Way back in the 50's, when rock n roll blasted out of the American gutters, it was rebel music, it was music that the establishment, parents and "old people", hated. It was music that was denounced by politicians and priests as ungodly, it was "the devil's music" and it most definitely was not what right thinking people listened to. But, what those early pioneers unwittingly proved was that young audiences did listen, that the music had influence, impact and power. I would take the view that that power to influence grew through the 60's, 70's and 80's but has diminished since then. Some artists though continue to blaze a trail somewhat under the radar highlighting issues along the way whilst making superb contemporary music that embodies the best traits of powerful and thought provoking art.
One such person is Scottish-folky-songstress Karine Polwart with her new album 'Laws of Motion'. Here's an album that burns with righteous indignation and a slow burning subtle fury. In conjunction with her partner Steven Polwart and Lau's Martin Green, here are ten songs filled with protest, poetry and concern. The themes here touch on immigration, the holocaust, the dreaded 45th president of the USA and a Japanese Gardner who traveled to Scotland almost a century ago. The title track is a subtle reminder that, for most, flight from the homes they love to a country with perhaps unknown delights or potential disaster is not a journey undertaken lightly and such a journey is probably filled with more fear than anything else. Embedded in that flight though is a desire to be safe and thoughts about "immigrants taking our jobs" are born of ignorance and fear. Similarly 'Suitcase' takes a look back at that time when Jewish children were rescued during the war and spirited away to safety. They too were hounded and threatened by fear and we all need to be reminded about this from time to time. Much has been written about the 45th president and he remains the most divisive American president it's been my displeasure to have ever seen sitting atop Capitol Hill but here we have a song that (like me) can barely mention his name. 'I Burn But I Am Not Consumed' looks at Don Drumpf through the roots of his Scottish roots and ponders what his forebears and the land of his birth would make of him. The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that it and they would take a longer and more measured view and gather hope that eventually he will pass and the rock of the land and the people will remain, burned but not destroyed. Hope will endure. The most striking song on this fine collection of songs though has got to be 'Cassiopeia'. Many of us remember the British Governments farcical attempts to promote a programme to keep us safe from nuclear attack in the late 1970's. That programme was called 'Protect & Survive' and advised us to, basically, hide under a sturdy table and stay indoors for a few weeks. Most laughed it off with a dose of incredulity whilst some turned it into a form of resistance calling their campaign 'Protest & Survive' and marched on Parliament. Some would argue that that campaign, spearheaded by CND, got rid of the Cruise Missiles on Greenham Common, and who am I to argue? This song though looks at that time through a scared child's eyes and use that crazy advice and a child's response to bring home the chilling possibility of what might have happened. So we have the disembodied Official Government reading from that pamphlet and telling us "The first priority is to provide shelter within your home against radioactive fallout. Your best protection is to make a fall-out room and build an inner refuge within it". Then the scared child's reaction "Safe as houses/check the map/How far is it from Lenningrad to Bonnybridge?"
'Laws of Motion' is an album that everyone should hear and it's a reminder that music doesn't have to be insipid, corporate and soaked with a manufactured pop sheen to be successful. Whilst is is firmly rooted in folk it also has a much wider pallet as it takes in some desert blues, a touch of electronica and just some damn fine songs. Music should, in my humble opinion, have a message. It should tell us something about ourselves and where we are going. It doesn't have to be overbearing, dull and heavy handed. It can be what is here - melodic, forward looking, hopeful and joyful.
'Laws of Motion' though is something of an anomaly because it seems to me that much current music, say over the last twenty years, has become safe, predictable and fairly inoffensive. Looking around our glorious blue planet today can make anyone depressed, fearful, scared and angry. Once upon time, not too long ago, music provided us with a battle cry, a shield and armour against the the crushing power of 'THE MAN'. I've always had a penchant for music that moves, motivates and empowers the listener. I'm not one to moan that pop music and politics should be kept separate. The artist can wear their heart on their sleeve and argue any case they wish, all fine with me but I know that not everyone will agree though. Recently I was trawling through a thread on the Steve Hoffman Forum (Google it!) about former Pink Floyd stalwart Roger Waters' recent 'Us & Them' tour. Now, with a tour title like that you'd expect most to understand that ol' Roger isn't going to be dishing up happy smiley people and singing fluffy pop ditties. But, read the forums comments and it's clear that their are many out there who feel that Rogers' political views have no place in music and argue vehemently against his right to do just that. Mr.Waters hasn't exactly hidden his strident views and one quick listen to 'The Wall' leaves you in no doubt as to where he's coming from. So, it's clear that some find 'pop' and 'protest' as mutually exclusive but I can't agree. For me music must challenge and question but today, in 2018, I ask where are the young artists challenging the mess that we see before us? Where's the real challenge to the horror show in the White House, the murders in Yemen and the Saudi Arabian embassy, the crooks in the House of Commons and the thieves in our high street banks? The revolution will not take place on Twitter or Facebook because they're wrapped up in cats, what you had for your dinner and Christopher Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson).
