Sunday, 14 September 2008

Which side are you on?

Guardian music blog asking "Why are British musicians so scared of politics?" I suspect the answer is simply that Labour is in Government. If one was absolutely forced at gunpoint to identify something good about having a Conservative Government... the protest songs were better. (Here's an older Guardian article on the same theme.) Meanwhile, this month's Q magazine has an interview with not-at-all-political parliamentary rock band, MP4, with guest guitarist Andy Burnham who says that it's was Billy Bragg's Which Side Are You On? which inspired him to pick up a guitar.

So - off the top of my head, here's some of the best political songs:

1. Ghost Town - the Specials (with hon mensh to their version of Maggie's Farm, the Special Aka's Nelson Mandela, and the Beat's Stand Down Margaret). I don't think there's ever been a song that captured the mood of the times so presciently as this, which hit number 1 during the 1981 riots.

2. A Change is Gonna Come - Sam Cooke, and Strange Fruit - Billie Holliday. Two very different takes on segregation in the deep South: one showing defiant optimism, the other probably the bleakest song ever written. Also, Hurricane - Bob Dylan.

3. Alternative Ulster/ Suspect Device - Stiff Little Fingers. And a highly commended to Belfast - Boney M. Well at least they were trying!

4. The Revolution will not be Televised - Gil Scott-Heron. The Godfather of rap. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back - Public Enemy. (And I think there's a good case for regarding Eminem as one of the most political writers of recent years.)

5. Between the Wars EP - Billy Bragg; Shipbuilding - Robert Wyatt; Good Technology - the Red Guitars; Pills and Soap - Elvis Costello. Classic 1980s Peel shows.

6. This Land is Your Land - Woody Guthrie. And the Irish songs I should know but all tend to blur into one.

7. How Does it Feel? (To be the Mother of 1000 Dead) - Crass. (Never actually listened to it, of course - could anyone? - but used to read their sleeve notes avidly and draw anarchy signs on my school books. Those were the days).

8. California Uber Alles/ Holiday in Cambodia/ Kill the Poor - The Dead Kennedys. Because they're funny too.

9. Dread Beat an' Blood - Linton Kwesi Johnson; Mi Cyaan Believe It - Michael Smith; Two Sevens Clash - Culture.

10. Equal but Different/ Come Again - the Au Pairs; Damaged Goods - the Gang of Four. The personal is political.

11. Anarchy in the UK - the Sex Pistols. Obviously. And too many to mention by the Clash; Babylon's Burning - the Ruts; Sound of the Suburbs - the Members; Eton Rifles - the Jam (was never that keen on the Jam, but at least it's topical).

12. Fall on Me - REM. Environmental politics twenty years before everyone else cottoned on. And probably their best song too.



14 comments:

Glenn Vowles said...

'Fall on Me - REM. Environmental politics twenty years before everyone else cottoned on'

Some of us had cottoned on before then Kerry, though our numbers then were much smaller than now. This song was on their 4th album in 1986 I think. Now, I'm far from being the first person to 'cotton on' to environmental politics but I was campaigning as a Parliamentary Candidate for the Greens (then Ecology Party, formed in 1973) in Bristol South then and had been a member for 4yrs at that point! I got a magnificent 600 votes at the 1987 General Election when your friend 'Red' Dawn Primarolo was first elected!

Wasn't there environmental politics in the time of: the formation of loads of green pressure groups eg Friends of the Earth, in the late sixties and early seventies; and earlier with Wordworth and Burns; or before that William Blake; or much earlier with The Diggers (listen to Billy Bragg's great version of 'World Turned Upside Down'); and I'm sure you could go back before that!! Environmental politics has always been around in some form or another.

I'm far from convinced that mainstream party politics in the UK has really cottoned on to doing green politics however. It sometimes makes the right sounds but the actions are pretty much business as usual.

Devil's Kitchen said...

Guardian music blog asking "Why are British musicians so scared of politics?"

Is it because the vast majority of our pop stars politically naive and for them to write anything about politics just exposes them to ridicule?

DK

Kerry said...

Glenn - I knew you'd come back with that! I meant amongst musicians, not politicians. OK, there were probably some hippies singing about green issues back in the 60s and 70s, but it's only become a fashionable cause for mainstream artists very recently.

Kerry said...

Devil's Kitchen - you've given me the idea for a list of the worst political songs ever. Culture Club's 'War is Stupid' (or whatever it's called); 'Russians' by Sting; 'Shoot the Dog', George Michael... Any other suggestions?

SteveL said...

Given that "the men behind the wire" by the Wolfetones is technically a UK song, perhaps it is only British mainland bands that don't do politics.

Glenn Vowles said...

'Glenn - I knew you'd come back with that! I meant amongst musicians, not politicians. OK, there were probably some hippies singing about green issues back in the 60s and 70s, but it's only become a fashionable cause for mainstream artists very recently.'

Well you do say 'before everyone else cottoned on' Kerry. Better to say exactly what you mean I'd say! In any case its not true for musicians either, including plenty of mainstream artists, especially in the sixties and seventies (think Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi' as just one example - there are plenty of others). Woody Guthrie's 'This land is your land', from your own list (and one I regularly listen to), for me expresses a green view and its from 1940. Like I said before there has always been environmental politics - no doubt there are popular songs about environmental concerns going back to the beginnings of music.

I will keep chipping in with comments because I object to how, just like mainstream politics generally, you seem to blow hot and then cold about environmental/green politics. One minute you are talk it up and the next you talk it down - depending on when it suits your political purpose.

The Bristol Blogger said...

Hey, hey, what's that sound?

