Song Writing

Sending Out An SOS - Distress Signals In Songs

by Amanda Flinner

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I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle

-"Message In A Bottle" by The Police

The narrator in The Police's 1979 hit "Message In A Bottle" is a lonely guy stranded on a desert island. With no other way to signal for help, he sends out a message in a bottle and hopes the odds are in his favor for a rescue.

SOS (...---...) is the standard emergency signal in Morse code, a system of transmitting information through tones, lights, or clicks called dots and dashes, or dits and dahs. Originally designed for use with the telegraph, Morse code was the quickest way to communicate over long distances before the advent of telephones. SOS, mistakenly thought to be an abbreviation for "save our souls" or "save our ship," was indeed used by ships in distress to summon immediate aid. Over time, it has become synonymous with any urgent appeal for help.

Morse code and other distress signals were often used in TV shows and movies to amp up the drama. Musicians used the devices to include hidden messages in their music or serve as metaphorical cries for help.

Let's take a look at Distress Signals in Songs, including Morse code, messages in bottles, flag semaphore, and calls to 911 and the operator.

Morse Code And Hidden Messages


Morse codes were incorporated into lots of songs throughout the '70s and '80s. Sometimes, they were real messages; other times, they were jumbles of nonsense that just sounded cool, such as on the Five Americans' 1967 hit "Western Union." Near the beginning of Kraftwerk's 1976 single "Radioactivity," Morse signals spell out the song title and, near the end, "Radioactivity is in the air for you and me."

The Alan Parsons Project opened their 1979 album Eve, with "Lucifer," an instrumental built on a Morse rhythm that spelled out the album title. Similarly, Rush based the rhythm of their 1980 instrumental "YYZ" on the Morse signal YYZ, which is the identification code for Toronto Pearson International Airport. The band was struck by the rhythm when their guitarist Alex Lifeson, also a licensed pilot, flew them into the airport.
Morse Code And The Man in Black

Legend has it, Johnny Cash was the first American to learn of Joseph Stalin's death while working as a Morse Code operator during the Korean War. Cash, who enlisted in the Air Force in 1950, was stationed in West Germany, where he was tasked with intercepting transmissions from the Soviet Union. On March 5, 1953, Staff Sergeant Cash deciphered a message from Russia about the Soviet dictator's demise and passed the news along to his superiors.

But it may just be a legend borne out of a kernel of truth. Skeptics point out that Morse Code operators would write down the Russian messages, which were conveyed in groups of letters, numbers, and special characters, and pass them along to a team of analysts who would take hours to crack the codes. Cash may have been the one to write down the message, but it wouldn't be fair to assign credit to one man – even The Man In Black.
In Metallica's "One," a soldier is severely wounded in a mortar blast, losing all of his limbs along with his ability to communicate. It's debatable whether the band actually used Morse code in the song, but in the music video, the soldier uses his body to tap out a cry for help. A fellow soldier deciphers the message: "He is saying K-I-L-L- M-E over and over again." The video uses clips from the 1971 film Johnny Got His Gun. Both the movie and "One" were based on the novel of the same name.

The Capris' Morse missive wasn't nearly as serious. Emulating the dits and dahs sounds of Morse code, the two-timing narrator of "Morse Code Of Love" sends a love note to his girl trying to convince her to come back home.

Dit dot ditty dit dot a ditty ditty
Dit dot ditty, Baby come home to me


In 1982, the '50s-sounding doo-wop tune started getting lots of requests on oldies radio stations, but the throwback number was actually a brand new song from the newly reunited Capris. The Italian American vocal group from Queens, New York had their first and only big hit in 1961 with "There's A Moon Out Tonight," then went on a 20-year hiatus.

Some crafty musicians used the bleeping distress signal to slip past the censors with coded curse words. On the 1967 Pearls Before Swine song "(Oh Dear) Miss Morse," vocalist Tom Rapp tells Miss Morse, "I want you bodily" and, in between banjo strums, a chorus of dit dit dah dits spells out "F--K."

