Either Berthold Brecht or Brendan Behan would probably talk all night- particularly if you were buying- about how all of art is essentially a political statement, and they would have a point. Politics is, after all, about the organisation of human relationships and how resources should be divvied up amongst the people having those relationships. But a lot of our ideas about what is and isn’t political are often just a matter of perception. Paul McCartney’s 1972 song ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ was considered so inflammatory that the BBC banned it from the airwaves and he received no end of vitriol for ‘mixing pop music with politics’. But is ‘Don’t Stop Moving’ by S Club 7 any less political for suggesting that partying the night away, dancing and drinking and hopefully getting lucky, oblivious to the state of the world around you, is a reasonable course of action? Both tracks, after all, suggest a course of action in response to current events, but one got banned and the other got almost wall-to-wall airplay. Things that make you go ‘hmmmm’…
Anyway, I’ve always been drawn to political music. The band that changed my life was the Clash, who actually rarely espoused explicitly political issues but always gave off a very implicit politically-conscious aura; they were the soundtrack to an activist life, the playlist for changing the world. Beyond the Clash, the punk scene I was drawn to as a teenager was always the political end of that movement rather than the hedonist end. Ever since, I’ve always wanted my music to be about something- something I cared about. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot of music that I absolutely love that’s not about anything in particular- Girls Aloud, Aqua, Scooter, Def Leppard… But at the end of the day, it’s what I might call ‘Praxis music’- stuff that makes you reflect and act- that sustains and inspires me.
So I thought I’d share 10 albums that stand out to me as works of political musical art. This isn’t a definitive list of politically-orientated music- I could’ve picked from dozens- nor do I necessarily think these are the most important albums out there, even by the artists in question. But this is some of the music I keep coming back to when I need my activist batteries topped up. These are the albums that truly shifted my perception in one way or another. And finally, it’s stuff that, if you haven’t heard it already, I think you should seek it out.
As such, it’s obviously a very personal list, so don’t get in touch screaming ‘What?! No Dylan? No Neil Young?!’ This is my list; make your own.
So, in no particular order…
Bob Marley and the Wailers- Survival
The impact of Bob Marley on worldwide popular culture is incalculable. A tireless advocate for the downtrodden and the disaffected before his death from cancer in 1981, he created a powerful body of work and a charismatic persona that was as much righteous prophet as music star. Marley’s Rastafarian faith and political beliefs were birthed in the poverty-stricken and brutally violent slums of the Kingston, Jamaica of his youth. With Survival, his outlook broadened to the rest of the colonized world, particularly Africa. It’s perhaps one of his lesser-known works, unfortunately overshadowed by so many undisputed classics. On their own merits, though, tracks such as ‘So Much Trouble in the World’, ‘Africa Unite’, ‘Babylon System’, and ‘Zimbabwe’ display purpose, authority, and yes, vision. This is Marley making all struggles his own, declaring his worldwide citizenship. There was no one like him, before or since. All respect to him.
The Clash- Sandinista!
Conventional wisdom insists that this, the Clash’s much-derided triple-disc fourth album was (and I quote) ‘too long’. Fair play, but then, so were Ulysses, War and Peace, and Das Kapital. And while it is probably overstatement to class a mere rock album with such literary classics, the one thing that the Clash shared with Joyce, Tolstoy, and Marx was a stubborn refusal (or inability) to simplify their vision. Here we have the Clash completely shucking off the already worn-out pose that punk had to be thuggish, simplistic, and short. Weighing in at a staggering 36 tracks (which admittedly run the gamut from brilliant to rubbish), Sandinista! took in standard-issue punk, but also rockabilly, dub reggae, and even swing, gospel, and rap. And while a single (or even double) album would have been more focused, Sandinista! gave the best snapshot of the depth and breadth of the Clash’s socio-political, world-conscious humanism. And now that it’s on CD, it’s easier to skip the dodgy bits. And don't- absolutely do not- download individual tracks; you will completely miss the point. This is an album that begs to be explored as a whole.
Gang of Four- A Brief History of the Twentieth Century
This career spanning best-of is a strong testament to Gang of Four’s artistic vision and musical innovation. Combining jagged, slashing guitar noise, funk bass, and obtuse rhythms with a cogent political dialectic, they made music that was both powerful and thought-provoking. Lyrically, they described the world as a gray, Kafka-esque dystopia; where there was no free will, no choice, no breaking out of roles. Their song’s protagonists never see the powerful, unseen hands that pull their strings, but live their lives in a constant state of unease and confusion, too exhausted to be angry. This is powerful and influential stuff, and highly recommended for Radiohead fans interested in hearing the source from which Thom York (I’d argue) nicked his entire creative output.
Public Enemy- Fear of a Black Planet
The greatest rock music has been and will always be perceived as a threat to the establishment, and few bands ever scared white America more than this New York-based rap crew. By 1988, Public Enemy had already produced the nearly-flawless It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and this 1990 offering actually builds on that momentum. At turns brutally negative, intelligently positive, and hysterically funny, Fear of a Black Planet addressed black stereotypes in movies (‘Burn Hollywood Burn’), emergency services that couldn’t seem to locate black neighborhoods (‘911 is a Joke’), and, of course, racism (the title track and just about everything else). But it’s the towering statement-of-purpose ‘Fight the Power’- perhaps the finest hip-hop song ever- that truly makes this a classic. Even if you don’t like rap, your music collection is incomplete without this.
Rage Against The Machine- Evil Empire
Any band audacious enough to release their first independent cassette in riot-torn Los Angeles with a match taped to the inner card needs to be taken seriously. Storming out of that scarred city in the early 90’s, RATM had a sound that was the audio equivalent to watching a building burn; a blistering mix of punk, funk, metal, and rap. Vocalist Zach de la Rocha embodied an almost pristine sense of anger, and it manifested itself in lyrics that were spit rather than sung. A revolution that you can dance to, taking on the forces of neo-liberalism and multinational globalization head on, this, their second album, is worth owning simply for condensing Marx’s thousands of pages of output into one line of the song ‘Down Rodeo’: ‘Fuck the G ride/ I want the machines that are makin’ them.’ Burn, baby, burn...
Asian Dub Foundation- Enemy of the Enemy
Rarely did an album need to made as much as this one. The aftermath of the events of 9/11 saw a great drought of political dissent. Many artists and media outlets either joined the ‘neo-conservative’ parade or stood aside in frustrated silence. And that makes this, the fifth release of the London-based musical collective Asian Dub Foundation, such a revelation. Armed with fiery intelligence and a powerful mix of bhangra, rap, dub, dancehall, and electronica, ADF got out of the post-9-11 gate early and put out perhaps the definitive dissident musical statement on the ‘war on terror’. ‘Blowback’ throws withering criticism at US foreign policy; ‘Fortress Europe’ takes immigration policy to task; ‘Basta’ fires a broadside at the G8; and the seething title track takes racial profiling personally (‘At 50,000 feet…your eyes meet my skin/ See the terror on your face/ Do you want it to stop?/ Put yourself in their place’). ‘Fear of a brown planet’? Indeed…
Fela Kuti- Zombie
There’s so much hyperbole in writing about the arts that one immediately becomes cynical when the phrase ‘It is difficult to overstate the importance of (artist)…’ appears. But out of the handful of artists whose impact it truly is impossible to overstate, Nigerian Fela Anikulapo Kuti qualifies for that accolade in spades. A true musical genius who invented his own genre- ‘afrobeat’, an intoxicating blend of rock, funk, jazz, R&B, and African styles- Fela’s work was the quintessence of revolutionary, socio-political agitprop. A true political dissident and an honest-to-God outlaw, he mercilessly derided the ruling dictatorship throughout his career, and was hounded, beaten, tortured, imprisoned, and nearly killed several times. Out of his more than fifty(!) albums, at least fifteen are indispensable masterpieces, and Zombie (1977) is a perfect place to dive in. In the wake of the album’s release, the Nigerian military government decided to silence him for good. 1,000 soldiers attacked and set fire to his home compound in Lagos, preventing fire crews from responding. His recording studio, including his master tapes, were destroyed. Fela received a fractured skull and his 82 year-old mother was thrown from a second-floor window and died of her injuries. Fela survived and never shut up, finally succumbing to AIDS in 1997.
Sounding a bit like a darker, bleaker communist version of the Smiths, Liverpool’s Easterhouse- named after a notorious Glasgow housing estate- made rock music that sounded like it had been drained of all colour. Yet despite the grey texture, the music is powerful and inspiring, outraged rather than simply angry. ‘Out On Your Own’ takes the Labour Party and the trade unions to task for their fecklessness in opposing Margaret Thatcher; ‘Nineteen Sixty-Nine’ lamented government incompetence and cruelty in Northern Ireland, as well as having another go at the Labour Party (‘House-trained socialists/ the lowest form of hypocrite/ who talk, but when the chips are down/ stay loyal to their king and crown’); ‘Get Back to Russia’ sought to define a new patriotism that could critique British society to the bone; and ‘Inspiration’ is a blackly beautiful song seeking to stay afloat and positive amidst the Thatcher regime. Easterhouse was probably a bit too didactic for mass acceptance- the aforementioned Smiths were a bit more adept at getting at the same issues without sounding preachy- but their existence points to a thriving, politically-conscious indie rock scene in 80s Britain that is long gone and was never really replaced.
Laibach- Let It Be
Decked out in 30s-era totalitarian chic and playing a decidedly Teutonic-flavoured brand of Fascist-sounding industrial noise- full of horns, martial drums, massed choirs, Wagnerian orchestrations and videos that looked like they were directed by Leni Riefenstahl- many condemned this Slovenian group as neo-Nazis, and while you’d be completely forgiven for missing Laibach’s point, the truth about them was much more complex and interesting. Playing their first gigs in Ljubljana in 1982 and naming themselves after the German name for that city, Laibach were part of an art collective called Neue Slowenische Kunst, or NSK, which sought to creatively critique both their own Communist government and Western pop culture. Believing that modern pop concerts were no different from Nazi rallies- and were basically selling the same thing- Laibach re-worked famous pop music to sound like a soundtrack for the Nuremberg rallies. Their 1988 album Let It Be is a track-for-track re-imagining of the Beatles last album and, admittedly, it’s more interesting than actually listenable. But stuck in the middle is their mesmerizing take on ‘Across the Universe’, a beautiful- if vaguely disturbing- rendition performed with only a female choir and a harpsichord.
But that was nothing compared to Laibach's most spectacular performance art piece a few years later. Bob Marley might have revolutionized his genre and Fela Kuti might have invented his own, but did either of them create their own country? Yes, as Yugoslavia disintegrated into civil war and genocide in the early-90s, Laibach and the NSK actually declared themselves an independent state (basically figuring, hey, everybody else in the neighbourhood was), complete with passports that could be stamped at any NSK event, now referred to as ‘embassies’. As war enveloped the region and many borders suddenly became completely arbitrary, reports of people actually navigating their way around the chaos on an NSK passport began to surface. Take that, KISS Army…
Billy Bragg- Talking With the Taxman About Poetry
The humblest Englishman in England, Billy Bragg is a true ‘folk’ musician. It's not because he works in a traditional folk milieu- he doesn't really; his formative musical experience was the Clash, not Martin Carthy- but because his work is so concerned with the lives of ordinary people- romance, work, humour, politics, play- that there’s really no other term for it. Bragg seamlessly interweaves the personal and the political; sure, he’s a socialist who wants a stronger trade union movement to better represent the interests of workers, but he’s also a boyfriend trying to get on with his girl and a supporter of England in the football. Bragg’s real talent is in deftly inferring that all those topics inform each other, and organically rather than as some great sociological model. Bragg’s first two albums were simply voice and electric guitar; his third album, 1986’s Talking With the Taxman About Poetry- its title taken from a work by Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky- was richer and more nuanced, adding trumpet and piano now and then, while still being as straightforward as the earlier two. He includes two rousing political anthems (‘There is Power in A Union’; 'Help Save the Youth of America’) along with beautiful and emotional human interest stories (‘Levi Stubb’s Tears’; ‘The Home Front’), all of it with grace and realism. But what keeps Bragg's music from falling into the trap of sounding either pompous or precious that afflicts so much political music is that he has enough humility and sense of humour to know that there’s only so much that mere music can accomplish in a complex world. Reflecting on his life against those of striking Polish workers in Gdansk, who at the time were taking on the might of the Soviet Empire, he concludes, ‘they’re out there making history/ in the Lenin Shipyards today/ here I am in the Hammersmith Hotel/ wishing the days away’. That level of self-awareness in a socially-conscious artist might not be considered essential, but Bragg shows that it is at least damned refreshing.