Music, revolution and the '60s
There's a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars & the Rise and Fall of '60s Counter-Culture
By Peter Doggett
598 pages, $29.95 (pb)
When rock and revolution met in the 1960s, chords and commitment combined. In There's A Riot Going On, Peter Doggett documents the rollcall of rock musicians who wrote the anthems of protest and revolt, those who spurned a union of song and politics, and those who were ambivalent or merely dabbled in the political turmoil.
The Beatles' John Lennon and George Harrison were both concerned about the Vietnam War. But Harrison believed that meditation would bring an end to it, while Lennon went on to engage with peace activism. His 1968 sing-a-long anthem, "Give Peace a Chance", was sung by huge anti-war protest crowds, although his composition, "Revolution", exhorted people to "free your mind" instead of taking to the barricades for social change.
Lennon, despite his disagreements with the revolutionary left, nevertheless retained a basic sympathy with its aims. He helped fund the Trotskyist International Marxist Group. He also supported striking workers occupying the Upper Clyde shipyards in Glasgow and his "Power to the People" was sung by young strikers on the picket lines.
Even the apolitical Paul McCartney woke up his social conscience, beating Lennon to respond to Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972, when 13 Republicans were gunned down by the British Army in Derry after a civil rights march) with the song "Give Ireland Back to the Irish".
The Rolling Stones also engaged with the times. Mick Jagger nursed a genuine revulsion against the Vietnam War, and when an anti-war protest at the US Embassy in London in March 1968 resulted in violent skirmishes with police, Jagger was moved to write "Street Fighting Man".
This was, however, more an anthem to street fighting than political insurrection as Jagger was more moved by the violence (it "gives me a really nice buzz") than the politics.
The Stones donated some profits to Black Panther breakfast programs for ghetto children, and expressed disgust that its record company, Decca, was involved in arms manufacture. But these gestures had as much to do with image consciousness as political consciousness.
Jagger and Keith Richards also penned their only protest song in 1972 ("Sweet Black Angel") about the murder frame-up of Black academic, Angela Davis. But their sincerity was compromised by shallowness — it was not Davis the communist or black power activist but the photogenic, Afro-haired icon that took their (white boy's) stereotyped fancy.
Bob Dylan, despite his early political repertoire, refused to accept the role of cultural leader of the revolution, even as the Vietnam War intensified. He once mischievously suggested in an interview that it should not be assumed he was opposed to the war.
Dylan's claims he was beyond politics might have carried more substance had he not sided with the Jewish Defense League (militant Zionists linked with terrorist attacks on Soviet-owned buildings in US), promising them finance, using them as bodyguards and making a pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall.
Dylan was the prime example of a rock musician failing to match the political expectations of their admirers.
Country Joe McDonald (of Country Joe and the Fish) was not the only politically committed musician to criticise Dylan for his passivity, calling Dylan's album, John Wesley Harding, "the biggest piece of tripe".
McDonald was one of a relatively small number of musicians who made common cause between their music and progressive politics. The Fugs blended left-wing anarchism with pop and experimental rock. Joan Baez sang, carried placards and did jail time to oppose the Vietnam War, and Phil Ochs readily performed his satirical protests against war and racism (earning the unfair wrath of Dylan as a "mere journalist").
Other musicians intersected with political issues. Cream's bass guitarist, Jack Bruce, who was raised in a militant, Glaswegian trade union household and sung in the Young Communist League choir as a child, played a benefit gig for the striking Upper Clyde workers.
Irish musician, Tom McGuiness, of McGuiness Flint and former bassist with Manfred Mann, wrote "Let the People Go", an angry protest against the British policy of internment in 1971 under which Republicans were jailed without charge or trial, beaten and tortured.
Jimi Hendrix played a benefit at Madison Square Gardens in 1970 for the Vietnam Moratorium Committee. Santana were supportive of the Black cause and John Phillips, leader of the Mommas & Papas, laced the group's live performances with sarcastic comments on the Vietnam war.
Don Everley of the Everley Brothers performed at an anti-war concert and was "totally anti-Nixon".
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young blasted the murder of four students at Kent Sate University by the National Guard in 1970 with the powerful song, "Ohio", and even teen idol, Bobby Darin, proposed a "phone for peace" campaign to overwhelm the White House switchboard in protest.
The Grateful Dead did a free show for striking students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Pink Floyd headlined a benefit gig for the Gay Liberation Front.
Some radical gestures were compromised, however. Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys resisted, through legal channels, the draft and the band played at an anti-war, anti-Nixon mobilisation in 1971. Although, "like crew-cut student advisors on the CIA payroll', says Doggett, its sole political song, "Student Demonstration Time", exhorted students to "stay away when there's a riot going on".
Jefferson Airplane sided with rebellion but did ads for Levi's Jeans. Blood Sweat & Tears supported protest movements but toured Eastern Europe under the anti-communist auspices of the US State Department.
James Brown recorded "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" and was placed on FBI watch. But he was also patriotic and entertained troops in Vietnam, also sacking his band members when they objected to low wages.
The flirtation with radical politics was all too brief for some — the band Chicago was initially a politically aware rock outfit that soon "eased themselves into lucrative careers as purveyors of elegant 'adult contemporary' music".
Some timidly went no further than support for the less hawkish Democrats — Simon and Garfunkel's only political activism was to play at fundraising concerts for Democrat presidential hopeful, George McGovern, who promised immediate withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam.
Apart from this, Paul Simon kept his music and political beliefs separate, a formula also adopted by James Taylor — socialist-leaning in private, non-committal in his music.
Bringing up the rear were those subsisting on a diet of apathy or conservatism. As the 1970 British election neared, Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees said he would vote Conservative out of self-interest.
Robert Plant and Eric Clapton pleaded apathy, and Rod Stewart supported the anti-immigrant Tory politician, Enoch Powell ("I think Enoch is the man … This country is overcrowded. The immigrants should be sent home").
The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" was not so much counter-culture as counter-revolution ("meet the new boss, same as the old boss"). Lead singer, Roger Daltrey, said that "they have to stop people from moving in" to a "full-up" Britain and that the youth underground needed a Hitler figure ("Hitler was right for Germany at the time … he just did marvellous things for the German people").
The responses by musicians to the revolutionary '60s were typical of the wider social response — enthusiastic engagement, toe-dipping caution, brief fling and divorce, or rejection. The major dynamic of '60s rock, however, argues Doggett, was to be the subversive cultural vehicle for a chronically dissatisfied youth, disaffected with war, racism, sexual repression, the profit principle, censorship and a conformist education system.
Often the music (fierce, loud, explorative or just thoughtful) was the message, whatever the political ideas of the musicians.
The radical impulse was blunted, however, after the early 1970s when co-option and commercialism set in and the protest wave receded. Doggett is ambivalent about this transformation, his evident excitement with the protesters of street and band tempered with fatalism — they dared to dream but were doomed to fail, their naive idealism conquered by cold reality.
Doggett's jaded disillusion, however, can't disguise the revolutionary promise of the times, or the music that made it audible. What went down back then, in the end, was money not revolution. But rock and revolution are too vibrant to make that a certainty next time.