The 1990s Story Behind ‘Killing In The Name’

This is the 4th and final week of the Nostalgic Music Mini Series ‘Behind These Political Songs That Defined Their Decade‘. But stay tuned for next week’s article focused on sexism in the Scottish Music Scene and Wednesday 28th July’s article; ‘The Instagram Subculture Centred on Living in the Past‘.

After an evening of drinking, two black men proceeded to drive through two different states in the USA before being tracked down by police for breaking the law. Both men were maltreated by officers attending the scene. One man had an officer kneeling on his neck whilst another was beaten with a police baton over 50 times. At both locations, a bystander began to record. These recordings sent shockwaves through the world. You see, one man was Rodney King, the other George Floyd, and one year was 1991, the other 2020, yet the most hard-hitting difference; only one walked out alive…and that was 29 years earlier.

King reportedly suffered brain damage, skull fractures, broken bones, kidney failure and emotional trauma, all of which had been recorded on tape from a salesman across the road. This later aired on a local TV Station. Inevitably sparking worldwide outrage, there was none more so than in the year that followed, where three officers involved were acquitted of assault. Riots flooded the nation, particularly in King’s city of LA and became known as the ‘LA riots’. 

In 1992, as the streets of LA blazed in horror and fury, a Los Angeles band were cooking up a storm for their self-titled debut album ‘Rage Against The Machine’. At this point the band’s lead guitarist, Tom Morello, took a strong riff that he had discovered while teaching one of his students a drop D tuning to his band. This, combined with the cathartic passion from frontman Zack de la Rocha, ‘Killing in the Name’ was birthed, taking inspiration from King’s systemic sufferings. 

At this time, Zack thrust his fascination with the power of speech into action, further motivated by his admiration for activists such as Malcolm X. It seemed there was no time more critical to vocalise his beliefs than during one of LA’s most profound moments. From this came arguably the most poignant repeated lines of an epic rock song: “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.” Here, he alludes to the brutal, institutional corruption and racism that went hand in hand throughout the USA and, more importantly—still does. 

Rage Against The Machine are the first band on this list whose sole musical purpose and existence can be credited to being radical. It’s still equally as important to note that their musical talent is not weakened by this but instead strengthened, working in almost a symbiotic relationship with each other. The band has a whole catalogue not shy of rap infused metal consisting of bellows of social injustices. All in the dirtiest, most raw and furious fashion you could only expect from a band with ‘rage’ in their title. 

There’s a sort of ironic hypocrisy in the fact that the song never charted in its home country, the origin place of the societal issues that inspired the song, but instead earning a spot at number 25 in the UK in 1993 after a live appearance on a tv show called Yoof. From then on, RATM performed notoriously temper-filled concerts worldwide, most often ending in riot cops and the burning of an American flag. A bold statement that resulted in complete and utter musical and political mayhem— but it gave them sort of an edge. 

“A little dose of anarchy for the Christmas Holidays is good for the soul,” Morello told BBC Radio 6 Music in 2009. This statement was in response to a campaign started that year by Jon Morter, an English Dj, to get RATM’s Killing in the Name to the Christmas number one spot against X-Factor winner Joe McElderry. This campaign’s motivation was to make a point that commercial and cheesy pop singles are not what the nation wants, and, spoiler, he was right as the campaign was successful. RATM had achieved UK Christmas Number One. 

In the run-up, the members spoke in a BBC interview in response to how they’d feel if they achieved the number one spot, frontman De la Rocha said: “It would be kind of a wonderful statement. I think that it says something about the real tensions that people are experiencing all over the UK and the United States as well,” through a fuzzy mic in a studio, he continued, “I think that people would love to hear a song that reflects some of the tensions that they’re experiencing in their daily lives.”

When asked if RATM felt that this was a rage against the manufactured pop business, Morello took hold of the mic and said: “I think it’s tapped into the silent majority of the people in the UK that are tired of being spoon-fed one schmaltzy ballad after another and they want to take back their own charts,” it was here that his voice started to raise with a heightened passion that confirmed the honesty in his speech, “and we are honoured that they’ve chosen our song to be the rebel anthem to try and topple the X-factor monopoly.” 

There was a humble yet heartfelt passion in the band’s interview. Unlike many artists in the industry, there seemed to be no sign of hypocrisy due to the campaign’s proceeds going toward help for homeless shelters.

Morello finally turns to Jon and says: “It’s a real liberating musical revolution that people are on. I think that it’s an excellent lesson for people that whether it’s in a small matter like who’s at the top of the charts or bigger matters like war and peace and economic inequality — when people band together and make their voices heard, they can completely overturn the system as it is.” 

Like U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, this 1992 essential moment-capturing epic has continued relevancy, probably today more than ever. The YouTube comment sections of this song are flooded with statements from 2020 like “This band is so needed right now,” and “I get the message now,” and this is 29 years on from the song’s initial incident for political inspiration. RATM didn’t just speak to their nation, but to multiple — especially the UK, holding a strong affinity with the politically charged punk scene over a decade before them. Morello told BBC Radio 6 Music: “Your country has a great, rich history of cutting-edge, exciting rebel music— whether that’s early Stones and The Who, or The Clash and the Sex Pistols, or Prodigy and Muse.” 

Two black men broke the law one night. One lay battered senseless on the road, the other begged for air, the one organic source that should not be deprived of us from anything but time itself and almost 30 years after the first, one didn’t make it out alive. Institutional racism is more than a sign of its times. In fact, it only seems to have worsened with it. Having more artists like Rage Against The Machine today are the voices for the changes that can be made tomorrow. 




Image Source “Rage Against the Machine @ Christiania 1993” by pellesten is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The 1980s Story Behind ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’

This is week 3 of the Nostalgic Music Mini Series ‘Behind These Political Songs That Defined Their Decade‘.

Timeless tracks are often regarded as having a wholesome, nostalgic warmth that can remind you of your blissful youth or force you to question if you were born in the wrong era. However, every so often, there is a timeless track that brings to the surface deep, dark scars of political unrest, yet still regarded as poignant for defining its times. It’s important to note that in music, it’s not always sunshine and tie-dye rainbow shirts. There’s a frightening irony in the fact that Dublin’s most treasured rock band’s third single from their album War doesn’t just define a particularly dark side of the politics of the 80s, but of a decade earlier and decades since. 

Though protest songs can be (and often are) a memento of their time, sometimes they can be as relevant in the now just as they had been in the past. Easter Monday 2021 came and went, seeing some of the most horrific acts of violence, gangs and disputes in Northern Ireland in recent years. The destruction caused by petrol bombs and the marching of loyalist bands through streets and towns proves that music and events can haul you back to different times and not necessarily pleasant ones. Needless to say, it can sometimes be terrifying how much the present can reflect the past… or does anything really change? 

U2’s frontman, Bono, had a picture to paint for the listener in ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, which contrasted the 1972 instant massacre of 13 Irish citizens by British paratroopers in Northern Ireland with the peacefulness of Easter Sunday—a day in which both Protestants and Catholics share celebrations on. The sad irony of this track is that 2021’s Easter did not see a uniting, peaceful celebration of two divides but rather a reminder of the remnants of what is often referred to as “The Troubles”, a three-decade-long conflict and its unfortunate, seemingly timeless, endurance. The events of today are at odds with U2’s hope for what was their tomorrow. 

Since at least the 15th Century, Western European ground has seen horrific bloody battles between Northern Ireland and England. Yet, arguably, nothing as socially and politically provoking as the period of “The Troubles”, influencing some of the biggest protest songs to appear in the industry from the likes of John Lennon—who was famously criticised for his lack of political strength in his own ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. 

U2 would notoriously give goosebump-inducing performances of their version, holding the capacity to make your hairs stand on end, which made them a household name. Though initially intending to condemn the IRA— a militant group who were persistent on removing British troops from Northern Ireland— Bono later changed the song to represent a nonpartisan condemnation. This meant highlighting the adversity of war without siding with either and opting for a non-violence approach. It was common for Bono to wave a white flag at live performances as a strong emphasis on his universal peace message. 

Though live versions of this song are countless, even appearing in the end credits of the 2002 documentary-style film Bloody Sunday, those did not seem to even touch the cusp of the power and emotion of their recording in 1987 for their Rattle and Hum movie. This Denver recording took place on the same day as the Enniskillen killings (more commonly known as the Remembrance Day bombing), which seen the bloodshed of 13 people in Northern Ireland from a bomb detonated by the IRA. U2 were nothing short of exasperated by the news and so proceeded to give one of their most moving and heart-rending performances. 

Bono discusses U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ for the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s special exhibit, ‘Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics’ and how he remembers his childhood: “All I remember is arguing about religion as I grew up,” he began, before saying that his father had an interesting perspective, “What is Ireland but a place that keeps my feet from getting wet?” Bono’s dad would say to him, “Am I on the side of the British? No— but it’s not worth fighting for.” 

It’s clear that the views of Bono’s father resonated within him. This resulted in one of the greatest, politically moving rock songs of all time, yet even though it takes a neutral, pro-peace standpoint, there was inevitably some room for misinterpretation— as seen with many protest songs. Contextualising and delving deep into the meanings behind a song’s themes are essential in preventing the spread of misconstrued political messages. 

In the ‘Louder Than Words’ interview, Bono talks of Gerry Adams, the president of the Irish Republican political party, Sinn Féin, from 1983 to 2018. He speaks of Adams having U2’s War album pinned up on his office wall and would continuously hype up ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ to people and in Bono’s words would say that the song: “…is reminding everyone of the injustice the British did to us.” However, Bono says that Adams later found out that they were non-violent and that they took a different, peaceful approach at the time. Bono claims that things changed for U2 with the Sinn Féin community and those who supported their views. 

