Sunday, October 27, 2013

You Say You Wanna Revolution?

It's not too hard to take apart comedian Russell Brand's idea of an egalitarian revolution, which he happily endorsed this week on BBC Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. There are no ideas there; only vague cereal box pronouncements that would make Karl Marx blush. Since Brand had already guest-edited The New Statesman on that very subject of revolution, he was brought on to the show to explain himself. Besides saying that voting only "legitimizes a corrupt system," Brand's dissent was all sound-bite with nothing at stake. But why Brand received so much play on social media isn't so negligible. As Elizabeth Renzetti pointed out in a column in The Globe and Mail yesterday, the political system has so broken faith with its constituents that it has allowed the bromide of a Russell Brand to take hold. "[W]hen the political system looks increasingly absurd – and you need only look to the kindergarten-style scrapping in Canada’s Senate or the tumbleweeds that recently rolled past the monuments in Washington – the absurdists look rational," she writes. "In his interview, Mr. Brand pointed to the fact that the British government is suing the European Union to remove a cap on bankers’ bonuses on the fifth anniversary of the financial crisis – if that isn’t head-spinning farce, what is?" What Brand spoke to is the void left when, as Renzetti puts it, "the web of trust and civic engagement meant to bind a society is fraying." When only 19 per cent of Americans trust their government compared to 75 per cent fifty years ago, Brand comes across as prophetic.   

Forty-five years ago, though, the thought of revolution was something of a fact rather than a whimsical idea. In the early days of 1968, everywhere you looked, real ideals were being put to the test. The Soviet Union had brought a totalitarian chill to the Prague Spring after they invaded Czechoslovakia. The assassination of Martin Luther King in April was followed two months later by the shooting death of Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. Student upheavals in Paris against the Gaulist government were matched by riots in the United States over the escalation of the Vietnam War. During their various world tours, John Lennon had wanted The Beatles to have more freedom to comment on the political tumult surrounding the group, but Brian Epstein, fearing public reaction, steered Lennon against it. But with Epstein dead by 1968, Lennon knew that there was now no one around to stop him. He immediately went to work on completing a song he first started composing in India. "Revolution" was written in response to the various left-wing organizations that were vying for The Beatles' support for violent revolution. But instead of throwing his hat into the ring, he composed a stern riposte against violence that would create a huge backlash against the group from certain anti-war activists who had counted on The Beatles for support.

At the time Lennon wrote his song, the peaceful struggle against injustice, whose values were steeped in the non-violent activism of Martin Luther King, had been quickly evolving into forms of violent resistance. There was also something dangerously ideological about the insurgencies now developing in democratic nations. "It was not till Mao Tse-tung launched his Cultural Revolution in 1966 that the European Left found a faith to replace the one shattered by Khrushchev's exposure of Stalin in 1956," Ian MacDonald observed in Revolution in the Head. McDonald goes on to say that the attraction to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which was brutally repressive (and served as a mere warm-up for what would take place in 1989 at Tiananmen Square), happened because it "eliminated the preparatory phases of Lenin's model, positing a direct leap to the Communist millennium which would expunge all class distinctions at a stroke." Before long, joining their European comrades, the ideologues of the West would, as their Stalinist comrades did in the forties, make their own break with history. "All that remained was to take to the streets and 'tear down the walls'." While Lennon didn't believe in tearing down the walls, he made sure his song blasted the eardrums. One of Lennon's cleverest strokes in "Revolution" was to use the strongest, loudest, most distorted form of rock 'n' roll, the very quality that made it the most revolutionary art form, in order to put across a message that many found anti-revolutionary. Ironically, the song didn't begin that way.

While recording their new album in late May, Lennon had done a slower, doo-wop version of the song that he wished to see out as The Beatles' next single. McCartney though resisted the controversial song finding it too slow and saying that it wasn't commercial enough. (That version would show up on The Beatles as "Revolution 1.") Bristling from McCartney's rejection, Lennon became determined to re-make the song as something commercial and fast. What he came up with was a highly amplified and gritty guitar arrangement that changed the entire character of the song. Lennon plugged his guitar directly into the recording console that overloaded the channel and created the massive distortion that would earn "Revolution" its spot as the B-side for "Hey Jude". In the earlier version, Lennon had also expressed some ambivalence about his position on the subject of revolution when he would sing "you can count me out/in." On the single, though, he plainly says count him out. "The lyrics stand today," Lennon stated flatly in 1980 shortly before he died. "They're still my feeling about politics. I want to see the plan." In the Seventies, though, Lennon ended up seduced by the same attitudes he had derided in 1968. But in that post-Beatles era, the utopian dream Lennon had once spearheaded had died with his group so he threw in his lot behind former Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. By 1980, however, he clearly recognized the mistake he made. "What I said in 'Revolution' – in all the versions – is change your head." No doubt Lennon knew instinctively that the utopian ideals he first put forth in "There's a Place" in 1962 didn't promise us a better kingdom on earth, or in heaven, but rather a revolution in the mind. "Even the blunt nature of his dire agitprop work...was itself the display of an artistic stance promoting the direct expression of utilitarian ideals," reminded music critic Walter Everett about John Lennon's political ideals.

