MishM*A*S*H 14: “Song from M*A*S*H”

I know what you are probably thinking…”Song from M*A*S*H“?! That isn’t its name! And you’re right, it’s not. But the name of the theme song from M*A*S*H is not known by many people because it was often sold as “Theme from M*A*S*H” or “Song from M*A*S*H” since the full name is “Suicide is Painless.” I find that even today people are surprised to learn that the theme song has such a dark title, and when they find out there are lyrics, they’re even more surprised. In this post, let’s take a look at “Suicide is Painless.” I will take a look at its origins, it’s use in the film and television series, covers by other musicians, and how it has been sold and advertised.

Origins

The musical score for “Suicide is Painless” was composed by Johnny Mandel for the Robert Altman film MASH. But the origin story of the lyrics might surprise you. Altman attempted to write the lyrics himself, but ultimately gave the challenge to his then 14-year-old son, Mike Altman. The lyrics were intended to be “stupid,” and it is reported that his son came up with the entire song in five minutes. When you look at the MASH soundtrack or any of the later covers of the theme song, you will see credits for both Altman and Mandel for having created “Suicide is Painless.”

MASH the Movie

Of course, the film is where the song was debuted. When movie goers saw MASH in the theater beginning January 25, 1970, the opening credits to film display as the 4077th tends to wounded arriving by helicopter and ambulance while the song “Suicide is Painless” is playing in the background. The version used in the film included the full lyrics and instrumental and was performed by Ron Hicklin, John Bahler, Tom Bahler, and Ian Freebairn-Smith, though they are not credited. Later in the movie, during the “suicide” scene of the camp dentist, an acoustic version of the song is sung by Private Seidman (Ken Prymus) who is accompanied by Captain Bandini (Corey Fisher) on the guitar. So the film actually contains two versions of the song.

When the soundtrack was released, “Suicide is Painless” was included on the record. It was not popular at first, but it grew in popularity thanks to the M*A*S*H television series. However, the version used in the series did not include the lyrics, so when the song was distributed to radio stations, there was concern that the lyrics could be viewed as offensive. Long before today’s music ratings, Columbia Records included a letter with records distributed to radio stations warning of the “passages on the album that some of your listeners might find objectionable.” I have a sealed version of a record with this warning letter in the photos above.

M*A*S*H the Series

The MASH film was an unexpected success, and Fox decided to capitalize on the popularity of the movie by adapting it to television. At the time, network television censors were very strict, so adapting the dark comedy from the film to television was a challenge. In the first season, there was little blood shown in the O.R., for example. But another issue was the MASH theme song. The opening of the show was similar to that of the movie showing the 4077th in action with helicopters arriving with wounded. The Mandel theme was used for the opening of the show, but the lyrics were removed. It is for this reason that many people don’t realize that the theme song has words. They are used to instrumental version.

Mandel composed variations of “Suicide is Painless” that can be heard in the background throughout the series. In fact, the opening theme was updated for each season, and if you listen carefully you can hear minor differences in the instrumentals for each of the seasons. The eleven years of M*A*S*H popularized the song and led to it becoming a part of popular culture in addition to television history. To this day, hearing the first few cords of “Suicide is Painless” along with the imagery of the Bell 47 helicopter, it is instantly recognizable as M*A*S*H.

After M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H popularized “Suicide is Painless” and that led to different adaptations of the song being composed and several covers by other musicians being released. In fact, Mike Altman has made more money from the licensing of “Suicide is Painless” than his father made from directing the film! Today, you can get sheet music for “Suicide is Painless” (likely titled “Theme from M*A*S*H” or “Song from M*A*S*H“) for a variety of instruments including guitar, piano, and jazz band. A number of covers have been recorded by a artists across multiple genres including Bill Evans, Al De Lory, Small Town Singers, and even Marilyn Manson. My favorite cover of the M*A*S*H theme, however, was released in 1992 by Welsh band Manic Street Preachers. The rock ballad version of “Suicide is Painless” they perform is very well done.

The theme song from M*A*S*H has been both popular and controversial since its release in 1970. Its dark lyrics and its incredible tune combined to create one of the most iconic film theme songs. But it is the success of the series that propelled “Suicide is Painless” to become a cultural icon and spawned a series of covers and versions for different instruments. Today, it is most synonymous with the television series, but the song has had an interesting life of its own.

Lyrics

Through early morning fog I see 
visions of the things to be 
the pains that are withheld for me 
I realize and I can see… 

[chorus]: 

That suicide is painless 
It brings on many changes 
and I can take or leave it if I please. 

I try to find a way to make 
all our little joys relate 
without that ever-present hate 
but now I know that it’s too late, and… 

[Chorus] 

The game of life is hard to play 
I’m gonna lose it anyway 
The losing card I’ll someday lay 
so this is all I have to say. 

[Chorus] 

The only way to win is cheat 
And lay it down before I’m beat 
and to another give my seat 
for that’s the only painless feat. 

[Chorus] 

The sword of time will pierce our skins 
It doesn’t hurt when it begins 
But as it works its way on in 
The pain grows stronger…watch it grin, but… 

[Chorus] 

A brave man once requested me 
to answer questions that are key 
‘is it to be or not to be’ 
and I replied ‘oh why ask me?’ 

‘Cause suicide is painless 
it brings on many changes 
and I can take or leave it if I please 
…and you can do the same thing if you please.

Videos

The original, 1970
The M*A*S*H Series Opening
Manic Street Preachers, 1992
M*A*S*H Promo, 1991

Sources:

MeTV. “Inside the theme song: M*A*S*H’s ‘Suicide Is Painless.'”

MeTV. “7 versions of the M*A*S*H theme song that any fan of the show should hear.”

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