1st March 1969: British singer-songwriter John Lennon sings a song, while his wife Yoko Ono lies in bed beside him. The couple are staying in bed in a hotel in Canada, receiving the press and media, as part of a peace protest. (Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Will there ever be a good Covid protest song?

A decent lockdown protest song is about as likely as a vaccine before Christmas

The veteran rock stars of Britain have been grumbling again. After remaining silent during the first lockdown, either because they were unable to write songs or because they were genuinely alarmed at the prospect of a global pandemic wiping them out, they have now placed their heads above the parapet, discovered they are still listened to, and have reverted to type by loudly informing us of their views on Covid-19.

Initially the only naysayer of any particular stature, if that is not too elevated a way of describing him, was Jim Corr, former guitarist of the Irish group The Corrs, who announced that coronavirus was nothing more than a hoax and should be ignored. For his pains, he was publicly lambasted by his countrymen, once-popular novelty duo Jedward, who informed him that he should “leave the whole country ‘breathless’ because of your idiotic behaviour”: the allusion being to the Corrs’ 2000 No 1 hit, a song released when Jedward were nine.

Noel Gallagher has, blessedly, not chosen to write music about his distaste for Covid-19

Yet now, considerably higher-profile musicians have joined the anti-mask, anti-vaccine cause, and are pursuing it with some vigour. Noel Gallagher took a break from lambasting his younger brother Liam to announce that he has refused to wear a mask on libertarian grounds, incorrectly stating “it’s not a law … there’s too many fucking liberties being taken away from us now”. He used the example of how, while he was travelling to Manchester recently, “some guy’s going ‘can you put your mask on, on the train, because the transport police will get on and fine you £1,000. But you don’t have to put it on if you’re eating’”. Gallagher’s response was to say, pithily and accurately, “Oh right, this killer virus that’s sweeping through the train is going to come and attack me but it’s going to see me having a sandwich and go leave him, he’s having his lunch?”

Gallagher also commented, of masks, that “I choose not to wear one and if I get the virus it’s on me, it’s not on anyone else. If every other c**** wearing a mask I’m not going to catch it off them, and if I’ve got it then they’re not going to catch it off me. I think it’s a pisstake. There’s no need for it.”

No doubt a man of his colossal wealth would happily pay the £3200-a-time fine for refusing to wear a mask, and thereby stick to his (undeniably expensive) principles. His attitude was in contrast to that of Liam who, eager as ever to pick a fight with his brother, announced on social media in July that “[I] don’t like [wearing masks] but it’s gotta be done [, I] think it’s a crime to hide this face”, and, more recently, posted a picture of himself in a mask, captioned “No mither no clue up your bum fuck You”. One can assume from this Joycean statement that this is intended as a rebuke to the principal songwriter of Oasis, whose songs he continues to perform at his gigs.

Noel Gallagher has, blessedly, not chosen to write music about his distaste for Covid-19 and the ensuing legislation, but this restraint has not been shared by some of his peers.

Ian Brown, late of the Stone Roses, announced his scepticism on Twitter when he wrote “NO LOCKDOWN NO TESTS NO TRACKS NO MASKS NO VAX”, and then doubled down on his anti-vaccination views by saying “to all of you asking about my medical qualifications I have the same as the computer seller Bill Gates (biggest funder of the World Health Organisation)”. As if he had not made his dissent sufficiently obvious, a song appeared, entitled “Little Seed Big Tree”, which Brown gave the world with the injunction that “NOBODY IS NO FUCKER TO TELL YOU TO WEAR A MASK”.

As one might expect from a man whose lyrical achievements previously included “Your pink fat lips let go a scream / You fry and melt, I love the scene”, Brown is in regrettably trenchant form. On “Little Seed Big Tree”, he declares that we face “A sonic lockdown in your home town / A sonic lockdown, can you feel me now? / A sonic lockdown, state shakedown, a mass breakdown / Put your muzzle on, get back in your basket / Get behind your doors cos living here is drastic.” For the first and probably last time, he has found common cause with Peter Hitchens, who is equally exercised by the use of “muzzles” in public.

