In a time where inequality is rising faster than in a long while, austerity is all the rage (despite the warnings that this is only making things worse), and the various results of the Euro crisis, to mention but a few things, I’d perhaps expect a rise in political comment from music or even comedy, but apparently not, with a few exceptions. So here are ten artists who over time have made a stand, and commented (or advocated direct action in one way or another) on the political world they saw.
As I’ve covered US politics before (056: American Politics), here I’m only dealing with European politics, but specifically on the left-wing. There are, however, at least a couple of honourable mentions from the other side of the pond that are applicable here, too, but they are out of scope today. As always other suggestions are welcome.
The Unacceptable Face of Freedom
Let’s start in the UK, with one of the most overtly political industrial bands of all, South London’s Test Dept. Their furious, heavily percussion based missives were rarely subtle in their message, as was the case here: where the vicious, anti-Tory/right wing message was apparently battered out with sledgehammers and samples of their targets of their ire did the vocal work for them. This came out in 1986, post-miner’s strike, perhaps when hope was being lost, and outright fury took over. Things got better in the following years, perhaps, but twenty-five years on we on the left appear to be back where we started: and when Test Dept:Redux did BIMFest last year, Fuckhead got an update that featured more modern targets, but the same party once again…
Wahre Arbeit, Wahrer Lohn
Volle Kraft Voraus!
The title translates as “real work, real wages”, and this was the debut single from these early industrial/EBM pioneers. From the region of North Rhine-Westphalia, the industrial powerhouse of Germany over the years, it is perhaps unsurprising that they hold the views they do: and indeed the brutal metallic percussion sounds like the workings in a steel mill. Indeed, left-wing politics are a subject this band returned to time and again, in particular on album The Final Option, which featured tracks about the futility of the Balkan Wars raging at the time (Crossfire), corporate power (Bloodsuckers), and the rise of the neo-nazis in Germany (the elegant, and enduring Fatherland).
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After their use of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia for the Stripped video – and the NME’s ill-judged overreaction to it (it was little more than a tabloid reactionary piece that had, at the time, clearly done no research whatsoever about the band) – it took a little while for the band to respond. Typically obtuse, their apparent musical response was this song, a stomping, martial beat that armies could march to (and huge crowds frequently stomp in time during their spectacular live shows), a catchy chorus, and lyrics when translated make it clear that their “heart” is on the left: “They want my heart at the right spot / Yet I look over then below, away / There it strikes to the left two, three, four…“. Of course, misuse (wilful or otherwise) of right-wing imagery is hardly unusual in industrial music, and I must mention (again) the brilliance of the recent book Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, which covers this business in a couple of fascinating chapters mid-way through.
By the time of Dos Dedos Mis Amigos (re-issued later this summer, by the way), the Poppies had shed much of their “fun” side and gone a whole lot darker. This wasn’t a sudden change, either – previous album The Looks or The Lifestyle? was already moving in that direction, and perversely had resulted in their biggest hit. But this album completed the move, and much of the album was dark, grimy industrial-tinged rock. In the context of this list, the anti-fascist fury of Ich Bin Ein Auslander (later covered by Die Krupps) would perhaps be the obvious choice, but instead I’m going for the grinding despair of Underbelly, a picture of a provincial town struggling in what was at the time a pretty desperate recession, with no hope, and no future. Once again, something that resonates rather clearly now, as it is less of it being the wheel coming full circle, than for it being that nothing has really changed in twenty years for some.
A Design for Life
Everything Must Go
The only band here that also made it into the related American Politics list, their political leanings were quite frequently made overt fom the start – ranting at banks years before that was fashionable (Natwest Barclays Midland Lloyds), and later honouring those Welsh volunteers who went to fight the fascists in the Spanish civil war (If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next). But inbetween, their comeback single after Richey Edwards vanished was a stirring, anthemic song that paid tribute to their working class ancestors in the Welsh Valleys that were rather more cultured than many in other classes would have thought. The sad irony is that most missed the message of the song, preferring instead to take the line “We don’t talk about love / we only want to get drunk” far out of it’s context.
(I Want to) Kill Somebody
Not everyone in the mid-90s were taking things so thoughtfully, though. Power-punk band S*M*A*S*H took things a different way, by releasing a furious, short-sharp-shock track that got pretty much instantly banned, was deleted after a day, and was a nice summing up of just how much many people absolutely fucking hated the Tories by 1994, and this kind of searing hate for the ruling party was part of the reason why Labour won with such an enormous majority in 1997. Now, in the present time, here’s a reunion and re-release I’d love to see.
Not that there are many lyrics, but those that there are concern with fighting the rise of the far-right in early 1990s England (as the explanation at the beginning of this bootleg from 1994 (!) confirms), a pretty major problem then, and sadly, once again at present (with a particularly unpleasant anti-Muslim undertow to much of it right now). Pitchshifter were another of those bands who wore their politics on their sleeve, with much of their later output being heavily anti-corporate in various ways.
Food For The Brain
Buy Now…Saved Later
Around at a similar time to Pitchshifter’s peak late-90s period (and indeed sharing a stage with them on numerous occasions), were one of the periods very best live acts, and like Pitchshifter, were overtly political on many of their songs – be that commenting on the still then-fragile situation to the north of lead singer Yap’s native Ireland, espousing Bill Hick’s views on life, or being furiously anti-corporate as on this song, where listeners are challenged to “Take a look at the real world“. Indeed, in a present time where political comment in music is curiously absent, the return of OMS to the public eye just now is frankly rather welcome.
Diseases of England
There are, however, at least a few bands commenting on the world around them with a disdainful eye, and some of them are even doing it with some panache. Step forward The Indelicates, who on their (lauded) new album have one particular song which does a pretty brilliant job of sending up the “Elite”, by doing the song from their view, lording it over the rabble and sticking two fingers up to the rest. And in the way the Banks have been bailed out or offered subsidy after subsidy (without much in return), and various private sector firms win their Government contracts, fail, then get awarded more while the public sector gets cut again and again, those two fingers pretty much sum up to me what the rest of the country gets in return.
Singing Down The Government
Finally, another band pushing an alternative cause are the Socialist R’n’B band Thee Faction, who take things perhaps further left than any other band in this list, and probably more so than any other band I’ve heard in some time. A revolution may be desired further down the line, but Thee Faction are really about actually getting off your arse and getting involved yourself – be that reading up on political theory, being a good citizen…or as this song roars – just fucking do something.