Since its inception, Glastonbury festival has been a safe haven for political dissent but it seems there are limits. Over the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that one of the bands booked to play the festival’s Shangri-La field, “two-bit rave-punk band” Killdren, had released a song called Kill Tory Scum (Before They Kill You). The paper also noted that the critically acclaimed London band Fat White Family had tweeted in 2015, in reference to a news story about the death toll of austerity: “If you voted Tory in the last election you have blood on your hands. Execute the fucking lot of them. SCUM.” Catherine Anderson, chief executive of the Jo Cox Foundation, told the BBC: “The direct incitement of violence and abuse, on any platform and in any sector, is wrong and something that we absolutely reject.” Within hours, Shangri-La had cancelled Killdren’s booking, although Fat White Family are still scheduled to play the Park stage.
The outrage is excessive. It’s obvious from one listen to Kill Tory Scum (“Even if it’s your dad or your mum, kill Tory scum”) that the song is absurd, bratty hyperbole, not to be taken literally. Shangri-La’s hasty statement was rather sanctimonious, claiming that the field is “all about positivity and pacifism, unity and love”: criteria that it would be ridiculous to apply to every lyric by every artist. After they lost their slot, the band defended the “cartoonish and over-the-top nature of everything we do”. Won’t somebody think of the Killdren? The case against Fat White Family is even weaker, based on one four-year-old tweet, but the controversy says a great deal about Britain’s febrile political climate in 2019.
Cartoonish violence has long played a role in protest music and it has always been a risky tactic. In 1992 Body Count’s Cop Killer and Paris’s Bush Killa were at the centre of a fierce culture war over hip-hop that went all the way to the White House and inspired Bill Clinton to affirm his law-and-order bona fides by demonising the rapper Sister Souljah. In 1994 the British indie band the Family Cat inflamed the tabloids with Bring Me the Head of Michael Portillo, while S*M*A*S*H reeled off a hitlist of prominent Tories on (I Want to) Kill Somebody: “I wanna chop their fucking heads off and stick them on a stake.” None of these songs are monuments to subtlety, but for conservative politicians and journalists, there is always mileage in conflating rhetorical violence with the real thing.
What an artist can get away with depends on the political context. The rappers of 1992 were unfortunate enough to become cannon fodder in an election campaign. Primal Scream were obliged to rename their song Bomb the Pentagon in 2001 after al-Qaida literally bombed the Pentagon. Killdren have fallen afoul of a dreadful period in which MPs receive death threats as a matter of course and the boundaries of legitimate protest are hotly contested. Just as throwing milkshakes at rightwing politicians has inspired considerably more handwringing than the old-fashioned practice of hurling eggs, a song called Kill Tory Scum resonates at a different frequency than it would have 10 years ago. For Killdren, the complaint from the Jo Cox Foundation was probably the decisive blow. We now live in a country in which the politically motivated assassination of an MP is a reality for the first time since the heyday of the IRA (crucially, Fat White Family’s tweet predates Cox’s murder) and the connection between rhetoric and lethal physical violence cannot easily be dismissed.
That doesn’t mean, however, that all aggressive language should be off-limits. The people issuing death threats or planning attacks on politicians are not taking their cues from minor punk bands. The vast majority of this activity stems from the far right, whose obsession with “traitors” is mirrored in the language of pro-Brexit tabloids. There is no reasonable way to relate a crude song and an angry tweet, neither of which targeted individuals, to the genuine threats that politicians face. The emotions behind protest do not have to be peaceful to be legitimate. It would be alarming if there were no longer room in music for intemperate rage and satirical fantasies, and if a pop festival became yet another culture-war battlefield.
Still, as Body Count’s Ice-T could tell you, clashes over incendiary lyrics are nothing new and anyone who writes them is pricing in the risk of notoriety. The Killdren incident is not exactly the Sex Pistols on Bill Grundy (and Kill Tory Scum is definitely no Anarchy in the UK) but it proves that protest music still has the power to épater la bourgeoisie. Perhaps the band can consider that a kind of consolation for their cancelled gig and take the opportunity to channel their indignation into better songs.
• Dorian Lynskey is a music writer and the author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs