Sunday, December 20, 2009

Swearing isn't Clever, but it is Funny

I bought "Killing in the Name" on CD-single when it first came out in 1992 from the little record shop in the arcade in Eccles. I used to pick up any new singles that looked interesting, and a band called Rage Against the Machine certainly fit the bill. No exaggerration to say that the first time I played it, it blew me away. There'd been a few rap-grunge crossover records, most notably the Red Hot Chilli Peppers' "Give it Away", and Bodycount's "Bodycount's in the House", but Rage's debut was something else. The album was every bit as good as the single, and both "Killing in the Name" and "Bullet in the Head" were regulars at the Ritz on a Monday night. I crammed into the same venue to see them play their later, a gig that remains one of the most incendiary I've ever been to - and would definitely be in my all time top ten.

Yet, Rage were always contradictory. They arrived on these shores fully formed, and signed to a major. Their politics, which echoed the activist politics of hardcore bands like Fugazi and Consolidated, were part of what they did, but seemed a little strange in a UK context - after all, these were the dull days of John Major's premiership not the all out war of the Thatcher years. Musically, as well, that rap-metal template was something they never really deviated from, even on their only partially successful cover versions album, (where, their takes on icons like Dylan and Springsteen seemed a little less successful than their rap covers.) Yet they remained a real favourite of mine over the next few years - and, if second album "Evil Empire" lacked the dynamics of their debut, "The Battle of Los Angeles" and particularly the single "Sleep Now in the Fire" was almost as good as their first.

In many ways then, the internet campaign which has put "Killing in the Name" to number for Christmas 2009, ahead of a truly dreadful song recorded by this year's mediocre X-factor winner, chose its song well. A modern classic, with that refrain, "fuck you I won't do what you tell me", which retains its adolescent anger, but was always funny, since I remember everyone shouting along to it, punching their fists in the air in unison. Rock protest songs work best when they can be appropriated for any kind of campaign, and "Killing in the Name" is in many ways a "Times They are a-Changin'" for the grunge generation. Neither Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder wrote songs with a public, rather than private focus, and in Rage, the protest song - still alive and well in rap - made a welcome come back.

Yes, Sony are a multinational, yet it's always been the case that major labels have recorded outsider artists. There's no greater capitalist than Richard Branson, but his Virgin records found room not just for the Sex Pistols, but genuine outsiders like Robert Wyatt. Labels like Rough Trade, Creation and Factory, may have had a different philosophy from the majors, but you only have to read the stories of their various original demises to see that its creative freedom that matters, not corporate structure. For a time in the 90s, some of the biggest selling bands were global phenomenon like Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boy, NWA and Pearl Jam, rather than the Whitneys and Mariahs that had once dominated the sales charts.

At the end of the day, we'll always just music on what we hear - not anything else - and that a 17 year old song can still upset the armchair listener, but also inspire 500,000 downloads in a week, shows that its as great a track now as when I first heard it. Indie purists (and I've been one) may ask why it can't be something more obscure or on a minor label that is used as the jump-leads for kickstarting this kind of protest, but I can't see the navel gazing music of so much contemporary indie having the sheer bravado to make a difference. In a couple of years time, we might find a whole new range of poltically inclined bands who were inspired by this one instance. Maybe it doesn't quite stick it to "the man", but in giving us a different narrative, it reminds us of how music has the ability to surprise us.

As someone who is not immune to writing the odd protest song myself, it made me go back and have a listen to "Wonderful Products" that I recorded last year.You can't even buy it, just download for free.

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