In this post, I discover a book that elucidates brilliantly the difference between a good protest song and a laughable one, remembering Shakespeare’s words, ‘Methinks the Bono doth protest too much’.While growing up in the 1980s, I listened to a lot of what I now perceive to be ‘protest songs’, being then only vaguely aware of what their political messages actually were, while getting more amusement from them than anything else. The message songs that had the most effect on me as a 16-year-old, for all the wrong reasons, were the live numbers on the U2 album Rattle and Hum (1988), where lead-singer Bono notoriously reached the height of pomposity as he rattled off what seemed like song after song about governmental corruption in Central America and South Africa, together with some extremely self-important introductions and mid-song soliloquies. I used to have a lot of fun memorising sections of these verbal sequences to entertain my friends (or so I thought) down the pub by dropping them randomly into conversations, one of my favourites stemming from the song ‘Silver and Gold’, which the singer said was “written in a hotel room in New York city ’round about the time a friend or ours, Little Steven, was putting together a record of artists against apartheid”. Thus I would gruffly assert in my attempted Irish accent: “This is a song written about a man in a shanty town outside of Johannesburg. A man who’s sick of looking down the barrel of white South Africa… A man who has lost faith in the peacemakers of the west while they argue… and while they fail to support a man like Bishop Tutu and his request for economic sanctions against South Africa.” Then I would find particular satisfaction in reciting the next killer line: “Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to bug ya… Okay, Edge, play the blues!”
While perhaps wisely ignoring songs (and speeches) from Rattle and Hum in favour of the earlier ‘Pride, In The Name of Love’ (1984), Dorian Lynskey writes informatively about U2 in the cleverly titled 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, as well as such diverse names as Woody Guthrie, Nina Simone, James Brown, John Lennon, Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. and Public Enemy, who have all become known for recording songs that have voiced political dissent. Lynskey, a music critic for the suitably left-leaning Guardian, takes on a huge and welcome task here of creating compelling narrative chapters around 33 individual songs that have somehow sought to ‘change opinions and perspectives’, from as long ago as the 1940s (Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’), through to the idealistic 60s (Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’), and up until the nearly-present day (Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’). In the course of this ambitious endeavour, he demonstrates the essential paradox that exists when songs, traditionally forged for the purpose of listening pleasure (you’d think), are instilled with the weight of worthy moral purpose. He also confirms, again and again, that the most successful protest songs exist far away from the realm of po-faced, stadium-striding and daft-named millionaire rock stars trying to convince people of their compassion.
The chapters I admired most in this book are the ones that explain the political context surrounding a lot of the more influential message songs from the 80s that I enjoyed but didn’t have the maturity to fully understand at the time, having little comprehension of Prime Minister Thatcher’s penchant for free enterprise and privatisation, or her (very) ‘special relationship’ with US Republican President Ronald Reagan, who, with his greed-is-good enterprises permeating the globe, appeared to get increasingly rattled (and hummed) by the whole existence of the ideologically opposed USSR and its expanding nuclear arsenal. So, while I initially enjoyed Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’ from 1984 because of its pulsating disco bass line and authentic-sounding public-service announcements on what to do in case of global nuclear warfare (including to ‘take cover’ and tag any dead relatives ‘for identification purposes’ – obvs!), I am here intrigued to learn that singer Holly Johnson forged the song out of an interest in the post-apocalyptic film Mad Max 2 and the contemporary climate of CND marches against Thatcher’s escalating production of Trident missiles, thereby offering ‘a strange combination of blockbuster hyperbole and real-world angst’. While I also enjoyed the jubilant spirit of the Special AKA’s ‘Nelson Mandela’ from the same year, with little or no understanding of what Mandela’s ’21 years in captivity’ actually symbolised, I am here happy to discover that the song is notable for having anticipated an apartheid-free South Africa: ‘By alchemising anger into joy, it is a victory celebration before the fact’. Furthermore, while I was initially struck by Billy Bragg’s ‘Between the Wars’ (1985) because of the singer’s foghorn voice and folky verbosity, I am here intrigued to read, via an extensive interview included in the book, that Bragg was inspired to write the song through his direct experiences of touring coalfields during the miners’ strike, starting it as ‘an anti-war song’ and then developing it into ‘a hymn to the ideas of the welfare state’. Such detail helps add colour to the lyrics: ‘Call up the craftsmen / Bring me the draughtsmen / Build me a path from cradle to grave / And I’ll give my consent / To any government / That does not deny a man a living wage’.
