“Songs make history, and history makes songs”

Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley, who knows a thing or two about the subject, just wrote a great Guardian article about how to write a Christmas song. Rule 5 is “No finger-wagging”, the most egregious offender in Stanley’s eyes being Phil Ochs’ No Christmas in Kentucky, about mining country, where “the jingle bells don’t jingle when you’re poor.” But he also writes, “Rules are there to be broken.” In 1965, Melody Maker asked Paul McCartney if the Beatles would make a Christmas record. “Definitely not our style,” laughed Macca, “though come to think of it, I might suggest a Christmas protest song to John!” Six years later, Lennon released Happy Xmas (War Is Over).

So how do you write a good festive protest song? Well, there’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?, which isn’t a world away from No Christmas in Kentucky in terms of emotional blackmail and grim melodrama, only with the leavening presence of ramshackle pop-star bonhomie and actual bells, but that’s a fundraising tool before it’s a pop song. (Tom Ewing discusses the song with customary insight here.)

It’s also a chronological anomaly. The only really good seasonal protest songs I know are from the late 60s, before songwriters became too self-conscious about sounding schlocky or obvious. I’ve just finished reading Jody Rosen’s exemplary history of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (the title of this blog post is a quote from Berlin), which explains how the Christmas-song industry didn’t take off until after World War Two, and played to nostalgia for an imagined American innocence, as pure and unblemished as fresh snow. After White Christmas (1942), all the big festive standards (The Christmas Song, Sleigh Ride, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!) came in quick succession, as did movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. It was the invention of the modern American Christmas.

In the upheavals of the 60s, these Christmas songs could easily be seen to represent smalltown, whitebread, conservative values — in 1969, the hardline Weatherman Songbook changed the lyrics to White Christmas to “I’m dreaming of a white riot”. But more often you see a desire to politicise or subvert the Christmas song tempered by a powerful affection for it.

Hence Rotary Connection’s Christmas Love (1968), which woos the listener with the usual seasonal cliches before slipping in topical references to Vietnam and the violence in Chicago without killing the mood, perhaps because Minnie Riperton’s voice was incapable of nagging or needling.

James Brown’s Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto (1968) came out just a few months after Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud and is a deft bit of manouevring, all at once daft, moving, sentimental, sincere, approachable, tough, humble and self-aggrandising. “Tell ’em James Brown sent you,” he instructs Saint Nick. Who but Brown would write a song in which he bosses Santa around?

Finally, Simon & Garfunkel’s 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night (1966), which combines the carol with a simulated August 3 news bulletin bringing news of Vietnam, Nixon, civil rights, a serial killer and the death of Lenny Bruce. It has an eerie power which transcends the easy irony of the conceit.

For those who can access Spotify, here’s a Christmas playlist which includes some of the songs mentioned.

“The rhythms of the chants”

Here’s John Harris interviewing The Agitator (aka 24-year-old Derek Meins) in today’s Guardian. The most interesting bit is Meins’ confession that he was late to politics. While writing the book, I noticed that for every musician who grew up in a politically active household (Country Joe, Chuck D, Tom Morello) there was one who had a Damascene conversion in adulthood (John Lennon, Billy Bragg, Massive Attack’s 3D). As with all new passions, this is an exciting transition.

His epiphany, he tells me, came courtesy of the financial crash, which caused his sudden immersion in stuff he had spent his life avoiding. “It was a coming of age thing, really,” he says. “Moving away from my family and actually fending for myself – it was maybe like what happens to people when they go to university. I was becoming more socially aware, reading newspapers with more interest, and reading different sorts of literature.” He mentions George Orwell, Noam Chomsky, and the Scottish writer and polemicist James Kelman. “The whole thing was almost an awakening for me: ‘Oh my God, I’ve just spent the last 20 years not really thinking about anything apart from my own little bubble.'”

Also worth reading are Jon Savage’s typically excellent analysis of the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead and why it resonates anew this week (the picture he refers to led my first post about the student protests) and Dan Hancox’s account of the music played on the students’ Parliament Square sound system last week. Though none of the tunes he mentioned are political (just very good), a couple of commenters report hearing Rage Against the Machine’s deathless Killing in the Name. It’s for life, not just for Christmas. The prevalence of grime, dancehall and hip hop reminds me of activist Andrew Boyd’s comment about the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999:

The wild yet focused energies in the streets could never be resolved into a folk song – we were now part of Hip-Hop Nation. The rhythms of the chants were more percussive. The energy was fierce and playful.

As protests move on, so should the music. I think we’re still waiting for someone to combine political comment and sonic innovation with undeniable force — I would rather hear a dubstep Ghost Town than a 2-Tone homage. BUT as 2-Tone homages go, Captain SKA’s Liar Liar is likeable enough, and makes nice use of sampled speeches. Here’s the official video followed by a clip of protesters singing along to it last week. It’s in the second clip that the song really comes alive.

