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Ian Birchall

The Rhymes They Are A-Changing

(Winter 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.23, Winter 1965, pp.16-17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One aspect of the collapse of the old ‘New Left,’ so ably analysed by Peter Sedgwick in IS 17 and 21, has been the disappearance of the political discussion of popular culture. The New Left’s approach was open to criticism on two counts. First, they tended to make cultural questions central to their strategy, a symptom of their retreat from class issues in industry and politics. Second, their attitude often wavered between an elitist desire to propagate the standards of bourgeois culture, and a reactionary nostalgia for the art-forms of an earlier, less assertive working class.

But the Marxist reaction against the New Left had the unfortunate consequence of totally ignoring the problem. This journal, for instance, has never devoted an article to television, the cinema or popular music. The following notes are an attempt, on a very small scale, to remedy this situation. The time is apt. Pop music, long a topic of sociological concern, is now becoming directly involved in politics. A song dealing with nuclear war and integration problems in Alabama has made the top ten in both Britain and the US; Joan Baez urges her audience not to cooperate with the draft; political comments are surfacing in the correspondence columns of the New Musical Express; even the SLL have gone into the agency business on behalf of a beat group.

In this situation superficial generalisations abound everywhere along the political spectrum from old-style Stalinists who see everything since traditional jazz as ‘decadent,’ to Christian Crusade, who hold the Beatles to be part of a Red plot to hypnotise American youth. [1] Good left-wingers all too often adopt a tone barely distinguished from clergymen bemourning the decline of teenage morals.

One basic error is to see pop music as a ‘product’ – either of commercial machinations or of the pure aspirations of youth. In fact it is (like any art-form in a commercial society, only more so) squeezed out between two conflicting pressures. On the one hand the publishers and manufacturers, geared to the obsolescence principle, constantly promote new crazes. On the other, working-class youth seek a medium to express their experience in modern society. A well-plugged song has more chance of succeeding than an unplugged one, but its success is far from inevitable.

A close look at a selection of recent successful songs shows a set of recurring themes – themes which reflect both the pressures imposed on youth by modern society, and the reactions of youth to it. [2] It is possible to observe a constantly recurring set of conventions – some of which derive from a long tradition of popular song, others which belong specifically to our own age, and which often conflict sharply with many of the misconceived generalisations made about popular music. The first and most obvious convention is the centrality of the theme of love. 104 out of 134 records in the sample are concerned with love in some form – the rest are a miscellany of instrumentals, semi-folk songs and comedy numbers, with a couple of religious songs thrown in. But this emphasis on sex is in itself not remarkable – virtually every literary genre in every civilisation has given major importance to sex – and an art-form aimed primarily at an adolescent market could scarcely do otherwise. What is of interest is the way sex is treated, and in particular the approach to its social aspect. The view that pop music provides a positive incentive to promiscuity gains little support from an analysis of successful songs. What is above all striking is the ambiguity with which sex is treated. Manfred Mann’s recent hit, If You’ve Gotta Go, Go Now (Or else you’ve got to stay all night), is almost unique in alluding explicitly to sexual intercourse. Even direct references to kissing, touching, or holding hands are comparatively rare. In comparison with the treatment of sex by paper-back novels – or even television – pop songs are astonishingly chaste. Their terminology is the suggestive but vague one of ‘having’ and ‘loving.’

This avoidance of realism suggests the desire of writers of pop songs not to shock or upset an audience that is basically insecure. This hypothesis is reinforced by the predominance of the theme of failure and frustration. Of the 134 records in the sample, 42 deal with lost or unrequited love, and of the remainder only 41 can be said to be basically optimistic in tone. In an affluent, commercialised society, the official ideology – manifested above all in advertising – lays stress on success (with allusion to virility even in the most implausible contexts) at any price. Most pop music diverges sharply from this official ideology, and echoes the fears and sufferings that such a society produces in practice.

This is in fact the great value of pop music, in contrast to most other forms of art in our civilisation; that it offers expression to overt emotionalism. Its guiding principle is summed up in the lines:

‘If you cry when you’re in love,
Sure it’s no disgrace.’ [3]

The theme of public, unashamed weeping is (as much in the lyrics for male as for female singers) a common and a healthy one. It recalls the sensibility of the eighteenth century. Pop music, then, gives a more or less natural expression to the feelings of a generation that is insecure, and to some extent in revolt against the values of the society it lives in. But it also – and in this too it reflects the existing state of consciousness – shows a confused and passive attitude to society. The whole ideology of pop music is an individualist one. Many songs draw on the egocentric Romantic convention that nature is no more than a mirror reflecting the feelings of the individual:

‘The birds in the sky would be sad and lonely
If they knew I was losing my one and only.’ [4]

The aspirations are usually towards escape from the world into the security of purely personal relationships: thus I Want to Stay Here (and love you) [5], A World of our Own [6], etc. Thus, when reference is made to society, two themes emerge. First, society – particularly poverty – obstructs individual happiness. But, second, individuals can by themselves escape or overcome the pressures of society.

