protest music

U2 Play “Red Hill Mining Town”

U2 1987

image: rchappo

Listen to this track by long-standing four-cornered Irish arena fillers U2. It’s “Red Hill Mining Town”, a high point song as taken from their epic-scale 1987 album The Joshua Tree.  This song stands in the shadow of some bigger hits on that record, a part of an album that would put them into the stratosphere before the end of the decade.

Among the songs on the record that evoked lofty spiritual quests (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”), the all-consuming turmoil of love as it intersects with pain (“With Or Without You”),  and apocalyptic visions that sound like the end of the world (“Bullet The Blue Sky”), this one is a down to earth portrait of a town full of hard-working people in trouble.

And yet, this song by known politically motivated U2  turns out to be not your standard political song at all.

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Tears For Fears Play “Sowing The Seeds of Love”

Sowing the Seeds of Love Tears For FearsListen to this track by multi-platinum one-time primal screamers and pop song craftsmen Tears For Fears. It’s “Sowing The Seeds of Love”, the title track from their 1989 record Sowing The Seeds of Love.

The immediate reaction to it at the time was to acknowledge its tie to the Beatles, particularly the “All You Need Is Love” era. This song certainly references that earlier song thematically, as well as sonically, with a bit of “I Am The Walrus” thrown in for good measure.

I think too it was a reaction against the loss of political conscience of nations, and their people. This was also a marker of the era, when songs on the radio were no longer making comment on the state of the world. This one was a notable exception.

So what made a big-selling pop band turn in a statement that ran so contrary to the approach of most pop bands looking to trouble the charts? (more…)

The Style Council Play “Shout To The Top”

Here’s a clip of left-leaning young soul rebels and bona fide pop collective The Style Council. It’s “Shout To The Top”, a single which appeared on the UK album Our Favourite Shop, and on the US album Internationalists, both released in their respective markets in 1985. The single appeared in October of 1984 on the British charts where it reached a respectable top ten showing.

Style Council Our Favourite ShopThis was during a time when social and economic issues were particularly polarized in Britain, and in North America as well, which may explain the political undercurrents in this song about being at the end of one’s rope, with nothing left to do but rage against the machine, so to speak. The Style Council helped to pioneer this approach to writing politically informed material as established on their earlier album Café Bleu aka My Ever Changing Moods as it was known in North America. The result was the creation of a sort of pop music political manifesto. Our Favourite Shop puts the band into their sharpest focus.

This artistic fluidity of the band was extensive, mixing Northern soul, jazz, mod-rock, and even early hip-hop sounds. Thematically speaking, they’d aim pretty high too, often bordering on the polemical, and sometimes into downright pretension. This would go south for them later in the decade when they strayed a bit too far, and when popularity and sales began to wane. But, in the mid-80s, leader Paul Weller, who had gained some similar thematic traction when he fronted The Jam, demonstrated his full array of pop smarts in this new musical milieu, along with the political content to be found in his lyrics to go along with them.

That’s why this song just zings. This is a bright, bouncy song about not taking it anymore, a shining soul-pop gem about being tired of being oppressed. You might wonder how it’s possible to get a top ten showing on the charts while making such strident statements about society, even if it is wrapped in a stunning pop sheen. But, this was the ’80s, friends!

Does that mean that audiences were more receptive to political messages in their pop at the time? Or did it mean that they weren’t listening very carefully? Was there another reason? (more…)

Jarvis Cocker Sings “Running The World”

Jarvis Cocker

Photo: Jeremy M Farmer

Here’s a clip of erstwhile Pulp singer and frontman, and Sheffieldian folk hero Jarvis Cocker. It’s “Running the World”, a political song in an era when such things are disturbingly rare, that contains a chorus that is equal parts catchy-and-NSFW.  The song is featured on his 2006 solo record Jarvis. On that record, it’s added on the CD version as a hidden track, while on the vinyl release, it was added on a separate 45RPM single disc.

