After 15 years of being the interviewer rather than the interviewee, promoting 33 Revolutions Per Minute gave me an insight into how musicians come to dread certain questions. For me it was the inevitable: “Where are the protest songs of today?” It was a reasonable question but I could never find a satisfactory answer, because they certainly exist but you have to look hard for them. I wanted to be positive and celebratory, especially because most readers of the book seemed to take the ambivalent phrase “wondering if I had composed an eulogy” to mean “I have definitely composed a eulogy”. But I couldn’t pretend we were witnessing the dawn of a new golden age of the protest song.
Of course people wouldn’t have kept interviewing me if the book had been published a year or two earlier. I could never have imagined when I finished it, let alone started it, that 2011 would be a year of political upheaval to rank alongside 1968 or 1989, that Time’s person of the year would be “The Protester”, or that the most acclaimed album of the year would be PJ Harvey’s stunning song cycle about war and national identity. As an author I lucked out. As a citizen I was as concerned, bewildered and inspired as anyone else.
But I struggled to find music that spoke to what I spent most of my time thinking, talking and reading about. I didn’t expect much from the desperately conservative Top 40, which is currently dominated by an oligopoly of Simon Cowell, Bruno Mars, David Guetta, Pitbull and Rihanna with an iron grip that would impress the Russian Mafia. But it’s almost as hard to find sociopolitical traces in the more leftfield music celebrated by critics and bloggers, myself included. (Spotify users, here’s my four-hour 2011 playlist)
A pair of 20th anniversary reissues underlined what was missing: big records with the impatient, data-hungry modernity of Achtung Baby or the raging discontent of Nevermind (honourable exception: Fucked Up’s berserk, Thatcher-era, activist rock opera David Comes to Life). Most critically acclaimed records converged on what Kurt Cobain once called “the comfort in being sad”. They were a series of gorgeous cocoons, from the wintry solitude of Bon Iver, Kate Bush and James Blake to the sadface R&B of Drake, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd to the luscious blur of chillwave and cloud rap. Only tUnE-yArDs’ whokill reflected the motley communal energy of the street in 2011. The song of the year was Lana Del Rey’s Video Games, which, particularly if you discovered it via the original, copyright-flaunting Adam Curtis-style montage video, conveyed a profound sense of loss and disconnection.
How much does it matter? Whenever I’m posed the persistent question about The State of Protest Songs Today, I try to make clear that they matter to pop far more than they matter to politics. As Tom Morello told me when talking about music at Occupy Wall Street: “There aren’t enough musicians making songs? Who the fuck cares?” Activists, or indeed rioters, aren’t crying out for protest songs. But pop should be alert to what’s happening around it, as all art should, and music across the genres seemed blithely removed from the world outside. Escapism’s fine — I love escapism — but not to the exclusion of everything else.
So anyway, here is an entirely subjective, chronological, kind of scrapbooky list of 11 protest songs which seemed to me to capture the flavour of this extraordinary year.
Note: the live versions mentioned are the ones which I witnessed, not necessarily the versions in the YouTube clips.
1. Ramy Essam: Irhal (Leave)
With all due respect to Tunisian MC El Général’s revolutionary rap, if there’s one protest song that could be said to have made a tangible difference to the shape of 2011 it’s this. Unknown singer-songwriter Ramy Essam joined the curfew-defying encampment in Tahrir Square, listened to the chants, and shaped them into a song which he performed the following day. Inspired by western rock more than Egyptian music, it’s a striking, stirring tune which caught light immediately and made him an icon of the Arab Spring. It also proved very flexible. Ramy was about to perform it on February 11 just as news broke that Mubarak stepped down, so he hastily amended the lyrics to express his hopes for the future. In subsequent months, as the interim military regime proved almost as bad as Mubarak, he pointed the lyrics in the generals’ direction. In March he was arrested and beaten for his role in the ongoing protests. While protest music is a mere sideshow in the west, in North Africa it is exploding into life after years of censorship, both formal and self-imposed. It’s similar to what happened to African-American music in the late 60s: the lid comes off and all that pent-up frustration erupts in a thrilling and inspiring burst.