The theme of identification with the poorer classes is a common one:

‘I don’t care too much for money,
’Cause money can’t buy me love.’ [7]

‘He may not be a movie star,
But when it come to being happy, we are.’ [8]

‘Before it’s earned our money’s always spent ...
Babe, I got you babe.’ [9]

‘Sloopy lives in a very bad part of town
And everybody tries to put my Sloopy down.’ [10]

Once again the divergence from the official ideology of advertising – where identification is always with the affluent middle-class consumer – is striking. But the divergence is no more than a reversion to an older tradition: the conservative convention of folk-song and fairy-story where the simple poor are happier than the rich.

Occasionally the tone is harsher, as in the very fine record recently produced by the Animals:

‘In this dirty old part of the city
Where the sun refuses to shine ...
You’ll be dead before your time is due.’

But even here the chorused solution is an individual one – ‘We’ve gotta get out of this place’ – leaving the rest to rot. The most recent trend in pop-music – the rise of folk, ‘protest’ and sub-political songs, is not a break with the existing conventions, but merely a development of them. Bob Dylan, who has pioneered this trend, has had four Top Thirty entries; only one – The Times they are a-changing – has an explicitly social theme. Dylan is at his best in such songs as Like a Rolling Stone and Mr Tambourine Man (the Byrds’ version of which reached Number One), where he expresses, more graphically and in much less banal and stereotyped language, the same insecurity and frustration that has been a central theme of pop music for a decade.

By widening the range of pop music, Dylan has prepared the way for explicitly political songs. So far three have entered the Top Twenty – Donovan’s Universal Soldier (EP), Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction and Hedgehoppers Anonymous’s It’s Good News Week.

It would be dangerous to overestimate the significance of this breakthrough. The records share the individualism and quietism of all pop music. Donovan preaches a moralising abstract pacifism in tones of despair. Barry McGuire makes some acute observations:

‘Marches alone can’t bring integration’

but degenerates into abstract idealism:

‘When human respect is disintegrating’

and ends with despair:

‘This whole crazy world is just too frustrating.’

McGuire himself has said: ‘It isn’t a protest song and it was never meant to be. It doesn’t attempt a solution.’ [11] As for the Hedgehoppers, they merely seem to be cashing in on a fashion with a song that has little meaning.

Protest songs may rapidly disappear from the charts, or they may become a rather tedious fashion. Certainly, if they stay, they will mark a significant broadening of the range of pop music, in both subject matter and vocabulary. But the significance should not be overrated; these songs reflect the contradiction that has run through the whole tradition of pop music since the beginning of rock and roll. On the one hand, an urge to shock and rebel (which the beat of any rock record articulates much more clearly than the words); on the other, a directionless passivity. Protest songs may be symptomatic of a new mood among youth – but it is a mood that has existed since the beginning of CND in the mid-1950s, though the diluted radicalism of protest songs is reaching a wider audience than the folk music associated with CND ever did. Pop singers are not leaders, but tag along behind. As Trotsky wrote:

‘The traditional identification of poet and prophet is acceptable only in the sense that the poet is about as slow in reflecting his epoch as the prophet. If there are prophets and poets who can be said to have been “ahead of their time,” it is because they have expressed certain demands of social evolution not quite as slowly as the rest of their kind.’ [12]

When youth becomes revolutionary, and only then, will it get the popular music a revolutionary youth deserves. Till then, pop music serves as the bewildered heart-cry of an age in suspended transition.


1. Rev D.A. Noebel, Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles, An Analysis of the Communist use of Music – the Communist Master Music Plan, Christian Crusade, 1965.

2. All statistical comments are based on an analysis of the 134 records that reached the top three of the New Musical Express chart between 15 July 1962 and 8 September 1965.

3. Elvis Presley, Mess of Blues, 1960.

4. Billy J Kramer, Bad to Me, 1963.

5. Steve and Edie, 1963.

6. The Seekers, 1965.

7. The Beatles, Can’t Buy Me Love, 1964.

8. Mary Wells, My Guy, 1964.

9. Sonny and Cher, I Got You Babe, 1965.

10. The McCoys, Hang on Sloopy, 1965,

11. New Musical Express, 15 October 1965.

12. L. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, Ann Arbor, 1960, p.20.

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