A notable instance of this tune in pop culture was the use of it in the closing credits of the film Children of Men, a movie based on a novel by P.D James about a dystopic future where humanity has become sterile. Britain has become the last bastion of civilization, stemming the flow of the rising desperation by placing incoming refugees into concentration camps, including a single woman who happens to be, against all odds, pregnant.

The world in this movie is viciously stark, giving us a vision of what might happen were we to be thrust into the jaws of our own mortality as a species. It shows us what happens when we divide ourselves into us and them, hand over compassion by trading it for false securityand hoard resources in times of crisis instead of sharing them. We find out that these impulses do not keep us safe, and actually become our undoing. Ultimately, I think this is what this tune is about. But, why’s Jarvis Cocker so angry about it? And more importantly, does it really matter? (more…)

The Caretakers Play ‘Daddy Laughed’

Listen to this track by 60s Greenwich Village-meets-60s-British-Folk-scene trio The Caretakers, actually a group of musicians from Hamilton, Ontario.   It’s ‘Daddy Laughed’, a song about childhood memory, and sourced from the band’s EP of the same name.  The track also appears on their full-length debut Unfinished Thoughts.

In our  21st century, when war and greed are still very much active when it comes to the shaping of our times, folk music that connects us to our own experiences, as well as finding commonalities in the experiences of others in other countries, is still very potent.  Bandleader and songwriter Jeffrey C. Martin (vocals, guitar) understands this very well, and along with his bandmates Lena Montecalvo (vocals, percussion), and Norm Van Bergen (vocals, 12-string guitar), we’re reminded that this musical connection is still very much alive.

Among other things, I spoke to Jeff about songwriting, the importance of community among musicians, about causes, and about how art and political engagement can still converge in a more jaded and media-overloaded time.

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James Brown Sings ‘Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’ in 1968

Here’s a clip of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul and one of the architects of funk, singing “Say it Loud (I’m black and I’m Proud)” in November 1968. The clip is from Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark’ TV program, which featured musical guests, comics, and other celebrity appearances on a set that looks like a bachelor’s pad.

James Brown 1968This was an anthem of cultural pride, with not just a bit of the taste of unrest that existed in black communities at the time. The Watts riots had marked a sea change in August 1965, and the pop artists and songwriters of the time began to feel a sense of obligation to their audience to address it. Martha Reeves’ ‘Dancing in the Streets’, Sam & Dave’s ‘Soul Man’ (a title inspired by graffiti songwriter Issac Hayes had seen on the street), and even Aretha’s cover of “Respect” all had an undercurrent of political protest, fueled by the need to establish a social identity for a community that had been marginalized for hundreds of years. By the time James Brown had taped this appearance, both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were dead, both assassinated. Yet soul music as protest music was only to get more mainstream, and more overt, as the 60s faded into the 70s.

The one thing I noticed about James Brown’s appearance here, and his choice of song, is that his immediate audience sitting right there in the room with him are all white people (one of whom appears to be Sonny Bono!). I find it interesting that the smiling faces belie the message of the song. This is no party tune. It’s a song of defiance, as much as it is a song of pride in one’s identity. I wonder how many people there really understood the implications of what James was singing. And I wonder how many of the TV audience understood as well.

Enjoy!

10 Songs About War

soldiersWar has been a historical and cultural reality that has dogged humanity since civilization began, and perhaps even before then. Understanding it depends on which era and which culture you’re talking about. At one time, dying in battle was the stuff of legend, from Beowulf, to Charge of the Brigade, to the Ballad of the Green Berets. In more recent times of course, the subject of war as covered in song has been less unified. We no longer necessarily see war as glorious or as a rite of passage. This has a lot to do with the development of mass media, with the real face of war being revealed on TV, starting in the 60s and 70s with the war in Vietnam. But the medium of popular song has raised our awareness as well, with some upholding the necessity of war in certain instances, while others condemning it as a crime against humanity.

Here are 10 songs about war, each one adding to the perspective that war is more than just about the conflicts over wealth, territory, safety, or ideology. Ultimately, it’s about the people who are affected by it either directly or indirectly and even about how the very threat of war sours the quality of life and how we value it even in peace time.

