33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day by Dorian Lynskey (New York: Ecco, 2011. 688 pp)
Dorian Lynskey is primarily a music writer for the Guardian. Previously, Lynskey worked as a freelancer for Q, The Word, Empire, Blender, and the Observer. 33 Revolutions per Minute is Lynskey’s first book. Read Lynskey’s blog at http://33revolutionsperminute.wordpress.com/.
A Pet Named Peeves
One of my wife’s biggest pet peeves occurs when I mumble meaningless words to the melody of a song. For her, if you don’t know the lyrics, don’t sing the song. I, sadly, find lyrics difficult to remember.
Since I play guitar, my ears focus on the music first. I can hum textured instrumental melodies much quicker than I can sing a chorus. In fact, sometimes lyrics aren’t necessary. Sigur Rós, one of my favorite bands, sings partly in Icelandic and partly in a made-up language with indiscernible results. I like them, first and foremost, for their beautiful musical melodies.
In short, my mind wanders more toward the composition and less toward the message.
This disposition, however, orients me away from a close understanding of an artist’s true message. Of course, many musicians let the music portray the message, but on the whole, the lyric provides a framework for a musician’s message. Some sing strictly about relationships, other lyricists yearn to escape these mortal coils, and a select few utilize the lyric for revolution.
The protest song becomes the body of a countercultural dogma. With 33 Revolutions per Minute, Dorian Lynskey chronicles the history of the protest song, from Billie Holiday to Green Day. During these 70 years, the protest song exists as a counterweight to a rather tumultuous period in global politics.
With a storytelling style, Lynskey cites 33 songs – one per chapter – as the threads of the protest movement throughout the years.
Lynskey often interjects fun stories amongst the typically depressing battle protest singers engage with the status quo. Speaking of Country Joe McDonald, he writes,
“They returned to their hotel after the second concert on Saturday night, with Joe carrying a human skull, a gift from a fan. ‘I got into the elevator and this guy looked at me and said, “I fought in Vietnam for guys like you.” And he hit me once in the face and broke my nose. I remember thinking, “Throw the skull at him!” And then I thought, “No, it will break and I really like it”’” (101).
Additionally, Lynskey spends necessary time exegeting the famous moments in the history of music. Referencing Woodstock, he proclaims,
“Another key performance was Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ without a doubt the most eloquent instrumental protest song rock has ever produced. Hendrix didn’t so much cover the national anthem as napalm it, but the wrenching eloquence of his playing made it into a sonic Rorschach blot, allowing each listener to decide what it represented. He was either putting to the torch the failed experiment of America or evoking the birth pangs of a new, less pernicious brand of patriotism: either the Death Society of the beautiful shipwreck” (106).
The Better I Know the Artist, the Better the Chapter
While the book, on the whole, remains interesting throughout, the artists of which I am a fan contained the most interesting sections. In particular, I found U2 especially fascinating. Lynskey describes them:
“The members of U2 were never much good at being punks. Not enough vinegar. Coming together at school in Dublin in September 1976, they were, and remain, an alliance of divergent, though mutually sympathetic, personalities. Bono has the silver tongue of a raconteur, the taut, jabbing body language of a retired boxer, and the focused charisma of a politician, fervently convinced of the power of words to change minds. Guitarist the Edge is as still and softly spoken as a monk, except when his eyes crinkle slightly in concentration or mirth. Bassist Adam Clayton has the louche bearing of a disgraced aristocrat, and a perpetual air of mild and mysterious amusement. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. tends to lean forward with earnest intensity, punctuating his speech with apologetic grimaces: he is U2’s restraining anchor, the equal and opposite force to Bono’s grand gestures” (370).
Compared to many artists referenced in 33 Revolutions per Minute, U2 take a unique path. Where most are self-proclaimed Marxists or vigilant protestors, U2 find protest through faith:
“In 1978 they began holding Bible meetings, which the Edge compares to Rasta reasoning sessions ‘but without the weed.’ This gradually brought them into contact with a radical Christian group called Shalom, who believed in miracles and speaking in tongues. After Boy (1980), with its themes of faith and loss, the meetings became more intense and some Shalom members pressured Bono, the Edge, and Mullen to abandon U2 and devote themselves to the faith. Mullen left the meetings, while Bono and the Edge announced they were leaving the band. Their formidable manager Paul McGuinness put the counterargument: ‘Do you really think you’re going to be more effective by going back to your kind of normal lives? Or do you think taking this opportunity to be a great rock ‘n’ roll band is, in the long term, going to have more value?’ Bono and the Edge decided to distance themselves from Shalom, and reconcile their faith with their music” (371).
The Death of a Protest Artist
Of course, many musicians live and die by the political process. It all begins with the unquenching belief that a song will change the world; it ends with despair, pessimism, and, occasionally, death. Billy Bragg, a left wing activist and rock musician finds a balance when Lynskey interviews him,
“As he talks over a bowl of chips in a bookshop café, what seems unusual is not so much his unfussy eloquence as his unquashable optimism. Unlike many political songwriters, he does not sigh or wince at the memory of compromises and setbacks. He long ago accepted that political progress is won by inches, not leaps and bounds” (400).
Although 33 Revolutions per Minute is an enjoyable read, it is not for everyone. First, it is unapologetically partisan. Those who acknowledge a right wing background will find frustration with Lynskey’s us-versus-them writing style especially evident when he states,
“Bush was, by some reckonings, the worst president the country had ever had: the architect of two interminable, unpopular wars, the man who allowed 2005’s Hurricane Katrina to become not just a tragedy but a national disgrace, and a divisive ideological bully” (522).
Those left-leaning individuals, though, will enjoy the book. With unabashed politics and excellent songwriting, most protest singers have furthered the industry in undisputable ways.
Will the Revolution Be Written?
For me, 33 Revolutions per Minute kept me entertained but seemed monotonous at times. While the cover suggests that each chapter is devoted to one song and one artist, Lynskey uses each chapter to discuss genres as a whole and their relationship to the political realm. Moreover, in an attempt to touch every genre interacting with politics, Lynskey elaborates on genres for which he writes with less enthusiasm.
Nevertheless, 33 Revolutions per Minute reminds me of lyrical value. Since I too often focus on the music instead of the lyric, Lynskey’s tome reminds me of the life-changing influence lyrics possess. While the politics don’t bother me, I am positive they will bother some. If you are a fan of music, lyrics, and the far left, I recommend this book.