Not all protest songs offer political solutions. Some, such as the Specials' 1981 hit, are better at capturing a mood of anxiety
On Sunday morning ? after Tottenham but before London's rioting went viral ? I was reading reports of the violence when Gimme Shelter came on the radio. The combination was unexpectedly visceral. The Rolling Stones' slow-burning jeremiad played out over images of riot police and buildings on fire. Possibly this suggests a chronic inability on my part not to relate dramatic events to music. It's a habit intensified by working on a history of protest music in which songs and historical events become inextricably linked. But it brought to mind a phrase used by Rock Against Racism co-founder David Widgery: "crisis music."
Widgery meant music that responded to the specific danger of the National Front in the late-70s but to me the phrase has a broader application. Crisis music is a subset of protest music that is not always perceived as such because it captures a mood of anxiety and imminent collapse, and offers no solutions. It tends to be sonically of the moment ("NOW music," Widgery added) and to embody the crisis in the music itself rather than the lyrics. So Linton Kwesi Johnson's sober, precise reflections on racial unrest 30 years ago were not crisis music; the Ruts' apocalyptic Babylon's Burning was. A good definition might be these lines from critic Jon Landau's 1969 review of the Rolling Stones: "Beggars Banquet is not a polemic or manifesto. It doesn't advocate anything ? They make it perfectly clear that they are sickened by contemporary society. But it is not their role to tell people what to do. Instead, they use their musical abilities like a seismograph to record the intensity of feelings, the violence, that is so prevalent now." Certain genres are aflame with crisis music: late-60s rock, mid-70s reggae, punk, early-90s hip-hop, the bleaker end of grime and dubstep. I can't help notice that a common newspaper headline echoes the title of a Clash crisis song, London's Burning, but the one most mentioned over the last few days is Ghost Town by the Specials.
Like all cultural myths, the myth of Ghost Town can be annoying and overstated. The charts, as a rule, are not stuffed with records documenting social anxiety. My colleague Alexis Petridis is fond of pointing out that the single competing for the No 1 spot when riots exploded across Britain in the first week of July 1981 was Bad Manners' version of the Can-Can, which would certainly make for a more antic soundtrack to archive footage of Brixton and Toxteth. Apart from UB40's Don't Let It Pass You By and the Jam's Funeral Pyre, no other songs in the top 40 at the time spoke to what was going on in Britain's inner cities, unless I missed some coded messages in Body Talk.
But still, that was the No 1 single and a remarkable one at that. Forget the lyrics for a moment: the mood is the message. As I wrote in my book: "It is the negative image of a song like Babylon's Burning: hollowed out rather than crammed with incident, smouldering instead of blazing. Like all great records about social collapse, it seems to both fear and relish calamity." Whatever your feelings about Cher Lloyd's Swagger Jagger, the current No 1, it doesn't quite have the same effect.
Ghost Town is a prophecy that sounds like an aftermath. The ghost town it describes, gutted by recession, is the terrain before a riot ("people getting angry") but you sense it will be as bad or worse after the anger has erupted. Hence the song's circularity: it begins as it ends, with a spectral wail that could be either a cold wind or distant sirens. When the riots did break out, the Specials found the experience frightening rather than vindicating. Let's not forget that the violence had pernicious unintended consequences: Thatcher ignored many of the recommendations in Lord Scarman's report and instead invested in state-of-the-art riot gear that came in handy during the miners' strike three years later. In the US, the 1967 Detroit riot hastened the city's decline and was one of the events that fostered a rightwing backlash during the Nixon years.
In its nauseous fatalism Ghost Town expresses how I've felt watching the chaos on London streets over the past few days. The comments, in newspapers and online, which chime with me are the ones professing sadness, confusion and a willingness to wait for more information before jumping to conclusions, the latter being particularly welcome. Some commentators leapt to equal and opposite forms of idiocy. Conservative pundits spoke mechanically of "mindless" violence (it's never mindless, it just means you don't consider the mind behind it) while some on the left bent over backwards to justify looting as an anti-consumerist act, failing to discriminate between anti-police violence and nicking trainers from Foot Locker, understandable outrage and plain old criminality, and thus doing rightwing pundits' job for them. (Because I align myself with the left, I'm always more disappointed by lazy thinking from that end on the spectrum. I can't say the Daily Mail has ever disappointed me.)
What's happening now isn't a protest or, as Darcus Howe put it, an "insurrection" ? it's a nervous breakdown. The motor isn't a political cause but a mood. Politics is in the background, in the pervasive frustration and anxiety of an alienated underclass: record levels of youth unemployment, widening inequality, social services (especially youth services) slashed to the bone, the Education Maintenance Allowance scrapped, a damaged relationship between the police and the community, and collapsing faith in a seemingly indifferent political class. But the immediate outcome makes the lives of residents ? many of whom are every bit as deprived as the rioters ? even worse than they were last week and opens the door to an authoritarian response. A riot is a weapon of last resort; a cry for help; a public form of self-harming. It pays for short-term catharsis with long-term pain.
When people rush to either condemn or condone a riot rather than taking time to understand it they are merely assuming their usual positions, like commentators after 9/11 who, wrote Greil Marcus, "stepped forward to deny that anything had been done that required any rethinking of anything at all. None had changed his or her mind in the slightest about anything. Nearly every argument was intended to congratulate the speaker for having seen all the way around the event even before it happened." A riot is neither a solution nor an unforeseen calamity but a problem brought to the surface: a manifestation of social angst and official failure. As the global economy shudders, that kind of angst is not a localised phenomenon and this will not be the only explosion. In its circular misery, and the memories of past violence it now contains, Ghost Town's crisis music is horribly relevant to Britain in 2011.