Music of Revolt: Music and Politics from Adorno to Zappa and Tahir Square

Ben Watson's talk at How The Light Gets In, Hay-on-Wye 31-v-2011


In this talk I'm going to freely use the term 'great music'. Just to forestall any misunderstandings, by 'great music' I do not mean the classics, the generally accepted masterpieces of the canon. Indeed, I follow Adorno in suspecting that many of these may be dead to us now, or only alive in the most exceptional circumstances. By 'great music', I mean the personal canon of music that means the most to us, that speaks to our inner selves, and which we'll defend to the death against criticism and insults. It doesn't have to be certified by tradition. Indeed, a good half of the music I deem 'great' has so far only been heard by very few people… while the other half is so well known most have forgotten what it's done to them

Music of Revolt - or Revolting Music?

My title is 'Music of Revolt'. When I saw it in the programme for How The Light Gets In, it looked alien, not my sort of title at all, I think it must have come out of a phone call with this festival's organisers. However, because of the multi-faceted nature of words in the English language, it actually suits my purposes better than anything I could make up. 'Music of Revolt': music expressing anger at the state of things and a will to change them, sure. But also 'Revolting Music': music which repels the listener, causing revulsion and horror and panic - a seemingly permanent response to great music, whether we're talking about Stravinsky, Cecil Taylor or the Sex Pistols. Some people try and keep these two sides of 'revolt' separate. In the interest of 'efficient' communication, they would purge political music of any offence, thus making it wholesome, affirmative - and anodyne. We fought the punk wars to end up with … the Eurhythmics. As if revolt isn't always 'revolting' to someone. These sunshine revolutionaries aren't just pie-in-the-sky naïfs when it comes to politics, they also fail when it comes to music. By denying its social determinations, they miss the fact that great music asserts particular communities of communication in time and space, challenging the reduction of all that's ever been to a grey, ordered norm. I'm aware too that a talk on the music of 'revolt' is likely to alienate genuine music lovers, who'll assume that by concentrating on 'political' musics, I'll leave out the stuff that really interests them. On the contrary, I hold that 'political' music in the narrow sense ignores the wellsprings of musical need in the first place, and is therefore barren. Because music can't help being political, and the more so the greater it is. Bluntly put, my thesis is that Hendrix and Coltrane were to the twentieth century what Beethoven was to the nineteenth century. In reshaping musical form they invented new kinds of people for us to be - with new friends and new demands and new attitudes. Indeed, these mere 'musicians' did more to change how we think and behave than whole armies of politicians, or indeed whole armies.

Dialectics vs. the Separation of Music from Politics

Scattered in the writings of Engels and Lenin and Trotsky there are great definitions of dialectics, by which they mean real thinking. Instead of rearranging the dry husks of formal education, dialectics smashes intellectual routine and grapples with lived reality. (In my head), a sort of synthesized quote would go something like:

Dialectics is implacably opposed to metaphysical stasis and fixed ideas. It smashes down every barrier, loosens every soul from traditional servitude, and promises an infinity of self-extension in a starry collective as heady as it is real.

That's not it, of course.

However, like my made-up sentence, when Lenin and Trotsky hymned dialectics, they echo The Communist Manifesto, where Marx and Engels put Hegel on a solid footing, and revealed the basis of his idealist paeans to freedom in capitalist economics.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relationship of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones becomes antiquated before they can ossify.

Do I even need to mention the latest I-Phone here? Every weekday in term time I cross Oxford Street on my cargo bike, taking my daughter to school in Soho, and there's a mobile shop with a window display, and I swear, every two months there's a 'revolution' in the pipeline from Apple Mac. You don't choose to 'be a revolutionary'. The point is to face bravely and squarely and without illusions what capitalism is already doing to us.

