Where have all the protest songs gone?

There was a time when we didn't recoil when the music got political.

I recently got back from End of the Road festival, a fairly small, boutique-y gathering of beardy Guardian readers down in Dorset. One night in the comedy tent, something quite surprising happened.

Comedian Robin Ince welcome on to the stage Grace Petrie, a guitar-wielding 20-something. I'm generally not a fan of musical comedy, but I decided to give her a chance. Only to be told, by the singer herself, "I'm not funny". Oh how right she was. Petrie launched into a succession of painfully earnest protest songs. Although not entirely devoid of humour (one song was dedicated to a loveable old banger she used to drive), most of her material was so sickeningly worthy that I nearly choked on my falafel burger.

The thing is, I agreed with pretty much everything she was singing. She sang about the harsh sentencing of student-protester-cum-fire-extinguisher-flinger Edward Woollard, and various other left-leaning causes-célèbres. So why did her warblings leaving me so cold?

Maybe it was the lack of humour. Maybe it was the fact that I happened not to like the sound of her voice. But my overwhelming feeling is that the whole performance seemed to cling for its life to another era - one in which we didn't recoil when the music got political.

Can you remember the last time a protest album, or even a protest song, went mainstream? The 80s were full of them: The Specials' "Ghost Town", I'm sure, provided a perfect soundtrack to Thatcherite desolation. It spent three weeks at number one in the UK charts. Then Bruce Springsteen sang about the suffering of Vietnam War veterans in "Born in the USA", another chart-topper.

Even in the early Nineties, protest songs were hot. Rage Against the Machine's eponymous 1992 album positively roared at the establishment. And can anything recent really match the power of Leonard Cohen's song "Democracy", from the same year? Cohen laments the political state of America: "From the wars against disorder/from the sirens night and day/ from the fires of the homeless/ from the ashes of the gay:/ Democracy is coming to the USA."

But then songs with a social conscience faded from the airwaves. Virgin desperately tried to sell the Spice Girls' 1996 debut single, "Wannabe" as some kind of neo-feminist battle cry. It sounded hollow compared to past girl power anthems, like Lesley Gore's 1963 hit "You Don't Own Me". While Gore sang, "don't tell me what to do/ and don't tell me what to say/ and please, when I go out with you/ don't put me on display", the Spice Girls merely demanded something called a "Zigazig ha".

Of course, protest songs didn't entirely disappear during the Bush-Blair years. Neil Young, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, REM., Pink, the Beastie Boys and many others released songs opposing the west's endless warmongering. But ask someone on the street today to hum one, and all you'll hear is silence.

Over the past year, political tracks have made a comeback of sorts. Lady Gaga's number one single "Born This Way" was a strident call for the acceptance of all sexualities: "No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track baby, I was born to survive." And PJ Harvey's Mercury Prize winning album Let England Shake offers up a brutal and unromantic take on the horrors of war. The fourth track on the album, "", contains these particularly brutal lyrics: "I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat/blown and shot out beyond belief/ Arms and legs were in the trees".

So will the popularity of PJ Harvey's latest album lead to a resurgence of protest songs? Or is it she a single (although loud) voice in the void?

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution