ROCK AGAINST HOWARD - Various Artists (Shock)
At the time of writing it is 13 days until the Australian Federal election. Since March 1996 Australia has been led by John Winston Howard, leader of the Federal Liberal Party. For the benefit of I94 Bar patrons – many of whom may not be familiar with the Australian political landscape – Liberal in Australia is a political euphemism for conservative. And John Howard is conservative in the true sense of the word. Howard came to power courtesy of some cleverly crafted political spin that constructed him as the Ordinary Australian, just a guy trying to make things better for all of us, especially the battlers (‘battlers’ is a term loved by the spin doctors of various political persuasions, but has a very nebulous meaning – basically, if you think you’re not getting a decent go from the guvvament, then you’re a battler, regardless of the quantum of your disposable income).
The last federal election was held against the backdrop of the September 11 tragedy, and the Federal Government’s determination to prevent the entry into Australia of suspected illegal immigrants. In ruthless political display that would make Machievelli blush, the Government directly linked refugees from war torn states such as Afghanistan and Iraq to the perpetrators of the Twin Towers terrorist attack. They’re all in it together, we were (un)reliably informed. Inconclusive photographic evidence and bureaucratic Chinese whispers were mashed together to lead to the conclusion that these so-called ‘refugees’ were in fact heartless bastards who’d think nothing of throwing their children into the ocean to blackmail their way into Australia. Since the children overboard incident, Howard has bravely (sic) led Australia into the second Iraq war as part of George W. Bush’s Coalition of the Willing.
This environment of intolerance, suspicion and thinly veiled xenophobic racism is John Howard’s legacy. The prospect of yet another Howard victory at the ballot booth has cajoled Australia’s music industry into action. Rock Against Howard is a 2CD set organised and compliled by Frenzal Rhomb guitarist Lindsay McDougall. It brings together 34 artists whose uniting theme is to encourage everone to vote against John Howard. It mirrors a similar project coming out of the United States (Rock Against Bush – now into its second volume) – but I'm not sure whether the UK alternative music community has managed to get its act together to put out Rock Against Blair.
The music is generally on the mainstream end of alternative – bands like Bodyjar, The Resin Dogs, Frenzal Rhomb and The Fauves are staples of Triple J, and (to be completely critical) there’s little here of a genuinely revolutionary or even anthemic quality to match Kick Out the Jams, White Riot or even (the English Beat’s) Stand Down Margaret. I don't have any time for the insipid sound of Something for Kate and David Bridie's folk-tinged observations have never excited me (I know folk-rock has a long history of political insurgency, but I find it more likely to send the electorate to sleep, not cause them to man the baracades).
That said, there are some very catchy pop songs on this compilation, and the lyrics illustrate the not-so-subtle beauty of Australian comedy and its frequently offensive, insulting overtones.
Disk 1 opens with H-Block 101's Reason Why, a choppy riff fueled quest for answers to unanswered social and political questions. Bodyjar's Is It a Lie continues the interrogatory theme, as it queries the credibility of Howard's demonstrative belief in the existence Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The City Lights' A Big Star is an amusing fuzzy guitar pop ditty reflecting on the Howard government's treatment of those purporting to be disenfranchised or underprivileged. The Anyones' Gun Him Down opens with an almost Enrico Morricone style western whistle but unfortunately doesn't develop fully into a gun slinging critique. Razel gives us the metal tinted The Arse Song, with a opening riff on the fringes of Ace Frehley's better Dressed to Kill work. And no music political commentary would be complete without TISM, in this case the Phillip Ruddock Blues, with some sweet harmonies, and almost Young Talent Time-like scathing observation of the former Immigration Minister's compassionate (sic) views on those living on the margins of society.