One thing I noticed when digging up that famous passage from The Communist Manifesto (I stopped before the even more famous line "all that is solid melts into air", although most people seem to think it comes from Shakespeare, not Marx) … one thing I noticed was Marx calling conservation "the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes". In fashionable theory, analysing something's "conditions of existence" is jargon for talking more profoundly than the next guy about that something. However, the idealism of this discourse means never descending to the specific society which makes certain ideas possible, but always rising to some prior logical axiom. This mode of thought is fundamentally theological: "In the beginning was the word". Marx, on the other hand, is a socialist thinker: both in the sense of fighting for a more just and humane society, but also - and away from any moral imperative - in insisting that any individual's thoughts may only be understood by examining the kind of society that produced them. Up on the dizzy trapeze of abstract reasoning, life takes any form the imagination comes up with: Marx asks, But how do you keep your job?

Which, because the bourgeoisie is constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, is a question facing many at the moment. With the ground under our feet moving so fast, thought has to move fast too. Lenin put it this way: "Some people try and appear 'radical'; I just try to be as radical as reality itself". So, to return to my title: those who draw an unpassable line between the 'music of revolt' as righteous protest music and 'revolting music' as music which offends and repels, are defending a metaphysical distinction which the actuality of today's music doesn't live and breathe by. Music is a prime talking point: in a society in conflict, it is bound to attract opposing judgements. Like the division between politics and music, separating the two meanings of revolt - with us since the 60s in the old pun about 'revolting students' - kills the object of analysis, meaning we can no longer trace its vital life processes. A dialectical analysis must start from the fact that the music of revolt will be revolting to certain people.

Another way of putting it, is that great music is intrinsically political, and thinking otherwise - however portentous any pronouncements about transcendence and eternal values - trivialises it, makes great music irrelevant to anything we do in the here and now. The plaster busts of Shakespeare and Beethoven may have disappeared from people's homes, but the myth of 'genius' is perpetuated in a thousand hack biographies and documentaries. It's harmful because it elevates creativity to a sphere above the masses - and just at the moment that we are capable of making our own history. However polished and money-minded the contemporary art scene may be, it still revolves around concepts born during the ructions of 1968. However moribund and status-driven the world of classical music, it still revolves around Beethoven's rersponse to the French Revolution, and the idea of brave citizens storming the castle of feudal oppression. Mass action creates the baubles which art and commerce fascinate us with.

Theodor Adorno

My title promised you some words on Theodor Adorno (German philosopher and musicologist, 1903-1969). However wild my pronouncements on music might have sounded to you, they're nothing like as wild as what you may read in his writings. A follower of Walter Benjamin, Adorno believed there's something oppressive about starting from received concepts, and that only attention to the specific detail can liberate us from ideology and produce the truth about things. So his writing is the opposite of journalism, in fact, it's a mindfuck! When he was in America in the 1930s, a refugee from the Nazis, Adorno gained employment with Paul Lazarsfeld, pioneer of market research and of techniques such as questionnaires and opinion circles. Lazarsfeld wanted to attract business sponsors to radio, believing that people listening to free broadcasts of symphonies by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky would respond to adverts for mass products like Maxwell House instant coffee. Adorno was commissioned to write about radio listening. His approach was so hostile to the manipulative tenor of marketing science, the results are comical. As a Marxist and a Freudian, he couldn't concede that 'individual free choice' is independent of a technology of communication and its specific power relations. For him, 'individuality' is constructed through such institutions as schools and concerts and radio broadcasts, it's not some readymade, defined entity whose choices external interests 'compete' for. So when he analysed radio listening, he considered the hi-fi buff who spends hours wiring his speakers and tuning his radio, then gets a perfect signal and leaves the room, bored. A composer himself, he listened to the hiss of the radio set before a note was struck, and decided that an authentic use of the radio would be to play with this effect. Broadcasts of classical music concerts had no meaning because the mere sound had been lifted off from the site-specific ritual and drama of in-person attendance.

My best image to explain what Adorno meant is this. When I was 14, I visited the Jeu des Paumes in Paris, which then exhibited a selection of the Salon des Refusés, paintings excluded from official exhibition at the time, but later celebrated as masterpieces of Impressionism. One of them was Olympia by Edouard Manet, actually shown at the Salon in 1865, but included as a harbinger of things to come. Here a prostitute displays her body, but with none of the coy demureness of nineteenth-century erotic postcards, or the come-on challenge of today's porn shots. She stares at you looking jaded and tired, her nude body presented matter-of-factly. You pay your money, here’s what you get. When you see the actual painting, it's not like seeing a reproduction in a book. It's huge. The room seemed too small, there were acres of a her pale, glistening flesh. She's made it impossible for you to "only look above the neck", as my mother used to say. I blushed crimson and left the room quick as I could. Later on, when I read T.J. Clark, I learned that Manet wanted precisely that response: prostitution and kept women were common in the Paris of his day, so instead of concealing erotic entertainment in an elaborate Biblical scene of ancient Babylon like the Salon painters, he aimed to shock his public. A modern woman has stripped herself bare for a customer. Adorno writes powerfully about the opening chords of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - the der-der-derr - and how opening with a full orchestral tutti was meant to make everyone jump out of their seats and pay full attention. On the radio, orchestral music is compressed so that it can provide a continuous sound in limited domestic spaces and motor cars: the Fifth no longer carries its opening shock, and so Beethoven's development of that initial moment becomes meaningless. No amount of noting "the gentle string entry of the second theme" can make up for this impoverishment. Expecting people new to classical music to swoon over Beethoven from radio listening is like expecting people to appreciate Manet's attack on bourgeois sexual hypocrisy by looking at a decal of Olympia on a perfume bottle. Only someone in thrall to snob values could be impressed. Culture is relational and specific, not news of some higher realm trickled down like holy water over the Great Unwashed. When culture is trickled down in this way, it's ideology, a tawdry simulacrum which it's the duty of real, living, active art to deride and mock and tear asunder. It's not for nothing that the greatest American rock band of the 80s was called Culturecide.


Ian Underwood was a member of the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa's band. He was a classically-trained pianist, with the much-prized ability to go from a strong touch to a soft one, a 'skill' ignored by all the great jazz pianists with the exception of Bill Evans, which is maybe why he's not great. At the Royal Albert Hall in 1969, Zappa, laughter edging his voice, announced that the "well-disciplined" Underwood was going to play Mozart's piano sonata in B Flat while the band made "electric noises" and Noel Redding from the Jimi Hendrix Experience performed a parody ballet with the road crew. In the recording available on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 5, Underwood's piano playing is regularly drowned out by audience laughter and applause and 'snorks' from Zappa's road manager. It was as if the degree of personal repression required to achieve a certified performance of Mozart could only be answered by using the most barbarically non-musical forces available. Mind you, this desecration at the Albert Hall was mild compared to other 'atrocities' being committed on concert stages all over Europe at the time. The breakdown of musical institutions was such that it's hard to say who was committing these acts - composers were becoming situationists, musicians were becoming improvisors, electricity was trashing all acoustic rules and perspectives. This was the period when Pierre Boulez pronounced "the most elegant solution to the opera problem would be to burn down the opera houses". It was also the time of the most incredible creativity and productivity in music, all across the board … subsequently, the mass image of the music was reduced to spectacular sales figures (in rock) and career composers and interpreters (in symphonic music), while the real thing only survived underground as Loft Jazz and Free Improvisation in various insalubrious urban spaces.

Now I've made bald assertions about musical value which probably raise more questions than they answer. But they do outline the defence of musical creativity which undergirds my bridge between Zappa and Adorno. This explanation has occurred to me pretty late in the day, gleaned from many years' interest in the radical musics of the 60s. When I first made comparisons between the Zappa and Adorno, I had no such socio-political data to appeal to, they were simply 'bizarre coincidences'. My 'discoveries' were generally met with incredulity. How could the two be compared, they were in different universes! Zappa boasted he didn't read books, while Adorno wrote some of the most difficult books this side of Hegel. At first, the onslaught of coincidences did seem uncanny. I had to develop the weird science of 'Zappology' to account for them. People suggested I was doing 'pataphysics' - Zappataphysics - and told me to mail the results to Fortean Times. Actually, the bizarre coincidences didn't start with Adorno. They started with correspondences I found between Frank Zappa's records, and the lectures on language and poetry given by the poet J.H. Prynne at Cambridge University in the mid-70s. Again, the relationship was fraught. Prynne told me that pop music couldn't sustain the kind of attention critics give literature. On the other side, Zappa fans resented the fact that I introduced names they'd never heard of.

So why did I perservere? Because I refuse to believe that we live in two societies, one middle-class and enlightened and well-read, the other vulgar and commercial and blind. There is certainly an economic logic which means those with money can exploit those without it, but this is a relation, the two sides of society create each other. In the same way that the 'music of revolt', whilst liberating and joyful for some, is disgusting and scary for others, the wealth created for some creates squalor and privation for others. Every super-rich Londoner with a swimming pool in his basement is denying the possibility of fantastic public swimming pools. Adorno and Zappa were both committed to music as a spontaneous, inventive, self-defining thing - a fascinating object because we read in it our subjective impulses and collective dreams. They therefore met similar obstacles, and both made enemies amongst business-as-usual arbiters of taste. They came from different cultural levels but they faced the same monster: the commodification of music under capitalism, which downgrades musical experience in favour of the saleable and already-known.

Phenomenology & Frank Zappa

Adorno called his approach 'phenomenology'. Zappa had no such long word for it, but did the same thing anyway: using immediacy as a criticism of mediation, using direction observation of what's immediately in front of us as a weapon against the reduction of all values to efficiency and shiny white teeth, the blank dream of money. Adorno and Zappa, despite coming from different places, come together as articulations the 60s revolution: a revolution which cannot be understood in terms of previous revolutions. Its rationale was musical: mass, hot and live. That's why Coltrane and Hendrix sound like volcanoes.

Adorno learned his phenomenology from Husserl and Benjamin: it meant taking personal aesthetic experience seriously. It inoculated him forever against the travesty of Marxism presided over by Stalin in the Soviet Union, where Modern Art was persecuted as 'bourgeois decadence'. Where did Zappa's phenomenology come from? Not from Husserl. I believe Zappa learned a lot from growing up as the eldest child. He almost certainly changed his younger siblings' nappies. His songs about food and digestion ('Mr Green Genes') show an awareness of body functions often lacking in non-parents. In the song 'Duke of Prunes', the line "I'll rub your chest" is generally taken as being lewd, but it's actually about pleasing a baby. If you ask a child a question they can't answer they'll 'read' their environment to provide an answer. "What's your favourite colour?" "Buttons." (There's a cardigan with buttons showing on the back of the chair you're sitting in, right in their line of vision). This is Zappa. His so-called 'far out' freaky surrealism is invariably the result of noting what's nearest at hand: you can be sure that the title 'Little Green Scratchy Sweaters and Corduroy Ponce' was observed, not made up. When Zappa encountered Dada, he immediately recognised it as kindred, but he didn't produce the kind of pale photocopy you get from American artists who love European avant-garderie but don't grasp its social motivations. Zappa's art isn't the result of cultural aspiration, it's an organic outgrowth of his youthful obsession with Black R&B and Edgard Varèse, plus his juvenile-delinquent impulse to degrade and invade received 'culture' with elements of his own environment. "Where do you get all the amazing ideas for your songs?" asked a TV host - probably the worst question Zappa was ever asked, as if each of his songs doesn't point like a big neon arrow at each source of inspiration. "Off the autocue, like you!" replied Zappa, at one blow revealing the TV host's lack of spontaneity and being super-bizarre himself - though only by observing what was immediately in front of him.

It's an old romantic cliché that the artist needs to look with the eyes of a child. And before that, of course, it was Jesus's advice on how to get to the kingdom of heaven. Zappa learned from children's immediacy how to derail routinous procedures - boringness - but he didn't adopt the collusive naivety by which weak artists cuddle up to the powers that be. He came over as precocious, aggressive, supersmart. This corresponds to Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, which seeks to open out to archaic and mythical modes of thinking - repressed in modern man according to Freud - but without extinguishing the enlightened ego. It's this aspect of critical rationality - not-to-say sexual realism - which makes Zappa unwelcome at Wire magazine: his satire of fashionable foolishness still bites.

Max Paddison - probably England's most authoritative Adornoist - has pointed out that Zappa made subculture "its own subject matter". Zappa did this, not by attempting to preserve some sacred spot uncontaminated by modernity, but by allowing his psyche to be bombarded and invaded by the products of the culture industry, and then observing the results dispassionately and with amusement. This is how Freud taught us to respond to instinctual drives, an enlightened approach postmodernist theory has done nothing but dim.

Tahrir Square

I've been asked to comment on music and politics from 'Adorno to Zappa to Tahrir Square', which is presumably a call not to get lost in the shifting sands of the 60s, and bring everything up to date. I'm afraid I can't suddenly name an Egyptian singer or pop movement who are doing everything we could wish for. If I was a shameless publicist like Andy Kershaw, I'd tell you to listen to Tinariwen from Libya, who are apparently "an Arab version of the Clash". However, I've got too many musical scruples: Tinariwen sound pretty ordinary to me, not really distinguishable from average Tuareg folk music - just better promoted. This reminds me of the storm Kershaw talked up about Ralph Hawkins in the 80s, only to pack halls up and down the land with listeners for a man of indifferent calibre. In observing the recent events in Cairo - they were exciting, I bought newspapers for the first time in ages - I was inspired by the evidence of mass will, but I found it hard to get my bearings, and see who's real and who's phony.

Adorno and Zappa on World Music

So maybe I should conclude by saying where Adorno and Zappa might lead as an approach to world musics and world events. After all, some say Adorno only has relevance to a European art perview, while Zappa only has relevance to American rock and pop. Well, it's that very disparity that makes a combination of them explosive. The two of them run the gamut of possibilities available to subaltern musics which gain any political momentum or commercial visibility.

Using Adorno's terms, Zappa initiated a campaign of 'non-identity' within commercial music, an active, musically-based polemic against the kind of flattening of musical perspectives and possibilities suggested by Britney Spears becoming a 'worldwide' phenomenon. There's a fervent sympathy for non-standard, unsquare rhythm in Zappa which can be traced to his Sicilian Greek ancestry, and his experience of being low down in the racial pecking order - as a swarthy Mediterranean - at high school. He once commented that his guitar sounded like a bouzouki, and his music fits into a continuum of Mediterranean-rim musics which immediately challenges simplistic oppositions between 'Europe' and 'Islam'. The Indian violinist L. Shankar has recorded with Zappa to great effect. Zappa would never have done what Peter Gabriel - apostle of world music, right-on instigator of WOMAD etc - did to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which was to impose a 4/4 thump on his music, and ruin it. I'd like to think Frank would have been able to do what Bally Sagoo did with his project with Fateh Ali Khan, which was to successfully translate his qawwals and gazals into electric funk, creating an amazing, intoxicating new Bhangra groove, a new beat texture for Bollywood, but I can't imagine Frank being that disco-minded. Zappa's approach in the field of ethnicity reminds me of Fun>Da>Mental, which is to - without purism - allow acoustic folk instruments their own say, but still use them alongside electric guitars and the rest. Peter Gabriel seems to be frightened that if things don't sound like 'normal rock' no-one will buy the record, but that's because he's geared into a system of corporate investment and industry expertise which has to play safe. Such an approach gets very very boring and eventually leads to everyone losing interest. Real breakthroughs happen when some people dare risk doing what they really like, and doing it in public. I thought The Streets might manage it, but it somehow got turned into soap opera instead. Rai music in Algeria was one such outbreak. Lounès Matoub brought these urban attitudes to political articulacy - a kind of Randy Newman figure who mocked both the mullahs and the military from an everyman posture - but he was murdered for his pains. You don't need to understand his Arabic to hear the rasping integrity and cutting edge of his voice. An Adorno/Zappa ear listens to the effect of music on the unthinking body before it starts dealing with morality and politics. With Arabic music, it would first check out the power of the rhythm, its vital momentum, the esprit of the collective, and extent to which it carries the delirium of Sufi liberation from scripture into the modern world for real - a joy that cannot be restricted to the nightclub, but will have to embrace the market square, international relations, babycare, the sayings of children, new sites of political unrest and the relation of all of us to this international phenomenon called capitalism.