We are living in historic times. Revolutionary fervour has swept the Middle East leaving western audiences anxiously glued to their television sets watching inspiring, evocative and at times heart-breaking visuals.
Over the course of the last month we’ve watched Egyptian protestors desperate for food and employment wrestle control of their country from a stubborn ruling elite. We continue to see uprisings in Tunisia, Syria and Yemen, while tragically in Bahrain we hear tales of mass murder as protesters are remorselessly gunned down en-masse. The Libyan crisis speaks for itself; protest, blood shed, civil war, an enigmatic dictator and International intervention.
Out of great strife, great artistry is born; as musicians struggle to articulate and conceptualize the injustices of their age. Revolution is a key theme in music history, whether it’s artistic reflection, subtle inspiration or an urgent and essential rallying cry for change; music and revolt go hand in hand.
But where does the electric guitar fit into all of this?
Many of the West’s great protest songs were written by pop and folk singers; when unemployment engulfed America following the great depression it was Woody Guthrie who picked up the acoustic guitar and sang “This Land Is Your Land” to the picket lines.
Folk music proved perfect for protest, anyone one could pick up an acoustic guitar and start a mass sing along to “Blowing In The Wind”, “We Shall Overcome” or “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag”. It’s next to impossible for a rock band with eighteen amps and a whole raft of effects pedals to play at a hurriedly arranged march.
Similarly much of the protest music legacy is owned by black artists; faced with subjugation and segregation the pop and r’n’b artists of ‘the 50s and ‘60s became the authentic voice of social upheaval.
No rock band could hope to match the dignity of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come”, the heart-breaking grace of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or the raw hatred and disgust of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”. After all it’s not easy to convey genuine outrage when you’re indulging in an ultra-technical guitar solo.
Despite this guitar music has played a pivotal role in documenting, inspiring and leading the revolutionary charge. Here is Guitar Planet’s tribute to some of the great moments when rock and revolution intertwined.
The Vietnam War tipped a fractious America, already gripped by radical social upheaval, over the edge igniting the flames of societal revolution. The war launched by the Democrat leader and daring social reformer Linden B Johnson left an entire generation of voters feeling betrayed and infuriated causing both peaceful and violent protest to erupt.
As of 1969 no artist had captured this notion of a dream being crushed, a truth being distorted and a people being denied; until Sunday August 18th at the Woodstock Peace Festival when Jimi Hendrix took to the stage to perform “Star Spangled Banner”.
Hendrix played a warped, hideous version of the American national anthem. It captured a nation in decay, as each note strained to ring out it was as though Hendrix had poured a vat of acid upon his beloved nation’s flag. It was a perfect moment; he had turned the harmony of “Land Of The Free” into a grotesque discordant mess. Without saying a single word Hendrix left 500,000 people asking: what has become of our great nation?
Some question whether Hendrix had any political intent at all, and his performance of “God Save The Queen” at the Isle Of Wight Festival would suggest he didn’t, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Intentional or not, Hendrix captured a confusing and deeply troubling moment of moral soul searching in American social history in a way that no wordsmith could hope to match.
Hendrix did come out firmly against war with the blistering “Machine Gun”, a lyrically simplistic track whose wiry relentless soloing proved inescapable. The Jimi Hendrix Experience wasn’t the only guitar band to get in on the act. Creedance Clear Water Revival captured not only anti-war sentiment but also the divide between the classes with “Fortunate Son”.
This booming sun drenched track proved a hit with the armed forces as it detailed the thoughts of a draftee sent off to war by rich old men while their sons sat at home in the lap of luxury. This theme has persisted throughout the years and was once again captured my Armenian metals giant System Of A Down who screamed “Why Do We Always Send The Poor?” over a beautiful arrangement that contrasted brutal riffs with delicious groves on “B.Y.O.B”.
Sometimes the heavy hand of history passes us all by, and in those moments the world’s greatest rock stars have turned their hands to social documentation; attempting to capture and define a moment, rather than to openly inspire or endorse it.
On May 4th 1970 the Ohio National Guard opened fire on the unarmed students protestors at Kent State University, killing four. This tragedy inspired Neil Young to pen the brilliantly matter of fact “Ohio”; a beautiful track whose emotional weight is delivered by a serene but resolute plummeting guitar solo. The Beach Boys were also moved to pick up the guitars for the thundering blues-rock of the misguided “Student Demonstration Time”.
Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention were moved to prayer in 1965 by the brutality of Los Angeles’s Watts Riot. The warped psychedelic guitar tones of “Trouble Every Day” provided the perfect surreal backdrop for Zappa to detail the carnage of the riots and police brutality that turned a city upside down leaving 34 dead, 1,032 injured, and 3,438 arrested.
‘77’s summer of Punk gave rise to a new cultural revolution as anti-authority, anarchistic ideals took hold. The Sex Pistols put style before substance on the genre’s conceptual centrepieces “God Save The Queen” and “Anarchy In The UK”. While the more thoughtful Joe Strummer used the Nazi repression as an allegory for encroaching state oppression on “Clampdown”, The Clash’s irresistible march.
The stringently Republican Ramones captured the very essence of protest on their last great track “Bonzo Goes To Bitberg”. This blistering slice of rebellion was not the subject of intellectual thought or reflection; this was one Jewish man’s (Joey Ramones) reaction to seeing the President he voted for (Ronald Reagan) visiting the graves of the German SS. In many ways it was the very essence of protest; instantaneous, aggressive and immediate, it was one man’s disgusted gag reflex reacting to tactless geo-politics.
The Dead Kennedys used their ominously choppy riffage to react to the election of Jerry Brown as the new governor of California. On the gloriously absurd “California Uber Alles” they lead the revolutionary charge against the oppressive and entirely fictional hippy liberal dictatorship of the future.
Revolutions aren’t always benign. Even protests with the best of intentions can usher in horrific violence and brutal dictatorships. The peoples of Egypt and the Middle East may be wise to consider those tracks that highlight the potential perils of revolution.
Crass’s sensational “Bloody Revolutions” followed in Jimi Hendrix’s footsteps, this time using the effects pedal to turn La Marseilles into a crooked nightmarish national anthem. Crass spoke for the voiceless masses supporting neither governments nor revolutionaries, they decried violence and killing no matter the supposed cause. They rejected intellectual theories and reminded us that the new regime may be more brutal than the last, and that populism is no substitute for peace and justice:
“But what about those people who don't want your new restrictions?
Those that disagree with you and have their own convictions?
You say they've got it wrong because they don't agree with you
So when the revolution comes you'll have to run them through”
Or as The Who so succinctly put it on their brilliant precautionary tale “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss”.
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