It’s hard to think of a band making an art of writing poignant political observations, outwith the shouty-shouty punk revivalists, the ever-shrinking mileu of rap acts that haven’t taken the devil’s shilling and folk and singer-songwriters who’ve always existed within a small coterie of people with a lot of say but few to listen to. It hasn’t always been this way and it shouldn’t be either. Music and politics has forever been associated, in the same way literature, poetry and paintings have been platforms for angst and agitation.
Art is, in essence, an extension of our thoughts, it is an outlet for all our hopes, beliefs and doubts. The state of the world being foremost among all human beings thinking processes, it is only natural that it surfaces in a painting, a paperback or a 7” EP. Perhaps more than most arts, music has been synonymous with politics – and when I talk of politics here I do not restrict myself to parties or movements but expand the term to single-issue campaigns or just the art of the political debate in your local pub. From Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, a song written by a Communist Party member about the lynching of black people in the southern states; Woody Guthrie’s anti-fascist campaigns, through to the Beatles signing Back In the USSR or Revolution, or the Stones’ Street Fighting Man, music has attempted to reflect the issues and the problems of the day. Roots reggae was about stopping the violence and having justice and equality for all; punk was born of the economic deprivation of the 1970s and the conservatism of the music industry, and the 1950’s rock’n’roll movement gave teenagers a voice and an aspiration for the first time. That’s a broad sweep of radicalism that doesn’t even touch on Bob Dylan, Shostakovich, Marilyn Manson, System of a Down, Bruce Springsteen and Captain Sensible.
Keeping the right to freedom of speech
Let’s be clear, politics in music isn’t just a subject to challenge the writing skills, it is crucial to keeping the right to the freedom of speech alive. If we don’t use it we allow those who seek a compliant society of consumers to make more people rich a free ride. I’m currently listening to an album called Panic which came free with Mojo magazine. Virtually all the tracks are from British acts of the 1980s, an era of Thatcherism, the Miner’s Strike, the Hunger Strike in Northern Ireland, mass unemployment and the Falklands War.
I now live in New Zealand but, despite its isolation and small population, it wasn’t without its strife as Rogernomics was the same brutal imposition on the working classes as monetarism, neo-conservatism or whatever term political commentators came up for an ideology that contained nothing more than an attempt to justify that being exceedingly rich was just and fair. This album comes with a quote from Morrissey – but no Smiths track – and contributions by Billy Bragg, The Redskins, McCarthy and The Three Johns, all of whom you would expect to be. Hell, if I had my way I would have included the Human League’s The Lebanon, and Culture Club’s War Song, both pretty dismal efforts but the message was bloody clear. Somehow, I just can’t imagine Katy Perry, Justin Bieber or Rihanna saying anything more than what’s between their legs while what’s between their ears rots away. Woody Guthrie, Joe Strummer and John Lennon will be spinning in their graves.
Even festivals have become nothing more than money-spinning enterprises. Michael Eavis, who started the Glastonbury Festival in 1970 as a platform for hippy ideals, is now bemoaning the current lack of political activism at Glastonbury, reflecting some people’s feeling that it was being taken over by middle class music fans out solely to enjoy themselves. Surely, Michael, having Beyonce, U2 and Coldplay as your top three headliners is kind of assisting that paucity? Ironically, there was a demonstration, against U2, at this year’s event, a large balloon with the words U Pay Tax 2? in protest against the band’s relocation from Ireland to the Netherlands for tax purposes. Bono’s stake in Facebook shows that money is a massive focus for U2, certainly more than politics as all their recent albums would testify. It almost seems as if the word hypocrite was invented for Bono, someone who meets world leaders to plead with them to drop the debt of poor nations, yet does his best to avoid paying tax to his own government and, through his obscene greed is part of the problem not the solution.
The time is now
But if ever there was a time that REQUIRED political protest it is now. The spectre of war abounds, on every continent, dictatorships from Fiji to Belarus thrive, where millions of people’s livelihoods are under threat, Arab regimes crack down with force on peaceful protesters, corruption is rampant, the rich have been given the green-light to steal from the poor and it’s all happening while we pillage our resources and hurtle towards ecological armageddon. It’s beguiling, but the corporate industry is part of the problem, churning out radio-friendly unit shifters, the lack of anything slightly contentious, presumably in their eyes, means less debate and more cash going through the till.
They’re actually wrong, however, as many songs that have touched on modern day issues have sold spectacularly well – Edwin Starr’s War, for example, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes, or The Special AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela. Perhaps coming from Britain, which has a tradition of radicalism in song, from pre-Industrial Revolution days, and being brought up in the 80s with the kind of stuff Panic has highlighted – and equally of punk and reggae -I have a sense of the elements that make up a good, hard-hitting political song.
Here in New Zealand, there’s little of that, the Springbok ’81 tour that saw rioting in the streets and on rugby parks, or Vietnam saw little direct comment. But, according to music writer Graham Reid, on his Music From Elsewhere site (http://www.elsewhere.co.nz/) the country doesn’t have that tradition partly because folk music hasn’t had the same connection with politics that it had in the States where Springsteen and Dylan drew on Woody Guthrie. But that doesn’t mean Kiwi musicians are in any way compliant, according to Reid: “We do, however, have an interesting history of songs about dissent from social norms, the anger and frustrations of being different, or feeling disenfranchised from mainstream society — which most want to reject anyway.” And that of course is another aspect of music’s radicalism, and something that needs an article in itself.
Hope among the ruins
Given the musical environment we live in, it’s hard to think of a Public Enemy emerging from the inner-city ghettoes or a pro-Indigenous rights/ anti-nuclear act such as Midnight Oil sneaking into the mainstream. And yet, despite the observations of Paul Weller and PJ Harvey that the right to political protest is being under-utilised, there are examples of acts doing their bit, sparking debate and raising issues. Harvey’s Let England Shake was a dissection of war, both current and historical, while Weller wrote, in his typically observant way, of a changing London, and in a sense of the world, on Wake Up The Nation. He has also defended The Enemy from those sniping at their use of social commentary. The Enemy are one of the closest protagonists of the independent, radical tradition, noting how Britain has become a nation of checkout girls and wage slaves, where there’s no left or right anymore and New Labour’s become another Thatcherite vehicle.
My recent blogs give me further insight, of Gang of Four continuing their Marxist tendencies, a Cambridge band called Bomb Factory whose recent EP had an image of ‘terrorist’ with a supermarket bag instead of a balaclava, of Family Fodder’s dabbling in Angolan politics, and Ian Brown’s ruminations on the Afghanistan war. In the past decade, I’ve heard Neil Young declaring the US should impeach the president (Bush that is), of Steve Earle demanding Revolution Now, Muse’s vision of a man-made apocalypse and M.I.A referencing the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Tamil independence movement. Meantime, I’ve been alerted to a friend in England to an act called The Agitator, who is part performance poet in the vein of Attila The Stockbroker and part Redskins playing funk music.
There’s encouraging signs that music can retain that radical sense, that ability to shout at, and demand answers, from our politicians and business leaders. Though it is also conceivable that in difficult times, the general population just want to dance and not be bothered by such trivialities as war and famine. Ain’t that always been the way? However, while music won’t change the world, it can contribute to the free-flow of alternative ideas and challenging the apathy that is rampant.