Friday, March 02, 2012
IN PRAISE OF BOOKS : 33 REVOLUTIONS PER MINUTE by DORIAN LYNSKEY
It's been a wee while since a book review.
Reason #1 : It's not just music books I do my best to devour
Reason #2 : The latest book about music was an epic - almost 850 pages all in.
But it was well worth it as 33 Revolutions Per Minute is a hugely entertaining, informative and compelling read. The author, Dorian Lynskey, is best known in the UK as a music writer for the Guardian newspaper. He was previously the music critic for The Big Issue (a magazine aimed at helping homeless people rebuild their lives) and has also had articles appear in many of the specialist magazines that cover UK music.
Spanning 1939-2008, the book is divided into 33 chapters, each centring around a specific song at a specific point in history, beginning with Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit and ending with Green Day and American Idiot. In between there's songs written or made famous by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Nina Simone, Edwin Starr, The Clash, R.E.M., Public Enemy and The Prodigy. Oh and Bob Dylan, Huggy Bear, Billy Bragg, The Dead Kennedys, Gil Scott-Heron and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are also in there. As are protest songs and singers that had a huge impact in Chile, Nigeria and Jamaica thanks to Victor Jara, Fela Kuti and Max Romeo.
But this isn't only about 33 songs. Indeed it is so much NOT about 33 songs that a number of critics who have reacted unfavourably to the book have accused Lynskey of not examining in enough detail the merits of the songs that highlight each title. Instead, what each chapter does is focus in part - sometimes in great depth but often almost in fleeting passing - on the song in the chapter heading but also on the role of a great many other songs besides, in the context of civil rights in the USA, McCarthyism, the Falklands War, gay rights, the Miners Strike in the UK in the 80s, rave culture and all sort of protest and opposition including the Vietnam, Gulf and Iraqi wars, the pursuit of power by politicians and the struggle against apartheid movement. By my reckoning, the best part of 1000 other songs also get a mention within the pages.
It's clearly a hugely ambitious book and it's a very fine mix of pop and history - social, economic and political. It also leaves you thinking just how cruel and intolerant mankind really is. The hippies of the 60s and 70s might have been demanding that peace be given a chance, but the odds were always stacked against them. Things don't even seem that different now....lots of singers and artistes rose up against George W Bush, but he still got in for a second term of office.
The sections that personally worked best for me were those where I learnt so much more - I was ashamed to realise just how little I really knew about civil rights in America in the 50s and 60s - as well as the chapters covering the 80s in the UK when the memories of my student activist days were brilliantly brought back to life. It also made me realise just how much of the music in my collection has a link to protest songs in one way or another.
There's actually a part of me wants to dissect many parts of this book chapter by chapter and devote a posting to each of them - especially those that I have lived through. Indeed just the other week, myself and Drew (the talent behind Across The Kitchen Table) had a great chat around how scary and unsafe the world felt in the 80s when Reagan and Thatcher were in power and how we both had a love for Two Tribes by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, which is one of the songs given a chapter in the book. But that dear readers, is for another time.
Instead, here' two songs mentioned in passing by the author in the chapter on Two Tribes. Both brilliant in conveying the fear of the doomsday scenario that many of us dreaded:-
mp3 : Young Marble Giants - Final Day
mp3 : Kate Bush - Breathing
Happy Listening..................................aye, right.