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Last Updated:  Monday, 24 February, 2003, 11:01 GMT
Where have all the protest songs gone?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online

Bob Dylan
Can anyone fill Dylan's shoes?
Protest used to be about singing as much as marching. But as boy band Blue promise to record an anti-war song, why does the current movement lack a rallying anthem?

As Tony Blair embarks on his final "push for peace" this week he may find it hard to put the anti-war movement out of his mind.

But while the sight of a million people marching on London is seared into our memories nine days later, the sound has been eminently forgettable.

Seasoned protesters were unsettled by the relative silence. Where was the noise? Where were the chants, the songs; anthems to set the marching beat and infuse protesters with spirit and passion?

In the 80s it was "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out". Students rallied around the refrain "Butcher Baker, education undertaker" - an attack on the then Education Secretary Kenneth Baker - and "Education is a right", to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down.

If we cannot find Osama, bomb Iraq
If the markets hurt your Mama, bomb Iraq
If the terrorists are Saudi
And the bank takes back your Audi
And the TV shows are bawdy, Bomb Iraq

Bomb Iraq (to the tune of If You're Happy and You Know It)
Marchers opposing the war with Iraq had to make do with a sporadic bleat of "Give Peace a Chance".

There were a few chants of "Who let the bombs out - Bush, Blair, Sharon", but these were mostly solo efforts which quickly wilted.

It was a similar story on the Glasgow march, says Janis McNair from Caledonian University's Centre for Political Song.

Ironically, it is the sheer mass appeal of the anti-war movement that has rendered it so silent, says Ms McNair.

"The diversity of people who support the cause, and the swell of what we call political valley virgins, means they lack the camaraderie you would normally expect to find."

Andrew Collins, former editor of Q magazine, agrees. "This movement is so big there's no unity to it except the feeling. It makes it a formidable force but it is also very difficult to supply the soundtrack to."

A few chants do exist though. A favourite of Ms McNair's is Bomb Iraq [see above for lyrics], which is sung to the tune of If You're Happy and You Know It.

Peace march in London
Lennon's Give Peace a Chance to minutes to write but endures today
For those who earned their radical stripes in the 60s, it might be tempting to blame an overall decline in political song. After all, while the current anti-war movement has drawn support from a diverse collective of musicians, they have yet to spawn an anthem of any sort.

Not so in years gone by. The Vietnam war inspired some classic songs, Bob Dylan railed against Western propaganda in the Cold War, The Special AKA's Free Nelson Mandela was a hit with pop lovers and protesters alike.

They were not just songs. They became anthems - theme tunes for a cause.

One of the boldest efforts of the current anti-war movement is the Peace Not War compilation album, which features the likes of Billy Bragg and Public Enemy. But while the musical sentiments may be in tune with those of many ordinary folk, the album is ominously absent from this week's top 75.

...the slaughters in Rwanda, the Iraq civilians, the sanctions that killed millions...
The Unpeople (John Pilger Remix)

Yet is would be wrong to write off politics in pop. The intensely political musings of Ms Dynamite, the musical industry's darling du jour, prove as much.

It's clear the political dynamic in music has shifted from pop to rap and hip hop. And positive as this may be for young people, it's bad news for those seeking any kind of anti-war anthem.

"You're not going to get a crowd rapping at a demo," says Collins. "It's almost impossible to sing. That's the point of rap - it demands skill."

So what about the latest efforts of pop stalwarts George Michael and Madonna? Tony Blair was attacked in Michael's last single while Madonna's forthcoming release mocks the "have it all" philosophy of western capitalism.

At last week's Brits, Michael duetted with Ms Dynamite in a re-written anti-war version of his song Faith.

Ms Dynamite
Ms Dynamite speaking at the Hyde Park peace rally
But Collins rubbishes the idea they signal any kind of revival for protest pop.

While Michael has denied claims he is cashing in, Collins says the public is suspicious of stars' new-found radicalism.

"No one trusted him because he hadn't spoken out politically at all before. That's why the single bombed."

Ever since the unprecedented success of Band's Aid's charity single in 1984, pop stars have trodden a fine line between conviction and keen-eyed commercialism, says John Street, author of Politics and Popular Culture.

"Of course it must be hugely tempting for an act to hitch their wagon to a cause that is sweeping the imagination of the country. You have to be cynical about it," says Mr Street.

So what should we make of news that slick boy band Blue plan to gather pop's top acts of the moment to record an anti-war song?

Blue: Move over Paul Weller
It would be easy to doubt the motives of a group more accustomed to flaunting their toned pecs than brandishing badges on their sleeves.

But this is not entirely virgin territory for the boys.

In October 2001, Blue's Lee Ryan was lambasted after speaking out about the terrorist attacks on America. He had said the reaction was "blown out of proportion".

It was perhaps a brief glimpse of a group with ambitions beyond the charts.



Michael denies attack on Bush
05 Jul 02 |  Music
Stars speak up for peace
31 Jan 03 |  UK Politics

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