David Lister: Where have all the protest songs for protesting students gone?

The Week in Arts
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"I'm stuck in a crowd. Can't see my shoes. I got the freezing cold, penned-in, kettling blues."

No doubt a genuine musician could compose something better to go with the student protests, something that might even scan. But what strikes me is that no musician is composing anything. No marcher is chanting anything from a current song. The protests over tuition fees have been the most high-profile student revolt for a generation or more. But nowhere are they accompanied by music.

It wasn't always thus. Look at footage of a protest march from the 1950s or 1960s, and someone would always be singing a version of Joan Baez's "We Shall Overcome", even if that someone was usually Joan Baez. Even in later years, you could generally rely on some student, and not always a social outcast, to bring along a guitar.

Actually, it's probably a good thing that the guitar-wielding protester is no more. It's a pretty dated image. Besides, Jeremy Paxman would probably suggest on Newsnight that it was a weapon. But even without musical props, protesters in relatively recent times could, like football fans, be relied upon to take a pop anthem of the day and change the lyrics to suit the politics of the moment.

Yet, with the protests set to continue well into the new year, there is no sign that music, the one passion that students of all persuasions share, will play a part. Even more astonishingly, no artists are releasing protest-linked records. Why have none of the bands that students idolise – Radiohead, Arctic Monkeys, Mumford & Sons – rushed out a tuition fees protest single? There's a much-lauded folk boom in Britain at the moment, but it has forgotten one of the first rules of folk – to make music about contemporary issues and perceived injustices.

An honourable mention must be given to a new band, the aptly named The Agitator, who performed to students at a recent University of London occupation and who were far-sighted enough to release a single last May called "Let's Get Marching". But in general, it's safe to say that students and music have deserted each other.

Not that musicians are alone in their neglect of the protests. No art form has risen to the challenge of reflecting the most dramatic issue of the moment. There are no artworks about the student protests, no theatre, no television drama. The protests may only be a few weeks old but art, not least when its champions are forever crying "relevance", has to be able to react quickly. The ICA in London, a once radical institution in desperate search of a role, could have seized the moment and turned its building into a cross-arts cultural laboratory exploring the protests through music, drama and, what the hell, a touch of dance.

The arts have been slow to seize on a genuine drama. Musicians and record companies should get to work over the Christmas break so that, when the protests resume in the new year, the protesters can at least have their own soundtrack.

Comedy sacrificed for commerce

It's depressing to hear that Edinburgh City Council is planning to turn part of the Assembly Rooms into a shopping centre. Visitors to the Edinburgh Festival will know that the Assembly Rooms have for years been the hub of radical fringe theatre and, more especially, stand-up comedy on its many stages. Its bars at festival time also become a social hub, with audiences and stars mixing and drinking freely together. Indeed, the venue has quite simply been the centre of the Fringe. If the council goes ahead with the plan, then the Edinburgh Festival will never be quite the same again. Cities should cherish their cultural history. Shops can be located elsewhere.

A fitting tribute to the sound of silence

Those campaigning to keep the X Factor winner, Matt Cardle, off the Christmas No 1 spot this year are urging the public to buy copies of a version of John Cage's "4'33". This is famously a track of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence by the composer.

It's a pity, though, in a year that has seen commemorations of the 70th anniversary of John Lennon's birth and the 30th anniversary of his death, that everyone seems to have forgotten that Lennon also put out a silent track. His, on the album Mind Games, was called "The Nutopian International Anthem".

It's not quite the length of Cage's more famous piece, but for me it had certain nuances and compositional idiosyncrasies that made it superior to "4'33". I certainly find that it is "The Nutopian International Anthem", rather than Cage's composition, which swirls round my head and which I find myself singing in the bath. In this year of all years, it should be Lennon's silence, not Cage's, that tops the charts.