Rebel Music #4 Robert Wyatt - Nothing Can Stop Us

By Alex

22 March 2012

Liam Cooper on Nothing Can Stop Us, Robert Wyatt's eclectic 1982 compilation...

Robert Wyatt never intended the various early 1980s singles collected on Nothing Can Stop Us to be compiled into an album, instead conceiving of them as ‘like journalism, do them fast and then they should disappear’[1], later insisting that any coherence they achieved in an album format should be credited to their compiler Geoff Travis. In my opinion the songs cohere wonderfully, not merely justifying their album release but marking a high point in Wyatt’s musical career, in which the warmth and optimism of his earlier recordings met, and complemented, the sparse arrangements and radical lyrical content that defined his later 1980s releases.

The closing track, Peter Blackman’s reading of his poem ‘Stalingrad’, is a fitting end that in many ways summarises the conceptual thrust of the album as a whole. In each verse Blackman describes the reception of news from Stalingrad across homes and workplaces throughout the world, placing this conflict within the context of an international working class struggle. Nothing Can Stop Us is similarly international in scope, drawing together, to give a few examples, the unofficial anthem of post-revolutionary Cuba ‘Guantanamera’, Irish republican Jim Connell’s notorious socialist anthem ‘The Red Flag’ and ‘Strange Fruit’, Lewis Allan’s disturbing portrayal of the lynching of African Americans.

‘Born Again Cretin’, the album’s opening song and sole Wyatt original, is a truly unique piece of music. Beginning with a scat rendition of a melody from Ornette Coleman’s ‘Peace’, Wyatt’s anti-apartheid lyrics are accompanied by a circular synth pattern, melodic doo-wop style backing vocals and almost non-musical groans. It is testament to the humanity of Wyatt’s musical project that he would follow such avant-gardism with a heartfelt and musically faithful cover of Chic’s ‘At Last I am Free’, which contains perhaps his most beautiful vocal performance. Wyatt has often spoken of his deep respect for pop music, which he considers to be an industrialised form of folk, and of his dismay at the manner in which ‘the class system re-emerged’[2] in popular music with the rise of progressive rock. Wyatt’s source material, whether or not itself political, is always chosen with an acute sensitivity to its class context, and his enthusiasm for the avant-garde coincides with a complete aversion to artistic elites. The juxtaposition of ‘At Last I am Free’ with Wyatt’s more overtly political songs abstracts the freedom described in the chorus refrain from its immediate romantic context. The second part of the couplet ‘At last I am free/ I can hardly see in front of me’ expresses the unique tension of Wyatt’s interpretation of the song, in that it refers to an ecstatic state of liberation but does so through the metaphor of a restriction on sight. In the tension between Frank Roberts’ loose, lyrical piano playing and the persistent metronomic beat that accompanies him, as in the pained ecstasy of Wyatt’s vocal, the total emancipation of the chorus is simultaneously realised and frustrated.

Throughout this record Wyatt stretches the definition of ‘cover versions’: some covers, like that of Ivor Cutler’s ‘Grass’, are changed almost beyond recognition whilst others, such as the Chic song mentioned above, are relatively faithful. The one original composition contains a lengthy quote from Ornette Coleman, whilst two tracks, Peter Blackman’s ‘Stalingrad’ and Abdus Salique’s ‘Trade Union’, were neither written nor performed with any input from Wyatt. I believe his motivations for this approach to be largely political. Robert Wyatt observed the rise of neoliberalism (which he brilliantly critiqued in songs like ‘N.I.O’ and ‘The Age of Self’) in the 1980s and understood its implications for working class communities. When presented in this album format, the seemingly disparate songs in Nothing Can Stop Us gain a certain consistency as an apparent attempt to bring together various international musical forms, sometimes in the same song, that were antithetical to the aims of Thatcherism. It is perhaps this belief in an international resistance to neoliberalism that motivated Wyatt’s misguided loyalty to the Communist Party of Great Britain. In spite of this association I believe that Nothing Can Stop Us still remains a powerful political statement, marked by a defiance and hopefulness that would sadly soon give way to despair and isolation.

