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Protest songs struggle to be heard

In May 1970 Neil Young was relaxing on the porch of his road manager's house in Pescadero, California, when he was handed a copy of Life magazine.

It contained a vivid account of the deaths of four students at the hands of the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war protest earlier that month. On finishing the article, Young picked up a guitar and wrote Ohio, a song that condemned the killings and evoked the outrage that followed.

He then took the next plane to Los Angeles where he and his band, Crosby, Nash, Stills and Young, recorded the song and, with the help of Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun, rushed it into production. Within a matter of days it had hit the shops wrapped in a sleeve that reprinted the section of the Bill of Rights on freedom of assembly.

Reading about Ohio in Dorian Lynskey's history of protest music, one wonders how today's pop musicians might react to such an event. Would they be galvanised into action or would apathy or fear of public opinion prevent them from raising their heads above the parapet?

Given the dearth of classic protest anthems in the last decade, you might assume the latter, though Lynskey presents a different viewpoint. The current problem isn't the shortage of protest songs but that the existing ones have failed to snowball into a movement. With terrible acuity he notes: "The right question is not, 'Where have all the protest songs gone?' but 'Is anybody listening'?''

33 Revolutions Per Minute is a scrupulously researched, elegantly written and highly absorbing account of the intersection of politics and music built around 33 key songs, and the events that yielded them.

Spanning 70 years, it takes us from the excoriating poetry of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit and Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land via the crusading compositions of Bob Dylan, Edwin Starr, Fela Kuti, The Clash and U2. Coming in at nearly 800 pages, it is a monster of a book - its daunting length perhaps a result of the author's determination to adhere to its own clever title.

Lynskey concludes, however, with a heavy heart, that where the job of Sixties singers was to spearhead a revolution, the brief for today's musicians seems to reduce to a single task: to entertain.

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