Eve of Destruction – Barry McGuire

The folk tradition, particularly the revivalism in the early 60s, was a rich breeding ground for singers and writers to explore the issue of war, being as it was in the beginning of the Cold War. From the Weavers‘ take on “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, to Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching No More”, to Dylan’s “Masters of War”, it was plain that there had been a shift in perspective since the second world war. Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” nailed the point of view of many of these writers, not singling out the act of war or the threat of it, but also the hatred behind it, and the fear of difference. In this song, there wasn’t much of a barrier between civil rights struggles and the fear of communists, both having boiled up in the churning cultural waters of the 1950s. In the Reagan era of the 1980s, Canadian punk outfit the Forgotten Rebels recorded this song, as the fear of nuclear Armageddon still loomed large, like a leftover from the ideologically polarized world started in the 50s. It’s interesting that these sentiments never really got old – we’re still seeing the outcropping of wars fueled by fear.

War – Edwin Starr

Edwin StarrWhere the folk songs of the recent past have provided eloquent diatribes on why war is immoral, sometimes a more basic approach is required. Enter soul singer Edwin Starr who provided the musical slogan which embodied war fatigue in the early 70s. The protection of innocent lives is the impetus here, including many young lives out of the inner cities who were the fuel of the Vietnam conflict. In many ways, Starr is providing the voice for those who were actually fighting in the jungles, putting the value of life into perspective, even if many of the lives lost were considered to be expendable by those driving the war along. Good God, y’all!

Bring the Boys Home – Freda Payne

Freda PayneFreda Payne is probably best known for her Northern Soul classic ‘Band of Gold’, a tale of love gone wrong. And this tune, ‘Bring the Boys Home’ was an emotional statement of another kind, reminding listeners that soldiers were not just functionaries of the conflict; they were brothers, husbands, fathers. They were connected to the lives of those at home waiting for them. Soldiers are often looked upon as faceless uniforms. Freda’s pleading tones humanize them. It was a necessary message in the early 70s, and is equally relevant now, albeit with the need to talk about bringing the girls home too. The song received airplay on the time of release, but was banned from broadcast on armed forces radio broadcasts as it was looked upon as a means to “give aid and comfort to the enemy“.

Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Crosby Stills Nash & YoungPart of the reality of war is that it affects the health of society on the home front. The shootings at Kent State University in 1970 proved that the psyche of a nation was being shaken to its core, with soldiers at home killing their own people in an effort to stem the tide of dissent surrounding the war. CSN&Y in recording their Deja Vu album that same year wrote the song in fairly short order, offering their horror and bewilderment at the events. I think the line “soldiers are cutting us down” is pretty powerful – these guys considered themselves very much a part of those who had gone through the trauma on the day. The cries of “why?” on the outro of the song are one of the most heartfelt moments in rock history. According to the song’s writer Neil Young on the liner notes for his 1976 compilation album Decade, David Crosby burst into tears at the end of the session. And who could blame him?

Holiday in the Sun – The Sex Pistols

The Sex PistolsOne of the key characteristics of the Sex Pistols was their lack of faith in the future – at least on record. Part of the reason for this was the impending threat of war due to opposing ideologies, the physical symbol of this in the late 70s in Europe being the Berlin Wall. “Holiday in the Sun” from their sole (to date) studio album Never Mind the Bollocks recognizes something outside of the usual cartoon nihilism and anarchy for which the band had become known. For one thing, this song provides an image the folk-revivalists of the early 60s would have died for – two men on two sides of a literal political fence looking at each other. The “reason” for a holiday, to see some “history” is due to the fact that the threat of world war three makes it impossible to get the chance to see over the wall, to connect with those on the other side.

Two Tribes – Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Frankie Goes to Hollywood Two TribesBy the 1980s, Cold War paranoia had reached a fever pitch, continuing to filter down to pop culture outlets from governments who had swung to the right in an effort to demonize each other. The Superpowers were posturing and vying for supremacy in a trillion-dollar arms race, making the threat of a nuclear confrontation a very real possibility. But in this song by Liverpool’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the face of war is presented as something which wears the costumes of a modern age, of efficient destructive technology, but is ultimately unchanged from primitive wars for territory. And the absurdity of point scoring is put into perspective, with only the score of “one” being the logical conclusion, with both sides losing.

Showdown at Big Sky – Robbie Robertson

Robbie RobertsonIn 1969, Robbie Robertson wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with The Band, which was the story of the civil war from the point of view of a Confederate soldier who had suffered the defeat under Stoneman’s Union Forces. By 1987, the theme of war became more than just a snapshot of a single soldier in the distant past; now it had become mythic, a Biblical struggle to bring about the end of the world. Where once the themes of wars in history served as a means of understanding war in the present, Robertson’s song takes on the idea that war is unavoidable, predestined, with “soldiers of fortune” fighting for reasons which are undetermined. The only thing left to do in this song is to pray. Whether this is vigilance against the possibilities of war, or a prayer for those who will inevitably suffer is unclear. Such were the fears of the time, when the future couldn’t be predicted, and certainly couldn’t be guaranteed. I suppose this is still the case when it comes to Armageddon, when the conflicts of the past have seemingly taught world leaders nothing.

Eric B & Rakim – Casualties of War

Eric B. and Rakim Don't Sweat the TechniqueThe best of hip hop has provided us with a hand-held camera view of life on the street. And in Eric B. & Rakim’s “Casualties of War” from their 1992 album Don’t Sweat the Technique we get that view of the battlefield too – and harrowing view it is. This is the portrait of a soldier who is assailed by gunfire, bombs, and crushing self-doubt and confusion; confusion over who the enemy really is, and confusion over the need to kill those who are, in the end, not much different from himself. There is also the aspect of being duped by one’s own government, to be pulled into a conflict that makes no sense on a personal level through propagandistic messaging – “be all the you can be/another dead soldier…”.

The Angry American (Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue) – Toby Keith

Toby KeithOne of the emotions which are stirred during wartime is anger. In recent years, a lot of anger has been built up around the events of September 11, 2001 when 3000 people lost their lives in the attack New York’s Twin Towers. One of the voice of anger came out in the form of country singer Toby Keith’s song “The Angry American (Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue)”. Yet this anger seemed to be less about the loss of life, and more about the effrontery of the enemy to attack a nation’s honour. The real offense seems to centre on calling the supremacy of America into question. It is interesting that in times of war, the bulwark of self-mythology seems strongest. And it’s easily understood why this is; a unifying message during wartime has its advantages. It may give voice to those who are legitimately wounded by loss. But, it also can be used to ensure consent, even when the intentions and goals of war are less than upfront.

When the President Talks to God – Bright Eyes

Coner Oberst of Bright Eyes

Another phenomenon that has been common down through the ages is the idea of a Holy War – a conflict that is initiated by those who claim to have God’s ear. In recent years, this has been more applicable than ever before, with the political ideologies of the past in many ways supplanted by religious conviction or affiliation on both sides. Yet in the minds of many, the idea of faith and devotion to God seems to run contrary to ordering thousands of people to carry out violent acts. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst’s song “When the President Talks to God” tries to unpack this quandary, this seemingly disingenuous notion that war, or any other device of social oppression, can be the will of God. This is another kind of anger which stands in opposition with that of Toby Keith’s. In this, the heart of anger is more than jingoistic outrage. This is pure disillusionment over the policies that affect the lives of real people, presided over by those who claim devotion to upholding the principles of peace and compassion.

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War; what is it good for? Well, despite Edwin Starr’s clear message, it would appear that war is a powerful subject to sing about at very least. But, in this age of information, it would seem that war is good for a great many things including pulling together a nation and uniting a political platform that might otherwise not be viable.

It is interesting that the cries against war in the arts seem to go largely unheeded by those who initiate war. Surely a true democracy values its artists, who in turn reflect a mirror image of the society out of which their art comes, doesn’t it? Yet with all things, this is too simple to be true. The idea of saving the world with a record seems naïve, unless we drastically expand the record collections of world leaders. Hmm…now there’s something worth pursuing…