Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Revolutions Will Be Recorded - 33 Revolutions Per Minute by Dorian Lynskey

There are two ways to write about rock music. The first is the easy way, buying into and reinforcing the self perpetuating myths about musicians. That way lies anecdotes of TVs through windows, groupies and red snappers and Rolls Royces in swimming pools, the music of The Dirt and Hammer of the Gods. With the PR machines of record companies becoming ever more controlling it's the way the majority of rock journalism in the country seems to be heading, even if the ever more intense gaze of tabloids and internet bystanders makes it harder for personal foibles and excesses to be hidden. Entertainers and musicians become deities to be places on pedestals rather than human beings who find ways to communicate on a mass level; miracle workers performing sonic alchemy rather than simply humans doing something anyone could do to a remarkable standard. This way lies the likes of heritage rock magazines and Q's slack-jawed admiration,complete with fawning reviews.

And then there's the type of writing that understands how preposterous it all us, and reminds us there's a fallible human element in the middle of it all. No matter if they've achieved on the levels of the Beatles, Bowie or Bob Marley they can still be questioned, criticised and mocked. Mockery is the cheap way of doing that, one that only really works when the writer doing it also loves the art form - reminding you at the same time that it's all simultaneously brilliant and utterly ridiculous. It's best exemplified in the likes of Danny Baker, the casually brilliant swagger of Smash Hits and its alumni or Alex Petridis in The Guardian. It's a wonderful art form, at its best it has the effervescence and sparkle of sunlight catching bubbles in champagne. But even that art form comes with the great writing safety net that you can get yourself out of trouble with a decent joke. And that humour can allow musicians protection, a couple of witty lines allowing themselves to demonstrate that they're human whilst avoiding too much troublesome soul baring. The other, more difficult way of demythologising music and musicians is ultimately the more rewarding one - analysis and deconstruction, pinning the butterfly to the wheel. This way lies the very best writing about music - Ian Penman, Ian McDonald's Revolution in the Head, Simon Reynolds' Energy Flash or (especially) Rip It Up And Start Again, Nick Kent's The Dark Stuff or Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces. It's even there, albeit with a breathtaking lightness of touch which merges the highbrow and Smash Hits approaches, in Caitlin Moran's account of her meeting with Lady Gaga in The Times. There's little recourse to humour and no myth for subjects to hide behind here. The seriousness of the approach jars somewhat with the way music's sold by the industry in Britain so it tends to be confined to books and the magazines aimed at the older music fan. It's to this school of writing that 33 Revolutions Per Minute belongs, an almost academic attempt to study the use of popular music as a form of protest.

It's almost deceptive to call 33 RPM a book about music. Instead it's a Trojan Horse, sneaking a book about popular protest in the twentieth and early twentieth centuries using music as the hook. There's a brief contextualisation with an appendix covering previous forms of protest music but Dorian Lynskey's focus doesn't lie with the spirituals of slaves and left wing songbooks but rather how the advent of a mass market for music meant that one voice could now make itself widely heard - radio and records meaning a message could be spread far more easily than in previous years, and direct from the originator rather than via pamphlet or third hand through the performances of others. The point where there's no process of chinese whispers diluting or bowdlerising the message.

Probably the only obvious choice Lynskey makes is in where he starts. There's probably never been a protest song as startlingly effective as Billie Holliday's Strange Fruit; even today it retains an eerie power, long after the specific issues it highlights are... well, not dead by any means, but certainly somewhat defused. Lynskey's long term background as a politically engaged music writer means he's eloquently able to explain what gave the song such effect, both in terms of the music itself and also in the context in which it was released. It summarises the approach he takes throughout the book in that the song the chapter is ostensibly about is merely a point by which he engages with the issues the song raises. In that way this is really a work of popular history via music. Where the approach gets more interesting is at the point the protest song becomes more popular, around the rise of the folk movement eventually headed by Dylan in the late 1950s and early 1960. Lynskey doesn't stick to the point of view presented by his chosen song but more often contrasts it with other works on the same thing - contrasting Dylan and his actions with Phil Ochs for instance, or presenting James Brown's Say It Loud, I'm Back and I'm Proud coming in the context of the approaches of Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers. As a result it's a much more rounded and informative work than a book than a book which concentrated simply on the songs in question, bringing both sides of an argument. For example Country Joe and the Fish's I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag (and the whole peace movement) makes a lot more sense when it's understood against more conventional and patriotic songs of the late 60s such as The Ballad of the Green Berets.

That's not to say that individuals get lost in the great sweep of history - it'd be an interesting but repetitive experience if this was all political movements and ideology. Lynskey never loses sight of the human element at the heart of the work, where this is really strong is how it presents the songs as an understandable human reaction to conflicting political pressures. One of the themes that recurrently emerges throughout is the price of sticking to political ideals - ranging from tragedies such as those of Phil Ochs and Victor Jara to the frustrated idealism of Crass. It's that latter chapter that's probably the most affecting in the entire book, with their growing realisation that their music can't change the world, swept away in the capitalist tidal wave of Thatcherism. I genuinely wouldn't have thought it possible that a chapter on a relatively politically extreme band could come across as such a tragedy that could make me simultaneously angry and sad.

All this wouldn't matter though if Lynskey was simply presenting essays on thirty three different songs and thirty three different movements. There are a few songs which don't conform to a simplistic timeline of cause, effect or influence, but Lynskey's able to justify the 'history' in the subtitle by finding common threads and influences - no small task given he's ambitious enough to attempt to cover not only a divergent range of music including gospel, folk, funk, rock, rap, ska, country, disco, pop and punk but also a range of political movements as well as bringing in a more global context. Relating the protest music of Jara and Fela Kuti to the more obvious American and British movements is no mean feat, but it never feels gratuitous and gives the book a better global context.

There's no way anything short enough to be contained in a book - even a book such as this which runs to 800 pages including appendices and indices could be comprehensive but that's a problem Lynskey is clever enough to know and deal with. Not only does he deal with it in his approach to the book - essentially history via a series of thirty-three snapshots which are then contextualised, but in then providing room for further investigation. There's the already mentioned pre-history of the protest song as we understand it, a list of the songs included in the text, however peripherally, and a hundred further songs which didn't fit into the overall story. The sign of an intelligent author is that he's not arrogant enough to think of himself as a definitive authority on a subject, more a far-better informed expert. The leaving open of further avenues for investigation, and active encouragement to explore them, is entirely to the author's credit. I guess that my favourite type of rock writing is one which encourages the reader to share the author's passions by demonstrating (not explicitly explaining) what's so great about them. Revolution in the Head encouraged me to go back to listen to The Beatles with fresh thinking, Rip It Up And Start Again sent me careening through the dark corners of post-punk I didn't know about and encouraged me to return to the familiar areas I knew about. 33 Revolutions Per Minute? Let's just say that my hard drive is much fuller than it was before I started. And so was my mind.

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