“And I went down to the demonstration”

All the pictures are my own. Almost all the words are someone else’s.

I got a sense that the labour and trade union movement slightly stunned itself with its ability mobilise so many people on the streets. That with Ed Miliband they now have a leader who they don’t hate, but in turn Mr Miliband faces a challenge of what to do about this movement. – Paul Mason, Newsnight

It was a wonderful show of feeling and determination, and could prove to be a springboard for a wider grassroots movement. But the difficulty in getting the message across, without having your peaceful protest hijacked by rent-a-mob or having your movement tainted by the actions of unconnected others, is evident. – Steven Baxter, New Statesman

So whilst I regret yesterday’s violence – if I could have had my way, there would have been none at all – I can understand why these outbursts of wider political violence are happening. And they do not make me optimistic about the future. – Paul Sagar, Bad Conscience

There has been anger directed at us because some media outlets incorrectly used our name for actions we did not organise, giving every action the name UK Uncut. But it is clear, if you spend two minutes on our website, who we are, what we are about, and what our plans were. – Alex Pinkerman, UK Uncut

Once at Ilford police station, they led us into a room called “the cage” where we met a handful of others who had also been arrested outside Fortnum & Mason’s. I waited there for an hour or two as the others were led off ahead of me to be processed. – Adam Ramsay, Bright Green Scotland

Walking down Piccadilly we passed this peace tank

Playing this apt song

Some great photos of the march and the UK Uncut actions over at Liberal Conspiracy.

More good writing, mainly about UK Uncut, from Daniel Trilling at the New Statesman and Joe Caluori at Labour List.


This week I was interviewed about protest songs by a student who had been involved in last winter’s demonstrations against tuition fees and EMA cuts. She asked me what I thought the role of music was in those protests. I said I hadn’t been there, being neither a student nor a news reporter, but that I’d seen people write about the role of Lethal Bizzle, dubstep and even customised Joy Division lyrics. For her part, she said she’d mainly heard the kind of football-style adapted chants that have been a fixture of demos going back to the Aldermaston marches of the 50s and 60s. The only one she could remember off the top of her head was When the Saints Go Marching in, which was written in the 19th century. We agreed that all of the above could be true.

It made me think that if you asked a dozen different demonstrators what the song of the occasion had been you’d probably get a dozen different answers, and each person would probably think theirs was the one. It’s a similar phenomenon to seeing a band at a big festival and assuming that your assessment of the general crowd response based on where you’re standing and who you’re with is somehow objectively true. As in the Hindu fable of the blind men and the elephant, people in a crowd tend to think that the fraction of an event that they experience represents the whole.

This is even truer in this culturally atomised era. Anyone present at the March on Washington in 1963 would have remembered the massed chorus of We Shall Overcome. Nobody at the anti-Vietnam protest in the same city six years later could have missed half a million people singing Give Peace a Chance. “We might not have a leader,” one protester told Newsweek, “but now at least we have a song — and a mass movement doesn’t go anywhere without a song.” We don’t feel the same way about the necessity of one unifying song these days. I don’t think the culture allows for it anymore. So what the protests produced was a Babel of musical voices, followed by a Babel of critical voices, attempting to say that the real soundtrack was this or that. Would the woman pictured on the riot barriers in a Smiths T-shirt have come away thinking of Lethal Bizzle? Would a grime-loving EMA protester have gone to see the Agitator play the UCL occupation? Probably not, but it doesn’t make either of them wrong. For that reason, my favourite writing on the student movement is observational rather than polemical.

I think protest movements thrive on a multiplicity of voices even as I know that they tend to start out that way and then become steadily more prescriptive. Yesterday, Laurie Penny wrote a high-handed article in the Independent criticising celebrity support for the students, as if she were both spokesperson and gatekeeper for the entire movement — not just the students but everyone planning to join the March for the Alternative in London on Saturday. She might have a point about the slippery nature of radical chic (though it’s a point that’s been true for about 40 years) but her dig at “wealthy professional rebels” and “affluent pseudo-agitators” who have the sheer audacity to be “no-longer-quite-so-young” is unworthy of her. The Clash and Bobby Gillespie have been championing left-wing politics (however incoherently at times) since before Penny was born, and the best of the BritArt crew have more to say about the world than a mere “ironic shrug”.

“Cool is what happens when capital appropriates the counter-culture,” she writes (again, not new) but the enthusiasm of musicians and artists is hardly cynical capitalist appropriation in the same as, say, H&M releasing a kettlewear range for the chic protester. Her column suggests the irritation of someone whose dad has decided to go to the same gig as her rather than a substantial and coherent grievance. These high-profile supporters may do some good; at the very least, they can’t do any harm.

