Now’s the time for the return of the protest song

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Rock ‘n’ Roll’s about rebellion right? What did the Clash sing: “Sten guns in Knightsbridge”? Well, maybe, not now though, it’s more like shopping. True, there are a few bands in amongst the public school musicians who strike the right pose, but even they usually make sure that the cool surly lip is used to sing love songs. Take good old Liam Gallagher for example, positively adores John Lennon; except his politics of course. Disregard all that peace nonsense.  Now we all appreciate a love song but surely, young musicians questioning authority is not just a sign of a healthy music scene but of society in general. Not that I’m saying there aren’t any nowadays; the Sleaford Mods for example, can stir things up a bit, but it would be fair to say that it’s rare.

Now yes, I know that there have been plenty of books written about the subject; many pining about the today’s lack of protest songs, so I’m not being original here. But I wanted to write about which political songs I rate, even if it ignores a few sacred grazing cows. It isn’t going to be all encompassing; it’s personal.

Many writers pick Woody Guthrie as the starting point; which is not a bad choice. The 1930’s singer song-writer is a man who inspired a generation; whose “This Land is Your Land” is the archetypical political anthem.

But political songs didn’t start with Woody. Ballads criticising authority have been around for centuries. The renewed interest in Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, has suggested how such popular opposition might have shaped our view of him. But such songs are not usually included in these books. But even if Woody didn’t write too many songs on sixteen century British crown ministers it is quite possible to say that he stands in the tradition of such singers.

Classical music is another over-looked genre.  It may seem very respectable now but radicalism has even infiltrated the horn section over the centuries.  The French Revolution for example, influenced many, Beethoven included.  And of course, “Le Marseillaise” was written as the symbol of revolution. Now it’s the French national anthem. Then there’s William Blake’s “Jerusalem”; poor old Bill Blake – put to music and it has been turned from a radical poem to something you might hear from public schoolboys at a rugger match.

This blog will also ignore both classical and balladry; and shamefully, it will also ignore the rich tradition from around the world (that Bob Marley is not mentioned is a scandal); being focussed on Britain and the USA. That’s a weakness, but hey, I have a full-time job so cut me some slack; how much am I to write?

Okay, then. Enough flaffing about: we’ll start in the 1930s and look at political songs. But what is a political song? After all, could we not say “God Save the Queen” (the one played for Queen Liz, not the Sex Pistols ditty- we’ll come to that later) is political? Does political have to be left-wing? No, but I’m looking at songs which comment and criticise the status quo (the establishment, not the rock band).  In other words –protest songs.

Protest can be made even without words; just by actions: jazz band leader Benny Goodman, was one of the first band leaders to have an integrated orchestra in the era of segregation. Legends Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time” and John Coltrane’s “Alabama” are political to the core but the words are in the chords. This was music inspired by the civil rights and shared the same codes, the same nuances; people understood what Parker was demanding. The link between jazz and civil rights was close and as time progressed became more so with the likes of Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln making direct statements.  Out of the many possibles, the two songs which stand as iconic statements against the murderous barbarism of the deep south are Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn”.  The latter, becoming popular again on social media in 2014 following the spate of murders of black men by white cops. Maybe, the times haven’t changed that much.

Jazz and blues had always been rooted in the poor black American experience; sometimes the songs themselves might be lacking any overt radicalism but were still be a part of a wider protest: purely through his genius, Louis Armstrong, challenged the racism in the USA.

But this blog has a very narrow focus: missing out how jazz and soul acts challenged stereotypes by merely being. Diana Ross and the Supremes sung very few songs analysing the roots of racism but their intelligence, style and elegance showed dignity; and racists hate oppressed minorities showing dignity.

But with the growth of civil rights just being dignified wasn’t enough. Militancy took hold over the music scene which in turn fed it back. Sly and Family Stone, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye produced stunning music which mixed style, beauty and activism. Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” is regularly rated as one of the finest albums ever made of any genre, subject or era.

At the same time, artists inspired by Woody Guthrie were doing likewise. There was a whole troupe of folkies such as Joan Baez who sang, indeed, lived, protest.  It is perhaps worth pausing here, because one thing about protest music is to remember that of course it is music (profound huh?). So one problem it has is the form that song takes to deliver the message. Without beating about the bush anymore – I can’t bear 99% of folk. Sorry. So many of the great protest songs written in that style totally pass me by. I can agree with the sentiments but…

The king here (should we have royalty in protest songs?) or at least the lead commissar, is Bob Dylan – for many, THE artist of the sixties. “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are a-Changin’” changed and blew people away. Bands like the Beatles, who had revolutionised music whilst avoiding revolutionary political comment, would take note, especially John Lennon who would be inspired to write music which he felt meant something – “Imagine”, “Power to the People” and “Give Me Some Truth” are a long way from “Love me Do”.

By the late sixties even the likes of Elvis Presley (not a known Marxist) was touched by the era when he recorded the Walter Earl Brown song, “If I Can Dream”, directly quoting Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated only months before.

With black civil rights came other groups demanding respect. And perhaps with the feminist movement it was summed up by that one song- “Respect”. Written by Otis Redding, and a hit for him in 1965, it was a desperate plea. Two years later, and with the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” chorus added, Aretha Franklin turns it into a demand for much more, demanding just that. Listen to it and do you dare not? The power is still alive; still relevant.

This was the time for protest songs: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Ohio against the shootings at Kent State University; a glorious raft of anti-Vietnam songs – Edwin Starr’s “War”, Country Joe Macdonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-to-Die-Rag  and Pete Seeger’s “Bring ‘Em Home Now” to name three of many. For me, one the finest songs from the period is the epic -Simon and Garfunkel’s “7 O’Clock/Silent Night” with the hymn is slowing submerged by a news report of Martin Luther King’s planned civil rights march and Richard Nixon denouncing anti-war demonstrations.

In this atmosphere, even songs which the writers claimed were not political, became so. One such, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets” was they claimed nothing to do with the riots sweeping the US. Few believed them. But then context is everything; years later, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” concerning the recovery from a relationship breakdown is adopted  by both the gay and feminist movements as an anthem of strength.

Now, I warned you that this is a personal look, so for me the 1970s pre-76 are saved by the likes Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone and Funkadelic, who released a series of important albums. Okay, I should own up – not at the time. In truth, Sweet,  Slade, T Rex and Bowie ruled the posters on my walls. Glam seemed rebellious to me but try as I might, I can’t make a case that Slade’s  “Mama Weer Crazee Now” is a look at alienation and sanity. This I know, misses a mass of music, but hey, write your own blog.

And then. And then – The Clash first album. This shows how music can change a person – it changed me. For me, like many others, it was a blast of social anger. I’d like to say that it was reading the Communist Manifesto which first made me a socialist but it wasn’t, it was this album. Punk exploded all the bunk and endless bloody guitar solos of the previous years. The Sex Pistol’s “God Save The Queen” sounded to a fifteen year old me like it was going to change the world. (years later, the song opens the London Olympics. Oh well). The music that followed seemed to further explore the issues first started in the sixties. Bands like the Raincoats, Slits, X-Ray Spex and the Au Pairs declared that they were not “Typical Girls” and were “No-One’s Little Girl”. Tom Robinson hit the charts with “Sing if You’re Glad to be Gay” whilst The Gang of Four tried to marry dialectical Marxism with funk. Stiff Little Fingers ripped into Northern Irish politics. This was the music that lit up my world, opened my eyes to all sorts of politics and stayed rooted on my record player (for those of you under twenty-five, ask you parents what they were).

With the rise of the Nazi National Front, the Anti-Nazi League was formed, getting support from many of the bands, including the Clash at a huge ANL demo in Victoria Park. I was there; my political education continued.

The Thatcherite 1980s were a grim time of austerity and war (sound familiar?) but unlike now, had powerful political music. Two Tone Records with bands like The Selector, the Specials and The Beat were multi-cultural bands roaring with a dancing beats and up-front political songs – “Ghost Town”, “Stand Down Margaret” and “Free Nelson Mandela”.

