LEFT WING CHRISTMAS SONGS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTURE

by Chris Jarvis

On Friday it was revealed that this year’s Christmas Number One was Clean Bandit with Rockabye, their names forever written into the record books, joining some truly excellent pieces of music that have shared the top spot over the years. The Beatles scored a hat-trick in the 1960s. Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ beat Wizzard’s festive effort in 1973. Queen managed it twice, with Bohemian Rhapsody, some 16 years apart. We’ve had Spice Girls, The Human League, and Elvis Presley – all deserving the accolade.

Sometimes things gets a little giddy and surreal at this time of year too. Mr Blobby and Bob the Builder both sold more records than any actual living human in 1993 and 2000 respectively. In 1971, a song about a man named Ernie, a notoriously fast milkman, his horse, Trigger, and his rivalry with a baker — with whom he fights to win the love of a widow called Sue — somehow captivated the nation. Conversely, some form of bleak depression clearly swept across Britain in the Christmas of 2003, as that year’s winner was Gary Jules, covering Tears for Fears misery inducing classic ‘Mad World’.

Sometimes things gets a little giddy and surreal at this time of year too

Much of the rest of the coveted Christmas Number One position is filled with mediocrity, with some notable exceptions; moments when the British people were inspired en masse by a feat of political or charity endeavour. Band Aid’s (ill-informed, neocolonial) ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ smashed into first place as an musical response to the 1984 Ethiopian Famine. Reiterations achieved the same in 1989 and 2004. In 2009, an online campaign brought the rebel-rousing Killing in the Name to the top to protest the dominance of corporate, and specifically Simon Cowell’s influence on the industry. 2012 saw Mel C, Mick Jones, Paul McCartney, Elizza Doolittle, Paloma Faith, Shane McGowan and a whole host of music’s great and good collaborate as The Justice Collective to raise funds for charities supporting families affected by the Hillsborough Disaster and bag the gold for Christmas.

(Band Aid 30 - Do They Know It's Christmas? via tednguyenusa.com)

(Band Aid 30 – Do They Know It’s Christmas? via tednguyenusa.com)

2016’s festive political treats came in the form of not one, but two, Labour Party related Christmas anthems.

The first, performed by Robb Jobson and the Corbynistas is a uniquely awful composition extolling the virtues of the great leader Jeremy Corbyn over the course of nearly 4 minutes. What ‘JC4PM For Me’ lacks in melodic catchiness, is unfortunately not made up for in lyrical strength — “I wrote to Santa, but he just wrote back ‘my budget’s been cut and I’ve just got the sack.’ To me that’s a bit like politics.” No close reading analysis is necessary to explain why the world should never have had to be subjected to this utter drivel.

No close reading analysis is necessary to explain why the world should never have had to be subjected to this utter drivel.

Then we have the contribution made by a handful of C-List Labour MPs and an assortment of their friends. Before I heard the song itself, I thought perhaps this could be just what the Labour Party needed — a fun, jovial attempt to push a serious message to a wider public, to show that Labour really is on your side. There seemed to be no sign of Seamus Milne’s clumsy iron fist anywhere in sight. Politicians from across the Labour Party’s divide, like Mary Creagh, Angela Rayner and Dan Jarvis had put aside their differences and come together for some Christmas cheer and for the good of the Party.

The song’s message is without doubt spot on for the political and economic climate: a no punches pulled assault on the greedy, Scrooge-like bosses of Britain’s high street retailers and a call of solidarity to hard up workers across the country. But the delivery, the singing, the lyrics — everything — is beyond dreadful. Another choice quote: “B&Q, Tesco and Waitrose. John Lewis, Caffe Nero and Eat. Be ashamed of how you treat your staff.” A flat chorus of that calibre will surely bring a remorseful tear to the eye of CEO’s worldwide, like a sobering, musical Jacob Marley? If only.

Unsurprisingly, neither song made it into the Top 100 UK Official Chart on Friday.

How did we get here? How did these two musical abominations end up being the pinnacle the left’s cultural contribution this Christmas? Has the protest song, has political music, really reached a nadir this low?

In the 1980s, a group of musicians, poets and artists came together to form Red Wedge — a cultural group campaigning for a Labour government through their arts. Billy Bragg, Craig Charles, Phill Jupitus, The Beat, The Smiths, Ben Elton, Kirsty MacColl, Paul Weller, Madness, Lenny Henry and so many others took part. X-Ray Spex, The Clash and Steel Pulse played at the closing rally and festival of Rock Against Racism in 1978, where more than 100,000 people marched against the rise of the far right in Britain and against racist hate crimes. Folk musicians of the 1960s counter-culture  from Bob Dylan to Phil Ochs provided the soundtrack to the anti-war movement as American troops laid waste to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and L7 helped spawn a new wave of feminism and played a substantial role in pro-choice campaigns in America. Hip-hop brought one of the most important innovations in contemporary music, alongside a cutting, chilling social and political commentary — with acts from Grandmaster Flash, Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, Dead Prez and so many others exemplifying this in their own ways, at their own times.

History is awash with music born in the left and built in struggle — music that has not only inspired the spark for change, but also revolutionised the way we understand music itself. Contemporary artists have kept that tradition alive too: Sleaford Mods, Enter Shikari, Beyonce, Against Me!, The Tuts, Sonic Boom Six, New Town Kings, ONSIND, a reunited A Tribe Called Quest to name but a few. And yet one of the most important forces of the political left in Britain’s history has managed to produce two independently atrocious pieces of music at a time of global political turmoil.

Some may say that this matters little, that these kinds of things are irrelevant and quickly forgotten. But what that analysis fails to understand is that culture matters, and matters hugely for progressive change. Not because a protest song will change the world, will suddenly shift geo-political or international economic forces, but instead because of the inspiration that can provide. The arts cut through to people in a way that so much of the traditional political world simply cannot. The Specials releasing their anti-apartheid song ‘Nelson Mandela’ will have shaken more individuals to action than a hundred solidarity meetings.

A substantial part of my politicisation came through music. It was by listening to punk bands and hip-hop groups that I began to care about issues, began to feel motivation to act to change them, and helped me understand the links between different struggles. The more radical music and arts that inspire and move people to action that exists in the world, the more people we can take on a similar journey. Tragically, this year’s offerings from what is the ‘establishment’ of the left has failed. Let’s hope, as with so many other things, that 2017 offers us more hope.

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