Today is May 1, which doesn’t mean a great deal in America, but is celebrated in much of the world as International Workers’ Day. Given that it commemorates American history (specifically, the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886), it’s strange that the date has no currency here, but for whatever reason, the USA has stuck with Labor Day in September – perhaps because of the more radical associations of May 1, which is celebrated by many communist and anarchist organizations. In any case, here at Flavorpill, the global waving of the red flag has got us thinking about how many great musicians have had leftist leanings over the years. Here’s a selection of our favorites. (Obligatory disclaimer: Flavorpill doesn’t necessarily endorse these bands’ politics; we just like the music.)
Punk is often identified with leftist politics, but in reality, it’s always been characterized by a range of political opinion. Bands like the Sex Pistols were more nihilist and apolitical than anything, and the sound was hijacked in the 1980s by neo-Nazis and fascists, much to the despair of those who didn’t share such unsavory political leanings. But still, The Clash are the first band that springs to mind when you think of left-wing rockers, and are largely responsible for bringing such views to punk. Joe Strummer was outspoken in his support for socialist groups (famously, and perhaps ill-advisedly, wearing a Baader-Meinhof t-shirt at the Rock Against Racism rally they headlined in 1978), and the band’s lyrics railed against consumerism, war-mongering and civil rights abuses the world over.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
For a band whose songs feature no lyrics, Godspeed have managed to make their message pretty clear over the years. The samples they use in their songs often have political overtones, and an anarchist website once devoted a long and erudite essay analysing the band’s connection to anarchist philosophy. And, amusingly, they once got arrested by overzealous Oklahoman police on suspicion of being a group of terrorists. They haven’t changed, either – at the reunion shows we saw in March, the selection of anarchist literature on sale was pretty impressive, and made for an amusing contrast with the relatively opulent surrounds of the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, where they were playing.
Over the years, political-minded hip hop has been more concerned with social justice and racism than it has with espousing any over-arching political philosophy. But there has been the occasional overtly socialist hip hop crew, and none more prominent than NYC duo Dead Prez. They were given to burning dollar bills on stage in their early days, and their track “Police State” calls for “a way of life based off the common need”. But, given that they once recorded a song based around George Orwell’s Animal Farm, they’re clearly not starry-eyed idealists when it comes to the shortcomings of communism, either.
Of all the great ‘90s band who’ve called it quits over the last few years, Flavorpill was perhaps most disappointed at the demise of the perpetually under-rated Sleater-Kinney. They were fiercely intelligent and open in their support of feminist and left-wing causes, using the springboard of the riot grrrl movement to explore a range of political ideas and issues in their lyrics. We’re still crossing fingers for a reunion.
No matter what end of the political spectrum it falls at, political songwriting has a tendency to fall into being somewhat po-faced and preachy. Not so with the Dead Kennedys, who sprinkled their leftie leanings with a healthy dose of satire and dark humor – although, sadly this humor tended to pass much of the establishment by, as evidenced by their mid-1980s obscenity trial. These days, Jello Biafra does the rounds as a spoken word artist, but his somewhat whiny voice sounds a lot better when it’s backed by frenetic guitars and machine-gun drumming.
At the more earnest end of the socialist spectrum lie artists like Billy Bragg, who emerged in the late 1970s with a sound that took the storytelling tradition of folk music and married it to with punk politics and philosophy. He’s always been up front about his political views, having recorded versions of “The Red Flag” and “The International” in the past – although, as he noted in 2008, “I don’t mind being labeled a political songwriter. The thing that troubles me is being dismissed as a political songwriter.”
One of our favorite overlooked ‘80s bands, the ironically-monikered McCarthy combined founder Tim Gane’s socialist lyricism to incongruously sweet-sounding indie pop. These days, Gane is part of Stereolab, whose political stance is less overt, but McCarthy’s legacy lives on – their song “We Are All Bourgeois Now” was covered a few years back by another famously left-wing band, Manic Street Preachers.
A criticism often levelled at politically-minded musicians is that while many of them sit on the sidelines and spout political rhetoric, few get involved in actually implementing their views (although when they do, they’re lampooned for that also – as ever, you can’t win.) But in any case, no such accusations could ever be levelled against Afrobeat pioneer and all-time legend Fela Kuti, who paid a bitter price for his views when the Nigerian government raided his Lagos compound in retaliation for the success of his darkly satirical song “Zombie” – the government’s soldiers beat him and his supporters, and most tragically, threw his mother out of an upstairs window, killing her. Kuti responded with the album Coffin for Head of State, and the remarkable title track – with its “Them kill my mama” lyric – is all at once a lament, an accusation and a statement of the human spirit’s power to overcome adversity. It’s one of the most simultaneously joyous and harrowing songs you’ll ever hear. (It’s also too long to fit on YouTube. Curses.)
Those of us in the big smoke don’t necessarily equate country music with left-wing views – if anything, it seems to be a better fit with the conservative politics that dominate the red states in which it seems to flourish. But there’s a long tradition of leftist leanings in country and the folk music that forms its cultural heritage – there was the Dixie Chicks’ famous declaration that “we’re ashamed that [George W Bush] is from Texas,” and there’ve been plenty of other country singers of a similar political bent. The grandaddy of them all is Steve Earle, whose political views have only become more explicit in his music as the years have gone by.
Rage Against the Machine
And finally, another band who are inextricably linked with their political stance. “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” isn’t the most sophisticated political philosophy ever, but it’s a pretty eloquent one nonetheless.