Where Are All the Protest Songs? - Articles - Soundblab

Where Are All the Protest Songs?

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

At the start of this year, Emily Allen wondered if 2011 would herald the return of angry pop music. That is, music which is both anti-establishment and popular: think of The Specials' 'Ghost Town', The Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen' or Dylan's 'The Times They are A-Changin''. After all, with Britain's streets frequently erupting into protests and riots, three unpopular wars on the go and a recession in full swing, if people ever needed music to give voice to their troubles and frustrations, now is the time. However, unless you count Rage Against the Machine getting to number one off the back of an anti-X Factor campaign, howls of rage and defiance have been conspicuous by their absence from the UK charts over the last couple of years, So where are all the protest songs?

For that matter, where are the protest singers? Perhaps it's a generational thing. The early-to-mid 80s seems to have seen the last surge in popular protest music, and many artists from that era still understand the value of the protest song. As ex-Housemartins and Beautiful South singer Paul Heaton says: "I have plenty of rants left in me! Books and books of the stuff since 1975 when I started. I'm most proud of

' and 'Everything is Everything'. The former because of its uncompromising stance on those two liberal smokescreens - U2 and Amnesty International. The latter because it's saying 'fuck off' to many things that have slipped under the radar, seemingly unnoticed."

Protest is etched into the very bones of 20th century music. Through jazz, rock 'n' roll, folk, funk, punk and hip hop, successive generations of young rebels used music their parents didn't understand to stick two fingers up at the man. However, most of the time that sense of insurrection was manifested in how bands looked and sounded rather than what they actually said. Iggy Pop, Jonny Rotten, Ice Cube and Kurt Cobain might have terrified the establishment but, perfectly executed outsider chic poses aside, they didn't do much to tear the motherfucking walls down.

Perhaps that is why so much cultural capital has been placed on the protest song. Protest songs stand proud as moments when our idols took up arms to fight for a common cause. The anti-war movement of the 60s gained credibility when rock stars such as Mick Jagger joined protesters and, while they scorned him in public, black power leaders met with James Brown to try to convince him to endorse their rhetoric. Protest music, of course, also links us back to a tradition far older than pop. Protest songs were first documented in the UK in the 13th century and became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the sheet paper they were printed on became known as 'broadsides'. Protest songs really came into their own in the early 20th century, as technological advances meant music began to play an ever more central part in ordinary people's lives at the same time as they became more politically educated.

While it's true that no protest song changed the world on its own, it's a fair bet that, say, Dylan's 'Blowin' in the Wind' and Plastic Ono Band's 'Give Peace a Chance' will live in people's minds for many generations yet. Here, Soundblab presents its guide to some of the greatest, but less well known protest songs, including one or two you may not have viewed in such a light before. We'd love to know what your favourites are.

Nina Simone - Strange Fruit

Yes, Billy Holiday's version deserves all the praise it gets. It reinvented what the protest song could be at the same time as breaking the rules on what a popular song could say. However, with more than 70 years between it and us, it can be hard to work out exactly why this mannered and fuzzy recording galvanized such an international reaction. Simone's version, released in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement, stripped the song back to just her voice and a piano, but that was all she needed. The entire song is a sucker punch to the gut. Her voice is bitter, flinty, slurred. The sparse piano is like ice in your veins. Yet it possesses a seductive beauty, luring us in before forcing us to confront the most gruesome scene imaginable. Towards the end, Simone unleashes hell upon us before collapsing into numbed defeat, again using nothing more than her voice. Before her recording, 'Strange Fruit' had fallen out of favour with a civil rights campaign which tried to look towards a bright future. Simone's reading of the song brought the bloody past screaming to the present. More than 40 years later, it still does the job.

The Last Poets - Wake Up, Niggers

As the civil rights movement became mired in disillusionment and violence, a newly strident voice emerged, calling not for peace but for Black Power. This hard-line, gun-toting stance was embodied by the Black Panthers. In music, it found its expression in the works of The Last Poets. One of the earliest and most politically potent influences on hip hop, The Last Poets emerged from a Harlem writers' workshop and were genuine insurrectionists, so much so that the Nixon administration felt the need to keep tabs on them. The establishment was right to be worried - the group's self-titled debut broke the US top ten on word of mouth alone, a feat all the more staggering when you consider the uncompromising stance of tracks like 'Wake Up, Niggers'. The N-word had yet to be reclaimed by black people, and here it is definitely not being used in a fraternal sense. The rap takes a lyrical knife to black men who are holding back the black power revolution, scorning "cool fools", layabouts, junkies and "niggers anonymous". What it has to say may not be pretty, or even particularly palatable, but it's sheer ferocity - thanks to nothing more than vocals and percussion - makes it one of the most thrilling statements ever committed to vinyl.

