The book – which is about protest music – starts by looking at Billie Holiday’s harrowing classic about lynching, Strange Fruit, and works its way through the world of protest songs right up to Green Day’s anti-Bush/redneck song American Idiot.
On the way it charts every major political event in the US and Britain from the 60s, and takes detours into the protest music of Chile, Nigeria and Jamaica.
The range of this book as a piece of social and musical history is staggering. In the process we come across almost every modern musical genre – starting with folk, through soul, British punk, American punk, hip hop, rock and much more.
Sometimes the narrative takes us to places where the “protest” element is tenuous, sometimes where it is obvious.
At times it feels like artists are jumping on bandwagons, while at other times they appear to be brave beyond belief.
So the seemingly unlikely rebels the Dixie Chicks had records burned and concerts picketed, and death threats recieved for speaking out against Bush and the Iraq War.
In Chile it went beyond threats. The folk singer Victor Jara had both hands broken before being executed by Pinochet’s murderers.
The book is a great read despite flaws in some of the analysis, both political and musical. Politically Lynskey tends towards a soft reformism.There is also one huge gap which I suspect reflects his politics. Having travelled the world of struggle you could be forgiven for thinking that throughout this period Northern Ireland didn’t exist.
Apart from dealing with U2’s a plague on you all Sunday Bloody Sunday there is no mention of Christy Moore or the Pogues. You wouldn’t know that half the Undertones wore black armbands on Top of the Pops during the hunger strike, or that when they split half of them formed the highly political That Petrol Emotion.
The book finishes with a rather wistful epilogue, in which Lynskey fears we may have seen the last of protest music, and indeed traditional protests. Websites not placards are now the order of the day, he says – although he acknowledges student protest has begun to reignite on the streets.
The book missed the huge anti-cuts demos and the revolts in the Middle East (in which the internet helped mobilise rather than demobilise). As for protest music being dead, anyone who has seen the Andrew Lansley Rap by NxtGen will know it survives, there is an audience for it, and as sure as eggs is eggs the struggles ahead will produce music inspired by them, and in turn will be inspired by them.
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