March 7, 2011

Dorian Lynskey: 33 Revolutions Per Minute

Posted in Lynskey Dorian at 2:30 pm by John Self

This big red book is so physically daunting – heavyweight, important-looking, 864 pages top to tail – that when it arrived my prior enthusiasm for it was suddenly dwarfed by a sense of intimidation. Fortunately, its arrival coincided with our home broadband going on the blink for a weekend, so instead of tweeting and surfing in idle moments, I began to read…

33 Revolutions Per Minute is, as it subtitle states, a history of protest songs. But it is a wider, deeper and more ambitious undertaking than that implies. Each chapter is named after one song, from Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939) to Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ (2004), but in many cases, the song is a point from which to hang a larger social, political and cultural history of the times. Moreover, there is a risk that this book could be treated as one to dip into, as a reference work, which would rob it of its overall narrative force and lead the reader to miss the recurring themes and figures which populate its pages. Among its concerns is the question posed by Billy Bragg: “that incredible feeling that you get from listening to music – invigorating, empowering – is that just a transient experience or can it be focussed onto reality and actually inspire people?”

The difficulties for the modern reader in understanding protest songs which are up to 70 years old are clear. By its nature, popular music is of its time, often ephemeral, and at its strongest after the event when heard by those who knew it at the time, and are transported back into memory. It is easy to dismiss any song from decades ago as dated, when that is the nature of an ever-renewing form. So Lynskey’s valuable achievement is to return today’s reader to the times and context of the songs, so that we can hear them anew. (He argues, anyway, that in many cases “the political content is not an obstacle to greatness, but the source of it. [...] The essential, inevitable difficulty of contorting a serious message to meet the demands of entertainment is the grit that makes the pearl.”) In the case of Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ – which described the bodies of lynched black men hanging from a tree – it is easy for us to condemn or dismiss those who walked out when it was performed, or those who objected to Bob Dylan’s ‘new direction’ in 1965 (in the chapter on his ‘Masters of War’). But these are, as Lynskey points out, “illusion[s] born of hindsight,” an attempt to transplant our own self-perceived sophistication out of time. Among the risks of protest songs are widespread misinterpretation (as in Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’) or dismissal, either where the sentiment outweighs the artistry (“Any song should earn its audience with more than goodwill”), or where those closest to the subject matter have had enough of it (“Who the hell wants to hear something that reminds them of a lynching?”).

The issues in the early chapters are familiar enough: race (‘Strange Fruit’, Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’, James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’), poverty (Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’), war (Plastic Ono Band’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’, Edwin Starr’s ‘War’). But the book presents well-known histories – Vietnam, civil rights, the Depression – in a fresh way because of its unique cultural engagement. Although it is largely restricted to US and British music and history, Lynskey does venture to Chile, Nigeria and Jamaica; and even if this is only to justify fully the observation in the prologue that “in the worst cases, singers have been censored, arrested, beaten or even killed for their messages,” it nonetheless provides colour and variety (not to mention concise accounts, illuminating to this reader at least, of Pinochet’s overthrowing of Allende, and of the Biafran war).

In comparison with these big subjects, inevitably in some later chapters the protests seem less urgent: what empathy now for the Riot Grrrls (in the chapter on Huggy Bear’s ‘Her Jazz’)? The chapter on ‘Their Law’ by Pop Will Eat Itself featuring The Prodigy shows music becoming a protest for its own existence, as the dance and rave culture of the late 80s and early 90s was repressed by the government. This was an era, as Lynskey points out, when the spirit of the summer of love of 1969 was replicated without the troublesome things like Vietnam. The decline of political engagement in this period may have been caused, in the US, by the “lack of a common enemy to feed off” as Clinton became president, but in the UK such apathy was bemoaned by some pop stars such as Guy Garvey from Elbow (“It’s not cool to express your opinion or challenge authority any more”), though not by others, like Liam Gallagher (“Nobody’s gonna listen to knobhead out of Blur … No one even listens to Bono”). Still, few sank so low into self-absorption as Sammy Hagar’s ‘I Can’t Drive 55′, a song about frustrating highway speed limits: a protest from the privileged.

This is a book about pop music – “junk culture” in the words of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe – and despite its deft summaries of sociopolitical history, it’s the personalities which shine brightest and the rich details which keep the pages turning. Who of my generation knew, for example, of Eric Clapton’s approach to race relations in the febrile 1970s (Enoch Powell was “the only bloke who was telling the truth”), or heard a more perfect description than this of Woody Guthrie? “[His] wasn’t a very good voice, but it commanded attention: listening to him sing was bitter but exhilarating, like biting into a lemon.” Anecdotes aside, there are some powerful narratives here, which stand as exemplary essays on their subjects, not least the birth of punk in the chapter on The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ (which gives plenty of space to the Sex Pistols too), and a haunting and moving chapter on Manic Street Preachers and the achievements and agonies of Richey Edwards. Lynskey also exhibits an impressive literary knowledge (in a passing sentence, he sums up Ballard’s High-Rise rather better than I did) and a sly wit, unafraid to poke at his subjects’ more risible pretensions.