U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ was a revolutionary milestone and significantly original for a political song, breaking the mould and idea that in politics, you either need to sway one way or the other when instead— you can meet somewhere in the middle. This is also a song whose tension builds as the song progresses, different from any other song they had done before and have done since. Christopher Connelly of the Rolling Stone Magazine in a 1984 article claims: “This is ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for smart people — even if it is played a tad too fast.” 

With its simplistic structure conveying a complex message, using a militaristic drum beat and an electric violin— the instrumentation only magnifies the emotion entangled in an important message and not just in the studio, but from the moment they step onto a stage. Perhaps this will inspire more people of today to pick up a guitar to convey a message instead of a bomb and march about a stage instead of the streets.


Image Source: “File:Bono U2 360 Tour 2011.jpg” by Peter Neill is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The 1970s Story Behind ‘God Save The Queen’

This is week 2 of the Nostalgic Music Mini Series ‘Behind These Political Songs That Defined Their Decade‘.

A punk concert wouldn’t quite live up to the expectations of its mission if it didn’t end in police presence and arrests, as seen by many anarchical, boisterous bands through the latter half of the 20th century. However, one concert sets apart all the rest, taking place far from the good old British Terra Firma’s civilised grounds. 

On the 7th June 1977 crowds gathered on the UK streets, waving their tiny British flags to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, commemorating 25 years of her reign. All over television stations, horses trotting alongside a marvellous, golden carriage was broadcasted with the sound of Thomas Arne’s “Rule, Britannia!” to the British public from 10am. Elsewhere, however, an up-and-coming punk quartet was drafting plans for their own celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee. As dusk fell on British soil, the musical uprising had ignited on the sea. 

The Sex Pistols, armed with instruments, took to their boat concert on the Thames River just outside of Westminster Palace to consolidate their place as a real establishment irritant. Plans to circumvent a “ban” brought on their newly released track ‘God Save the Queen’ was a frustrating failure. Before the performance could proceed — and in true punk style— they were halted by authorities. 

At the time of the Queen’s Jubilee, Britain was undergoing a national depression due to strikes, cuts and unemployment from a range of necessary services. This resulted in many having little to no income against the ever-increasing cost of living. Notably, due to the closure of coal mines and their workers’ strikes, a 3 day work week was implemented in the UK to conserve fuel, and due to this, it would be fair to say that economically, the 70s was a decade of discontent. However, all the social unrest had a silver lining to its dark cloud: an emerging punk scene, fronted by the Sex Pistols. 

Noted as one of the greatest youth subcultures of British history, the Sex Pistols quickly put both the punk genre and subculture on the map and ‘God Save the Queen’ was the chant of choice. This song blew up like a nuclear bomb, with its radiation still being felt today, expressing the pent up rage and frustration of a generation toward the British Monarchy and establishment. 

Just like many protest songs before them, ‘God Save the Queen’, in Johnny Rotten half-singing fashion, vocalised the feelings of alienation felt by the youth from the rule of what many would testify as an outdated, old-fashioned monarchy. Given the context of 70s Britain, poverty was too close to home for much of their youth. However, many felt it was a human truth the establishment could not be more out of touch with. 

Also, similar to John Fogerty, the Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten) explained in an interview with Daniel Rachel (The Art of Noise; Conversations with Great Songwriters) that the thought process behind the song had taken some time to ferment in his brain: “‘God Save the Queen’ was running around in my mind for months, long before joining the Sex Pistols; the idea of being angry of the indifference of the Queen to the population and the aloofness and indifference to us as people.” It was also here that he claimed that as the Pistols came along, he penned the ruthless, raw and dirty track at his parent’s kitchen table over a bowl of baked beans, showing a sort of quirky honesty and unabashed side of his formidable character. 

Lydon also went onto explain in an episode of Channel 4’s X-Rated: TV They Tried to Ban, his still bubbling frustrations with the Monarchy, even decades on: “That woman has precious little to do with her so-called subjects other than ignored the hell out of us.” Lydon paused. “We’re just there to prop up her tiara.” 

Though being branded “degrading and disgusting” by a large portion of Britain’s elderly and conservative, Lydon managed to irk the establishment itself. James Whittaker, a Royal Commentator on the same show, stated: “We’d had the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, of course, who’d upset a few, but the sheer disgustingness of the Sex Pistols did offend a lot of people.”

However, Lydon argues that it wasn’t his intent to agitate the elderly or established but rather liberate the alienated and disillusioned: “…these things meant something; they weren’t just done for shock value. They have a point and a purpose.” Despite Lydon’s claims, it’s clear that the establishment was part of the demographic who interpreted the song as not only a mockery but an attack on their ruler and almost immediately, theories emerged of their revenge. 

Before the song’s release, EMI and A&M both abandoned the Pistols, branding them as trouble, but EMI’s loss was Richard Branson’s gain and ‘God Save the Queen’ was released on Virgin Records. Though superstores such as Woolworths and WH Smith refused to stock the single, there was a loophole irony in that by labelling it taboo, its value boomed, selling over 150,000 copies within the first week of release. Many disgraced pressing plant workers were so outraged that they threatened strikes. 