Lynskey covers varied 80s ground by providing a particularly illuminating chapter around the R.E.M. track ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ (1987), an uncharacteristically jaunty sounding song by the band that occupies what might be called cryptic protest-song territory on the decidedly anti-Reagan Document album. It is a song, I must admit, that passed me by on its initial release, yet one to which, since around 1993, I am compelled to frequently return, in my continual quest to decipher its meaning. The author notes how singer Michael Stipe’s ‘cryptic lyrical style allowed him to play with ideas and associations without boxing them into a single message’, providing ample anecdotal evidence from guitarist Peter Buck that the band were keen to avoid the direct method of politicising that they found distasteful in songs by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and U2. The band instead turned out a record that draws a parallel between Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ‘witchhunt’ of ‘anti-American’ communists in the 1950s and the Reagan administration’s apparent contempt for similarly ‘un-American’ citizens who failed to pledge allegiance to the values of ‘rapacious, freewheeling capitalism’. This is voiced in Stipe’s recognition of what is deemed to be the model of a pure and worthy American in his opening line: ‘You’re beautiful, more beautiful than me / You’re honorable, more honorable than me / Loyal to the Bank of America’. None of this, however, aids my understanding of the lyrics to ‘Disturbance at the Heron House’ (another Document protest song), particularly those lines pertaining to the monkeys: ‘They’re numbering the monkeys / the monkeys and the monkeys / the followers of chaos out of control’. Whaaaa?!
Away from the 80s, I valued Lynskey’s chapters on the civil-rights-adopted folk standard ‘We Shall Overcome’, James Brown’s ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’, and the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young track ‘Ohio’, where Lynskey engages with complex contemporary political material to create elegantly written prose. You might want to argue about his arbitrary ideas concerning when protest songs first crossed over into popular music, or indeed question his theory on their apparent demise in modern times (this apparently being nothing to do with the Cranberries’ dismal, Troubles-related ‘Zombie’ single from 1994!), but you would be fairly churlish in the attempt. However, the book as a whole left me unwilling to concede to his arguments suggesting the death of the protest song, particularly after having seen Elvis Costello recently, on his Spinning Wheel tour, belt out his vitriolic anti-Thatcher anthem with as much rage and contemporary relevance as you could wish for. I will concede, though, that in today’s climate it is very hard to imagine the birth of another record as devastating in its attack as Gill Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution will Not be Televised’ (1970), which, as Lynskey confirms, stands up as perhaps the most stunning of all protest songs, with the singer ‘unpacking the image of a revolution without commercials into a hallucinatory, channel-hopping tour of white popular culture’. Lynskey does a fine job, in fact, of reminding us of Scott-Heron’s startling ability to ridicule a whole culture through a masterful control of his reference points: ‘”Green Acres”, “The Beverly Hillbillies”, and “Hooterville Junction” will no longer be so damned relevant, and women will not care if Dick finally gets down with Jane on “Search for Tomorrow” because Black people will be on the street looking for a brighter day. The revolution will not be televised’.
A final consequence of reading this book was to set me thinking about protest songs that did not merit an appearance within its grand-narrative framework, perhaps because the author considered them too inconsequential, pretentious or lightweight, or just plain rubbish. He swiftly dismisses Culture Club’s ‘War Song’ (1984) as ‘trite and irritating’ with its ‘War is stupid and people are stupid’ refrain, but what of Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’, a number-one smash from 1985 that used stuttering samples to critique the conscription of youngsters to fight in the Vietnam War (though long after the war had ended, strangely) and which was, perhaps more importantly, good to bodypop to?! And what of Sting’s ‘Russians’ from the same year, with its incredibly leaden lyrics in which the singer offers anti-nuclear-war sentiments in the hope that Americans and Soviets would recognise that they are the same, and that the ‘Russians love their children too’? If not a particularly admired protest song, Sting’s offering is surely remarkable in the way it squeezes high-minded and unwieldy political concepts into a regular rhyme scheme: ‘How can I save my little boy / from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy / There is no monopoly in common sense / On either side of the political fence / We share the same biology / Regardless of ideology’.
Lynskey has covered a lot of ground in 33 Revolutions and so can probably be forgiven for not mentioning The Christians’ 1987 single ‘Forgotten Town’, concerning moral values dropping at a time of high unemployment in northern manufacturing towns, with the clunkiest lyrics ever: ‘No sign of loving in this age of push and shoving’. He might even be forgiven for not explaining why Prefab Sprout named one of their albums Protest Songs in 1989 yet resolutely failed, as far as I can tell, to include one damned protest song in the whole set! For what this book does instead offer is an essential reminder of how politics and pop have often mixed to absolutely wonderful effect over the years (did I mention Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’?) and how, in view of this, we can probably do without a 25th anniversary reissue, with added extended bits, of U2’s Rattle and Hum. Which reminds me of what Bono said in the middle of a live performance of ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ on the subject of US TV evangelists and their outrageous greed: “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash, Mister!”