Junior Murvin - Police and Thieves

Famously covered by The Clash, this Lee 'Scratch' Perry produced song pleads for a peaceful life free from clashes between cops and robbers. The Clash gained cred from covering it, but their macho aggression completely destroyed the original's beautiful sigh of resignation. Faced with violence and oppression, Murvin responds with grace and something close to serenity, making his message all the more powerful.

The Smiths - The Queen is Dead

On this, the lacerating opening track of The Smiths' 1986 masterpiece of the same name, the regicidal revolution of Morrissey's fantasies is forever deferred as the song's narrator skids down ever stranger, bleaker side-streets, losing himself in Carry On style humour, surreal flights of fancy and aspersions cast on the relationship between Liz and her princely progeny. And yet, somehow it all hangs together, feeling not just complete but almost revelatory as Moz takes on first the Monarchy, then the church, then UK drinking culture, finally hitting on the only truth he can rely on: "Life is very long when you're lonely." That 'The Queen is Dead' hits so powerfully is surely due to Johnny Marr's never-bettered production. From the high-pitched whine which echoes through the entire song to Marr's frenzied-yet-lucid axe thrashing, the music perfectly mirrors Morrissey's fragmented lyric, transforming the whole affair into a whirling ball of energy, constantly about to spin out of control. The sound of underclass desperation, played out in front of the bedroom mirror with a hair brush for a microphone. Here they are tearing it up live and proving exactly why they were the greatest rock 'n' roll band of the 80s. How many of you had this playing in your heads as you watched Wills and Kate walk down the aisle?

Huggy Bear - Her Jazz

Riot Grrrl's legacy may be as open to dispute as the phrase 'third wave feminism', but there's no arguing with the sheer thwack of this punky, bratty blast. Huggy Bear headed up the UK wing of riot grrrl and, as such, bore the full brunt of the confusion, over-kill hype and barely concealed misogyny the scene induced in the mainstream media. Everything reached a head when they performed 'Her Jazz' live on The Word, a 'post-pub' youth show which prided itself on appealing to the basest instincts of its target demographic. Following an incendiary performance (watch it below), the band and their fans heckled professional Manc twat Terry Christian over a report on a pair of US models who styled themselves as 'The Barbi Twins'. Things escalated, leading to Huggy Bear and co's ejecteding from the studio. 'Her Jazz's key lyric - "This is happening without your permission" - never sounded so apt.

Tricky feat PJ Harvey - Broken Homes

"Those men will break your bones/ Don't know how to build stable homes". Here, we're taken on a twilight tour of the parts of the city you prefer to kid yourself don't exist. We witness suffering, poverty, communities breaking apart, but also defiance, belligerence, burning hatred flickering down to nothing more than a numb, reptilian desire to survive at all costs. Like Morrissey on 'The Queen is Dead', Tricky would rain bloody hell upon those who oppress him if only he could get it together. Who's to blame? The rich elite, politicians who only care when the cameras are on ("murder is media"), errant fathers, eternal man-child sons... Tricky's list is endless. This song is full of creeping horror, and yet Harvey's fallen angel voice and the choir's exaltations at the end make it feel strangely affirming.

DJ Vadim feat Sarah Jones - Your Revolution

Here, performance poet Jones takes Gil Scoot-Heron's eternally potent 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' and uses it as inspiration for a deconstruction of black male machismo which is as playful as it is eviscerating. Weaving like a boxer through her rhymes, Jones nimbly takes down dur-brained hip hop posturing a la 50 Cent, wild over-estimations of black male sexual potency which only play into racist stereotyping, and the black beauty industry which encourages women to damage their hair to look a little whiter. Nothing escapes her wit. Add to this DJ Vadim's lazy funk backing which is - there's no other way to put it - sexy as hell and, frankly, any revolution other than Sarah Jones' doesn't stand a chance.

Jarvis Cocker - Running the World

As hilarious as it is brutal, as sad as it is sing-a-long anthemic, this song just seems truer every year.

Frank Tuner - Thatcher Fucked the Kids

One man, one guitar, one scorching message - that's what folk is all about right? This song makes plain the utter hypocrisy in David Cameron's 'compassionate Conservative' bullshit.