Outselling the number one song in the UK at the time, Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It/ The First Cut is the Deepest’ but conveniently and controversially stayed firmly put at number two, John Walters, a BBC Radio 1 producer, was confident that ‘God Save the Queen’ was destined to be number 1, as did a lot of his audience. Speculations surfaced, and claims of inside involvement that kept the song off of the number one spot due to establishment humiliation were brought to the fore. Claims from even the band themselves: “I think I was too damn close to the truth” Lydon began, “probably not getting it completely right but far too accurate for the establishment.”

Maybe, just maybe, this track was intended in sincerity to galvanise the working class and disillusioned youth. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, it was instead designed as an establishment mockery, but almost certainly—it succeeded at both. This unapologetic explosion of real, dirty rock with a visceral core sent shockwaves through a nation, and the ripples of its influence can still be felt today in whichever British city you choose to stomp. 


Photo Source: “SEX PISTOLS” by pupsy27 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0



The 1960s Story Behind ‘Fortunate Son’

Welcome to the first track and week 1 of my Nostalgic Music Mini Series ‘Behind These Political Songs That Defined Their Decade’. If you haven’t already, please check out the first article of the entire Music, Fashion and Politics: The Holy Trinity Project, ‘Music and Politics: An Abiding Affair’, that was published last Wednesday. This week we’ll be looking at the story behind Creedences’ iconic ‘Fortunate Son’ track that was both a ‘middle-finger’ and a ‘pat on the back’ for an entire nation.

On November 6th 2014, John Fogerty of the decade-defining band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, took to the stage at the White House to perform a unique rendition of his generational anthem—‘Fortunate Son’. This was part of a Salute to the Troops concert that was broadcast ahead of Veteran’s Day. Despite the obvious sincere intentions, the performance didn’t quite do the message of this instantly recognisable protest song justice. Shrouded in awkwardness from the very first thud of the overly sped-up drumbeat, it would not be unfair to say that the iconic song’s sparkle had been dulled.

This performance was a fresh, meaty steak awaiting the appetite of music critics who would not hold back from ravaging the overbearing timbre or its lacklustre energy. Despite this, the prominent viewer awkwardness lay elsewhere in the planes of something far less complex that lingers beneath not just a critic but a music lover’s nose: the meaning behind the song.

“It ain’t me”, Fogerty proclaims in this 1969 rock epic and immediately grabs the attention of a whole fervent generation. Though the song became a massive anthem for anti-war campaigning, it has always conveyed something more than that. It was more of an evocative symbol of a counterculture’s objection to U.S military involvement in Vietnam. A chance to unite and defend the troops in an attempt to protect those who were mainly of lower and working classes from fighting in a war that very few had a clear understanding of.

It’s not a song that is so much anti-war as it is anti-classist, criticising the system and political policies within the war: “The way I feel is we should make darn sure that when we’re going to have a war when we’re going to send our troops, it better be for a very good reason,” Fogerty explains in an interview with journalist, Dan Rather in 2016.

In the earlier years of America’s intervention in the Vietnam war, a vast majority of the nation whose support silenced the minority of those who questioned it. Still, as the decade progressed, voices of the quiet grew louder and, by the end, almost deafening. The nation began to lose faith in a victory, and with this came rising tensions and uncertainty as half a million troops stormed the jungles, from only a few thousand in the years previous.

It’s important to note that anti-war sentiment— although existing throughout the entire decade— had reached new heights in the later years, with the challenging of American tradition from university students and hippies forming a significant, youth- based movement. Despite this, in a speech on November 3rd 1969, Nixon declared that there was “a great silent majority” of people in support of the war and proceeded to call critics “unpatriotic elitists”. This ignited a flame in Creedence’s frontman, Fogerty, and in poetic retaliation, ‘Fortunate Son’ came to be— amplifying the voices of the many, not the few.

“It was written during the Nixon era, and well, let’s say I was very non-supportive of Mr Nixon,” Fogerty told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1993. “…the whole idea of being born wealthy or being born powerful seemed to be really coming to the fore in the late-sixties confrontation of cultures.” As a former military man himself, Fogerty’s anthem really insisted on highlighting the divide between rich and poor. War to the elite was merely a concept that they were willing to support, yet lower classes had to suffer the consequences of elitist decisions.

Fogerty’s irrepressible, raspy vocals against the backdrop of the tinny yet powerful guitar riff declaring sentiments that meant not only to him but to a whole generation makes it incredibly difficult to believe that the song was written in just 20 minutes. Yet, he claims that the thought process had been going on for a long time: “I didn’t know it would start, ‘Some folks are born…’— that came from nowhere. But the thought process had been going on for a long time.” He noted in his 2015 biography, titled after the very same song.

So that was precisely what made the Veteran’s Day performance so uncomfortable besides some artificial, musical blunders. It was simply the politics behind the song and the message that Fogerty was aiming to portray. There was a sort of un- comfortable irony in the fact that the famous lines “It ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son” were being echoed to a crowd of people in splendour. Their jewellery reflecting off of the stage lights as the tacky background of the White House lit up.

