Agit Disco 20 by Neil Transpontine
I’ve spent many years cogitating on the politics of music and the music of politics so wasn’t quite sure where to start with an Agitdisco mix. So I’ve decided to loosely follow an autobiographical thread of tracks that I associate with politically significant moments in my life.
UK Decay – For my Country (1980)
I grew up in Luton, where UK Decay were the best of the first wave punk bands. ‘For My Country’ is an anti-war song clearly influenced by the First World War poets (Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est in particular). I was at school and getting involved in politics for the first time, helping to set up Luton Peace Campaign which became the local branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, resurgent in the face of plans to locate Cruise nuclear missiles in Britain.
Karma Sutra – Wake the Red King (1985)
In the mid-1980s I was very involved in the anarcho-punk scene in Luton. Political songs were ten a penny in this milieu, but I guess more significantly the singers (mostly) really meant it – there was no real separation between ‘entertainers’ and ‘activists’. The people going to gigs, forming bands, doing zines, were the same people going hunt sabbing and on Stop the City. At that time I seemed to spend large parts of my life in the back of a van, between gigs, demos and animal rights actions.
The main local band in this scene was Karma Sutra. For a little while I took my Wasp synthesiser down to their practices but it didn’t really work out, so I never played with them live. However, this demo tape version of their track Wake the Red King has my rumbling synth tone at the beginning. The title refers to Alice in Wonderland, I can’t make out all the lyrics but it sounds like the kind of situationist-influenced diatribe they specialised in – they later released an album, Daydreams of a Production Line Worker.
No Defences – Keep Running (1985)
When people think about anarcho-punk they often have in mind lots of identikit sub-Crass/Conflict thrash punk bands. There was plenty of that – and some of it was really good – but there was also quite a lot of musical diversity, from more melodic humourists like Blyth Power to mutant funksters like Slave Dance. One of the most interesting bands on the whole scene were No Defences, who as far as I know never released a record apart from a track on a compilation album. They were mesmerising live, delivering monotone litanies of abuse and rage over sophisticated time signatures. I saw them at squat gigs in London (including at the Ambulance Station, Old Kent Road), and they came to Luton to play at a benefit gig we put on at Luton Library Theatre, also featuring Chumbawamba. This track was recorded that night (30.5.1985). – ‘we don’t live anywhere, no sense of being in the world…’
Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl (1993)
I was lucky enough to see some of the great post-punk women-led bands live, including The Slits, The Raincoats, Essential Logic, Au Pairs and the Delta 5. The feminism and sexual politics of that time have had a life long influence on me. Ten years later, these bands started getting their critical dues with the birth of the Riot Grrrl and Queercore scenes. I used to go and see my late friend Katy Watson (of Shocking Pink and Bad Attitude feminist zines) DJing at London queercore clubs including Up to the Elbow and Sick of it All. Bikini Kill were the key US Riot Grrrl band: ‘when she talks I hear the revolution…’.
Chumbawamba – Fitzwilliam (1985)
I was living in Kent when the 1984-5 miners strike started and helped set up a Miners Support Group linked to strikers at the three local pits (now all closed). I was also in Ramsgate in 1985 on the day the Kent miners voted to return to work, ending the strike. It was an intense year for me of pickets, demonstrations, collections and many, many arguments. Chumbawamba played an important role in swinging the anarcho-punk scene behind the strike – initially some people had the ludicrous line of ‘why should I support meat eating men working in an environmentally unsound industry?’. Fitzwilliam describes the end of the strike in a Yorkshire mining village – ‘it won’t be the same in Fitzwilliam again…’ This song was released on ‘Dig This – A Tribute to the Great Strike’. Some years later, I was involved in the Poll Tax Prisoners Support Group (Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign) and we threw a party at our Brixton flat for a couple of people acquitted of charges relating to the 1990 poll tax riot – one of them an ex-miner from that part of Yorkshire.
