The Agitator, Barfly, London
Manic Street Preachers, Hard Rock Café, London
Gang of Four, NME Awards Show, London
I've heard the sound of student protest, 21st-century style, and it's doo-wop
Sunday 06 February 2011
I got there just too late. By the time I arrived at university, the second wave of student radicalism was dead, and even to an angry, politicised outsider from South Wales the culture of complacency was contagious.
In the spring of 1990, there had been several anti-poll tax protests already, and when the latest, on the now-historic date of 31 March, clashed with a house party thrown by a couple of goth mates in their Tottenham Court Road flat, I happily ducked out of the demo, thinking I'd wait for the Big One. Little did I know that this was the Big One: all afternoon, I drank wine and grazed from a finger buffet on a balcony, and looked quizzically to the south as sirens squealed and Trafalgar Square burned.
Two decades on, there's no excuse for being so out of the loop. By following @UKuncut and its localised equivalents on Twitter, and assorted Facebook groups, every student knows where and when to make their voice heard. However, unlike in the Sixties and the Eighties, musicians have been slow to respond to the new climate of kettling. With one exception. The Agitator is an alias for 24-year-old Derek Meins, who in December turned up to perform at the UCL occupation, and has since taken his message to the streets. I catch up with him in a relatively conventional setting: a stage at an indie venue. But it is nevertheless a red-letter day: the 7ft-high characters "NO!", carved in polystyrene and painted red, stand behind Meins. The Agitator's crude philosophy, as outlined on nowisthetimetoagitate.com is, you see, called NO!-ism.
The red capitals are The Agitator's biggest bits of kit. Backed by two drummers and no other musicians, Meins – all 1930s hair and dustbowl braces – yells call-and-response chants about the link between "oh-pression" and "dee-pression" and the nexus of "money, jobs, religion and sex", with no accompaniment but a tub-thumping tribal rhythm, maracas, an occasional megaphone and that old trusty political pop standby, an air-raid siren.
If he weren't the last person alive to learn that Gary Barlow is a Tory (which he announces as if it's breaking news), I'd call Meins the most switched-on man in Britain. It may seem odd that the soundtrack to 2011's wave of unrest is a lone nutter playing primal screaming, foot-stomping blues and barbershop harmonies. Then again, it makes a strange sort of existential sense: to be is to doo-wop.
The same week, I catch representatives of two earlier generations of political rockers. Manic Street Preachers began, like Meins, by harassing shoppers on the streets, but have long since adopted a more pragmatic approach which sees them working for the Yankee dollar at the Hard Rock Café. It may not be the Blackwood Miners' Institute, where they played the previous week, but the Manics know that every bullet counts.
If the Manics are almost old enough to be The Agitator's dads, then that would make Gang of Four the granddads. Now reduced to a core of Jon King, Andy Gill and two ringers, the legendary Leeds agit-funk band make their return at an NME Awards show in a venue where you get your change on a little black tray – not the only thing that feels wrong. With their frock coats and heroic guitar-hoisting, they're far more rock'n'roll than The Roundheads of 1979 (although the stunt where the singer clubs a microwave oven to death dovetails with their anti-consumerist message).
Whether it's "I Party All the Time" from their reunion album Content or the classic "I Love a Man in Uniform", Gang of Four are still one of the most thought-provoking bands alive. But the time for provoking thoughts is over, and the time for provoking deeds is here. That's why The Agitator is potentially so vital.
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