When rock and roll music first came to prominence, it was considered rebellious, anti-establishment and even subversive. The product of mostly black American musicians, it quickly and sadly became a linchpin for white American racism.
When young white men started playing rock and roll, rock’s anti-establishment credentials remained much the same. A centrist or even centre-left public figure could barely embrace Chuck Berry any more than Buddy Holly without being accused of poor taste or trying to pander to ‘delinquent youth’.
It must be said that in the Soviet Union, black music was embraced without a hint of racism, although rock and roll still remained taboo, unlike for example, the vocal music of Paul Robeson which was beloved in the USSR.
When The Beatles came onto the scene in the early 1960s, things weren’t very different. The Beatles horrified many of the ‘old guard’ but throughout the 1960s as The Beatles became increasingly musically proficient, innovative and mature song-writers, they gradually became accepted by mainstream ‘centrist’ culture.
Leonard Bernstein who himself was controversial for composing jazz influenced music instead of sticking to conducting the works of Beethoven and other classical and romantic composers, famously gave The Beatles his stamp of approval , thus making it widely acceptable for parents to listen to their children’s records.
Again, contrary to mythology, The Beatles were treated much the same by the US and USSR establishments. Both broadly thought that The Beatles were a subversive influence on established culture, but Soviet kids, like American kids loved the Beatles and both got their hands on the records however they could.
The Beatles remain popular across generations in modern Russia, just as they do everywhere else. The harmless nature of the Beatles is made apparent by the fact that right-wing Americans thought the music was un-Christian, whilst many in the Soviet Union thought the music was decadent and bourgeois. It couldn’t really be both and in fact, it was generally neither, especially Paul McCartney composed tunes.
Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, when rock and rollers did decide to get political (which wasn’t as often as many would pretend to remember), it was almost always left, occasionally even far left.
But in 1976 that all changed. Whilst many remember 1976 as the year of ‘punk’, a movement often thought of as left of centre, it was also the year that rock’s first fully-fledged libertarian rock album was released; 2112 by the Canadian trio Rush.
The album, like many Rush albums after it, dealt with the libertarian themes of personal freedom against the encroachment of big government. This freedom included the freedom to play music, in this case rock music.
All of the sudden, rock music had gone from the ‘demon’ that was going to uproot civilisation, to a sacred individual right that could be infringed upon by big brother.
Just to make things abundantly clear, the album’s art work featured a lone man standing forcefully against a red star, said to represent collectivism.
As Rush’s libertarian stance became more widely known, the famously snobby liberal to hard-left British music press took note. Although strictly speaking, libertarianism isn’t classical conservatism per se, many elements of libertarianism became adopted in the mid to late 20th century by the conservative movement in the US and elsewhere in the west, including in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
For the British rock press of the 1970s this was worryingly more taboo than paedophilia, something widely ignored in the British music industry of the time and for a long while after.
Things came to a head in 1978 when Barry Miles of the New Musical Express interviewed the band in London. Miles confessed that the only reason he got to interview Rush was because,
“I was the only one on NME who knew who Ayn Rand was – simple as that”.
He later described Rand (for whom Rand Paul is named, incidentally) as
“…an obscure ultra-right-wing American cult writer of the late 30s and early 40s”.
A more accurate description of Ayn Rand would be a Russian born novelist and political thinker who advocated for a kind of ultra-libertarian/hyper-individualism called Objectivism. For the record, I do not subscribe to Rand’s views, but nor do I deride them as dangerous. Some of it is in fact quite interesting, not least because her views became increasingly influential after her death in 1982.
Rand became an inspirational force for Rush’s drummer/lyricist, the often cerebral and professorial Neil Peart.
Peart described the ‘Rush philosophy’ in 1978:
“You have to have principles that firmly apply to every single situation. I think a country has to be run that way. That you have a guiding set of principles that are absolutely immutable – can never be changed by anything. That’s the only way!
The government’s only functions are to protect the rights of the individual, therefore you need a police force and an army. You need an army to protect the individuals and a law court to settle their disputes …”
Of course this is nothing different than what one might here at a Ron Paul lecture or possibly even a Ron Paul lookalike contest. But in 1970s hard-left liberal Britain, it was sacrilege.
Of course, Miles obligatorily compared Peart’s statement to the guiding principles of Hitler. One must at this point understand that anything that wasn’t hard left in ‘too cool for school’ 1970s Britain, was automatically ‘fascist’. Hence this statement from Miles might shock, but it ought not to surprise. It wasn’t an original thought, but rather highly derivative of its time and place.
What is significant here though is not that a British leftist could misconstrue libertarianism so badly and frankly so insultingly, but rather, that rock had gone from left-wing rebellion to right-wing rebellion; at least in the eyes of the liberal elite.
Rush played complex progressive rock music and they often played it loud and fast. But it was the lyrics which raged against big government, Orwellian attitudes and venerated individual freedom from both the corporate and governmental machine, that segregated Rush from both the pseudo-Marxist lyrics of John Lennon as well as the ‘peace and love’ lyrics that many other rockers found solace in.
Interestingly, when asked about punk, which was the ‘new kid on the block’ in the UK at the time, Peart said that punk was a rebellion against socialism.
This shocked Barry Miles at the time, but interestingly, punk’s British founder, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) has come out with positions that many consider conservative. He supports Brexit and even was sympathetic to Donald Trump. Although Lydon still considers himself a leftist of sorts, he’s admitted that the socialist elite of Britain sold out the working class and turned their backs on individualism.
This tends to make Peart’s assessment of punk appear vastly more accurate than that of Miles.
Rush made it possible to play loud rock music and have a political view which many considered conservative. The final frontier was broken. The left had become the musical elite and the libertarians had become the screaming crusaders of rebellion, albeit with a polite Canadian accent.
In the Soviet Union of the 1980s, things again came full circle. Viktor Tsoi of the rock band Kino won hearts and minds throughout the world, though mainly in the Russian speaking world.
Tsoi’s poetic music was rebellious but also humanitarian in the most literal sense. He was not an ‘anti-communist crusader’ but rather he expressed the fact that Russians, like people everywhere, were sceptical of power and wanted to be able to connect more directly with their fellow men and women. It was classical Russian scepticism combined with classical Russian compassion, just as Rush was classical English speaking libertarianism.
In this since, Kino vindicated Rush. It was not the supposed conflict red flags or blue flags that made the post-hippy rock bands rebellious. It was daring to be human in a world of both left wing and right wing conformity that moved people and continues to do so. The music of Kino remains beloved in today’s Russia because of its universal themes.
Today, rock music has become post-political. There are still musicians writing political songs, but because the left-right controversy that burned so deeply in the 1970s and 1980s is over, it’s now ok for everyone to like rock and roll.
After many decades, rock and roll is conservative and like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or jazz, which was once as derided as rock later became, it is for everyone, which is how it always should have been.