The latter song, being one of the many songs inspired by  anti-apartheid struggle; once more, the symbiotic relationship of culture and rebellion created great art.

Like twenty years before, there was something in the air. The Jam, then later The Style Council, moved from aping the youth rebellion of The Who to strident class songs of “Eton Rifles”, “Town Like Malice” and “Walls Come Tumbling Down”. Fuelled by the Miner’s strike and marches, the charts were full of anti-Thatcher songs – Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” against the Falklands war; The Housemartins bemoaning that there were “too many Florence Nightingale’s and not enough Robin Hoods”; Bronski Beat, out and proud; The Redskins, members of the Socialist Workers Party, who wanted to ‘walk like the Clash and sound like The Supremes’. Billy Bragg, revelling in the tradition of Guthrie, shaping it into a British tradition.

As with the sixties, the political atmosphere spread and touched all sorts of people. Electro-poppers The Human League’s “Lebanon”; Depeche Mode’s “People are People” and Culture Club’s “The War Song” which has the fabulous line, “War is stupid”. Hmm, whatever other fine songs these bands might have released, these are hardly classics. Perhaps some types of music are more appropriate than others: a folkie with a guitar seems more authentic than a flash haircut, a touch of mascara and a synth.

Authenticity clings to Bruce Springsteen. His blue collar rock questioned, indeed attacked, the American Dream. His sales now might be in the league of “Born in the USA” (a famously misunderstood song) but The Boss still manages to protest and retain popularity; including, an album, “We Shall Overcome; The Seeger Sessions” of the music of Pete Seeger.

But it doesn’t always have to be denims. At the beginning of the decade, Grandmaster Flash had released “The Message”, which for many was the first rap songs they had ever heard; drawing on Gil Scot Heron and Stevie Wonder’s visions of urban bleakness; by the end of the 1980s, Public Enemy released “Fight the Power” and “911 is a Joke” . Rap was the howl of the ghetto – a roar of rage from police brutality and oppression. It would go on to take over the world. And in doing so, many would move away from anger at injustice to selling clothing merchandise.

And so here we are, in the midst of a huge austerity, people suffering poverty, wars raging, yet little of the music reflects that. In the sixties, seventies and eighties, the struggle on the streets and in the workplaces interacted with music makers, giving them inspiration, ideas and a passion. But it appears less so now. It isn’t because of the lack of struggle; there might not be the year-long miners’ strike of 1984/8 but millions have taken action against cuts and against the wars in the Middle East; the Occupy movement has spread around the world (drawing in once more, old-timers such as Pete Seeger) and the environmental movement has blossomed.

Those who do lift their head above the parapet risk being shot at.  Political comedy is compareable song: going from a must in the 80s to a NOT in the twenty teens. It has been noticeable the reaction comedian Russell Brand has received for his book, “Revolution”: the media being openly and venomously hostile, whilst campaigners have welcomed a rare moment where a public figure supports protest. It’s a long way from the sixties.

If protest is not in, then charity records appear to be acceptable to pop stars. The originality of Band Aid’s 1984 “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” has gone and now they emerge on red carpets to smile, say something trite on how sad something is, thus appearing concerned about a cause which won’t harm their career, then retire to their tax-avoidance accountants. It almost makes you wish for Boy George singing war is stupid.

Maybe the relative quietness of political pop is because the rise (tyranny?) of The X-Factor group of musicians; or maybe it is because much of the youth prefer club DJs; perhaps creative activism from the youth has found its outlet in social media rather than song and the new activists do not need political music because it is a dated medium. Or perhaps it is just that I am too out of touch.

Personally, I think the protest song will make a come-back. It has gone on for centuries and even Simon Cowell can’t kill that off.

