By Andre Mayer
Protest. The manifestation of political dissent. A democratic right and necessary action to reach legislative compromise. A noble pursuit that usually ends in despondency and heavy bruising. Music. A manifestation of passion. A democratic right and necessary action to exorcise stifled anger. A noble and cathartic pursuit that often ends in emotional (and possibly physical) satisfaction.
As we all know, music and politics have been companions since humans first began voicing their discontent. It wasn’t long before we realized that a catchy chant made activism more succinct and effective. Ever since, song has been employed a symbol of solidarity, a tool to bring protest to a fever pitch.
The 1960s comprised the most protracted period of social discord this century, a fact reflected in the music of folk singers like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez, who lamented, among other things, a war in Vietnam and the marginalization of those who didn’t fit society’s oppressive mold. Words became weapons, meted out with the bittersweet strum of an acoustic guitar. When Dylan went “electric” in ‘66 (with future members of The Band), it was the first time the music matched the fire and brimstone of the lyrics – Dylan’s combination of martial tone and Marshall stacks gave revolutionary music its visceral nature. Sadly, fans and critics alike considered Dylan’s experiment to be heresy.
The folk tradition, slightly reconditioned, remains vibrant today with politically minded songwriters like Billy Bragg, Ben Harper and Ani DiFranco, the mercurial Buffalo native whose bracing feminine perspective and unrelenting self-sufficiency-she runs her own label, Righteous Babe – are thoroughly modern.
If the history of folk teaches us anything, it is not to underestimate the power of its message – for every impotent observation like “the times they are a-changin’” there’s a more militant outburst like “If I had a rocket launcher/That son-of-a-bitch would die,” (Bruce Cockburn) as incendiary a lyric as has ever been uttered.
Few albums in the history of modern music were as explosive as 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols. A Gale-force wind in the face of English propriety, the advent of the Sex Pistols was the apocalypse your mother had long foreseen.
Sadly, the problem with Johnny Rotten’s vitriol was that his aggression was too reactionary and facile to be constructive – “God save the Queen and her fascist regime” was a pithy adage, but could only be taken at face value; that the band lacked in the talent department and was ultimately a triumph of marketing also mars their import. The clash were more cogent – though less unwieldy – bunch, but were dwarfed when compared to the gang of Four, four art-school grads from Leeds whose 1979 smartbomb Entertainment! remains one of rock’s most startling debuts. Named after the counter-revolutionaries of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Gof4 would have surely collapsed under the weight of their own neo Marxist polemics were it not for their brilliant songcraft, which brought an angularity to punk that all but superseded the genre.
Across the pond, the most provocative band at the onset of the 1980s was San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys, led by Jello Biafra (nee Eric Boucher), whose helium voice and apocalyptic worldview gave punk a circus flair. Berating the hedonism and racism of U.S. society, Biafra’s misanthropy took aim at various American politicos. (A curious aside: In 1978 Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco, garnering 10 percent of the vote; the result prompted the city to enact a clause that would henceforth restrict mayoral candidates from running under a pseudonym.) With songs like “California Uber Alles,” “Holiday in Cambodia” and NaziPunksFuckOff,” Biafra raised the ire of PC thugs like Tipper Gore, but all his proselytizing has made Biafra a largely humorless man. Slightly less serious is San Fernando Valley, California’s Bad Religion, whose vein-popping agitprop has in recent years become rather dull. More subtly political were Boston’s Mission of Burma who, besides being musically on par with the Gang of Four, were far more sly in integrating a political agenda.
Black Flag, Henry Rollins’ alma mater, wasn’t nearly as politically charged as the aforementioned, but as as a group of disenfranchised proletarians, they were plenty talented at looking the part. Similarly, perpetual malcontent Steve Albini made some exceptionally confrontational music with Big Black – focusing mainly on the virtues of independent music, Albini spent most of his time excoriating large (music) corporations. The same attitude enlivens WAshington, D.C.’s Fugazi – no other band has embraced the DIY ethic more proactively and protected it more fervidly. Led by the inimitable Ian MacKaye, the band vigorously defends indie-rock principles (MacKaye owns and runs Dischord Records) so they can regulate the price of records and concert tickets. Furthermore, Fugazi shuns drugs, booze, and casual sex – habits they perceive to be the crutches of modern society.
And a passing note on That Band From Seattle: The tumult Nirvana and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” evinced shouldn’t be seen as anything more than an early ‘90s warning flare to adults of the growing nihilism amongst teenagers. Subsequently, the nature of Kurt Cobain’s exit in 1994 should lay to rest any debate about his dedication to the revolution.
The self-titled debut of New York’s Last Poets in 1970 is one of the most important documents in the history of the Black Power movement. Espousing the black nationalism of Malcolm X to not only castigate the oppressor (“White Man’s Got a God Complex”) but also to light a fire under apathetic African-Americans (“Niggers are Scared of Revolution), the Last Poets’ daredevil rapping style and use of African rhythms forged the blueprint for modern-day hip-hop. The more halcyonic Bob Marley, one of reggae’s best-loved dissidents, spent his life addressing the plight of the poor and oppressed in song.
Another considerable achievement was Living Colour’s debut, Vivid. Taking on a largely “white” musical genre-hard rock-bandleader/guitarist Vernon Reid combined a predilection for metal with incisive political commentary. Reid also co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, which sponsors like-minded artists.
KRS-One’s first album, 1987’s Criminal Minded, heralded the arrival of a potent lyrical muckraker, but the real triumph of the decade was Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to hold Us Back, A monumental recording that galvanized not only the record-buying public but also sent shockwaves through the hip-hop community. The combination of Chuck D.’s adversarial lyrics and Flavor Flav’s jester-routine made PE at once threatening and marketable. With chants like “Teach the Bourgeois, rock the boulevard,” Public Enemy quickly rap’s conscience. The disposable heroes of Hiphoprisy’s 1992 album Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury is one of the most assured political rap albums in recent memory – Michael Franti (previously with Beatnigs) takes clever shots at political duplicity and, in “Television, the Drug of the Nation,” the tyranny of mass media.
A Call for Action
The anthropology of rebel music has produced a crop of dissidents more prone to action now than ever before; certainly, the language is stiffer. Industrial techno outfit Consolidated, one of the most extreme groups, take an unequivocal stance on racism, sexism, abortion and a host of other issues; unfortunately their didacticism often makes for an arduous listen. Rage Against the Machine, currently the most high-profile political rock band, certainly make good on their word: the band once played a show in Philadelphia in the nude to protest censorship; and Tom Morello, the band’s guitarist, was recently arrested outside a guess store in the U.S. for protesting the company’s continued use of slave labour.
Probably the most radical group playing today is Germany’s Atari Teenage Riot, whose raison d’etre is fighting fascism, in song (“Deutschland (Has Gotta Die),” “Hunt Down the Nazis”) and on the streets, taking revolutionary music to its logical, if drastic, end. In an interview with U.S. indie-rock magazine Puncture, ATR leader Alec Empire said, “when people get together and start destroying things that cost the state money, that is part of the destruction of the system. Optimistic people, who think they can change little things in the system, they are mute now: it isn’t happening.”