Over recent years I’ve enjoyed a number of books about music rather than music biographies. The standouts have included Alex Ross’s “The Rest Is Noise”, his weighty but accessible history of 20th century classical music. David Byrne’s “How Music Works” shows that the former Talking Heads frontman has the knack to write in a longer form than his often engaging blog. Stephen Witt’s “How Music Got Free” is a brilliant history of the electronic storage of music (trust me it is fascinating) combined with a whodunnit mystery around industrial scale pirating. The ramifications of the changes in the final book are still being felt in the evolution of streaming and the comeback in a small scale of vinyl and in an even smaller scale, cassettes. Brace yourself for the 8 track cartridge revival.
Added to this list of books is Dave Randall’s “Sound System: The Political Power of Music”.
Randall is a jobbing experienced musician, getting his break in Faithless’s touring band (of “Insomnia” fame). He has experienced the peripatetic nature of his trade, not sure of where the next mortgage or rent payment is coming from. He has multiple and changing masters and mistresses, writing the book whilst a member of Sinead O’Connor’s touring band. His interest in the link between politics and social history and music started when he first heard the Specials “Free Nelson Mandela”. Since then he has become increasingly politically aware and active.
The book charts a personal view of how music is a powerful tool for change. It is short, sharp and engaging read at just shy of 200 pages. It is easily digestible, I polished it off over a weekend. He covers a significant amount of ground, both geographically and chronologically, visiting pretty much every continent and going back to the start of the Renaissance period.
It starts by discussing the impact of the Beatles in both the West and the East – John Lennon’s “rattle your jewellery quote”, the spread of bootleg vinyl into Russia recorded on old chest X-rays as a means of smuggling them into the country. He heads to Africa to talk about Fela Kuti and Nigeria and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s incessant use of “My Boy Lollipop”.
There is a fascinating chapter on the history of the carnival as a means of giving slaves a focus as they were excluded from their master’s celebrations. This has continued to be a platform for the oppressed and excluded, the down trodden and it is telling in the wake of the Grenfell Tower atrocity that the Notting Hill Carnival was so important.
Randall acknowledges his personal debt to Alex Ross’s “The Rest Is Noise” touching on the manipulation of Shostakovich, Xenakis’s role in the Greek resistance, the effect of being Stockhausen a stretcher bearer on Karl Heinz Stockhausen and the birth of the minimalist movement as a post holocaust reaction to horror. Military conflict and music continues to be germane as the impact of the Dixie Chicks comments on the Iraq War hit their profile.
He discusses the Black Lives Matter movement. Whilst the increased profile provided by the likes of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar (whose “Alright” has been adopted as a rallying cry), Beyoncé has been accused of using the imagery and momentum of the issues for commercial gain, in particular her Super Bowl 2016 performance. Is promoting black rights whilst wearing Gucci and welcoming back an adulterous husband cognitive dissonance?
The chapter on the cultural boycott of Israel and the oppression of Palestinians is brilliantly done. He speaks about the impact of the Balfour Declaration. I recall when I was working in a building to the rear of the British Library in 2014. I saw the largest retinue of military protection I think I’ve seen arrive at the back door – secret service, the police, the whole shebang. It turned out that it was to accompany the visit of Benjamin Netanyahu to review the original declaration. Staying in the Middle East, the role of music in the Arab Spring is also well covered. Randall introduces “Rais Lebled” by El General which became a rallying call in Tunisia.
Finally Randall produces his own Rebel Music Manifesto. Having grown up in the time of the Clash, the Jam and the Specials being hugely popular, it can feel at times that there has been a move away from the mixing of music, politics and social commentary. “Sound System” reassures us that the linkage is still out there. I would recommend Ghostpoet’s latest album “Dark Days and Canapés” (which I wrote about here) as an example of a recent record that deals with today’s issues around austerity and immigration.
“Sound System” sounds a dry read. It isn’t in the slightest. It is easy to get through and engaging.
An equally decent place to start is Suzy Klein’s current BB4 documentary series “Tunes For Tyrants”. I’ve just watched the first episode which covered the pre-WWII years in Berlin and Moscow – good stuff.
You can catch it on BBC IPlayer here or watch the Youtube preview here:
A note on the publishers:
The book has been produced by the Left Book Club, resurrected to write about today’s troubles after Victor Gollancz set the organisation up as a reaction to Fascism in the 1940s. It was the first book club, a precursor to Richard and Judy in fact. I may well be investigating further if “Sound System” is anything to go by.