Despite Penny’s genuine commitment to the movement and often excellent reporting of it, this whiffs of divisive grandstanding, part of a long tradition of left-wing movements factionalising themselves to death. She doesn’t allow for the possibility that there might be different ways to protest, and some of them might be more witty and antic, in the tradition of the Reclaim the Streets parties in the 90s or the Yippies in the 60s. Phil Ochs’s The War Is Over events, for example, were both conceptual pranks and sincere statements of outrage. It is not a simple choice between being a deadly serious activist and a shallow style-mag flibbertigibbet. In this column at least, Penny is one of the blind men, her hand on the elephant’s trunk, certain she has the full measure of the subject at hand.

So I don’t know what music I’m going to hear at the demonstration tomorrow but I hope that it’s as diverse as possible, because to me solidarity means leaving the door open to whoever wants to lend their voice and not restricting a broad-based movement to one narrative. I want to hear old labour songs, 60s anthems, sardonic chants, punchy dance music; earnest songs and funny songs; songs from a century ago and songs from a week ago; songs which represent every kind of person on the march, from the union veteran to the fired-up sixth-former. And I’m going to write down every song I hear, and every song that my friends in different parts of the march hear, and see what they say about this moment in the history of British dissent, and try as hard as I can to work out the shape of the elephant.

Amused and impressed by MC NxtGen for managing to include the lines “The Royal College of GPs even joined the attack” and “grey-haired manky codger” in the same lyric.

Bashment and Bob

Interesting piece by Dan Hancox, who knows more than most about the different kinds of political messages appearing across the musical spectrum in response to government cuts. I think he’s unjustly sniffy about protest songs, making a distinction simply between records he likes and ones he doesn’t — the lyrics in the bashment mix are no more sophisticated than the Agitator’s, albeit usually funnier. But he’s right to challenge Steve Goodman (Kode9)’s absurd claim that overtly political music is just “boring”. Of course it can be boring, it can be bad, and there’s space for all kinds of more subtle, coded alternatives, but I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who dismisses with one sweep of the hand. I’m not even going to start to list all the non-boring political songs — I have a book full of them.

I’ve also been reading Greil Marcus’s new book of essays about Bob Dylan, which celebrates perhaps the longest and most fruitful musician/critic relationship in rock. When he writes about the aesthetic failings of a certain kind of protest song, I tend to pay attention. In a review of a 1998 tribute album to Pete Seeger he writes:

Not all of them are bad, any more than all protest songs are bad.… But the purity of heart, the certainty of righteousness, the inexplicability of doubt, and the smooth, genteel, utterly harmless surfaces of the music, whatever the style, is like a disease. As one wades across this double CD — which has a lot less to say about the indomitability of the human soul than the recently released four-CD set Bird Call! The Twin City Stomp of the Trashmen, a band known only of its single hit, the 1962 “Surfin’ Bird'” — one realizes that Pete Seeger’s songs… really are about one world: his.”

Now that’s how to phrase a critique. “Boring”? Try harder.

There Is Power in a Union

One great thing about researching a book is making yourself study subjects that you’d always been vaguely interested in but never quite got around to. Recent events in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker (not that one) has effectively declared war on the union movement, mean more to me because I know some of the history. Twentieth century protest singing began with the unions, specifically the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies. From the Woody Guthrie chapter:

The Wobblies’ brand of socialism was broad-shouldered, boisterous and uncompromising. Strikes and sabotage were their tools, the formation of One Big Union their goal. And – important, this – they had the songs, too. Fighting to make themselves heard above the right- eous blare of a Salvation Army band in Spokane, Washington, in 1906, the Wobblies began crafting pungent parodies of Salvation Army hymns, which were compiled three years later into Songs of the Workers, popularly known as The Little Red Song Book. ‘At times we would sing note by note with the Salvation Army at our street meetings, only their words were describing Heaven above, and ours Hell right here – to the same tune,’ remembered Wobbly Richard Brazier.

Joe Hill sang union songs. So did Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger’s Almanac Singers. It was the labour movement that transformed old hymns and spirituals into the celebrated protest songs We Shall Overcome and We Shall Not Be Moved. In Satisfied, the Reverend Rosco McDonald, leader of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) Singers in Alabama, even ventured that Jesus’s disciples might have constituted the first ever union: “Christ’s last Passover/He had his communion/He told his disciples/Stay in union.”

The unions sang to rally the troops and stiffen spines in the face of sometimes brutal opposition. In his introduction to the 1939 songbook Labor Songs John L Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America, wrote: “A singing army is a winning army.”

The glory days of labour songs were a long time ago but the battle in Wisconsin rouses memories and brings back old tunes. I felt history stirring when I watched Tom Morello and friends perform Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land at a rally in Madison:

And when John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats recorded a version of Billy Bragg’s There Is Power in a Union (named after Joe Hill’s 1913 song) with the message: “Everybody knows I don’t generally do the acoustic guitar guy rocking political jams deal but as a former member of SEIU 660 & the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians & a kid who benefitted from great teachers I wanted to spend tonight saying WE ARE ON YOUR SIDE xo jd ”


Power In A Union from JD on Vimeo.

