The Guardian OCTOBER 18, 2002 - by Dorian Lynskey


Rock musicians used to be in the vanguard of political protest. Whatever happened to those days, asks Dorian Lynskey.

Oasis's Gallagher brothers are not the first port of call for illuminating political insight, but they voiced a widespread sentiment when asked recently about the Stop The War campaign championed by Blur's Damon Albarn and Massive Attack's Robert 3D Del Naja. My opinion means nothing, said Noel Gallagher. The people in the White House can change this. I play guitar in a band and we're really good. Arsed about anything else. Liam was more brutally succinct: Nobody's gonna listen to knobhead out of Blur... no one even listens to Bono.

While this may relate as much to Oasis's ongoing feud with Blur, their tone of impotent defeatism is not unique. The shortage of musicians supporting Stop The War confirms it. Although writers and actors are amply represented on the organisation's website, Albarn, Del Naja, Brian Eno, Billy Bragg, Kevin Rowland and Elbow's Guy Garvey are the only well-known rock performers. The mood is beleaguered, battered and embittered. Perhaps us who still believe there's some point in being involved in political action are being old-fashioned, says Eno. Perhaps they [other musicians] think the whole conversation isn't going to achieve anything. And sometimes I have to agree.

The music industry's engagement with politics has always ebbed and flowed. In the 1960s, when rock was part of a counter-culture, protest songs were both credible and glamorous. In the punk era, the Top 10 included a string of polemical singles by The Jam, The Clash and The Specials. Since then, thrilling music and political engagement have rarely coincided. Public Enemy was the exception, influencing a wave of acts in the early '90s.

The protest songs that really work are imbued with glamour, says Manic Street Preachers lyricist Nicky Wire. Take away the lyrics and the way they sound, the way they look, is a perfect moment in time. You're not going to get better than [The Sex Pistols'] God Save the Queen. I mean, Billy Bragg's Golden Jubilee song made me embarrassed to be a republican.

NME editor Conor McNicholas agrees that, without glamour, political music has no broad appeal. A lot of the stuff which is much more direct and worthy and practical just tends to be desperately uncool. Rock'n'roll is still largely about getting laid. Key issues are too complicated to be summed up in an incendiary slogan, but nobody ever wrote a protest song called It's A Complex Issue (With Strong Arguments On Both Sides) and Radiohead and Massive Attack prefer to put relevant links on their websites rather than write songs about sweatshops.

Those musicians who have stuck their necks out have the bruises to show for it. Lee Ryan of Blue has received twenty thousand death threats since his post-9/11 outburst: Who gives a fuck about New York when elephants are being killed? George Michael was savaged for his anti-Bush song Shoot The Dog, and Steve Earle's John Walker's Blues, an attempt to understand American Taliban John Walker Lindh, was widely condemned, with one British broadsheet critic branding it despicable.

Many bands with a conscience choose the path of least resistance: the charity record. This week, the NME marks its fifth anniversary by releasing 1 Love, on which current bands cover classic number ones, The proceeds go to the charity War Child, which cannot be explicitly political in raising funds for children in war zones but is implicitly pacifist, so contributors can show their hearts are in the right place and achieve something without taking a controversial stand. Even Oasis felt sufficiently arsed to appear on 1 Love.

Massive Attack's Del Naja featured on War Child's 1995's first record, Help!, but turned down 1 Love because it seemed to be publicising the NME as much as War Child. He says: It's a politically safe thing to do. James Topham, War Child's director of communications, considered asking bands to reinterpret protest songs, until he realised most of them were absolutely terrible. It's always been in the hands of young people to speak out about this kind of thing and nobody gives a fuck, he laments. I said something about it at V2002 from the stage, like: 'I know you're going to tell your elected leaders that they're not killing anybody in your name.' And there was stony silence among seventeen thousand people. That's scarier than the threat itself.

NME's McNicholas believes that, among the current generation of music fans, politics is simply out of vogue. Blur and Massive Attack are almost part of an intellectual old guard. New bands are much more interested in rediscovering rock'n'roll excess than making political points. Most musicians are thick, offers Nicky Wire. They're more interested in bass amps and guitar strings than politics. There's nothing beyond the music.

Massive Attack's Del Naja suggests a different, equally paralysing, malaise among conscientious bands. There are several examples of musicians making political points: Bono's campaign for debt relief, Coldplay's support for fair trade or Primal Scream and Asian Dub Foundation's efforts to free Satpal Ram. Even Robbie Williams signed Brian Eno's petition against America's efforts to fire Jose Bustani, head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, earlier this year. Yet when it came to support for Stop The War, Del Naja was turned down even by U2, the Manics, Primal Scream and Asian Dub Foundation. Paul Weller - whose latest album features the anti-war song A Bullet for Everyone - also refused, citing his experience with the pro-Labour Red Wedge movement.

Disparate bands can hardly be expected to speak with one voice on every issue, but the fragmentation of rock's left makes it difficult for anything significant to be achieved. Come together? Not likely. I think the problem is vanity, says Del Naja. Bands like to attach themselves to pet causes. What me and Damon tried to do was rise above all that but, as it went on, we gave up thinking about the bands and thought about the people, which was the only way that really made sense. Hence, the pair's double-page advert in NME prior to the anti-war demonstration on September 28. Eno, too, is committed yet doubtful. It's about creating a place where people can get informed, in the hope that the democratic process still works, and it's a hope that's fading quite fast, I have to say.

A more revealing sign of the times is The Prodigy's revamp of The Specials' Ghost Town on 1 Love. Released in 1981, as riots raged on Britain's streets, Ghost Town was one of the most searingly eloquent protest songs ever written. The Prodigy's version is instrumental.