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33 Revolutions Per Minute. A History of Protest Songs. Dorian Lynsky. Review.

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33 Revolutions Per Minute.  A History of Protest Songs. Dorian Lynsky. Faber & Faber 2010.


Sometimes music does not soothe, nourish love, nor does it lie gently on the heart. A protest song rouses, at times grates, often intoxicates, and aims to “change opinions and perspectives”. The genre, Dorian Lynsky writes, “addresses itself to a political issue in a way which aligns itself with the underdog.” (Page xii) It is, many have felt, at the centre of the fight for social justice. Protest music is gut-wrenching inspiration with a far wider appeal than day-to-day activism


Pop music, protest’s prime melody, embraced politics in Billie Holliday’s version of the anti-lynching Strange Fruit (1939), and became infused with the glow of contemporary Woody Guthrie’s radical folk. The American Communist Party loomed large in its diffusion. During the 1950s and 1960s folk acoustic protest music became a powerful inspiration in the American Civil Rights movement, CND, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Ewan MacColl illustrated the continued link with the organised left. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez looked as if they were destined to join them. Only the latter did. Dylan, became electric at Newport in 1965 dropped activism for a “politics of the self”.


Protest was widely considered a touchstone of the Anti-Vietnam War campaign. Country Joe and the Fish (referring to ‘Joe’ Stalin) wrote “I-feel-like-I’m Fixin-to Die-Rag’. If Lynsky observes, that strictly speaking “musical opposition to the war was feeble, tentative and diffuse” (Page 111) its part in sustaining a burgeoning New Left and counterculture was immense.


In the 1970s black political voices thrust their way forward through music. From James Brown’s Say It Loud – I’m Black and Proud (1971), the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution will not be Televised (1971) to Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City (1973) they had an international echo. Listening to them today one often forgets just how threatening and potentially revolutionary the US black ghettos appeared at the time. The American administration also faced other enemies. The Kent State student killings inspired Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Ohio (1970). In the aftermath of 1968 the whole Western Establishment (as it was called) seemed so vulnerable to dissent that it was ready to employ violent repression to maintain order. Stateside the “country seemed to be breaking apart” there was “violence and factionalism on the left, backlash on the right.”(Page 206)


Amongst this turbulence the counterculture offered a ‘revolution’ that stood everywhere. Its rebellious complaints, as Thunderclap Newman’s Something in the Air (1969) indicated, were too diffuse to pin down. There is a scene in the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Hunter S. Thompson gestures to the hills of the city to point to an invisible high level to which the movement rose at this point. But it lacked solid support. John Sinclair’s White Panthers, and his band, the Detroit based MCS were perhaps one of the few genuinely revolutionary rock groups. The principal US new left body, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), spectacularly collapsed and splintered. Its armed struggle faction, the Weathermen (later Weather) famously named themselves after a Dylan song. Their communiqués appealed to universal youthful solidarity against the ‘system’; this was not widely apparent.


In early 1970s Britain, a smaller alternative ‘underground’ briefly flourished, with bands like Hawkwind producing Urban Guerrilla (1973). Amongst the young freaks who read Frendz and Oz a number were drawn to left-wing groups, such as the International Socialists (IS) or the International Marxist Group (IMG). These politically detached people from US influences (the SDS’s fall-out and what followed inspired nobody) and turned them towards the more mass based European leftist culture.


This proved more important than Red Mole’s earlier embrace of John Lennon. David Widgery of the IS offered a bridge between the IS and the musical world. Widgery played a key role in Rock Against Racism whose concerts, at the end of the decade, were political events in themselves. A new wave of musical revolt, punk and two-tone, spearheaded by the Clash and the Specials, acquired a political edge as the National Front marched, and Thatcher and the New Right surged into office in 1979. The harder black musical poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson (a sociology graduate) is placed within this tumult. French leftists often say that the British had no ’68’ except musically, but in this case the sound merged with the politics.


In America protest music of any kind lost influence in the next decade. The much-loved Dead Kennedys Holiday in Cambodia (1980) was a musical high-note. But Rock Against Reagan caused only minor ripples on the national scene. The same was not true of the Black scene. Hip-Hop Public Enemy produced Fight the Power in 1989. If their message was stained with some of the group’s anti-semitism, and confused, “the noise could not be disputed and it triggered more musical reverberation, awoke more consciousness, than that of any band since the Clash”. (Page 567)


By contrast in 1980s UK political-musical links flourished, with the Miners’ Strike a high-point. Red Wedge in the 1980s, which mixed the whining vocals of Billy Bragg and, amongst others, the Communards, Madness, the Smiths, and the gay singer, Tom Robinson, was directly aligned with the Labour Party. 33 Revolutions Per Minute carries the story from those days, when music was thought to change the world, till the present, when, to say the least, this is not a widely shared belief.


33 Revolutions is both a political history of music, and a musical history of politics. There is an enormous quantity ((843 pages) of skilfully written material to read, and savour. There are sections on the feminist Riot Grrls movement and their British counterpart, Huggy Bear, the beloved Manic Street Preachers, Rage Against the Machine, R.E.M, Crass (an anarchist group/sect hard to either admire or enjoy), U2, the SWP’s Redskins, Bay Area leftist bands, and so many names that it would be impossible to list them all. Lynsky is keenly aware of intellectual connections, with Situationism, SCUM (Valerie Solanas’s Society for Cutting Up Men) Gramsci, post-colonial theory, and Deconstruction, cited – though Scritti Politi’s I’m in Love with Jacques Derrida does not get mentioned.


It has to be said that the ambition to write a history of protest music largely begins and ends in the US and the UK. There are excursions to Chile, though singer Victor Jara seems to figure partly because of a link with Phil Ochs. Jamaican Reggae and Bob Marley are located in the Island’s politics, and the Nigerian Flea Kuti own domestic role is explored. But outside of these locations: silence. Of Europe’s protest songs, from France’s rich tradition of politicised chansons where the words really count, to Germany’s, and elsewhere, there is nothing, and no explanation for this exclusion (a point also made here).


33 Revolutions Per Minute ends with reflections on the present position of protest song writing. The narrative is wrapped up by a description of how the Internet has changed the scene, creating an “atomised world of digital music”. That is one in which on-line protest acts as a “catharsis” in itself, without need of concerts. This theme could be perhaps be explored through the ideas offered by Peter Doggertt’s There’s a Riot Going On (2007). Doggertt observes that rock music was given more political weight in the 1960s and 1970s than it could bear. That musicians always have “an ambiguous relationship between capitalism and revolutionary zeal”. Or, as a well-known Clash verse says, that record companies snap up rebellion and try to turn it into money.


Yet street protests continue. The “wave of British tuition fee protests in late 2010 marked a welcome and surprising resurgence.” (Page 683) If it is a challenge to produce a successful protest song today, “To take on politics in music is always a leap of faith, a gesture of hope over experience, because there are always a dozen reasons not to. It falls to musicians to continue to make those attempts; whether they succeed or not depends on the rest of us.”(Page 685)





Written by Andrew Coates

April 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Culture, Left

Tagged with ,

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