The theme for this week’s Musical Mondays was inspired by an article of Dorian Lynskey’s that appeared in The Guardian last week, entitled “Down with Bono-bashing”:
Armed with a robust ego and a strong faith, the singer can weather the blows. But any young band with political ideals might well compare his experience with that of a band like the Rolling Stones, who moved their business to the Netherlands but without inspiring a fraction of the ire, and take the path of least resistance. Bono’s activism is an ongoing experiment to see how far fame can be used to lobby for progressive causes, and to what degree a musician can act on principles rather than merely voice them. If he is discredited, then so is the whole endeavour.
As most of the commenters have pointed out (and let’s face it, an article defending Bono on CIF is a bit like tossing a cow into a pool full of piranhas) it’s not the fact that Bono is political that annoys most of his detractors. The problem with Bono is his hypocrisy. There’s nothing wrong with putting on concerts highlighting the plight of the world’s poorest and encouraging people to donate: in fact, it’s a very commendable thing to do. But when you then refuse to pay tax, or pay to send your hat by first-class plane, you come across as a monumental hypocrite.
Still, here are five political songs by people who aren’t monumental hypocrites (or at least aren’t anywhere as hypocritical as Bono). Also, they’re far better songs than Bono could ever hope to record:
1) Billy Bragg, Waiting for the Great Leap Forward
This is about Bragg’s life as a protest singer: being interviewed by fanzines, going to picket lines, getting on blacklists. There are, obviously, many more songs that I could have picked of his, but this is my favourite Billy Bragg song.
2) Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Oliver’s Army
I had to choose an Elvis song, and this is obviously the one to pick. It is perhaps the greatest song ever, and it’s certainly in my top ten anyway, with a wonderful bastardised-cousin-of-Dancing-Queen-piano-intro by Steve Nieve and some wonderful, biting lyrics. Because I have a twisted sense of humour, I find it very amusing that David Miliband chose this song as one of his Desert Island discs on Labour Uncut. Given that the song is about sending young, uneducated Britons to fight, kill and be killed in wars that they have no real idea why they are fighting there, I find Mili D’s choosing of this song bitterly ironic.
3) Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding
I’ve cheated and chosen another Elvis Costello sung, but done by a different artist. I prefer Costello’s later “cover”, which has a wondrous solo by Chet Baker, but this original is also excellent. Like Oliver’s Army, it’s an “anti-war” song. There’s no way I can do justice to the lyrics, just listen:
4) Tom Waits, Road to Peace
The only time that Waits has gone political in his entire career, and it was worth waiting for. It begins with what seem like news reports, and ends with something that could be a Robert Fisk column, and is one of his best songs. Makes a pretty decent point, too.
5) Randy Newman, Short People
A song showing Newman’s twisted sense of humour to the extreme. Naturally, everyone thought he was being serious when he wrote that “We don’t want no Short People around here”. Sigh. He is making a serious point on how ludicrous discrimination is, in his usual idiosyncratic way.