“The best political music is generally more sociological in bent”

A journalist suggests the best political music is sociological music:

[T]he most explicit political songs are often pedantic and cringeworthy, while the best political music is generally more sociological in bent, from Springsteen’s best to Kendrick Lamar’s vivid rhymes.

The first two songs that came to mind were these: “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles and “Common People” by Pulp. Both songs are sociological commentary with the first considering the lonely life and the second addressing a woman who wants to slum it and experience the life of “common people.” One is sharper in its approach than the other – Paul McCartney has a certain distance from the character while Jarvis Cocker suggests the girl doesn’t really understand what is going on – but neither is overtly political even as they draw attention to important social issues.

Yet, where exactly the line is between the overly political and strongly sociological is difficult to determine. Some of this may be on the political activities of the music artist; if they are known activists, their music may be interpreted in such a way. Some songs have a beat or rhythm that inspires group behavior – maybe a more martial or driving beat? – while a song like “Eleanor Rigby” wouldn’t exactly inspire physical action with its string quartet. Songs can also later become adopted by protest movements or political leaders without the support of the artists. And, most mass media sources don’t do a whole lot with angry music – much pop or rock music is upbeat or is more veiled if it is about negative topics.

The Beatles on immigration in “Get Back”

One discussion topic among The Beatles during the late 1960s would have some bearing on current discussions: immigration. Their hit single (#1 in both the US and Britain) “Get Back” was originally about immigration though lyric changes obscure the initial message.

Here is what the Wikipedia entry on the song “Get Back” has to say:

“Get Back” is unusual in the Beatles’ canon in that almost every moment of the song’s evolution has been extensively documented, from its beginning as an offhand riff to its final mixing in several versions. Much of this documentation is in the form of illegal (but widely available) bootleg recordings, and is recounted in the book Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles’ Let It Be Disaster by Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt…

Around the time he was developing the lyrics to “Get Back”, McCartney satirised the “Rivers of Blood speech” by former British Cabinet minister Enoch Powell in a brief jam that has become known as the “Commonwealth Song”. The lyrics included a line “You’d better get back to your Commonwealth homes”. The group improvised various temporary lyrics for “Get Back” leading to what has become known in Beatles’ folklore as the “No Pakistanis” version.This version is more racially charged, and addresses attitudes toward immigrants in America and Britain: “…don’t need no Puerto Ricans living in the USA”; and “don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs”. In an interview in Playboy magazine in 1980, Lennon described it as “…a better version of ‘Lady Madonna’. You know, a potboiler rewrite.”

On 23 January, the group (now in Apple Studios)[ tried to record the song properly; bootleg recordings preserve a conversation between McCartney and Harrison between takes discussing the song, and McCartney explaining the original “protest song” concept. The recording captures the group deciding to drop the third verse largely because McCartney does not feel the verse is of high enough quality, although he likes the scanning of the word “Pakistani”. Here the song solidifies in its two-verse, three-solo format.

Watch and listen to the never-released song, “Commonwealth,” here:

Last weekend, when I wasn’t delivering meals to the homebound, I was “researching” Beatles bootlegs. And I discovered the so-called “Commonwealth Song.” It’s not so much a song as it is an extended improvisation during the interminable “Get Back” studio sessions in 1969 (in fact, some theorize that “The Commonwealth Song” is a prototype for “Get Back”). “Commonwealth” name-checks Enoch Powell (the Tom Tancredo of his day, or Thilo Sarazin, if you prefer a German reference), who had delivered his anti-immigrant “Rivers of Blood” speech the previous year. “Commonwealth” was Paul McCartney’s mocking response. All of which shows that the sun never sets on some issues. It’s also nice to know that as late as 1969, Lennon and McCartney could still crack each other up, especially when John interjects his high-pitched “Yes!”

But the Beatles were not in support of Enoch Powell or anti-immigration policies – they were trying to satirize the debate:

The most infamous of the unreleased Get Back versions is known as No Pakistanis, and contained the line “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs”. While mostly unfinished, the song did include a mumbled rhyming couplet which paired the words ‘Puerto Rican’ with ‘mohican’.

Various demo versions of this early version were recorded, one of which contains the following lines:

Meanwhile back at home too many Pakistanis
Living in a council flat
Candidate Macmillan, tell us what your plan is
Won’t you tell us where you’re at?

Despite being satirical in nature, it didn’t prevent accusations of racism being levelled at McCartney for years to come, after the Get Back bootlegs became public.

When we were doing Let It Be, there were a couple of verses to Get Back which were actually not racist at all – they were anti-racist. There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living 16 to a room or whatever. So in one of the verses of Get Back, which we were making up on the set of Let It Be, one of the outtakes has something about ‘too many Pakistanis living in a council flat’ – that’s the line. Which to me was actually talking out against overcrowding for Pakistanis… If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles. I mean, all our favourite people were always black. We were kind of the first people to open international eyes, in a way, to Motown.
Paul McCartney
Rolling Stone, 1986

Today, could a popular musical act speak openly about controversial issues or would they, like the Beatles, have to tone down some of their lyrics and ideas in order to not be misunderstood by the mass market? If the Beatles were opposed to immigration, would people have different opinions about them or does the quality of their music overshadow some of their political leanings? And how many Beatles fans had any idea of what “Get Back” was actually about?