I was meant to meet Ramy when he played in London in the summer but his visa was denied at the last minute so I interviewed him for the Guardian via Skype. When he did finally make it to London I went to see him but was too ill to hang around and say hello. Then last month I was invited to speak about music and politics at a conference in Sweden where Ramy was being given the Freemuse award. He dedicated it to those killed and injured in Tahrir during the latest protests against the military, and the souring of the Egyptian revolution seemed to colour his performance of Irhal in the bar afterwards (the one in the YouTube clip). The triumphant optimism of February seemed a very long time ago. Coming out of the lift at the hotel later, somewhat drunk, I finally met him face to face and blurted out a few words of praise. He looked taken aback and very sober. “I hope we meet again some day,” he said politely as he backed away. We were both in the same hotel for one night but the countries we were flying back to the next morning were immeasurably different. I hope he stays safe.
2. PJ Harvey: The Words That Maketh Murder (Live at the Troxy, London)
It is extraordinary that the most celebrated album of 2011 (and my own favourite) is also the best example of political songwriting in years. I said what I had to say about Let England Shake in a blog post and an Observer interview with Harvey but the moment that sticks with me is her performance of The Words That Maketh Murder at the Troxy on February 27. This was just as Gaddafi had threatened to take bloody revenge on the revolutionaries in Benghazi and the Libyan rebels were beseeching the UN to intervene. At that point the UN resolution was still a couple of weeks away and it was anyone’s guess how the uprising would end. And Harvey sang the line she took from Eddy Cochran, turning a goofy joke into a deadly serious question: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”
I supported the UN intervention; many people I admire did not. When Harvey sang that line it seemed to accommodate both points of view, reminding me that Let England Shake is an album about the horror of war but not a straightforward anti-war album, and that her own views on the Libyan situation (which she characteristically kept to herself) could not be assumed based on the songs. I asked her later if the relevance of the line had struck her that night. “It strikes me every time we play that song,” she said. “Or indeed any of the songs on the record – how you can apply them to different situations. Certainly that night at the Troxy it had a different meaning because of what was happening at the time, and I’m sure it did for many people in the room as well.”
If Let England Shake had a clear message it would not be the complex work of art it is: a record that speaks of war, history and nationhood in many different voices, and consists of stories rather than slogans. To anybody wondering if political songwriting can still be rewarding to both the artist and the listener, it’s a beacon of inspiration.
3. tUnE-yArDs: My Country
When doing interviews about the book I’ve tried (not always successfully) to emphasise that the absence of huge, agreed-upon anthems in the classic mould does not mean there aren’t any compelling political voices in music. In one of the articles I contributed to, a New York Times piece on the music of Occupy Wall Street, the writer cited the first track on Merrill Garbus’s whokills as an example, and it’s a brilliant one. In the long tradition of left-wing musicians adapting or referencing patriotic anthems to put forward a different vision of America, Garbus hijacks My Country ‘Tis of Thee from a globalist, feminist perspective: “My country ‘tis of thee/Sweet land of liberty/How come I cannot see my future within your arms?” It reminds me of the best Huggy Bear or MIA songs: fresh and joyous and combative and complicated — an activist party song for the 99%. There’s some great in-depth analysis of the album’s politics here.
4. DELS, Joe Goddard and Roots Manuva: Capsize
Whisper it but far too much modern political hip hop feels like homework to me. I politely approve of it but I listen to something else. Hence my pure joy at this three-pronged attack on the coalition. I love the come-together tenderness of Goddard’s chorus; the berserk brass fanfare — part marching band, part free-jazz outfit; the rhythm romping like a cartoon robot; the chaotic laser-gun finale; and the ideal blend of anger and wit from the MCs. Trust Roots Manuva to find very British language for hard-knock times. “Hey Del Boy, it’s Rodney here: no fools, no horses.”
5. The Decemberists: This Is Why We Fight (live at Newport Folk Festival)
I’m not the biggest Decemberists fan and The King Is Dead is not their best album, but This Is Why We Fight resonated with me as a battle song with real emotional heft. In July I went to the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island to interview Gillian Welch. Despite the well-heeled crowd and the marina full of yachts, it felt important to attend the festival that was the crucible of the early 60s folk revival and, in 1965, the battleground between the old leftist folk ideal and the rude insurgent energy of folk-rock. Seeger was on site, apparently, but I missed him. So all this was on my mind when Colin Meloy dedicated this to Seeger and to “the S-word: socialism”. That’s a pretty bold move in America, even at Newport — the applause was scattered. And he attacked the song with a passion that he hadn’t displayed anywhere else in the set. And in that setting, where so many old songs had been made new in difficult times, the lyrics had a strong and ageless glow. And it felt very much like an anthem after all.
