Ten Musical Moments in Revolution (2008)

Yodo-Go a go go! : Ten musical moments in revolution

[this list appears in Hang the DJ: An Alternative Book of Music Lists, edited by Angus Cargill]

10. Woody Guthrie grafs his guitar

Dustbowl balladeer Woody Guthrie is revered by millions as the man who rode the rails across America, following migrant workers, acting as a political organiser and inspiring a later generation of folk musicians. In recent years it appears that his most lasting legacy has been the message he wrote on his acoustic guitar. The phrase “This machine kills fascists” turns up even now on the axes of punky posers whose idea of politics is wishing they’d played Live Aid. Woody is presumably turning in his grave.

9. Public Enemy fight the power

It’s odd to remember the nervousness caused by Public Enemy’s blend of reheated Black Panther rhetoric, Nation of Islam uniform fetishism and histrionic turntable trickery. Reminding white America that the power structure had produced “nothing but rednecks for 400 years” and (horror!) that Elvis, far from being ‘the king’ was just a white boy who’d profited by stealing black music was enough, at the end of the eighties, to produce calls for their immediate incarceration. Add to this Professor Griff’s antisemitic outbursts, Flavor Flav’s oversized watch, and Chuck D’s genuine outrage at the injustices meted out to African Americans, and you had a serious threat to everything a great nation held dear – or a reason for media commentators to run around like headless chickens. One of the two.

8. Wings consider colonialism

The Beatles made various forays into politics. John and Yoko gave money to Michael X and bankrolled all kinds of revolutionary causes. George Harrison favoured Transcendental Meditation and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Looking for the definitive revolutionary Beatle work, we’re offered a plethora of choices. Lennon’s bitter ballad ‘Working Class Hero’? Perhaps “Imagine”? It is one of history’s ironies that the only song which really got the authorities hot under the collar was written by Paul, the chirpy one. Give Ireland Back to the Irish was a response to the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 and proved so controversial upon release that not only was it banned by the BBC, but on Pick of the Pops, Alan “Fluff” Freeman wasn’t even allowed to say the title, and had to refer it as cryptically as “a song by Wings”. The song is so gut-wrenchingly terrible that I’m personally convinced the reason the ban on playing it on the radio has held up for thirty-six years is not its controversial theme, but because the music-loving public is collectively relieved not to have to listen to the damn thing.

7. The Dead Kennedys refuse to go jogging.

America is the land of the free. It is also, apparently, the home of the brave. And California is the place where freedom means the hippie dream of peace, love and healthy macrobiotic fun in the sun. So the mere suggestion that there’s something fascist about the sunshine state sent waves of outrage from San Diego to Humboldt county. With their first single, California Uber Alles, The Dead Kennedys (itself not a name calculated to win friends in the US liberal establishment) depicted a near future America where the then state governor, Jerry Brown, instituted a bizarre “denim and suede” long-haired police state, in which kids were forced to meditate in school and uncool people were given flowers, then (organically) gassed. In 1979 punks already knew that the only good hippie is a dead one.

6. Serge Gainsbourg calls his countrymen to action.

France! Birthplace of modernity, a nation forged in the flames of revolution. A country which reveres its radicals and adores its transgressors. Who would have thought that a chainsmoking singer with sticky-out ears and a weakness for little girls could almost bring the place to a halt by making a reggae version of the National Anthem? Yet so great was the furore around Serge Gainsbourg’s 1979 Aux Armes etc. that the singer was attacked onstage by angry Algerian war veterans. By drawling bits of the Marseillaise (a spectacularly bloodthirsty song), in a tone which suggests he’d much rather be making sexual suggestions to Whitney Houston, Gainsbourg managed to suggest that the national ‘jour de gloire’ had long gone.

5. Red Krayola fight the phallocracy.

The Red Krayola rival the Rolling Stones in longevity, having been in continual operation since 1966. While most everyone else in the late-sixties music scene was trying to make their guitar sound like a sitar, Krayola were miking up baking foil and writing songs that sounded like 1980’s post-punk, complete with discursive lyrics about the shortcomings of capitalism. When the 1980’s finally came around, there was a brief moment when they sounded trendy. As far as it’s possible to decipher the yodelling lyrics, their 1981 single “Born In Flames” is a song about sisterhood, struggle, the birth of a new subjectivity, and other topics not covered by the Gallagher brothers. It came to the attention of film director Lizzie Borden, who’d named herself after the famous nineteenth-century murderess, familiar to generations of American children through the sinister schoolyard rhyme:

Lizzie Borden, with an axe

Gave her mother forty whacks

When she saw what she had done

She gave her father forty-one.