Notes:

[1] Wyatt, quoted in The Wire, Issue #163, (September 1997).

[2] Wyatt, from a Q & A at Purcell Room, London (October 2007), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9XRWkIKTYU.

Liam Cooper is a post-graduate literature student at Birkbeck College.

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Review: ‘Counterpower: Making Change Happen’

By Ed

21 March 2012

This is a short review I wrote for Red Pepper of Counterpower: Making Change Happen by Tim Gee, published late last year. It's the first time the review has been available online.

Counterpower has two principal aims: to give a general account of why social movements succeed or fail, and to illustrate this through an historical exploration of successful movements. It is natural to have high hopes for such a book, since for any activist or campaigner nothing is more tantalising than the prospect of uncovering the secrets of social change. However, where Counterpower serves as an accessible guide to some of the movements from which we can draw inspiration and optimism, its theoretical endeavours are sadly much less convincing.

Gee opens with the ‘bold claim’ that ‘Counterpower’ is the ‘single idea’ which explains the fate of social movements. Gee identifies ‘power’ as a capacity of elites; Counterpower is its inversion – a capacity of ordinary people that negates the ‘power over’ of elites and has been wielded throughout history in the struggle for justice.

Really, then, Counterpower is a form of power, distinguished from conventional power in terms of who possesses it. But the insight that movements must develop and exercise their own power – ‘power from below’ – will strike anyone interested in radical social transformation as closer to a truism than a path-breaking insight. Furthermore, Gee’s analysis leaves many crucial questions unaddressed. He repeatedly urges that movements ‘use’ Counterpower. But to 'use' Counterpower we have to first develop it. This requires an understanding of how to build radical consciousness in a given set of social conditions and the organisational forms best suited to doing so. On issues such as these, the schema developed in Counterpower offers little help.

Despite these shortcomings, for those seeking an introduction to social movement history told from the perspective of activists, Counterpower is worth reading. The stories Gee tells – of the struggle for Indian Independence, the movement against the Vietnam War, the ousting of Mubarak and several others – are told in short, readable chapters, punctuated with some striking detail. The lessons to be drawn from these stories are diverse and multifarious, but above all, as Gee emphasises, they provide a crucial reservoir of hope for a better future.

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‘Common Sense’ artwork

By Jamie

21 March 2012

One of the funnest things about putting together our edition of Dan Hind's new pamphlet, Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was having Edd Baldry, a radical illustrator who works with NGOs and non-profits, produce the artwork.

As well as drawing the cover, influenced by his posters for Occupy Wall Street and the Occupied (London) Times, he also produced illustrations for each chapter. As with running in a straight line and concentrating on writing an essay for more than ten minutes at a time, drawing has always seemed like a kind of witchcraft to me, completely unable as I have been to progress beyond my primary school mastery of the stick figure.

So I'm always interested in the composition process behind pictures. Here are a couple of the illustrations Edd drew for the pamphlet - to accompany the introduction and the second chapter, 'A New Common Sense', respectively - with some explanation from Edd of each:

 

'The "Nameless thing" chapter is discussing the occupy movement, which at present, though threatening for the state, remains amorphous. I wanted to represent this idea with a giant and friend looking slightly lost on the top of a Gothic revival building (you know, like the Houses of Parliament are). Everyone knows the occupy movements have a lot of power, it’s just no-one has worked out how to wield it yet.'

'The illustration for the 'New Common Sense' is playing on the reclamation of the commons (now that would be awesome!) and the generalisation of the assembly with a multitude of ideas and thoughts rather than the normal homogeneity that currently exists in public debate. Also, cute creatures are having a cool conversation in a field at night-time… What’s not to like?'

For more, see Edd's blog. And our pamphlet.

