A line in Edwyn Collins’s biggest hit, “A Girl Like You”, sums up our current predicament: “Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs”.
The prospect of war usually brings out the best and worst in pop musicians, some rising to the challenge, others resorting to platitudes, or worse, political opt-out. The threatened attack on Iraq is shaping up to be the new Vietnam, except without, as yet, the songbook.
The strife-torn Sixties proved to be the golden age of protest music. They produced a clutch of enduring anthems (Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, Barry Maguire’s “Eve of Destruction”, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”) and refreshed some old ones, such as “We Shall Overcome”, whose origins date back to the American civil war.
Then things went quiet, until Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher stirred up musical dissent once more in the Eighties and Red Wedge had its day. Since then, pop music has responded to issues such as famine (“Do They Know It’s Christmas”, “We Are the World”), apartheid (“Sun City”, “Free Nelson Mandela”) and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise (“Let It Be” by Ferry Aid). Homelessness even inspired Phil Collins to write the bland redress “Another Day In Paradise”. But politically, these issues are cold potatoes; nobody is going to lose record sales by speaking out against hunger. The prospect of war with Iraq is, for some, more complicated, and even though it has united such disparate figures as Blur’s Damon Albarn, the Mercury Prize- winning rapper Ms Dynamite, Madonna and Sir Elton John in broad-brushstroke pacifism, the theme tune is still conspicuous by its absence.
Madonna may have donned khaki fatigues for the as-yet-unseen video for her next single, “American Life”, but it’s not out until April, by which time the bombs may already be flying.
Damon Albarn, who has transformed himself in the run-up to conflict from a lampooned musical dilettante into an erudite and committed anti-war campaigner, hints that Blur’s forthcoming seventh studio album may be political. An anonymous, white-label taster was entitled Don’t Bomb When You Are the Bomb, and he told VH1 that the album conceals “very direct references to my fears and loathings”.
Albarn is usually pictured in protest alongside Robert “3D” Del Naja of the Bristol trip-hop collective Massive Attack – a band which, ironically, trimmed its name to Massive during the first Gulf war to maintain airplay on sensitive radio stations. Not this time, I suspect.
As twin pop figureheads of CND’s Stop the War Coalition, Albarn and Del Naja have taken out their own ads in the NME and lobbied Downing Street. Logging on to Massive Attack’s official website takes you automatically to CND’s – a selfless act when the band has a brand new album to promote. The coalition also produced an album, Peace Not War, in December, that includes tracks by Billy Bragg, Asian Dub Foundation, Chumbawamba, Public Enemy, Ms Dynamite and a rap by The Unpeople that – oh yes! – samples John Pilger.
Sir Elton John joined myriad luvvy signatories corralled by Richard Rogers, including the musicians Jarvis Cocker, Dave Stewart and Sting. Alice Mahon MP’s No War on Iraq Liaison Group petition boasted Craig David, Annie Lennox and, admirably enough, Phil Collins.
Signatures are all very well, but where, you might ask, is the righteous anger? Where is the spark that inspired the folk group the Almanac Singers to play anti-Roosevelt songs to 20,000 striking transport workers at Madison Square Garden in 1940; or Bob Dylan to sing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” in memory of Medgar Evers, shot by the Ku Klux Klan at a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1963?
It was Morrissey who wrote, “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar/Then it meant that you were a protest singer”. Billy Bragg, the accepted heir of Dylan and Woody Guthrie, lives up to the Morrissey stereotype. He made the charts at the height of Golden Jubilee fervour last summer with a republican protest song, “Take Down the Union Jack”. Bragg’s newest anti-war anthem, “The Price of Oil”, is available free to download from his website (www.billybragg.co.uk).
“I bashed out a new song for the Stop the War CD rather than relying on one of my old ones,” he says. “And as a result it reads like a newspaper article. Its topicality, mentioning Saddam by name, will doubtless mitigate against its durability, but there you go.”
For durability, try John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”, written more than 30 years ago during a “bed-in” in Montreal and still sung at marches today. Nobody remembers the daft verses (“Tommy Cooper, Derek Taylor, Norman Mailer”), but the chorus is as powerful as it was in 1969, when half a million protesters sang it outside Nixon’s White House.
Despite all the newly recruited protest singers, it seems the song remains the same.
Andrew Collins is a former editor of Q magazine. His book Where Did It All Go Right? is published by Ebury Press (see Books, page 54)