1980s >> 1985 >> no-968-april-1985

Letter and Reply: Socialism and Rock Music

In many ways the music business is a prime example of all the workings of the capitalist system: the exploitation of talented, sincere musicians for the profit of the record company shareholders – even if they wouldn’t know the difference between a crotchet and a quaver – along with the enormous waste involved in the socially useless task of selling people something that left to their own devices, they would probably want anyway (or – even worse – in some cases would never buy if it wasn’t for the thinly-disguised associations of the product with “social success”).

Rock music is an extremely attractive means of social control for the ruling class. For besides being hugely profitable (and better still, free of industrial strife – when did you last hear of Paul McCartney downing guitars in support of a pay claim?) it serves as an effective mechanism whereby youth rebellion may be channelled away from establishment targets and in on itself. Just as sexism and racism divert ordinary people from the real source of their problems, so it is that the rivalry in youth sub-culture between Punks and Teds and Mods and Rockers, is merely a smoke-screen obscuring the one real issue that faces young people – the choice between capitalism and socialism.

We would, then, hardly expect rock music to play an important role in the propagation of socialist views. This, I contend, is not true. Most readers will know of at least one artist/group that were marketed as anti-establishment rebels, only to become part of the establishment themselves at a later point and, in so doing, make a fortune.

The Clash- one of the most prominent political punk bands – have often poured scorn on the hypocrisy of those who betray their class in such a way: songs such as Death or Glory (“He who fucks nuns will later join the church”) and White Man in Hammersmith Palais (“You think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money”) spring readily to the mind. The Clash are obviously not alone in this and there are many examples of musicians condemning, through their music, the business within which they work.

But what of critiques of capitalist society as a whole? Again, one thinks of The Clash who, in their early stages of their career, were known for their sympathies with the Red Brigade and other violent left-wing factions. The Clash, however, while frequently and virulently condemning the more obscene endemic ills of capitalism, never really escaped the mill-stone of their marketing image of pseudo Rolling Stones rock’n’roll rebels and as a consequence were never able to proffer a socialist society as a solution to the evils they had identified. For all that, it is probable that The Clash did at least awaken some young people to the insanity of the society within which they lived and for that reason should not be condemned too harshly. It is important to note that The Clash were successful mainly because their songs were relevant and comprehensible.

Compare the down-to-earth approach of The Clash with the intellectual ramblings of Green of Scritti Politti. Whereas The Clash expressed themselves in the language of ordinary workers. Scritti Politti’s lyrics were incomprehensible to all but a student of politics and those fortunate (?) enough to know one. The capability of rock music to put over socialist ideas to a mass audience is, however, being realised by a growing number of artists, and we shall look at two of these.

The first is Paul Weller, formerly of The Jam and now of The Style Council. Over the years Weller’s political attitude has matured from “rebel without a cause”, prevalent among many punk bands, through a reformist stage before eventually settling into the full-blooded “socialism” of his current writings. The fact that for the past seven years he has remained a major figure on the British rock scene is evidence that he is able to influence many young people. Songs like When You’re Young (“It’s so hard to understand, why the worlds your oyster but your future’s a clam”) and Going Underground (“It’s the kidney machines that pay for rockets and guns”) set out a case against capitalism. More importantly, recent releases such as Money-Go-Round (the sleeve-notes for which state: ” . . . was God an astronaut or a socialist? . . . For the potential beauty and goodness he has given us, I would have to insist the latter”) and The Whole Point Of No Return (“The laws made for and by the rich”) outline a case for socialism. The latter song was taken from the album Cafe Bleu, whose extensive sleeve-notes outline socialist ideas of production for the use of the community rather than the profit of a few.

Another major socialist rock musician/songwriter to emerge along with punk was Elvis Costello. Possibly an even more incisive critic of capitalist society than Weller, one of his most recent albums – Punch The Clock – contained two very important socialist songs. the first, Shipbuilding, Costello introduced on a recent concert tour as “a Falklands lament”. A poignant ballad, it points out the tragic irony of parents constructing the means of their children’s destruction with lines such as: “Somebody said that someone got filled in, for saying that people get killed in, the result of this shipbuilding”. Further, in the line: “With all the will in the world, diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls”, he highlights the pathetic situation where people like the Cammell-Laird shipworkers and the miners waste valuable energy in desperate fights for the dubious “right” to be exploited when, if only they could see the true nature of their problem, a socialist society could be theirs.

