Jon Langford on what makes an effective protest song
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Seeing as how Jon Langford recently rocked the Wisconsin statehouse, it should come as no surprise that he’s been tapped to host a protest-song writing workshop this weekend at Hull House. What’s more surprising is that Langford doesn’t think he really sets out to write political songs. The A.V. Club caught up with the Waco Brother and Mekon to talk chants, riots, and The Clash.
The A.V. Club: How did you become a protest song go-to guy?
Jon Langford: I don’t know! My new role in life is, apparently, as a protest-song writer. I mean, The Waco Brothers wrote that song “Plenty Tough, Union Made,” in 1997, and suddenly everyone likes it, because it’s about unions and being tough. It’s my sleeper hit.
Maybe I can just play state capitals. I don’t do clubs anymore. I only play outside, freezing my fingers off. I look more like a protest singer, too, because none of the rest of the Wacos will come sing with me. They have lives, and I have to go out on my own.
AVC: What are you going to teach people at this workshop? What’s your process?
JL: I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more I know that I try to avoid writing anything like a protest song. I prefer to write songs that describe everyday life or situations, and then politics are in there somewhere. This will be quite interesting for me, or for anyone thinking they’ll come in and I’ll teach them to write a protest song. I’m quite the wrong person.
Looking back at Mekons and Waco Brothers, there’s a lot of stuff that’s pretty explicitly political, but I don’t know. I hope some Tea Party person will come and want me to help them write slogans and protest chants.
AVC: Yeah, this thing also involves chants. How do you teach those?
JL: I don’t know. I only really know one: “Socialism’s magic. Margaret Thatcher’s tragic.”
AVC: When did you chant that?
JL: Oh, in the late ’70s. We’d also say, “Fight for the right to work,” but that means something totally different now. Our phrase was always, “Sloganeering is implicitly reactionary.”
You know, Mekons was a band that wanted to write songs about meeting girls in the pub, but the backdrop to what we were doing was that we were in this pretty violent town with a lot of street politics, Leeds. There was a lot of racist stuff going on in the North of England. So, we ended up in a lot of campaigns, but that’s not what we set out to do. We were trying to be a wimpy punk band.
I mean, that was our stance, that we were wimpy. Our first single was “Never Been In A Riot.” I’ll probably sing that at this event. It was a reaction to The Clash’s “White Riot.” That song was quite interesting if you lived in London, but by the time it went 200 miles up the M1 to Leeds, it became this racist anthem. The Clash wrote it as a call to solidarity with West Indian youth who were battling police; but by the time it came to Leeds, it was about an actual white riot. I think there’s a lot of danger in ambiguity in slogans and songs.
AVC: What are your favorite protest songs?
JL: I was just listening to “Masters Of War” by Bob Dylan. If you’re going to go totally gloves-off and call it like it is, you can’t get much better than that. There are a lot of protest songs and political music that’s essentially people with puffed up chests doing things that are fairly meaningless, too.
I like Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding.” He wrote that around the time of the Falklands War, which was the first war I really experienced, compared to the perpetual warfare we live through now. It’s a very subtle song about how war is good for the town and the wives are all happy because the men are shipbuilding and going to war. It’s a sad song, but it’s very effective.
I think there are two poles of protest songs, and then there’s a lot of crap in between. Some people think if you say “Smash the system,” that the system gets smashed. And then there’s pop politics, like the guys in U2, where they’re talking about huge megacorporations, but they’re those things themselves. They’re exactly the problem.
AVC: So you don’t think protest songs really work?
JL: I don’t know. I’ve had arguments with people about that. Like, should you use a hammer or a mirror? I think a mirror’s more valuable and important, but there are moments when a good song can be useful. Like “Plenty Tough, Union Made,” it’s great to go up there and sing that song on the Capitol steps, in front of thousands of people. It’s nice to have a song that fits the situation.
We did that with The Executioner’s Last Songs as well. I don’t think you can overestimate how much support and morale that stuff gives to the people who are actually rolling up their sleeves and doing the dirty work. These fly-by-night musicians can string a few words together and encapsulate a feeling, and those people can use that support. Executioner’s was about the death penalty, which is a battle we won, but I didn’t go in thinking, “Let’s write songs about the death penalty.” We just sang murder ballads and talked about the whole concept of death versus death. It was a more interesting way to do things rather than, “It’s awful to kill people. You shouldn’t do it.” That kind of stuff doesn’t provoke enough and it’s too easy.
A lot of protest songs are just too simple to dismiss. I’ll be teaching the subtleties of protest, I suppose. I do hope I have a Tea Party person come, and I have to help them write, “Obama was born in Kenya and shouldn’t be president.” I’ll have to say, “That was a very good song. Well done. You filled the requirements of making a protest song.” Or will I let my feelings known if the song’s contents are total shit? I don’t know.
AVC: Well, I kind of think an event hosted by you and held at the Hull House isn’t going to get a whole bunch of Tea Party activist guests.
JL: You never know. I tend to attract them.