Culture, and specifically music, is an often neglected but hugely important factor in any struggle against an oppressive system. In modern times, we’ve largely ignored the cultural struggle. Most music today only props up the individualist consensus and is a far cry from the type of cultural organisation prominent in the 1960s. It’s hard to picture that decade without the anti-Vietnam protests, the demos for nuclear disarmament, the student protests in France which nearly brought down French capitalism, or the Civil Rights Movements by black Americans or nationalists in occupied Ireland. It’s impossible to remember that decade without the soundtrack that accompanied it though, like Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which put into words the drafting of poor Americans into service in Vietnam while the sons of upper-class white politicians got away with it. Or We Shall Overcome which became an anthem of civil rights, from Alabama to Derry. Even today, it’s very common to hear these songs whenever the 60’s is featured in a film or documentary.
Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say?
And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no running away,
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave,
Take a look around you, boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.
– Eve of Destruction, Barry Maguire
“We Won’t Fight Another Rich Man’s War!!!” – Vietnam veterans against the War, circa 1970.
These types of songs accompanied the growth of the Hippy movement which, in America at least, challenged the conservative, Bourgeois culture, where young people were meant to be seen and not heard, where women, blacks, native Americans etc. were to know their place, and where workers were there to make profit and nothing else. The Hippies were mainly young, practiced “Free Love”, took drugs and overall gave a massive Fuck You to the establishment. Opposition to the Vietnam War was a huge part of the counter-culture and the music that came out of that struggle gave people the energy to keep the struggle going, which ended with the pulling out of US forces from Vietnam.
Although, it wasn’t without a price, the state and the establishment understood the power of the movement that was growing out from under them. Police were encouraged to be brutal to any protests, and on occasions such as the Kent State Massacre, student demonstrators were murdered. This repression would itself lead to new music. Although the Hippy Movement wasn’t perfect, largely it was led by Middle-Class students who had a very idealist view of the world. It wanted to change the world but often wanted to do it in a very liberal way. Many Hippies just wanted to smoke and get laid, rather than change the political-economic system at its core. For many, their radicalism didn’t last much longer than their university years. However, it still made an impact, while showing how music could make a political contribution. This paved the way for a no-nonsense, working-class contribution: Punk.
Punk came about in the aftermath of the Hippy movement, mainly in working-class England. The most influential Punk bands of the time were the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Early punk bands included the New York Dolls, the Ramones and The Damned, who all put a focus on quick, energetic songs with the emphasis put on effort rather than on the egoism prevalent in some popular Rock bands of the time, where the lead singers would frequently prefer to show off their individual talent rather than express something that would connect with everyday life.
The Sex Pistols made a huge impact on the music scene, not just in the decade, but in the century. Led by London-Irish frontman Johnny Rotten, whose mother came from Cork (Leave it to the Rebel County to have some connection!). The Sex Pistols not only made the older, conservative generations blush, they made them get a fucking heart attack. They focused on topics which were actually relevant to working-class youth. They put into music the same feeling among most young people at that time: That something just wasn’t right with the status quo. Their most famous song, God Save the Queen, made a mockery of the monarchy, at a time when youth unemployment was high but the media was fawning over Lizzie Windsor’s upcoming Jubilee celebrations.
God save the queen
The fascist regime
They made you a moron
Don’t be told what you want
Don’t be told what you need
There’s no future, no future,
No future for you
-God Save the Queen, The Sex Pistols
Predictably, there was shock and outrage from the media that there were actual artists who were going to call out the media’s celebrations of a professional scrounger family. It is now known that the charts were fixed, despite the song reaching number 1. During a now-infamous celebratory boat-ride by the Windsor’s on the Thames in London, the Sex Pistols attempted to get their own boat to go alongside the Queen’s vessel and play their song. The outcome was predictable, the police, not finding any drug dealers or criminals anywhere seemingly, descended en masse and assaulted the band and their supporters. On another occassion, the Sex Pistols appeared on a TV chat-show, where the host appeared to look at them as a sideshow, as a sort of in-joke with the parents watching, “just look at what your kids are into!” sort of thing. The interview, helped along with alcohol, ended up with curses being focused on the interviewer. Within hours, the tabloid rags were in hysterics – “Ban this sick filth!”. Many parents had a quiet chat with their children following it, making sure they wouldn’t listen to such outrageous filth again. Most of the venues in London banned the Sex Pistols from playing, although this only boosted their popularity. The Pistols also generated controversy upon the release of their only album, Never Mind the Bollocks. They also had notable songs such as Anarchy in the UK, about exactly what the fuck kind of country they were in, and Bodies, about abortion. Nothing was off-topic for the Sex Pistols, but it couldn’t be claimed that the things they were talking about weren’t known to young people. All that and they were together only 2 years.
