I remember reading a lot of chatter on social media, during those deceptively carefree days prior to Election Day, that suggested that -– at the very least -– if Trump were to ascend to the highest office in the so-called free world, we’d get some great protest music out of it -– or “punk rock would be good again.”
This blithe suggestion irked me on two levels. For a start, it completely trivialized the ramifications of a Trump win (i.e. the dystopian Hellscape that is our new reality). This is not to say that protest music and/or Punk Rock aren’t valid and meaningful forms of art and expression, but rather that in the grand scheme of things, we would have (and now currently do have) a lot more concrete concerns to grapple with than music. Yes, music can be a vital means of changing hearts and minds, expressing ideas and galvanizing the spirit, but when long-held institutions are being dismantled, universally acknowledged priorities are being upended and personal freedoms and rights are being compromised or just completely stripped away --- on a goddamn daily basis -- it’s hard to get excited new tunes to listen to.
Secondly, while he now looks like fuckin’ Cicero in comparison to the current holder of the office, President George W. Bush sat in the White House for eight long years, and I certainly don’t remember a grand resurgence of empowering protest music, let alone any great Punk Rock. I mean, yeah …. Green Day’s “American Idiot” was certainly well-intentioned, but it wasn’t exactly incendiary (especially since it was later turned into a Broadway musical, for cryin’ out loud). But, y’know, that’s just my opinion, and I’m ultimately just a cranky old man, so fuck do I know?
To be fair, there were exceptions. It’ll come as zero surprise that I’d cite selections from Killing Joke and Firewater that specifically pertained to the Bush Administration, but neither of those estimable ensembles are particularly high profile, in the grand scheme of things. Ministry put out a string of albums with an anti-Bush bent, but it’s not like Jourgensen’s distorted vocals ever made the message particularly discernible. It also didn’t help that Ministry had long since abandoned things like melody years earlier. For the most part, while W. was in office, folks were more musically concerned with who was bringing sexy back and/or dropping it like it was hot.
In the past few weeks, the one track that I keep coming back to is both a bona fide protest song and one technically born of Punk Rock, although the fact that the song is eloquently articulated and musically sophisticated doesn’t immediately jive with what was later defined by the Punk stereotype. “Power in the Darkness,” the title track off the debut album by the Tom Robinson Band (or TRB) arrived on the shelves of discerning record stores in 1978, the same year as the debut albums by arguably less cerebral outfits like Sham 69, Generation X and 999 (all of whom I adore, incidentally). Given TRB’s penchant for outspoken, issue-specific songs (as opposed to just vague sloganeering) and the fact that they could play quite competently, they may have been somewhat overlooked during that era of British Punk, but the sentiments they expressed have taken on a much greater, impactful prescience in ensuing decades. By contrast, where Sham’s “If the Kids Are United (They Will Never Be Divided)” sounds dated and almost quaint in 2017, “Power in the Darkness” still sounds urgent and worryingly timely.
I first heard the song by way of a friend’s college radio program in 1985. I’ve mentioned him before, but my friend Warwick (a senior while I was a freshman) used to routinely borrow records from me for his evening shift on WDUB, and I’d dutifully tune in to hear which he’d play. In between, he spun tracks I was unfamiliar with like “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers, “Backwater” by Brian Eno, “Fortune Teller” by the Rolling Stones (later covered by the afore-cited 999) and, at the start of each of his shows, “Power in the Darkness” by the Tom Robinson Band.
For a start, the TRB played keyboards which – with the contentious exception of the already very contentious Stranglers – seemed to be somewhat of no-no for British Punk Bands at the time (see also facial hair, something the endearingly contrary Stranglers also boasted). And sure, they wore leather jackets, but the TRB were hardly the type of band that was going to vomit onstage or deafen unsuspecting listeners with feedback. No, what made the TRB distinctive was their gift for galvanizing social anthems like “Glad to Be Gay” and “Power in the Darkness.”
Like the best protest songs, “Power..” is entirely catchy, featuring an uplifting chorus and a couple of emphatically barked verses by the great Mr. Robinson himself. But what really drives the song home is the verse delivered after the keyboard solo in the middle-eight, wherein Robinson assumes the persona and voice of a stuffy British patrician waxing reverent of traditionally conservative values. The sermon quickly devolves into a vitriolic anti-diversity rant that in less capable hands would sound cartoony. My beloved Killing Joke attempted a similar approach with their debut song, “Are You Receiving?” about a year later, and I can’t help thinking “Power in the Darkness” was their inspiration.
Enough of my blather. Here’s the Tom Robinson Band track now. While written within and about the British social order of the late 1970’s, it could just as easily apply the antics and fallout of the Trump Administration here in 2017.
PLAY IT LOUD!
Inspired by same, I decided to get my fingers dirty on a platform I normally have no tolerance for. I decided to make a similarly inclined playlist on Spotify. I’d have loved to have included “Power in the Darkness” therein, but it’s not available on Spotify – possibly because of Robinson’s pointed dropping of the “N” word (recited in character and not used in earnest). I also wanted to slip in “Homophobic Asshole” by the Senseless Things and “Pistol Archive” by Missing Foundation, but they can’t be found on Spotify either … which only goes to show you how lame Spotify is and that you should go out and buy the tactile artifacts of music and support your favorite artists that way, but I digress.
With the exception of Moby’s well-intentioned “Erupt and Matter” and the endearingly profane "FDT" by YG & Nipsey Hussle, none of these songs were penned with Trump in mind, but they are all more or less topically applicable, I believe, to our current situation. You, of course, may beg to differ.
Don’t like it? Make your own…