The unions have lost this battle. I just hope that the anger inspired by this outrageous attack on workers’ rights will roll on into election year and comes back to hit the Republicans where it hurts.

Note: For some quick insight into the historical context of the clash in Wisconsin, this NPR interview with writer Philip Dray (author of a book called There Is Power in a Union) is hard to beat.,

The eight worst protest songs

The question I’ve been asked most often while promoting the book (apart from “Why have you left out [insert pet favourite song here], you bastard?”) is, “What’s the worst protest song?” While I mentioned a fair few duds in the text, I generally held my snark in check because I wanted to focus on music I actually liked, but it might be time to redress the balance. I’ve deliberately avoided right-wing songs because I don’t want just to pick on songs whose politics I disagree with. Some of these songs are by bands I like, which probably helps me see their flaws more clearly. On the other hand, some are by bands who stink. Your further suggestions are welcome.

8. It’s All About Me

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Teach Your Children” (1970)

In the divided America of 1970, with Nixon in the White House, fatal shootings on college campuses and no end in sight to the bloodbath in Vietnam, I like to think that at least some scared and angry teenagers took comfort from the news that David Crosby had not, despite thinking about it quite hard, cut his hair. What stayed his hand? Well he felt like “letting my freak flag fly” and he felt like “I owe it to someone”. And sure, he’s sick of getting hassled by the pigs just for smoking a little grass now and then but he’s “not giving in an inch to fear”. There’s courage for you. This isn’t atrocious — it has the same kind of pleasantly ambling Californian ambience Crosby parlayed into the following year’s wonderful solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name, and in his defence he was clearly making the lyric up as he went along — but it epitomises affluent hippie narcissism at its worst, while on the same album Graham Nash’s Teach Your Children provides the sanctimonious flipside. Neil Young’s Ohio, which was recorded two months later after the Kent State shootings, blasts both to dust.

See also: Madonna, “American Life” (2003)

7. Soft Targets

Back to the Planet, “Teenage Turtles” (1993)

There were many topics deserving of a left-leaning songwriter’s ire in the early 90s: John Major, George Bush senior, the first Gulf War, the rise of the BNP, the crackdown on travellers’ rights and, perhaps most pernicious of all, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. God knows what Leonardo and co had done to offend South London crusties Back to the Planet (some of whom I vaguely knew at the time and were lovely, by the way) but by the time the live favourite Teenage Turtles was officially released the film was already three years old and their malevolent influence on the western world’s youth was surely on the wane. “Have you got a brain?” singer Fil rather harshly asks the turtles’ 10-year-old fanbase, as if were it not for this distraction they might be reading Chomsky and Fanon instead. The song is so ceaselessly annoying, from the finger-wagging tone to the bizarre backwards syntax (“Blame the telly with adverts cool… blame the turtles, an influence bad”) that it actually makes Partners in Kryme’s Turtle Power seem resonant by comparison.

See also: Karel Fialka, “Hey Matthew” (1987)

6. Armchair Revolutionaries

Primal Scream, “Beautiful Future” (2008)

First let it be said that I bow to nobody in my love of Screamadelica, and that I consider XTRMNTR one of the most thrilling political albums ever recorded, but it was as if Bobby Gillespie were saving up all his least appealing qualities for this one terrible, terrible song. The juxtaposition of jaunty music and one-note sneer reflects the clanging irony of the title, as Gillespie taunts brain-dead bourgeois listeners who have a “sexy wife” and “beautiful children” (the fuckers) without realising that they live “in the dead heart of the control machine”. He might just about have gotten away with it had he been living in some kind of anarchist compound but he promoted Beautiful Future with interviews about how much he was enjoying fatherhood (beautiful children) and marriage to fashion stylist Katy England (sexy wife), which made his urban guerrilla schtick actively galling. When he sings “Take a ride around your city/Tell me what do you see?/Empty houses, burning cars/Naked bodies hanging from the trees” I immediately think of Alexis Petridis’s evisceration of the album in the Guardian: “Where have you seen this exactly? In Islington, where you live? No wonder property prices in N1 have levelled off.”

5. Rock Against Bad Things

Michael Jackson, “Earth Song” (1995)

Watch here (embedding disabled)

Phil Ochs once defined a protest song as “a song so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit”. The definition proved too narrow, but Earth Song is a song so general that you cannot mistake it for anything other than bullshit. Having whetted his appetite for broad-brush protest by co-writing USA For Africa’s We Are the World, and reduced a century of human suffering to wallpaper in the video for Man in the Mirror, Jacko was ready for the full-blown Messiah complex of Earth Song, in which a man so divorced from reality that he was now basically a Pop Art version of Shelley’s Ozymandias set about solving all the problems in the world. The increasingly hysterical lyric has all the geopolitical acumen of a five-year-old asking “Why does God let bad things happen, mummy?” — a shopping list of global problems which reaches an absurd peak with the line, “What about elephants? Have we lost their trust?” Jackson proved his commitment to the environment by filming the video in four continents. In Britain Earth Song will forever be associated with Jarvis Cocker’s waggling bottom, which is exactly what it deserves.