6. Roots Manuva: Skid Valley (not on YouTube – Spotify link here)
Him again. For anyone living in London the week of the riots was a bizarre time. I live in Finsbury Park, just a few tube stops down the line from Tottenham, where the riots started on Saturday. On Monday evening there was an eerie sense of impending disaster in Finsbury Park — empty streets, shuttered shops — although it turned out the violence passed my neighbourhood by. Commentators struggled to explain what was happening, based on limited information and no clear idea of the motive. I wrote a blog about “crisis music” — songs like Ghost Town which captured a mood rather than a message and flailed around for recent examples. Fortunately one had arrived in the post a few days later on an advance review copy of Roots Manuva’s 4everevolution album. Skid Valley is the sound of despair — economic inequality eating away the soul: “Cost of life’s so cheap round here but the cost of living ain’t cheap round here.” Instead of the self-improving, aspirational spirit of, say, Stevie Wonder’s ghetto songs it offers weary fatalism and clotted rage. A few musical responses to the riots materialised on YouTube (my favourite being 2Kolderz’ homicidally fierce, Muse-sampling They Will Not Control Us) but Skid Valley was the song I kept returning to. In light of the riots it sounded to me like the bonfire before the flame is lit.
7. Michael Piffington & Joey Ax: I Need a Dollar (Aloe Blacc cover)
I can’t really feature Aloe Blacc’s hit because it came out in March 2010 but it’s still the go-to song for TV news packages about the economic crisis and rightly so. It’s an unusually successful attempt at marrying the sorrowing ache of Gil Scott-Heron or Bobby Womack in the 70s with the crisp, hard rhythms of hip hop, and the lyric is universally applicable without being too vague: “Well I don’t know if I’m walking on solid ground/Cause everything around me is falling down.” It was inevitable that somebody would adapt it for Occupy Wall Street. The diverse, horizontal nature of OWS meant it was never likely to spawn a big, unifying anthem but it inspired dozens of songs on YouTube and this is a solid, timely example.
8. Grace Petrie: They Shall Not Pass (live at UCL)
I interviewed Grace for an article in the Guardian about young political musicians and found her breathtakingly eloquent and self-aware. She told me how she played this song on a guerrilla tour with comedian Josie Long on the day the House of Lords approved the NHS reform bill:
After we found that out we were all really down. Then we went out in Biddeford in Devon and it was absolutely pissing it down and these kids came out in the rain and sat with us and listened to us under a bus shelter and I played this song called They Shall Not Pass. I wrote it to mark the anniversary of the Spanish Civil War but it became about what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to make. My girlfriend says to me a lot that you have to find a way to write something positive. You can’t just have sad songs. You have to write something rallying. It doesn’t come naturally to me. And I played that song at the end of the night and it did feel like they really got it. I think music is a very important thing. A lot of the most active people I know were in a fog of despair. The harsh truth is we were naïve to expect anything else from the Lords. They’re not the hearts and minds that we’re ever going to change but there are hearts and minds that we can change if we try and take it to them. That’s what we need to focus on.
Because of the Spanish Civil War theme and the socialist romanticism, this song reminds me of both Between the Wars and If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next. It has the same sense of endurance in the face of enormous obstacles, and of coping with defeat in the hope of something better. As I described in the Guardian piece, I saw her end her set at UCL with this and had the whole bar singing the refrain, “Save tomorrow!” Reader, I blubbed.
9. Tom Waits: Talking At the Same Time
A pessimistic reading of the history of protest songs suggests an irreversible decline since the early 90s. An optimistic one says that they will rise again and there has simply been a missing generation of political musicians. With a few exceptions (credit to Lupe Fiasco for sticking his hand in his pocket and donating 50 tents to OWS) musicians aged between 25 and 35 have been invisible this year. Most high-profile Occupy supporters — Tom Morello, Thom Yorke, Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja — are in their 40s, as are other politically astute artists like Nicky Wire, Damon Albarn and PJ Harvey. Some of the angriest songwriters are older still. Ry Cooder released a whole album of Woody Guthrie-style recession songs, Pull Up Some Dirt and Sit Down, and Tom Waits slipped a brilliant example onto Bad As Me. He doesn’t write many political songs but when he does they’re among his best. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) is arguably the greatest song about the Iraq War and Talking at the Same Time is a scourging, doom-sodden number about economic inequality: “Well we bailed out all the millionaires/They’ve got the fruit/We’ve got the rind.”
