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Gregor Gall: In search of protest songs as popular music leaves a void

Punk musician Joe Strummer of The Clash performs onstage at the Capitol Theatre, Passaic, New Jersey, March 8, 1980. Visible in the background is Paul Simonon, on bass guitar
Punk musician Joe Strummer of The Clash performs onstage at the Capitol Theatre, Passaic, New Jersey, March 8, 1980. Visible in the background is Paul Simonon, on bass guitar

‘TOO many protest singers/Not enough protest songs.” So sang Scots former Orange Juice frontperson, Edwyn Collins, on his 1994 hit single, A Girl Like You.

Almost a decade earlier, Morrissey from The Smiths’ Shakespeare’s Sister single in 1985 believed: “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar/Then it meant that you were a protest singer.”

But the recent domination of popular music by the likes of Lewis Capaldi and Ed Sheeran has not brought about the return of much-needed protest songs and protest singers.

The National: Ed Sheeran at Own Our Venues campaign
The National: Ed Sheeran at Own Our Venues campaign

Resplendent with acoustic guitars, the likes of Scots Capaldi, Amy Macdonald and KT Tunstall and English Sheeran, Laura Marling and Ellie ­Goulding write and sing about deeply introspective issues, ­eschewing any wider social commentary.

Collins was – some 30 years ago – plainly wrong on his first count and needed to “rip it up and start again” as he wrote and sang on Orange Juice’s 1983 hit, Rip It Up.

So, where has radical, rebel protest music gone? It has had a long history in folk music with the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan in the United States, and the Scottish contingent being led by Dick Gaughan and Ewan MacColl.

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Often influenced by communists, folk music was seen as the quintessential people’s music. And it is from here that we can date the association of protest music with the acoustic guitar. After the widespread adoption of the electric guitar, protest music can then be seen to have inhabited some elements of soul, punk and rap.

Though his left-wing politics have softened ­considerably since the 1980s, Billy Bragg has done more than any other individual in recent times to keep the flame of protest music flickering. As a solo artist and calling himself a “one-man Clash”, for many years, Bragg has lamented the lack of protest songs and protest singers amongst the up-and-coming generation of singer-songwriters and rock musicians. But he does not blame them in the least for this ­predicament.

Instead, he charges the changed technology of ­communication – especially social media – has meant young people have other ways to express themselves politically and explore new and alternative ideas. For Bragg, this means music is not the medium it once was. Writing blogs and making video clips are now the new currency that has mass traction, according to him.

But Bragg is in danger of throwing “the baby out with the bathwater” because the medium of music – unlike any other form of art or even communication – has potential to create a human experience that is both intensely ideological and patently psychological.

In other words, when combined, well-crafted ­lyrics and music about political issues which rail against the status quo and exhort for a ­radical ­alternative can help create an emotional and ­cerebral ­emancipation in the head of the listener. For me, ­written by Joe Strummer, The Clash’s White Riot (1977), ­Clampdown (1979), Washington Bullets (1980) and Know Your Rights (1983) are ­exemplars here.

So, in addition to Strummer and Bragg, the 1970s and 1980s also saw the likes of Jerry Dammers (The Specials), Paul Weller (The Jam, The Style Council, pictured below) and a host of other bands like The Redskins and The Men They Couldn’t Hang producing ­politically charged protest music.

The National: English Pop and Rock musician Paul Weller, of the group the Style Council, films the music video for 'The Lodger,' 9/2/1985. Behind him, from left, are band members Dee C Lee, Mick Talbot, and Steve White. (Photo by Steve Rapport/Getty Images).
The National: English Pop and Rock musician Paul Weller, of the group the Style Council, films the music video for 'The Lodger,' 9/2/1985. Behind him, from left, are band members Dee C Lee, Mick Talbot, and Steve White. (Photo by Steve Rapport/Getty Images).

In the 1990s and 2000s, Manu Chao, Chuck D, Fermin Muguruza, Boots ­Riley, Tom Morello and Zack de la Rocha stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs in ­trying to practice what they preached and keep protest music powering on. The same is true of Lowkey and Slowthai more recently.

These are all good examples of ­radical musicians who wore their hearts and ­ideas on their sleeves – so to speak – and took actions to prosecute their ­radical ­beliefs, attacking and critiquing the ­causes and effects of inequality under neoliberalism.

All this means that we should be ­particularly critical of those who ­initially were protest singers with protest songs but went on to “sell the pass” to “the Man”, whether that be the record ­industry, the ideology of Thatcherism (AKA neoliberalism) or their own ­personal fame and wealth.

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We should also be particularly ­critical of the fake radicals who use the ­mantle of rebellion to promote themselves and sell records. Bono of U2 as the tax-avoiding gusher for George Bush is the best ­example that comes to mind. He never unequivocally condemned the ­violence of the oppressor on the island of ­Ireland, just meekly criticising violence, ­wherever it came from (including from the ­oppressed).

People  of my generation will immediately think of John Lydon as the radical turned reactionary. As Johnny Rotten, from being a working-class oik who railed against the monarchy in 1977, he ended up praising the same queen many years later and especially when she died.

He also supported Trump in his ­racist and sexist crusade to “Make America Great Again”. Under the influence of Malcolm McLaren, it seemed anarchism was just another means of marketing.

But Lydon is, of course, far from the only one. Morrissey (below) has gone from his “Irish blood” to “English heart” by ­backing neo-fascism and racism, most recently in the form of the For Britain political party.