Paul Heaton - Everything is Everything

Let's return to Mr Heaton for the final word, a scathing analysis of the sterilised, blanded out culture of the 21st century. Best line: "Feminism's fast asleep with a cock in either hand."

Add 'Everything to Everything' to 'Thatcher Fucked the Kids' and you've probably got to the core of why no one born after 1980 seems able to write a decent protest song. Or is Soundblab wrong? We'd love to be put bang to rights on this one. Which protest songs have we missed?

Comments (10)

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Great article.

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all pretty cool paul heaton stands head and shoulders above everyone as usual...........check out my song i,ll dance on your grave mrs thatcher on u tube or http://www.john-mccullagh.com

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Hi John, thanks for the link. Great to see protest music is alive and well somewhere.

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Just listened to yr song John, nice one. Got me thinking that there's some decent songs about Thatcher: 'Margaret On The Guillotine' on Morrisseys' Viva Hate album and the chirpy Hefner tune 'The Day That Thatcher Dies'! Great article too Rich!...

Just listened to yr song John, nice one. Got me thinking that there's some decent songs about Thatcher: 'Margaret On The Guillotine' on Morrisseys' Viva Hate album and the chirpy Hefner tune 'The Day That Thatcher Dies'! Great article too Rich! As for other protest songs, David Peel did a cracking tune called 'Mother, Where Is My Father?, a good anti war tune (as well as tonnes of slightly silly songs about smoking weed), Julian Cope covered it too! His own 'All the Blowing Themselves Up Motherfuckers (Will Realise the Minute they Die that they Were Suckers) is worth a listen too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUuJxk-ZoKs

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Hey Andy, love the Cope song! 'Margaret On The Guillotine' nearly made the list but I felt 'The Queen is Dead' a more ambiguous and thus more interesting to write about.

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I agree the Clash version of Police and Thieves smells like spilled Skol and fag-ends and white middle-class guilt. Gross. Talking Last Poets I love this one: http://vimeo.com/2460301

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LOL. Yeah, love that one too. Prob my favourite of theirs.

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Here's a link to stuff by an artist called Fold whose making politcal, grassroots music: http://soundcloud.com/fold

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Oh dear. Just read an article on the Guardian about Frank Turner's politics. It's not good and makes it very confusing why he wrote the song above.

Here are the quotes his given compiled by the Guardian:

On the difference between left and...

Oh dear. Just read an article on the Guardian about Frank Turner's politics. It's not good and makes it very confusing why he wrote the song above.

Here are the quotes his given compiled by the Guardian:

On the difference between left and right

"To start with, most people don't seem to understand what the difference between left and right is. For example, the BNP are a hard left party. I consider myself a libertarian, I consider myself to be pretty right wing and I get shit for saying that out loud. I was thinking about it the other day, I was thinking about how, quite often, I do keep myself to myself on the subject because I can't be fucking bothered to have some guy look all shocked at me because I think socialism's retarded." (moonandbackmusic.com, December 2009)
On the effects of leftwing governments

"I do firmly believe that leftist politics lead to the misery of many, the crushing of the little guy and all that kind of thing. I mean, it's important for me to say that in public because I believe it strongly and that sometimes in life you've got to fucking put your foot down." (Source as above)
On the European Union

"I think, arguably, particularly with the signing of the Lisbon treaty it's actually the end of about 800 years of continuous parliamentary history. I think the people responsible for the signing of that fucking treaty without asking the people of Britain need to burn in fucking hell." (Source as above)
On state subsidies

"Delving into political philosophy here, but I get very frustrated with people who publicly have issues with private companies and then have no problem at all with the state funding stuff. The bottom line is the British Film Council gets its money out of threat of violence towards citizens, which is why it's infinitely worse than money that comes from some fizzy drink. At the end of the day, I don't actually give a shit, but if you made me choose between those two methods I think that state funding is much more of a greater evil on society. Those are my politics … I've got no problem with using taxes to pay for essential things like defence or the basics of a healthcare system. But whether or not we're threatened with the removal of our liberty to pay for someone to make a film, I personally struggle with." (huckmagazine.com, March 2011)
On the role of government (including, naturally, social services and health and safety)

"What I think we should do instead is concentrate on ways of minimising the impact on ordinary people's lives and allow them to get on with their lives and not be bothered by the state. Then you've suddenly got a range of things to talk about that are achievable. Like everything from not having ID cards and trying to dismantle the surveillance system we've put together in this country on the one hand, trying to remove government from peoples lives, social services. Letting people be freer, health and safety, whatever it might be." (Every Single Revolution, June 2011)

Does that all sound a bit... Thatcherite?

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