As recent events herald the opening of a new chapter of protest and public dissent, a chance re-listen to one of my favourite albums caused me to stop and think: who will provide the soundtrack? The artist in question, The The – essentially, at least in terms of artistic vision, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Matt Johnson’s one-man-band – and the album, 1986 release Infected.
I hope this doesn’t appear glib; it shouldn’t, for the events of the past tell us that the best protest music can, as well as capturing a mood, help to give shape, form, solace, and even a stronger sense of purpose to a movement, whether Dylan and Vietnam or Bragg and the miners’ strike. But at the moment at least I don’t hear anyone framing current events with the barely-controlled rage but potent articulacy of The The.
Maybe it’s because – sad as this feels to contemplate – we’re only at the very beginning of this new wave of pain and attendant protest; much of the best righteously angry music of the eighties came towards the end of the decade, after all, when perhaps there was sufficient critical mass; an excess of rage.
But then again – and as was noted at the time – the protests against the last Iraq war were hardly small-scale, but were bereft of anything decent to march to. The best we got was the rather elegiac, hardly rousing lament of the death of David Kelly, Harrowdown Hill by Thom Yorke.
What I’m hoping for is something a bit more like this, from the Infected track and minor hit Heartland, which manages to beautifully combine an acute sense of time and place:
Beneath the old iron bridges, across the Victorian parks
And all the frightened people running home before dark
Past the Saturday morning cinema that lies crumbling to the ground
And the piss stinking shopping centre in the new side of town
With eloquent disgust:
This is the land where nothing changes
The land of red buses and blue blooded babies
This is the place where pensioners are raped
And the hearts are being cut from the welfare state
Let the poor drink the milk, while the rich eat the honey
Let the bums count their blessings, while they count the money
And a call to arms (although a slightly doubtful one):
So many people can’t express what’s on their minds
Nobody knows them, nobody ever will
Until their backs are broken, their dreams are stolen
And they can’t get what they want then they’re gonna get angry
Well, it ain’t written in the papers but it’s written on the walls
The way this country’s dividing to fall
So the cranes are moving on the skyline tryin’ to knock down … this town
But the stains on the heartland can never be removed
From this country that’s sick, sad and confused
Maybe I’m missing something, perhaps there are great modern protest songs and I just haven’t heard them. Tell me if you have: @philblogs.