Hot Ash – Bloody Sunday – This is a Rebel Song (1991)
I went to Derry in 1992 and took part in the demonstration to mark the 20th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when 13 people were killed by British troops. This song, from the 1991 Hot Ash album Who Fears to Speak, is about that event. At the start of this track there is a recording of the Jim O’Neill/Robert Allsopp Memorial Flute Band from New Lodge Road in Belfast. I was involved in the Troops Out Movement and prisoner support at this time and went on lots of Irish marches in London and Belfast. There were always flute bands on the march, giving rise to one of my pet theories (which may have no basis whatsoever) that there is a connection between the popularity of bass drum-led republican and loyalist flute bands in N.Ireland and Scotland and the popularity of bass drum-led variants of electronic dance music in these places (e.g happy hardcore and gabber in the late 1990s).
Planxty – Arthur McBride (1973)
Around this time I started to learn to play the mandolin, and began taking part in music sessions in pubs playing mainly Irish and some Scottish tunes. This was a new kind of collective music making for me, more fluid and inclusive than a band format, with less of a boundary between performers and audience – but with each session having its own unwritten rules of operation. The first song I sang on my own, at a party near Elephant and Castle, was the anti-recruiting song Arthur McBride. I learnt it from the version recorded by Planxty on their 1973 debut album.
Half a Person – The Last of England (2006)
… from here it was a step to writing my own songs. This is a demo version of a little anti-nationalist ditty I have performed a few times, most recently in my ‘Half a Person’ guise at a benefit earlier this year for the Visteon workers at Rampart Social Centre.
McCarthy – The Procession of Popular Capitalism (1987)
I enjoyed the indie-pop jingly jangly guitar scene in the second half of the 1980s and had some great nights at the Camden Falcon, a music pub at its heart. There was little in the way of explicit politics, although the cultivation of a ‘twee’ subjectivity also represented a refusal of ‘adult’ roles of worker/housewife/consumer and (for boys) of macho posturing. Bands like Talulah Gosh were later cited as an influence on the Riot Grrrl scene. McCarthy had a similar sound combined with the much more overtly political lyrics of Malcolm Eden. This song is a typically Brechtian tale of penniless pickpockets and wealthy ‘Captains of Industry’, the latter singing ‘This is your country too! Join our procession, that’s marching onwards to war’.
Joe Smooth – Promised Land (1987)
In the early 1990s I started going to squat raves and then to a whole range of techno and house clubs. This turned my conception of music and politics upside down, along with other aspects of my life. As a result I have come to see the political significance of a musical event as arising from the relations between people rather than the content of a song or performance. So, for instance, a crowd dancing together in a field to a commercial pop record might be more subversive than an audience in a concert hall listening to socialist songs. Dancefloors and festivals can be important for the constitution of communities and political subjects, almost regardless of the soundtrack.
Promised Land is a Chicago house classic that combines this affirmation of community with a hope for a better world, articulated in the religious language frequently used in Black American music: ‘Brothers, Sisters, One Day we will be free. From Fighting, Violence, People Crying in the Streets’.
Atmosfear – Dancing in Outer Space (1979)
I was involved in the Association of Autonomous Astronauts (AAA) from 1995 to 2000. My node of the network was Disconaut AAA, and I was particularly interested in the way space had been used as a speculative playground in jazz, disco and funk, a zone into which could be projected utopian visions of life beyond gravi-capital, racism and poverty (think Sun Ra’s Space is the Place or George Clinton’s Mothership mythos). Atmosfear’s Dancing in Outer Space is a lesser known UK disco/jazz funk classic – this is a Master at Work remix of the track.
Roteraketen – Here to Go (1999)
AAA put out a Rave In Space compilation, and I contributed to this track on it with Jason Skeet (DJ Aphasic). Actually my contribution was mainly supplying the sample and the name. Rote Raketen (red rockets) was the name of a communist cabaret troupe in 1920s Germany. The sample is from Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight. I have an ambivalent attitude to the US and Soviet space programmes, undoubtedly rooted in Cold War industrial militarism, but also representing a period of optimism in the possibility of the continual expansion of human subjectivity. One day community-based spaced exploration will be a reality!
