Sound System

Issue section: 

One thing I learnt from this book is that the military are the biggest employers of musicians in Britain.

As someone who expends a fair bit of effort supporting and promoting music, I know the struggle and sacrifice of new and exciting musicians just to get by. As a teacher, I am also well aware of the continuous fight to protect the place of music, and to defend children’s access to it, in schools. It came as a shock, then, to find that in one sector there is more than enough public money for musicians to live on.

Obviously the powers that be know the power of a good tune. Why else would American children be forced to sing The Star Spangled Banner every day at school, sacred music be an important part of many religions, advertisers spend millions on jingles, and songs thought subversive or sacrilegious find themselves banned? It seems incredible, but until as recently as 1997 the BBC used to send us off to bed at night to the strains of God Save the Queen. Apparently Radio 4 still does!

In this very readable and highly enjoyable book, Dave Randall shows why it is important for our side to understand and use this power too. He traces with passionate dedication the role that music has played in mass movements, most notably, of course, when opposing the National Front in the 1970s, and in continuing to undermine racism today. He also details its motivating role internationally in struggles as diverse as those in Palestine, South Africa and Poland.

The section on the Arab Spring is especially revealing, as he argues that music was partly responsible for challenging and overthrowing bloody regimes. Syrian firefighter and part-time poet Ibrahim al-Qashoush’s rebel song, an anti-government rhythmic chant built on traditional call-and-response forms, was seen as so subversive that when it went viral, he had to be murdered, with his voice box ripped out. Music can be very threatening to the status quo.

Conversely, our rulers can use it as a “weapon of mass distraction” or a bellicose march to rally their troops. Randall distinguishes between “our music and theirs”, describing the differences in content and production as well as the social role of the two. Theirs usually encourages passivity, obedience, and emotional investment in stars and talent show contestants.

Ours, by contrast, is often communal, edgy or unsettling. A lot of it expresses feelings of alienation and dissatisfaction with the world — Dave reports on his survey of the Billboard chart over the past 30 years and found these themes to be the most common in popular music. He also explains how our music can be stolen, commodified, and sold back to us, to keep us in our place. This process isn’t only one way, of course, with many examples of musicians and popular movements appropriating and subverting bland pop pap.

What particularly struck me about this book is the way that Randall also investigates, in some new and revealing ways, the relationship of music to society. From Plato to Grime, from The Vatican to X Factor via the Middle East and Trinidadian Carnival, he shows that music is conditioned by the society it is created in, while simultaneously able to challenge those conditions.

As a working musician (most famously with Faithless), Randall is also able to debunk some of the myths about the biz. A guitar for hire, his lifestyle may be envied by many, but can still leave him feeling atomised, powerless and isolated. He still has to assert his rights with those who employ him, arguing not just over his working conditions, but also about what he plays and what he says. He tells how stars such as Sinead O’Connor (who he describes as his “current boss”) travel in business class, while the band travel in standard.

More surprisingly, he was reprimanded by the band’s manager and sidelined within Faithless for taking a stand against “Israeli Apartheid”. Presumably the manager was concerned that this political stance would jeopardise recent lucrative contracts the band had signed with Coca-Cola, Tesco and Fiat. These examples reveal that musicians actually have the same issues as many of us in our workplaces; commanded not to make waves or to bring up difficult issues, but to toe the line.

Most importantly, this insightful book aims not just to be an interesting academic read, but also a guide to action. The Rebel Music Manifesto provides some simple steps to harnessing the unsettling, inspiring and motivating power of music to help promote social change. He advises valuing honesty above virtuosity, thinking creatively about choice of venues and use of social media, and above all not being scared to mix music and politics, to link musicians with movements.

In this way it can help us create a better world, one in which, of course, the production and consumption of music will be revolutionised too, so that all children will have proper access to it in schools, and a world in which we certainly won’t be marching to the military’s tune.