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Miscellaneous - Dissent

  by Jon Rogers

published: 6 / 10 / 2010

Miscellaneous - Dissent


In his regular 'Hitting the Right Note' column, Jon Rogers asks what has happened to controversy and rebellion in rock music

“God save the Queen/The fascist regime” sang the Sex Pistols in the Jubilee year of 1977 and middle Englanders were aghast. Not to mention a bit ofswearing on teatime TV, rather goaded by presenter Bill Grundy, didn’t exactly endear Johnny Rotten and co. to the nation’s hearts. Not that long ago musicians – who had some sort of artistic integrity – managed to speak out about some perceived injustice or about the ills society was facing at that time. Musicians stood up, put their head over the parapet and were counted. The devastating effects of Margaret Thatcher’s monetarist economic policies were savagely attacked by the Specials in ‘Ghost Town’ while Elvis Costello and Robert Wyatt put the boot in to the cutbacks at the docks and took a swipe at the Falklands War in ‘Shipbuilding’. The likes of Billy Bragg and the Red Wedge movement took up a left wing political view and attempted to engage young voters. And if not for direct political statements musicians have got up the nose of the establishment. In their heyday in the late 60s the Rolling Stones seemed to scare people simply for having a bohemian lifestyle and taking a few drugs. Situationist pranksters the KLF ruffled a few feathers at the Brits when they dumped two dead sheep on the steps of the venue and then came on to play a thrash metal version of ‘3am Eternal’ with Extreme Noise Terror. Many a band have got things stirred up simply by turning up and playing – and perhaps deliberately bating their own fans in the process. Early Jesus and Mary Chain gigs were notorious affairs, such as the one at the then North London Poly. An all too brief set of feedback of no more than half an hour would often result in the audience starting a ruck and storming the stage. Similarly the Stooges and Public Image Ltd would harangue their own fans, initiating a confrontation. Pioneering punk synth duo Suicide would often just gain a hostile reaction simply by turning up and playing. One gig in Brussels which descended into a riot became so infamous that the band issued a recording of it on the re-release of their debut album. Somehow I can’t imagine that happening at a Snow Patrol gig. You don’t get that sort of exciting behaviour nowadays. At best you get the likes of Liam Gallagher doing his best to stoke some sort of controversy by throwing his Brit award into the audience (and then going to get it back later). You can just feel the dissent flowing through his veins, can’t you? Such a naughty boy. So where have all the rock ‘n’ roll rebels gone? Why aren’t our musicians stepping forward and speaking out? It’s not as if there hasn’t been anything to complain about and we are all living a life of milk and honey. Former prime minister Tony Blair led the country into a war in the Middle East that was based on a lie and he and Gordon Brown raided pension provisions, sold off gold reserves and entered into a massive spending programme that left the country massively in debt. And then there’s the small matter of some greedy bankers too – ones that the Labour party got into bed with. It’s not just the Labour administration either. The early signs of the Conservative-Liberal coalition don’t look good. David Cameron seems intent on slashing public services by severing the budgets and leaving the most in need to sink or swim. Looks like the good old days of Thatcherism are returning where the poor suffer and those rich non-doms get off without paying massive amounts of tax. In a general sense since Blair ditched Clause 4 of the Labour Party manifesto and shifted the party to the right in a bid to get elected the Left have effectively been silenced and a general hegemonic consensus has taken over. There’s no dissent (well perhaps the odd rogue voice, but nothing too serious) if no one can contemplate an alternative. Consensus politics has meant that any alternatives to the way things are done are marginalised and easily dismissed. Plus, helped by the general disgust of the recent MPs expenses when the little piggies were found to have their snouts in the trough, there has been a general lack of interest in party politics. Instead of getting outraged people have put a plague on both their houses and walked away believing that their local MP doesn’t work to serve them but is more self-serving, lining their own pockets. So what’s the point of getting all hot under the collar if those in power aren’t going to bother to listen? But you don’t have to be overly political to indulge in a good bit of sneering and getting up the noses of those in power. The Rolling Stones, more intent on having a good time, bedding models and ingesting copious amounts of drugs, still managed to ruffle feathers, but still musicians can’t do that either. And a large amount of ‘blame’ for this sorry state of affairs must rest with the musicians themselves. In recent years there has been the rise of the corporate musician. Those who see music as a good career move, not as an opportunity to make an artistic statement of some sort. They’re more worried about the profit margin and the sales figures than saying something and possibly alienating that all important target market. The Kaiser Chiefs might predict a riot but would no doubt collectively wet themselves if they ever came within a few miles of an actual one. That’s not meant to single out the Kaiser Chiefs as they are far from alone (and probably not the worst) and I’m sure you can think of your own examples. And with one eye on the sales figures these groups are all too willing to do the bidding of the powerful record companies and TV stations. Don’t rock the boat, don’t cause a fuss and you won’t get dropped. And the TV channels, under scrutiny from Ofcom, don’t want to face massive fines simply because some drunken musician has stumbled on stage and sworn during peaktime viewing or before the watershed. So if you can pick those artists who aren’t going to kick up a fuss and perhaps behave badly then the producers are going to play safe. The pay off being is that you get to promote your latest record to an audience of five or six million. That’s considerably way more than the largest possible crowd at Glastonbury. And Reading. Combined. So play nice, smile a big cheesy smile, don’t rock the boat, don’t say anything vaguely controversial and Mammon will bestow riches upon you beyond your wildest dreams. This generation deserves its own versions of ‘Shipbuilding’ or ‘Ghost Town’, but there’s no sign yet that this is going to happen.

Visitor Comments:-
367 Posted By: Jon Rogers, London on 04 Nov 2010
You're spot on Jez. It is all about image and merchandising. Any musician with nothing to say writes dull songs in any genre. Musicians don't speak out any more. The outcry over the Iraq war was very muted with only the odd rogue voice, like Neil Young, bothering to speak out. Most seemed to be more concerned about what outfit they were going to wear for their photoshoot for some glossy mag. And what about the irony of Jamiroqui's Jason Kay mouthing off about Cheryl Cole and Danni Minogue? It certainly is all about image and merchandising. He pretends to be the rebel artist attacking the supposedly talentless singers and takes a swipe at The X Factor. While still promoting himself on the show. If he objects to the show so much, why bother appearing? Just politely decline. And if, as he claims, his record label - Sony by the way - forced him to appear then that means his integrity has been compromised. Still, with an audience of around 12 million viewers bet he didn't protest too much, if at all. While I am sure there are plenty of musos standing up and speaking out, I'm not sure that I am fully aware of them. I'd certainly like to hear them, so if you know of any do please let me know.
363 Posted By: Jez, Bristol on 28 Oct 2010
The penultimate paragraph sums it up nicely. (Commercial) Music / Song-Writing isn't about having something to say so much as image and merchandising. And the kids aspire to this in this age of celebrity. If you're looking for depth and grit you have to go beyond mainstream. The musos there probably aren't doing it for the money...
356 Posted By: Myshkin, London on 18 Oct 2010
All rather a bit naive, don't you think? Jon, you seem to want to go back to some mythical 'golden age' where leather-clad rockers like the MC5 thought they were 'sticking it to the man' and were the embodiment of dissatisfaction by swearing on stage. Oooh, how rebellious of them. Zzzz... The revolution's coming to come now that someone has sworn on stage. And, unfortunately, while the Sex Pistols may have stirred things up back in the late 70s, John Lydon is now a rather pathetic figure, he seems to have now embraced the royal family, taken the corporate dollar to appear in a TV advert and agreed to appear on a high profile reality TV show. All that's the height of rebellion.

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