Politics in Music: You Say You Want a Streetfight?
by J. Andrew Zalucky
For the first installment of our “Politics in Music” series, let’s look to those two essential pillars of rock music as we know it: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones- and to that most chaotic, tumultuous year- 1968.
Of the many topics that American schools fail to teach their students about is of the political upheavals and radicalism of the 1960’s. Many younger Americans fail to realize just how instrumental a year like 1968 was in the history of the United States, not to mention the rest of the industrialized world. Unfortunately, most people under the age of 40 merely recognize the era as a time where “everyone was a hippy or whatever” or “everyone was getting high yo, that’s what it was all about!” If you find yourself in this category, perhaps a little refresher on the year is due.
In terms of American politics, the year began with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam by the forces supporting the communist North. While the American forces technically “won” the ground battles associated with the offensive, the well-coordinated campaign cast a final pall of doubt over America’s involvement in Vietnam and the apparent quagmire only served to add to the list of grievances expressed by the anti-war movement. Back home, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. set off decades of racial anger and resentment which exploded into riots in almost every major American city. 1968 would also see the splintering of the Liberal coalition in the United States, mostly over the issue of Civil Rights and the emergence New Left radicalism. These divisions within the Democratic party were on clear display as riots occurred outside the Democratic National Convention. With the assassination of Robert Kennedy that summer and the announcement by President Lyndon Johnson that he would not run for re-election, the party was hard-pressed to find a unifying figure. The election that November would see the reactionary and racist 3rd-party candidate George Wallace sweep the southern states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia and Republican Richard Nixon winning the White House.
Across the ocean in Europe, 1968 would see widespread anti-war protests and the growing insecurity and fractures within the post-war political consensus. Student protests in London, Belgrade, Warsaw, and Madrid would have been enough to make the year a remarkable one for civil disobedience- but what most people remember is the massive student revolt and general strike in Paris. Partly leftist, partly anarchist, and partly spontaneous (as these events tend to be) the protests brought France to such a standstill that De Gaulle almost sent the military in from the provinces to contain the potential revolution in Paris. It’s also worth noting the right-wing cue that took place in Athens in 1967 and the consolidation of the junta’s power in 1968. Events also took place in Ireland that would lead to what people now refer to colloquially as “the troubles”.
And of course, possibly the most inspirational moment of 1968 would be the uprising in Prague in opposition to Soviet-style Marxist-Leninism, in favor of what Czech leader Alexander Dubček referred to as “an advanced socialist society on sound economic foundations … a socialism that corresponds to the historical democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia, in accordance with the experience of other communist parties” along with free expression and freedom of movement- otherwise known as “Socialism with a human face”, a concept members of the western socialist-left had been working towards for decades. It was not be so, as the Red Army marched into Prague and set up a puppet leader who reversed virtually all the reforms set-out during the “Prague Spring”.
To some, it felt like the beginning of a new era of utopian revolution, to others it looked like modern civilization was ready to tear itself apart.
Get the picture?
From the background of sociocultural events came some of the most influential rock music ever produced. There are of course dozens of lesser-known acts one could mention, but for our purposes, the two biggest acts in rock-n-roll history will do. Let’s start with the Rolling Stones and their classic Street Fighting Man (from Beggar’s Banquet).
The song carries a message of youthful ambition and a desire to be present in the social movements of the time:
Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
Cause summers here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
But what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock n roll band
Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man
If you care about politics and the action it takes to create change in a society, and if you’re a young person (or if you’re older and haven’t piled enough self-pity and bitterness on yourself to forget what it’s like), the desire to join in movement is a very strong one.
But is street violence really the answer? Is it not important for a movement to be mindful, not only of its ends, but its means as well? For that we have another famous song:
Revolution could be considered a rejoinder in a way to Street Fighting Man in its message of moderation and non-violence. By this time, The Beatles had ceased to be the “fab-four” pop group of their early years and were in a full embrace of psychedelic experimentation. But in this instance, they finally gave their songwriting prowess a social message:
You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know you can count me out
Don’t you know it’s gonna be alright
Many on the far-left thought of this peaceful message as an out-of-touch betrayal, and I suppose I can see what they mean. But perhaps its this very hard-line impulse that led to the disintegration of the more radical movements of the 60’s and eventual victory of a different series of social revolutions in 1989 that brought on the end of the Cold War.
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow
As with all movements, there will always be the radicals and moderates- one side conciliatory and opportunistic, the other purist and self-righteous, and sometimes even exchanging one mode of action for the other, regardless of ideology.