If you were to ask me what I thought the best protest song ever written was, I would not opt for Imagine, Give Peace A Chance or Cold Turkey. Instead, and without hesitation, I would point towards Pet Shop Boys’ It’s A Sin. Despite being an enthusiastically straight teenager, the anger and hurt in the music and in Neil Tennant’s extraordinary lyrics hit me powerfully and immediately. One mind changed, worth every orchestra hit. Even before going anywhere near any of the more widely celebrated examples, I’d nominate Funk Pop A Roll by XTC, No More Mr. Nice Guy by Alice Cooper and Sowing The Seeds Of Love by Tears For Fears, all of which are founded on a simple stance of rejecting the controlling roles that society, family, the workplace and financial acquisition attempt to impose on others, which may seem a bit comical now and a touch on the flimsy side compared to say, Dead End Street by The Kinks or When Will They Shoot? by Ice Cube (both of which, to be honest, I would put right up alongside It’s A Sin), but they’re the sort of songs that connect with disgruntled youngsters on a wider and more simplistic level than someone bellowing about how they were a dustman they were a pelican they were Evil Gas Bottle between th-huh warrs. Which in fairness is probably precisely why nobody asked me.
At a push I would probably also add Turn It On Again by Genesis on account of it being probably the only protest song against soap operas, and the sheer accidental genius of Whose Law Is It Anyway? by Guru Josh. Firstly, even more than his proclamation in Infinity that 1990 was ‘time for The Guru’, as a specific stand against the second reading of Graham Bright MP’s Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act 1990, it is arguably the most specifically time-locked song ever and to modern ears just sounds as though he was getting a bit narked about Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles showing up on Whose Line Is It Anyway? every single week. Secondly, its aimless yet defiant rebuke to a cold, grey, alien and alienating ‘them’ is, in its own way, the most powerful form of protest of all. I am against you and everything you stand for on a level that does not require examples or detail. Number Six would have been proud.
The problem that a lot of the more celebrated protest songs have is that they are essentially preaching to the converted, often with a surfeit of long words too, and while being musically and politically worthy they never quite manage to change the world; this is why it’s quite possible to argue that Paul McCartney deliberately releasing a dreadful version of Mary Had A Little Lamb as a single in response to a series of you-couldn’t-make-it-up BBC bans is a greater act of subversion than John Lennon singing ‘take off your clothes’ to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth. Others, however, struggle because they refuse to take their lyrical gloves off, fail to notice that the world has moved on between writing and recording the song, or simply pick a subject of scorn where nobody can really work out what it is or why they’re so worked up about it. This list of the Ten Least Effective Protest Songs – originally titled Nothing’s Gonna Change My World in a spot of Beatle-baiting that nobody seemed to notice – was put together simply for my own amusement, even though I was aware that a couple of the choices were so contentious that someone was likely to pen a protest song against me. It’s not happened. Yet…
Protest songs are a notoriously difficult artform. Sometimes, like United Artists Against Apartheid and their ‘ain’t gonna play Sun City’ antics, you can be so blunt and unforgiving about the authorities and your peers that they get spooked and hide it so effectively that hardly anyone actually hears it. Other times, like Scritti Politti and their sarcasm-riven salute to The ‘Sweetest Girl’, you can be so arch and elliptical that nobody actually realises you were trying to make a point in the first place. Then, sometimes, you can just miss your target altogether. Here are ten songs that, with the best will in the world, are hardly likely to find themselves feted as a lost call to arms…
Julian Lennon ‘Saltwater’
A Mellotron-backed lament for global famine, deforestation, the depletion of the ozone layer and the BBC wiping Doctor Who And The Space Pirates, all of which occasion Lennon Junior to blub. The solutions, he appears to suggest, lie in evaluating these phenomena against landmark expeditionary achievements and milestone scientific breakthroughs, including, erm, those inhuman boffins who ‘make the deserts bloom’. It also helps, if the video is anything to go by, if a binman looks at the sky sort of wistfully whilst lugging a trashcan. Extra points for sounding the least like The Beatles ever out of anything that the average local radio DJ thought sounded ‘just like The Beatles’.
Back To The Planet ‘Teenage Turtles’
Crusty techno types have a go back at… what exactly? There’s something about those heartless bastards who maliciously go out and work for a living and a ‘they’ who ‘just want people with a brain in their arse’ (“‘You won’t print our lyrics because they say ‘arse’!’… erm, we just did” – Smash Hits), but beyond that? Whatever it is, they’re blaming it all on the parents, the schools, the telly ‘with adverts’, and of course The Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (“an influence bad, all the little children brain dead, it’s sad”), roughly three years after any self-respecting youngster would have given a flying fuck about Leonardo and company. At least Daisy Chainsaw got right to the sodding point. Roll on Britpop, frankly.
