Yesterday morning I was reading reports of the previous night’s rioting in Tottenham when the radio played Gimme Shelter. The combination was unexpectedly visceral. The Rolling Stones’ slow-burning jeremiad played out over images of riot policemen and buildings on fire. Possibly this portrays a chronic inability on my part not to relate dramatic events to music. It’s a habit intensified by working on a book in which songs and historical events become inextricably tangled. But it brought to mind a phrase used by Rock Against Racism co-founder David Widgery: “Crisis music.”
Widgery meant music which responded to the specific danger of the National Front in the late 70s but to me the phrase has a broader application. Crisis music is a subset of protest music which is not always perceived as protest music because it captures a mood of anxiety and imminent collapse and offers no solutions. It tends to be sonically of the moment (“NOW music,” Widgery added) and to embody the crisis in the music itself rather than the lyrics. As the critic Jon Landau wrote of the Stones: “Beggars Banquet is not a polemic or manifesto. It doesn’t advocate anything… They make it perfectly clear that they are sickened by contemporary society. But it is not their role to tell people what to do. Instead, they use their musical abilities like a seismograph to record the intensity of feelings, the violence, that is so prevalent now.” Certain genres are aflame with crisis music: late-60s rock, mid-70s reggae, punk, turn-of-the-90s hip hop. The classic example most often cited over the past 48 hours is Ghost Town.
Like all cultural myths, the myth of Ghost Town can be annoying and overstated. The charts, as a rule, are not stuffed with records documenting social anxiety. My Guardian colleague Alexis Petridis is fond of pointing out that the single competing for the number one spot when riots exploded across Britain in the first week of July 1981 was Bad Manners’ version of the Can Can, which would certainly make for a more antic soundtrack to archive footage of Brixton and Toxteth. Apart from UB40’s Don’t Let It Pass You By and The Jam’s Funeral Pyre, no other songs in the Top 40 at the time spoke to what was going on in Britain’s inner cities, unless I missed some coded messages in Body Talk.
But still, that was the number one single and a remarkable one at that. Forget the lyrics for a moment: the mood is the message. As I wrote in the book, “It is the negative image of a song like Babylon’s Burning [by the Ruts]: hollowed out rather than crammed with incident, smouldering instead of blazing. Like all great records about social collapse, it seems to both fear and relish calamity.” Whatever your feelings about Cher Lloyd’s Swagger Jagger, the current number one, it doesn’t quite have the same effect.
Ghost Town is a prophecy that sounds like an aftermath. The ghost town it describes, gutted by recession, is the terrain before a riot (“people getting angry”) but you get the sense that it will be as bad or worse after the anger has erupted. Hence the song’s circularity: it begins as it ends, with a spectral wail that could be either a cold wind or distant sirens. When the riots did break out, the Specials found the experience frightening rather than vindicating. Let’s not forget that the violence had pernicious unintended consequences: Thatcher ignored many of the recommendations in Lord Scarman’s report and instead invested in an arsenal of state-of-the-art police riot gear that came in very handy during the miners’ strike three years later.
This was the feeling I had looking at pictures of the smouldering husks on Tottenham High Road on Sunday morning. A riot is a weapon of last resort; a cry for help; a public form of self-harming. The spark in Tottenham was political: the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police, the incompetence of the police in explaining to the community what had happened, and – reports currently suggest — at least one instance of heavy-handed policing during a demonstration on Saturday. The fuel was the pervasive frustration and anxiety of a suffering neighbourhood: record levels of youth unemployment, social services (especially youth services) slashed to the bone, the Education Maintenance Allowance scrapped, a damaged relationship between the police and the community, and collapsing faith in the political class. But a lot of the behaviour, especially the looting, had no political impetus and the immediate outcome makes the lives of deprived residents even worse than they were last week. There are no winners.
On my Twitter feed over the weekend the comments which chimed with me were the ones professing sadness, confusion and a willingness to wait for more information before jumping to conclusions, the latter being particularly welcome. Some commentators leapt to equal and opposite forms of idiocy. Conservative pundits spoke mechanically of “mindless” violence (it’s never mindless, it just means you don’t care to consider the mind behind it) while some on the left bent over backwards to justify looting as an anti-consumerist act, failing to discriminate between anti-police violence and nicking trainers from Foot Locker, understandable outrage and plain old criminality, and thus doing right-wing pundits’ job for them. (Because I align myself with the left, I’m always more disappointed by lazy thinking from that end on the spectrum. I can’t say the Daily Mail has ever disappointed me.)
When people rush to either condemn or condone a riot rather than taking time to understand it they are merely assuming their usual positions, like the commentators after 9/11 who, wrote Greil Marcus, “stepped forward to deny that anything had been done that required any rethinking of anything at all. None had changed his or her mind in the slightest about anything. Nearly every argument was intended to congratulate the speaker for having seen all the way around the event even before it happened.” A riot is neither a solution nor an unforeseen calamity but a problem brought to the surface: a manifestation of community angst and official failure. As the global economy shudders, that kind of angst is not a localised phenomenon and this will not be the only explosion. In its circular misery, and the memories of past violence that it now contains, Ghost Town’s crisis music is horribly relevant to Britain in 2011.
UPDATE: The spread of the riots on Monday makes my focus on Tottenham here seem quaint already. My thoughts on the wider violence are expressed for me, with elegant balance and concision, by Kenan Malik. And this is a good piece by Joe Muggs about the warning signs in grime and hip hop.
Note 2: In the narrative of worsening police-community relations, the death of 80s reggae star Smiley Culture during a raid in March has become something of a cause celebre.