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Common Sense – our new book, published!

By Jamie

20 March 2012

In Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty, published today, Dan Hind makes a powerful case for the need to generalise the model of public meetings and discussion popularised by the remarkable Occupy movement, to empower 'the 99%' to reclaim the political realm for itself.

Our edition – which you can purchase here – features exclusive artwork by Edd Baldry and an introduction by the New Left Project collective.

To accompany the launch we've published an interview with Dan, discussing the significance of the occupations, the collapse of neoliberal 'common sense', and the emancipatory potential of deliberation between equals.

As he writes in the pamphlet,

'The organization of prestige found in the political class, in the media, and in academia is now indefensible. The bankruptcy of the Western economies is mirrored by an intellectual bankruptcy that those who currently hold power cannot adequately acknowledge. The triumph of the market faith was so complete that there is hardly anyone with public status who can afford to state openly what is obviously the case: the promoters of the old, exploded common sense – including its many tame experts – are ridiculous. So the show continues, as though they are not. This is the stuff from which revolutions are made. 

But if we can no longer leave the market or the expert to secure the general interest, we are left with only one other means. It is not mentioned on the evening news. Indeed, as far as the mainstream of political comment is concerned, it does not exist. Our last hope is everywhere and everywhere it is overlooked. 

Our last hope is everyone.'

Or, as he concludes in our interview,

'Change doesn’t come from heroic leaders, it comes from people figuring out what they want, and how to get it. Deliberation between equals is part of how that happens. That’s common sense, right there.'

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Rebel Music #3 Atari Teenage Riot

By Alex

15 March 2012

Ruth Sullivan on Berlin's finest digital hardcore outfit - Atari Teenage Riot...

 


A couple of years ago, I was grumbling about one of my favourite bands being messed  around by the organisers of a certain Berkshire based music festival because there were fears that they would drown out the over-priced, over-hyped Libertines.  My friend responded with ‘But really, Atari Teenage Riot aren’t nearly as important as the Libertines though, are they? I mean, they’re niche!’…and cue apoplexy.

This is my way, albeit long and rambling, of getting around to the key topic here, namely why Atari Teenage Riot are my most politically significant band.  I’ll return for a second to the scene of my apoplexy.  I was horrified, not only due to the hilarious notion that the Libertines could be seen as important for anything other than a penchant for wearing military coats,  but because whether punk, electro, industrial or EDM is your forte, you will have come under the influence of ATR .  Alec Empire’s digital hardcore was a definitive sound in the early 90’s and it’s a sound that has spidered out in to a far reaching sonic influence identifiable in so many modern genres.  Listen to early 90’s ATR and you realise that they were laying down the sound for the post cold war, post Regan, post Thatcherite young and dispossessed of Europe; Everything in a state of entropy and everything to fight for.

So why is an early 90’s band still so important to me?

Firstly, the politics of ATR is authentic and it’s enduring.  They’re one of very few bands that maintain the courage of their convictions.  They don’t only call for revolution action because it sounds edgy, they bloody well mean it.  It’s easy for a musician to pay lip service to freedom and equality after they’ve been flown in on their lear jet to do so but it’s a lot harder to maintain integrity and a flat out refusal to work with corporations. From the very beginning 20 years ago, ATR have refused to co-operate with the expectations of the music industry.  Their first single, Hetzjagd Auf Nazis (roughly translated as hunt down all Nazis.) made it clear from the get go that the band came with unflinching political credentials. Many places refused to stock or give publicity to the single.  The band knew it would never be a chart topper and that, after all, was entirely the point.  They have remained avowed anti-fascists ever since – rooted in the experiences of band members and their families – and played a recent date in Dresden in protest of a neo-Nazi march taking place in the city.  They avidly support the work of Nazi-Leaks and Operation Blitzkrieg, who recently hacked and defaced a neo-nazi website, replacing the content with ATR’s protest anthem Black Flags.

Atari Teenage Riot remains independent from and defiant of a top down hierarchy that demands conformity and superficial re-invention.  Even recently, they subverted the music industries tendency to try and purchase authenticity by allowing Sony to use one of their tracks to promote the PlayStation Vita, then donating the fee to Anonymous.  The hacker collective have previously hacked Sony and are avowedly anti-corporate.  Many people weren’t in on the joke and scratched their head or cried sell out.  That’s the thing with ATR, if you get, then you get it. 

The band have adapted to political change, recognised where the new battle lines are drawn online and become the soundtrack of Anonymous, urging their fans to resist, riot and activate.  Last year’s album Is This Hyperreal, their first since the band’s split in 1999, is both fresh and familiar. The lyrics reflect the machinations of the political-corporate complex whilst bringing on the riot sounds - the almost painful, challenging wall of noise and static that is definitively ATR. It’s difficult to listen to at times, but again, that’s entirely the point.   Read the band’s facebook, twitter feed and blogs and you’ll see that they’ve never merely paid lip service to their fans, pretending to be ‘of the people’, they’re with us every step of the way, urging real political activism. In an interview last year, Alec Empire commented on the responsibility of the musician to be political.  If you have a captive audience and a microphone in your hand, you have a huge opportunity to make a real change.  Why would you not use it? 

As a feminist ATR also have another draw.  The women in ATR have been powerful role models, especially for a young woman at odds with the expectations of her gender, sexuality and finding conformity all around her.  They are not eye candy. They’re not a supplementary afterthought but powerful, driven, vital forces of nature in ATR’s music.  Former member Hanin Elias and Nic Endo scream and rail and dare you to take them on. Both are recognised and respected musicians in their own right, skilled and challenging. Last year’s Blood In My Eyes confronted human trafficking and violence against women and the accompanying video was a remarkably challenging piece of work but brutally honest.  The women of ATR are not tools for an industry, nor are they playing up to a false, price tagged sexuality that so many female artists are driven in to doing.

In my head, ATR are the soundtrack to my disobedience.  They’re playing when I’m marching, protesting and resisting and they rouse me when I’m walking to go to work in my public sector job, worn down by the latest ‘helpful’ government cuts and policies that make my job infinitely harder.  With ATR on my side, the riot and defiance goes ever on, even if I’m not really ‘teenaged’ anymore. Resist, Riot, Activate!

Ruth is a history teacher and trade unionist in Brighton and a political and human rights activist.  She is a co-founder of the Brighton Feminist Collective. You can follow her on twitter @littlespsy

Previously in the Rebel Music series:

Rebel Music #1 The Clash - Sandinista

Rebel Music #2 George Clinton 

 

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Broke in Britain

By Jamie

13 March 2012

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Rebel Music #2 George Clinton

By Alex

08 March 2012

Next in our series on political music, Joe Ruffell* considers the legacy of George Clinton's P-funk...

George Clinton is one of the great modernists of popular culture. As the key figure in the innovative psychedelic black rock troupe Funkadelic and its sister group Parliament he became the leader of the cultural juggernaut P-Funk that transformed black music by creating wild dance friendly concept driven funk that helped give birth to hip hop and electro. Using experimental song structures, album long social criticism, alter-ego personas, vocoders and a revolving band of nearly fifty musicians they fused different styles and influences to make music like none heard before. As the ideas man behind a number of brilliant musical collaborators Clinton broke every convention in popular music to lead one of the most thrilling stage acts in the history of rock and soul music. Expressing a huge array of ideas through myriad stratagems he is one of the major artists of his time.

