Is it now the case that music and politics don’t mix?

I was going to write this piece a couple of weeks ago when the hysteria over the Wolfe Tones at Feile had settled down. But it didn’t. So I didn’t. Then last week it was worse than ever with their appearance and apparent triumph at the Electric Picnic Festival. But probably better timing for me.

Leaving aside the embarrassing spectacle of thousands of young people singing along to a dirge in tribute to sectarian terrorism, it raised a bigger question for me. The question is if a troupe of virtual octogenarians singing age old Saturday night pub songs are seen as cutting edge in Ireland in 2023, then what on Earth has happened to political music? One of the most potent forces in galvanising young people against corrupt and unfair politics and government. If it’s any good.

Anthony McIntyre – a challenging writer and provocative thinker – stated on Friday that “The Wolfe Tones are this generation’s Clancy Brothers”. This generation? They’ve been around as long as the Stones! Longer than Tom Jones! They are the Clancy Brothers’ contemporaries. An X-rated version of the Bachelors! If they in any way reflect “this generation” then it is a seriously shallow and unthinking generation. Either that or it has been very badly served by its predecessors. I believe it’s the latter.

This isn’t to in any way try to diminish the place of the rebel song in Irish culture. It has an important place there, just as some of the traditional orange tunes have in Protestant/Unionist culture. In their time they were the sort of important political music I advocate. In fact as a kid I was very aware of them through the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners, both bands I have always loved and have seen live.

I think Liam Clancy and Luke Kelly stand alone as giants of the Irish ballad. In Kelly’s case he was also a master of the sort of political music I’m championing here. But if those 2 bands were masters of the genre the equivalent of the Beatles and Stones, the Wolfe Tones have always been folk music’s version of the Barron Knights. That’s how low things have fallen.

We are in a world – UK, Ireland, USA, wherever – where the political class has never been more out of touch with or disinterested in the people it is there to serve. That’s a time when young people (all people) should be angry. They should be galvanised. They should be passionate. But where is this articulated?

Music and drama should be vehicles to convey that passion and desire for serious change. But there is no evidence of that happening despite the current younger generations facing practical social challenges and obstacles that were undreamed of even 40 years ago. In Northern Ireland/Ireland young people are led to believe there’s political passion in attending a rebel Sunday or a sash bash, while feigning outrage at the other.

Political music is important. But it needs to be underpinned by rational thinking and a rational identification of targets. In the 80s when Thatcher was destroying the industrial base of the nation, dismantling society, effectively ending public housing and selling off all our assets to the highest bidder, politically led pop music was at its strongest and most passionate.

I’m not talking about punk which, a small number of bands apart , wasn’t especially political and also which took place in its entirety under a Labour government. But there was an intensity and directness in the social commentary from writers like Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, the Specials, the Housemartins and the Redskins that might not have had solutions – music rarely has – but which identified the problems and was prepared to articulate them.

Many of those songs – “Ghost Town”, “The Lunatics have taken over the Asylum”, “A Town Called Malice” and most of Billy Bragg’s first 3 albums – are at least as relevant today as they were in the early 80’s. If not moreso. No identity politics or faux liberalism in those songs. Just social commentary about how communities were being destroyed at a time when money and activity  was starting to be centred. Those writers didn’t necessarily have all the answers (that wasn’t their job), but they asked the right questions and picked the right targets.

We had some decent stuff about here too. The first Stiff Little Fingers album still gets the blood up for those of us who were there and still attend their gigs. But SLF did the right thing. They consciously stopped writing about NI once they moved to live in England. A few others could have learned from that.

The Undertones were much more subtle band had to explain the message in their “political” songs such as “Its Going to Happen” (later revealed to be about the hunger strike) and “You’re Welcome” (a lovely love song about a “sad girl” that was ultimately the story of her visiting her boyfriend in the Maze”.

Then there were the mighty Ruefrex, an avowedly anti sectarian band from the Shankill who excoriated Irish American fund raising romantics with the lines:

“A people cannot live that way or so the songs and leaflets say.

And all this time we’re trying hard to keep the n*****s down.

What with collection time and all with charities, functions and balls

It really gives me quite a thrill to kill from far away”.

Elvis Costello has at various times claimed “Oliver’s Army” was about NI and at other times suggested it was about international mercenaries. Either explanation fits. But he wrote a great one where the first verse was unquestionably about Northern Ireland.

It was about an experience he had with the army checking on a bus crossing the border into Fermanagh, his mother’s county:

“The soldier asked my name and did I come here very often
Well I thought that he was asking me to dance
In my holy coat and hat and him in his red bonnet
We’d have made a lovely couple but we never had the chance”.

Its called “Sleep of the Just” and may be my favourite of his songs. He also put out a single called “Pills & Soap” about journalists sticking cameras in the faces of the recently bereaved. How much more relevant is that in 2023.

I didn’t agree with every word of every one of these songs but I was in my 20s and they did their job. They made me think and they made me angry and motivated about the right things. Young people should be angry about the fact that they are the first generation in decades not expected to do better than their parents did.

That’s an obscenity. That’s something they should be exercised about. But the old songs keep the usual old (and now the young) boys (and now girls) happy.

I’ll leave this with one of my favourite song endings from the now reviled Billy Bragg, A couplet that I think is even more relevant today than in 1983 but which would never be sung or heard. Particularly as Billy has morphed into the person he lampooned back then:

“And the liberal, with a small L
Cries in front of the TV
And another demonstration
Passes on to history.

Peace, bread, work, and freedom
Is the best we can achieve
And wearing badges is not enough
In days like these.”


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