The other song of note was released on the eve of the June 1983 election. This track, the vitriolic Pills and Soap, presents a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of the capitalist press, using lyrics such as these to illustrate the point: “Four and twenty crowbars jemmy your desire, out of the frying pan into the fire. The King is in his counting house, some folk have all the luck. And all we get is pictures of Lord and Lady Muck. That come from lovely people with a hard line in hypocrisy, there are ashtrays of emotion for the fag-ends of the aristocracy”.

Weller and Costello are not alone in their use of music to spread socialist ideas. It should be plain that the medium of rock music must not be ignored by socialists in their struggle to enhance the workers’ political awareness.

Stuart Harrad (Norwich)



Stuart Harrad makes some interesting observations about popular music and the profit-system. All of the evidence around us suggests that the potential creativity and social enjoyment of music are stunted and restricted by the way society is presently organised. Capitalism is a social system based on buying and selling, where almost everything we experience from the cradle to the coffin has a price on it. The majority of us – members of the working class – sell (or try to) our working abilities by the week or month to an employer. Under such a social system the inspirational and imaginative possibilities of music are imprisoned by economic laws.

Referring to the way that some of the Beatles’ songs were appropriated for profit by ‘entrepreneurs’ in the music industry, Paul McCartney said recently, “It was a funny thing, but to begin with we hadn’t realised that someone could actually own a song”. Although some music artists become quite wealthy, most do not. The tycoons of this industry (the owners of large companies like RCA, EMI, CBS and so forth) acquire their great wealth through the combined labours of the thousands of people needed to produce a record and distribute it. Consider the number of people who work in the recording studios as technicians and engineers; the people who work in the factories producing records, compact discs and cassettes; the people who transport these, once they are made, all over the world and the people who work in record shops. Then there are all the workers involved in the organisation and presentation of concerts. All of these workers are in a condition of relative poverty. Although the results of all of this work involve thousands of people, most remain faceless and anonymous because the music industry reflects the elitist culture of capitalism, a society based on the minority ownership of the means of life. This economic basis of society has produced an ideology consistent with the view that the people “at the top” are there through merit, which is of course a fallacy. Those who have the largest stakes in the music industry are no more magnates on account of their musical knowledge or proficiency than the great landowners are in their positions by virtue of their abilities as farm workers or gardeners.

As Stuart Harrad observes, the ant–establishment theme of much modern music is often useless because it channels dissatisfaction into cults of rebellion which offer no alternative to the social system which has produced their misery. During the 1960s Bob Dylan wrote many poetic and piquant indictments of aspects of the capitalist system. The argument for socialism, however, was never explicitly advocated, with the result that many of Dylan’s appreciators became cynically acquiescent in the profit system. Poverty, degradation and war would have to continue while the answer was “blowing in the wind”. Many of those who excitedly sang that “the order is rapidly fading” were to find that this sort of protest movement would not dismantle capitalism and that the times they weren’t a-changin’. In the 1970s, with rising unemployment, especially among young people, Punk rock stuck two fingers up at some “traditional values” and snarled at the glossy glamour enjoyed by a minority. But as with the protest movement of the sixties there was despair and rebellion without a constructive solution. In a spirit of nihilism, Johnny Rotten and The Sex Pistols sneered that there was “no future in England’s dreamland”. In one sense they were right but by telling only part of the story they were probably responsible for producing more cynicism about political change.

Like television companies and major newspapers, the large record companies are owned and controlled by people from that small minority of the population whose privileged economic position puts them in the ruling class. There is, therefore, a degree of reluctance for promotion to be given to anyone wishing to make serious and sustained criticism of class-divided society. As Elvis Costello noted:

    You either shut up or get cut up

    They don’t wanna hear about it.

    It’s only inches on the reel to reel

    And the radio is in the hands of

    Such a lot of fools tryin’ to

    Anaesthetise they way you feel . . .

    (Radio, Radio. 1980)

The Specials made a similar criticism when they sang:

    And catch 22 says if I sing the truth

    They won’t make me an overnight star . . .

    (Gangsters. 1979)

In a world straining with so many grotesque and unnecessary social problems it is conspicuous that so much popular chart music is void of social comment. Amongst the myriad of bland ballads and instantly forgettable fandangos there are, of course, songs which are enjoyable although they have no political comment. Socialists do not have common views as to what constitutes “good music”. However, it is worth considering why commercial success is so widely enjoyed by songs which do not question the bleakness of present society. This must be partly because they are meant to be lighthearted—an area of fun completely divorced from the everyday problems we are plagued with—and partly because we are socially conditioned to develop certain sorts of taste.