10. The Nightwatchman: World Wide Rebel Songs (live at OLSX)
To be honest I don’t think Tom Morello’s Nightwatchman songs work terribly well on record. Just as no studio version of a civil rights anthem can capture how those songs must have sounded out on the streets, sung by multitudes, the Nightwatchman songs seem too basic and obvious until you hear them in action. I was commissioned to write about Occupy for Q and arranged to travel down to St Paul’s with Morello on the afternoon of November 9, the same day as a large student demonstration. Because of the march the taxi stalled in traffic so we grabbed Morello’s gear and ran through streets lined with police, listening to the heavy whirr of the helicopters overhead. When we got there, Billy Bragg hugged Morello and told him he’d missed the performance on the cathedral steps and now couldn’t play because of OLSX’s agreement with the cathedral not to play amplified music during five o’clock evensong. Morello shrugged and said he didn’t need amplification. He ended up playing a three-song set next to the recycling bins. “Everybody cooperates and pitches in,” he told me. “I’m a musician so I employ my skills to help this movement. The thing that music does is it helps put wind in the sails of movements like this. There’s nothing like people marching in solidarity and singing rebel songs.”
I recorded some of the set on my phone but somehow, idiotically, cut off before this song. To give you a flavour of the event and Morello’s use of Occupy’s “mic check” tactic here’s a clip of him performing Rage Against the Machine’s Guerrilla Radio. The light was terrible but the sound’s OK. He starts by talking about Rage Against the Machine’s anti-X-Factor Christmas number one in 2009.
11. Chic: Good Times (Live at the London Forum)
While writing the book I pursued an interview with Nile Rodgers for two years to no avail, so it was an overdue pleasure to finally speak to him for The Word magazine when his excellent memoir Le Freak came out. We talked about his pet idea of the DHM (Deep Hidden Meaning) and why so many people overlooked Chic’s politics in the disco era:
Do you think people missed the politics because you were black and made apparently escapist pop music?
Right! You hit the nail on the head. How many times have you engaged in conversations with your friends about some big rock band and you’re sitting there deciphering the hidden code? I remember sitting with Bruce Springsteen one night and everybody in the studio was trying to decipher the deep hidden meaning of his song, going on and on and on about what it meant and Bruce was like, yeah, something like that. [laughs] No one ever sits around like that with Chic.… When we did Good Times we were ripping off everything we could think of. At the time we did Good Times the Daily News would report that we’re in the midst of the greatest recession since the Great Depression. And we thought, well, that’s how Chic started – Dance Dance Dance [1977 hit which pointedly references the Depression-set movie They Shoot Horses Don’t They?]. This focussed us, so we did our latest version of escapist music: our Great Recession song.
Would Chic have been more blatantly political without the restraining influence of [bassist] Bernard Edwards?
If I look at the music of the bands I had prior to Bernard, I would have to say probably yes. I had a band called New World Rising and we were playing with the Stooges and the MC5 and Elephant’s Memory and that was the norm. It was political. It was what we call movement music: gay rights movement, women’s movement, the Black Power movement. I would probably have never been a Gil Scott-Heron or a Leroi Jones because I never looked at myself as a philosopher or a star. They have this charismatic thing where they walk into a room and say, ‘Today I’d like to discuss so-and-so, brothers and sisters!’ I’m not that dude.
Chic’s concert at the Forum a few weeks later was the most joyous show I saw all year. During Le Freak, Rodgers invited the crowd on stage. Knowing that it had been written in a furious flurry after Rodgers and Edwards were turned away from the door of Studio 54 (it was initially called Fuck Off) made that gesture of inclusiveness seem more significant than mere stagecraft. The throng remained up there during the next number, Good Times: an ecstatic, celebratory song with a hard centre (“You silly fool/You can’t change your fate”); an escapist song which knows exactly what is being escaped; a party anthem for hard times; a stroke of genius.
This being an unapologetically personal list, I’d welcome any further suggestions in the comments.
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