33 Revolutions Per Minute is a history of the ongoing rebellion against governments who take their citizens for granted, and of how the noise of resistance invariably filters up from the young and the sidelined, pop’s greatest constituents. It covers, to name a few not mentioned already, McCarthyism, the Cold War, Thatcherism, post-9/11 politics, and the political opposition between Stewart Copeland and Sting in The Police (“Not a single inch of shared ground”). Part of me would have liked a glorious multimedia version of the book – what price the rights for all these songs in an iPad version? – but that could detract from the strength of the writing. The book’s achievement is not only to make me want to listen to the songs, but to experience more widely the people behind the music (note to self: get hold of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory). The golden age of the protest song may be past, but the words of Pete Seeger more than half a century ago ring as true now as they ever did.

We need thousands of new songs these days: humor, to poke fun at some of the damn foolishness going on in the world; songs of love and faith in mankind and the future; songs to needle our consciences and stir our indignation and anger.

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11 Comments »

  1. Philip said,

    Another review that presses the ‘buy’ button, for which, thanks, although, the book being so substantial, it might have to wait until the summer or until an internet outage in my own corner of the world. Meanwhile, the nature of the book and your thoughts about audio accompaniment reminded me of an excellent book published by Norton in the US a few years ago: The Rose and the Briar, edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus. It’s a collection of essays on/responses to the American ballad and came – in its original incarnation – packaged with a CD of all the songs. Obviously CDs are passe now, but perhaps the spirit might be something for Faber & Faber to follow… (having said all that – and having just looked – Dorian Lynskey has posted a playlist on Spotify: spotify:user:dorianlynskey:playlist:5rASlUa3pdd9nHYicIpk0r)

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks Philip – I will have to look at that playlist when I get home (where I have Spotify on my computer). Faber have been in the vanguard of iPad and iPhone publishing, with their Qi and Solar System titles, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t do something very interesting with this book. In fact, like Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party, it’s one of the few books I’d like to have in an ebook edition, for easy future reference without the physical heft. (That, incidentally, is your main issue when you do get around to it: I ended up flying through it once I’d started, getting through it in just under a week.)

    As I’ve just commented to someone on Twitter, I would have liked more photographs and images in the book (there is one image to open each chapter, but that’s it). Of course that would just have made it 964 pages long. Otherwise for all my enthusiasm above, I fear I haven’t done the book justice in all its rich variety and level-headed analysis. But I was already well over my self-appointed limit of 1,000 words.

  3. trish nicholson said,

    Fascinating post. I read your article re Billie Holiday in the Weekly Guardian last night, ( such an eloquent piece of writing it almost distracted me from the subject matter!) and it struck me that much of your analysis applies also to the ‘protest story’. You’re right we need for songs, more short stories and we need desperately to pay more attention.

  4. trish nicholson said,

    Correction: it was of course Dorian Lenskeys article in the Guardian I was referring to. My apologies. It is still early morning here!

  5. Lee Monks said,

    Sounds great. The cover looks like a ‘The Professionals’ annual to boot. Although I might protest about the length.

  6. John Self said,

    I should say, Lee, that the text of the book is 680 pages, and the other 180 are notes, appendices, index etc (it does seem very well researched).

  7. Lee Monks said,

    A mere 680? No problem – it does sound interesting.

  8. Too long for me sadly at the moment, but it does sound very good. Given I haven’t read The Rest is Noise yet though I can’t justify this.

    That description of Guthrie could hold for Bragg too, who of course has recorded two excellent albums of Guthrie covers with Wilco.

    Nice reminder of the Ballard. The longer since I read him the more I love his work. I should read him again and see if the reverse applies.

  9. [...] John Self’s Asylum [...]

  10. [...] John Self of Asylum mentions a non-fiction book that look really interesting. My grandmother collected murder ballads and even wrote a book called American Murder Ballads and their Stories, and my parents raised me (in the 1960′s) on folk music so reading about Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute: The History of Protest Songs brought back memories of the student protests against the Viet Nam War in Santa Barbara where we lived. Lynskey book covers far more than the ’60′s and looks really interesting. This might be a good Christmas present for someone out there. [...]

  11. [...] music.  And so, for next week’s agenda, we’re going to be talking protest songs.  This review talks about the latest history of protest songs, which includes Green Day’s “American Idiot.”  That is probably going to be the [...]


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