Monday, February 14, 2011

Progressive Music Classics. Mark Stewart's "As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade"



Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics.

When I try to think of music that perfectly captures the horror of what it was like to live in America during the era of George W. Bush, this song would probably be at the top of the list. Amazingly, this song dates back a quarter of a century---and yet it could have easily been written specifically about the Bush years.

Reading about the Grammy Awards tonight, it occurred to me that Britain's Mark Stewart will never, ever receive a Grammy or be voted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. (In fact, he's always had great difficulties even getting his records released in the U.S.). And yet for my money, Stewart's music is far more brilliant than any artist who will win a Grammy this year. (He's also infinitely more subversive than any corporate whore like Lady Gaga, with her contrived "controversies," could ever be).

Unlike the disposable Top 40 mediocrities, whose boring music clogs up the airwaves, artists like Stewart have followed their muse and never tailored their music for the radio. Unlike the Top 40 cowardly artists (whose only goal is to sell loads of records) Stewart appears to have a mission: that is, to rip the wool from our eyes and reveal the greedy, soul-less corporate monsters that really control all the levers of power in our "democracy."

If you're looking for a catchy melody, an uplifting lyric, or a groove to get lost in, Stewart's music is definitely not for you. However, if you enjoy uncompromising art and music that has a real message, Stewart is definitely worth a listen.

I first became aware of Stewart via his brilliant post-punk band, The Pop Group, which had a short career in the late 1970s and early 80s (and who recently reformed to play gigs in Europe). When The Pop Group originally folded, Stewart began a solo career, in which he often collaborated with the stunningly brilliant U.K. producer and master of experimental dub, Adrian Sherwood.

Working with backing musicians from early hip-hop artists the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, Stewart created his nightmarish sonic textures. Although he was specifically addressing the evils of Thatcher's Britain, he very well could have been describing Bush's America. Indeed, passages of this song seem to eerily describe the Orwellian Patriot Act, as well as the GOP's ongoing war against organized labor.

Radical music like this never wins Grammys. And I'm sure that's exactly just the way Stewart likes it.

"The military police, act as a private army,
with the bosses.
To break the back of organized labour
to get this cheap, strike-free workforce."

These are lyrics you've never going to hear from the likes of fucking Lady Gaga, or Britney Spears, or Justin Bieber, or any of the other mediocrities crossing the stage to pick up their awards at the corporate whore-fest known as the Grammy Awards.


Jack Jodell said...

Chumbawumba's first album (which featured the track "Tubthumping") about 13 or 14 years ago was reminiscent of this not in musical style, but thematically. It came out right after Britain's Tony Blair had reshaped the Labour Party into an entity that was much less radical. The album is very pro-trade union and revolutionary...

Marc McDonald said...

Hi, Jack, thanks for your comment.
Yes, I remember well the track "Tubthumping."
When I first saw it on MTV, I was stunned---and even more surprised when I heard it on heavy rotation on the radio.
Sadly, I don't think too many Americans thought about that song as anything other than a fun novelty song about drinking. But hopefully, a few people were intrigued enough to check out the band's other, more radical work.
Chumbawamba had actually been around for 15 years before that song, but I don't believe any of their records were previously released in the U.S. market.
Chumbawamba has done a lot of great, radical, subversive stuff over the years. I think they were as surprised as anyone, when after years of toiling in obscurity, they had a major global hit.
They even got an $1.5 million offer from Nike to use the song in a commercial (they told Nike to go fuck themselves, of course).
I read somewhere that they donated proceeds from the song to an Italian anarchist commune.
Right on!
I will be featuring this wonderful band in a future "Progressive Music Classics."
Thanks for reminding me of them.

Anonymous said...

Most rock-based music is corporate product, from the Stones to Zeppelin to anyone today. If it's getting airplay and being used as Super Bowl ad fodder, it's product. And the fact that America's ONLY art form has had only ONE Best New Artist winner tells you even more. (Hint - rock/pop/whatever, whether corporate or indie, is more about lyrics and sociology than it is about music. The fact that most music fans don't know the difference between Jimmy Raney and Christopher Parkening is an indicator.)