Rock's old guard mouth off – but is anybody listening?

Springsteen, Costello and Bragg are singing protest songs again. Chris Mugan wonders where the younger voices are

Chris Mugan
Monday 18 June 2012 10:51
Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen's impending arrival on these shores with his Wrecking Ball tour continues the link between left-wing politics and committed rock musicians. The Boss's current album, which gives its name to the tour, is chock full of lyrics that speak for the common man and lambast the bankers on tracks such as "We Take Care Of Our Own" and "Death To My Hometown". It reminds us that responses to the banking crisis, its continuing aftershocks and injustices, have been dominated by veterans rather than representatives of the younger generations that are most affected.

A couple of years before, Elvis Costello was close to his acerbic best with the banker-baiting title track to his album National Ransom. On a recent UK tour he dusted off an anti-Thatcher broadside from the Eighties, "Tramp Down the Dirt", as the current government made its vitriol relevant once more. Which brings us to the ever-reliable musical activist Billy Bragg. Last time he mounted the barricades, it was to encourage voters in marginal seats to tactically support the Liberal Democrats. His righteous ire has since been fired up by the Occupy movement. He is one of several artists to have performed at the camps that sprung up between Oakland and St Paul's.

Occupy activists have since sought to build on such support by setting up a record label designed to aid the struggle against the one per cent. The debut release from Occupation Records is a compilation punningly titled Folk the Banks. Bragg has contributed the opening track, an update of Florence Reece's iconic tub-thumper "Which Side Are You On?". The compilation has been thoughtfully constructed, bringing together three generations of activist musicians, with Bragg linking the 76-year-old Peggy Seeger's "Doggone, Occupation is On" – another reuse of an older tune – to a new wave of committed artists, represented by the engrossing intelligence of Anaïs Mitchell and Jim Moray's exquisite talent.

Folk the Banks also draws parallels between developments on both sides of the Atlantic, with the spiky Ryan Harvey representing a US collective dubbed Riot Folk, while Brixton's King Blues draw on their home city's punk heritage. Mostly, though, the backing, if not strictly in traditional idioms, remains comfortably acoustic. You cannot help but feel that a certain set of voices fails to get an airing, particularly in the wake of the visceral anger that underpinned last year's riots.

The most compelling response to the riots thus far has been the uncompromising Ill Manors from the rapper/film-maker Plan B. Should Occupation Records be approaching hip-hop figures and R'n'B vocalists alongside its rockers and folkies? In fact, might protest songs be an outmoded means of self-expression in the age of social media? Do we need didactic verses or rousing anthems when smartphone owners can instantly disseminate videos and slogans are born of Twitter hashtags? Certainly, sound systems at recent marches have been playing dubstep, not acoustic ballads. Adam Jung, responsible for artist and industry relations at Occupation Records, accepts this to some extent, though still argues that traditional genres remain potent. "In some places around the world, hip-hop has replaced folk, but on this album we wanted to pay tribute to the roots of protest music, going to the songs of the slaves and the suffragettes. This kind of music can still be powerful today."

Jung refuses to be drawn on further plans, hinting only that, in the future, the label will take a "broader approach". He adds that Occupation Records is about more than the music, so for now the label is ensuring its collectivist decision-making process is up to scratch and the label can find distribution mechanisms that allow it to boycott Amazon and iTunes. It makes sense, then, to start with artists who have attended occupations in Oakland, New York and London – among them Tom Morello, the former Rage Against The Machine guitarist who performs political songs under his The Nightwatchman guise.

Last month, Morello played to nurses protesting in Chicago as Nato's leaders met – their original target, the G8 Summit, had been hastily moved to Camp David. Morello's roots are in rap-rock, something he has continued with a series of hip-hop collaborations. That capacity for reinvention and evolution suggests the protest song can still be relevant today.

Here, it has been mirrored in more low-key fashion by the thoughtful Chris Wood taking to the stage with rapper and slam poet Dizraeli. Elsewhere, protest songs continue to inspire artists in far-flung parts of the globe, as in Azerbaijan, where Jamal Ali combined rap and rock in the group Bulistan to support campaigns against the state's hardline regime before he was forced to flee ahead of its hosting the Eurovision Song Contest. Protest songs may be a venerable form of music, but their staying power lies in remaining relevant.

'Folk the Banks' is out now on Occupation Records. Bruce Springsteen plays Sunderland on 21 June then tours

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