While the Sex Pistols could be said to have taken a sledgehammer to the status quo, The Clash could be said to have been the scalpel. Formed in 1976, The Clash focused on the experiences of those from working-class backgrounds. Lead singer Joe Strummer was a Marxist, and Paul Simonon’s father was a member of the Communist Party. Some of their songs included London Calling, which was about the fear of nuclear war after the Five-Mile Island incident in the US. Although now the actual meaning of the song is lost, it’s generally the song you hear when an American-made film features a part in England. Rock the Casbah, which was about the Middle East and Censorship, Straight to Hell which dealt in part with the children left behind by American soldiers in Vietnam. One of their songs, White Riot, was taken by some eejits to be a racist piece, when in reality, it was written after 2 of the band members got caught up in a riot by Black Londoners against police brutality. The song called on white youths to get their act together and start fighting back for their rights.
Black people gotta lot a problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick
-White Riot, The Clash
While some punk bands, including the Sex Pistols, tended to take a nihilistic view of things, The Clash always encouraged people to take things into their own hands and fight back. Bankrobber had the lyrics:
Some is rich, and some is poor
That’s the way the world is
But I don’t believe in lying back
Sayin’ how bad your luck is
-Bankrobber, The Clash
The Clash even named one of their albums Sandinista!, after the Marxist government in Nicaragua, then under attack by Ronald Reagan’s Contras. The Clash practised what they preached, as well. They were one of the few internationally known bands to play in Belfast during the conflict in the north east of Ireland. Joe Strummer received death treats from Loyalists after he wore a t-shirt supporting the H-Block hunger strikers.
Similarly, Derry punk-band The Undertones wore black armbands on British TV after the death of Bobby Sands. Belfast-based Stiff Little Fingers wrote songs about ordinary life during the conflict, such as Suspect Device.
They take away our freedom
In the name of liberty
Why can’t they all just clear off
Why can’t they let us be
They make us feel indebted
For saving us from hell
And then they put us through it
It’s time the bastards fell
-Suspect Device, Stiff Little Fingers
Although much of this music was neutral in regard to the conflict, and made it look like those who were against the British presence in Ireland were as bad as the British, it still resonated with young people from both sides of the community.
Nationalist youth armed with Molotov cocktails prepared to defend Free Derry from British Occupation Forces during the Battle of the Bogside, August 1969.
Overall, it’s clear to see, just from looking at the music, why things were so rebellious in the 60s/70s. The US pulled out of Vietnam, British soldiers were being engaged on Irish streets, the Portuguese overthrew a dictator and came very close to establishing Western Europe’s first Communist government, while liberation movements in Africa, Latin America and Asia were winning struggle after struggle against imperialism in Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Nicaragua, Angola etc. The Black Panthers were fighting for liberation of black Americans, ETA had assassinated Franco’s Prime Minister in the first shots of a new liberation struggle for the Basque Country. These were revolutionary times, and revolutionary movements which had a strong cultural arsenal.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, and we’re largely listless. Young people don’t have the same outlet in music as they did before, the same encouragement to be rebellious, take what’s your right through struggle. The songs of the anti-Vietnam war protests are too many to mention all of them, but can anyone name an anti-Iraq war song? There isn’t many. How many songs are there being written by bands nowadays about austerity, along the lines of the Thatcher-era The Special’s Ghost Town? Rap music, for example, is very different to its origins in the 1990s. The focus is on what’s commercial and not on what gives an expression to the background to the various struggles of the day.
For an example, how many young people in Ireland have an instinctive anti-imperialism because of songs like Come out Ye Black and Tans or Seán Sabhat? “What’s keeping us from fighting back nowadays?” is often heard in protest movements. Maybe it’s the music?
And so now I’d like to say – people can change anything they want to. And that means everything in the world. People are running about following their little tracks – I am one of them. But we’ve all got to stop just following our own little mouse trail. People can do anything – this is something that I’m beginning to learn. People are out there doing bad things to each other. That’s because they’ve been dehumanised. It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed, it ain’t going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people you’re nothing. That’s my spiel.”