January 7, 2009

Brian Eno, art rock’s resident Renaissance Man, spoke at the Stop Gaza Massacre protest in London on Saturday. He was mainly repeating what he already wrote in an article for the venerable progressive site Counterpunch.

Eno has touched on Middle East politics in his music as well. He concluded his last solo album (2005’s Another Day on Earth) with a song written from the perspective of a female Palestinian suicide bomber called “Bone Bomb.”

At the time of its release (incidentally, Eno debuted the album in Russia as a challenge to the record industry, which usually releases albums in Western countries first), Eno told the St. Petersburg Times that the song was inspired by two articles he read. One was a news story about a suicide bomber. The other was by an Israeli doctor, who explained that most of the wounds inflicted in a suicide bombing are the result of bone shrapnel from the attacker. Said Eno: “These articles were on the same page, and I thought what a combination of tragedies these represent, so I wrote the song with words from the articles.”

The subject matter may be morbid, but Eno’s intent is clear. He wants his audience to connect with the madness of both the act of suicide bombing and the desperation that leads people to it.

"When you’re in your 50s as I am, what are you going to write about? You’re not going to write about riding in open cars with teenage girls." -Brian Eno

December 24, 2008

"Father Christmas" by The Kinks

The Kinks are the overlooked geniuses of the British Invasion, but their genius was less musical innovation and more social commentary. Sure, The Beatles took their stab at poignant observation (She’s Leaving Home), as did the Rolling Stones (Mother’s Little Helper). But these were more slice of life stories. The Kinks dug a little deaper and over the course of their three landmark albums of the late 60’s they covered everything from the loss of simple living, the horros of war and modernity, and corporate power.

By the 1980’s, the band was largely seen—like most aging rock bands—as somewhat of a self-parody. One critic of this era described band leader Ray Davies as “the auteur of hackneyed rock-riffs, directing cinematic foils for his political irony.” But that’s the ever cynical musical press, looking for new sounds and ideas. Was it Davies’ fault that his fears of the previous decades had come to ever greater fruition in the Reagan era?

"Father Christmas" was released in 1977, at the beginning of the so-called end for The Kinks. The same themes are present: cynicism of modernity and divisive wealth that has come with it. Davies sings about a department store Santa who gets mugged by a bunch of street urchins who only want his money. “We got no time for your silly toys,” they say. Give them to “the little rich boys.”

The storyline is enough to scare any upper class house wife into doing all her shopping online. Yet, for some reason it’s become a cult classic and is a radio staple during Christmas time. Perhaps it’s the guilt inducing plea of the little ruffians in one of the final refrains:

Have yourself a Merry, Merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kinds who got nothin’
While you’re drinking down your wine

December 20, 2008

"Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)" by John Lennon

Paul McCartney recently remarked that he was the most politicized member of The Beatles, having learned from famous pacifict Bertrand Russell in the mid 60’s about the horrors of Vietnam and passing the news along to Lennon. Journalist and anti-war leader Tariq Ali was rather shocked by McCartney’s claim, telling The Times of London, “We never heard of Paul’s views at the time. It was John Lennon who was concerned about the war. He never mentioned McCartney and I never thought of asking him to join us.”

Whether this changes the established Beatles mythology remains to be seen. More importantly, however, is that Lennon actually did something with his newfound political awareness—perhaps the best thing someone of his unbounding fame could do. He used his virtually unrivaled knack for pop appeal to oppose the policies of the US government and promote peace.

Nothing illustrates the divide between John Lennon the Beatle and John Lennon the solo artist better than something he once told his assistant: “When I sing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ hundreds of millions of people hear that. Why don’t I sing ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ because hundreds of millions of people would hear that as well.”

Of course, he didn’t stop there. “Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)” is another—although lesser known—song that condemns war and killing. I first noticed it—fittingly—during the end credits of Children of Men. Lennon’s lyrics highlight the film’s grim depiction of militaristic superpowers: “Well you were caught with your hands in the kill/And you still got to swallow your pill/As you slip and you slide down the hill/On the blood of the people you killed/Stop the killing now!”

For more on Lennon’s politics see the fascinating documentary The US vs. John Lennon and/or check for more posts on this blog.