10 Great Political Rock Songs

Good art doesn’t have to be political, and good politics doesn’t have to be art, but when the two come together well then they can be very powerful. Here are my 10 favourite political rock songs. You may well complain that some favourites of yours aren’t on here, but that is the fun thing about these lists, isn’t it. Feel free to leave a comment.

One criterion does need mentioning however: there is no wishy-washy earnest folk acoustic stuff here. These tracks are not just good politics, they rock. I present them in rough (but not exact) chronological order. I don’t claim to be a great music critic, so feel free to ignore my comments if you want: but I have linked to versions of every track and the best thing to do with these songs is not just put them on, but listen to them…. so please do.

1. THE DOORS: FIVE TO ONE
The old get old, and the young get stronger. May take a week, but it may take longer. They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers. Gonna win… yeah, we’re taking over… Come on!
The Doors may have strayed into some psychedelic whimsy now and again, and by all accounts Jim Morrison was often narcissistic and self-indulgent, but goddammit when he and his band set their minds to it they produced some powerful stuff. This is as radical as they ever got.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DfG1SNydnc

2. CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: OHIO

Kent State massacre

Kent State massacre, 4th May 1970.

Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming. We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming… Four dead in Ohio.
On April 30th 1970 Richard Nixon announced on US TV that the Vietnam war would be extended into Cambodia. During a subsequent protest at Kent State University in Ohio, the National Guard opened fire on unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine. A subsequent enquiry, the Scranton commission, concluded that the shootings were unjustified, but charges against the Guardsmen were dismissed in 1974. David Crosby, Steven Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young recorded the song almost immediately after the shootings and Atlantic records rushed it into the charts. (Crosby, Stills and Nash’s ‘Long Time Gone’ is also well worth a listen.)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnOoNM0U6oc

3. THE WHO: WON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Hard to resist this one, in all its 8-minute glory, with the brilliant — and never matched — organ sound that opens the track, remains as an undertone throughout, and then eases its way up again towards the end before Keith Moon’s drumming and Daltrey’s scream burst the band back in. The Who were a very political band — listen also to ‘The Dirty Jobs’ off the Quadrophenia album. ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ remains highly relevant — and should be given heavy circulation before just about any election, anywhere. Alas, it’s central message also remains very true.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHhrZgojY1Q

4. GIL SCOTT-HERON: THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions… The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner. The revolution will not be televised, brother.
Who knows whether his prediction is still true? But it doesn’t matter. Christ, this is a powerful track, one I never heard until quite recently, but it’s got to get in this top 10. This kind of thing will send white conservatives into paroxysms: talk about radical.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGaoXAwl9kw

Jamie Reid poster

Jamie Reid’s poster for ‘God Save the Queen’

5. SEX PISTOLS: GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
God Save the Queen, her fascist regime. They made you a moron, potential H-bomb. God Save the Queen, she ain’t no human being. There is no future in England’s dreaming.
There’s rarely been a more subversive song than this, and John Lydon wrote it when he was 20 years old, for heaven’s sake. For a song with lyrics like this to get released at all by a record company was incredibly brave, and I would bet it would never get out today. Not only is it anti-monarchist, but it then segues into the ‘No future…. No future… for you’ ending, totally defining the punk spirit. In the present day, when a woman with no job can have a baby and receive millions from the taxpayer just because she married someone who was a member of an accidentally rich family…. we need this song. You need it. (‘Anarchy in the UK’ is brilliant too, but this is better.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtUH2YSFlVU

6. THE SPECIALS: GHOST TOWN
This town…. is coming like a ghost town. Why must the youth fight against themselves? Government leaving their jobs on the shelves. This place… is coming like a ghost town… No jobs to found in this country… Can’t go on no more. People getting angry.
I’ve heard this described as the UK’s best ever number 1 single… and I would agree with that. From that mournful brass at the beginning, it’s a complete work of art, invoking the despair of an urban environment in which there’s nothing to do and nothing to become. Remember, it’s about Coventry. But it could be many places. Maybe you live in one.

