We’re all normal and we want our freedom

‘Shocking’ – film still from Marat/Sade, 1967 | United Artists

Back in the 60s I vaguely wondered, through the stoned haze, how come that unusual line, ‘We’re all normal and we want our freedom‘, was in songs on two albums by different artists?

The songs were Red Telephone on Forever Changes (1967) by Love and We Are Normal on The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse (1968) by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

Decades later, I finally looked it up: it’s from Marat/Sade, the famous 1963 play by Peter Weiss. The full title is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.

Set in 1808 in the Parisian asylum in which the Marquis de Sade was incarcerated in real life, the play features de Sade staging a (fictional) play-within-a-play about the (real-life) murder of Jean-Paul Marat, using his fellow inmates as actors. In Act 1, Scene 6, the inmates chant, ‘We’re all normal and we want our freedom‘.

The play, said to draw on the ideas of Bertold Brecht and Antonin Artaud, was directed for theatre and film by theatre god Peter Brook. His award-winning production reportedly shocked audiences. Love’s Arthur Lee and the Bonzo’s Viv Stanshall must have seen it and borrowed that line.

In 1967 the film was showing in the USA; there was also a much-praised Broadway production. In Los Angeles, Lee probably saw the film and borrowed the Marat/Sade line for The Red Telephone.

(He apparently also borrowed from the stomping chant on Napolean XIV‘s They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!, released in 1966. Marat/Sade and the Napolean XIV song both address incarceration due to mental illness. Coincidentally, Napolean was in power in 1808.)

The Bonzo’s We Are Normal was written by Stanshall and fellow Bonzo Neil Innes. Innes has said he thought they got the line from Marat/Sade – the theatre and film versions were on in London – but apparently Stanshall has said he got it from Love. Perhaps it was both.

During the recording of Doughnut, Dadaist Stanshall, wearing a rabbit’s head and underpants, interviewed members of the public in a nearby London street. On We Are Normal, an interviewee is heard saying, ‘He’s got a head on him like a rabbit.’

The Bonzo’s spooky, extraordinary song is part sound experiment with cut-up vox pop and Miles-like trumpet, and part cod heavy rock. The only lyric is a close paraphrase of the Marat/Sade line, sung repeatedly and assertively in the rock section:

    We are normal and we want our freedom

Stanshall slips in a cracking rhyme: ‘We are normal and we dig Bert Weedon‘. (He sabotages his joke by adding a sarcastic laugh, as if to say that although he couldn’t resist it, such humour was out of place in a serious experimental artwork.)

Love’s wistful, melancholic The Red Telephone segues near the end into an ominous Napolean-XIV-like marching chant:

  • They’re locking them up today
  • They’re throwing away the key
  • I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?

The song then ends with a plaintive spoken rendition of that Marat/Sade line:

    We’re all normal and we want our freedom
‘Joke’ explanation (I know): Lee messes up the imagined re-enactment of Stanshall’s gag: “A punk stopped me on the street. He said, ‘You got a light, Mac?’ I said, ‘No – but I’ve got a dark brown overcoat.’
(From Big Shot, on the Bonzos’ 1967 debut album, Gorilla.)
(Not to be confused with Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy? by The Singing Postman.)

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