David Widgery

Beating Time
– a reply to Ian Birchall

(Summer 1987)

From International Socialism 2:35, Summer 1987.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Fraternal criticism from comrades is more useful, although harder to come by, than sympathy from liberals or abuse from the class enemy. So I was delighted to read Ian Birchall’s [1] comments on my, Andy Dark and Ruth Gregory’s book about Rock Against Racism, Beating Time [2] and, here, reply to some of them. Birchall and I share an interest in the recent political history of the revolutionary left and a penchant for rock and roll [3] but on other matters we do not agree. It is not, I fear, simply the case that he is in possession of an ‘adequate theoretical framework’ [4] or ‘concept of ideology’ [5] of which I am ignorant but that our ideas are somewhat different; on the purposes of a book like Beating Time, on the nature of Marxist theory on music and the larger questions concerning the variable interactions between avant garde culture and revolutionary politics.

It is perhaps worth starting with some of Birchall’s specific objections as they illustrate his misapprehensions about what Beating Time, and RAR, intended. For while it is undoubtedly the case that the Leyton Buzzards were the Leyton Buzzards and not the Leighton Buzzards and that Ken Warpole is not Ken Walpole, to lay stress on these proofing mistakes while omitting to mention the highly visual format of the book is surely to miss the point. Beating Time is not a scholarly history [6] but an attempt to recreate in book form the fluency between otherwise very separate idioms (concerts, speeches, leaflets, graffiti, posters and mass demonstrations) which the ANL/RAR collaboration made possible. This required us to delete about 40,000 words of text so as to include graphic material which we thought also told the story. And this was done to redress the bias we had felt for some time that the left’s publications have against non-verbal forms of political communication [7], particularly dangerous in a world whose electronic communication technology is increasingly visual.

As someone whose background is as a literary intellectual and journalist, I regard this trend with a good deal of gloom. But it is a technical advance which alters social relations, just like the Pill or the microchip, which we need to bear in mind in our consideration of means of propaganda. Both Lenin and Brecht make specific reference to the new opportunities allowed by radio but the possibilities of transmitting visual images are now beyond their wildest dreams. I am not suggesting we will need to alter the content of our political message but that its mode of transmission requires careful consideration. It is not serious politics to suggest that the revolutionary left will be able to reach a significant size simply by use of the public meeting and the printed newspaper or that they are somehow ‘pure’ in a sense that TV and radio are not. Beating Time’s format is our small blow against the left’s cultural conservatism in this respect, and it is not encouraging that not one socialist reviewer even noticed that this was what we were trying to do. [8]

There is another serious reason for our recreation of the punk ethos in the book rather than writing a routine text-illustration-footnote political history which stressed the formal politics of the period. That was to imply that such polyglot, unpredictable and highly subjective upsurges may often become, by default, the political vehicles adopted by young proletarians in the late twentieth century. [9] Since publication, this (covert) message has been borne out by events in Shanghai, where the December ‘85 clashes began at an open air pop concert, and in Prague where the imprisonment of personnel from the Jazz Section remains a rallying point for political dissidents. We will need ways to communicate our old ideas to these new movements, sending them a reading list is useful but not sufficient.

The RAR experience also gives us some evidence on which to argue against the Marxism Today-Kinnock consensus that the main problem facing the left is ‘presentation’ and that politics are really immaterial if skilfully advertised with a dollop of doo-whop. We try and document exactly the reverse process: RAR’s success in taking uncompromising and initially unpopular political positions (on Ireland, on South Africa and on gay sexuality, far sharper than the ANL could adopt) and on linking rock music and graphic culture back to the militant politics of strikes, marches and street pickets. Instead of arty nihilism (à la McLaren and Reid) or its straightforwardly commercial exploitation (the 501 syndrome), we showed you can use rock and roll culture to transmit basic progressive political messages. So the book was (it can now be revealed) designed specifically to annoy Julie Burchill, [10] and to appeal to Radio One. [11] Indeed when presbyopic critics note, implying condescension, that it’s a bit like a ‘standard text book’ [12], we are delighted. This was only going to be possible if we took the music seriously in its own right rather than just dangled it to attract an audience only to snatch it away to reveal ‘the real polities’.

The same argument applies to RAR itself on a much larger scale Ian raises the question but declines to address it specifically: how does the left reach its modern audience, born after ’68 and brought up on the modern electronic cultures. To limit ourselves solely to the printed word would be an inexcusable conservatism, not least because it would cede areas like popular music to the apostles of the New Right. Certainly the ruling class are not fastidious and have dispensed the ideas of militarism, imperialism and xenophobia in ‘pop’ forms ranging from the music hall to the match box. This is done on the emotional as well as the economic level. As MacKenzie comments: ‘The middle class were able to dress economic benefits in idealistic garb, substituting moral crusade for mercenary motive, romance and adventure for political and military aggression.’ [13] We tried to use popular music the other way round, to kick anti-racist politics into the political vernacular. And we chose pop music, not because of any illusions that it was intrinsically revolutionary, but because we knew the music on which the modern industry’ was based came specifically from the music of collective black resistance to racism and class exploitation (the blues, R and B, reggae). ‘Who shot the sheriff Eric?’ went the classic line in RAR’s first letter to the music press, ‘It sure as hell wasn’t you’. Having seized on this contradiction, we proceeded, like good agitators, to flog it to death. It was the nub of RAR’s case and we approached it again and again in our slogans, by photomontage, in the concerts and in our attacks on the pop ruling class. [14]

This is quite different from the crude approach (a kind of Zhdanovism of skin colour) which says black artists are inherently progressive (which doesn’t explain Lionel Ritchie’s conservatism, far less Duke Ellington’s royalism). [15] And it is different to the view, unfairly attributed to the SWP in a recent otherwise useful study of pop music and politics [16] which states that one’s own favourite band is inherently anti-capitalist. This is the view, for example, of Pete Green who argues implausibly, ‘They wouldn’t put the Talking Heads on the muzaktape for the shopping mall in Virgil Texas, [the music] challenges and subverts the dull monotonous rhythms of capitalism.’ [17] It also caused conflict with the culturally-correct-left Music for Socialism group when we chose to stage the Clash rather than say the Mike Westbook Band’s touching pastiche of the Brecht-Weill band music. [18] RAR took a much more empirical approach. We could do nothing to force politics into pop music but we could take advantage of the fact that political contradictions (of which racism was only one) were to reach the point by 1977 that it would be impossible for music that had any aspiration to artistry (in pop, perhaps 10%) to ignore. Our role was not to dictate to the musicians but to enable them to perform effectively within political contexts. So RAR evolved a loose but democratic internal structure with musicians sitting on a national working committee which met in open session weekly, organised local clubs who used the National Office to put on local live gigs and produced and published an innovative visual newspaper, Temporary Hoarding, which had 22 issues selling an average of 10,000 each over the five-year period. [19] I know little of the internal structure of Red Wedge which has made such a media impact despite its vague and dissipated politics, but I rather doubt if it has an internal democratic structure (or even the political coherence to be properly dubbed ‘centrist’). [20] Certainly, given the left’s rather small experience of successful organisation among young people, RAR deserves more interest than as simply the Ents Division of the ANL.

The sort of arguments Ian uses about the period, that because of the hold of reformism only a tiny proportion of the audience RAR could attract would ever consider joining the revolutionary left, has obvious truth but is a trifle complacent and self-fulfilling: as if membership of the SWP is only permitted to a small fixed proportion of applicants, rather like the higher echelons of the Civil Service. From what we know of successful revolutionary parties, they are delighted by sudden influxes of raw members at times of social crisis. [21] The problem here is surely slightly more complex: RAR and the ANL activity was an upsurge within a downturn which we as a party had not yet evaluated fully. We were therefore not in a fit state to recruit effectively without risking political capsize. And in contrast to what the bourgeois commentators hilariously allege, we are so small a group that our organisational commitment to the practical work of the ANL hardly spared us time to gain the recruits we probably deserved. [22] I well recall a prolonged argument with a very able and experienced graphic designer in which I deployed the Birchall line: activist minority only slowly breaking the hold of bourgeois ideology, gradual remorseless growth of organised party on a number of fronts despite numerous setbacks, eventually union with mass audience and advance to revolutionary crisis to be told, rather devastatingly, ‘The trouble with Socialist Worker is that it wouldn’t be popular even on the night before the Revolution.’ There is always a danger that in periods of prolonged reaction one succumbs to abstract propagandism and the safe reception of eternal verities: the much castigated ‘punk paper’, as Socialist Worker in the Summer of ’78 was dubbed, was in fact the scapegoat for larger political problems and deserves review as a partially successful attempt to influence and organise a non-industrial but highly political mass movement which did not fit the template of the past.

As for the larger question of Marxism and music – the abstract art par excellence – the problems of generating a truly dialectical materialist account are legion and are reflected in the small canon of significant work by Marxists on the subject (as opposed to critical work on the novel, drama and even painting). Such an account would need not merely to make the familiar points about idiom (‘folk’ is progressive) and context (‘folk’ at a union meeting is very progressive) but to seek relations between musical form and the social order in which it arises and explore the uniqueness of acoustic perception. Critics of the left however tend to deal only in very general terms: Mozart as high bourgeois self-confidence, Highland Clearance worksongs as working-class anguish, Rimsky Korsakov as regional nationalism, or to argue by analogy to literature: Marvin Gaye as an exemplar of Romanticism, be-bop in relation to the literary methods of the Beat writers. And if most Marxists can remember a single axiom on the subject of music and politics it is the infamous quote attributed to Lenin by Gorky on Beethoven’s Appassionata, ‘Astonishing, superhuman music ... what miracles people can do ... But I can’t listen often to music, it affects my nerves, makes me want to say kind stupidities and pat the heads of people who, living in this dirty hell, can create such beauty.’ [23]

The fear expressed here, that the harmonies expressed in music might override our need to change the world politically, are echoed in the jazz critic Max Jones’s exchange with Louis Armstrong about the latter’s hit record It’s a Wonderful World; Jones: ‘But it’s not a wonderful world Louis’; Armstrong: ‘I know that Max, but it’s a great tune.’ For what is remarkable about music being performed in a political context is that, quite independently of the intentions of the lyric or the known political allegiances of the musicians, it can express, transmit and evoke emotions which are, literally, beyond words. This is perhaps explained better in German philosophical idealism’s speculation on the nature of music as inherently Utopian and in the notion of Adorno (himself a gifted musician and partisan of post-expressionist atonality) that in some senses acoustic perception is inherently archaic. [24] As opposed to our visual sense organs, the anatomy and the neurology of hearing makes the ear a more passive sense receiver. Those harmonies and rhythms to which we most easily respond are more ancient and thus more universal (which might explain the unpopularity of contemporary music in relation to modern painting).

This relative lack of sophistication of our acoustic culture might throw light on the bizarre division in the work of progressive composers (not sufficiently explained by Stalinism) between their ‘popular’ work and their ‘private’ compositions: Eisler’s work is the best example but the same bifurcation is present in the career of Alan Bush. From the point of view of the music avant garde (both in pop and classical music) the conservatism of the tympanic membrane and temporal lobes is infuriating but it might, conversely, explain the degree to which public performance of music has, almost by default, been able to express political yearning and dissidence against authoritarian orders in the post-war period. Adorno’s fin de siècle disdain blinds him to this possibility. Instead he argues that the musician, like the proletariat in general, is destined to be dominated by its master. And that the relentless commercial exploitation of music made possible by the technical advances in its reproduction inevitably debases it. [25]

But suppose the rise of the pop star is only the end of a process which began with Handel’s British career and that of Haydn in the Napoleonic period, whereby performers and composers themselves became cultural heroes? And if the commercial mass dissemination of the means of transmission and reproduction of music enabled the intended recipients of music-culture to instead become producers? We might then find that post-electronic popular music might present a unique opportunity for the practice of an avant garde art capable of revolutionary purpose. Patti Smith’s famous aphorism that ‘If Mayakovski was alive today, he’d play in a rock band’ might then be true not just because Mayakovski was such a show-off, but because rock music today offered a transmission system of ideas more diffuse than public recitation and poster-reproduction!

As for the specific political orientation of British pop at present, I have argued that there has, as one might expect, been a general overall trend towards conservatism since the late seventies [26], although it has been punctuated by repeated radical outbursts and some consistent dissent by older musicians. I certainly do not regard Band Aid and its imitators, with their essential passivity of audience and corresponding ennoblement of the stars, as radical as it would like to imagine itself (although the attitude of some Socialist Worker correspondents to Geldof and Co. is rather negative; he never said he was going to overthrow imperialism and has landed some useful clouts on Thatcher and the British Delegation at the UN on the way. The problem surely is that the campaign has confirmed an image of Africa as passive and dependent, a particularly inappropriate vision in view of the blinding courage of the townships of South Africa over the same period). [27]

In general prolonged mass unemployment and the accompanying ascendancy of the self-servative mentality have moved popular culture to the right – in music as elsewhere. The dole demoralises, constant policing intimidates, no money’s no fun. Exactly as in the thirties, the sale of palliatives, whether lipstick, sweet tea or Hollywood movies, shoot up. But what is surprising is not that a bunch of imitators take the money and run – this is pop’s oldest story – but how many of punk’s innovations have not been reversed. It is now universal for bands to be racially mixed and women musicians are markedly more prominent. Artists like Pete Townshend and Elvis Costello show (in their different ways) consistency and artistic maturity. [28] And Birchall rightly stresses the relative lack of patriotism and xenophobia in a territory in which they were once dominant. Indeed, in today’s general political climate, I tend to regard the radical tracks that even the likes of Grace Jones and U2 nowadays slip onto their albums as heartening rather than cynical. Indeed the problem is in part that because of the present organisational disorientation on the left, music is political by default, a substitute for politics. [29] The situation is certainly a lot healthier than in 1965 when Birchall, in an earlier essay on pop music, lauded as a ‘breakthrough’ the entry into the Top Twenty of Donovan’s Universal Soldier, Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction and Hedgehoppers Anonymous’s It’s Good News Time. [30]

For perhaps a fairer political yardstick would be against other artists in pop culture. The ‘alternative comedians’ who pressed forward with such noisy radicalism in the early eighties have, with the exception of the great Ben Elton, proved only too keen to do the commercial voice-overs and disappeared into the mainstream far faster than the sixties satirists who made no pretence of leftism. [31] Indeed Alexei Sayle’s diatribes against muesli and social workers are now routine parts of loony left bashing. Radical film making is nearly non-existent in the current British ‘New Wave’ with its sentimental obsessions; instead of R.W. Fassbinder or J.-L. Godard we have Bill Douglas and Stephen Frears. The state of the novel – bar the odd Rushdie or Carter – is well summarised by the award of the ’87 Booker Prize to Kingsley Amis. As an anarchist veteran of Francoism once told me, ‘In periods of prolonged recession, culture becomes more, not less, important.’ In my book Jo Strummer and John Lydon still remain oddly heroic figures.


1. Only Rock and Roll?, International Socialism 2:33.

2. Beating Time (London 1986).

3. Readers of Bailing Out the System (London 1986) will have noted that its chapter titles are, almost without exception, taken from pop and rock songs.

4. Only Rock and Roll?, p. 124.

5. Only Rock and Roll?, p. 125.

6. On the advice of the late Peter Sedgwick, I always add a couple of deliberate errors in books to encourage the sniffer dogs of Orthodox Trotskyism. For example in The Left in Britain (Harmondsworth 1976 please), the chief steward of the October ’68 Vietnam Solidarity demonstration described as ‘an unattached Greek nationalist working at the time around IS’ was, of course, the unattached Irish nationalist Gery Lawless. The deliberate errors in Beating Time include two entirely bogus but quite plausible quotations. Entries on a postcard please.

7. See Told in Pictures, New Society, 23.10.1980: ‘Absolute experts on Sneevliet’s centrism, Slansky’s errors and Kautsky’s positivism may never have seen a cartoon by Grosz or Daumier, let alone Robert Minor or Ron Cobb.’

8. See the comments by the book’s designers in City Limits, No. 247, 5.7.1986, and my unpublished history of the SWP Agit-Prop Committee.

9. See Socialist Worker Review 81, November 1985, for my comments on the current Beat revival considered in this light. Jeremy Marre and Hannah Charlton’s Beats of the Heart (London 1985) is suggestive on idioms of musical resistance in China.

10. Noble Anti-racists or Trot misfits, Observer, 1.7.1986. Ms Burchill’s answer was the latter: RAR was ‘the most pathetic bunch of egos in search of a brain ever assembled.’

11. Janice Long devoted 30 minutes on Radio One to Beating Time, using records that illustrated the political themes of the book.

12. Jon Savage, New Statesman, 30.5.1986, p. 25. Savage, a McLaren acolyte, had leanings to Nazi-chic, see City Limits, 30.10.1981 and my reply on 13.4.1981.

13. See John M. MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire (Manchester 1984). Bernard Simmel, Imperialism and Social Reform (London 1960) is an underestimated study of the social basis for popular imperialism and the extent of support for it in Fabian and Labour circles.

14. See especially Temporary Hoarding, issues 4, 5 and 11.

15. Eric Burdon’s phallic autobiography has the merit of being staunchly anti-racist and anti-imperialist (I Used To Be An Animal But I’m All Right Now) (London 1986). Burdon attributes some of his political consciousness to the efforts of the Animals’ road manager Alex Taws, ‘a red-bearded, bespectacled Trotskyite, a real radical and his radicalism stemmed from his love and knowledge of black music in America which he studied in detail’, p. 58 passim. In an encounter with Nina Simone, he argues black musicians are perfectly capable of exploiting their fellows.

16. John Street, Rebel Rock (Oxford 1986), p. 58. Street’s book has a short bibliography. Dave Harker’s One For the Money (London 1980) has a more ambitious listing by subject. Harker commends the Brooklyn Marxist Sidney Finkelstein, the little-known music theorist. Despite its idiom of demotic Stalinism, Jazz: A People’s Music (1948) remains original and illuminating. There is an interesting account of a discussion on the economics of music between Charlie Parker, the Chaucerian scholar Marshall Stearns and Finkelstein held partly in the toilet of the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, New York, in Ross Russell, The Bird Lives (London 1973). Andrew Motion, The Lamberts (London 1973) gives an account of the class alliance (between upper-class bohemians and proletarian aggression) which founded The Who, although he cannot spell Spector.

17. Socialist Worker Review, January 1987, p. 33. I last heard Take Me To The River in a New Jersey supermarket.

18. A nomination of the shortlived Music for Socialism. The intemperate tone of the letter, often cited by Birchall, to the Socialist Review, July/August 1978, was in protest at the selection of comrades from MFS to ‘interpret’ the Carnival over the heads of the SWP members who had conceived and organised it.

19. The obvious limitations of a campaign against the growth of the National Front rather than racism as a whole are analysed by Paul Gilroy in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (London 1987), p. 144 passim.

20. For example Richard Coles of the Communards, ‘a director of Red Wedge’ sees ‘the object of Red Wedge to try to provoke, assist and help young people to find a political voice, to find a political consciousness and to develop and use their political power … Unfortunately some people think that Red Wedge is an organisation to promote the Labour Party and I think there is a conflict between those two things.’ Fires, Spring 1987, p. 11.

21. See T. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 1 (London 1975), p. 159 passim. See also my comments in Socialist Register 1977 (London 1977), p. 62.

22. See, for example, Blake Baker in The Far Left (London 1981), pp 63–7 or the commentaries written for the Sunday Times at the time by the great liberal thinker Hugo Young.

23. Cited in Robert Conquest, Lenin (London 1972), p. 31.

24. See The Fetishistic Character of Music and the Regression of Hearing, Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung, vol. VII (1938).

25. See T.W. Adorno and H. Eisler esp. Composing for Films (New York 1947). Susan Buck-Morse, The Origin of Negative Dialectics (Hassocks 1977) suggests that part of Adorno’s reaction to the scientific positivism of Stalinism was due to his early (1931) access to the newly discovered Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and ‘the similarity between the young Marx’s conception of the dialectic of labour as a cognitive experience and Schonberg’s conception of the aesthetic experience of composing’, p. 123.

26. See my Punk v. New Pop, The Listener, 28.11.1985.

27. See my Rock Against Apartheid, New Society, 7.2.1986, p. 247: ‘The problem with Bob Geldof’s fairy tale is not that it has failed to emancipate Africa from the vast cash-cropping maw of the west (that was never the intention) but that after a year of fundraising it has left its supporters as ignorant about the real cause of the crisis as before. If anything it has reinforced the image of Africa-as-tragedy: a swollen-headed child sucking at a withered breast, a country that can’t feed itself without the help of white men.’ The Artists Against Apartheid campaign which has been much less publicised, for obvious reasons, and begun in the campaign for the boycott of Bophuthatswana has taken a more radical approach than Band Aid and its successors and imitators.

28. Townshend’s recent comment that ‘music without idealism or social stance is music without meaning – no less entertaining as music perhaps, but less likely to have lasting significance’ is deceptively astute. Ian Dury and Townshend’s current involvement in publishing reminds one of the importance of the literary tradition within pop. Townshend’s own short stories (Horse’s Neck, London 1985) are reminiscent of Paul Bowles or Anna Kavan and if Costello is rock’s John Donne, Morrissey is surely its Denton Welch.

29. This point is beautifully conveyed in the final scene of Jim Cartwright’s play Road when the unemployed teenagers get drunk listening to Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness: soul music offering a passion and an escape that politics do not (Road, London 1986, p. 34). The best documented case of a rock star who offered his services to the British Left (John Lennon, to the International Marxist Group) shows not only that the star was more ‘political’ than his potential mentors but that they had very little idea what to do with his talents. See also John Weiner, Come Together: John Lennon in his time (London 1985) and my comments in New Society, 2.8.1985, and my review of Ray Coleman’s Lennon biography (London Review of Books, 21.2.1985).

30. Ian Birchall, The Rhymes They Are A-changing, International Socialism (first series) 23, Winter 1965, p. 16.

31. See David Houston, Filthy, rich and claptrap, Listener, 19.2.1987 and my Lex is the name ..., New Society, 8.3.1984.

Last updated on 21.5.2012