Some of the most sensible talk about politics and art in a long time can be found in the liner notes of the Tom Robinson Band's new double album, Power in the Darkness (Harvest STB-11778): "Politics isn't party broadcasts and general elections, it's yer kid sister who can't get an abortion, yer best mate getting paki-bashed or sent down for possessing one joint of marijuana, the GLC deciding which bands we can't see ... to stand aside is to take sides. If music can ease even a tiny fraction of prejudice and intolerance in this world, then it's worth trying."
To those who argue that politics is too abstract and institutional for rock 'n' roll songs, Robinson's statement points out that politics can affect people intimately and emotionally as well, and is thus the perfect topic, for rock 'n' roll. The question, Robinson implies, shouldn't be: "Can political songs work?" but "How do so many songwriters avoid the political aspects of everyday life?"
When political issues were close to the surface here in the late '60s, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Neil Young and other American songwriters set the pattern for effective political rock 'n' roll. Now that American society and rock 'n' roll are politically quiet, those models are being revived and refined in England.
The new British singers recognized that political analysis is more cogently presented in magazine paragraphs than in song lyrics. What songs can do is present political situations in such personal terms and listeners must react emotionally. Because it triggers strong feelings; avoid political discussions as they avoid insurance salesmen. As listeners realize the implications of their gut-level reaction, readjustments in thinking are often necessary.
The British have an economy under severe pressure, an escalating radical problem and a visible fascist threat in the National Front, British rock 'n' rollers such as the 'Tom Robinson Band, the Kinks, Elvis Costello, the Clash, the Jam, Graham Parker and others have responded to their country's crisis with explicitly class-conscious music that is at the same time the best rock 'n' roll being made on either side of the Atlantic.
The Robinson Band is the most explicit with a yellow clenched fist on their album cover and songs titled "Up Against the Wall" and "Better Decide Which Side You're On." In addition to his class politics, Robinson himself is militantly gay without any of the show business gay stereotypes.
At times, Robinson's lyrics drift into sloganeering and violate his own advice that "politics isn't party broadcasts." But the best political songs on the band's first U.S. release work because they are above all, good rock 'n' roll in the Kinks/Who tradition of chord-crunching guitar and beat-slamming rhythm section.
The group had a top 10 single in England with a non-political song, "2-4-6-8 Motorway," which captured the universal desire to get in a fast car and cruise. The political songs work because they burst with the same energy and optimism. "Up Against the Wall" sweeps one up in its musical evocation of students running wild in the street before the lyrics ever come into focus. The whole song seems to teeter on the brink of anarchy but a progressive momentum keeps it on course.
Once Robinson has hooked the listener with his quarter's driving beat and his own boisterous vocals, he sets the political stage with his lyrics. At times he weakens the music with abstractions like: "Freedom from elitism and make domination ... Freedom from Big Brother's interrogation." But often enough he bends the music to scary stories about specific oppression on real British streets.
Robinson's strengths and weaknesses are brought into focus by comparing him to his obvious model, the Kinks' Ray Davies. Robinson recorded a poor-selling acoustic album on Davies' Konk label before the two split over a contract dispute. Robinson still reflects Davies' arrangements that set seductive cabaret traps and then spring them with a crashing rock 'n' roll bite. He also uses Davies' music hall delivery in which he plays both emcee and various characters with an irony that smirks at the world's absurdity.
Davies is a much better lyricist and melodist than his protege, however. Davies' songs on the Kinks' album, Misfits (Arista AB 4167), stage politically tinged situations with fascinating, eccentric characters — a blue collar heterosexual transvestite, a punk rocker, a tax exile, a Rastafarian fanatic, a Kinks fanatic and a "dedicated follower of fashion." Davies' fables of British working class life are more intriguing than Robinson's because they take more surprising turns and are supported by fresher melodies and catchier hooks.
"In a Foreign Land" is a British tax exile's first person story cast in the form of a sunny island tune. But it turns desperate at the end: "I'm all out of my jack and I can't go back/I'm away, far away, far away in a foreign land."
This may be a subtle Davies jab at his former colleagues like Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney who have left England to avoid its progressive tax system. It's no coincidence that Davies is practically the only survivor of the mid-'60s "British Invasion" still singing about British working class concerns.
Davies may be a better songcraftsman than Robinson, but the head Kink lacks Robinson's clear ideology. Without such framework, songs can detail the circumstances of oppression without identifying the causes or the possibilities for change. Davies' "Black Messiah," for example, responds to the reactionary streak in Jamaican Rastafarianism, but without an ideology to clarify that response, it could easily be confused with Enoch Powell's racism.
Robinson's debut is exciting because he goes beyond convincing stories of oppression which by themselves often leave listeners feeling helpless. He reacts to the stories of his verses with angry political choruses that propose clear alternatives.After his litany of "queer bashing" incidents in his verses to "Glad to Be Gay," he proposes an even greater public presence for gays.
But the best political rock 'n' roller of all at the moment is England's Elvis Costello. Costello's working class anger is chilling where Robinson's is, just impressive. Costello's arrangements and lyrics cut like a scalpel where Davies' tend to sprawl. Both his debut last year, My Aim Is True (Columbia JC 35037), and the recent This Year's Model (Columbia JC 55331) vibrate with the electric friction of conflict between classes, cultures, generations and lovers.
His concert at D.C.'s Warner Theater last February suggested that his best work is still ahead. He assumed the commanding stage presence of a 1966 Bob Dylan. His songs didn't plead or argue for agreement; they stated situations with a "this is the way it is; take it or leave it" attitude. They laid out the facts with such compelling passion that anyone who listened couldn't help but be affected.
Costello reminds us that great political art must be made by a great artist. If defiant anger and sexual energy are fully translated into music, the effect can produce social change no matter what the lyrics are. As Robinson posed the issued in a Unicorn Times interview, "I mean, who changed the United States more, Elvis Presley or Joan Baez?"
The great changes wrought by Presley and Dylan were the products of an overwhelming talent arriving at the right time in the right place. As talented as Robinson, Davies and others in the politicized British pub-rock movement are, only Costello is really imposing. It remains to be seen if he will find his right time and place. In the meantime, he would do well to consider Robinson's success at blending solid rock 'n' roll and personal stories with explicit, useful ideology.