This is a clue to the politics of Borden’s sci-fi epic “Born in Flames”, which takes place in a post-revolutionary United States, where women are expected to wait for their emancipation until the project of socialism is completed. The Women’s Army will have no truck with this kind of half-way nonsense. Nor will various pirate radio DJs, feminist street activists or the bad-ass avengers of the anti-rapist bike patrol. Red Krayola is their inspiration.

4. Caetano Veloso gets deported.

Military dictatorships are not known for their sense of fun, or their support for underground culture. So the tropicalismo movement, which swept Brazil in the mid-sixties was closely monitored by the authorities. Tropicalismo was a new wave of art, theatre, poetry and music, which celebrated ‘antropofagia’, the cannibalism of all cultural forms, a highly charged idea for the mixed society of Brazil. Singer songwriter Caetano Veloso was associated with the socialist left, and his new style of music outraged pretty much everyone - rightists who disliked his politics, leftists who disliked his incorporation of ‘non national’ styles like rock’n’roll as well as the mass of conservative bossa nova fans, who wanted sugary love songs, rather than weird new folk-rock hybridity. At the 1967 Musica Popular Brasileira festival, Veloso was greeted with howls of protest as he harangued the audience, telling them “é proibido proibir” It’s forbidden to forbid. No surprise that by 1968 he was in jail, and then had to spend several years in exile in London, a quarter of a century before the first cai pirinha hit these shores.

3. Amon Duul are autonomous.

Of all the communes in operation in sixties Germany, Munich had one of the hairiest. The autonomes of Amon Düül believed in the freedom of workers from the state, political parties and other top-down structures. They obviously believed a lot of other esoteric stuff, since they decided to name themselves after an Egyptian god and a word they claimed was Turkish for ‘moon’. The big question, other than who would do the washing up, was whether music or politics should take precedence, and in 1969 this caused a split. Amon Düül I believed in experimental living and “anti-music”, made primarily as an expression of their autonomous subjectivity. Amon Düül II wanted to be proper musicians. Predictably enough, the second group became successful, released a series of increasingly absurd prog-rock albums, and by about 1975 had disappeared entirely up their own arses. The first lot released four albums, three of which consist of excerpts from a single acid-fuelled 48 hour jam, conducted in 1968. By 1970, the politics of the far left, and groups like the Red Army Faction, had taken over from primitive tribal drumming, and they disappeared without trace.

2. Cornelius Cardew loses his sense of fun.

Cardew’s life is a cautionary tale about what happens when politics starts to dictate to aesthetics. The English composer began as Stockhausen’s assistant, but junked serialism for an open and playful style of music, influenced by American avant-gardists like LaMonte Young and John Cage. In 1966 he joined free-improvising supergroup AMM, and in 1968 founded Scratch Orchestra, a loose group of about fifty people, part radical musical ensemble, part experiment in living. A constitution was written, and activities (“concerts” would be a misleadingly narrow word) were programmed according to a principle of “reverse seniority” – the youngest member deciding on the first programme, then the next youngest, and so on. The Scratch Orchestra made some joyous noises, some of which survive on recordings of Cardew’s masterpiece “The Great Learning”. Unfortunately, the composer’s interest in revolutionary politics led him down the rabbit-hole of hardline Maoism, and eventually he abandoned Scratch for The Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), and an aesthetic theory which led him to reject anything remotely fun in favour of turgid piano settings of Chinese folk songs and prole-friendly vocal works with unintentionally-comical lyrics. Choice examples include “Revolution is the Main Trend in the World Today”, “Smash the Social Contract” and “There is only one lie, there is only one truth”. with its show-stopping chorus, “There is the lie of imperialism and reaction / and there is the truth of Marxist-Leninism…” Cardew died in 1981, the victim of a hit-and-run accident outside his home, a tragic event whose only upside is that it spared him most of the Thatcherite eighties, which he wouldn’t have enjoyed.

1. Les Rallizes Denudes fly the friendly skies.

By 1970, Japan’s city centres were filled with so-called futen, long-haired youth intent on transgressing the strict social rules of their country. Among their idols was a mysterious band called Les Rallizes Denudes, who specialised in twenty-minute drone epics and professed a belief, on the rare occasions when journalists could get them to answer a question, in “total cultural assault.” Their style was that of the foku gerira (folk guerrillas), black-clad radicals who borrowed a lot of attitude (and fashion sense) from the Black Panthers. Les Rallizes made the authorities nervous - with good reason. On March 31st 1970, their bass player Moriaki Wakabayashi, (along with eight other members of the Japanese Red Army, the oldest of whom was 21), hijacked the “Yoda-Go”, flight 351 from Tokyo to Fukuoka. After a three day stand-off the hijackers ended up in North Korea, which was something of a bummer for them, as they really wanted to go to Cuba. Kim Il Sung wouldn’t let them leave, and they have lived there ever since, masterminding various international plots and bizarre kidnappings. The band got another bassist.