"I tried L-O-V-E first, and the cadence was all wrong," Rapp told the Washington Post in 1998.

Mike Oldfield didn't try love first on his 1990 track "Amarok." Fed up with his record label, he added the sequence "F--K OFF RB" 48 minutes into the hour-long piece, aimed at Virgin Records exec Richard Branson.

A few years earlier, Roger Waters concealed a scathing verse about Sylvester Stallone on "The Tide Is Turning," the closing track from his concept album Radio KAOS. Waters was disgusted by Stallone's popular Rambo character, a volatile ex-Vietnam veteran, and the public's growing obsession with violent entertainment.

Now the past is over but you are not alone
Together we'll fight Sylvester Stallone
We will not be dragged down in his South China Sea
Of macho bullshit and mediocrity


The former Pink Floyd bassist used Morse code as a rhythmic device throughout the album and incorporated messages in the songs and on the artwork (the front and back of the cover spell out the song titles). Against the backdrop of the Cold War era, the album tells the story of a physically and mentally disabled boy who can hear and interpret radio waves in his head.


Morse Code And The Apocalypse


Apocalyptic themes were popular during the era of nuclear paranoia (before the current one, that is), with several musicians using distress themes to express their fears about the state of the world.

The end of the world was coming in 1979 and Joe Strummer did not feel fine. The Clash frontman read one too many doomsday headlines – from the nuclear error at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island to the threat of the Thames rising and flooding London, not to mention England's increasing economic and social struggles.

"We felt that we were struggling about to slip down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails. And there was no one there to help us," Strummer said.

He channeled his fears into "London Calling," which borrows its title from the BBC World Service's radio station identification for international broadcasts during World War II. For Strummer, it's a distress call detailing the city's plight and asking for help before it's too late.

London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared and battle come down


Mick Jones underscores the threat at the end of the song by using a guitar pickup to create a series of beeps that spell "SOS" in Morse code.

By 1986, Karl Wallinger, formerly of the Waterboys, felt trapped by the same fears. On World Party's rescue-themed hit "Ship of Fools," he pleads, "Save me from tomorrow. I don't want to sail with this ship of fools."
The distress call is a popular trope in science fiction and occasionally shows up in space-themed songs. David Bowie was inspired to write "Space Oddity," about an astronaut who gets stranded in space, after watching the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the song, ground control loses contact with Major Tom and tries to signal him to no avail.

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit's dead, there's something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Mike Rutherford had already predicted a bleak future for England on 1985's
"Silent Running" by Mike + The Mechanics. The futuristic synth track features Roxy Music alum Paul Carrack on lead vocals, singing from the perspective of a desperate father trying to send a warning to his unsuspecting family. He repeatedly asks, "Can you hear me calling you?"

Rutherford told Songfacts: "The story is about the idea that this father of the family is ahead in time, so he can look back and see what's going to happen in England, and it's not good. He's trying to get a message back to his family to warn them that the impending disaster is coming. Hence the line, 'Can you hear me, can you hear me calling you?'"

Take That's 2010 album, Progress, marked Robbie Williams' return to the group after 15 years, and he brought his conspiracy theories with him. "SOS" is a disco-fueled apocalyptic rant pieced together from internet forum ramblings about government mind control and doomsday prophecies, along with a stark fear of terrorism and global warming.

It's like a bullet to the head
It's an SOS


"SOS is panic. The world's gone mad," Williams explained. "We're untrusting of everybody and the panic's sort of tenfold and getting quicker and quicker."

The chorus, a repetition of "It's an SOS," is a collective cry for help, even though it's probably already too late.


SOS Spells Love In Distress


The phrase "SOS" has also been adopted as a metaphor in songs describing love in distress.

Agnetha Fältskog, the blonde-haired siren of the Swedish foursome ABBA, despairs over her love life in the deceptively upbeat pop ballad "SOS."

