459. ‘Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)’, by The Mash

This next #1 sounds like a blast from the past… Originally released in 1970, the theme from ‘M*A*S*H’ took a full decade to make the top of the charts…

Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless), by The Mash (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, 25th May – 15th June 1980

The why and wherefore of that we’ll get to in a bit. To the song first, though. It’s a simple enough, folksy ditty. It’s got a very late-sixties, post-Woodstock comedown feel to it. It’s also very melancholy. A song titled ‘Suicide Is Painless’ was always going to be a bit depressing…

Through early morning fog I see, Visions of the things to be, The pains that are withheld for me, I realise and I can see… The main thrust being that life is shit, and that suicide is always an option. By verse three, the ‘sword of time’ is piercing our skin, and everyone’s feeling thoroughly miserable. The singers, meanwhile, harmonise on the choruses like creepy Beach Boys.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this would never have been a hit had it not been associated with a huge film and TV franchise. It was the theme to the movie first, in 1970, and then the spin-off TV series between 1972 and ’83. I guess demand had built up over the years thanks to the show’s success, and this re-release sent it crashing up to the top of the charts.

The record is credited to ‘The Mash’, but in reality it was performed by some uncredited session singers who probably never received a belated dollar for their huge hit. One person who did make some money from it was Michael Altman, the fourteen-year-old son of the film’s director Robert. His dad allegedly requested ‘the stupidest lyric ever’, and the kid obliged in five minutes flat.

I think ‘stupidest lyric ever’ is a bit harsh, but the second you realise it was written by a moody teenager then lines like: The game of life is hard to play, I’m gonna lose it anyway… suddenly make complete sense. I think the dumbest bit of the whole song is actually the chorus: Suicide is painless, It brings on many changes… One of pop music’s great understatements there.

I wonder if there was any controversy at the time, either in 1970 or ten years later, around the theme of suicide in a #1 single, or TV theme, and the idea that it might be ‘painless’? It’d raise a few eyebrows nowadays for sure. Either way, it’s a song that’s been covered many a time. In the UK, the most notable has been The Manic Street Preachers’ version, which returned the tune to the Top 10 in 1992. It’s quite a haunting take on the song, too, given the Manics’ guitarist Richey Edwards’ still-unexplained disappearance a couple of years later.

11 thoughts on “459. ‘Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)’, by The Mash

  1. Bearing in mind Judas Priest’s ‘subliminal messages’ subsequent court case – https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/judas-priests-subliminal-message-trial-rob-halford-looks-back-57552/ – I think The Mash (or Johnny Mandel’s hired hands, I suppose) were lucky to get away with it. And remembering Mary Whitehouse’s indignation a few years earlier over Chuck Berry and Alice Cooper’s, ahem, ‘controversial’ No. 1s, she must have been very preoccupied with something else at the time to let this pass.

  2. Did not realize the MASH theme was an actual sung song considering most of us mainly know the instrumental version that gets played in the show. And yeah it’s weird to hear these lyrics about suicide considering how innocent it sounds. In a time of increased sensitivity toward topics of suicide, it’s hard to imagine people now not thinking much about the lyrics even as a TV theme. If you get past that it’s a nice little theme with the acoustic guitar and harmonies of the singers. Notably, this was performed by a few members of the famed Wrecking Crew, the group of LA-based session players that recorded on so many hit songs through the ’60s and early ’70s most notably for Phil Spector and the Beach Boys. Considering MASH’s success on American TV during its run especially during this period, I’m surprised the theme wasn’t released here and made a hit but for some reason, it wasn’t. MASH was so big in America that its 1983 finale episode remains the most-watched non-Super Bowl broadcast on American TV which is weird to imagine now in an era where regular network TV has lost much of its ratings and attention to cable and streaming networks. For me, MASH is one of those shows I mainly know from my parents and older relatives watching it on reruns but it never really interested me a whole lot.

    1. I have to admit I have never seen an episode of MASH – despite its popularity it wasn’t a common re-run during my childhood, and it seems to have faded from popular culture faster than other shows of the time (The A Team, Starsky and Hutch). Must have been huge in its day, though, for the theme to reach #1.

      People are much more sensitive about suicide as a topic in songs/TV shows etc from a mental health, depression point of view nowadays. 40 years ago I’d have expected controversy more from the that it’s a Christian sin being celebrated in a pop song.

      1. Yeah, you’re not gonna find a lot of young people today binging MASH like they do for Friends or The Office. People will still recognize the show if you bring up the name but it doesn’t feel as transcendent despite its big popularity at the time. It’s always felt like background noise whenever one of the reruns are on usually through those cable channels dedicated to playing classic TV hits. Notably, this was still an era where people only had a few channels to pick from which in America meant the three broadcast networks of CBS, NBC, and ABC. This meant everyone was largely watching the same shows which explains why the MASH finale was such a sensation, the type of cross-cultural TV event that’s rare today with so many viewing options and audiences fragmented. Just imagine the audience seen today for a sporting event like the Super Bowl, World Cup, or the Olympics and imagine that for a two-and-a-half-hour TV series finale. That’s the MASH finale for you.

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  4. badfinger20 (Max)

    You know me well enough to know that I’m not PC…in fact I’m the opposite. I have no problem with “Young Girl” or other songs…the lyrics to this make me uncomfortable but…maybe that is a good thing…Would I lead a campaign to strike the song? No…people have the ability to turn it off or up…that is not my choice.
    While I don’t like the lyrics…I absolutely love the melody and yes I’m a huge Mash fan…both movie and tv show. When I hear it…I think of helicopters coming up from the horizon.

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        You are correct…I guess it would be suicide is painless…not a great message lol…but it’s up to whoever to listen.

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