The only songs that matter

When the Overland editors posted an off-the-cuff list of songs for a soundtrack for the revolution a couple of weeks ago, the comments board, which usually moves between the sedate and the lively, went berserk. Music videos were posted by the score, ranging from the Dead Kennedys’ ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ to Melanie’s ‘Psychotherapy’.

Maybe for a second we all remembered something we thought we had forgotten. Perhaps all of a sudden we were back at some smoky party at two in the morning, with the music whammering out of the speakers in the next room, face-to-face with some crazy conversation about violence and injustice, and determined to stand up, come what may, in the maw of suffering and stare it down, as someone ramped the music up even louder and we refilled our glasses and plotted improbable dates with destiny.

The thing about ageing is that it shows no mercy and doesn’t care if you’re good or bad, crazy or indifferent. And the thing about social norms – the things that gender us and organise our feelings for us and tell us how to be adults – is that if you don’t toe the line they will screw you over and burn your life before you can say Jello Biafra.

The world, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Kingdom of Fear, is ‘a butcher shop full of stories … (there are) horrible savage beasts that lurk out there, most of them beyond the imagination of a ten-year-old boy or even a twenty- or thirty-year-old boy for that matter, or even beyond the imagination of a teenage girl from Denver being dragged away from her family by a pack of diseased wolves.’

The week after the Overland post, other songs that might comprise a revolution’s soundtrack kept coming to mind, and occasionally to my lips, often in the oddest places; standing in a queue in my local supermarket and finding myself humming ‘Kill the Poor’ ; digging in the garden and planting fruit trees and suddenly remembering a concert a few years ago in Brisbane by the string quartet, the Kronos Quartet, when having made clear their feelings about the illegality of the Iraq War to an audience of exceedingly well-dressed and none-too-happy classical music lovers, they launched into a blistering cover of Jimi Hendrix’ famous demolition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. And I remembered too, if remembering is what it is, that songs for a revolutionary soundtrack don’t just encompass political anthems. I remembered the first time I heard the Gang of Four’s anti-lovesong ‘Anthrax’, with its wonderful doubled-lyrics, when I was eighteen or nineteen and living in a house full of junkies in Adelaide, and feeling that my heart was being turned inside out.

I remembered that the only songs that matter to me are revolutionary songs of one kind or another, songs that give me that remembrance.

Of course all the heroic and supposedly revolutionary actions we imagine ourselves engaging in come with a personal soundtrack. In fantasy anyway. In reality, what is revolutionary gets carried on the bare bloodied bones of whatever shreds of integrity you can muster in times of utter desperation when your life has gone to pieces, your mind is paralysed with fear, the bottom has fallen out of your heart and you suddenly find yourself critically short of friends.

Maybe for those of us with a kind of disposition sometimes called genius, a song or book is born in those terror-stricken moments, and for a shorter or longer time creates a rupture somewhere where no rupture seemed possible. For the rest of us, who are not so inclined, these are the songs and books we turn to, sitting on the floor of the empty house, or wandering dark streets in the rain wondering where the hell we’re going to sleep, or standing among strangers mindlessly unable to come to terms with whatever catastrophe has deprived us of the one we love. That’s when we might find ourselves singing silently, over and over, the song of revolution, the thing that find its way to us through our murky days.

This is half a universe away from the song of nostalgia – the thing that happens to let you know your life has turned into some kind of lame rom-com – like a bunch of people at a sixties-themed cocktail party all drunkenly singing ‘Give Peace A Chance’, then sleeping off their hangovers and heading back to work on Monday to put the screws on someone on behalf of Centrelink. For those things to become possible, we have to have caved in somewhere, most likely to some politic of personal enjoyment, a politic in which we are free to listen to whatever we like, and indeed sing about whatever we like, as long as, in the words of the Clash’s ‘Know Your Rights’, we’re not dum enough to actually try it.

Perhaps the song of revolution is the song that gets into our shattered dreams, helps put us back together, none too pretty, scars and wounds and all, and then enables us to stand and look at whatever evil situation or mood, or callous circumstance or politic or person is facing us, and say very clearly with all the sincerity we can muster, ‘Nazi punks…….Fuck off’.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Stephen, I kid you not: the recaptcha says ‘ministers beatniks’

    What an article. I was a bit bereft when Monday came and there was no revolution. I am really satisfied to read this – it meets some part of me still singing.

    1. I wanted to put a big smiley icon thing but my computer wouldn’t come to the party – so I’ll just say: thanks.

  2. And while we’re talking about the Doors, here’s the original Audioactive rhythm section.

    Plus one more, just to get Likkle Mai into the picture (about 2:32).

  3. Thanks for those heavy beats Jeff. Made me look at Riders on the Storm differently, which can only be a good thing.
    And I really must learn how to embed videos in these comments.
    And on a related note to this post, Elvis Costello this morning cancelled his forthcoming tour of Israel in protest at the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Yah boo sucks to you Margaret Atwood.

    1. Yes, I thought he summed it up so beautifully:

      Then there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent.

      I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security.

      I am also keenly aware of the sensitivity of these themes in the wake of so many despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation.

      Some will regard all of this an unknowable without personal experience but if these subjects are actually too grave and complex to be addressed in a concert, then it is also quite impossible to simply look the other way.

      Sometimes a silence in music is better than adding to the static and so an end to it.

      I cannot imagine receiving another invitation to perform in Israel, which is a matter of regret but I can imagine a better time when I would not be writing this.

    2. Would have embeddded your video but Youtube has a ‘sharing forbidden’ thing on it.

  4. Yes I thought it was a rather amazing statement, given the mealy-mouthed apologetics of Margaret Attwood earlier this week and the reluctance of pretty much any contemporary musician of similar stature to do anything that might hurt sales or image. Silence can be a very powerful response to atrocity. Though a copy of ‘What’s so funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understandin’ sent to Netanyahu wouldn’t go astray

    1. You mean: Margaret ‘writers do not do cultural boycotts’ Atwood, President of PEN Int’l?

      Atwood, when explaining why she was entitled to half a million dollars from the State of Israel:

      Worldwide, novel-writing is under constant pressure, both from political groups who want to co-opt it, and from powerful governments who’d like to silence it. Around the world, novelists have been shot, imprisoned, and exiled for their failure to toe somebody else’s line. But they continue to write stories.

      Writers have no armies. They have no militant wings. The list of persecuted writers is long, ancient, and international. We feel we must defend the diminishing open space in which dialogue, exchange, and relatively free expression are still possible.

      1. Attwood’s acceptance of the big bucks from Israel was stomach-turning enough, but her defence catapults her into hitherto unknown areas of hypocrisy and accompanying nausea. In accepting the
        money she seems to be trying to identify herself
        with writers who have been murdered and imprisoned for being writers. How very very bizarre. Time for the van and the men in white coats I think.

        1. I have read both Jeff and Stephen refer to being sectioned as a response to dubious politics … with a dear friend suffering that ignoble experience as we speak, I think it is time to let go of the ‘madness = idiocy’ imagery. It is possible to suffer mental illness and have sound political-social mores guys.

          1. Jeff too? I thought it was just me. Clare, I understand what you’re saying, but its also possible to overlook irony as a critical component of humour. Maragret Attwood’s statement is so bizarre I think, so utterly nonsensical and sinister that a new category of mental illness of her very own is perhaps not out of order. There are plenty of people functioning publicly who to me look seriously ill – various politicians and ‘business leaders’ come to mind. This in no way trivialises the suffering of anyone in a mental health clinic. Perhaps the opposite. But there’s a category of mental ill-health that never gets anywhere near a mental health professional, because its protected by power and privilege and can pass itself off as rampant success, even to be emulated. In fact you can be crazy enough to be given major prizes for your delusional attitudes. I don’t think I’m anymore trivialising mental illness than this song is:

          2. Perhaps I should have specified that I had read these references recently – obviously, it’s used all the time, I’ve no doubt said similar myself. Somehow, for me, today, neither the strait jacket nor the van with the men in the white coats seem ironic, or funny, or any kind of commentary at all, really – just an old cliché.

  5. Might be time for a new version of this track (though perhaps without the cheesy eighties drum sound).

    Have just been trying to identify the various people in the clip. Is it Grandmaster Flash at the start? Pretty sure RUN DMC is there, too. And Lou Reed.

    1. I spotted Herbie Hancock, Ringo, A Ramone, Pete Townshend, a pre-shades Bono, Gil Scott-Heron, Bruce Springsteen (doing the ‘yee-ah!’s and managing to look extremely uncool in a black leather jacket), Pat Benatar, Hall and Oates, Jackson Browne as well as Reed and RUN DMC. And the Minister for the Environment. Pre-home insulation debacle.
      Perhaps this song could do with a re-run too with ‘Afghanistan’ substituted for ‘Vietnam’.

  6. Thank you very much for this. Straight to high-rotation along with the japanese reggae dudes.
    “I’m not related to the strangers on the TV, but I relate because those strangers could have been me.’
    “it’s not a war, they’re just murdering more rapidly.”

  7. oh, oh. and
    ‘Talking about revolution when you’re sitting in Starbucks/
    The fact is that’s the type of thinking that I can’t trust.”
    “They’re trigger-happy and they’re crazy/
    Think about that when you’re putting Huggies on your baby.”

  8. Or:
    don’t bring bad vibes when you speak to me / there’s plenty of rabbis that agree with me

    they’re terrorists that terrorise / i testify my television / televised them telling lies

    (I testify to that too, and Mark Regev, I’m talking to you)

  9. Yes. Kind of the poem of the year isn’t it?
    Did you have to bring Mark Regev into this? Margaret Attwood is creepy enough. It’s like the Addams Family.

    1. I don’t know how you came across this Jacinda, but it’s very, very cool. That’s brilliant. I guess this happens on Melbourne trams all the time.

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