The Political Power of Music: in conversation with Dave Randall

Colin Revolting speaks to musician and activist Dave Randall about his experience of ‘mixing pop and politics’ and the journey which led him to write Sound System –  The Political Power of Music. Interview transcribed by William Cleary.

What was the journey that led you to write Sound System?

I felt, when I was a young musician, that I was hearing all these incredible stories of music and politics coming together. Be it the story of Beethoven furiously scribbling out the dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte, or Rock Against Racism, or stories of the early days of hip-hop. All these different stories, but I couldn’t find them gathered together in a single book. There were several books that I thought were very good and written from a left-wing perspective, like Frank Kofsky’s Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (1970), Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art (1963) and the works of Sidney Finkelstein – an American Marxist writing in the late 1940s. But these are all quite old and tended to focus on a specific genre. More recent books that impressed me include How Music Works by David Byrne, and The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. But these newer books either side-step politics or come from a liberal rather than a Marxist perspective. So I felt that a book was missing. Since I didn’t know of anyone else writing it, I thought I’d give it a go.

So as you’ve indicated, you discovered a lot of the stories through your life and research.

Through my research or through my own experiences. Most of this book has come about quite organically from the conversations I’ve had with the people I’ve met while I’ve been on tour and some experiences I had before I was a touring musician. The book begins with me finding political inspiration as a teenager when I heard The Specials AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela.

How did that happen?

I was working a guitar shop and also roadie-ing for a local band called The Hamsters, so I was already immersed in music. One day I found myself at a festival, and the DJ dropped Free Nelson Mandela. I had no idea who Mandela was, but I knew by the end of the first chorus that I wanted him to be free. I include that story in the book because it not only awoke my interest in international politics; it also planted the seed of an idea that maybe ordinary people could collectively change the world. That was a very significant thing for me.

The next experience which had a big impact, which I also talk about in the book, was several years later. Apartheid had fallen and Faithless were invited to tour Mandela’s South Africa in 1997. This was incredibly exciting for me – to have the opportunity to tour and celebrate this newly liberated rainbow nation. But at the dinner organised by the promoter to welcome the band, I asked the woman next to me what her job was. She gave me this strange, slightly mischievous smile and then said, “My job is to get 18-25 year olds to smoke.” It turned out that the whole tour was very visibly sponsored by Camel cigarettes. I realised in that moment that if you want to understand the way that culture operates politically, you need to dig deeper than the surface level. It made me realise that this question is complicated and layered.

This reminds me one of the key things about you writing this book which is that you are both a political activist and a professional musician.

That’s one of the reasons I felt that I should have a go at writing this book. Often, books that talk about music and politics focus on the high points – the best progressive artists, or the best moments in progressive political culture. So you’ll have a whole book about Bob Dylan or Nina Simone or Rock Against Racism. This is very important: I recommend many of these books, but what I wanted to do was to look at music in the round. Even though mine is a short book, I wanted a broader perspective, both culturally and historically, and to acknowledge that music is a weapon that can be picked up by every side the struggles that have shaped human society. So I talk about examples going right back to the beginnings of class society, when musicians were commissioned by the ruling class, through to the use of music by the dictators of the 20th century. And the way that it’s used now, both in advertising and in formats like talent shows, such as X Factor and The Voice, which I find inherently troubling.

Between hearing The Specials and touring South Africa, you reached some political conclusions. When was that, and what were they?

That’s true, though it’s not something I talk about in the book. I skip through those years, the years when I played in a string of semi-professional bands. I moved from Southend-on-Sea up to London, I think in 1994, so the same year Mandela was elected. I was already bumping into members of political organisations including the Socialist Workers Party. I think I went to the Marxism Festival for the first time around then. So I was becoming quite interested in left-wing and radical politics, and that interest steadily deepened. As I got older, and the more I toured, the more I became persuaded that a Marxist analysis of the world is the most accurate and useful.

One of the chapters focuses mainly on Palestine, and the cultural boycott of Israel.

Cultural boycotts are one of the most contentious tactics when it comes to music and politics. I first became interested in the politics of that region when Faithless were invited to do a gig in Tel Aviv in the late 1990s. We did the gig, had a great time and then had a day off. I decided to spend that day off visiting Gaza to see what life was like for Palestinians. The experience had a big impact on me and I went away more determined to find out more. So there’s another example, I suppose, of how those early years of touring made me think about politics in a deeper way.

The people around you in music at the time, what were they like politically?

