In tune with the left: Let's hear it for agit rock!
Can a three-minute pop song be a political statement? Last Saturday we reported that the US magazine 'National Review' had published its conservative top 50. Now it's time for rock and pop's most liberal lyrics
Saturday 03 June 2006
Meera Syal: "Big Yellow Taxi" - Joni Mitchell
"I love Joni Mitchell's songs, like that one that goes, 'You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.' It was way ahead of its time, talking about issues like the environment and conservation."
Will Self: "Shipbuilding" - Robert Wyatt
A beautiful song, 'Shipbuilding', and its lyrics are poignant, linking the death of heavy industry in Britain with the rise of arms manufacture. It's an old protest song against the Falklands War, but it's a really beautiful song."
Nitin Sawhney: "What's Going On?" - Marvin Gaye
"My favourite one is 'What's Going On?' by Marvin Gaye. Whenever I hear it I remember the lyrics and sing along, and the words always seem to be so relevant to what's going on at any time, and they manage to be ironic and edgy. It's so cool since it has this laid-back summer feel to it, and yet it touches deep feelings. I only have to hear the title to think of the war in Iraq. It seems like a protest song in sheep's clothing, and that's good because I don't like the idea that I'm being preached at. On top of all that, the man is just a genius and his voice is just incredible."
"I'm pretty liberal generally except when it comes to music, when I become all right wing... and then I only have to think of the words 'Billy' and 'Bragg', and its enough to make my stomach turn. Aerosmith and Metallica are much more my kind of thing."
Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty: "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free"
"It's an old slave song, and because it's anonymous I think that adds to the mystique. My husband and I used to sing it to my son as a lullaby to send him to sleep, and he still likes to sing it. It's not bogged down in any one campaign, but carries a simple political message - a cry for freedom. It's great musically too, and that's why there have been so many versions done. It used to be the theme tune to Barry Norman's film show - that was a jazzed up version, and I loved that, but the Lighthouse Family did it as a more easy listening version, which wasn't so me."
Alice Cooper: "The Times They Are A-Changin'" - Bob Dylan
My favourite protest/liberal pop song is 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' by Bob Dylan. Dylan had such authority that when he said something, he really made it stick and people listened. He's the true poet laureate of America. 'Eve of Destruction', recorded by Barry McGuire, is also a great song but I can never decide if it's meant to be a comedy or not, although now it sounds pretty humourous. I hate protest songs that are one-sided and shallow - in fact there's a couple out now, although I won't mention any names - that I loathe.
Dinos Chapman: "California Uber Alles" - The Dead Kennedys
This is a great one because it's a good rabble rouser!"
Ruth Padel: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" - Pete Seegar
"My favourite is, 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?' Just because I like the tune, I like the question, and well, I like flowers."
Jack Fowler: Publisher, National Review: "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," - Harry McClintock.
"Written in 1928, it's known as the 'hobo's anthem', but "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" is really the liberal anthem. The lyrics from the final verse [below] say it all - handouts and the dole are the rule, criminals run free. The only jurisprudence: 'They hung the jerk that invented work.' This song is a hymn to criminality, sloth, alcoholism, fantasising ('there's a lake of stew and some whiskey too, you can paddle all around it in a big canoe'), and irresponsibility. Could anything be less liberal?
"In the Big Rock Candy Mountain,
The jails are made of tin.
You can slip right out again,
As soon as they put you in.
There ain't no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws nor picks,
I'm bound to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain."
Kathy Lette: Author of How to Kill Your Husband - and Other Handy Household Hints: "I Will Survive" - Gloria Gaynor; "I Am Woman" - Helen Ready
"My favourite protest songs are two female anthems. 'I Will Survive', as it's all about a woman learning to stand on her own two stilettoes. It's a war cry for all those women whose talents have lain doormat for years. And, of course Helen Ready's 'I Am Woman' - a front row forward feminist song encouraging women to be treated as equals, instead of sequels. Both songs make women feel that they don't have to wait for some knight in shining Armani to make them happy."
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: "Everyone's Gone to War" - Marina Balet
"This war has woken up some new talent. Narina Pallot's powerful song, 'Everyone's Gone to War' is one of my favourites. She's British, beautiful and I see her as a sort of modern day Joni Mitchell, and well, Joni Mitchell's album Blue is my favourite of all time. Her song was recently chosen by Radio 1 as its 'pick of the week', and I think she is waking up new audiences, and awakening young people - who have been asleep - to the horrors of this war, and doing it at the right time."
Paul Ress: Editor, Q Magazine: "Masters Of War" - Bob Dylan; "Eton Rifles" - The Jam; "A New England" - Billy Bragg; "Spanish Bombs" - The Clash; "Johnny 99" - Bruce Springsteen
"Each one is: performed with the sort of passion that makes veins pop; written from a sense of rage, but crucially underplays it; first and foremost, a great song. And as a result, each is unforgettable."
Stuart Maconie. Radio presenter: "We Are All Bourgeois Now!" - McCarthy
"My favourite left-wing song is this 1980s track. The Manic Street Preachers did an absolutely brilliant cover of it. I love it because, as an old-school Marxist, I don't like the old 'Isn't war so bad?' type songs, and it's a great anti-Thatcher song that puts the emphasis firmly back on the issue of class. It dispels the myth that you can just pull your laces up and get on with it."
Kate Mosse: "Shipbuilding" - Robert Wyatt
"My favourites are 'Shipbuilding' (which is anti-Falklands), 'Dance with Me' by Janis Ian (an anti-Vietnam song) and 'Le Deserter' by Boris Vian, plus obviously 'Free Nelson Mandela' by The Specials. I chose these because they're all anti war songs, and they put into words what we were all feeling. I especially like Robert Wyatt's 'Shipbuilding', because it was about normal people working to make war machines, and how normal peoples' lives were changing because of the war in the Falkland Islands. It's a really beautiful, very quiet protest song.
"I don't like songs for their political messages, I like them for their tunes!"
Interviews by Joss Garman
David Young, Wellingborough: "Wasted Life" - Stiff Little Fingers, 1979
"'Wasted Life' is not just a no-nonsense song about the futility of the terrorist violence in Northern Ireland. It describes the situation facing young people exposed to the systematic attempts by both sides to indoctrinate them and recruit them to the paramilitary conflict. The song's principles are about individuals standing up to blind ideology."
Jason Parkes, Worcestershire: "Everything Counts" - Depeche Mode, 1983
"This was a Top 10 hit in 1983, the year Thatcher was re-elected. Martin Gore sort of became a Smash Hits version of Gang of Four, offering up songs about famine, the workplace and universal revolution. Ironically this would be the song the masses sang along to when they broke big in the US in the late 1980s, its message probably lost on many ... Money isn't everything."
Paul Bexon: "Heartland" - The The, 1986
"Matt Johnson, the writer, is totally disillusioned with Thatcherism, then at its zenith. 'This is the land where nothing changes, the land of red buses and blue-blooded babies, where pensioners are raped and the hearts are being cut from the welfare state.' The Thatcher/Reagan relationship also comes under the spotlight: 'This is the 51st state of the USA'. Some things change but never alter!"
Jimmy Eden: "Into the Valley" - The Skids, 1978
"The liberalism of this track lies in its open mockery of the war system; 27 years on, it certainly has a contemporary relevance - not bad for a group generally considered to be nothing more than New Wave foot soldiers!"
Andrew Byrne: "Repeal of the Licensing Laws" - The Pogues, 1984
"Sometimes a song doesn't need actual words to spout its liberal credibility. In the mid-1980s, the prevailing UK licensing laws saw pubs close in mid-afternoon: clearly an affront to such a bon viveur as Shane MacGowan. The Pogues recorded this punk-meets-Irish-ceilidh romp in protest. A frantic instrumental punctuated only by a blood- curdling scream from MacGowan, it 'articulates' perfectly how unjust these laws were. They were repealed."
Dominic Trundle: "Know Your Enemy" - Rage Against The Machine
"'Yes I know my enemies/ They're the teachers who taught me to fight me/ Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission/ Ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite/ All of which are American dreams' - an awesome anthem. Zach De La Rocha, the lead singer, snarls the lines, his voice carries a great deal of emotion, anger, frustration and hatred for a society he sees as corrupt and morally degraded."
Jon Guest, Ipswich: "Never Went to Church" - The Streets
"Mike Skinner starts the song with 'Two great European narcotics, Alcohol and Christianity'. On hearing this I think Britain's favourite rapper/poet (?!) has come over all Marxist."
Ian Birchall, London N9: "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" - Country Joe and the Fish
"This anti-war song sounds great on the record and just as good when sung on a demonstration. Funny and deadly serious at the same time - something the droning Dylan never managed. And if you replace 'give a damn ... Vietnam" with "give a fuck ... Iraq' it's absolutely up-to-date, even though it's 40 years old."
Keith Dyke, Towcester: "You're Wondering Now" - The Specials
"Not a liberal anthem but a lament for the passing of the great era of post-war progressivism. The Specials berate the British electorate for voting in the Thatcher government: 'You're wondering how you will pay for the way you did behave.' In retrospect, it turns out to be especially prescient. We have got what we deserved."
And just to show that nothing is beyond interpretation...
David Ross: "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" Middle of the Road, 1971
"A thinly disguised attack on the far-right regimes which then held sway in southern Europe and South America. The first and second verses were a clear condemnation of the tactics of arrest and detention without trial typical of these regimes."
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