This is a rebel song

Posted on November 2, 2007


By Susan Tomaselli

“I thought that if you had
An acoustic guitar
Then it meant that you were
A Protest Singer
Oh, I can smile about it now
But at the time it was terrible.”
– The Smiths, Shakepeare’s Sister

From the beginning of recorded history, music has told the story of a peoples oppression. You may not be tuned into it, but it’s there. Like the vibration from a coming freight train a long way off, the songs are felt before they are heard. In the US in particular, popular music kept pace with sweeping social movements: the abolition of slavery, the rise of organised labour, the civil rights struggle, women’s rights and opposition to war. Blunt, often angry and powerful, and questioning authority and the status quo, songs of protest stirred the masses, and in the Sixties and early Seventies affected the way people thought, acted and dressed.

When Bob Dylan debuted Blowin’ in the Wind at Gerdes Folk City in 1962, he announced to the audience, “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ’cause I don’t write no protest songs.” But with the lyrics, “How many ears must one man have / Before he can hear people cry? / Yes, an’ how many deaths will it take till he knows / That too many people have died? / The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,” he isn’t quite telling the truth. Of course, before Dylan came the most famous protest singer the English-speaking world has had: Woody Guthrie. Without the Dust Bowl balladeer, there would be no Dylan — perhaps no bad thing, given the lingerie advertisements and the failed Broadway musical (though he has almost redeemed himself with the Theme Time Radio Hour. Almost). Guthrie, Dylan’s “last hero”, was a man opposed to hypocrisy and moved by the plight of the economically disadvantaged. He sang ‘This Land is Our Land’ and said his guitar could kill fascists. And people believed it. Bono aside, Guthrie’s assertion is not one too many musicians would dare make today — and if they did, you’d likely roll your eyes.

Such passion set to music seems old-fashioned. In spite of this, we’ve had Bruce Springsteen sing Pete Seeger songs (‘We Shall Overcome’), Green Day bag themselves a Grammy (for American Idiot) and Thom Yorke‘s solo album, The Eraser took us to ‘Harrowdown Hill’ (the place where David Kelly’s body was found, the doctor whose evidence raised questions on the WMD in Iraq) and gave us “the most angry song I’ve ever written in my life.” Nor, after thirty-odd years, has Neil Young‘s anger abated: just listen to Living With War. Tom Waits, an old barfly more likely to break your heart than smash the system, howled his way through his ‘Road to Peace’: “Though thousands dead and wounded / On both sides / most have been / Middle Eastern civilians / They fill their children / Full of hate / To fight an old man’s war / And die upon the road to peace.”

So, are protest songs making a comeback? Do we have front row seats to a revolution? Sure, every generation has its own form of resistance — Bob Marley, John Lennon, The Clash, Rock Against Racism, Elvis Costello, Band-Aid, Drop the Debt, Public Enemy, NWA, Willie Nelson, Pearl Jam, Damon Albarn, even the bloody Dixie Chicks — but the music business is a first and foremost a business. It has done such a job on us that if protest song has a nice tune, it can shift units. If it doesn’t suit, it doesn’t get airplay and is buried.

England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage‘s definitive book on punk, charts the fast rise and (equally fast) fall of Malcolm McLaren‘s fashion band, the Sex Pistols. Though The Clash had the better tunes, the Sex Pistols were, as Savage says, the “prime avatars of the anarchist apocalypse.” With their hostile facades Johnny Rotten et al were the ultimate in outsider aesthetic; their ‘God Save the Queen’ a huge ‘fuck you’ to silver jubilee: “God save the Queen / Her facist regime / They made you a moron / Potential h-bomb. / God save the Queen / She ain’t no human being / There’s no future / In England’s dreaming.”

“Anger is an energy,” Rotten said, and ‘Anarchy in the UK’, a series of spat insults became one of punk’s most famous protests songs, a manifesto in which lyrics are slogans, an explosive call to arms: “I am an antichrist / I am an anarchist / Don’t know what I want / But I know how to get it / I wanna destroy the passerby.” Not exactly, the solidarity of the Flower Power revolution, but punk was as much about exclusion as it was inclusion. On the surface, it changed everything and created a culture war. The bands acted as foot soldiers and the Xerox generation spread the word.

