33 Revolutions Per Minute – A History of Protest Songs by Dorian Lynskey (Faber and Faber, 2010)
This is an ambitious, well researched and highly informative historical study of a strand of popular music that seems to be largely on the wane.
Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer artists willing to align themselves to political causes or identify themselves as protest singers.
There are notable exceptions like Billy Bragg or Steve Earle but there aren’t too many under 30 who take rebellion beyond the predictable statements of teenage angst or broad criticisms towards some vaguely defined authority.
Even on her magnificent anti-war album Let England Shake, PJ Harvey is careful to present her sentiments in emotional rather than political terms. Intelligent artists like Polly J are all too aware of the risk of being seen to be lecturing listeners; as Lynskey correctly observes “the biggest problem with protest songs is that they engender smugness”.
Lynskey is right to say that trends in the 1980s and 1990s don’t count as true protest music. The “hedonism-as-dissent” of rave is given short shrift as “the sound of the high street rather than the underground” while Britpop is dismissed as “almost proudly disengaged”
’33 Revolutions Per Minute’ is organised chronologically with five sections beginning with the years 1939 to 1964 and ending with the period from 1989 to 2008.
The contents page is misleading in that it implies that each chapter is about just one song whereas they mostly focus on a number of songs and related artists tied to a particular genre, time/place or significant historical event (e.g. Vietnam, 9/11, Britain’s war with Argentina).
At the same time, some individual songs do merit individual treatment, such as Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s ‘Ohio’. Otherwise, to pick one song by Victor Jara, Bob Dylan or, for that matter, Crass, can never be truly representative.
Sometimes, too, Lynskey seems determined to make an unconventional choice presumably to avoid being seen to be too predictable. For a chapter subtitled ‘Reggae’s State of Emergency’ the song he picks is War Ina Babylon by Max Romeo and the Upsetters rather than the more obvious choice of something by Bob Marley (e.g. Concrete Jungle, Get Up Stand Up, Redemption Song). The fact that Lynskey happened to have interviewed Romeo doubtless influenced his selection. He also does Marley a disservice in this chapter by quoting Linton Kwesi Johnson as saying there is “no dread in Marley’s music”. Lynskey omits to mention that Johnson later retracted this criticism.
Some of the choices are also a little dubious. The ambiguous lyrics of REM’s Exhuming McCarthy in particular strikes me as an odd selection and while 1970s disco music was an “exuberant response to hard times”, this doesn’t make it political.
Lynskey’s criteria is that “The underlying principle of almost every protest song is that people are essentially good and only need to be liberated from a few malign individuals” and he believes that “any successful protest song requires that the songwriter stop asking questions at a certain point and either say, ‘Here is something like a solution’ or leave the ambiguities dangling like loose threads, for individual listeners to tug at and unravel in their own way”
Paradoxically, one of the best chapters about the Manic Street Preachers, despite the fact that “for a band with so much to say [they] seemed blithely unconcerned with clarity”.
You can tell which sections are written from first hand experience and which are the result of research. When Lynskey is describing music he must have grown up listening to his writing is bolder and wittier.
I like his summary of Two Tribes as “a berserk dance record about nuclear annihilation” and of U2 he talks of Bono having the “jabbing body language of a retired boxer”. Even better still is his description of U2 bassist Adam Clayton as having “the louche bearing of a disgraced aristocrat, and a perpetual air of mild and mysterious amusement”. I also laughed when he writes that Bruce Springsteen is “perhaps the only rock icon you would trust to fix your car or build you a toolshed”.
His pessimistic conclusion is remarkably similar to that of Simon Reynolds in Retromania. Like Reynolds, who he quotes several times, he recognises that the peak of counter cultural, and seemingly revolutionary, music was in the 1960s with the punk era being nearest equivalent in terms of music that truly challenged the establishment.
Since then, artists by and large tend to play safe or adopt individualistic rather than altruistic standpoint and this is why Lynskey ends on a relatively downbeat note: “I began writing this book intending to write a history of a still-vital form of music. I finished it wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy”.
He sees little cause for optimism for the future since “placards and sit-ins have given way to charity wristbands and Facebook groups: armchair gestures which appease consciences without inviting risk or struggle”