See also: Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (1989)

4. Potential International incident

John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band, “The Luck of the Irish” (1972)

It seemed like a good idea at the time: one of the world’s biggest rock stars, in his first flush of radicalism, embarking on a whole album of angry topical songs. But Some Time in New York City was a disaster, equivalent to putting police tape around the protest song for the next few years, reading DO NOT ENTER. Rolling Stone deemed it “so embarrassingly puerile as to constitute an advertisement against itself”. While the album’s not a complete washout (some of Yoko’s ahead-of-the-curve feminist compositions were OK), it’s hard to disagree, especially when faced with the head-in-hands horror of The Luck of the Irish. The Lennons set about the Troubles with twin sledgehammers: John bludgeoned it with melodrama (“Aye! Aye! Genocide!”) and hamhanded sarcasm (say, wait a minute, the Irish aren’t lucky at all!), while Yoko finished the job with a degree of ersatz Oirish whimsy that would shame an O’Neill’s pub. “Let’s walk over rainbows like leprechauns,” she sings as Uilleann pipes trill. “The world would be one big Blarney stone.” At the least the heat was off Macca: Give Ireland Back to the Irish was no longer the crassest song about Northern Ireland by a solo Beatle.

See also: The Cranberries, “Zombie” (1994)

3. Worse Than Nuclear War

Sting, “Russians” (1985)

Sting’s protest songs are a cautionary tale about the collision of good intentions and weapons-grade pomposity. This is a man, after all, who couldn’t sing about a Lolitaesque scenario without citing “that book by Nabokov”, so he sure as hell wasn’t going to go easy on the subject of nuclear armageddon. It’s written in the style of a weary schoolmaster composing a letter of complaint to the local paper about the building of a new car park. Quoting some bellicose rhetoric from Khrushchev (who died in 1971), he responds, “I don’t subscribe to this point of view/It would be such an ignorant thing to do.” He then ventures the hope that “the Russians love their children too,” as if they might not, or might need reminding by the guy from The Police. And it’s all rendered in language that enjoys the same fluidity and zing as a speech to the Politburo. It’s said that the Russians recalibrated their missiles so that in the event of war the first strike would target Sting’s house. Just because.

See also: Culture Club, “The War Song” (1984)

2. When Bad Things Happen to Good Songs

Artists Against AIDS worldwide, “What’s Going On” (2001)

After the attacks of September 11, a stunned and wounded nation looked for eloquent voices who could put into words the horror of this black day in American history. Cometh the hour, cometh Fred Durst. A platoon of stars had already teamed up, Band Aid-style, to emote the hell out of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic in the name of AIDS prevention when Al Qaeda struck. Rather than carry on regardless they invited the famously sensitive frontman of Limp Bizkit (known for such searching disquisitions into human nature as Break Stuff and Nookie) to add a final topical verse, thus turning a still-raw national tragedy into a tossed-off afterthought and pushing an otherwise blandly well-intentioned charity single off a cliff. “Somebody tell me what’s going on,” yaps Durst, sounding suitably confused. “We got human beings using humans for a bomb/But everybody wanna live/Don’t nobody really wanna die.” Except, one might counter, suicide bombers who fly planes into buildings in anticipation of glorious martyrdom. They probably do wanna die.

See also: The Thompson Twins feat. Madonna and Nile Rodgers, “Revolution” (Live at Live Aid) (1985)

1. Problem Mistakes Self for Solution

4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up” (1993)

Every now and then a band offers up a version of the counterculture so bogus and repellent that you suspect them of being of CIA plants employed to persuade listeners to reject rebellion for a nice career in arms dealing. 4 Non Blondes were such a band. Needless to say, anyone who suggests that having brown hair is sticking it to the man should be regarded with suspicion. When the singer then claims “I pray every day for revolution” you know you’re probably not dealing with a member of the Weather Underground. What Linda Perry is protesting against is never clear but she’s certainly going to try to yodel it to death with a voice roughly as mellifluous as an air raid siren. The video’s cynical melange of grunge tropes, throughout which Perry gurns like an evil clown, makes the Matt Dillon movie Singles look like a verite documentary.

See also: Sandi Thom, “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)” (2005)

UPDATE, 11/3: Further suggestions from people on Twitter, all of which make me think I owe David Crosby an apology. The last one has to be seen to be believed. And then seen again just to be sure.