The National: The Smiths' Performing At Finsbury Park London, Britain - Aug 1992, The Smiths - Morrissey (Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images).
The National: The Smiths' Performing At Finsbury Park London, Britain - Aug 1992, The Smiths - Morrissey (Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images).

From wishing Thatcher dead on his first, post-Smiths, solo album called Viva Hate (1988) with Margaret On The ­Guillotine, it was only a few years later that he wrapped himself in the Union Jack at the infamous Finsbury Park gig on August 8, 1992 and released The ­National Front Disco on Your Arsenal in the same year. In this song, his frequent refrain is “England for the English”, wishing that the race war comes as soon as possible.

Weller has had a very chequered past to say the least. From saying in 1977 that unions had brainwashed people and he would vote Tory in the 1979 general ­election, he turned leftwards with the ­lyrics for the last days of The Jam, ­advocating rebellion if not quite ­revolution.

And from The Style Council’s Our ­Favourite Shop album (1985), there was Walls Come Tumbling Down! and The Lodgers where Weller sings ­respectively: “They take the profits, you take the blame” and “No peace for the wicked – only war on the poor”.

He raised money for the striking ­miners with the Soul Deep (1984) single by The Council Collective and was a main player in forming Red Wedge alongside Bragg.

Having his fingers burnt by the ­experience of Red Wedge, Weller became unpolitical for many years. Yet he then supported Jeremy Corbyn by playing the first “Concert for Corbyn” gig in ­Brighton in 2016, telling the NME music paper: “I’m doing the gig because I like what Corbyn says and stands for. I think it’s time to take the power out of the hands of the elite and hand it back to the people of this country. I want to see a government that has some integrity and compassion.”

But it was not long until he turned full circle again. In response to Boris Johnson’s 2019 general election victory, Weller ­proclaimed in 2020: “My reaction was that I was never gonna be interested or ­involved in any politics ever again ­because I just cannot be bothered with any of it. If I was very disappointed with the Tories’ win, I was even more ­disappointed that Labour lost it.”

One of the common denominators is that Lydon, Morrissey and Weller are from working-class stock. So, too is Bragg. This suggests being from the working class is not the sine qua non of radicalism that some suppose it to be. Strummer was from the middle class, his father being a senior civil servant.

It is interesting that progressive ­lyricists and sometime supporters of radical ­causes – Paul Heaton (The Housemartins, The Beautiful South) and Damon Albarn (of the non-Blur parish like The Good, The Bad & The Queen) – also came from ­middle-class stock. The influence of ­parents and then these ­individuals ­setting their own political courses as a result of ­other influences is ­apparent. Heaton ­regularly supports ­unions while Albarn has been an anti-war and ­pro-environment ­advocate.

Focusing upon Strummer highlights that the mettle, skills and ­understanding that individual musicians need to have in deciding how to use their musical ­platform as a weapon in the battle against neo-liberalism is more important than where they came from.

To recall the popular phrase of the punk era: “‘It’s not where you’re from – it’s where you’re going that is important.” For Strummer, this battle took the form of being against Thatcherism followed by being against Blairism.

STRUMMER started out a hippy in the early 1970s but was soon disappointed that the political promise of progressive change of the late 1960s came to little. Hence, he turned the “love and peace” slogan into a song called Hate And War on The Clash’s first album.

But disappointment did not lead to ­disillusionment. The battles against racism and fascism were uppermost in Strummer’s lyrics and ­pronouncements in the late 1970s. Fairly quickly, he ­started advocating for socialism, with this ­flowering into full bloom after the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street in 1979. It came to its most ­obvious fruition in The Clash’s fourth album, Sandinista! (1980).

After the demise of The Clash in 1986, Strummer fronted and funded the Class War-organised “Rock Against The Rich” tour in Britain in 1988. Though not an ­anarchist, he believed anarchism should be taken seriously and given more ­exposure than the likes of art collective and punk band Crass could ever give it.

In this period before his lean years out of the limelight, he was willing and able to take the lead in making radical ­political pronouncements to the youth of Britain and further afield, whether through his lyrics, interviews or live performances. This was because he had the courage and charisma to do so.

Consequently, he became the ­articulate and self-confident voice for the voiceless, in the process opening up people’s eyes to the horrors of American ­imperialism, “Third World” poverty and growing ­inequality in the West. Some of his ­followers joined the Nicaragua ­Solidarity Campaign and a few even went to ­Nicaragua to work as volunteers.

Following the arrival of Tony Blair into Downing Street and his maintenance of many of the key tenets of Thatcherism, Strummer became somewhat politically disillusioned.

The National: Tony Blair appeared on stage with Sir Keir Starmer recently
The National: Tony Blair appeared on stage with Sir Keir Starmer recently

He felt betrayed by Blair (above) and ­dejected by the inability of the left to stop ­Blairism. He moved from being a s­ocialist to a ­humanist who ­advocated for a ­decentralised, ethical form of ­capitalism.

The sense of this can be found in his last three albums with The ­Mescaleros where the plight of immigrants and ­multi-culturalism are amongst their strongest themes. His final London gig was a ­benefit for the then striking ­firefighters. On that last tour, he played several ­other benefits gigs, showing he still had a ­connection and commitment to working for radical political change.

So, we still have to live in the hope that some others will take up the baton that Strummer was forced to put down at the age of just 50 on December 22, 2002.

Gregor Gall is author of The Punk Rock Politics Of Joe Strummer (Manchester University Press, 2022)