33 Revolutions per Minute
new edition, reviewed by tony jasper
At the last count I possess around 1500 books on popular music. 33 Revolutions Per Minute by the Guardian writer Dorian Lynskey (Faber and Faber . £12.99) now ranks as one of the finest volumes to adorn my creaking shelves. ’ As the present title stands it could be a book about vinyl albums. The sub-title tells you more about the book, and so ‘ A History of Protest Songs’ Lynskey has written a detailed and informative text on this far reaching subject in a weighty bulky tome of nearly 900 pages that comes in at an extraordinarily low price.
In term of coverage, the writer takes us from the classic Strange Fruit song so bitingly sung by Billie Holliday to the more recent sometimes in favour Green Day with their rage against the Iraq War. Along the way we meet hundreds of music people who in some way or the other have used their songs and music to say ‘things ain’t right.’ out there. . One of the joys of this book is Lynskey’s willingness to narrate the ‘dirt’ that often runs cheek-by-cheek with apparent goodness. In other words, this is no fanzine text, nor one where each and every music star is seen as some kind of minor saviour of whatever might be the cause.
Much of the material is US based, and so among other things, from folk and the acid heads and Vietnam protest, to black consciousness by way of Motown and the black politics espoused by artists such as The Last Poets, Gill Scott-Heron, Sly and the Family Stone and Curtis Mayfield to the great man himself, James Brown. The latter could none- the-less could lower temperatures from the all-time memorable ‘Say it Loud’ to his next single, Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.’ Brown of course is an enigma as he seemingly effortlessly moves at times from black consciousness, and having the ‘left’ on side, to respect for Nixon and playing at his inaugural ball, and otherwise running at times with the gospel of capitalist self-sufficiency.
Jamaica gets a` visit before we eventually hit something British, on page 339, via a cocaine wrapped David Bowie, and who speaking in 1975 to the New Musical Express, from New York rambled on about ‘Philistine’ culture and moral decline before throwing in the thought that the next step was a dictatorship. Soon Lynsky brings on to the stage the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Jamaican born
Linton Kwesi Johnson and perhaps to bring some blushes now, Eric Clapton. The revered British guitarist is reminded of how on 5 August 1976 he asked on stage ‘Do we have any foreigners in the audience?”’ as the drunken singer said there was need to stop Britain ‘being a colony within ten years.’ Here, on the British race issue, as in many other moments both sides of the Atlantic Lynsky merges music into the social and political realities, and on the latter in early times the National Front, Enoch Powell and on the other side Rock Against Racism and the British Black Panther Movement. Some of the former makes chilling reading.
So much passes before indeed, we meet U2 on page 469., from early times not relaxed with Catholic dogma and Fianna Fail republicanism. It’s here where a ‘Christian’ strain has a brief occupancy in the text, and of the religious imperatives that pervaded the early life-style (Bible meetings) to the songs themselves that were often permeated with moving Christian sentiments. Nearly 200 pages later the reader is reminded, for good or bad, the 1998 Birmingham International Convention where Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and other G8 leaders calmly danced to the Beatle anthem, All You Need is love.
The present century gets its blast on page 667 with Neil Young’s ‘Living with War’ – a song aimed at President George Bush and for the maestro his most overt political song outburst since the highly influential and disturbing ‘Ohio’. that talked the death of students at that city’s University. Young even had a song ‘Let’s impeach the President.’ Presumably it never made the Bush family turntable either in Texas or Washington DC. By now Britain has largely disappeared from the text, although preceding this there is a visit to John Major’s somewhat ineffectual reign and among other things the Criminal Justice and Public Order bill, and the emergence of The Prodigy. The US has a final flourish with R.E.M and of course Green Day. As you might expect from such a good book there is copious information and reference sources at the conclusion and also an up-date from the 2010 edition. And yes Bob Dylan and John Lennon are wheeled out.
This copy can only visit a few areas of this mighty text.
Yes, it does cover Band Aid and Live Aid where the writer could have told the story of record company and artist bitching behind the scenes but then he does remind us of Miriam Makeba’s verbal dagger on the recording of ‘We Are the World’ as she exclaims with some wonder “Who is the world? Where are the singers from Africa, Europe, the East, the Third World They are all Americans singing ‘We are the World.’ Oh truly, we say, ‘America is the world.’
Through all this of course there were Christian record companies and artists, It can be said that by-and-large until recently, and outside of small independents such as Simon Laws’ Plankton, the particular` Christian ’33 rpm’ voice is pretty dumb, although in early times there was an angry folkish Graham Kendrick, and everlastingly provoking the somnolent, we can still speak of Garth Hewitt The ‘specialised’ Christian scene, here and the US, and much of the world’ in music terms, merits a mere line or two in A History of Protest Songs. That in itself is some commentary.
(This review was first printed in The Methodist Recorder).