Kriss Kross ‘It’s A Shame’
Daddy Mack and Mack Daddy lift the lid on gang culture, delivering an extended backward-clothed dissection of the major sociocultural lifestyle risk pattern facing underprivileged urban youth in the modern developed world. And their conclusion? It’s ‘a shame’. They also appear to hold, erm, Pac-Man responsible. Note also the ‘meaningful’ ending of the video featuring gang members disappearing from the screen one by one. We may well need to call in Roland Barthes to decode the symbolism.
You can hear me talking about It’s A Shame at unnecessarily greater length in Looks Unfamiliar here.
Extreme ‘Rest In Peace’
1991’s premier exponents of acoustic-funk-metal-with-short-haired-drummer get all gung-ho in the wake of the Gulf War with a scansion-free message for all those lousy goddamn hippies getting in the way with their peace and love when we should just be out there kicking ass – “Make Love Not War sounds so absurd to me, we can’t afford to say these words lightly, or else our world will truly rest in peace”. There’s also a warning not to ‘tread on me’, a rebuke to a ‘hypocrite’ who said ‘Give Peace A Chance’ and caused everyone to ‘sit on the fence’, and a scarcastic cry of ‘Ban The Bomb’. In fairness, they may have just been trying to restore a bit of credibility following their eighteen thousand hit ballads. Either way, seldom was a complex argument delivered with less complexity.
Bill Oddie ‘Nothing Better To Do’
With Mods and Rockers on the deckchair-smashing Bank Holiday rampage across the nation’s seaside towns, it falls to a Goodie-in-waiting to plead with the Sawdust Caesars to return to their homes and places of business. Despite its dramatic faux-r’n’b pastiche arrangement and Oddie’s impassioned delivery and ‘in character’ spoken word bit as a buck-passing Mod and/or Rocker, it had about as much chance of connecting with them as The Laughing Gnome, and scored a spectacular own goal when the BBC refused to play it out of fear that it would have the precise opposite effect and simply spur all concerned parties on into further acts of throwing tables in Cantonese takeaways.
You can hear Nothing Better To Do as part of Funny Ha Ha And Funny Peculiar here.
The Smiths ‘Meat Is Murder’
Animal Rights – a complex issue surrounded by a barrage of powerful and emotive debates that perhaps should not be touched on in a single paragraph, let alone as an adjunct of pop music-based levity. Except when they are expressed by Steven Patrick Morrissey in a lyric so flimsy and badly argued that its every last utterance can be dismissed with a simple ‘no it isn’t’ or ‘yes it is’. “See Me” – Wendy James.
Tin Machine ‘Video Crime’
Bowie and the boys turn their screeching art-rock attention to the thrillseekers gorging on ‘Video Nasties’, delivering a blistering rebuke to anyone whose average evening’s entertainment incorporated cannibals, zombies and drill-wielding painters with a quasi-religious persecution complex and lax definition of the boundaries of ‘art’. There was only one problem with all of this. Video Crime came out in 1989, and the Video Recordings Act came into effect in 1984, meaning that all those copies of The Beast In Heat had been flung onto a special bonfire long before they even entered the studio.
Matt and Luke attempt to reverse their Dumperwards trajectory with an impassioned gospel-inflected ecological plea delivered to some bloke eating crisps, warning that there will be no birds up in the sky unless ‘we’ stop ‘it’ now. Presumably the minor landslide of vinyl, cassettes, ‘Postermags’, badges, t-shirts, leather jackets, pilfered bottle tops and Summer Specials containing bizarre text stories about kidnappers plotting to hold Matt to ransom in ‘our ‘oliday ‘ome’ that they had left in their wake did not constitute part of the ‘it’.
Transvision Vamp ‘Born To Be Sold’
The Crow And Alice-era You And Me theme gets rewritten as a huskily-voiced meditation on the Fame Industry, and everyone from Elvis Presley to Marilyn, Cassius Clay to Billy The Kid (and, inevitably, Morrissey), who became ‘slaves of gold’ and were, you guessed it, ‘Born To Be Sold’. Wendy James, on the other hand, is what she chooses to be; she doesn’t need no-one to bleed for her, she’s going to make her own history. Let’s look forward to her taking up a whole chapter in Dominic Sandbrook’s next book.
Gillian Kirby had plenty to say about Born To Be Sold in Looks Unfamiliar, as you can hear for yourself here.
Five Man Electrical Band ‘Signs’
And finally, a bunch of Canadian Prog-Rockers take a brave and controversial stand against something that’s been getting away with it for far too long – signs. Yes, actual signs. They won’t be doing THAT again!
Still, at least they never saw fit to make a record protesting against the cancellation of a television programme…
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It’s A Shame by Kris Kross was one of Tim Worthington’s choices when he appeared as the guest on an edition of Looks Unfamiliar; you can listen to it here.
Gillian Kirby picked out – if not picked on – Transvision Vamp for one of her choices on Looks Unfamiliar; you can find the full show here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.