From Billie Holiday to Green Day, protest pop has had a long, nebulous history. Too long and nebulous, you might think, to be adequately addressed in a single-volume book, but tackling just such a mammoth task, Dorian Lynskey has written 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History Of Protest Songs, a “weighty tome” which takes in Woody Guthrie, Country Joe and The Fish, Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., Public Enemy and many others over the course of its 33 fascinating chapters. It is an extraordinary piece of work; insightful, sensitively handled and – given the political turmoil of the last few weeks – timely.
As popular revolutions sweep through north Africa and the Middle East, and Ireland faces a new political era in the wake of our recent general election, politics both at the global and local level has come sharply into view even for people who don’t usually take an interest. This book is about those musicians who have taken an interest throughout recent history. In Lynskey’s hands discussion of radically left wing American folk is as engaging to read as pieces on more recent figures like Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine. Billie Holiday’s love-hate relationship with ‘Strange Fruit’ is discussed, as is Holly Johnson’s pot-fuelled take on Armageddon and Jello Biafra’s attempt to become mayor of Bay Area. The work is thorough enough that it should find an audience beyond music fans, as it is simply a great document of 20th and 21st century history. Published this week, it will undoubtedly take its place alongside Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again and Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming as a classic of rock scholarship. At close to 850 pages, 33 Revolutions Per Minute is weighty, but absolutely engrossing. State spoke to the book’s author Dorian Lynskey, a regular contributor to The Guardian, Q, Word and Spin.
“Who’s responsible? You fucking are!” – Manic Street Preachers, ‘Of Walking Abortion’
“‘I was thinking about trying to write about modern protest music”, Dorian tells me, “but that didn’t really take off. I couldn’t make it work. Then someone suggested doing a history of protest songs, and I thought “I’m not going to do that it’s too big”. But then I got the idea of the title.” Lynskey set about compiling a list of songs through which he could tell the story of protest pop and although the book focuses on 33 particularly potent protest songs, within each chapter there is enough scope to cover the lesser-known polemicists of pop including McCarthy, Minor Threat and Tappa Zukie. “For me my political awareness has always been tied into music really”, says Dorian. “I didn’t grow up in a particularly political household, certainly not a very left-wing one, so when I got into politics it was certainly during the period I was getting into music and so stuff like Public Enemy or less fashionably New Model Army. The stuff I was reading about all tied up with what I was listening to and it seemed very exciting.”
Given the innumerable routes political pop can take, deciding on a final set of 33 songs to concentrate on must have been quite a task. How did the final list fall into place? “Before the book I’d done the Reader’s Recommend column in The Guardian where you have to choose songs with a common theme. That was a massive process of listening and whittling down and shortlisting. What I found was I got a bit of an instinct for how to choose songs which covered the whole thrust of a subject. 33 is a really useful number for this. It didn’t feel pinched and it didn’t feel stretched. Even if I didn’t have this “33” concept, if the publishers had said ‘write as many chapters as you want’, it still would have been about 33 chapters because that way you can cover the whole spread of subjects. What I really wanted to do was make sure that along with the stuff you can’t miss out there was more black music than you normally get in a book of this kind. I wanted people to pick it up and get through the obvious stuff you have at the beginning and say ‘wow there’s a chapter on The Prodigy and politics in rave and Frankie’. That was the advantage of having so many chapters and with a shorter book, if you cover just the obvious you leave people with the impression that protest music is just the usual suspects and I really wanted to show that it wasn’t.”
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, the NME, Sounds and Melody Maker were stuffed with polemical tirades and political analysis, in the letters pages as much as in the iconoclastic articles on underground rock and rave. Neil Kinnock appeared on the NME’s cover in the week leading up to the 1987 general election. Today it’s hard to believe Ed Milliband would be given such prominence in a music magazine – a sign of changing times. “It wasn’t just polemical, it was politically knowledgeable” says Dorian of the music press of his youth. “Simon Reynolds was not a very political writer but you just knew he had the analysis. If you look back at interviews with Public Enemy and later Rage Against The Machine, you had people writing them like Steven Wells, Simon Reynolds, Simon Price, John Harris, who all kind of knew their stuff. They didn’t just nod and go “Oh! Ok! That sounds good!” They could actually challenge their interviewees. I think there is a generational thing: I think we’ve lived through an era where it’s been very easy to ignore politics if you wanted to.”