The love you gave me
Nothing else can save me
SOS


She tries to send a warning beacon to her inattentive lover to remind him of all the good times they used to have, but it seems he's not picking up on her signals: "You seem so far away though you are standing near."

Agnetha was singing lyrics written by her real-life husband and bandmate Bjorn Ulvaeus. Just a few years after "SOS" hit the charts in 1975, the couple went through a painful split that left Agnetha singing the breakup ballad "The Winner Takes It All."

On the Jonas Brothers' first Top 20 single "SOS," Nick Jonas wants to dump his ungrateful girlfriend, who brought a couple of her giggling friends along on a romantic date. Needing courage to stick with his decision, he sends out an SOS for moral support and logs in to Instant Messenger (hey, it's 2007) to do the deed. After pouring out Annie Lennox-levels of heartache (singing, "It's like I'm walking on broken glass"), he warns his ex that their next interaction won't be pretty, at least by Disney standards:

Next time I see you
I'm giving you a high five
Cause hugs are overrated just F-Y-I


Sticking with the nautical theme, the music video was filmed aboard the retired ocean liner RMS Queen Mary.

Rihanna also needed some help cutting her guy loose on "SOS (Rescue Me)":

SOS please someone help me
It's not healthy... for me to feel this way


Inspired by the Soft Cell hit "Tainted Love," a similarly themed song about a lovesick guy trying to extricate himself from a toxic romance, "SOS (Rescue Me)" finds Rihanna obsessing over her boyfriend and pleading for someone to save her before she loses her mind.

It's an age-old predicament. Decades earlier, Aretha Franklin cried out "Save Me" when she caught herself falling for her ex on the cut from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. Like Rihanna, she felt her sanity slipping away, singing, "The closer I get to ya, baby, you drive me stone outta my mind."

By the end of the song, the Queen of Soul teetered so close to the brink, she called on superheroes like the Green Hornet to swoop in. But it seemed she mustered the courage to rescue herself: The 1967 album also has her demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T from an unappreciative fella.

Many other artists in peril claim only love can save them. Franklin needed someone to save her from love but, two years earlier, Fontella Bass wanted love to rescue her in "Rescue Me." Unlike the scoundrel who strung Aretha along, Fontella's guy has a "tender charm" that could ease her loneliness, if only he would come on and rescue her already ("I need you and your love, too. Come on and rescue me"). Similarly, Madonna longed for a lover in her 1990 song of the same name. She sings:

I'm sending out an S.O.S.
Stop me from drowning Baby
I'll do the rest


Love also sends Mick Jagger into a Bee Gees-like falsetto on the 1980 disco-influenced hit "Emotional Rescue," but he's not the one who needs saving. The girl he wants is stuck in a relationship with a wealthy man and can't afford to get out, "a poor girl in a rich man's house." Jagger is the one crying himself to sleep at night but insists she's the one that needs the "emotional rescue" that only he can provide:

I'll be your savior, steadfast and true
I'll come to your emotional rescue


Sometimes, though, the hero does need saving. Bono cries out on the U2 track "Love Rescue Me" from the live album Rattle and Hum. Rather than romantic love, he's seeking love of the spiritual variety. The narrator admits he's built a monument to self-pity, his "palace of shame," and has lost sight of his faith. Bono explained, "It's about a man people keep turning to as a savior but his own life is getting messed up and he could use a bit of salvation himself."


Message In A Bottle


Throughout history, bottled messages have been discovered, usually decades after they were sent. Most contain goodbye notes from shipwrecked sailors or greetings from far-off senders. In 2018, a message from a group of Scottish school children, testing how far their bottle would sail, washed ashore in Florida more than 30 years after it was sent. The method became a popular trope in fiction in the 1800s when Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens both wrote stories involving the floating device, inspiring a passion for the practice.

Sting was leafing through his collection of song titles when "Message In A Bottle" caught his eye, conjuring images of "some guy with raggy trousers and a beard on a desert island."

