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The Soundtrack to the Revolution

Publié le 1 juin, 2008 | Pas de commentaires
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Throughout the 20th century, protest music had been the backbeat of anti-war movements from West to East. But response to the Iraq War has not generated a sustained protest within the spectrum of popular music today. Has a new type of “protest music,” in the form of political comedy and satire, taken up the gauntlet, and perhaps even won the White House for the Democrats?

So anyone who claims that I am a
dreamer who expects to transform hell into heaven is wrong. I have few illusions. But I feel a responsibility to work towards
the things I consider good and right. I
don’t know whether I’ll be able to change certain things for the better, or not
at all. Both outcomes are possible. There is only one thing I will not
concede: that it might be meaningless to
strive in a good cause.

—Václav Havel, Summer Meditations 1

Temppeliaukio Kirkko
Nadia Prigoda, Temppeliaukio Kirkko, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

In the early 1960s, protest music of the folk sound became electric rock and roll. All around the free—and the not-so-free—world, rock bands and their fans were advocating peace and an end to injustice and wars of government and capital. In some places, the music openly celebrated a united spirit against a war in solidarity with its victims on all sides. Elsewhere, musicians were persecuted and imprisoned, their music harshly suppressed. When Beat poet Allen Ginsberg visited Czechoslovakia in 1965, giving several readings in Prague and Bratislava, he was welcomed, elected “King of the May” and inspired long hair and “happenings.” But his anti-government views got him arrested and deported as a “corrupter of youth” by agents of the harsh Novotny regime, his writings confiscated as “lewd” 1. After Alexander Dubcek took over in January 1968 as head of the Communist Party, however, large-scale reforms were initiated and Prague began to resemble San Francisco, with rock music flourishing. The inevitable crack-down came when, in August 1968, Soviet tanks and 175,000 troops invaded the city, ending the “Prague Spring.”

At the time, a band called The Plastic People of the Universe was playing music by The Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground, among others. They were a psychedelic rock band that sang in English and refused to go along with the government’s “normalization” program, intended to purge Western-sounding music and art from the culture. After censures denied them rehearsal space and a license to perform, they continued to play at underground events and private parties in the woods, the locations given out only by word of mouth. The Plastics became a symbol and the sound of the resistance. Under the influence of sax player Vratislav Brabnek, the band vowed to play only original songs in Czech, and they became anthems for the nascent Velvet Revolutionaries who gathered for concerts at clandestine locations in danger of the secret police and jail 2. Bass player Milan Hlavsa wrote many of the songs, and Ivan Jirous, Josef Janicek, and viola player Jiri Kabes completed the line up, often using lyrics by Czech poet Egon Bondy. In order to play at all, secrecy and sacrifices were necessary, which created the strongest bond between the band and their following. In 1976, some band members and fans were convicted of “organized disturbance of the peace,” and jailed for months in Ruzne prison; Brabnek was harshly beaten in prison and eventually exiled.

In 1977, activist playwright and future President of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, who had protected the band at his farm during difficult times and was considered one of the movement’s leaders, with this collaboration of musicians, students, and hippies, wrote what became the human rights petition called Charter 77, for which he was eventually arrested. Anyone who signed Charter 77, or was caught reading pamphlets published by the dissidents, or even associating with them, faced the threat of losing their job, position in school, or jail. Over the next decade, more Plastic People concerts took place, despite police persecution and widespread arrests. Finally, after years of organized civil disobedience and non-violent protest:

“in November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. On Nov. 17, 1989, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution began as more and more students showed up every day in Wenceslas Square to protest police brutality. They were soon joined by playwrights, actors, musicians including the entire Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, and other Czech citizens, until they were 300,000 strong. The revolution ended successfully 24 days later” 3.

In 1990, Frank Zappa and Lou Reed both visited Prague and were recognized for their contributions to The Plastics’ music. They were moved to hear how their own music had inspired and consoled many who had suffered. Zappa was asked by Havel to become a cultural attaché to his government, and was treated like a national hero4.

