Archive for September 2016

Music and politics do mix

‘Politics and music don’t mix’.  This was a comment I recently saw on Facebook which inspired me to write this post.

Not only do politics and music mix, they’re natural bedfellows.  The author of that quote, if he were being serious, was obviously ignorant of the rich vein of protest and politics in our musical heritage.  Plato said (and I know this because I heard it paraphrased on a Pop Will Eat Itself record!), “musical innovation is full of danger to the state, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.”  So if you thought protest in music started with Bob Dylan, you’d be wrong.  While I won’t be going back in time to cover some of Plato’s favourite tunes or bands (Republica, anyone?) I thought it would be good to shine a light on some great tunes that came with a strong message.

First up is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son, a belter of a tune from 1969 and a favourite on any self-respecting soundtrack associated with the Vietnam war.  Clocking in at just over two minutes, Fortunate Son is an anti-establishment tune, criticising those supportive of war and the use of military force without having to pay the costs.

Pre dating Fortunate Son by 30 years is Strange Fruit.  Written in 1939 by Abel Meeropol, the tune (originally a poem), popularised by Billie Holiday, tells of the lynching of African Americans in the Southern US states.  The lyric, ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’ remains poignant as does Holiday’s rendition of the tune.  The footage of Billie Holiday singing the tune sends  shivers down the spine.

If you asked the ubiquitous man on the street to name a political musician, the name Billy Bragg would be a good bet for an answer.  Bragg, the so-called Bard of Barking, has flown the flag for ‘the left’ for many a year, through his music and other forms of political discourse.  One of my favourite Bragg turns is Between the Wars.  Released in 1985, the tune was inspired by the miners’ strike and with lyrics including, ‘and I’ll give my consent, to any government, that does not deny a man a living wage’, the song resonates with contemporary politics.

I’d never really thought of or listened properly to Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding until the meaning of the tune was pointed out by a friend.  Written in 1982 (by Costello and Clive Langer), at the time of the Falklands War/Conflict, the tune is about the tension between the economic benefits of shipbuilding to those industrial towns doing the shipbuilding and the lives lost in those same ships.  I’d recommend ‘googling’ the lyrics.  It’s also worth noting that the version on Costello’s album Punch the Clock, includes the legendary Chet Baker on trumpet.

My last selection is from Public Enemy but it could so easily have been from Rage Against The Machine.  Politics runs through all of PE’s music.  Fight the Power (the video of which I wasn’t able to include above) released in 1989 became the anthem of disaffected American youths and is rightly considered to be one of the greatest tunes of modern times.  Harder than you think, released in 2007, is right up there for being a monster tune and features one of my favourite lines ever: if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.  While this has be attributed to a Scots- American preacher called Peter Marshall it means as much today as it did during Marshall’s lifetime (1902-1949).

Politics and music do mix and, if anything, this combination is needed now more than ever.

Book review

Regular readers may have noticed that my blog’s been relatively quiet of late.  I’ve been on holiday in the Lake District, where I’ve written most of this (but posting from London due to some wi-fi issues).  Things should liven-up though:  I’ve lots of gigs in the diary, including a handful at the London jazz festival.

For the meantime, I thought I’d cover some of the books I’ve read since my last book review on 2 July (so not including my posts on the separate themes of war and Japan).


First up is Owen Jones’s, The Establishment: And how they get away with it (2014).  I was in the mood for such a book, having enjoyed what I’ve seen so far of the TV series Mr. Robot, the plot of which revolves around a group of hackers aiming to bring down a large corporation.  It’s been a while since I’ve read something of this ilk, the last time being Noam Chomsky’s Occupy, which was more of a pamphlet than a book.  The last ‘proper’ book of this sort that I picked up was No Logo by Naomi Klein, though I have to admit I didn’t make it to the end of that.  Klein herself provides a ringing endorsement within the covers of Jones’s book.  I only hoped that the latter would be more readable than the former.


My hopes weren’t dashed.  I really enjoyed The Establishment.  Jones focusses on a handful of exhibits to build his case:  the revolving door between the state (especially decision makers) and private sector; the police; the City; and the media.  His case is, of course, that there is an establishment and that Government policy is developed to further and entrench the interests of the establishment, which jealousy guards political discourse (the so-called Overton window).  That there is an establishment and that they seek to further their own self-interest is probably not news to anyone.  Jones, however, does a good job in pulling all of this together into a compelling indictment of today’s society.  Jones is articulate and writes with purpose.  His chapter on the police, specifically the part on the Hillsborough disaster is particularly moving.

My criticisms are few but here they are.  Jones appears to fit the evidence to make his case rather than taking a more analytical approach.  Of course if Jones did this then he’d have ended up with a text book which was twice the length and few would read.   So, perhaps on balance, Jones probably did the right thing here.  I also think that the book could be more balanced in that it is heavily weighted with problems rather than solutions.  All in all, it’s a good read which I recommend.


Something completely different (I hope!) is The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman.  The Forever War is a sci-if book following the exploits of William Mandella, a soldier in a war against an alien species.  A short way into the book I though I was reading the book on which the movie Starship Troopers was based.  My hunch was wrong.  Starship Troopers was written by Robert Heinlein in 1959.  Heinlein (a hero of Haldeman’s) did apparently congratulate Haldeman on TFW, at an award banquet, noting that TFW “may be the best future war story I’ve ever read!”.  So my hunch wasn’t too far off!  If you’ve seen Starship Troopers you’ll have a sense of what the book is like.


The most interesting thing in the book is how it deals with the concept and practicalities of time.  Interstellar travel through ‘collapsars’ allows light-year distances to be travelled in a short space of time.  So a one-year journey in outer space could mean that decades or even hundreds of years have passed back on earth.  The protagonist’s experience of this is thought provoking and one might come to the conclusion that this might have been inspired by the author’s experience of the Vietnam war and his homecoming.  While I enjoyed TFW, I thought it took a while to get going but once it did found myself enjoying the character of Mandella and his experiences.  Nevertheless, I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone other than a sci-fi fan.


One book which I’d highly recommend is Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy (2016).  This is the third in a series of novels featuring our anti-hero Thomas Kell, and I’d also recommend the first two books in the series, A Foreign Country and A Colder War, respectively.  Kell is a career MI5 agent hung out to dry at the start of the first book in the series but, as ever in this well-worn genre, finding himself drawn back into his old world. While it’s a well trodden genre, Kell and the surrounding cast of characters are likeable and well written, though perhaps a little bit cliched.  Nevertheless, the book moves at a good pace and Cummings has you on the edge of your seat, drawing you into the world of cloak and dagger.  It’s hard to read a spy novel without comparing it to John Le Carre’s ‘Karla trilogy’ featuring the character of George Smiley.  Cummings’s novels aren’t as dense or labyrinthine as any of the Smiley novels.  That’s a good thing in my book as the Smiley novels are too dense by half.  However, I think Cummings could benefit from a little more depth.  If you like what you hear you’ll need to read the first two books; A Divided Spy is also effectively part two of A Colder War.  They all come highly recommended.

I’ve read a few other books recently but won’t go into detail on these.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (2016) by Joanna Cannon feels like a cross between The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and something by Jonathan Coe.  It’s a good combination and an enjoyable read but didn’t set my world on fire.

Strange weather in Tokyo (2013) by Hiromi Kawakami is a quiet book about the blossoming relationship between two people; a teacher and an ex-student.  While well written, the relationship seemed oddly pitched, especially as the ex-student was in her late thirties and the teacher around thirty years her senior.  Despite the ages of the characters (or perhaps because of the age difference) the relationship was one of teacher-student/adult-child throughout which didn’t work for me.  I wouldn’t recommend it.

Lastly, Affections (2016) is a short book (160 pages) by Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbun.  The book follows a patriarchal family and the relationships between the family members, especially the dominant father and explorer of lost cities, Hans.  The book reminded me of Gabriela Garcia Marquez’s novel One hundred years of solitude, though I can’t pin down why.  I enjoyed the book and, if anything, thought the book could have benefitted from being longer.  Recommended.

If any of these take your fancy and capture your imagination do let me know.