There seems to be a large 1960s shaped hole in your list Kerry. And it's not just Buffalo Springfield either. There's Country Joe; Crosby, Stills Nash and Young - surely Ohio would make any list of protest songs anywhere? And hasn't its writer, Neil Young, been banging on about war, peace, land, freedom and the environment in one form or another for his whole 40 year career? I wonder where REM got the idea?

How about Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner? I also think Hey Joe - "I'm goin' way down south so I can be free!" - is a political song but I'm weird like that.

On the British front. I think you'll find there maybe be some politics in Sympathy for the Devil and what's We Love You about?. We're also gonna have to mention Lennon here too. Like him or loathe him, a song like John Sinclair is pretty extraordinary statement coming from one of the most famous people on earth.

Kerry said...

Joni Mitchell is a hippy in my book. And I hate that song!

I suppose you could count This Land is Your Land as a green song, although I see it more as a class anthem. On the Between the Wars EP there's a song about the Diggers, which is green too. But I still think I'm right in the general statement that most musicians only adopted the green cause very recently - not particularly criticising them for doing so, as I think most of them are genuine.

Yes, Ohio is a great song, and I suppose we should also have an anti-war/ Vietnam section. Also, I should have put down some of the later politicised Motown stuff - What's Going On, Cloud Nine, Living for the City, etc.

Not convinced about the Stones, and Imagine is definitely going into the worst political songs list. At number one.

Glenn, I don't understand what you mean by this:

"I will keep chipping in with comments because I object to how, just like mainstream politics generally, you seem to blow hot and then cold about environmental/green politics. One minute you are talk it up and the next you talk it down - depending on when it suits your political purpose."

When do I talk down green politics? I think it's more a case of having a reasonable perspective on what's achievable and what isn't. And accepting that there are other competing priorities out there.

Glenn Vowles said...

You aren't seriously telling me that the mainstream parties dont all 'ebb and flow' with their emphasis on green politics depending on how popular they think being green is with the public at any one time are you??
Its fairly easy to demonstrate this using the last 20/30 yrs of history.

Interested in your use of the phrases 'reasonable perspective' and 'competing priorities'. Kerry, people have used such phrases in debate with me on green issues for yrs and what they've very consistently meant in practice is 'business as usual', which is clearly unjust and unsustainable (flying in the face of the best scientific evidence eg on climate).

I'm all for what is reasonable and achievable and what best reconciles competing priorities. This is why I dont favour economic and social policies that are out of tune with environmental ones eg simultaneously talking up the climate change bill whilst favouring more coal-fired power stations, hundreds of miles of new roads, expanding airports and air travel... Is that what you call reasonable??

Hookers And Gin said...

No love for Easterhouse, huh?

"England's house-trained Socialists
The lowest form of hypocrite"

~1969


Hmm, probably not. Personally, I'd prefer music and politics to be kept apart. The political songs that I like are great despite being political. It's all about the tunes, you see.

Glenn Vowles said...

'On the Between the Wars EP there's a song about the Diggers, which is green too.'

Wikpedia says the song Kerry refers to here, performed by Billy Bragg, is one modern version of a song written in the 17th century.
The wiki entry is...
----------------------------------
The Diggers' Song (also known as "Levellers and Diggers") is a 17th century ballad, in terms of content a protest song concerned with land rights, inspired by the Diggers movement, composed by Gerrard Winstanley. The lyrics were published in 1894 by the Camden Society. It is sung to a version of the family of tunes later used for Jack Hall, Captain Kidd and Admiral John Benbow, which according to Palmer was first printed in 1714.

A modernized version of the song called "The World Turned Upside Down" (not to be confused with the 17th century ballad of the same title) was composed by Leon Rosselson in 1975, taken into the charts in 1985 by Billy Bragg and also performed by John McCutcheon, Oysterband, Dick Gaughan, Karan Casey, Chumbawamba (the version on the EP Timebomb - the song by the same name on English Rebel Songs is not the 'In 1649' one), Attila the Stockbroker, Maggie Holland, Chris Foster, and The Bradleys among others.
__________________________________

For more on environmental songs (some good, some bad...!) try these sites for starters:

http://folkmusic.about.com/od/toptens/tp/EarthDaySongs.htm

http://www.grinningplanet.com/6001/environmental-songs.htm

http://www.planetpatriot.net/enviros_in_song.html

There's always been plenty about!!

thebristolblogger said...

Not convinced about the Stones

Go to the back of the class, listen to Beggars Banquet properly and (a) explain why it isn't a political record and (b) explain why, on that performance, Jagger still isn't really rated as a lyricist.

and Imagine is definitely going into the worst political songs list. At number one

Yes Imagine is shite, but that's not Lennon's entire political output is it? Back of the class again. This time it's 'Sometime in New York City', Discuss.

Kerry said...

Wasn't meant to be an exclusive list! Easterhouse were a bit also-ran, weren't they? Like the Redskins. Better reading the interviews than listening to the music. And Hue and Cry - decent politics, dodgy songs.

Glenn, have just realised you mentioned the World Turned Upside Down before I did - sorry, not paying attention! I think I'll give the folk music sites a miss though.

Blogger, it's not that I don't know the Lennon catalogue. I just don't like anything I've ever heard by John Lennon or the Beatles, as I've mentioned on this blog before. And I have no intention of forcing myself to listen to it again!

The Stones had their moments (she admitted, grudgingly), but give me Dylan or Motown anyday. I accept Jagger dabbled in politics - but his songs just don't have any emotional impact for me, and haven't had any impact on my political views either. (On the same basis, no U2 in there either!)

I do think the Tom Robinson Band should have got a mention, for Glad to be Gay if nothing else. Sounds a bit dated and clumsy now, but Power in the Darkness and TRBII were our soundtrack in 1978-9.

Kerry said...

And what about nominations for the worst political songs... We are the World? The Strawbs, Part of the Union? And that Phil Collins song about homeless people.