Dorian Lynskey is a music writer for The Guardian, and over the years has contributed to publications such as Word and Blender. His book 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs was published by Faber in 2011. He will be appearing at Liberty Hall on Saturday (8.30pm).
SK: 33 Revolutions Per Minute is a great book. How long had the idea been clattering around your head, and did you find it a difficult book to write?
DL: In 2004-5 I covered political music stories in Kenya, Israel and Ukraine, which gave me the idea to write a book about protest songs around the world today but I couldn’t find a publisher. One publisher, however, suggested he’d like to read a history of protest songs. At first that seemed way too big a topic – and it’s still a big book – but one day the 33 Revolutions idea popped into my head as a way of organising the material and making it accessible both for the reader and for me as a writer. For me music is inextricably linked with my political awakening at the age of 16 so I loved the idea of exploring how songs introduce listeners to political ideas and events, and I realised that the book could serve the same purpose. It’s not just about the records but the historical context.
SK: Its sweep is huge, but it must have been a painstaking editing process, surely you could have had a second, and third volume?
DL: It was surprisingly easy to choose the 33 songs, although I do now wish I’d been able to deal with feminism in music prior to Riot Grrrl, and perhaps Irish music. Other than that, it felt I was able to cover what I wanted to without making it too diffuse. But the first draft was about 50,000 words longer and cutting that material was hard. But then who wants to read a 1000+ pages? [I do – SK]
SK:How did your love of music begin, and were you quite acutely aware, for example, as a teenager, at the radiant, and sometimes strained relationship between politics and music?
DL:The first song I was ever obsessed with was Rent by Pet Shop Boys when I was 13. It can’t quite explain why – it just flicked a switch that turned ordinary curiosity about the Top 40 into a lifelong passion. Then when I was 16 and thinking more about politics I had Public Enemy, Ice Cube, New Model Army, etc – a little later there was Riot Grrrl and Rage Against the Machine. It always felt to me that music was a great gateway into other things, including politics. While writing the book I was reminded that the first time I grasped the concept of nuclear war was while listening to the 12″ of Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. That’s a pretty heavy revelation to get from a pop song, let alone one that was number one for nine weeks. I think lots of people have that experience, whether it’s hearing about apartheid through Free Nelson Mandela or racial politics in the US via hip hop. It didn’t seem problematic to me then – it just felt like one of the things pop music can do. I think it’s a shame that younger listeners don’t have as many mainstream artists who can make them excited about politics and dissent.
SK:Folk music has always harnessed protest, and the oral tradition handed down, honouring stories that have gone before, but which remain topical. There are so many different kinds of protests, and preoccupations within protest – is that what you have found with your research?
DL: That’s a very broad question but yes, it’s the variety that keeps it interesting. Some songs are great because they’re so specific and describe a particular person or incident, but other are equally great because they’re vague and universally applicable.
SK: Hip-hop harnessed my imagination quite early on, and I am still drawn to it, the love of language, the verve. Do you think it has gone away from its early touchstone of social change, and a restless kind of need to speak about what is genuinely happening on the streets?
DL: Well hip hop started off “stupid” so to speak with Rappers Delight, didn’t touch on politics until The Message, and only really had a big political phase circa 1988-92. I think that’s the period that people get nostalgic about, and not just because the music was great. It’s tempting to fetishise the “sound of the streets” and want it to be socially conscious but there were factors at play, from the popularity of the Nation of Islam to old-fashioned bandwagon-jumping, that don’t exist now. Even Mos Def and Talib Kweli, when they first arrived, were marginal by comparison. You can still find political lyrics coming from artists as big as Jay-Z, Kanye and Lil Wayne but they’re not central to their identity in the same way they were to Public Enemy. But there are ways of exploring moral complexity and social problems without self-identifying as political. I think Kendrick Lamar’s last album engages with the problems of growing up poor and tempted by a life of crime with far more elegance and empathy than NWA ever did – he just doesn’t have a song like Fuck Tha Police to rally around.
