Saturday, 14 May 2011

Past and Future Politics in Pop

I'm about to slightly repeat myself here, with respect to the analysis of Ghost Town that I wrote about a few weeks ago, but the example I've found to pair with it is so good that I don't care...! These two songs are both political protest songs - Ghost Town (1981) about race relations in the depressed, early-Thatcher UK, and California Uber Alles about what the Dead Kennedys saw (rather hyperbolically!!) as the hippy fascist Jerry Brown, who was about to be re-elected as Governor of California in 1979 and had Presidental ambitions. What goes around comes around, literally in the case of Jerry Brown, who is Governor again!!

This is all well and good, but what I'm interested in is the way both songs project outside their focus on current events, and how this fits with the music. Ghost Town steps back into the past, for a middle 8 that reflects on how the Coventry dance clubs - now empty, like a Ghost Town - used to be thriving and multi-racial:

Do you remember the good old days
Before the ghost town?
We danced and sang,
And the music played inna da Boomtown

What is remarkable about this temporal digression is that it is mirrored in by the music. The beginning of the song prepares C minor - its tonic - through a series of diminished chords. The same sequence - starting at 1.17 in the video - prepares the middle eight, but instead of C minor, it leaps to F# major, over a C# pedal, as great a harmonic displacement as one can have. This moment is very brief however, and it leaps back, via a G7 chord, into C min again.

So, here, 'alien' harmony serves to represent a utopic past tense as a critique of the present. A very similar critique is made by opposite means in California Uber Alles. The jump here is into the future, and a dystopic one at that. This begins in the present (1979), and the first person. Jerry Brown is telling us what will happen if he is reelected as Governor, as a launchpad for the Presidency - basically California as a proto-fascist state and model for the rest of America, albeit one with hippies as the master-race. At 1.58, though, the song slows down radically, without changing the riff, and the lyrics move forward to 1984, which would have been both the end of Brown's term as Governer, hypothetically the beginning of his as President, and conveniently Orwellian :

Now it is 1984
Knock-knock at your front door
It's the suede/denim secret police
They have come for your uncool niece

Come quietly to the camp
You'd look nice as a drawstring lamp
Don't you worry, it's only a shower
For your clothes here's a pretty flower.

This whole, double length, verse becomes a massive accelerando, returning us to the originial tempo - although not the original timeframe, for the final verse. So this is a slightly less 'pure' digression than Ghost Town, which returns to it's original temporal place as it returns to the tonic. However, the relationship between them are really fascinating to me - the similarities of intent and attitude, the differences of means.

Both are using time to be political, and written only 2 years apart. Ghost Town uses harmonic displacement to contrast a happy past with the bad present, whereas California Uber Alles temporal distortion (interestingly, slowing down to move forward) to suggest that the present could entail a catastrophic future.

I'm often banging on, when talking about the relationship between music and narrative, about the inability of music to do tense, that musical time is always operating in a - albeit radically intensified and constantly linked to what has been and will be - present, and I still believe that music on its own can't tell us 'it is happening in another time'. But these songs show how music and lyrics can work together to create time structure in ways that are really fascinating. Any other good examples anyone?


Smullin said...

the verses (simple past) alter with the chorus, a present appositional: the thoughts of the woman harboring the political dissident and fearful of what will come next. (what comes next turns out to the bridge, complete with guitar solo.)

Alex Hills said...

Interesting choice Kevin. I'd argue that the temporal differentiation between verse and chorus isn't matched by musical discrepancy in the same way it is in GT or CuA - there's a different riff in the chorus, but it isn't offset from the rest of the song (key, tempo etc all remain the same)... But lyrically, yes, absolutely.

Smullin said...

The song came to mind because of the political references in your two choices--and in my aural memory the chorus speeds up. This may be the case in the original recording, inaccessible to me now due to German lawyers. The recording I posted has a different, I'd say better, drummer. Anyway, it seemed appropriate to put forward because Vedder writes his lyrics after the music, or at least used to, or at least I'm accusing him of such.