Today Poprock Record celebrates International Workers’ Day or May Day as is it more generally known. With music, of course. But this is not just another May Day for me, it is the first without my mentor, Ph.D. dissertation supervisor, and friend, Leo Panitch, who passed away last fall from the combined effects of COVID 19 and cancer. Leo was a giant on the political left, a longtime editor of the influential Socialist Register whose research, writing and impact on working class politics continues to be felt in social movements, political parties and amongst critical academics around the world. I don’t know that Leo would necessarily approve of all the musical selections included here today (frankly, he was more of a 1960s cool jazz cat) but I’m certain he’d sign off on the sentiments they express.
Darren Hayman gets things started with a song appropriately entitled “May Day 1894.” The track comes from his 2015 album Chants for Socialists, a project that sets to music a book of poetry of the same name from 19th century English socialist William Morris. The results are a gorgeously fuzzy poprock single, with striking guitar work and a lingering pastoral melody. In keeping with its socialist ethos, the album is available on a ‘pay what you can’ basis. Australia’s The Basics live up to their name, putting forward the most basic question relevant to socialists, namely “What Ever Happened to the Working Class?” The song and its album were a response to the blasé and dismissive attitude of that country’s rightwing government to working people but the song offers no easy answers. Brooklyn’s The Defibulators take a more humorous approach in “The Working Class” yet still give voice to that sense of dislocation many working class people feel about themselves and their life chances.
Not that there’s necessarily a lack of ideas out there. Music fans looking for a bit of programmatic direction can turn to Stoke-on-Trent’s Milky Wimpshake to lay it all out with admirable melodic clarity. Their most recent album is Confessions of an English Marxist, containing such should-be classics as “Capitalism is a Perversion,” “I Don’t Want to Work” and “No War (But the Class War).” The sound here sometimes reminds me Scotland’s Spook School, when it isn’t full on 1977 angry punk. For an American contribution, Austin Texas has The Capitalist Kids betraying Milton Friedman’s ethos over the course of four LPs on tracks like the highly sarcastic “Socialist Nightmare” and the more illuminating “Socialism isn’t a Dirty Word,” delivered with a nineties poppy punk sneer.
Now I know Leo would approve of Ginger Wildheart’s “Benn,” a rare cut from his Ginger’s Christmas Sack featuring clips of longtime English Labour MP Tony Benn speaking over Ginger’s driving musical accompaniment. Though, to tell the truth, I could just listen to Benn sans the music (no offence Ginger!) for hours. With songs like “Otherwise Occupied on Wall Street” and “The Servants Quarters” Jimmy Haber seems to attuned to the struggles of the oppressed. That comes out loud and clear in his melody-drenched, rocking anthem “We Should Start a Revolution.” Jimmy, I second your emotion.
Wrapping up our poprock tribute to May Day, we must turn to the most perfect purveyors of what might best be dubbed ‘agit-pop,’ Chumbawamba. On their 2008 album The Boy Bands Have Won they articulate the appropriate relationship between music and social struggles, noting in the opening cut “When an Old Man Dies” that ‘you should never try to freeze music, to try to maintain a song in that form, to say this is exactly how it was, is a silly way of looking at things’. In other words, music must always change to respond to the needs of the moment, to the struggles we face now. The band so perfectly capture the uncertainty and possibility with the lyrics of the album’s final song, “What We Want”:
We know what we want
We know what we’ve got
But what do we need?
What do we need?
[voice-over] ‘What’s happened to the music is that it’s changing. It’s changing to suit people’s needs now.’
Exactly. Music will always be a part of the struggle for social justice but it must be music that the people who will make change happen (the working class, in all its diversity) can relate to. I’m sure Leo would approve. Today’s post is dedicated to him. Though I march without him this May Day and for all those to come, I’ll keep something about him close to me with these songs.