That workers are basically stupid is an erroneous and arrogant assumption often made by various left wing political parties. Workers, the argument runs, should not be approached directly with the case for a classless, moneyless society because they will properly understand it. Instead they need to be baited with isolated issues and by unsuccessfully wrestling with these problems for long enough they will eventually become socialists. There is no evidence to support this contention; in fact all the evidence suggests that the subjects of this sort of political engineering usually become disillusioned and cynical or fall for some other dead-end pursuit like fascism. Workers are not stupid but sometimes stupefied. But this state is very open to change, as is testified by the great efforts that the ruling class put into the continuing process of conditioning people to accept the status quo. But the con trick is becoming difficult to sustain. As a recent letter to a music paper explained,

    . . . As long as the majority of the world’s population put their trust in leaders to build a fairer capitalist society we will be in the same position of degradation and poverty. Because capitalism is a system out of control of even the minority who own and reap the benefits, it is a system which is by its very nature must produce periodic crises, of which the present world recession is but one. The only sensible solution to this anarchy of production is for a class-conscious working class to take away the ownership and control of the world’s resources and to democratically run it in their own interest. Until we have this majority we shall have to exist on the crumbs thrown to us by the parasitic minority.

    (Gary Cornwell, New Musical Express, 23 February 1985.)

Culture Club can sing that “war is stupid” and Frankie Goes to Hollywood lament that “when two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score”, but this sort of thing will not shake the ideology of capitalism. The ruling class would agree: from their point of view war is a costly and damaging interruption to their parasitic way of life. Warfare is an endemic feature of a system which periodically produces conflict when economic rivalries cannot be settled around the summit table. Again, look at some of the songs about money. While Abba’s Money, Money, Money probably did not have anyone breaking out in a nervous sweat at the Stock Exchange as the record rose in the charts, Pretty Green by The Jam and Money by Pink Floyd were more direct in their questioning of the need for a property society and its means of exchange. But even then it is probably the case that the lyrics of these songs struck a chord mainly with workers who had already considered the case for the abolition of private property. Without further comment lyrics can easily be misinterpreted and it is always possible, of course, that the rare songs that socialists often cite as significant were really written for an entirely different reason.

It is true that no popular song has had lyrics expressing the ideas contained in the Declaration of Principles of The Socialist Party. “But”, an observer could suggest, “there are some songs which, because of their message, must serve to raise the social consciousness of the tens of thousands of workers familiar with the lyrics.” In a chart song called The Lunatics, The Fun Boy Three sang,

    I see the faces of starvation

    But just cannot see the point

    ‘Cos there’s so much food here today

    That no one wants to take away . . .

The recent Band Aid single, Feed the World, made a comparable, if more vague, point. Mass malnutrition and starvation co-existing with our potential to produce enough food for everybody is an inherent contradiction of a social system which operates on the basis of profit of the few rather than social need. Feed the World, however, was more of a moral imperative than an urge to social revolution. In this sense Band Aid was an appropriate name for a group whose solution to famine within the profit system is comparable with advocating sticking plasters as a remedy for malaria.

Some of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism are doubtlessly made clearer by this sort of song; it is certainly more likely to provoke serious thought about social change than ditties about walks in the park or inquiries such as “Do you think I’m sexy?”. The danger is that where a response to social problems is presented, it is given obtusely by vague hint or innuendo and if workers are ever inspired to formulate political ideas as a result many different sorts of conclusions may be drawn. If no coherent argument is being advocated by the artists (and really it cannot be, given the idiom in which they work) then no purposeful group of socialists can be produced by the music. At best, commentators like Paul Weller (who would, as an SWP supporter, presumably vote for the Labour Party and another dose of the profit system at an election) and Elvis Costello give occasional inspiration to socialists with some of the emotive poetry they write about capitalism. On the subjects of militarism and sexuality, for example, Costello  has written some poignant material about the way behaviour and aspirations are affected by the profit system.

Popular songs with a political slant are always open to misinterpretation. The playwright David Hare once stated that you can produce a play to highlight the atrocities of fascism and always have a certain number of people leave the theatre thinking that the Nazis had the right idea. The same subtleties of song lyrics carry the same susceptibility to misunderstanding. It is difficult to compress the argument for socialism on to a single track, so get the 12 inch version—The Socialist Standard!

Gary Jay

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