I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my message in a bottle


In the Police's 1979 hit, the stranded narrator plans to send an SOS for help, not by literal Morse code, but by setting a message in a bottle adrift in hopes someone will find it.

The metaphorical hit uses the castaway theme to express feelings of loneliness and isolation after a breakup. A year after the stranded singer sends out his SOS to the world, he discovers billions of bottles on the shore, letting him know he's "not alone at being alone" with so many other castaways looking for a home. The song ends with Sting repeating "sending out an SOS" as if he's transmitting a series of distress signals.

In 1981, Atlantic Starr's R&B ballad "Send For Me" has vocalist David Lewis suspecting his lover is about to leave him. Instead of writing her off, he tells her she can always reach out to him, whether by telephone or more creative means: "Put a message in a bottle baby, baby, baby."

Aaliyah borrows the same sentiment on her debut album closer, "I'm Down." She assures her man she'll do anything he wants as long as he stays with her:

Put a message in a bottle baby
And send it to me, I'll come runnin' to you


Sammy Hagar could use some lovin' in Van Halen's 1988 synth-rock love song "Feels So Good." Instead of calling up the lady who turned on his "love light," he takes a cue from Sting:

I'll send the message in a bottle
Play for the mercy of the sea
Stormy weather, oh yeah
Waitin' for love to rescue me


In "Boatman," a song James Taylor borrowed from his brother Livingston, the narrator tries to repair his relationship (James thought the tune may have been about Livingston's own marriage). At one point, he imagines he's a message in a bottle just waiting to be discovered:

Oh I'm a message in a bottle
Drifting along on a deep blue sea
Waiting for some foreign shore
Ready for something to be


In Jake Owen's "Subliminal Love," the country singer uses ocean imagery to describe his girlfriend and, from the opening line, we learn she's a bit mysterious: "She's a message in a bottle floating on a sea of secrets."

Most seafaring messages don't get discovered, and even if they do, it's usually too late. The weight of the world is bearing down on Emmylou Harris on her 2003 song "Can You Hear Me Now." The singer is dealing with loneliness and depression - she needs someone to help her. Sadly, she awaits a rescue that may never come:

I'm here just waitin' until the end I send up my SOS
A message in a bottle set out to sea
It just reads "Soul In Distress"
But nobody ever got back to me


A decade earlier, Kansas warned in the spiritual song "Chasing Shadows" that people were seeking the wrong messages altogether while Biblical truth drifted farther out to sea:

The message in the bottle, has been lost at sea
But the word live on forever, it's meant to be



Semaphore


Semaphore is a method of communicating with flags or other visual signals typically used by ships to convey information at a distance. Perhaps the most famous use of semaphore in music is The Beatles "Help!"

Won't you please, please help me?

It took years for John Lennon to figure out that "Help!" – the #1 hit he wrote for the 1965 Beatles movie of the same name – was about himself. "The whole Beatles thing was just beyond comprehension," he told Playboy in 1980. "I was subconsciously crying out for help."

Tying in with the distress theme, the soundtrack's album cover features the band using semaphore. Their poses were supposed to spell out "H-E-L-P," but photographer Robert Freeman repositioned them to get a better photo, resulting in the confusing signal "NUJV."

Paul Is Dead conspiracy theorists – who believed the real Paul McCartney was killed in a car crash and replaced by a doppelganger - jumped on the error, claiming the jumble of letters was an acronym for New Unknown James Vocalist (James being Paul's real first name). The American release, however, captures a different pose: NVUJ - New Vocalist Unknown James?

