This picture was taken by the French. (French National Center for Space Studies)
“A revolution? Meh, I say we just baguette.” (French National Center for Space Studies)

July 14 marks Bastille Day, when we celebrate the band that gave us the single “Pompeii” and whose Web site is the first Google result when you type in “Bastille.” I think.

Ah, history. Inexhaustible source of band names.

Most of history is the story of people trying to kill famous bands. World War I all started because somebody assassinated Franz Ferdinand.

The Decemberists were active in Russian politics before they got bitten by the music bug.

And, of course, Bastille Day would not have happened if nobody had tried to kill Queen.

Pretty much all of history is a string of band names. Take the start of World War I. The Killers (also a band) of Franz Ferdinand (band) were members of the Black Hand Gang (surprisingly not a band), and the tangled web of alliances in Europe meant that this quickly escalated into conflict. Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia let out A Wilhelm Scream (band), and soon troops were trooping in from all around and planning to execute the Schlieffen Plan (not a band), which was a Simple Plan (band) that would allow Germany to overrun large sections of France and get back Alsace-Lorraine. No Doubt (band), it was only thanks to the heroism of some taxi-cab drivers who rushed troops to the front in their Death Cabs (band) that kept Paris from being taken. Foo, fighters (band) were stuck in trenches for the next four years and there was Widespread Panic. A-ha. Yes.

World War I was a global conflict that received less critical acclaim than its faster-paced, more explosive sequel. The sequel was necessary because of all the tie-in World War I merchandise people had already invested in, although the franchise creators jettisoned most of the familiar characters (so long, General Haig), opting to stay in the same world with a lot of the same settings but removing the element of trench warfare that had been so prominent in the original and creating a clearer villain.

But never mind that. Today we celebrate the French Revolution, which has been described as “like the American Revolution, but creepier.” No, I’m sorry, French Revolution! Don’t guillotine me!

The revolution was super, or as the French say, “super.” (This works better out loud.)

As far as I can reconstruct the history, what we celebrate on Bastille Day is as follows: King Louis XVI, or as the French like to call him, Louis Sez (sez what?), was having some serious financial difficulties and called together the Estates-General, a body comprising representatives from all three of the French “estates” — the nobility, the clergy and (how quaint) the rabble. They had not met since 1614, so they had a lot to talk about. He was hoping that they would vote him more money, I guess, but instead they drew up big lists of grievances and started demanding reforms.

Louis tried to disband the assembly, but the Third Estate delegates got together and swore oaths on a tennis court. (I frequently swear oaths on tennis courts, when I miss balls, but fortunately, no revolutions generally ensue.) At first, it seemed as though Louis might cave, but then he dismissed a reform-minded minister, Jacques Necker (in English, Jack ‘To Neck’) and surrounded the assembly with troops, and — the merde hit the ventilateur. The people rose up and stormed the Bastille, a large prison, and pretty soon everybody was being wheeled off to the guillotine in large tumbrils to be beheaded and become Talking Heads (another band.)

(No, this isn’t the part when everyone sang “Do You Hear the People Sing?” That was another French Revolution.)

The revolution went uphill, then downhill, and then somehow led to Napoleon after going through a lot of fun phases – for instance, the phase (well after Bastille Day) when everyone decided it would be fun to rename all the months things like Thermidor (not a band) and Fructidor (not a band) and Germinal (a novel, but not a band) and introduce a 10-day week, because there was no monarch and fixing the actual problems of the Third Estate was too difficult. Also, a guy got murdered in a bathtub. It was pretty wild, all told.

The French had assumed that democracy would come naturally because a) Americans had done it, without even being French b) they had already done the hard work of thinking up a great slogan (“liberty, equality, fraternity!”) and c) we had stolen half our ideas from their Enlightenment thinkers anyway. But it did not instantly translate, like a lot of English words trying to sneak through customs. Everyone in Europe was deeply stirred, though, including Charles Dickens, who said it was “the worst of times.” Or possibly “the best of times.” It was unclear.

At least, that is what the Wikipedia “Band Names” page had to say about it. Vive La France! (“Vive The France!”)

Fireworks lit up the Paris skyline on Monday night in celebration of Bastille Day. (Reuters)
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.