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.