Monday, August 04, 2014

Mixing pop and politics, ask me what the use is

My musical and political formation took place in the 70s and 80s. I only have to listen to a few bars of a clutch of 20 songs or so on a playlist I've made (or a mix tape, if you prefer) and I'm transported back to CND marches, strikes, strife, Mrs Thatch and Rock Against Racism.

Here are six songs from that playlist that with a bit of fine tuning, updating and downright fisking are still as relevant today.
Up Against the Wall - Tom Robinson Band

The whole burst of energy from Robinson's music from the late 70s takes you to a London of the Grunwick pickets, Grange Hill, National Front marches, the winter of discontent, multi-racial London and the imminent election of the Conservatives. There's a beautiful sequence in this angry anthem, which sounds phenomenally relevant now.
High wire fencing on the playground
High rise housing all around
High rise prices on the high street
High time to pull it all down
Then there's an attempt at portraying a two-track London that hasn't quite stood the test of time as West London becomes a wealthy bubble and the edges push further and further out.
Consternation in Mayfair
Rioting in Notting Hill Gate
Fascists marching on the high street
Carving up the welfare state
I'm sure Tom Robinson tweaks that whenever he sings it in the bath, but it still works for me.

Bloody Revolutions - Crass

If there is one song, one band and one lyric that turned me against ideological socialism it is Crass and this, quite the wierdest, widest ranging, oddest song I have in my collection. It is a powerful destruction of the left's departure from humanity in the course of developing revolutionary rhetoric. Crass were impressive and persuasive propagandists, railing against everything. But even now it screeches a loud hailer in the face of tupenny ha'penny placard wavers urging solidarity with struggles they don't understand. At a stretch, you could imagine Christopher Hitchens coming up with some of this. Crass, eh? An anthem for the Neo-Con generation.
"It all seems very easy, this revolution game
But when you start to really play things won't be quite the same
Your intellectual theories on how it's going to be
Don't seem to take into account the true reality
Cos the truth of what you're saying, as you sit there sipping beer
Is pain and death and suffering, but of course you wouldn't care

You're far too much of a man for that, if Mao did it so can you
What's the freedom of us all against the suffering of the few?
That's the kind of self-deception that killed ten million Jews
Just the same false logic that all power-mongers use"

Heartland - The The

This whole Infected album was a masterpiece, a magnificent production, a multimedia experiment and a remarkable commentary on international tension, global relations and just the gut wrenching feeling of unrequited love. The Heartland track takes me to the 1987 election and the fear that the North of England would be cut off forever, ripped asunder and forgotten in a world we don't understand any more.
"All the frightened people running home before dark..."
The image then that follows as Matt Johnson drops a key and warns of a dystopian nightmare we can't comprehend...
"All the banker's getting sweaty beneath their white collar,
as the pound in your pocket turns into a dollar ... "
It all evoked a new world order, Airstrip One, the dark conspiracy of American power. We've been through it and out the other end now. But it's very Naomi Klein, don't you think?

Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards - Billy Bragg

Our youngest lad asked me what this was about yesterday. To me it's about wanting something better, even if there's a sadness about it that seems to belittle a lot of political activism.
"So join the struggle while you may, the revolution is just a t-shirt away". 
It's actually a wonderful joyful celebration of campaigning and politics that takes you through the lost causes, misplaced optimism and shattered dreams.

The British Way of Life - The Chords
There's a sadness around The Chords, they attached their wagon to the short-lived, ill fated 1979 Mod revival and sank without a trace thereafter. But they were always so much more than just another Jam tribute band. This track may be a bit too much like This is the Modern World in the chorus, but it was a forerunner to many of Paul Weller's later classics which spoke to the army of kids who hung off his every word from the estates and streets of England. It may not have the demons of the Tories and the cops to rub against, but it does speak to solid conservative working class values, dreams, friends and family, shared experience.

"A cinema, a bowling green,
No culture to preserve,
everyone's always staring at each other,
but no-one speaks a word."

I took that as a positive, even then. Even the bitterness and empty predictable routines of football, marriage and Sunday dinners.

California Uber Alles - Dead Kennedys

An interview I read with Jello Biafra shook me to my core when I was about 13. Many punks completely misunderstood what they were all about, enjoying the shocking lyrics and the anger over the deeply political message that these slightly more sophisticated American punks were peddling. It stood somewhere between the hollowed out nihilism of the Exploited barmy army and the agit-prop of the Anarchists like Crass and Conflict. They ultimately had to record a track called Nazi Punks F*** Off because the message hadn't got through. This song though, to me, was another reality check for a rebellious youth in the best country to have been born in. To be born British in the late twentieth century was a lucky time, really. As the song goes:
And it's a holiday in Cambodia
Where you'll do what you're told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul
 Who says Americans don't do irony?

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