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.

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage