Listen to this track by politically motivated globetrotting singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Call it Democracy”, a song as taken from his 1986 album World Of Wonders.
Cockburn had spent the 1980s making albums and writing songs while also making personal trips to points on the map where the negative effects of Western economic policy was making the most impact in that era. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continued their “aid” to Third World countries, lending them the funds to manage their economies effectively (read: in line with Western corporate agendas) in exchange for turning over their right to self determination in support of private interests. This was, and is today, generally done by way of huge rates of interest on loans that are designed to never be paid off. Certain people might say this is nothing less than economic imperialism. People like me, say.
Heavy stuff, I know.
So, how does Cockburn make this into a compelling song, and not just an over-earnest polemic? Because when it comes to writing political songs, this is what separates the big dogs from the furry fashion accessories. Read more
Listen to this track by London-based synthpop trio Bronski Beat. It’s “Smalltown Boy”, their biggest hit, released in June of 1984, and eventually appearing on their first record Age of Consent by the end of the year. Before this, they were three housemates living in Brixton, south London; Steve Bronski (after whom the band is named), Larry Steinbachek, both of whom played keyboards, and Jimmy Somerville lending his uniquely calibrated pipes as lead vocalist.
The single was a smash success, gaining top ten showings all over the world, and only after the three friends did only a brief stint of gigs before signing with London Records. Besides the clear thematic content in the song itself, another aspect of the song was assuredly brought out by the video which enjoyed heavy rotation. In it, Somerville portrays a young man who is on a train, reflecting on what it was that set him out on his journey; that the small town where he is from is too small for him, and for others like him.
In many ways, it’s a pretty simple narrative. But, it was, and is, tied up in a common thread that we’re still working our way through as a society today. Read more
Listen to this track by class of ’77 London punk band and shouty social commentators, X-Ray Spex. It’s “Plastic Bag” as taken from 1978’s Germ Free Adolescents, their debut full-length which would have no US release until the early ’90s, but helped to document their place in the UK punk pantheon.
The band forming at all was down to inspiration that came out of their regular attendance at shows by the Sex Pistols. But, unlike that band, X-Ray Spex incorporated a few changes to the British punk template by the time they’d put out their first single (“Oh Bondage, Up Yours”), and eventually this song and album.
One was the use of a saxophone, played here on this tune by one Rudi Thompson, giving their sound something of an R&B sort of feel. Another was a more ambitious approach to arrangements that includes changes in tempo and in tone, even if the rawness of punk is very much in place.
And perhaps the most important ingredient sprung from its lead singer, who was also the primary songwriter, Poly Styrene (neé Marianne Joan Elliott-Said).
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.
Listen to this track with Torontonian renaissance man and pop singer-songwriter Andrew Cash. It’s “Trail of Tears” as taken from his 1988 debut record Time And Place. Hooking into a sort of rootsy pop feel much like Blue Rodeo, and especially like Toronto scenesters The Skydiggers, which his brother helped to form, Cash traded on jangly pop guitar hooks and socially aware lyrics too. The whole concoction fit perfectly on the charts here in Canada at a time when the local scene was beginning to enjoy nation-wide attention.
This was the lead single on his debut, typical of Cash’s approach of pop smarts and political content. But, it’s also a superlative example of a late ’80s return in Canada to singer-songwriters who had something to say in a global landscape where the protest song was something of a throwback to another era. With this one, a resident in the First World is confronted by how life around him often comes at the expense of those far away, or even those not so far away but otherwise unknown to him.
Despite how the ’80s as a decade is known for dated textures, thematically speaking this song still lives and breathes today, of course. It also hearkens back to the past as well. Read more
Listen to this track by East Texas punk-folk singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked. It’s her perhaps unlikely hit song “Anchorage” as taken from her 1988 record Short Sharp Shocked.
Besides the title of the record, the cover indicates that the content therein would be pretty politically strident, depicting Shocked in the literal clutches of a seemingly enormous, mustachioed police officer during a 1984 protest of the Democratic Convention she attended that year. The picture was originally shown as a part of a story that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and re-used, with credit, for the cover.
All the while, this is the song off of the record that made an impact on the mainstream, scoring heavy airplay on MTV and Muchmusic up here in Canada, as well as on college radio all over North America. The song was the centerpiece on an album that dealt with a number of political issues, from the decline of blue collar jobs in America, to police brutality and the miscarriage of justice for the poor. Yet, without being at all strident or polemical, “Anchorage” is equally political, with its subtlety making it the strongest statement on the album.
Here’s a clip of New Jersey resident, American icon, and universally acknowledged rock ‘n roll Boss, Bruce Springsteen. It’s the video for his recent single “We Take Care Of Our Own” as taken from this year’s Wrecking Ball album, his seventeenth release.
It’s difficult to talk about Springsteen without mentioning his unique role in the history of rock music, post-1960s. He emerged during a time of great social and economic upheaval in the United States; the energy crisis due to political turmoil in the Middle-East, the Watergate scandal, and America’s defeated withdrawal from Vietnam happened concurrently with the releases of his first three albums, including his breakthrough 1975 album Born To Run, give or take a few months on either side.
This was a time when the illusions of a nation were being shattered one by one after a post-war economic honeymoon. It is upon this spirit of disillusion that Springsteen found his voice as an artist, and proved to be the voice that represented so many others at the time. In part, this is the reason he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1975; he was a voice for his times.
So now in 2012, where has Springsteen’s voice taken him on “We Take Care Of Our Own”, Wrecking Ball, and for us as his audience along with him? Read more
The record is a protest album, with songs that have a razor keen satiric edge to them that is refreshing to hear in an era that sorely needs songs like that, helpfully presented in a variety of styles including rock/pop, country, reggae, tejano, and of course, the blues. This song is certainly satirical, providing some comic relief to songs about crooked bankers, Mexican refugees, damaged soldiers, and obtuse politicians.
Ry Cooder has entered a new phase in his career, from guitar slinger, to folk music archivist, to soundtrack composer, to world-music curator, to an artist who has found a voice as a social critic with an eye for historical events informing current ones. More recent albums Chavez Ravine,My Name Is Buddy and I, Flathead, known as his “California Trilogy” all reference sociopoltical themes of the past, tying them to themes today that show that things haven’t really changed.
As such, this album doesn’t come out of nowhere. And even if this song about John Lee Hooker has some comedy value, complete with a well-observed impression of the late lamented bluesman, there is a strain of truth to this song that makes it more than just comedy relief.
Listen to this track by former songwriter-for-hire , current sought-after soundtrack composer, and musical satirist Randy Newman. It’s his 1972 song “Sail Away” as taken from the album of the same name, Sail Away.
Although known in more recent years mostly for his Grammy-winning soundtracks to children’s films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., Newman stands as one of America’s greatest satirists on record. And this is certainly one of the best examples of this sphere of his work; a pitch from a slaver to a potential slave.
Newman had made a name for himself primarily as a West coast Brill Building-style songwriter from the early 1960s, penning songs for acts like The Fleetwoods, The O’Jays, Cilla Black, Gene Pitney, and Harper’s Bizarre, among others. He’d also work as a sessioner with other notables including Van Dyke Parks, and Leon Russell, working with his friend and long-time collaborator Lenny Waronker.
But, later he’d branch out more as a performer in his own right, an area he’d only dabbled in during his songwriting years creating tunes for other acts. By the end of the ’60s and early ’70s, audiences were ready for a singer with a unique voice such as Newman’s. And they were ready for their pop music to contain more than one layer of meaning, too.
And that’s certainly what they got here, a tale as told by an unreliable narrator (a Newman specialty). But, in addition to the story of a wondrous land of opportunity, with a life of toil and cruelty hiding behind it, there are other layers to be found in this song besides. Read more
Listen to this track by Canadian art-rock doyens Rheostatics. It’s “Bad Time To Be Poor”, a crunchy and ragged Neil Youngian study in short-sighted economic policy on the part of the then-Conservative provincial government around the time the song, and the album off of which it comes, The Blue Hysteria, was released in 1996.
The band was made up of four guys hailing from the outlying Toronto-area, specifically the City of Etobicoke (the “k” is silent for you out-of-towners). As writers, they had always worn their cultural context on their sleeve, even if some of their music explored the gamut of the rock spectrum. Here, it turns to life in the province of Ontario, under the Mike Harris provincial government in the mid-90s.
This was not an era (1995-2002) known for support of the arts or social welfare to say the least. It was a time when policies arising out of right wing ideological stances (known in this context as the Common Sense Revolution) were beginning to run rampant internationally, even before the age of George W. Bush. This was certainly the state of affairs in Ontario, in Canada, a country known for its sturdy social safety net held, very simplistically, in opposition to American neo-conservatism.
It was clear that the safety net was wearing thin, or more to the point it was being worn thin by a government who wasn’t interested in funding it. The Rheos submitted this song to address that trend, during a time when writing about oppressive policies was a matter of course. And they even got radio play! But, where did it lead them otherwise? Read more