"Help!" doesn't actually mention semaphore in the lyrics, but several other songs reference the flag signals, often representing the breakdown of communication in a relationship. Bryan Ferry, left reeling from a breakup with Jerry Hall (who left him for Mick Jagger), feels confused and isolated on "This Island Earth" (1978), singing, "So I send an SOS, semaphore myself." That same year, New Wave singer Wreckless Eric used "Semaphore Signals" to communicate with his forbidden lover:

I'm sending semaphore signals to the green belt
Messages of love down to her house
Semaphore signals to the girl I love
Semaphore signals coming down from above


On the lush Imperial Bedrooms track "Pidgin English" from 1982, Elvis Costello wonders why a woman with so many methods of communication at her disposal – including "sign language, Morse code, and semaphore" - can't bring herself to say "I love you."

In 2007's "Stormy Skies," Paul Van Dyk is enchanted by an enigmatic woman whose "beauty mystifies and speaks in semaphore." If she's anything like the girl in Arctic Monkeys' 2011 ballad "Reckless Serenade," she certainly stands out in a crowd – even when the crowd is full of bare-breasted women waving flags:

Topless models
Doing semaphore
Wave their flags as she walks by
And get ignored


In Snow Patrol's dance-oriented single "Called Out In The Dark," frontman Gary Lightbody refers to "drunken semaphore," possibly meaning his dance moves.

Under her stage name Flock of Dimes, indie rock singer Jenn Wasner explains she's "too far gone for the semaphore" on her 2016 track "Semaphore." She says the tune is about struggling to communicate over literal and figurative distances.


Call 911


911 was introduced as a national emergency number for the United States in 1968 for callers to receive swift aid in dire circumstances. We don't think "dance deprivation" and "emotional starvation" are what the government had in mind.

On Jordin Sparks' 2009 single "Emergency (911)," the singer is all dressed up and ready to go clubbing but can't get a hold of her boyfriend, whom she suspects has been ignoring her ringtone for over an hour. So she does what any reasonable person would do and dials 911 to report her impending death from diva-related ailments.

It's a 911
Dying of dance deprivation
Emotional starvation
I need resuscitation


Her missing beau is probably recuperating from her antics on the album's second single, "SOS (Let The Music Play)." Jordin actually makes it to the club on the electro-pop anthem and teaches her friend how to lure back her wandering boyfriend with sexy dance moves.

Love takes a dark turn in the 2000 duet "911" from Wyclef Jean and Mary J. Blige. The singers are caught in a forbidden romance. Wyclef is on the run from the police and he knows the cops will nab him if he tries to visit Mary. She does her best to cover for him, but being separated is painful. He's willing to risk everything just to see her, even if it means going away for life. He likens the situation to being shot in the chest and begs for someone to call 911, adding, "The alleged assailant is five foot one, and she shot me through my soul."

The Madden brothers are also ready to dial for help over their moody "Riot Girl" from Good Charlotte's 2002 Young and the Hopeless track:

Emergency, call 911
She's pissed off at everyone


Robin Thicke dealt with the messy fallout of a breakup in "Black Tar Cloud" and confessed his blame during a 911 call: "Emergency, emergency 911... There's a black tar cloud all because of me."

Other tunes focus on the futility of calling for help. On their 1990 hit "911 Is A Joke," Public Enemy slammed the emergency service for failing to respond to black neighborhoods. Flavor Flav is tired of watching his buddies die thanks to late responders and calls the digits a "no-use number with no-use people." He warns:

You better wake up and smell the real flavor
Cause 911 is a fake life saver


A few years earlier, a frazzled Cyndi Lauper tried to dial the number when she was on the brink of a meltdown on her True Colors track "911," only to get Pee Wee Herman (she sang the theme to his show Pee-Wee's Playhouse) on the line. He says:

The 911 emergency number
Is not in effect in the area where you are
Please hang up and dial "O" for operator
This is a recording, ha-ha!


NWA's 1999 single "Chin Check" opens with a terrified woman calling 911 when a group of men break into her home. The operator tries to help her, but the woman is murdered before police can arrive.

In the 2011 video for Skrillex's "First Of The Year (Equinox)," a young girl encounters a pedophile and screams "Call 911 now!" but telekinetic powers allow her to deal with the creep on her own.


