An ambitious, astute summary of political songs, from the 1940s to the present.
British music journalist Lynskey uses copious research and fresh interviews with several writer-performers to chart the evolution of political thought in pop music. The titular “33 revolutions” are individual songs he employs as signposts. He frequently looks at the tunes cursorily, using them as gateways for the topics at hand—the Vietnam and Middle East wars, civil rights, the black-power movement, etc. Using Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol’s hair-raising depiction of a lynching, as the launch point, the author takes in the work of pioneering writers on the Left (Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger) and their ’60s progeny (Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs et al). Lynskey focuses mostly on American and British firebrands, with side trips to Chile (Victor Jara), Africa (Fela Kuti) and Jamaica (Max Romeo, Bob Marley). The author also includes entries on more current acts, like U2, R.E.M., Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine and Steve Earle. Throughout, Lynskey displays complete command of the music and the events that sparked it, and though he writes from a left-field perspective, he is no cheerleader. He is often stingingly critical. He takes John Lennon to task for his murky, off-target writing, mulls the addled, fist-pumping stances of The Clash and Rage, and takes stinging aim at Public Enemy’s intrinsic contradictions and frequently misguided positions. One of the best chapters explicates the inherent folly of “stadium protest,” manifested in such overblown, self-congratulatory ’80s affairs as Live Aid and “We Are the World.” Lynskey also notes that compositions can have their intent obscured and their essence misappropriated, as was the case with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” The book reaches its sobering conclusion in the new millennium with Green Day’s American Idiot, which the author sees as the end of something, and a waning of the music of dissent. “I began this book intending to write a history of a still vital form of music,” he writes. “I finished it wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.”
Lynskey presents a difficult, risky art form in all its complexity.