Now, thinking back though to that first blast of 50's rebellion and trying to chart a course from that maelstrom of noise and rebellion to Karine Polwart's evocative album is a tough ask. We can see though that things settled out as many of the early heroes fell away. Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13 year old cousin and then went country, Little Richard gave up his music to take up religion and Elvis enlisted in the army and went on to make 20 odd crap films. As the 50's evolved into the 60's Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger took up radicalised folk music and Woody's alternative American anthem, 'This Land is Your Land' rang the changes. Bob Dylan became, in his words, a "Woody Guthrie jukebox", and then started to pen his own alternative anthems and things were never quite the same again.
The roots of pop/rock as a form of protest begin around the time Dylan started making his first records and others jumped on board and throughout the 60's the message became just as important as the music and as it merged into what we now called 'Rock' it was almost a prerequisite that artists had a political point of view and it was expounded in their art and we, the audience, endorsed it by buying it. Dylan's greatest work here was probably 'A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall' written around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. Dylan himself has said that he wrote it so that he could use up all the first lines of songs he probably wouldn't get to write so sure was he, and many others, that we were facing imminent nuclear annihilation. Dylan's righteous anger is burned into that song and others he wrote in that golden period. You can hear that fury burning through 'Masters of War', 'Only a Pawn in Their Game' 'Oxford Town' and 'The Ballad of Hollis Brown' and 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol'. It was that anger that inspired and fed those that followed. We can here the same anger in Neil Young's stark 'Ohio' as the song opens with a crunching riff and Neil belting out "Tin Soldiers and Nixon's coming/We're finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/four dead in Ohio". It was penned as a direct response to the shooting of four students in that city protesting against President Nixon's policy in Vietnam. You can hear the fury that feeds it and Young has talked of band mate Dave Crosby breaking down in tears after recording it so intense were the feelings at the time. Recorded and released quickly it was out as a hot single within weeks of the deaths.
The sixties are usually remembered as the zenith of music as protest when the hippies looked as though they might actually change the world but the revolution didn't happen. Instead the music mutated with the changing times but artists realised that their popularity could give them a voice especially with the young. In the mid 70's the UK's Punk revolution fed the disenfranchised youth and bands like The Clash and Stiff Little Fingers emerged with a more overt political agenda embedded in their music. The Sex Pistols, though not overtly political, shocked the nation in 1977 when their alternative Queens Silver Jubilee single 'God Save The a Queen' that was not only banned but also expunged from the chart. That was despite the fact that it was the real number one record during Jubilee week in the summer of 1977. Towards the end of the 70's in the USA protests about the Vietnam war and then wider environmental issues like nuclear power and green issues began to surface. In 1979 following the nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island musicians like Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and Bonnie Raitt formed 'Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE)' and toured the USA alongside Bruce Springsteen and others highlighting these issues. These musicians toured under the MUSE banner and released a live album 'No Nukes'. No doubt this had an influence on Springsteen as his next album, 'The River' in 1981, was had some more political material most notably on the title track that dealt with the impact of unemployment on the little people, the ones left behind. Springsteen became a master of writing songs about characters dealing with situations that became political. He fine tuned that approach with his next album 'Born in The USA' where he wove in threads about Vietnam Vets, unemployment, immigration and economic decline and sank further into misery with the following album 'Nebraska'. Springsteen continues to combine personal politics with the wider Political impacts of Governments on every day lives for millions and few do that better than Springsteen. Patti Smith, often clumsily referred to as a "Punk Poetess", often took on big issues and this came to ahead with her mid 80's anthem 'People Have The Power', a song that seems to have grown in stature in the three decades since its release and might be seen as an incentive to the type of revolution we saw in Rumania that overthrew Nicolae Ceausescu with an impassioned powerful cry that "People have the power...to dream, to rule/to wrestle the world from fools/it is decreed - the people rule". Of course American Presidents have often provided fodder for those willing to rise to the challenge. The Ramones lampooned Ronald Regan with 'Bonzo Goes to Bitburg'. George W Bush proved to be a fitting target for Conor Oberst under the moniker Bright Eyes, with an angry 'When The President Talks To God' where