Is popular music turning radical?
Posing this question is not simply an act of wishful thinking here at Socialist Review. Rather it reflects a genuine debate that is finding an echo in sections of the music press. For example, Mojo magazine's lead feature in April was 'One Hundred Great Protest Songs'. It included a blazing red cover with a picture of a militant looking John Lennon and the headline 'Revolution in his Head'. Elsewhere the Scottish Arts magazine Product ran a cover article entitled 'Protest Pop: How radical music rocks the world'.
Such declarations should come with a health warning. As I write Peter Andre and Britney Spears are still dominating the charts. It is also worth noting that The Farm's 'All Together Now', originally a poignant song about the first world war, has been re-released as the official England Euro 2004 football song.
In fact every era has produced artists who have created political or socially conscientious material. Among them are some of the true giants of music such as Woody Guthrie, Billie Holliday, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone. However, it does not automatically follow that political music is any good. Indeed much of it is quite atrocious, prioritising crude agit-prop over artistic credibility. I apologise for reminding those readers unfortunate enough to have heard it of Culture Club's 'War is Stupid'.
Neither should we exaggerate the wider political impact of music. At its best it can help artists to express their feelings, illuminate the human experience and both articulate and inspire struggles. Songs such as 'A Change is Gonna Come', 'Respect' and 'Dancing in the Streets' provided a soundtrack for the 1960s. However, it was the organisers of the Civil Rights, Black Power and anti Vietnam War movements who wrote the screenplay, provided the actors and gave the struggles direction.
These qualifications notwithstanding, it is clear that something is stirring in the world of music. A number of artists are responding to the chaos, confusion and uncertainty created by Bush and Blair's 'war on terror'. Some performers parade their politics quite literally on their sleeves. Patti Smith, for example, includes a 12 minute denunciation of the Iraq war entitled 'Radio Baghdad' on her new album Trampin'. Similarly, June saw the release of the Beastie Boys' first studio album for six years, entitled To the 5 Boroughs. Dedicated to New York, their home city, the album cover includes an image of the ill-fated World Trade Centre. More importantly, the group has declared that the album is an emphatic declaration of opposition to Bush and an attempt to help derail his re-election campaign.
Both here in Britain and across the Atlantic, the surprise number one hit of 2003 was the Black Eyed Peas' cry for world peace, 'Where is the Love?', and Faithless have recently released a hit single, 'Mass Destruction', from their new album No Roots. We even find Prince asking, 'What's happening to the world today?' on his new album Musicology.
The Left Field at Glastonbury offers an excellent vantage point from which to consider whether British music fans have been infected by this mood. For one thing, the festival is obviously a place where tens of thousands of people, mainly young, gather for a weekend of exploration, experimentation and excitement. More particularly, festival organisers, inspired by the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, have realised that it is a space where many people are open to radical ideas.
The Left Field was first introduced to Glastonbury by Battersea and Wandsworth trades council in 2002. It has proved to be such a success that not only has it expanded, but it will also feature at other events such as the Homelands Festival. For Glastonbury 2004, the Left Field has been moved to a more prominent place near the main Pyramid stage. It is easily identified by the huge 70 foot 'Tower of Strength' that stands at its entrance. This landmark is further evidence of the growing fusion of music, art and politics. Glastonbury owner Michael Eavis invited designers Graham Jobbins and Kurt Jackson to create a sculpture that would 'celebrate the global struggle for social and economic justice'. It depicts 12 people pulling together on the same rope, and has a plaque saying it is dedicated to the international trades union movement that has 156 million members worldwide. The beacon at the apex of the tower bears an inscription from William Blake: 'Every emulative joy forbidden by laws of punishment I lifted into my furnaces to form the spiritual sword that lays upon the hidden heart.' Moreover, the creation of the sculpture was announced on 1 May, international workers' day, and it was built by GMB apprentices at the recently closed Appledore shipyard in Devon. The Tower therefore represents a very conscious attempt to draw together two key elements of the global justice movement - the organised working class and young people.
Among others, Amicus, one of Britain's biggest unions, has picked up on this mood. It sponsored the Left Field, and general secretary Derek Simpson led a forum on 'The Global Fight for Workers' Rights' with Billy Bragg, Drop the Debt and guests from Latin America. The huge marquee was packed on a hot Friday afternoon for the Left Field launch debate featuring Tony Benn, Naomi 'No Logo' Klein and NUS president Kat Fletcher. Afterwards people flocked to a Bookmarks book signing by Klein and the premier of the docu-film The Take she has made with her partner Avi Lewis.
The pre-publicity for the Left Field proudly declared that Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) was 'hijacking' the Saturday evening spot. A series of outstanding gigs featuring the likes of Badly Drawn Boy, the Libertines and young performers such as the west London crew Bigga Fish were an inspirational feature of the Unite Against Fascism (UAF) campaign to defeat the Nazi British National Party at the 10 June elections. The spirit and energy of those events was re-created in the Left Field by new acts Jetplane Landing, The Filaments, Capdown and Katastrophy Wife. Before then UAF joint secretary Weyman Bennett and musician Dave Randall from Slovo kicked off a lively debate on fighting the fascist threat today.
It is simply not possible to do justice to the whole range of events and activities organised within the Left Field. The closest comparison is with the great World and European Social Forums that have drawn together the disparate elements of the global justice movement over the past three years. There are debates, exhibitions, comedy, music and a host of stalls featuring campaigning groups and ethical goods. Musically, the organisers have skilfully brought together new acts and some of the legendary performers from the punk era, including Mick Jones of The Clash, Hugh Cornwell from The Stranglers, Jerry Dammers of The Specials and the Sex Pistols' Glen Matlock.
The level of debate and thirst for ideas is exceptional. Such passion and commitment stands in marked contrast to the disengagement with 'official politics' that we witnessed in the recent European and local elections. Along with the great anti-war marches, this is yet further proof that young people are far from apathetic. Of course, the majority of festival goers are there to hear their favourite bands and perhaps soak up other things. However, not even the most 'wasted' reveller could miss the wide range of banners and stalls promoting Greenpeace, Water Aid, War on Want and Drop the Debt that were spread around the site. Predictably though, the mainstream press managed to ignore all this. Instead they decided to sneer at the supposed 'corporate feel' of the festival. The Economist was particularly guilty - and breathtakingly hypocritical - in this regard. They would prefer to have witnessed a disorganised mess which would have confirmed their belief that another world is not possible. These cynics will also have missed Spearhead's blistering Saturday lunchtime performance. Fresh from a trip to Baghdad, and wearing an 'unfuck the world' T-shirt, Michael Franti captivated a rain swept crowd at the Pyramid stage. He reported that over half the soldiers he spoke to told him 'It's time to end this bullshit' and his set included a newly written song entitled 'It's Time to Come Home'.
The Left Field is a wonderfully creative example of how the unity established since the first great protest at Seattle can be built upon. The challenge that lies ahead is to strengthen it and turn it into a lasting movement that doesn't just rock, but finally transforms the world.
The Beastie Boys were not one of the acts that featured at Glastonbury, but it is fitting that I should give the last word to the final cut from their new album. To the 5 Boroughs celebrates the multicultural diversity of New York and bristles with fury at Bush and the Christian fundamentalists that used the attack on their city as a pretext for their imperialist adventures. It concludes with a defiant rallying cry:
'Hey ladies, fellas and everyone between
Take the power back, let them react
And let's show what we mean
Check it out
Who got the power to make a difference
Who got the power to make a change?
Who got the power to make a difference?
We got the - we got the - we got the'