33 Revolutions Per Minute: a History of Protest Songs

33 Revolutions Per Minute: a History of Protest Songs
Dorian Lynskey
Faber & Faber, 843pp, £17.99

On 15 October 1969, a quarter of a million anti-war demonstrators gathered by the steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC under the banner of the Vietnam Moratorium Committee. Folk singers such as Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary entertained the crowd with leftist anthems as campaigners delivered speeches excoriating the military adventure that had already claimed the lives of 40,000 US servicemen and countless Vietnamese. For Seeger, the high point of the afternoon came when "a short phrase from a record by the Beatle John Lennon was started up . . . Soon, hundreds of thousands were singing it over and over, swaying their bodies, flags and signs from right to left in massive choreography." One activist present told Newsweek magazine: "We might not have a leader but now, at least, we have a song - and a mass movement doesn't go anywhere without a song." The four words that had united the crowd were "Give peace a chance".

In 33 Revolutions Per Minute, Dorian Lynskey pays tribute to a century of dissent through popular music. "Pop thrives on contradiction and tension," he writes. "Electricity crackles across the gap between ambition and achievement, sound and meaning." But this gap can become a dangerous crevice when ideology enters the mix. In the best protest songs, such as Sam Cooke's transcendent civil rights ballad “A Change Is Gonna Come", the political content "is not an obstacle to greatness but the source of it. It opens a door and the world outside rushes in."

In less successful works, the worthy intentions of the musician or songwriter can overwhelm the vehicle of expression. This familiar criticism can be directed at many of pop's attempts to address the world's ills, such as Culture Club's "War Song" ("War is stupid/And people are stupid") or the video for Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror", in which emotive images - from the horrors of Vietnam to the plight of whales - are collaged together in an orgy of exhibitionist concern.

Even those who composed the strongest examples of the genre were at times sceptical about their right to bridge real-world convictions and the arena of entertainment. In 1968, for instance, Mick Jagger openly expressed his doubts about rock'n'roll's effectiveness as a catalyst for revolt, even though the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" was becoming the definitive anthem of that year's civil unrest. "It's stupid to think that you can start a revolution with a record," he said. "I wish you could!"

Lynskey insists that the purpose of his book is to "treat protest songs first and foremost as pop music", yet its 800-plus pages attest to their greater power. Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, James Brown's bandleader, recalls the rapturous reception the song "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" received at its first live performance, at the Apollo Theatre in New York in 1968: "James Brown says, 'Say it loud!' and the whole audience says, 'I'm black and I'm proud!' . . . It gave me chills. That's when it hit me [that] we'd done something important that would last." Brown's slogan coincided with the rise of the Black Panther movement and the dawn of an era of militancy in the struggle against racism in America. Soon after the song's release, Look magazine asked on its front cover, below a large photograph of the singer: "Is this the most important black man in America?"

Despite the often considerable risks that speaking out posed to musicians' commercial interests, many found it impossible to remain silent. In 1965, on hearing news of the Watts riots, in which 34 people were killed after thousands of National Guardsmen poured into a predominantly black neighbourhood in Los Angeles, Marvin Gaye was overcome by the "strong urge to write music and lyrics that would touch the souls of men". What eventually emerged in 1971 was the album What's Going On. When Berry Gordy, the boss of Motown Records, refused to release it, fearing it would poison Gaye's career, the singer went on strike until desperate label executives put it out without Gordy's knowledge.

Where is this kind of commitment now? Neil Young said in 2006 that he released his anti-Bush album Living With War because: "I was hoping some young person would come along and say this . . . but I didn't see anybody." Lynskey points out that there were many protest songs on the airwaves during the first months of the Iraq war but their impact was muted by our increasingly postmodern relationship with pop: "In the atomised age of digital music, when there are fewer larger-than-life, globally recognisable pop stars of any variety, the age of the heroic activist-musician is decisively over."

Yet it is too soon to write a eulogy for a mode of songwriting that clearly has not died out, especially at a time when protest movements around the world are shaking dictators from power and filling the streets with demonstrators. The Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst's tirade against Dubbya, "When the President Talks to God", may not have had the cultural impact of, say, Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind", but Lynskey is wrong to write it off as "callow, overstated and clumsy with anger" - words that could just as easily describe Dylan's "Masters of War".

Protest music may not rule the radio playlists as it once did. To those who are listening, however, it remains a source of strength.

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