:
When You Sleep — Cake

1967 — Jimi Hendrix releases “Purple Haze”

Widely hailed as one of the greatest rock songs of all time, and probably the greatest psychedelic rock song, “Purple Haze” is not actually about drugs, psychedelic or otherwise. According to Hendrix (who wrote the lyrics and music), it’s mostly about falling in love – although it’s possible that the whole song is happening on Neptune (Hendrix was a big science fiction fan, and frequently used elements of it in his songs). In fact, Hendrix gave different explanations at different times – although he always strenuously denied that it was about drug use.

According to the track’s producer, Chas Chandler (no, not that Chas Chandler), Hendrix began writing it on Boxing Day, 1966. “Purple Haze” was recorded in a four hour session on January 11, 1967 at De Lane Lea Studios in London, and released in the UK a little over two months later. (It would not be released in the US until June 19.) It would become a Top Ten hit in the UK and other European nations, but fare less well in the US, where strong sales of the album it featured on as track one (“Are You Experienced?”) harmed sales of the single despite heavy radio play.

It remains one of the most well known and popular Hendrix songs.

Referenced in:
The End of the Line — The Travelling Wilburys