Bands tend to be somewhat split, politically speaking. Most of Faithless were sympathetic to my left-wing perspective on events. Most of the band agreed with me that the Iraq war was a bad idea, most agreed with me that we should support Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR), and most agreed with me that the situation in Palestine was such that we should support the cultural boycott of Israel. Maxi Jazz, the lead vocalist, consistently supported my political initiatives. He performed with me in Trafalgar Square for the Stop the War Coalition; he did a video for LMHR; and he appeared on the Freedom for Palestine song that I produced in 2011. But one of the other leading band members, and indeed the management of Faithless, disagreed with me on most of these issues, and in the end that became a problem. It affected the quality of our relationship. But that happens in life. I felt it was important to do the right thing, as I perceived it – to stick to my principles. In the book I allude to the fact that Faithless’ management made it clear to me that some of my political opinions were unwelcome, in what I felt was becoming an increasingly corporate-oriented operation. In other words, they were signing sponsorship deals with Tesco, Fiat, Coca Cola… and a guitarist banging on about Palestine was not part of their script.

The situation in bands which you describe, I think is connected to any group of friends or workmates. There is the most reactionary, and the most radical person. So the challenge is about how to win the people in between.

In most of the bands I’ve been in, I’ve been the most left-wing member, but I think I’ve won the approval of most of my colleagues. The trouble is, the person who’s more right-wing is often the one with the power. Well, it varies… When I was working with Sinead O’Connor, she was very good politically. She was always going out of her way to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement or BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions). So there was an example of someone who was effectively my boss being close to me politically.

Dave Randall on stage at Glastonbury Festival.

Looking at Rock Against Racism as an example, one thing I have been trying to explain in my own writing is that RAR wasn’t just about music. It hooked into a subculture.

What strikes those of us who weren’t there at the time, is that RAR managed to combine a very clear left wing perspective with a wonderful sense of creative open-mindedness. You get the sense that there was a creative whirlpool in the RAR office, with all sorts of ideas feeding in, and then becoming manifest in art, in design, and of course in music. It was this very clever combination of clear politics and tactics with kind of a hands-off celebration of ‘let’s all try stuff out’. I don’t think that’s been emulated fully ever since and I think it should be.

That comes to what seems to be one of your main wishes in the book, that idea of calling for activists to engage with culture.

I think there are at least three main strands in my book. One of them is a call to action. I’m encouraging not only musicians but also music lovers to do what they can. It will be different depending on who you are, where you are and what you do, but I encourage people to get involved with political activism, because what we do matters. What we do within the cultural sphere matters, and I have some concrete suggestions in my penultimate chapter, the Rebel Music Manifesto. These range from defending local venues, right through to putting pressure on the world’s biggest pop stars to do the right things politically, which you can more easily do now than 20 years ago, thanks to social media.

The second slightly subtler theme is to look at culture and music history through a Marxist lens, in order to persuade the reader that the Marxist lens is a really useful one. I think it makes sense, more than other ways of interpreting the world. That analysis is the one that really helps us to understand some quite complicated situations.

The third theme is that even though all styles of music will be politically contested, popular music still offers us some sort of window on the world and on our own lives. Although people try to pull music in this or that direction, you can still see certain universal truths, coming through. The universal truth of our times, I argue, is a sense of alienation, of dissatisfaction, of loneliness; a sense that we’ve drifted apart, not only from nature and each other, but even from a sense of ourselves. I have a chapter entitled Unity Lost in which I explore this. I think that what a lot of popular music tells us is rather worrying. What it tells me is that we need to change the world.

Can you give an illustration of popular music doing that?

I look at the top ten highest grossing songs of all time, huge hits, mostly from the twentieth century, then I add my little survey of the Billboard Hot 100 highest selling hits from the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, and my own experiences: the songs that were most successful for the artists I’ve worked with. What I find is that a surprisingly large number of these songs, by far the biggest minority, have as subject matter this sense of dissatisfaction and unease. It’s remarkable how many popular songs say something essentially similar to the refrain from the famous Radiohead hit Creep: “I don’t belong here.”

What it suggests to me is that the way that society is organised at the moment is letting most people down. We don’t have enough quality time to spend with each other. We’re working too many jobs; we’re too stressed out. There’s so much wealth but it’s all stored in the Swiss bank accounts of a tiny percentage at the top. It’s no wonder the rest of us are stressed about how we’ll pay the bills, put food on the table, and so on. It’s a desperately sad situation because there’s enough wealth and resources on this planet to go around, enough fantastic technology and human potential. But all this needs to be organised in a different way: we need wealth to be redistributed and we need to arrive at a place where people have an opportunity to enjoy this weird thing called life. I’m going off track, but what a lot of popular songs suggest is that capitalism is letting us down.

What sort of response have you been getting at the public book launches you have had?

I’ve found that at the book launches and music and literary festivals I’m drawing quite a broad crowd. Most are music fans, some are academics or students, and a few are political activists or one sort or another. Many are young. What has been interesting is that the left-wing perspectives I promote are always well received. It reminds me that although political activist meetings are sometimes disappointingly small, the problem isn’t our ideas. Those ideas resonate with a much broader audience than the one we routinely reach. The question therefore, is how we can break out of our routines and find innovative ways to present our ideas to new audiences.

Sound System – The Political Power of Music is published by Pluto Press.

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