It has to be said that unlike most other protest songs of the time, such as those of Bob Dylan’s or Woody Guthrie’s, ‘Fortunate Son’ is the purest form of nitty-gritty, upbeat rock and roll. Because of this, there is inevitably room for misinterpretation. For some people, the melody subtracts from the message, almost getting lost in translation and spiralling out of context. Perhaps the 2014 audience can be forgiven for head-banging in their own hypocrisy but not one individual’s actions in more recent days.

In early September 2020, John Fogerty, in a baseball cap with protruding grey hairs, posted a video to his 1.2 million Facebook followers, addressing his discontent with then-President Donald Trump for using ‘Fortunate Son’ for his political rallies. Fogerty goes on to explain the meaning behind the song to his audience before stating: “The very first lines of fortunate son are ‘Some folks are born made to wave the flag, ooh, they’re red, white and blue. But when the band plays hail to the chief, they point the cannon at you’.”

“That is exactly what happened recently in Lafayette Park when the president decided to take a walk across the park, he cleared out the area using federal troops so that he could stand in front of St. John’s Church with a Bible,” Fogerty then went on to claim that it was a song that he could have written now and found it “confusing” that the president decided to use his song for his own political gain “when in fact, it seemed like he is probably the fortunate son.”

Regardless of the countless misinterpretations, the song’s message will continue on for those who dare to listen closely enough, valuing the song’s position in the context it was intended. Almost certainly, this will transport you into a world of long hair, long trousers and a longing for peace on Earth.




Photo Source: “Creedence Clearwater Revival, CCR – Willy & The Poor Boys” by Piano Piano! is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Music and Politics: An Abiding Affair

In dimmed lighting with vodka and coke in hand, a friend and I sat a few feet from each other staring at the beautifully curved 4k tele perched on his wall. From YouTube’s autoplay, a 2014 chart-topper classic filled the speakers with a haunting gospel harmony, while a blazing fire furnished the screen. “I think this song is great,” he said taking a swig from his Stella as I interrupted with a vicious nod. We were but a few minutes into the video when I began to notice the furrow of his brow growing heavier with each chord and at around the 2 and a half minute mark, he mumbled, “great song, but terrible video.” That’s when I knew he didn’t really like the song, he liked the tune. The message was something he couldn’t hear. But for me it was deafening.

‘Take Me to Church’ is not just a chart-topping hit for renowned Irish singer-songwriter, Hozier, but an extended metaphor shrouded in religious and political imagery. Speaking of the accompanying music video in an interview with Gigwise, Hozier described it as: “an indictment of institutions that undermine humanity.”

Now, maybe for my friend, music never really dove as deep as the message of ‘Take Me to Church’ but, for me, art had always been the quintessential platform for expressing the unity of humanity (and the lack thereof). As I developed more of my individuality, the more music spoke to me — truly spoke to me — and became less about a good melody, or a steady beat and more about the message, the themes and how these are only augmented by its melodic features.

Music taste and political beliefs share an essential trait in common: they are subjective for the individual and, therefore, they have existed in partnership for as long as humans knew how to pick up an instrument and for as long as human nature allowed us to both harmonise and dispute, and so formed a perpetually unbreakable affair— for better and for worse. This is a marriage that far surpasses their Ruby Jubilee, since records of songs written with political intent have been documented as far back as the days of Ancient Egypt.

“Music is political no matter what,” Hozier said in an interview with Q on CBC and argued that politics is viewed as having many negative connotations, “If something concerns the experience of people— it concerns some political dimension.”

I spoke with Felix and the Sunsets, a band inspired by the 60s and 70s, to what extent do they agree with Hozier’s statement, frontman Felix said:

“I strongly agree, I think that it’s near impossible to separate the two from each other. Even if you tried to make something above or outside politics (like an instrumental abstract bit of music) the stylistic choices you make are going to be influenced by your background and experiences, which are all shaped by politics.”

Take, for instance, what we describe today as ‘Rock’ — the history of this genre is alive with political influences yet most importantly, the entire foundations and journey of the genre is a political one in itself. It is a genre of historical appropriation; a great musical injustice to its founding forerunners that birthed it. Performed by white men, targeted at white men.

To understand the historical background of Rock as a genre, it’s firstly important to look at the roots of this robust, untamed tree. Rock was not always a stand alone standing stone like it is today, in fact, this rock could do a lot more— Roll. Rock and Roll was a term popular within the Blues and R&B community before it ever became a genre in the early 50s. Even before that, in the early 20th century within the Black community, as slang for both partying and an implication of sex —which as you can imagine, would not go down too well with a conservative society.

Deriving from rhythm and blues music of the 1940s— which itself was a branch of earlier blues, boogie woogie and swing music (all black founded and dominated)— Rock and Roll by the 50s had affirmed its position as a recognisable musical genre from the Music Journalists who would often review black artists’ music as ‘making you want to rock and roll’.  Particularly after Alan Freed—a radio host in 1951— began referring to songs as ‘Rock and Roll’ on the mainstream radio. By that point the sexual connotations had been dampened, thus forming a new genre.

In 2018, Hozier released a historically significant EP named ‘Nina Cried Power’ whose name is credited to Black soul singer and civil rights activist, Nina Simone. In this EP, he executes effectively something that white artists associated with the genre don’t often do: not only does he appreciate the roots of his own music —by mentioning Black musicians such as Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown— but also was joined by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and civil rights activist: Mavis Staples. A powerful, political move in a powerfully political song, who seeks not to appropriate but to acknowledge and not in ignorance but in homage. “It’s a thank you note to the spirit of protest,” Hozier told Billboard regarding ‘Nina Cried Power’. A thank you note that not only extended to the Black musicians who “cried power”, but also to the white musicians who used their art and platform to cry power for the powerless. “Solidarity costs nothing,” he affirms in the same interview.

Amongst the most politically fascinating and influential of the white artists mentioned in the song was folk and beatnik icon — Bob Dylan, whose entire discography not only progresses, but transcends into what author Mike Marqusee describes as a deeper kind of political radicalism: individualism.

Bob Dylan began as an awkward and skinny, big-haired and frail-looking boy that sat strumming his guitar in a Greenwich Village Coffeehouse in 1961. His instrument competing with the chatter and bustle of East Coast voices, while he continued telling stories on his guitar and seldom caring who believed them, just like the blues greats he admired before him. He was merely another straw in the haystack amidst an ongoing folk revival and just another folk singer in a growing political region, suffocated by beatnik and bohemian culture.

That was, until, a charming, soft acoustic song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ —whose tune was from an anti-slavery song ‘No More Auction Block’ that dated back to the United States Civil War— turned a then 22 year old Dylan into a household name.

Unlike other protest songs of the time from artists such as Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ was not a musical representation of any particular incident but rather a series of open-ended questions posed to the listener, to gage the direction of their own political compass. “How many years can people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” Dylan—though constantly reinventing himself—never failed to provoke intense speculation, especially in a society that is always searching for the deeper meanings.

One thing about Dylan that is for certain is that his musical relationship with politics was never that elementary— it was clarity ensuing vagueness and linear before it was abstract yet despite it all, his relationship with politics never really ceased to exist regardless of the claims of the masses. It just changed because Dylan changed.

Dylan’s greatest protest songs were written in a short span of 20 months from 1962 to 1964 and nothing quite voiced the youth of the 60s than his generational anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.  A song that affirmed its position as a warning to senators and congressmen that in order to survive the maverick times of 1960s America, then they must succumb to its progressions or die trying to fight it. 

Most (if not all) of Dylan’s protest songs around this time were shrouded in political influences from days gone by such as the beat anarchists of the 50s as well as the radical wobblies, with traditional folk themes such as poverty, racism, social injustices and war. As a folk singer, your guitar and your pen are your comrades in the ongoing social political war, but Dylan was more than that as he breathed a new life into the air of protest — he spoke to people and people listened.

‘The Times They Are-A Changin’’ voiced a generation. The youth of America was rising, taking back a future that they believed rightfully belonged to them and not a future that belonged to violence, uncertainty and war, as well as the continuous fight for civil rights in which Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill for soon after.

In an interview with Dylan for 20/20 in 1985, journalist Bob Brown said: “I think a lot of people were inspired to get involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement as a result of having listened to you and your songs,” to which a stern-faced, mysterious looking Dylan replied: “It’s hard to say what causes anything to happen—I don’t know if a song can really do that. It might. I don’t know”.

It was not that Dylan never understood the power of his affiliation with politics, it was more the need to focus inwards on the self rather than outwards for the people, that his musical heart so desired and in mid 1964, he confirmed this as he told critic Nat Hentoff: “I don’t want to write for people anymore—you know, be a spokesman”. It was at this point that he began writing songs that involved personal relationships like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and truly, was looking inward, believing that people on the outside, should define their own terms by doing the same.

However, his music never really had a break from politics like most critics would suggest and no matter how hard Dylan tried to escape the “isms”, he may have succeeded with all but one: Individualism.

His transgression from acoustic to electric was a whole, blatant (possibly unintentional) political statement in itself, separating those who favoured tradition from those who advocated for change. However; if Hozier’s ‘music is political no matter what’ affirmation can be taken to be true, then even when Bob Dylan was undergoing a personal reflection, his relationship with politics persisted. Why? Because, though writing about individual experience, it was relatable for people who themselves are individuals, rather than a group of people with certain beliefs. It concerned human experience and still, perhaps incidentally, spoke to people and still—people listened.

In 1965, Dylan, though never officially admitting it, made what critics describe as his “return” to politics after the release of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, referring to the violence inflicted on civil rights protestors by police but it should be argued though returning to protest songs, he never abandoned politics. It’s important to note that one can exist without the presence of the other. Politics can exist without protest songs, but protest songs cannot exist without politics. 

There is also something to be said about Dylan’s music constantly staying relevant despite many older songs falling victim to time, which the same can be said for music and politics as a whole. Not only do they never part, but they stay relevant, surviving the chaos of the modern world as timeless entities and we would not be listening to the music of days gone by if we didn’t see the reflection of old messages on our contemporary society. Times are forever changin’ and so is the relationship between music and politics— but never dying.

A quintessential example of how politics and music’s relationship is constantly evolving with the times comes from three-piece band Felix and the Sunsets as they talk about their EP ‘This Will Change’, whose lead single of the same name was heavily inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in Glasgow, 2020. Frontman Felix describes politics as being a very important part of their work: “It’s really informed a lot of what I want to talk about in our songs. But I try to combine it with a lot of other influences to tell new stories.”

Felix then goes on to describe his political objective for writing the samba rhythm, Santana-esque track which has close to 2,000 plays on Spotify:

“My intention for ‘This Will Change’ was that the song would encourage people protesting and making their voices heard. Songs can be galvanising and I’ve always been drawn to that in music. The first verse describes the injustice of another extra-judicial killing of another black man by American police, and that the current lack of repercussions will change. The second verse describes the protests and the people who will force the change.”

After asking whether Felix finds it important for musicians to be inspired by or to include politics in their work and why, he responded:

“Personally yes, I am much more interested in artists who engage with real social issues. I don’t really respect artists who shy away from important issues, as they could be using their voice and art to encourage positive improvements in people’s lives and society. I don’t think every song should have to be political but I just think it’s a let down for rich artists to not amplify good causes.”
 
Too much of anything can make you sick and the same goes for music and politics. Though inextricably interlinked, there’s a lot to be said for subtleties and allowing room for listener interpretation. Felix spoke of hoping to keep on writing songs that have a political message but relayed an essential point:

“I hope to keep blending it with stories and doing it in a hopefully surprising and inventive way. If a song just smacks you in the face as all politics or slogans without something extra then I think the artist has probably failed. It’s important to me as I think everyone who is aware of suffering and injustice should try to tip the scales towards improvement with their words and actions.”

That being said, Felix still believes that it is his duty as a musician and all other artists-alike to use their platform and art to spread political awareness:

“I think that good art will always amplify values of the artists. When a group try to be unpolitical then they are by extension choosing to side with a status quo which is letting people down massively.”

The tumultuous, diverse and constantly changing but never parting relationship of music and politics, sometimes sticking out like a sore thumb or masked under your ears like a chameleon — love it or loathe it, its not going anywhere according to Felix: “As long as there are differences in people and cultures, there will be music that reflects the differences.”

So, maybe when I discovered my own sense of individualism, the messages of music did speak to me on a deeper level and perhaps Hozier was a spokesperson for my own political beliefs residing inside. However; one thing is certain amidst all the uncertainty, there is always at least three active contributors in the relationship between music and politics and the third is you, the listener and consumer. There is no doubt that without the listener, the relationship would survive but it would do just and only that. Without me and you, it would seize to thrive.

Inevitably, you can choose to be on one of two sides of the music and politics coin: to listen and acknowledge with vodka and coke in hand or swig back the Stella and enjoy the tune, whichever you choose, it’s evident that the relationship will always prevail. 

The Unidentified Record that Changed How I Listen to Music

The sun was beating through the dusty, fingerprint-covered glass of the narrow corridors of Stirling University on what could only be described as a regular Thursday afternoon. The previous night, I had been up late finding new music to add to my Spotify, exploring the just-as dusty but more inviting avenues of 60s and 70s music, to create a sense of identity for the tender and confused 18 year-old self that I was.

As I walked along, humming the melody of Al Stewart’s ‘Year of the Cat’ in my head, I was stopped in my tracks as the front cover that I had remembered from that very same song the previous night stood before me in a see-through plastic box, amongst a cart of others. What are the chances, I thought and instantly my eyes were invited in for a chance to explore what Stirling Uni’s Thursday record fair had to offer and forgive me reader (spoiler) – it had more than I could have ever imagined.

Often I find what begin the most ordinary of days seem to transpire into monumental moments in time that trigger a domino effect of opened-up little extraordinary avenues for the rest of my life. It’s a bizarre state of affairs and probably one that I’ll never fully understand but there’s a sort of beauty in the unknown, a rush in the unexplored and a marvel in the unidentified, and that’s exactly what happened on that Thursday afternoon.

From the array of injured, battered and decaying records that sat scarred and etched with stories, that if they could speak, would most likely say too much, one mysteriously pristine record seemed to speak almost a little too loud. So loud that I couldn’t unhear it. With a Daryl Hall and John Oates and a Sutherland Brothers and Quiver album propped firmly underneath my arm, I halted the ‘untitled’ one from the box. Shy and timid with the influx of curious students around the stall, I left with my unfamiliar and out-of-place looking friend with a 3 for £10 deal, heading for my halls that bore the residence of only 4 other girls and no record player.

The anticipation of returning to my hometown to finally play the completely unidentifiable record was getting all too much. It would sit on the shelves of my tiny bedroom, almost begging for its mysteries to be unlocked and that day, it finally came. My musical itch had well and truly been satisfied. The series of events leading up to the moment were completely forgettable, but there is something securely imprinting on my memory from the sacred moment I removed it from its protective armour for the first time. The static crackled from my dad’s record player when the needle caressed its grooves and just like that, all the secrets of this ‘little white album’ were set free from its withholding grasp.

From my dad’s speakers burst through one of the most instantly recognisable strumming of a tinny acoustic guitar followed shortly by a complimentary back-up from the power of its fuzzy and guttural neighbour – the electric. “That’s Sniff’n’ the Tears,” my dad’s voice strained competing with this 1978 one-hit wonder known as ‘Driver’s Seat’. This single had long been known as one of my all time favourites (and I wasn’t alone), even before I picked up the record, but the extraordinary thing about this album turned out not to be the love of the song that I had already known but rather the wonder of the songs on that record that I didn’t.

After 4 minutes, a harmonic-scale-encapsulating track with its clear experimental flexibility raised a few eyebrows in the room, including mine. The musical genius of Sniff’n’ the Tears had far surpassed my expectations, with their capacity to create atmospheric melodies in a variety of different styles. I was nothing short of stunned and couldn’t help but think what a great musical injustice it was that this, briefly-remembered (which is arguably worse than being forgotten)one-hit wonder band, were known solely for ‘Driver’s Seat’ and little else, especially with a smokey Rod Stewart/Chris Norman-esque voice like Paul Roberts.

Most, if not all of the tracks on this album were lead by thick, sooty folk vocals and easy-listening but equally as powerfully atmospheric tracks that you can’t help but imagine finding in a 70s period movie like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1998) where ‘Driver’s Seat’ resides or even better, one that’s a product of its own times. With its auditory running theme of exoticism and experiment as well as its fusional contrast of lyrical complexity and simplicity – it’s an album that has unjustly slipped under the radar.

This ‘little white album’ that tantalized me with mystery for months before its eventual liberation, changed the way that I choose to listen to music forever now. There is something to be said as a music junkie to propel yourself outside of your comfort zone and delve into the depths of the unknown. Stop reaching for the familiar and the comfortable and start reaching for records that pose you no interest or better yet, one’s that draw you in from their complete lack of traditional elements- like an album cover, or a track listing. Expand your musical horizons and start treating record stores as a place of adventure and discovery. However, be warned, it can be addictive yet it’s a habit that I will continue to testify that is worth forming, especially for full musical enlightenment.

“…it’s far easier to put on those feel-good tunes we know and love than it is to expose ourselves regularly to something completely new,” Marc Henshall writes in a 2019 article for Your Sound Matters, telling us that as creatures of habit, it’s important to buy random records for the expansion of our musical horizons.

My ‘little white album’ is known as Sniff ‘n’ the Tears’ 1978 ‘Fickle Heart’ album, one that should harness a cover with smooth, silky long legs and a black cat hunched beside them. Yet, this only serves as symbolism to me of the album’s own personal mystery that I have never erased still to this day. It sits proudly in my collection in all its blank, unfaltered glory and though people looking through my collection are often just as puzzled and mesmerized by its mystery, to me, it will always be the album that changed the way I listen to music. I’ll forever value ‘Fickle Heart’ as my monumental enigma and the catalyst for my own delve into the unexplored world of music.











Nick Drake: A Profile of a Doomed Romantic

Drunken laughter to my right and sad, melodic Drake to my left. Not the rapper – the genius.
Nick Drake never resonated with me as the first choice of background music on a Saturday pub crawl but it did with one old man, who battled spending the last of his change on the jukebox or a Jack Daniels and there was only one victor in the Daniels vs Drake and that was crystal clear as Pink Moon bellowed beside me.


Listening to the delicate strumming of the guitar, I couldn’t help but think that he had little idea of how much comfort his music brings to the struggling, evidently more so than alcohol.
The sad truth is from Drake’s active musical years in the early 70s as a student of Cambridge, he never attained great recognition and just like his founding musical fathers before him, Antonio Vivaldi and Robert Johnson, Drake passed prematurely before his success was even recognised.

There is much speculation on Drake’s lack of success in his lifetime and one includes the fact that Drake rarely performed live or gave interviews. This may have been a result of his ongoing battle with depression which caused him to retreat back to his parent’s home and in 1974, with his albums sales at fewer than 4,000, Drake died from an overdose on antidepressants at the tender age of 26.

5 years after his death, his album Fruit Tree was re-released and in turn caused a reassessment of Drake’s music. In the following years, he was credited as an influence with publications of documentaries & biographies.

And there I sat, listening to a ‘doomed romantic’ who had sold more than 2.4 million albums in the UK and the US and I couldn’t help but feel what an injustice it truly was, me and the old man both.


Image credit: Island Records