Dial 'O' For Operator


A trusty operator was always on hand to help a desperate caller manage dialing snafus, connect with emergency services, or even break through a busy signal with an urgent message.

Operator, this is an emergency

Back in the old days, otherwise known as the '80s, not everyone had fancy push-button telephones in their house. Many had to make due with the rotary phone, where calls had to be painstakingly spun out on a numbered finger wheel, like the kind featured in Midnight Star's electro-funk club hit "Operator."

In the music video, the narrator is ready for a night of passion but can't get a hold of his girl on his giant rotary phone. By the end of the video, he's feeding spare change into telephone booths – one of the few ways to make a call on the go in the pre-cell phone era - and still can't get an answer. He pleads with the operator, "Hurry up 'cause I ain't got much time, It's an emergency, I spent my last dime." Band member Reggie Calloway, who co-wrote and produced the tune, told Billboard he recorded an actual operator, who can be heard asking the caller to speak up near the end of the song.

Calloway wasn't the first musician to attempt a love connection via a telephone operator. Motown queen Mary Wells begs the operator to fix the faulty phone line on the 1963 Smokey Robinson-written tune "Operator" so she can speak with her long-lost lover.

Oh operator, please get straight
It's unfair to make me wait any longer


In the Grateful Dead's 1970 song "Operator," Pigpen McKernan is trying to track down the girl who ran out on him, but the operator is unsympathetic to his plight, saying the number he's looking for is "privileged information." Two years later, Jim Croce's single "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)" finds the heartbroken narrator telling his breakup story to the operator looking up his ex-girlfriend's phone number. She took off for Los Angeles with his ex-best friend, and he thinks he's ready to confront her, but the tears in his eyes say otherwise. He tells the operator:

Well, I can't read the number that you just gave me
There's something in my eyes, you know it happens every time


Years after Chuck Berry enlisted an operator to get in touch with a little girl named Marie in "Memphis, Tennessee," Bob Dylan told the "Long Distance Operator" on The Band's 1975 Basement Tapes track, "I gotta get a message to my baby, You know, she's not just anyone."

We're not sure why Dylan is separated from his girl, but Randy Travis must have screwed up big time. The country singer doesn't ask the operator to hook him up with his ex's phone number, but wants a direct line to "1982," the "time when she was mine."

As if time travel wasn't a crazy enough request, Ian Gillan needs help finding a nameless, faceless girl who doesn't have an address. On Deep Purple's 1987 single "Call of the Wild," Gillan sings:

Operator I'm looking for a girl
You've got to help me get through
I don't know much about her
So I'm relying on you


On the flip side, Jack White won't be letting anyone control his communications. In the White Stripes' "Hello Operator," White would rather have his messages delivered by canary than deal with unsavory phone companies who bilk customers for every dollar. "How you gonna get the money?" he challenges. "Nobody gonna answer the phone."

Taking a metaphorical turn, the Black Keys "Little Black Submarines" is an acoustic ballad that transitions into an explosive rock finale, mirroring the emotions of a volatile narrator who is afraid he's losing his mind to his dark thoughts. He not only pleads with the operator to reconnect him with his girl, but also with his old self, "Operator, please pass me back to my mind."

February 16, 2018
Further reading: Answering Machine Songs

More Song Writing

Comments: 4

  • J Mav from San AntonioFrom a former Morse intercept operator .... opening of Lucifer has 2 different signals that morph into 1.... ‘DE 6WW’ ...... ‘this is 6WW’
    (Dakar Senegal)
  • Shawn from MarylandThis is nice. But did you miss The SOS Band? "Dit Dit Dit Dat Dat Dat Dit Dit Dit" "..and it's not a signal of distress. It stands for Sounds of Success."
    The band (and a snowstorm) is the reason Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got fired from The Time.
  • Brandy Wilson Fussell from Atlanta, Ga911 by Wyclef and Mary J. Blige.
  • Jim from Mobile, AlHow about "telephone Operator" by the Buzzcocks?
see more comments

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