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52 Books #19: 33 Revolutions Per Minute

May 17, 2011

Guardian columnist Dorian Lynskey’s first book is a mammoth history of protest songs, 33 Revolutions Per Minute (Faber). From Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ to M.I.A.’s ‘Paper Planes’, John Lennon to Bruce Springsteen, Lynskey uses music and musicians to tell a history of the last hundred-odd years — or uses history to tell the story of a hundred years of music.

Lynskey’s thesis, which he elaborates in the last quarter of the book, is that the protest song is a dying or extinct form. (Certainly the phrase ‘protest song’ has always struck me as faintly antediluvian; the cover artwork doesn’t do much to shift this view, the most recent photograph incorporated being one of the Clash from thiry-plus years ago.) It’s difficult to disagree, based on the evidence he provides: whereas hangings, war efforts, dubious political campaigns, apartheid et al all generated resonant and enduring songs, events over the last ten years have seen much less mobilisation. For instance, aside from a record sampling Kanye West’s ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ outburst, Hurricane Katrina inspired no protest songs of note. And then there’s the way Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ was co-opted a couple of years ago in a fresh protest… against X Factor‘s domination of the UK’s Top 40 every Christmas.

Before we get to this sad stage, however, this is a lively and informative history, highly illuminating, and fascinating in the way it joins dots: I’ve long been interested in the New York power-blackout of 1977, but hadn’t till now read much about the resultant riots and looting, or the creative responses to these actions.Elsewhere, John Lennon’s career as a protest singer is given an unsparing reading — from the heights he reaches as creator of one of the most potent such songs, ‘Imagine’, he goes on to produce ‘some of the worst protest songs ever recorded’. As it’s a summary, one might argue that there’s little new information here — for instance, I’d been reading about both the Sex Pistols and Crass of late in various books (by Fred Vermorel, Barry Miles, Aylwyn W. Turner and Nick Kent), and found that while Lynskey’s focus on their respective works (as opposed to their formation or, in a vacuum, their politics) was valuable, the factual material was familiar from those other books. For singers or bands I was less familiar with, 33 Revolutions provided some revelations. I was deeply cheered to read that a number ‘serious’ reggae musicians viewed Bob Marley as a sellout making pop songs: this made me glad that I did not, in emulation of how I act when one of his songs comes on the radio, skip through that chapter. (I never skip when reading. This was an idle threat.)

What rankles a little bit is Lynskey’s tone, which can be waspish or faintly snarky at times. It’s very much the voice, in other words, of a Guardian music writer — I blame Alexis Petridis somewhat for this trend of turning the record review into a platform for showing off the irony and wit of the reviewer (though actually, now I think of it, that was often the mode of NME journalists back when I used to read the paper in the mid-90s too). It’s almost as if Lynskey is embarrassed at times by his own enthusiasm for his subject matter, which is a very fannish sort of juxtaposition: there’s that old joke about the dictionary definition of a fan, ‘someone who hates the object of his affection’. These moments are often signified by the use of a snarky “somewhat”: so-and-so “somewhat undercut” the message of their protest song through a dodgy lyric. At other times the intended comic effect is just weird: on p.475, for instance, he writes about Bruce Springsteen: “He sang about the working man and he played music like the working man, all sweat and sinew. He is still perhaps the only rock icon you would trust to fix your car or build you a woodshed.” Well, okay: but that doesn’t really tell us anything more about Springsteen, any more than a friend recommending you a car mechanic on the basis he’s a gifted songwriter. It’s probably better that this is a chatty and sometimes faintly offbeat text than a po-faced academic treatise, but some of the comic effects seemed a little strained.

Inevitably one reads this sort of book with half an eye on perceived omissions. I was surprised, for instance, at there being no mention in the chapter on Rage Against The Machine and Radiohead’s antithetical approaches to protest (mobilisation vs creative defeatism) of Radiohead’s ‘Harry Patch (In Memory Of)’ (2009), one of the most eloquent anti-war songs and certainly one of their more overtly political songs — for those who don’t know it, it’s quotes from a Radio 4 interview with the eponymous First World War veteran, sung by Thom Yorke at his sweetest, over Johnny Greenwood’s extraordinarily beautiful string arrangement. Of course, it’s not really a direct response to current affairs or specific incidents in the way that (for an example which is mentioned in the text) Yorke’s solo song ‘On Harrowdown Hill’ is informed by the suicide of weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, and so to include ‘Harry Patch’ would mean including an awful lot of anti-war songs, swelling this already hefty book to unmanageable proportions. Nonetheless, I start to wonder whether, if Lynskey’s theory is true, this is the way things will go now. This year we have PJ Harvey’s excoriating songs about Gallipoli on Let England Shake, and Toronto band Fucked Up’s forthcoming ‘rock opera’ about unemployment in Thatcher’s Britain, David Comes to Life. If songwriters devise works about events they didn’t witness in countries that aren’t their own, are they still protest songs? I think they are, and that 33 Revolutions Per Minute (necessarily) concludes before Lynskey can examine these cases means I was doubly sorry to finish it.

Other reading in Week #19:

Hugo Williams West End Final (Faber)

Per Wästberg The Journey of Anders Sparrman (Granta)

Boria Sax Crow (Reaktion)

Amanda Hodgkinson 22 Britannia Road (Penguin Fig Tree)

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