Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football reviews the new wave of rebel music
It has almost become a mantra: there’s no protest music any more, discuss. In the mainstream maybe, though Beyoncé for one by following up her embrace of feminism with the message that the Black Panthers matter seems to confound even that. The trouble for musos of a certain age is that the rebel rock of yesteryear, from Guthrie to the Clash, existed in a popular culture almost entirely different to the one any musical rebellion of today has to navigate its way round. So how to make the connections to the past whilst remaining meaningful, not to mention musical, in 2016?
Take The Hurriers, who seem to be single-handedly turning their home town Barnsely into a citadel of soulful socialism. Absolutely shaped by the enduring legacy of the miners’ strike, this is a band whose sound is straight out of the mid-80s Redskins songbook. That’s a compliment not a criticism, incidentally. Debut album From Little Acorns Mighty Oaks absolutely confirms this; music to shout along to rather than sing along to, full of commitment mixed up with rousing tunes.
Or Thee Faction, kind of the southern cousins of the aforementioned, though my all-time favourite description of them remains ‘Comrade Feelgood’. Whereas The Hurriers remind older listeners of The Redskins this lot have Wilko written all over them; again a compliment not a critique. Their latest masterpiece Reading, Writing, Revolution continues where previous albums left off, combining music to dance to with a richly acute ear for socialist history. Dialectics for the dancefloor, just what The Corbyn Effect demands.
Reminding me of early Belle and Sebastian vocals-wise, the debut album from The Wimmins Institute comes with a title nobody is going to forget in a hurry: Badass Lady Power Picnic.
The combination of wit and a lightness of music touch serves to prove showing our anger doesn’t always mean playing angry music, nice. The rising prominence of women musicians in protest music is splendidly reported in a new, and free e-zine, with the brilliant title, Loud Women. Promoters of political gigs have a read – there is absolutely no excuse for not having 50:50 in your line-ups.
A key role of protest music through the ages has always been to provide a chronicle of the times we live in, the histories from where we carve out the present and futures we might dream about. Leon Rosselson is without much doubt the most important singer of this tradition in Britain. His new album Where are the Barricades? marks his retirement at the age of 81 after some six decades of songwriting and singing. Full of anger, wit and imagination, which Leon has always provided across over all those years.
Robb Johnson comes from a slightly later era to Leon, though his beautifully packaged 5-CD box set A Reasonable History of Impossible Demands still manages to account for almost three decades of protest singing, 1986-2013. This is the era of Thatcher, the miners, Hillsborough, Stop the War and a whole lot more, the news via song and guitar. Yes it sounds old-fashioned but as a means to provide a collective response to all that is thrown our way, a sense of identity and belonging, and knowledge too: Robb and Leon’s trade in verse and tunes has few rivals.
Joe Solo is one of many now adding something new to this tradition. A musician-activist, Joe’s new CD Never Be Defeated is what might once have been called by other artists a ‘concept album’. The difference lies in the kind of concepts Joe is interested in. Solidarity, community and resistance in the coalfields of South Yorkshire, ’84-85.
Out of the despair of the Tories 2015 General Election victory and the delight of Jeremy Corbyn’s entirely unexpected landslide win in the Labour Leadership vote, a wave of protest music, old and new, erupted. Goodnight Heard and Unheard Hope not Hate Favourites is a double-CD compilation of anti-fascist tunes, some of the classic variety – Billy Bragg’s The Battle of Barking – but for the most part pleasantly unpredictable, both artist and content. Plenty of old favourites too, Inspiral Carpets, Attila the Stockbroker, Wonder Stuff and Chumbawamba, alongside the latest of the new wave, including Siobhan Mazzei, Blossoms, Tracey Curtis, Steve White and the Protest Family. Yet a rich variety journos still ask ‘Whatever happened to political music?’ Doh.
Orgreave Justice is another double-CD also featuring Billy Bragg alongside Louise Distras, Sleaford Mods, Paul Heaton with less well-known names Quiet Loner, The Black Lamps, Matt Abbott and more. The common theme here is truth and justice framed by that epic moment in the 84-85 Miners’ Strike, Orgreave. The specificity of the theme gives the disparate tunes and voices a collective sense of purpose producing an album of record as well as resistance. The spoken word and folk interludes sit well alongside the more obviously rousing tracks to create a really impressive compilation, in fact a textbook version for others to follow.
Based in my hometown Lewes, East Sussex Union Music Store,is an extraordinary factory of good music – live music, record shop, recording studio and their own record label too. Every town should have one, sadly most don’t. Testament to their ambition and impact is the CD they rush-released within a few weeks of the nightmare Tory victory (on just 24% of the popular vote it should always be remembered) last May. Land of Hope and Fury also benefits from the specificity of its content, this time in terms of musical styles, mainly of Americana, Country and Folk which is what Union unashamedly favour. Lucy Ward, Mark Chadwick of the Levellers, Moulettes, O’Hooley and Tidow, with for me Grace Petrie’s If There’s A Fire in your Heart providing the absolute stand out track of a very splendid lot.
A music of change needs a music we can dance to as well. A mix of conscious lyrics and rhythms to move body and soul. It’s no accident that the 1980s two-tone music was one of the first to provide this mix and with an unrivalled multicultural line-up too. A ska revival has been a long time coming but there is a hint of it with Captain SKA and South Coast favourites The Meow Meows. Both are absolute showstoppers live. The Meow Meows are promising to release a third album soonish. In the meantime treat yourself to some uneasy listening off their second album Somehow We Met.
A rebel music that knows its history, diverse in styles, mashing up gender, race and sexuality, conscious lyricism with enough tunes for those out to look good on the dancefloor. Not the same as it’s ever been, but paying dues to those who went before. Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come: not just a classic tune, but a shared musical and political ambition too – now and back then too.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football. On Saturday 1 October at Rich Mix London 2016 Philosophy Football in association with the RMT and Thompsons Solicitors, supported by The International Brigade Memorial Trust will be marking the 80th Anniversary of Cable Street and the formation of the International Brigades with a night showcasing protest music 2016 introduced by Mark Thomas and featuring The Hurriers, Louise Distras, The Wakes, Potent Whisper, Will Kaufman and Lánre. Ticket details to follow but reserve the date for a night not to be missed.
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart in September, available to pre-order here.