‘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.