A review of Dave Randall, Sound System: The Political Power of Music, Pluto Press/Left Book Club (2017), £12.99
The inter-relationship of music and politics, and their immersion into each other’s spaces, has been a source of inspiration for many great writers, from revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky, who wrote that “artistic creativity, by its very nature, lags the other modes of a man’s spirit”, and contemporary historians like Alex Ross. The latest contributor to this field is the musician Dave Randall, a guitarist and producer with over two decades of experience of and success within the music industry, most famously as part of UK dance outfit Faithless. Randall brings his first-hand knowledge of the industry to the page with an unerring eye for detail and an unsparing view of the contradictions of the music business. In that respect, Sound System shares many similarities with the recent spate of musicians’ autobiographies such as Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth and Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, detailing the rigours of working bands making their way from the underground scene to the fringes of mainstream popularity.
But the sub-title of Randall’s book—The Political Power of Music—emphasises the political and contested nature of music itself. Randall skilfully mixes elements of autobiography with theoretical discussion, drawing from a wide variety of sources, from the philosopher Theodor Adorno to Jerry Dammers of The Specials. This is the only book about pop music dedicated to Antonio Gramsci that I have ever come across. Randall displays a high level of critical engagement, with his confident handling of an early chapter entitled “Culture”. Delving into the “high” versus “low” art debate, he details the Frankfurt School’s dismissal of popular culture, the Beatles’ popularity in the USSR, the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, and the migration of meaning that particular songs can undertake: Portugal’s entry to the 1974 Eurovision song contest became the anthem of the Portuguese “Carnation Revolution”. Despite finishing last it was chosen by the people of Portugal itself to signal the start of the revolution against Marcello Caetano. Conversely, the innocuous “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie Small was a weapon of terror in the hands of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. If nothing else I must thank Dave Randall for introducing me to an intriguing book, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, by the English avant-garde composer and Maoist Cornelius Cardew. Its theoretic framework makes for a rather austere reading experience, in contrast to Randall’s smoothly executed style.
Central chapters of the book refer to some of more familiar protest figures, such as Nigerian rock pioneer and provocateur Fela Kuti, and the Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, whose songs were the soundtrack to the movement that swept Salvador Allende to power. Jara himself was brutally murdered during the coup by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. These references place the book closer to the orbit of other books on music and politics such as Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute. Randall wisely allows these great figures and their achievements to speak for themselves. In the chapter “A Short Musical History of Neoliberalism” Randall ties together the neoliberal assault with the right’s various crackdowns on collective musical experiences, such as the UK Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which sought to outlaw gatherings of 100 or more people and music described as “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” (p92). In his staunch defence of rave culture and dance music he also pays attention to the ways that capitalism has eroded collective enjoyment:
Music and music events help to console and abate our feelings of alienation. With the spread and impact of neoliberalism, this became increasingly important to growing numbers. Electronic dance music now has a global audience of millions and festivals have boomed precisely because they still offer respite—albeit temporary and corporate branded—from those feelings of atomisation, dislocation and boredom (p95).
The chapter “Star Gazing” takes on the subject of attempts by the ruling class to restrict or co-opt popular music, detailing everything from the feudal censorship of the flat fifth or tritone, a dissonant interval that was dubbed “diabolus in musica”, or the devil in music, and the cult of celebrity that surrounded 18th century composer Franz Liszt. Randall also discusses Beyoncé’s Black Panther-inspired performance of “Formation” at the 2016 Super Bowl and the controversy that surrounded it. Randall rightly states that “when one of the world’s biggest pop stars gets political in this way, a space is momentarily forced open in the mainstream for debate”, but we crucially can’t leave this to multi-millionaire megastars.
The last three chapters describe Randall turning theory into practice as his band Faithless first discuss and then take the decision to join the Boycott Sanction Divestment (BDS) movement against Israel in 2010 (p139). He also makes increasingly political statements on TV appearances, and writes a campaign song called “Freedom for Palestine” that gained huge media attention and widespread acclaim. At a time when the cultural boycott has come under sustained attack, Randall’s passionate articulation of his principled position is more than welcome. His chapter on the music of the Arab revolutions is another significant and necessary addition to the historical record, preserving the voices of those musicians who demonstrate the continuity of struggle, from Egyptian anti-colonial song-writer Sayed Darwish to contemporary Tunisian hip hop artists like El Général.
The chapter “Rebel Music Manifesto” is where the book coalesces into a call to action. Randall’s long record of anti-racism and political involvement now becomes the bedrock for a new set of principled and achievable aims for everyone to learn from and take forward. Its core ideas of community action and making music for our side of the class divide hark back to the pathway laid down by organisations like Rock Against Racism and its successor Love Music Hate Racism. But they also include lessons for today, in terms of the uses of social media to make political points count, and being creative with spaces and venues. These speak to the 21st century as surely as they reiterate every communal urge to fight back that previous generations have been gripped by. Sound System is an outstanding book on many different levels: as a frank and often surprising walk through the history of one man’s political activity, as a potted history of contested musical and political confrontations, but most significantly as a direct exhortation to the reader to get involved in the political struggle as soon as possible.
Kevin McCaighy is a member of SWP York branch and a regular contributor to Socialist Review.