Race is a primary theme of Clinton’s work. Born in North Carolina in 1941 his family moved north to New Jersey when he was a child. His first love was Doowop, a multi-racial forerunner of soul proper. An adult throughout the civil rights years he was decisively influenced by hippie idealism and Black Power in equal measure. Humour is his primary means of expression. He loves to put African-Americans in places in popular consciousness where they are absent – e.g. outer space or under the sea. His asides are filled with witty observations on the black experience (‘I didn’t get my 40 acres and a mule but I did get you chocolate city’). Although he sometimes suggests racism is purely an error of logic, at other times he argues that it has a crucially important socio-economic value for the richest and most powerful. Contradictions like this abound in his work and, if anything, expand its power by reflecting the different explanatory narratives about society. Racial categories are treated as elastic and artificial. Similarly he treats white rock, black soul, jazz and psychedelia all as stations on the road to liberation.

Slightly more mysterious is Clinton’s truly political obsession with the human body. As an aesthetic in popular music it’s rare, to say the least, but the seriousness with which he applies it is unique. The body is the centre of a cultural battleground for Clinton, and one possible explanation would again reside in race, but here liberating politics is intimately connected with psychological health and bodily pleasure. Bodily functions relate to human limitations but also egalitarianism – we all have these common functions and in satirising these he punctures a culture that endorses inequality using laughter and fun. Not only are P-Funk’s beats, keyboard squiggles and bouncing bass just made to throw your body around to but the sound world invoked is of the organism also - of the orifice and organ, the digestive tract and the involuntary reflex.

Like most cultural product under capitalism popular music usually features an individual expressing certain sentiments presented as personal to themselves – their feelings and thoughts as channelled through their own perspective. This socially wrought consciousness is taken as an innate characteristic forgetting that it was only made possible through a complex system of social relations that enabled the artist to be a person for his or her self.  This ‘self-expressive’ notion of art generally assumes stepping back from social life to express sentiments that reflect on it from a detached individualist standpoint. I would argue Parliament-Funkadelic’s output is set apart from this in a number of ways. This is most obvious in the way that various conceptual and formal ideas associated with Modernism abound in their work.

There are lots of personas and voices on P-Funk’s records. There is not one authoritative voice. They resemble a society alive with possibilities and create their own little world filled with crazed liberation slogans and cartoon characters. The intended effect is not just escapism but a more sophisticated and critical type of art. As Ben Watson noted

[His] albums are a barrage of puzzles, jokes, references, asides. They don't flatter the know-it-all: they demand curiosity, involvement, thought; they protest the alienation of 'product'....Funkadelic and Parliament albums emphasise the material facts of their realisation: record label promotion, censorship, media scams and scandals.

The use of slogans, daft witticisms, slang and nonsense words to build a complete worldview based on egalitarian politics, hedonism and the body grotesque are the essential elements of Clinton’s work. Incorporating pastiche of elements from social ceremony and ritual used mischievously to reverse their intended usage. For example, sermon type oratory that endorses drugs and sexual liberation and scandalously bizarre call and response pledges of allegiance to unalienated living: “biological and social exchange” (Bahktin) fused through humour and music.

 

 

P-Funk was always a mixture of idealism and materialism, the philosophical idealism of their aspirations (‘Free your mind and your ass will follow’, ‘Free from the need to be free’) which was then mixed with a celebration of the limits and potentialities of the flesh. The elective affinities of references to bodily functions combined with bass heavy music that compels you to shake something with pseudo-spiritual egalitarian/utilitarian intention is actually one of George Clinton’s most profound artistic strategies. He extends James Brown, musically and philosophically, deep into the most pressing questions of human existence. Why is the world not equal? What do we make of our bodies? How do they relate to our minds? Can fried ice cream be a reality?

Far from being an attempt at the transcendental, as some have argued, Clinton’s jams represent communal experience of a sensual nature. The ultimate justification of the ridiculous size of Clinton’s bands is the number of different things going on in the music. The sheer number of voices and instruments you hear gives the music its communal feel. His work has a socially whole perspective that’s absent in art that takes personal experience as its sole perspective. It is a radical utopian art that takes collective humanity as its subject.

*Joe Ruffell is a member of the Socialist Workers Party. His has previously written on European cinema and black American music. He maintain a blog here.

Previously in the Rebel Music series:

Rebel Music #1 The Clash - Sandinista!

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Towards a New Common Sense - Announcing our First Book

By Jamie

07 March 2012

The bankruptcy of the Western economies is mirrored by an intellectual bankruptcy that those who currently hold power cannot adequately acknowledge. The triumph of the market faith was so complete that there is hardly anyone with public status who can afford to state openly what is obviously the case: the promoters of the old, exploded common sense – including its many tame experts – are ridiculous. So the show continues, as though they are not. This is the stuff from which revolutions are made.

But if we can no longer leave the market or the expert to secure the general interest, we are left with only one other means. It is not mentioned on the evening news. Indeed, as far as the mainstream of political comment is concerned, it does not exist. Our last hope is everywhere and everywhere it is overlooked.

Our last hope is everyone.

 

Common Sense: An Essay on Liberty a new ebook by Dan Hind, co-published by New Left Project.

 

 

Out next week, with exclusive artwork by Edd Baldry.

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A Guide to New Right Clichés

By James

02 March 2012

A guest post by Christopher Read

It appears that the new right is in a tizzy about the leftie protests over unpaid labour for multinationals. That means a juicy Mad Mel article - her very own guide to new right cliches!

1. Remember to avoid that loss of nerve! The Great British Loss of Nerve explains much these days...

"So how on earth can the British Government have been pushed off course like this by a few far-left thugs? The immediate answer is the contemptible absence of spine displayed by these firms in the face of such manipulative and bully-boy tactics."

2. Working class socialism is elitist. Just like how capitalism is egalitarian.

"Does this not just tell you all you need to know about the left? Purporting to care about the poor, they kick away from them the ladder of opportunity they provide for their own young people. Bloated with often inherited wealth themselves, they flay companies that make wealth and opportunity for others."

3. It aims to destroy society! With fire perhaps.

"The SWP want to destroy that scheme because their aim is to destroy British society."

4. When a lone socialist goes up against a panel of right wing demogogues, it's fine. But if the right is outnumbered, even by feeble liberals, it's a scandal! A bloody scandal!

"In particular, she points out that BBC2’s Newsnight spent all week putting solitary Government ministers up against panels made up of the hard left’."

5. The liberal elite are also simultaneously Marxists. Do use all these terms uncritically.

"On one of these shows, presenter Jeremy Paxman four times asked the Tory MP Harriet Baldwin: ‘Do you understand why people find the schemes offensive?’ Another presenter, Kirsty Wark, opined the following day: ‘It’s just essentially cheap labour.’"

6. The interenet is inherently Anarcho-Marxist. It should be shut down.

"The protest campaign was being pushed by social media manipulation."

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Save our NHS

By Tom

01 March 2012

As politicians like to say, 'let's be absolutely clear about this', the purpose of the Coalition Government's Health and Social Care Bill is to hand over our public healthcare to private corporations - the same private corporations who fund the Conservative Party and their associated think-tanks.  These peoples' protestations that there will be no privitisation and that the 'reforms' are simply about efficient healthcare delivery are utter bollocks.  As Spinwatch's Tamasin Cave has noted, one of Cameron's health advisors, Mark Britnell, has been very clear about their intensions. In October 2010 he told a conference of private healthcare executives, 'The NHS will be shown no mercy and the best time to take advantage of this will be in the next couple of years.'

These people have to be stopped and we are entering a crucial period.  As Colin Leys said yesterday in an interview for NLP, 'The time between now and the end of the parliamentary session is critical. People are tired, but so are the government. They are badly rattled.'

As part of its 'All Together for the NHS' campaign, the TUC has organised a 'Save our NHS' rally in central London on 7 March.  The rally is being live streamed online and you can pledge to attend the 'virtual rally' here.  'Keep our NHS public' also lists some suggested action you can take here.  Spread the word.

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