Back in the US, just as the Prague Spring was ending in 1967, Washington DC saw and heard 100,000 demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War to the music of The Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, the largest in a long line of protests and demonstrations that were often 20,000 to 30,000 strong. Following the Summer of Love, in 1969 the Woodstock music festival was charged with protest; Country Joe & the Fish played their “Vietnam Song” 5, while the crowd sang the choruses a capella, and Jimi Hendrix’ version of the National Anthem told the world what was wrong with U.S. foreign policy using only an electric guitar. After the Kent State University fatal shootings of four students by National Guardsmen at a war-protest rally in 1970, Crosby, Stills & Nash came out with their powerful song “Ohio.” The war continued until Saigon fell to the communists of the North, in 1975.

But after the 1980s, musicians followed the changes in peace-time culture and turned to global charity rather than political protest. In 1984 Bob Geldof and Midge Ure founded Band Aid, an British-Irish organization to raise money for famine in Ethiopia, followed a year later by Live Aid, and the release of a charity single “We are the World,” by a group of American mega-star musicians billed as USA for Africa, all of which amassed hundreds of millions in relief. In 2005 Geldof’s heavily criticized Live 8 concerts were broadcast around the globe days before world leaders gathered in Scotland for the G8 summit, with the intention of raising awareness of world poverty rather than money. Bono, the lead singer of the Irish band U2, was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with Amnesty International and other humanitarian aid organizations. But while songs have certainly been written criticizing the Bush and Blair governments and their military involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East, popular political protest music itself has been in strikingly short supply, given that the Iraq war has raged on senselessly for the last 7 years with no clear end in sight.

Political satire today’s protest culture?

John Lennon’s June 1969 Bed-In chant, “Give Peace a Chance,” has doggedly been sung by thousands of protestors, but does any music today have the power to rally an anti-war protest that gets results? Is there any music directly associated with, say, the message of hope and change Barack Obama has been using in speeches so stirring they are YouTube material? Is the Iraq war more hopeless than Vietnam that mainstream music should ignore its protest, apathetic to its natural role as a means of mass-communication to the student generations? Perhaps; cynicism is an enemy of such music, great for criticism but for protest or peace-songs – not so much.
In fact, Mr. Obama is the Democratic candidate for the next U.S. President; but Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, with their Late Night Comedy Central shows, have done more to put him there than Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and the Dixie Chicks combined. Of musicians actively protesting not only the war but the U.S. government, Steve Earle is perhaps the most focused in both his music and his life (6). But when Countdown host Keith Olbermann, after a video/news-clip presentation of scurrilous political Evil, designates a “worst person in the world,” there is a palpable ripple across the pond scum. Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming abundance of material to choose from: George W. Bush making contradictory assertions with ferocious earnestness, the image of Dick Cheney growling as he shoots his friend in the face. The hilarious tap-tap-tap of a sanctimonious Republican senator’s wingtip on an airport men’s room floor that is heard around the world, and ridiculed in 27 languages hours later. The soundtrack of the anti-war protest is derisive laughter, which has challenged the next President of the United States to at least be a serious person. It has certainly helped to encourage great expectations for Mr. Obama.

Neo-conservative pundits raise their voices against science, charity, civility and tolerance, advocating religious fanaticism, greed, and endless war, and against this cacophony a protest music is born. It’s the sound of the measure, reason, and compassion of Bill Moyers contrasting the giddy jingoist rants of the most craven war mongers. It’s a Daily Show montage of Mr. Bush dancing like a kook in Africa. It’s not a joyful sound, though it’s sometimes hopeful; but maybe you get the protest music you deserve.

References

1. Havel, Václav. Summer Meditations. Transl. Paul Wilson. New York: Vintage Books, 1991: 17.
2. Jónsson, Darrel. “When Poetry Was King.” The Prague Post. 7 May 2008: .
3. “A student I met said that he was arrested by the secret police and beaten. They said they were going to beat the Zappa music out of him.” Frank Zappa to Playboy, May 2, 1993.
4. Yanosik, Joseph. “The Plastic People of the Universe.” Perfect Sound Forever. May 1996: .
5. Zappa enthusiastically accepted the post, but was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after. See Keating, Joshua. “Frank Zappa: ‘God of the Czech underground’.” The international service of Czech Radio. 04 Aug. 2004: .
6. Also called “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag,” by Country Joe McDonald, 1967.

7. See Heard, Chris. “Protest singer Earle blasts US war.” BBC News Channel. 17 Aug. 2004 .

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