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The book is so bulky with its 843 pages that it almost needs a lectern. Is it worth the weight? I had a week in bed after a hospital operation and I still found it difficult to get through it, as well as hold it. What it does achieve is to talk a lot about the context within which political musics happened and in that it does achieve a magesterial sweep of history within a particular geography. And what I thought might bore me with banalities in dealing with the obvious candidates, the biggest hitters, the overplayed anthems, actually works because you don’t have to hear anything and yet many of the tunes mentioned are probably in the back of your head. And he can write well enough.

On the other hand such a sweep by a young writer must inevitably mean that the selection of a path through the thickets of the history the English speaking Northern hemisphere is both gauche and somewhat random (inevitabley bumped in directions by his own deep history or subject position which is nowhere evident.). There’s just enough nice quotes to keep the reading running down a slope – Allen Ginsburg: “National politics was theatre on a vast scale, with scripts, timing, sound systems. Whose theatre would attract the most customers, whose was a theatre of ideas that could be gotten across?” p. 122

But apart from that there is little in the way of cultural or political theory to help us to think more clearly about what was going on. No position taken, bar a vaguely leftfield journalist who can be sage with the benefit of hindsight. (e.g on artists following Mao in the light of what we know now about the Cultural Revolution)

He seems to think ‘free everything’ is an absurd demand and yet it was a realistic political demand to the unmentioned SF Diggers and a broad hippie programme with roots in the political theory of anarchy – which is so central to so much of this counter cutulural era that the first 271 pages are centered on.

Class. Although there are some nice class anecdotes (p.131) it was class antagonisms as much as race, wich he deals with in some detail, that was the generator of much artistic rebellion. The complexities of being withdrawn from your class by the exigencies and alienation of becoming a pop star, or as with Huey Newton being wined, dined and seduced by the glamourous elite do not seem to be appreciated. Generally it seems to lack an understanding of any class analysis of culture, His treatment of Lennon is unsympathetic about his inner turbulence. Whilst he is better at gently deflating James Brown’s undoubted ego. The same is true with ideas about oppression.

Still there is lots of interesting stuff for someone like me who does not read music books as a rule, like Motown being run like the Ford production factory at Detroit. Like the idea that ‘Ball of Confusion’ was written by Motown’s hack/genius Norman Whitfield who seemed only motivated by commercial criteria. p.194

A lot of it also hit on or paralleled my own life. Country Joe and the Fish and ‘Fixin to Die Rag’ was one of my own protest song favs in the late Sixties and I’d hadn’t realised how big it was in the States.

There are the odd insights that are like gems that can get lost in the pure mass of words: Quoting Georgia activist Vernon Jordan on p. 57 “The people were cold with fear, until music did what prayers and speeches could not do in breaking the ice.” This really gets to the heart of what is crucial about music, and in particular singings, role in liberatory politics. What were limits to singing as a way to deal with the fears of oppression? The above quote refers to singing together, rather than the more  isolated activity of writing an recording and even performing on a big stage. Too often people turned to drugs do deal with or suppress these feelings with disastrous effects. The book alludes to but cannot digress to explain, the ways that drugs fucked up radical energies and focus.

Another insightful quote that could have done with more follow through is on the idea of what is necessary for a moment of creative condensation to come about: Quoting Neil Young’s writing of the song Ohio (1970):

Things like that don’t happen every day, so you gotta have an artist at a point in his or her life where the artist is vulnerable, open and feels completely what has happened so they can put it into words or some kind of expression. All those things gotta come together.” p. 221

The underlying instinct of the book is commercial and the relating the idea or fact that high sales, and hits is where its at for historical significance. This is a simplistic notion of how cultural influence works and how culture effects politics but it obviously works in terms of the books saleability in that readers will likely, as I have said, to have heard of many of the songs referred to. The selection is also largely US based (in the first half at least) whilst Lynskey is a UK journalist – is this is because a the US book market is much larger – I think so. The second part of the book is more UK orientated for those with great reading stamina. A middle section 4 tries to awkardly readjust this western centric view by doing a section which flies through Chile, Nigeria and Jamaica. I’m glad a perservered with this because the part on Victor Jara the revolutionary singer for Allende contains Jara’s rough and ready critique of the US protest music. And it is refreshing to have some analysis even if it is borrowed. The segues is via Och’s trip to Chile.