SK: I really enjoyed the recent film Good Vibrations, not only because of Terri Hooley’s boundless enthusiasm for music, but because it was such a love-letter to those people in Northern Ireland who needed music to protest a life outside of the Troubles, to say that Belfast, or Derry, or wherever, should not only be synonymous with violence, unrest and pain – but creativity, fun, and good music – and The Undertones being played twice by John Peel – that “teenage dreams so hard to beat” still existed in the North. Music becomes a life force, a saviour – another example of art outweighing a lot of other concerns. What do you think?
DL: Absolutely. I tried to make clear in the book – but perhaps it could be clearer – that I was writing about explicit protest songs but there are countless other ways in which music can reflect its political context and respond to its listener’s needs, whether for escapism or catharsis. That was the message of the disco chapter.
SK: You have always been a very literary music writer – what is your relationship like to literature, and who are some of your favourite writers?
DL: Thank you! I’m not sure I see myself that way but I do try to keep the language and ideas interesting and I did study English Literature at university. Off the top of my head I like Philip Roth, F Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad, Harold Pinter, Ibsen, Shelley, Larkin, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Dos Passos, Milan Kundera and Lorrie Moore. In terms of cultural journalism, Joan Didion, Robert Christgau, Jon Savage and Greil Marcus are all good at seeing the big picture as well as the details. And the biggest influence on the writing of 33rpm was Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland. He has a knack of making you feel as if you’re present at key historical events, his research is faultless and he has a sharp sense of humour.
SK: What do you think about musicians who say they don’t see songwriting as a “real” form of writing? For me, some of the greatest writers have been songwriters, the best language has its own rhythm, its own music – what do you think?
DL: Of course songwriting is real writing, just as poetry is. I don’t know why anyone would say it wasn’t. To pick a very recent example, the lyrics on the new Vampire Weekend album are as sharp and evocative as a novel.
SK: Where do you think protest music is right now? In terms of popular culture, you feel that in the sixties and seventies, the trickling into the mainstream seemed more real, more alive – now it seems more fragmented. Who are our great young protest singers now? Who are our brilliant minds in pop music?
DL: This is a topic for the event and too big for me to address here!
SK: I believe that David Margolick’s Strange Fruit was an interesting touchstone for your book – was it because of its placing the song so carefully in its political context, and its exploration of the variety of reactions? What was the most surprising thing for you, reading that book, and how do you think it has informed your own?
DL: That was the book that made me realise you could tell a huge story about a period in history by starting with just one song. If not for that I’m not sure I would have believed my book could work. And Strange Fruit was a natural starting point for me because of the tense collision of nightclub entertainment and brutally vivid subject matter.
SK: You formed a band when you were younger, what kind of music was it, was it based around a kind of incoherent protesting, or more coherent?
DL: Well we thought it was coherent! We were called Vida Loca – after the Love & Rockets comic book, not the Ricky Martin song that came along later – and our demo tape was called Apathy Kills. We wrote songs about the Iraq war, the LA riots and other early 90s topics. It was all rather gauche, and we shouldn’t have tried rapping, but it was fun and well-intentioned and I’m still quite proud of the way we used samples, albeit in a very primitive way.
SK: Who have been some of your favourite musicians to interview, and why?
DL: I’ve been lucky enough to conduct multiple interviews with Neil Tennant, Bono, Wayne Coyne, John Grant and the Manic Street Preachers. They’re all very different and some of them probably hate each other but each one is funny, clever, gracious and full of theories and ideas. It’s actually hard not to come away with a great interview. But most musicians are pleasant and interesting and some of those that aren’t, like Morrissey, are entertaining in their hostility.
SK: What are you watching, reading, and listening?
DL: Reading: Patrimony by Philip Roth
Watching: Mad Men, Parks and Recreation
Listening: New albums by Vampire Weekend, John Grant, Pet Shop Boys and These New Puritans. I’m also in a big Paul Simon phase.