Billy Bragg: Music Needs to Get Political Again
How ironic that The Clash should be on the cover of the NME in the week that London was burning, that their faces should be staring out from the shelves as newsagents were ransacked and robbed by looters intent on anarchy in the UK. Touching too, that the picture should be from very early in their career – Joe with curly blond hair – for The Clash were formed in the wake of a London riot: the disturbances that broke out at the end of the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976.
At the time, the press reported it as the mindless violence of black youth intent on causing trouble; now we look back and recognise that it was the stirrings of what became our multicultural society – the moment when the first generation of black Britons declared that these streets belonged to them too.
The Notting Hill Riots of 35 years ago created a genuine ‘What The Fuck?’ moment – the first in Britain since the violent clashes between mods and rockers in the early 60s. While west London burned, the rest of society recoiled in terror at the anger they saw manifested on the streets of England. In the aftermath, severe jail sentences were handed down and police patrols stepped up in areas where there was a large immigrant population. Sound familiar?
But something else happened too – in the months that followed, bands appeared that sought to make sense of what went down on that hot August night. Aswad, Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots were among the reggae bands that stepped forward to speak for the black community.
Punk was galvanised into action by The Clash, whose debut album featured a picture of police charging towards black youth under the Westway on the back cover. Their first single, ‘White Riot’, was an explicit attempt to make a connection between the frustration faced by unemployed white youth and their black counterparts whose employment prospects were blighted by racism.
In the Clash interview from 1976 that was reprinted in the NME ‘riot issue’, Joe Strummer boldly said “We’re hoping to educate any kid who comes to listen us, just to keep them from joining the National Front”. That certainly worked in my case. When Notting Hill went up in smoke, I didn’t get it, yet, a year or so later, the first political activism that I ever took part in was the first Rock Against Racism Carnival in London. I’d been drawn by the fact that the Clash were top of the bill.
That event brought me into contact with some of the aforementioned British reggae bands, acts that had previously struggled to find white audiences. This coming together led directly to Two-Tone and to Artists Against Apartheid. These bands, black and white, didn’t end racism in Britain, but they helped me to understand why it had to be confronted.
Fast-forward 35 years to the present day. Much has changed, yet we find ourselves in the same quandary. The August riots of 2011 are another WTF? moment, when society recoils in horror and says ‘I don’t understand you’.
Everyone who has seen the footage of the ‘Bad Samaritans’ pretending to come to the aid of the injured Asyraf Haziq Rossli, while their mates rummage through his rucksack and rob him, will have made an instant judgement about the kind of people who would do such an unspeakable thing.
Undoubtedly, many people in the 15-24 age group will know people like that and be quick to condemn them. For the rest of us – who know nothing but what we see - we’ll damn you all, because of your clothes, your music, your haircuts, your attitude. You can already hear the generational disdain in mainstream reactions to the sentences handed down to looters.
Now, you don’t have to do anything about this. You can simply shrug your shoulders when politicians speak dismissively about feral youth leading futile lives. But it won’t end there. The authorities are going to lean on your generation and hard. You are being set up as the new enemy within. ‘Feral’ is a word that is virtually interchangeable with ‘vermin’.
The disturbances of the past weeks have stirred up a shit storm of opinion in the mainstream media, much of it from people who have no real experience of the pressures faced by this generation, the first in a century that are likely to grow up worse off than their parents. Though this situation has been building for some years, the disturbances have created an opportunity for young people to provide an alternative commentary.
I know things are different now, not least in the music industry. Back in 1976, we only had one medium – pop music - through which to speak one another and the world. The internet has changed that. Now, if you have an opinion about something, you can blog, tweet, and post your thoughts for everyone to see. It makes you feel like you’re making a contribution, but are you really?
Nobody ever got rich writing snarky remarks in the comment section nor got to tour the world performing to thousands of people on the back of writing a blog. Sure, you may get a lot of ‘likes’ on your comments, but nothing beats the thrill of making an audience of 50 people cheer a line in a song that you’ve just written that hits on something that they feel strongly about.
I know that there are artists out there who already understand this, but I am also aware of the atmosphere of cynical post-modernism that has warped the music scene to such an extent that musicians who write ostensibly political songs spend their interviews desperately back-pedalling to avoid being ‘divisive’. Joe Strummer is spinning in his grave.
I can understand why young artists might be unsure of how to approach politics. Since the ideological battles of the 1980s, the whole distinction between left and right has disappeared under the rubble of the Berlin Wall. Even I have trouble making sense of it all - does anybody know what Tony Blair really stood for?
But making political pop should not be a matter of setting Karl Marx to music. I’ve heard that stuff and it never sounds right. Pop becomes political when it stops being self-pitying and self-aggrandising and starts to speak truth to power.
Punk was born in a time of rising unemployment and stultifying boredom among young people. It contained a strong nihilistic streak that claimed to only want to destroy, an impulse that bands like the Clash constantly had to fight against. I’m not looking for a nostalgic trip down memory lane nor for a punk revival. That was another time. Yet, it at its core, punk contained a revolutionary idea that remains relevant today: ‘Here’s three chords, now a form a band’.
Of course it doesn’t have to be a band – technology has put the means of production into the hands of anyone with a computer and some beats. The riots last week were a spark – what is needed now is an alternative commentary. Some of you who are reading this need to produce songs with spirit that tell us something we don’t know about what the fuck happened last week, how we got to such a place and where you think we should be going from here.
A truncated version of this article appeared in the NME 27.8.11