Jara is reported as thinking his American (sic) counterparts were at best pampered and trivial and at worse manipulated to sinister ends by two means: First the insidious effect of commercialisation and second the elitism of the star system. These effects ‘neutralise the inate spirit of rebellion of young people’. Jara prefers the term revolutionary song and soon after meeting Ochs dies with many others in Pinochet’s coup p.278.

The journalistic style is easy to read but this is a book – how about a bit more of your thinking Dorian? This age if full to the brim with information and what we need more of is good thinking.

The stuff on punk has been covered in so many ways… and 340 pages in, it brought the boredom I had feared. The Linton Kwesi Johnson piece that followed was more useful, as although I lived in and near Brixton through the period I’d never read an article about him so, I guess you can pick and choose in a book this rambling. Almost a reference work with sections in roughly chronological order with often arbitrary linkages and shifts of location. I think this sort of book would be enhanced in an electronic format so images and sounds bites could be conjured up at will. This book falls between an encyclopeadia, a genre that is probably now extinct, and a set of more focused articles that have been strung together without an arguement to drive them. A world history of Protest Music is probably an impossible object. There can only be a history within a geography and time limit or strict criteria like ‘protest hits’. And it is the criteria of commercial ‘success’ that haunts most of this account.

One of the ways I enjoyed this book, in spite of it taking more than a week of my life, was when it echoed with my current activities. I was preparing a performance of John Cage’s ‘Song Books’ and one of the singers that vounteered her services was an ex-singer in Crass. I’d also completely missed out on Crass and so was happy to have this gap in my knowledge filled in on this band whose success was not the on the usual commerical model. Also the chapter ended with the best quote so far was from Penny Rimbaud writer and instigator with Crass, who the author seems to have interviewed himself:

“…That was the viciousness of Thatcher. It wasn’t that she thought coal was a bad idea – she thought working class culture was a bad idea.” p.450

Another project I’m involved in at the moment is a big effort to to activate the archive of a massive open collective I was part of: Brixton Art Gallery 1983-86. Jerry Dammers had just DJ’d for the launch of the project in the Brixton Arcade and Linton Kwesi Johnston was also part of the context in Brixton that led up to the formation of the gallery (I hear he is sadly none to well). So, whilst the early chapters had reflected often distant aspect of my life and musical influences, here, the events of the Eighties in London are still engaging my attention.

(Crass is now reissuing its back catalogue at present with all the tracks remastered and apparently sounding a lot better that they did way back.)

In relation to Bono and Springsteen he asks the pertinent question: “Can you become part of the establishment without being neutered by it?” p.470. Then he later dismisses Dead Prez and The Coup as “destined to be niche concerns” (p.566) whilst narrating Ice T’s controversy-chasing at length. Ice Cube didn’t have a platform to spout the stylish aggro that he did without ‘the establishment’ wanting to profit from the energy of the scene he occupied and led for a time. As a mainstream journalist Lynskey is party to that establishment, part of the conferment of platforms and publicity. How about if he had dismissed Ice T’s antics briefly and looked more closely at those the system marginalises. Is their music the less of a protest or less significant?

Lennon is really the person who felt this force the most as his consciousness developed after he was already a myth. As I have said Lynskey finds it difficult to deal with him well. His concept of politics is grandiose and a musician like Ray Davies who is not really dealing with that kind of politics and is reduced to a footnote. Pity.


Just heard that Gil Scott-Heron has died.

PS As to a question in response to the book of why women are not better represented Lynsey squirms in answer but provides a useful playlist in response on his blog:


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