Conor almost screams "When the President talks to God/Do they drink beer and go play golf while they pick out which countries to invade/which Muslim souls can be saved?" Stirring stuff to be sure and sadly the whole song can apply just as easily to the 45th President today as it did to 'Dubya' back then. Some may dispute the impact that the words of mere pop stars can possibly have on the wider game but remember that derogatory comments about Bush made by the Dixie Chicks (on stage in London, far away from Bush) pretty much destroyed their career. Closer to home the 1980's saw Margaret Thatcher become a target for many left leaning musicians with Elvis Costello's 'Tramp The Dirt Down' filled with vitriolic hatred for the Iron Lady. Costello sings with burning hatred that "I'd like to live long enough to savour that when they finally put you in the ground I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down". Costello has always had a thread of political thought running through his work with 'Shipbuilding' (a hit for Robert Wyatt) a gentle sounding song looking at the wreckage around the Falklands War in a subtle and melodic way. Even today live he often plays Nick Low's terrific '(What's So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding' at the end of a show. Around the same time as Costello was dancing on Thatcher's grave British Ska band The Beat pleaded with her to, "Stand down Margaret, Stand down please" and that's pretty much the whole song. Mrs Thatchers years of Government led on to the formation of 'Red Wedge', a political movement that brought together the likes of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Costello, The Communards, Tom Robinson, Jerry Dammers and many others. Their aim, broadly, was to reach young people prior to the 1987 election and convince them to vote Labour. It failed and the Tories were to hold on to power for another 10 years but it did motivate young people and helped to at least get some interested and active.
So, pop, politics and protest have been sometimes uncomfortable bed fellows for a few decades now and the popularity of political singers has waxed and waned over the years. There's little doubt that artists like Dylan, Neil Young, Springsteen and Woody Guthrie have gained kudos and popularity somewhat from their engagement with the big issues of the day but today it seems that that type of involvement has faded and isn't really connected to the mainstream anymore. Sure, there are some notable exceptions. Many rap artists build up a head of steam connecting audiences with the events of Ferguson, Missouri and the 'Black Lives Matter' campaign, whilst breakthrough punk band Idles push positive messages including their immigration anthem 'Danny Nedelko', but it seems to me that, for the most part, newer artists don't engage with issues that might be seen as divisive because it will adversely affect radio play, and exposure on streaming services and social media generally. There seems to be little in the way of protest, discussion or debate in music about say, Brexit. In the USA anyone who criticises the 45th President runs the risk of personal attacks on Twitter, death threats via other social media. or actual pipe bombs in the mail. So, come on, where are the young radical artists who will pick up the cudgel? Is it to be left to old timers like Jackson Browne and Neil Young to continue raise the battle charge while they enter their dotage? Browne's last album 'Standing in The Breach' had a fine finger-pointing song 'If I Could Be Anywhere' where Browne sang "They say nothing lasts forever/but all the plastic ever made is still here/and no amount of closing our eyes will make it disappear/and the world can't take it much longer/ and we won't make it 'less we're smarter and stronger" in a sad resigned tone. Neil Young, likewise very much part of the old guard, still highlights big issues and talks about environmental damage. His 2014 'Storytone' album contained 'Who's Gonna Stand Up?' where Neil begs us to "End fossil fuel, draw the line/before we build one more pipeline/end fracking now, let's save the water/build a life for our sons and daughters". Sure these lines are clumsy and perhaps a little hackneyed but that doesn't diminish their truth. We need more writers, musicians, poets and artists to continue this line to challenge our masters and to make changes otherwise, we're done. Twenty odd years ago Neil Young screamed "There's a warning sign on the road ahead/there's a lotta people saying we'd be better off dead/Don't feel like satan but I am to them/so I try to forget it anyway I can/Keep on rockin' in the free world." Hugely prophetic words written even before the first gulf war but we're well past that warning sign now and few seem to saying anything that directly anymore and no-one seems to be listening or talking about what should really be happening.
So, returning to the starting point and Karine Polwart's 'Laws of Motion', is their a clear line route through? Is there a connection through from those early rock n roll deviants to the 60's troubadours and then into the angry 70's and turbulent 80's and from there into the arguably apathetic wasteland of the new century. Will things change? Perhaps, perhaps not, but as long as people like Karine Polwart can still make records like this and find an audience there is a chance because as the late great Leonard Cohen told us "forget your perfect offering/there is a crack in everything/it's how the light gets in".