“It surprised everybody”

Well, this is ironic. This time last year I was finishing the first draft of the book and noting that between the time that Primal Scream recorded the apathy-lamenting title track of their XTRMNTR album (“No civil disobedience”) in autumn 1999 and the album’s release in early 2000, massive civil disobedience had broken out at the WTO summit in Seattle. “Seattle surprised me with its militancy,” said Naomi Klein, who published No Logo around the same time. “It surprised the organisers. It surprised everybody.”

Well, now I know how Primal Scream and Naomi Klein felt. A few weeks ago I signed off on the final proofs, including an epilogue in which I related the decline of protest music to the absence of serious street-level dissent. “Who would be compelled to write songs for the barricade when there are no barricades?” I asked. And then this happened:

It’s hard to tell exactly where all this energy goes now that the rise in tuition fees has been passed but for now I’m glad to be proved wrong. At the beginning of 2010 who would have predicted university students and sixth-formers taking to the streets with such anger and focus? Who foresaw the return of the sit-in? Who knew that the role of Mick Jagger at Grosvenor Square would be taken by Johnny bloody Borrell? It is an inspiring, bewildering time.

The protesters seem to be doing perfectly well without any political anthems. The BBC’s Paul Mason, one of the few reporters to try to understand the students while the likes of Sky News cry anarchy because Charles and Camilla had a bit of a scare, snappily calls it a “dubstep rebellion”, based on the music played on the sound systems in Parliament Square. Still, I hope this will remind young bands that political songwriting isn’t a busted flush, that the appetite is there if the songs are good enough. The Agitator can be a wee bit blunt for my tastes but at least he’s in the fray, playing the UCL Occupation and voicing the anger of the moment.

I thought back to the demos I attended circa 1993 (small-fry by comparison, it must be said) and a song which still has the right mix of ferocity, jubilation and youthful militancy.

The sound of “silence”

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One good thing about watching yesterday’s recording of John Cage’s 4’33” by the motley, X-Factor-spiking supergroup Cage Against the Machine (including members of Madness, Orbital, UNKLE and the Kooks) was that it allowed time for contemplation, which in my case led to ambivalence. Given that what the world’s most famous avant-garde composition has been dividing audiences since 1952, maybe this is to be expected.

The most common criticisms I’ve seen on Twitter don’t carry much weight. Elitists mocking the tastes of the pop-loving citizenry? Not really. Simon Cowell’s creations transformed the Christmas number one from contest to coronation years ago — let’s not pretend that X-Factor’s festive offerings get where they do because they are life-affirming classics. One can love chart pop and still find the X-Factor a suffocating drag.

That joke isn’t funny anymore after last year’s Rage Against the Machine stunt? OK, in the case of songs in rival Facebook campaigns like the Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird (or, God help us, Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’), but CATM is almost the deliberate inverse of RATM — quiet and elusive where Killing in the Name was loud and furiously direct. I admire the conceptual wit and simplicity of the exercise: what purer way to express dissent than to pay not for a song but for an idea?

But does it travesty Cage’s intentions? One reason he waited years to bring the idea to fruition was because “I didn’t wish it to appear, even to me, as something easy to do or as a joke. I wanted to mean it utterly and be able to live with it.” Inevitably, CATM makes it into a joke: even silence is better than The X-Factor, ho ho. But if you watch the video of the recording, and hear the coughing and shuffling and studio hum, you get Cage’s point anyway: “There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds.” The Rest Is Noise author Alex Ross, who recently wrote about Cage and 4’33” for the New Yorker, thinks the message gets across, as does the Guardian’s classical music critic Tom Service. And, y’know, it’s for charity.

It’s just the timing that bothers me. Now that street-level dissent is finally resurgent, I wonder why a TV talent show is still the only force villainous enough to mobilise mass protest at the intersection of music and social media. And given the national mood, I would rather have Rage’s explosive ire this year than Cage’s Buddhist calm.

Fela Kuti once boasted: “I play music as a weapon”. Well, CATM turns 4’33” into an unlikely weapon, but music that protests only against other music is a hall of mirrors. The RATM campaign did its limited job. Maybe CATM will do likewise, and it will be worth it to make the charts feel stranger, to introduce some people to Cage, to raise some cash for charity and to aggravate Simon Cowell. But please, Facebook wags, let this year be the last.

Note 1: The absence of music can be satirical: Orbital, who appear on CATM, once released four minutes of silence under the title Criminal Justice Bill? as a comment on the Tory government’s mid-90s crackdown on free parties.

Note 2: Some of the participants in the CATM video start swaying in mockery of the cheesy superstar bonhomie that’s been a staple of charity singles since Band Aid, which made me laugh at first, and then made me wonder if ironic distance is the best we can manage.