And yet, it was an in-built time-bomb. Started as anti-consumerist and, like all pop movements, started with elites, it became assimilated, mass-marketed and turned into filthy lucre quickly. 430 King’s Road, the location of McLaren and Vivienne Westwood‘s Sex boutique, was just as important as their band. McLaren brought them together to flog clothes from the shop. It was style as revolt, the revolution a T-shirt away.

Who’d have thought then, that a band as revered as the Sex Pistol would have left such a negative imprint on the culture? What fucking rotters they were. For all their intentions, the Pistols were no more than cartoon delinquents, the original wildness of rock ‘n’ roll remixed and the rhetoric of rebellion repackaged. By the time Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, it was like they’d never happened. Neil Spencer, one-time editor of the NME, is on record saying that “by 1983, punk ideals had got pretty much lost, the idea of do-it-yourself, back-to-basics, take-no-crap was fast disappearing under a welter of double-breasted suits, cocktail hours and absurd and shallow glamour bands like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.”

It was left to the likes of Billy Bragg, with his folk sensibility and angry thrash sound, to pick the protest song baton up and bridge that post-punk gap. Johnny Rotten sang “There’s no point in asking / You’ll get no reply” in ‘Pretty Vacant’; Bragg actively encouraged questions, but being just a bloke, had no solutions: “The role of the artist is not to come up with the answers but to ask the right bloody questions. It’s the audience’s job to change the world. The artist can talk about the world, and evoke the world, and paint a picture of the world, but answers aren’t given to singer-songwriters. For fuck’s sake, my first famous song said “I don’t want to change the world,” however…and the important thing is the ‘however’ — while I’m here, there are one or two things I’d like to talk about, if you don’t mind, other than just my guitar and the length of my hair.”

One of the best protest songs ever written is ‘La complainte du partisan’, a song of resistance written in 1943 and brought to a wider audience by Leonard Cohen. But introducing ‘The Partisan’ on stage in 1972, even he was under no illusions (and this was pre-punk): “I don’t expect the system to dissolve under the assault of this song.” As pop music has become more post-modern, it has no time for unified movements but tribes. Today’s music audiences are too fragmented, too celebrity-obsessed and too apathetic to tune into protest music in the kind of large numbers previous generations did. Back then, statements of opposition had resonance, sounded fresh and made sense. But isn’t it better to say something, than nothing at all? At the end of film The Filth and the Fury, John Lydon eyeballs the camera and says: “All I want is for future generations to go, ‘Fuck it. Had enough. Here’s the truth.'” Didn’t quite happen as Lydon had hoped. The resistance is still there and coming from the unlikeliest of sources: Brit-pop survivor Jarvis Cocker. “Use your right to protest on the street / Yeah, use your rights but don’t imagine that it’s heard / Oh no no / Cunts are still running the world.”

[This article was originally written for fauxPas magazine.]

//5 of the best protest songs//

Alternative UlsterStiff Little Fingers
While it’s easier to sing of revolution in far off lands (see The Clash’s Sandinista), the Stiffs addressed the war going on right on their doorstep: “Take a look where you’re livin’ / You got the Army on your street / And the RUC dog of repression / Is barking at your feet / Is this the kind of place you wanna live?”

25 Minutes to GoJohnny Cash
Sung from the perspective of a man awaiting death by hanging (and performed by Cash at Folsom Prison): “With my feet on the trap and my head on the noose got 5 more minutes to go / Won’t somebody come and cut me loose with 4 more minutes to go / I can see the mountains I can see the skies with 3 more minutes to go / And it’s to dern pretty for a man that don’t wanna die 2 more minutes to go.”

Mississippi GoddamNina Simone
All the black protest songs of the late Sixties/early Seventies owe Nina, and with “Don’t tell me / I tell you / Me and my people just about due / I’ve been there so I know / They keep on saying go slow,” you won’t hear this song used in too many advertisements

We Shall OvercomePete Seeger
An old gospel song picked up and adapted by Seeger. Recorded by Joan Baez it was an anthem for the Civil Rights movement and sung the world over: “Oh, deep in my heart / I do believe / We shall overcome, some day”

Fight the PowerPublic Enemy
The best song of 1989: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me you see / Straight up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain / Mother fuck him and John Wayne / Cause I’m Black and I’m proud / I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped / Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”


Susan Tomaselli is the editor of Dogmatika as well as a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine, where she writes on comics.

Posted in: Essays