Matthew Herbert’s political music playlist


Electronic musician, band leader, dj, composer, producer, Matthew Herbert’s selects his political music playlist.

Source: The Guardian

Tom Waits – Step Right Up

I first heard this on the Annie Nightingale show at some point in the early 80s. Her show came immediately after the Top 40 on Radio 1 and it was a shock to hear such an engaged political position after the shiny pop stuff like Belinda Carlisle. It’s amazing there isn’t a similar, well-known track like this around these days when we need it most. Instead, we get Billionaire by Bruno Mars – a political gesture of a different kind.

Moby – Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?

No other record of recent times exemplifies the role that advertising now plays in disseminating music, and how musicians now deliberately attach their work to products to be able to make money and promote themselves. We always think of political music as being of the left, but this is the most political work I can think of from the last 20 years, and it’s crudely capitalistic. The fact that it’s a white male using black (often female) voices is equally vital to the criticism that the record and its subsequent commercial exploitation is a pungent expression of a distilled, modern neoliberalism.

Labi Siffre – Lose Myself in You

An unsung hero of British music who struggled to bring his brilliant songwriting to the mainstream after being dropped by labels for his refusal to stay quiet about being gay. Record companies are as much to blame for censorship as radio stations, not only of political music but of music and ideas that don’t fit the status quo. He did have a hit with (Something Inside) So Strong, which is typical of his emotional, moral perspective, but not representative of the invention and clarity that characterises much of his best songwriting from the early 70s. One assumes that nowadays the music industry is more tolerant of difference and variation, but with such corporate structures and a business model in choppy waters, genuine risks are still rarely taken, resulting in a blur of conservative conformity.

Billy Bragg – Levi Stubbs’ Tears

Nearly all of Bragg’s albums from the 80s were a vital part of my political musical puberty. The shock of seeing the notice on the front of Workers Playtime in Our Price that said “Capitalism is killing music – pay no more than £4.99 for this record” is still with me. There is a maleness to the bloke-plus-guitar instrumentation that has become a standard shorthand for authenticity that I’m less enamoured with, but he’s a brilliant poet and melody writer, and his songs introduced me to all sorts of political ideas – from the importance of collective action, to Robert Oppenheimer, to the mess of Mao.

NWA – Fuck Tha Police

I grew up on a small estate in a village in the country with no TV and church every week. The policeman lived over the road and occasionally came for tea. The shock, then, of hearing someone say “Fuck Tha Police” was profound: hardly subtle, but then injustice itself rarely is. Later, I realised Public Enemy were more on the money politically, but there was a crucial sense of place that was an eyeopener here. Compton wasn’t just a country, an area or even a city: it was a county. That sense of identity located in a precise place was something that again was at odds with my understanding of which stories music usually carried. However conflicted some of NWA’s messages were, there was still a tangible sense that these were voices rarely heard – and that felt electric at the time.

Charlie Puth feat Meghan Trainor – Marvin Gaye

Now that even oil companies are accepting of climate change, the status quo of constant growth and consumption becomes an extremely dangerous state. Seen through this prism, then, in its wilfully naive insularity, this song is toxic waste. Not all music needs to be deadly serious, or try to change the world or smash capitalism, but with the ridiculous pastiche of the 50s – both musically and in the video – you can’t escape the feeling that shit like this is made by the CIA to push the idea that Americana is still on top, and that we shouldn’t take anything too seriously. Everyone involved in making this record should get a minimum of three points on their entertainment licence. The fact that the top 10 is overrun with this painfully comfortable but overly-sexual fluff ironically feels infantilising for producer and audience alike, and is the witting soundtrack to economic and ecological collapse. What’s going on?


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