And so we should end with a list of my personal favourites: yeah, I know, lists, they’re everywhere. You can’t move for them. But, I want to. And yep, horror of horrors, there are glaring omissions, (and remember folks its only UK and USA so that’s why Redemption Song isn’t there) but this is a play-list of 75 personal favourites:

Nina Simone: Mississippi Goddamn

Sex Pistols: God Save the Queen

Public Enemy: Fight the Power

Aretha Franklin: Respect

Style Council: Big Boss Groove

The Jam; Town Like Malice

Les McCann: Compared to What

NWA: Fuck the Police

The Au Pairs: It’s Obvious

Buffalo Springfield: For What it’s Worth

Elvis Costello: Shipbuilding

Bruce Springsteen: Factory

Stiff Little Fingers: Alternative Ulster

Grandmaster Flash: The Message

Temptations: Ball of Confusion

John Coltrane: Alabama

The Raincoats: No One’s Little Girl

Sam Cooke: A Change is Gonna Come

John Lennon: Imagine

Gil Scot Heron: “B” Movie

Billy Bragg: Days Like These

Marvin Gaye; What’s Goin On

Specials AKA: Free Nelson Mandela

Stevie Wonder: Living for the City

Billie Holiday: Strange Fruit

Tom Robinson: Glad to be Gay

Staple Singers: Respect Yourself

Billy Bragg: Internationale

Impressions: People Get Ready

Elvis Presley: if I Can Dream

James Brown: Say it Loud, I’m Black and Proud

Chilites: For God’s Sake Give More Power to the People

The Redskins: The Power is Yours

Steel Pulse: Klu Klux Klan

Prince: Sign of the Times

Housemartins: Flag Day

Bob Dylan: Only a Pawn in their Game

The Slits: Typical Girls

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: Ohio

The Pogues: The Street of Sorrow

Sly and Family Stone: Everyday People

Abbey Lincoln: Afro-Blue

The Clash: Career Opportunities

Patti Smith: People have the Power

Pete Seeger: We Shall Overcome

Tracy Chapman: Talkin’ About Revolution

The Men They Couldn’t Hang: Ghost of Cable Street

Archie Shepp: Attica Blues

Gang of Four: Armalite Rifle

Funkadelic: One Nation under a Groove

Cannonball Adderley: Why am I treated so Bad?

Gil Scot Heron: Johannesburg

Leon Rosselson: The World Turned Upside Down

Simon and Garfunkel: 7 O’clock News/ Silent Night

The Raincoats: Off Duty Trip

John Lennon: Give me Some truth

The Beat: Stand Down Margaret

Peter Gabriel: Biko

Elvis Costello: Tramp the Dirt Down

Charlie Parker: Now’s the Time

Bronski Beat: Smalltown Boy

Abbey Lincoln: Afro-Blue

The Jam: Eton Rifles

Lester Bowie: Black or White

The Clash: Clampdown

Linton Kwesi Johnson: Sonny’s Lettah

Freda Payne: Bring the Boys Home

Frankie Goes To Hollywood: Two Tribes

The Equals: Police on my Back

Style Council: Walls Come Tumbling Down

Stevie Wonder: Village Ghetto Land

Bruce Springsteen: Born in the USA

Donny Hathaway: The Ghetto

The Good, Bad and the Queen: Kingdom of Doom

Curtis Mayfield: Move on Up

But to paraphrase Bragg in “Days Like These”, listening to songs is not enough in days like these…



2 thoughts on “Now’s the time for the return of the protest song

  1. My mBriathra (voice) name obscures my own! It’s Dave Clinch. That Sally Kincaid has certainly kept us all amused with the SKJB. She’s an old comrade and friend.


  2. Some interesting thoughts Phil but I’m afraid that I don’t share your optimism for the ‘mainstream’ return of the protest song and all things considered, at the moment I think that is probably a good thing.

    With one or two notable exceptions the majority of the protest music around now (Yes it is there but you have to go out, find it and listen to it live) falls into that kooky post punk / folk genre which after four or at most five songs drives me out looking for a quiet spot beside the bar.

    Before I came out here I was seriously looking into putting on a left ‘Unity’ festival in one of the London parks. The plan (ever ambitious) was for a weekend event of music, comedy and politics similar to the old Jobs for Youth festivals we enjoyed (or was that, endured) thirty years ago.

    The seeds of the idea have been passed on and it may still happen on a less grand scale but my interest was waning when I found myself wondering if Heaven 17 would give up a residency at Butlins to take part.


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