Disk 2 contains unreleased (and ‘unreal!’ according to the track listing) material. Toekeo give us John Howard is a Filthy Slut (if he really was, he’d probably be more charismatic), The Herd’s Honest J is a white boy suburban rap on Johnny’s many faults while Pauline Pantsdown reincarnates his/herself as Little Johnny for the amusing verbal montage I’m Sorry. The contributions from Mindsnare and Demon Other (To The Boil, Keepon Raping in the Free World) are very white metal rants (lyrics not discernable against the dominating white metal noise) The Persian Rugs (Dave Faulkner and Brad Shepherd’s post Hoodoo Gurus go-go girl dancing 1960s outfit) contribute Half-Wit, possibly the stand out track on the CD, not just for its ironic juvenile commentary but for the fact that its feel good Banana Splits-like sound is in sharp contrast to the distinctly un-fun world Howard has contributed to. The album concludes with Too Green for Summer, featuring Australian Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett (a man unfortunately chastised, not celebrated, for liberating 6 bottles of wine from a Liberal Party function).
From its inception as a popular music form in the 1950s, rock music has – with minor exceptions – exhibited an anti-establishment theme. The apex of rock music as informed political commentary is often asserted (usually by the baby boomer cultural critics) to be the late 1960s west coast psychedelic rock movement, with bands such as The Grateful Dead and The Great Society combining pop melodies with naked critical observations ont he (square) world around them. The MC5, as all bar patrons will already know, rode to public prominence as the house band for anti-establishment hippie guru John Sinclair – until Sinclair was incarcerated and the 5 decided to choose commercial success over political insurgency.
The punk explosion in the UK in the mid to late 1970s saw the emergence of bands like The Clash and The Mekons who saw it as their responsibility to castigate those in authority for multiple social and economic ills. Maggie Thatcher’s reign of economic rationalist terror caused prominent progressive singer-songwriters like Billy Bragg and Paul Weller to form the loose leftie music collection Red Wedge, which sadly failed to do anything substantive about changing the UK Government (that said, The Style Council’s Money Go Round is probably Weller’s best piece of political commentary, and a great song to boot). Ronald Reagan's tenure as President underpinned the (re) emergence of the punk movement initially with bands like Reagan Youth (who owed much to Jello Biafra's anti-Jerry Brown rants), and subsequently via the Pacific North-West Kill Rock Stars/K Records punk collective.
So what is the common thread from all of this? Unfortunately, it’s that young, loud, snotty, anti-conservative political rhetoric does not have a great history in causing a changing of the political guard. Why is this? I'd venture 'cause the people that really decide elections – the so-called swinging voters – spend little (if any) time in pubs listening to loud rock'n'roll and more time watching tabloid current affairs shows. It's highly unlikely this CD is going to cause a change in voting patterns at the margins that will cause a change in government. But hopefully it will cause younger votes to re-think their political apathy and enrol to vote.
John Howard is possibly the most anti-rock'n'roll person in Australia, if not the world at large. Anthony Albanese, the leftie NSW politician, in a speech to Parliament in 1997, described Howard thus:
"Here is a man who lived at home until he was 32. You can imagine what he was like. Here were young Australians demonstrating against the Vietnam War, listening to the Doors, driving their tie-died kombi vans, and what was John Howard doing? He was at home with mum, wearing his shorts and long white socks, listening to Pat Boone albums and waiting for the Saturday night church dance."
Ain't it the (unfortunate) truth.
I hope that this album does have an effect on 9 October 2004. The only benefit (and it's a long shot) is that Howard, like Thatcher and Reagan before him, will contribute to a thriving underground punk scene. As much as I love my punk music, I'm not sure that makes up for another 3 years of lil' Johnny. - Patrick Emery
For the music:
For the cause:
Postscript - On Saturday 9 October 2004, John Howard's Government was returned to power with an increased majority. In fact, it is possible that Howard will control both the lower house, and the upper house (Senate), meaning that Australia will have no respite from Howard's disturbing blend of jingoist nationalism and compassion free social policies. At the Celibate Rifles gig on Saturday night Kent Steedman asked the audience 'So which one of you voted for John Howard', while at the Scientists show on Monday night, Kim Salmon declared Pissed On Another Planet to describe the only appropriate course of action in the circumstances. Rather than wallow in despair, I have decided to pull out my copy of The Who's Live At Leeds, and play Young Man Blues at full volume. Under Howard, any who's young in body or spirit has got sweet fuck all.
TO THE REVIEWS PAGE
BACK TO THE BAR