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The political stage

Dan Carrier talks to guitarist Dave Randall, whose new book is a study of the link between music and politics

06 July, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury this year. Photo: BBC

Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury this year made headlines. Critics of the Labour leader accused him of hi-jacking a music festival, as if politics has no place there. They ignore that Glastonbury has always been an overtly political event. From the discussions in the Green Fields to the money raised for Greenpeace and CND, to try and detach Michael Eavis’s annual knees-up and place it in some kind of sanitised container misses its point.

This fact is not lost on another left-winger who has also stepped out in front of the crowds on the Pyramid Stage, albeit to play his guitar and make people dance.

Dave Randall, the guitarist from the band Faithless and who has worked with the likes of Dido and Sinead O’Connor, played Glastonbury in the late 1990s and he considers the link between politics and music in his new book, Sound System – The Political Power of Music, published by the Archway-based Pluto Press under their Left Book Club imprint.

It considers our relationship with music, how it effects us, and the obvious, but all too often overlooked, link between music culture and politics. The tome ranges from a personal story of his career and political awakening, a historian’s view of music and politics, to how the reader can act to make the world a better place.
Suggestions range from defending small music venues to lobbying artists to use their unique position to provide voices for causes.

Dave Randall, author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music

Dave’s political “awakening” came as a teenager at a festival called Greenbelt: he was in a field in Northamptonshire when the DJ dropped the Special AKA tune Free Nelson Mandela: “I had no idea who Mandela was, but I knew by the end of the first chorus I wanted him to be free,” he says.

He started gigging with bands and then in 1996 joined Faithless. He has been a professional musician ever since.

He does not concentrate on contemporary culture, nor only his experience – his research reveals a plethora of fascinating stories of how music is a fundamental plank in our ability to take stock of the world around us – and how that can scare those who hold power.

He quotes Plato noting Socrates warning in 380BC that “a change to a new type of music is something to beware of as a hazard of all our fortunes. For modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions”.

He notes how the Catholic church fought to control the composition of hymns, and considers the role pop music played in the 20th century in both nurturing rebellion and offering sanitised conformity.

He cites German intellectual Theodor Adorno, who fled the Nazis to resettle in New York in the 1930s. Adorno recognised popular music as a mass-produced commodity: “Sure, melodies change a little from song to song, but only to give a fake impression of originality and authenticity,” Dave writes of Adorno’s views. “Lapped up by a mass audience who knew no better, this was a music designed to blunt our desire to think for ourselves.”

But what makes Dave’s work so compelling is how he refuses to take such statements as Adorno’s as an unbending truth. He gives as much room to schools of thought that considers the energy of pop and its “kitsch, consumerist glory,” and how youth culture – Teddy Boys, mods, rockers, skinheads, punks, goths, ravers – offer the chance to reclaim a sense of control over your life, even if someone, somewhere, is trying to package it up to make some cash.

“I chose these case studies because these were the examples that fell into my lap over the course of my career,” he says. For example, in another chapter he talks of music as a tool of the struggle against colonialism – he saw this when working with musicians from Senegal – and then discusses the Acid House phenomenon.

He links this to the Criminal Justice Act, that sought to halt underground raves, and helped the rise of “super clubs”, which commercialised a scene that had previously been the product of a DIY movement.

Throughout this lively book, packed with asides and anecdotes, themes emerge. “Firstly, there is the importance of political movements and political organisation,” he says. Music, he says, can offer a standard around which people can rally.

He speaks of how music can hold up a mirror to a moment in time. “If you look at a lot of music in the 20th and 21st century, it reveals a sense of profound alienation. Songs often talk about a sense of dissatisfaction and loneliness,” he says. “Music scenes have always been to some degree an attempt to react to such feelings. Reacting to a sense of alienation in this way allows people to not feel alone.”

Dave condenses a huge number of sources, gives them an evidence-based critique. He doesn’t suffer from a “bar stool preacher” syndrome of knowing what he says is true – instead, he poses questions, offers a view and then asks us to draw our own conclusions.

He states: “There is no doubt music matters to people, but what is its impact on society? How does this universal human activity reflect changes in economics, technology and politics? How has music shaped our world – and what contribution can it make to the struggle for a better one?”

It is a vitally important question to consider – and he provides a guide of how to understand your favourite tunes in a new light.

• Sound System: The Political Power of Music. By Dave Randall, Pluto Press, £9.99

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