Yet Brown’s lyrics are Leonard Cohen-esque in their richness and profundity when compared to the latest offerings from Van Morrison, who, at the age of 75 – and therefore firmly in the “at risk” category from any further coronavirus outbreak – decided that he, too, must weigh in. He announced that “I’m not telling people what to do or think. The government is doing a great job of that already. It’s about freedom of choice. I believe people should have the right to think for themselves.” This might seem admirably nuanced, but then one sees that his first new song is called “No More Lockdown”, with “Born To Be Free” and “As I Walked Out” following behind. These titles do not seem unambiguous in their intentions.

Van Morrison’s banal lyrics run the risk of irreparably tarnishing a great artistic career

They are not. On the first, Van the Man sings about “No more lockdown / No more government overreach / No more fascist bullies / Disturbing our peace / No more taking of our freedom / And our God-given rights / Pretending it’s for our safety / When it’s really to enslave”. He then reaches William McGonagall-esque depths of banality on “As I Walked Out”, which contains the lyric “the government website from the 21 March 2020 / It said Covid-19 was no longer high risk”, and declares “As I walked out / All the streets were empty / The government said Everyone should stay home/ And they spread fear and loathing/ And no hope for the future/ Not many did question / This very strange move.” Those who regard Van Morrison as a lyricist of considerable gifts and insight might feel that these sentiments, heartfelt and indeed understandable though they are, run the risk of irreparably tarnishing a great artistic career.

He recently called for “fellow singers, musicians, writers, producers, promoters and others in the industry to fight with me on this. Come forward, stand up, fight the pseudo-science and speak up.” While Brown and Gallagher have responded to the invitation in their own inimitable fashions, the rest of the industry remains either silent or unwilling to join them. After a high-profile charity concert earlier in the year, and one not without its own challenges, many leading rock stars, frustrated from their continued absence from live performance, have continued to either work on new material at home or simply go about their everyday lives without the usual pressure and expectation that they should be performing their hits night after night in identikit arenas. They have not devoted themselves to anti-vaccination or anti-mask rhetoric.

It is therefore telling that rock’s foremost and loudest provocateur, Morrissey has so far remained silent. Veteran Moz-watchers will know that this ominous quiet about a situation that he would loudly share his opinion about portends something is coming. It would be no surprise whatsoever to see him release an entire album of songs castigating the government and the populace alike for their craven and foolish attitude towards the coronavirus outbreak, blaming it on the carnivorous denizens of China and finally wishing that we should all die horribly for our sins – which, no doubt, include not buying his albums in anything like the numbers in which they used to sell.

We are as far from a memorable musical response to this strange year as we are a vaccine

There has always been a place in music for protest songs, many of which, such as Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”, Robert Wyatt’s “Shipbuilding” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” are rightfully regarded as highlights in their composers’ careers. However, some of the more self-righteous musicians of our age have managed to produce similarly unlistenable songs to commemorate causes that they consider important: one thinks miserably of Paul McCartney’s “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” and John Lennon’s even more lamentable “The Luck of the Irish” (“so embarrassingly puerile as to constitute an advertisement against itself” – Rolling Stone), or Sting’s meditation on the Cold War, “Russians”, which loftily informs its incredulous listeners that “In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets/ Mister Krushchev said, ‘We will bury you’”, even as the artist formerly known as Gordon assures us “I don’t subscribe to this point of view/ It’d be such an ignorant thing to do”.

The current global situation is a truly dire one, made a hundred times worse by the uncertain and often tin-eared response from governments. There should be anger and protest, as well as carefully directed satire, and it is perfectly likely that a great musician will soon manage to articulate the rage and fear that people are currently feeling. Unfortunately, judging by the lamentable results that we have so far seen from rock stars who have never been particularly notable for their light-hearted bonhomie (although I happily acknowledge that Noel Gallagher, when on curmudgeonly song, is one of the funniest men in the industry), we are about as far from a memorable musical response to this strange and unhappy year as we are a vaccine. One wishes, for all our sakes, that the two should arrive, preferably together, before very long.

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