Socialist Worker

Has music gone left?

Issue No. 1684

In my view

Has music gone left?

By Martin Smith

"ROCK IS dead." That's what one journalist in the NME music paper claimed two weeks ago. Journalists love nothing better than to wax lyrical about the "golden age" of rock and pop. Some claim it was punk. Others hark back to the rock, soul and funk music that became the soundtrack of the incredible events of 1968. One thing unites them all-the belief that young people today are only interested in making money and messing about on their Sony Playstations.

But turn on your radio and it's obvious something's going on. Pop music's going radical.

  • Primal Scream's new album, Exterminator, is a rallying cry for mass civil disobedience. It's also a denunciation of New Labour's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia.
  • Rage Against the Machine (RATM) condemn the US's brutal sanctions against Iraq and are heavily involved in the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. So far they have sold 15 million albums.
  • Asian Dub Foundation (ADF) mix punk, rap and Asian bhangra music and deliver a powerful message against racism and injustice. Their new album contains a speech from a member of the Black Panther Party and highlights the case of Satpal Ram.
  • Manic Street Preachers got to number one last month with their single "The Masses Against the Classes". Their previous single, "If You Tolerate This...", was an anthem against fascism and also got to number one.

Of course there are still bands like Steps and Westlife knocking out meaningless crap. The vast majority of music is not exciting, let alone political. The truth is it never was.

People seem to forget that when the Clash and the Sex Pistols were riding high in the charts, the Rubettes and the Smurfs were up there too. Most music is about having a good time or, falling in and (in most cases) out of love. Not all political music is good. But every now and then music can capture the spirit of an era or a political movement.

When riots rocked US cities in the late 1960s, James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" was one of the protesters' anthems. During the mid-1970s punk music reflected the growing anger with the Labour government and a stagnant music scene. Today ADF and others capture the alienation many feel with society and the mood of resistance that is growing around the world. These bands do not just sing about injustice. Many are actively involved in political campaigns. And they are no spring chickens. Bobby Gillespie, Primal Scream's lyricist and singer, is 40 years old. Manic Street Preachers have been going for over ten years, and RATM started playing in 1991.

But their music is reaching and inspiring young audiences everywhere. Yet with the exception of ADF the musical sound is hardly innovative. For example, RATM's music sounds like a cross between Led Zeppelin and Public Enemy. Recent Manic Street Preachers material could be anything produced in the 1970s by Genesis or Pink Floyd. But there are exciting musical developments happening. Dance music continues to offer new beats and rhythms. There are also a number of Asian bands whose music reflects the multiracial nature of Britain today. Music's got nothing to say any more? You must be joking.


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Sat 19 Feb 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1684
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