Metatron – Men Who Hate the Law (1993)
I was involved with various projects at the 121 Centre in Brixton in the 1990s, and regularly attended the Dead by Dawn nights in the basement playing some of the hardest techno and breakcore to be heard anywhere. Again it was the crowd, the conversations and the antagonistic sonic attitude that constituted the music’s political dimension rather than any lyrical content. Praxis records was the driving force behind the night, this track is from Christoph Fringelli’s Metatron EP, Speed and Politics.
Lochi – London Acid City (1996)
There was a cycle of struggles in the 1990s UK that encompassed the anti-road movement (Twyford Down, Claremont Road, Newbury…), squat parties and Reclaim the Streets. The soundtrack was often a particular variant of hard trance/acid techno associated with the Liberator DJs and Stay Up Forever records. This track was the scene’s ultimate anthem, I believe it was the first record played on the famous Reclaim the Streets party on the M41 motorway in London in 1996. I took part in the party and later was involved in the RTS street party in Brixton in 1998.
Galliano – Travels the Road, Junglist Dub MIx (1994)
The various radical movements of the early 1990s coalesced in the campaign against the government’s Criminal Justice Act in 1994, which brought in new police powers to deal with protests and raves. The high point was a huge demonstration/party/riot in London’s Hyde Park, which I documented in a Practical History pamphlet at the time, ‘The Battle for Hyde Park: Radicals, Ruffians and Ravers, 1855-1994’. This track is from an anti-CJA compilation album called Taking Liberties.
Roy Rankin & Raymond Naptali – New Cross Fire (1981)
In the last few years I have been doing a lot of research into the radical history of South East London. This has included helping put on the Lewisham ‘77 series of events commemorating the 30th anniversary of the anti-National Front demonstrations, and marking the wider history of racism and resistance in the area. A key historical event was the New Cross Fire in 1981, in which 13 young people died. This is one of a number of reggae tracks about the fire, demonstrating how sound system culture functioned at the time as a means of alternative commentary on current events.
Afrikan Boy – Lidl (2006)
… today that alternative commentary is still alive in grime. I was involved for a while in No Borders and became very aware of the experience of those living at the sharp end of the regime of immigration raids, detention centres and forced deportations. Afrikan Boy, from Nigeria via Woolwich, gives voice to that experience on this track, as well as shoplifting adventures in Lidl and Asda!
99 Posse – Salario Garantito (1992)
I have been influenced a lot over the years by radical ideas and practice from Italy and have visited a few times, most recently earlier this year when I took part in the Electrode festival at the Forte Prenestino social centre in Rome. I first visited in the early 1990s, when I went to the Parco Lambro festival in Milan and visited Radio Sherwood in Padua. 99 Posse are an Italian reggae band named after the Officina 99 social centre in Naples; the title of this song relates to the autonomist demand for a guaranteed income for all, working and unemployed. It comes from a compilation tape called Senza Rabbia Non Essere Felice (Without anger, no happiness) put out in around 1992 by the Centro di Communicazione Antagonista in Bologna.
The Ballistic Brothers – London Hooligan Soul (1995)
Released in 1995, this is a look back over 20 years by the Junior Boys Own posse. It’s their history rather than mine, but there are several points where it overlaps with my own… house music, Ibiza, ‘old bill cracking miners heads’, ‘The Jam at Wembley’, ‘A poll tax riot going on’.
Neil Transpontine has written on music and politics under various guises for publications including Datacide, Alien Underground, Woofah, Mixmag, Eternity, Head, Trangressions, Practical History and Past Tense. He is largely responsible for the blogs ‘History is Made at Night: the politics of musicking and dancing’ and ‘Transpontine’ (South East London eclectica).
image cut out from: ‘Electronic Dream Plant Wasp Synthesizer’ by Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic