33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs

The protest hit parade


Stevie Wonder: anthems

Stevie Wonder: anthems

By Dorian Lynskey.
Faber, £17.99

At 800 pages long, and covering roughly 70 years of music, 33 Revolutions Per Minute is a massive undertaking by Dorian Lynskey, whose elegant, intelligent prose has graced the arts section of the Guardian and numerous rock magazines over the past decade. Here, he endeavours to trace the chronology of that musical crossroads where pop and politics intersect.

He begins in 1939 with Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit, written by a Jewish communist called Abel Meeropol, which used the seemingly benign imagery of fruit hanging from trees to describe the black victims of lynching in America's pre-war Deep South. It was, says Lynskey of Holiday's landmark song, the "Ground Zero" of protest pop.

With a panoramic sweep through pop and rock's insurrectionary past, the book assesses the influence of Woody Guthrie's progressive folk ballads and their subsequent impact on a young Bob Dylan, probably the artist most entitled to claim that music can change the world. Still in the '60s, it demonstrates that both black radicalism and hippie peace consciousness were reflected in the records of the day, by the likes of James Brown and John Lennon.

In a way, the '70s were the Golden Age of provocative rock and soul that agitated for social change: in the early part of the decade, there was Stevie Wonder, whose anthems such as Living for the City offered gritty snapshots of ghetto poverty, while Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone documented the despair of America's black underclass in a way that the rappers did in the '80s and '90s.

Then came late-70s reggae and punk, genres with an illustrious history of anti-authoritarianism. But, as Lynskey points out, resistance and polemic can occur in the least expected places, which is when pop is at its most subversive: he takes the example of Chic, the disco group responsible for hits such as Le Freak and Good Times. Apart from discovering here that Chic's mainman Nile Rodgers was a member of the Black Panthers as a teen, we also learn that Good Times was an ironic critique of recession-ravaged America.

Billie Holiday: landmark

Billie Holiday: landmark

Some of the biggest-selling singles of all time have had a political agenda. Indeed, although protest pop does have a reputation for being dour and dry, courtesy of the likes of Billy Bragg, it can be incendiary and exciting, especially when it happens before a wide audience. There are great examples in this book, notably Frankie Goes To Hollywood's ode to nuclear paranoia, Two Tribes, which was number 1 for nine weeks at the height of the Cold War in summer 1984, and had a bassline that could shake a building's foundations.

Protest pop can be an agent of very specific change. The Special AKA's Free Nelson Mandela was a hit in 1984 by a group from Coventry and helped bring about what the title implored.

And yet for all the glorying of the power of protest pop, Lynskey strikes a sad note at the end when he writes of the 2009 drive by social networkers to keep Simon Cowell's X Factor-sanctioned single off the Christmas number 1 slot, and replace it with Rage Against The Machine's Killing in the Name. But this was less of a bang than a whimper of denial of a music impresario's hegemony. As Lynksey writes: "These days, a protest song can only succeed on a grand scale if it's turned into a joke." In the end, his book is more eulogy than celebration.

Dorian Lynskey will appear on February 27. Paul Lester writes on rock music for the JC and other publications

    Last updated: 11:32am, February 25 2011