However the reaction from the counter-culture was not so generous towards Lennon's ideals. In Jon Weiner's book Come Together: John Lennon in His Time, he lists a number of damning quotes from counter-culture publications. Rock critic Jon Landau in Rolling Stone claimed that, in Lennon's "Revolution," "Hubert Humphrey couldn't have said it better." Robert Christgau, in the Village Voice, called for a nuanced response from critics while simultaneously denying one from himself. "It is puritanical to expect musicians, or anyone else, to hew to the proper line," he wrote. "But it is reasonable to request that they not go out of their way to oppose it. Lennon has, and it takes much of the pleasure out of their music for me." The Berkeley Barb claimed the song sounded "like the hawk plank adopted in the Chicago convention of the Democratic Death Party." The New Left Review summed up Lennon's treatise as "a lamentable petty bourgeois cry of fear." The San Francisco-based leftist magazine Ramparts had just one reaction: "Betrayal." The magazine took issue in particular with the idea that a millionaire pop artist could tell us in 1968 that everything was going to be 'alright'. Later that year, singer Nina Simone, perhaps still feeling the sting of Martin Luther King's murder, felt compelled to counter Lennon in her own version of his song where she urged Lennon to clean his mind.

When The Beatles released "Revolution" that August, The Rolling Stones followed the same week with "Street Fighting Man," which was their own incendiary response to the rise of violent revolt. Back in March, Mick Jagger had attended an anti-war rally at the U.S. embassy in London, where mounted police were having their hands full controlling a crowd of 25,000 people. At the demonstration, he met one of the organizers, activist Tariq Ali, a member of the Trotskyist International Marxist Group. Besides the rally in London, Jagger was also aware of the student rioting in Paris on the Left Bank. By the summer, The Rolling Stones took a new song they were working on called "Did Everyone Pay Their Dues?," and changed the lyrics to address the upheaval that Jagger was witnessing. Unlike "Revolution," though, The Stones' "Street Fighting Man" opens with a sharply strummed acoustic guitar to the sound of marching drums. As Jagger reports the sound of marching feet, to accompany the drums, he invokes a significant line from Martha & the Vandellas' 1964 hit "Dancing in the Street." While she describes summer as a time for dancing in the street, Jagger rewrites the lyric to tell us that summer is the time for fighting in the street. What Mick Jagger and Keith Richards pick up on is how "Dancing in the Street" became unwittingly associated with street revolt. In "Street Fighting Man," they make that connection even more explicit. At first, "Dancing in the Streets" was intended as nothing more than a spirited dance tune, but once it hit the airwaves, the song became a rallying cry for urban American blacks. As riots were tearing apart the inner-cities, young black activists, like H. Rap Brown, began using the song as a recruitment anthem.

While The Rolling Stones sound as if they are joining in with their guns blazing, "Street Fighting Man" is even more ambivalent than  "Revolution." Jagger recognizes that people are fighting in the street, and he says he wants to join in, but he also understands that all he can do is sing in a rock 'n' roll band. Rather than commit themselves to a position in the song, The Stones instead strike a provocative pose. Where Lennon's "Revolution" is clearly a blatant attack on violent insurrection, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards can only sell rebellious attitude. At the end, Jagger sings about his desire to kill the King, and rails at all his servants, but revolution is just a notion in his head – no more radical than Russell Brand's notions of activism. He may dream of being a street fighting man, but he knows that he's just a singer left observing the battle raging around him. The disappointment for radicals, however, lay with their belief that The Beatles were on their side. In their mind, the music would help change the world, whereas Lennon felt that The Beatles' music existed to free your mind. Where radicals sought to have The Beatles join them at the vanguard of the struggle, Lennon preferred to map out a world of possibilities beyond the institutions and bureaucracies the extremists wished to obliterate. Lennon understood, to paraphrase Pete Townshend a few years down the road in "Won't Get Fooled Again," that the new boss would be just like the old boss.

Not all of the left, though, was critical of "Revolution." The SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) newspaper at Cornell University actually praised Lennon's pacifism. "You can argue about the effectiveness of non-violence as a tactic, but it would be absurd to claim that it is a conservative notion...," the paper stated. Not surprisingly, some conservatives spoke out in favour of the song. William F. Buckley praised "Revolution" in his syndicated column and found himself being attacked by the ultra-right John Birch Society. According to the Birchers, Lennon was no better than Lenin. They thought he was towing the Moscow line against left-wing infantilism rather than actually being anti-revolution. The only flaw with "Revolution" was essentially in its explicitness – its need to tell us what to think. "Hey Jude," on the other hand, was the song that Czech citizens sang while vainly attempting to block Russian tanks that very summer. McCartney's epic masterpiece provided a passionate appraisal of loss while simultaneously transcending the pain that loss can cause. Along with being the most successful Beatles single ever released, selling over five million copies, "Hey Jude" (which borrows its melody from The Drifters' "Save the Last Dance For Me") considers the reconciliation of grief. 

McCartney had composed it during the period that the Lennons were divorcing. As John was taking up with Yoko, Paul's concern was for the emotional welfare of John's five-year old son Julian. One day, while driving to Weybridge to visit Cynthia and Julian, McCartney started singing a melody with the words "Hey Julian." Later, as he drove home, he started changing the lyrics from Julian to Jules, then later to Jude because he remembered liking the name Jud, a character in Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1943 musical Oklahoma! While Julian may have inspired the song, "Hey Jude" also foreshadows the ultimate end of The Beatles. McCartney sings with as much a sense of profound loss and he does so with the hope that better tidings will come. When the song reaches the climax, with the orchestra soaring and the chorus chanting "na-na-na-na, hey Jude," McCartney ardently scats and shouts his way to the slow fade-out. But his shouts here aren't the celebratory, rousing screams of a young man finding his freedom, as he did in "Long Tall Sally" or "I'm Down." McCartney's cries in "Hey Jude" are filled with the release from pain. They are the cries of possibilities lost. Perhaps it's that inherent sense of loss indelibly woven into the fabric of the song that touched Czech nationals in that summer of 1968. They took "Hey Jude" to their heart as a song that best expressed what was left of their wistful pride during the demise of the brief freedom of the Prague Spring.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. On Monday evenings from 7pm-9pm at the Miles Nadel JCC, Kevin Courrier lectures on Robert Altman.

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