Post-Brexit punk and austerity anthems - 2017's political rock resurgence

Angry about the new US president, transgender rights, Europhobia, the NHS? Musicians are once again finding the voice to protest and inspire the next generation of activists

It was Copernicus who first calculated that the horridness of any given government is inversely proportionate to the brilliance of the rebel rock music it inspires. It became known as Bragg’s law, but in the 21st century this reliable age-old adage broke down. Iraq, student fees, rocketing rents pricing musicians out of cultural hubs, banks causing a global recession, banks getting bailed out so they can keep paying themselves the sort of bonuses that ancient Egyptian kings used to get buried with, creeping NHS privatisation, austerity, the rise of the far right, mass corporate tax avoidance, Syria and TTIP; all of this came, and largely stayed, with barely a whimper of objection from the rock community.

The phrase: “I don’t know enough to comment about politics,” became an interview staple to rival “Actually, we’d never even heard [insert hugely popular band they’re blatantly ripping off] until the press started comparing us to them.” Those few voices of sense-talking social and political dissent – your Jon McClures, the Enemys, King Blueses and Get Cape, Wear Cape, Flys– were unfairly cordoned off and discredited like rock’n’roll Corbyns, flapped away as throwbacks to the days that angry working class kids could afford to be in bands.

The nadir came in the run-up to the 2015 election, when the Horrors’ gormless numpty of a frontman, Faris Badwan, opined: “I don’t think you get anything from voting… I just think voting is for people who don’t have their own imagination. It’s for a different generation.” Arguably the dumbest thing Donald Trump has never tweeted. With Charlotte Church looking like a molotov-lobbing Sandinista by comparison, and the likes of MIA, Solange and rising grime acts picking up the subversive social baton that rock had dropped, we’d reached the point where, if you wanted a political opinion from rock music, you pretty much had to wait for Roger Waters to scrawl it on the side of an inflatable pig.

The causes? New Labour essentially proving itself to be Thatcherism via a shit band at university, leaving left-wing protest musicians disheartened, betrayed and with no mainstream solution to rally behind. Then there is the post-Britpop assimilation of guitar music into the major-label mainstream, meaning that guitar bands had become subject to the same media advice that the chart pop acts were – to sidestep political questions for the sake of their careers. And crucially, as it’s turned out, that world events hadn’t yet become unavoidably terrifying enough. Until now.

When Britain’s youth faced an uncertain post-Brexit future thanks to the votes of their gullible Middle England grandparents and when America voted in WWIII in a bad wig, the frog suddenly woke up to the fact that the water was beginning to boil. What was, a year or so ago, an unfocussed trickle of cross-genre malcontents – Kate Tempest, Savages, Sleaford Mods, Fat White Family, Young Fathers, the ever-outspoken Matt Bellamy, Bobby Gillespie and Rou Reynolds from Enter Shikari – has become a typhoon of protest music.

Trump’s rise alone inspired everyone from Arcade Fire to Gorillaz, Sleater-Kinney, Boss Hog, Stephen Malkmus, Angel Olsen and Green Day to decry him in song, and various members of Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine and Cypress Hill even formed a supergroup, Prophets of Rage, to bawl him out. Fiona Apple’s even had a crack, releasing songs called Trump’s Nuts Roasting On an Open Fire and Tiny Hands which must, for Trump, feel like being bitten on the balls by the Snowdog.

Now 2017 looks set to be awash with vitriolic political guitar albums. To the fore are Manchester’s Cabbage, creators of the snappily titled Uber Capitalist Death Trade EP, who somehow crept onto the BBC Sound of 2017 longlist with songs about austerity, Jeremy Corbyn, class war, Brexit, Kim Jong-Un, protecting the NHS, the royal family and calls for the head of Donald Trump. Perhaps aware of the Chumbawamba-ness of such themes, guitarist and vocalist Joe Martin denies that the band are activists and claims: “It’s such a bizarre political climate at the moment, it’s just occupying our minds”, but other new bands are on more of a mission.

Vant Photograph: Record Company Handout

Take Vant, a London-via-Seaham alt-rock four-piece with Joe Strummer’s principles thrumming in their veins and the blood of Boris on the boot-heels. They see every gig as a form of activism and protest. “For me, rock music has always gone hand in hand with making a stand, being on the forefront of a movement and trying to change the world,” singer Mattie Vant has said, “no-one else in rock music was saying anything that meant anything – we’re laying down the gauntlet.” Hence a debut album Dumb Blood directly tackling the war in Syria, US gun laws, global warming, religion, the rise of “an accidental Nazi generation” and, on tracks such as Time and Money and Headed for the Sun, the fact that “we’re probably going to be the first species in history that’s actively sought its own extinction.”

For Mattie, rock music is crucial in harnessing the spirit of a new generation of activists. “There’s a lot of kids that feel it’s acceptable to talk about some of the things we sing about,” he says. “You can’t scroll though your Facebook or Twitter feed without stumbling on articles that have relevance and importance, so kids are way more switched on, but it only exists online. It’s important to get people to have conversations with their family or at school or going to protests and becoming involved with it again.”

Video: Sponge State, by Norway’s Sløtface

On a more high-culture level than Vant’s summary of the UK/US special relationship (“You’re from England, well hello there brother / Keep sucking my dick while my friend fucks your mother”) are Sundara Karma, whose debut album Youth Is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect combines tracks inspired by the work of Plato, Wilde, Manet and Bram Stoker with diatribes against consumer capitalism and the shadowy forces at the wheel. “For me it’s so obvious what’s wrong with the world at the moment and what the solutions would be,” says singer Oscar Pollock, “improving education for example, and taxing companies that have committed crimes. I don’t understand why those things aren’t happening. There must be some dodgy shit going on if these obvious things aren’t being addressed.”

Pollock is also a marginal figure in the new invasion of gender-fluid acts such as HMLTD and PWR BTTM – whose very existence is a social and political statement; the latter have even been picketed by transphobic groups in the US and often end their sets with an anti-“fascist” exorcism ritual. And this is all just the tip of an iceberg bobbing inexorably to the surface. Norway’s feminist pop-punks Sløtface were arrested for playing a show to environmental protesters on a mountain.

Bristol punk ranters Idles recently released Mother, a song about the deterioration of the NHS which singer Joe Talbot noticed as his mother died, containing the line “the best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich”. Jamie MacColl of Bombay Bicycle Club was invited on to Question Time; Mallory Knox’s new album advocates “a species-wide revolution of the mind” to combat political corruption. And south London’s Shame are self-confessed Sadiqophiles. “Hopefully Sadiq can tackle the ridiculous housing situation young Londoners are facing and maybe save London’s nightlife while he’s at it,” they wrote in an open letter after the mayor’s election. “It would be nice to see more bands being vocal about their politics… a lot of bands tiptoe around it to avoid offending potential fans which isn’t really what being in a band is for us.”

With chart careers no longer an issue – or even much of a possibility – the rock rebels are gathering once more at the gates, furious that their generation’s voice isn’t being heard and prepared to shout from whatever platform they can scramble to. Lets hope their machines really do kill fascists.


Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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