Ghost Town sleeve

‘Ghost Town’ single sleeve

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WhhSBgd3KI

7. LARD: GENERATION EXECUTE
What are you being put to death for today? Is your family here? What was your last meal? Any last words for the fans? The longer you cling to life…. the more prizes for your friends!
Jello Biafra was lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, who have done a bunch of tracks of their own that could have got on here (see ‘Police Truck’, ‘Holiday in Cambodia’, ‘California Über Alles’, to name but three). Lard was his collaboration with Paul Barker and Al Jourgensen of Ministry. Both the DKs and Ministry are excellent bands in their own right — together, they were, quite simply, awesome. In my opinion their Pure Chewing Satisfaction is the best album ever recorded, by anyone. If there’s one song on this list you  haven’t heard of, it’s probably this one, so give it a go. It’s a stunning prose poem set to a driving beat, an indictment of American attitudes to killing their criminals and sensationalism, as JB fantasises about a game show with ‘executions… on live TV!’ Five minutes and forty-two seconds of genius.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMuA_qCbJRI

Free Nelson Mandela

Special AKA perform ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ on Top of the Pops in 1984

8. SPECIAL AKA : FREE NELSON MANDELA
21 years in captivity… shoes to small to fit his feet… his body abused but his mind is still free… are you so blind that you cannot see? I said… Free Nelson Mandela!  
This and number 9 are the most exuberant songs on here. It deserves to get on if only because it annoyed the Tory Party so much at the time. Let us never forget that David Cameron was a prime mover in the anti-Mandela movement. The Special AKA were one of the two remnants when the Specials split, which makes them the only band to get on here twice, and Jerry Dammers, writer of both these tracks, king of the political rock song. I challenge you to hear this and not feel like dancing at the sheer joy of it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTe2k3EpM9Y

9. REDSKINS: UNIONIZE
Our muscle is our labour, and we flex it when we go on strike… Fight back, unionize…. If we fail to organise we’ll waste our lives on protest songs. A life worth living is waiting to be won…
This is the most blatantly leftist track on here, but is worth including just for that reason. A paean to Marxist politics, and it’s got fucking great drums on it as well. Like the last one, it’s political and it makes you want to dance your arse off.(I think the version done on a John Peel session is the best, but that’s really hard to find. I have it though 🙂 )

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX777sKJnAE

10. PRIMAL SCREAM: SWASTIKA EYES
Elimination policy… A military-industrial illusion of democracy….
OK, I’m getting on a bit these days, and tend to think that most great rock ended at some point in the 1980s, but then again the lack of many newer songs on here is also a factor that rock music has just got a lot less political lately. Record companies are just too scared, too corporate these days. But perhaps you have your own favourites from the last couple of decades. Still, there’s always Primal Scream, who unlike many of their contemporaries have not yet given up and become their own tribute band — they still turn out great music, including this year’s More Light album, with its own political moments in the tracks ‘2013’ and ‘Culturecide’ to name two. But I’ll go with this track from 2000’s Xtrmntr album, thanks to its title’s allusion to a famous punk poster of the Queen (see also #4 above) and for a really kicking bass line.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlFA3uc-JLI

Why ‘anarchic’?

Why have I called this blog the ‘anarchic educator’? What’s all this reference to anarchy, isn’t that a nasty thing, practiced by punks and subversives who just want to throw down the system but have no idea what to put in its place? Let me address this question here, in what will be the first in a series of posts on this issue.

The word anarchy comes from the same Greek roots as ‘monarchy’ (one ruler) or ‘oligarchy’ (a few rulers). The ‘an-’ prefix is merely a negation, as it is in the word ‘amoral’ (without morals) and so represents the idea of not having any rulers. This is all it means.

There is a strong tendency, however, in modern political discourse, to then segue smoothly from here into a statement or position that if rulers are absent, what will result is a state of chaos. In fact so strong is this tendency and so smooth is the segue that the term ‘anarchy’ has come to signify chaos and disorder, without any acknowledgement of the real meaning of the term. But this is an imposition of meaning; imposed by the state/corporate hierarchies which control most of the planet’s physical and economic resources and have an interest in denigrating any attempt at autonomous political action. Yet it is false. There are plenty of examples of structured, orderly activities, groups and societies that exist, now and in the past, without ‘rulers’ in the formal sense.Peter Kropotkin

I once wrote up my feelings about anarchism in an essay published under a pseudonym and available here: “The Trouble with Anarchism”. I do take back some things said in §5 about property vs. possessions, or at least, admit that the view propounded in that section is naive: but I stand by the rest. The important sections for this discussion are §3 and §4, on page 2, where I wrote about how collaboration and consensus can come about when there are no ‘leaders’ to orchestrate it. The answer – as the great anarchist writer, Kropotkin [pictured], recognised in his book Mutual Aid – is self-organisation.

Now this is not a rare phenomenon. It happens all the time, and Kropotkin identified many examples, from animals through to pre-literate and then ‘civilised’ human society. Social structures can emerge without there having to have been ‘direction’ from some kind of ‘leader’. Within these structures, activity takes place, which can be on quite a large scale (e.g. raising a barn). One can organise without becoming ‘an organisation’ (here see the excellent book by Merrick (1996) about the Newbury by-pass protests) – and decisions can and do get taken within the collective. And the collective can in turn learn about the problems it faces, and the impact of its own activity, including its decision-making.

None of this is particularly radical. As a model of education it is, in fact, quite well described by Etienne Wenger with his original idea of communities of practice. In the first part of his 1998 book, which is probably the best simple statement on what a community of practice (CoP) actually is, Wenger describes how newly-employed claims processors in an insurance company came out of their first few weeks of initial staff training having learnt ‘how to do their jobs’ from the point of view of the company, guided by all the systems analysts, business process analysts, instructional designers and other such operatives who form part of the technostructure – that wing of the organisation which Henry Mintzberg (1989) defines as having a mandate to “plan and control the work of others”. But when they get on to the shop floor, they find that the technostructure’s idea of how this work proceeds is not matched by the reality. On the shop floor there exist a whole range of short cuts, unofficial procedures that have been learned by the claims processors collectively, in the face of the shared learning need that is ‘I want to learn about how to get my work done as effectively and in as stress-free a way as I can’. So the new processor joins this CoP and for the next few weeks unlearns a certain amount of what the technostructure thought was the way the job was done, and relearns the procedures and short-cuts which have slipped under the radar of the technostructure. They do this not because they are being directed to do so by a ‘leader’ (or a ‘teacher’); the learning, and the spaces, skills and structures which shape that learning, are emergent.

Peoples' Front of JudeaMany might say at this point that it is impossible for a whole organisation to structure itself in this way. Would it move in any direction at all? Possibly not. Mintzberg (1989) recognises this when he describes the ultimate ‘political organisation’ as one which spends all its time discussing and fighting over the details but never getting anything done – rather like the Peoples’ Front of Judea (pictured) in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (‘Right! This calls for immediate discussion!’). But one of the things the collective can learn about as it works is the impact of the decisions it takes. This includes how to reconcile individual motivations and desires with those of the group.

This is the crucial tension for self-organisation. As Black (or rather, I) wrote in the essay linked above, there is a ‘school of pseudo-anarchism’ which would subsume all such considerations under that of the individual and reduce human social contact to a mere transaction, offering aid to someone only if they can pay for it (the libertarian position) and never recognising that sometimes one’s views must be modified in the face of the collective interest. Yet this is also part of the essential learning processes of society:

“The true anarchist recognises an absolute need to deal with others, because all authority is fallible: and this therefore includes oneself. Just as one should never listen to only one “expert”, nor read only one perspective on any subject, so one should never fully trust one’s own judgment. Of course, this does not mean that one should take advice from others about which way to travel to work in the morning, but what it does require is the mutual and reciprocal recognition of all other people as autonomous beings. The trick anarchism needs to pull off — and it is the same trick as democracy must master — is to preserve the autonomy of the individual within the collaborative efforts of the group. Group decisions are based on individual preferences, but they must transcend them. Reaching a consensus does not mean talking until one gets one’s own way; a consensus is innately and irrevocably a group creation (Follett, 1920) which can only arise through a process of deliberation in which (ideally) all those affected by the decision under discussion have an equal chance to participate.”

Thus, participation in decision making is a learning process – and a creative process of co-construction of spaces in which learning can subsequently continue in the same way. To solve a decision-making problem – a learning problem – within a self-organising collective by creating a hierarchical structure which will damage one’s ability to take collective decisions in the future, can be defined as a poor decision (see Blaug 2007). The main learning problem faced by the self-organising collective (or CoP) is therefore how to recognise the trade-offs which exist between the desire to maintain the autonomy of individuals and the group as a whole, and how to take decisions that move the collective forward.

Anarchic education is therefore essentially about how we:

  • create and sustain the spaces in which such learning can occur;
  • develop in people the skills and awareness they need to make best use of such spaces;
  • react to change by learning about the impact of such change on these spaces and the people within them.

There are plenty of real-life examples to illustrate these processes, for good and bad, but they can be discussed in subsequent blog posts.

REFERENCES:

Black, J. (2004): “The Trouble with Anarchism”, Tangentium May 2004, online at http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/drew.whitworth/tangentium/may04/supp1.html [last accessed Dec 31 2012]

Blaug, R. (2007): “Cognition in a Hierarchy”, Contemporary Political Theory 6(1): 24–44.

Follett, M. P. (1920): The New State: Group Organization, the solution of popular government, New York, Longman Green.

Mintzberg, H. (1989): Mintzberg on Management, London, Collier Macmillan.

Wenger, E. (1998): Communities of Practice, London, Routledge.