Famously Jeff Tweedy didn't go into the Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg too excited about the prospect of recording old material. He felt that there wasn't much relevance in reclaiming songs about fascists and union marches from the Great Depression. He felt that Woody was more than that and that living in the past would do him a disservice. As a child of Bush II, of Abu Gharib and "enhanced interrogation", of the Family Research Council and American apartheid, basically someone who came of age under Reagan II and has seen far too little rollback since, I have always strongly gravitated towards messages in those songs that Tweedy sees little reason for."When fascism comes to America it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." - Sinclair Lewis
You wonder why people still listen to songs about fascists. It's because, though the may be a complicated place and it may not always be easy to see the truth, there can still be absolute right and wrong. And even the most level-headed person can tell when wrong is on the march and needs to be stopped. People today may not be facing down Hitler (or Stalin, lest we forget fascism's photo-negative) but there are still battles to fight every day between good and evil - full stop.
Just to be clear this isn't about cynicism or paranoia or hatred. It's about hope. Something that, even by channeling (positively) anger, music is uniquely suited to inspire. Enjoy and take heart.
1. The Sickbed of Cuchulain - The Pogues Buy Rum, Sodomy & The Lash
Leave it to the Pogues to make getting beaten and nearly getting killed a dozen ways seem romantic. "The Sickbed of Cuchulain" leads off Rum, Sodomy and the Lash on an high-spirted note with tin-whistles and fiddles flying all over the place while Shane McGowan sings with a maniacal glee about the loss of great Irishmen in the cause of anti-fascism between the world wars. He sings of the great tenors John McCormick and Richard Tauber as well as Frank Ryan, leader of the pro-Republican Irish Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Although the song starts out (relatively) upbeat, with tales of fighting fascists across the Europe, it moves quickly into the doomed, lost-cause narrative so familiar to such tales (as a Pole, this narrator can sympathize). By the end the hero of the song has seen his cause defeated and himself killed, ultimately ending up headless like the mythological hero Cú Chulainn of the song's title. It sounds dispiriting, but the music's verve and indefatigable give it an air of triumph. I dare you not to sing along with the "YARGH!" that ends each chorus.
2. Ambling Alp - Yeasayer Buy Odd Blood
No one would expect a Brooklyn-based art pop group to release an anti-fascist jam to wide (ok, wide in the indie world) acclaim in 2010 but, in case you didn't notice, that's exactly what Yeasayer did. The lead single off Odd Blood, was a seemingly lightweight electronic workout slathered in synths and blurpy effects. But underneath all that is a seriously uplifting song built around one of the most literal images of fighting fascists out there. Max Schmeling was a German boxer who fought black American boxer Joe Louis in the 1930s in a series of fights fraught with racial and political stakes and "Ambling Alp" was the nickname of Primo Carnera, an Italian boxer of the same era. Although neither man was a committed fascist, they both represented a growing tide of evil and Yeasayer uses them as stand ins for all that is oppressive that stands in your way. Lines like "if you learn one thing you learn it well / it's that you must give fascists hell" lead to an insanely cathartic chorus of "you must stick up for yourself son / never mind what anybody else done". It's an incalculably uplifting effect, especially useful when feeling battered or otherwise harried (and one magnified when played at great volume on an electric guitar - trust me).
3. Youth Against Fascism - Sonic Youth Buy Dirty
Rock has always been primarily the preserve of the young - it was started as, and will always remain, a way for kids to let people know what they're pissed off about as loudly as possible. So it might be ironic that it wasn't until 1992's Dirty, some 11 years into their career, that Sonic Youth best tapped that angry vein with "Youth Against Facism". A fuming, sludgy litany of a song, it took a swipe at every instance of political or personal repression available at the end of the twelve-year Reagan/Bush run. As a nerdy, poltically engaged, socially awkward high school kid, this was exactly what the doctor ordered, every listen made me feel less alone, more validated in my beliefs and emotions. I can only only assume (hope?) that it still does with kids today. Beyond the simplistic lines about the president being "a war pig fuck", certain parts of "Youth Against Fascism" still ring painfully true. Indeed, after the Hermain Cain mysogyny-fest of last fall and Clarence Thomas' increasingly draconian rulings there's still incredible power in a statment as seemingly obvious as Thurston Moore's "I believe Anita Hill". Forget hyperbole, how often when listening to the nightly news does "it's the song I hate" pop into your mind? If you're at all like me, all too often.
4. Spanish Bombs [Live] - The Clash Download From London To Jamaica
Aaaand we're back to the Spanish Civil War. Of course it makes a certain amount of sense that the Left focuses on this struggle - lost causes are always more romantic than the messy realities of partial victories or mitigated defeats, complete with their compromises practical concessions. On London Calling, the Clash perfectly captured the wistful nostalgia for this time in "Spanish Bombs". Replete with lines about "trenches full of poets" and "my senorita's rose... nipped in the bud", Joe Strummer knew how to pull all the right heartstrings and the original acoustic-heavy version is one of the softer moments on that all-time great album. This version is a slightly dubbier live take pulled from the famous London To Jamaica bootleg recorded from an early morning Clash festival set in Montego Bay in late 1982. It has a slightly spacier feel but loses none of it's passion in live performance as Mick Jones' guitar echoes, darts and careens around like a drunken Robert Jordan about to face his death. Oh mi corazon.
5. Nazi Punks Fuck Off - Dead Kennedys Buy Plastic Surgery Disasters/In God We Trust Inc.
The Dead Kennedys didn't just talk about stopping fascists as metaphor or to be politically trendy but rather because it became a part of their touring life. After breaking through (uh, kinda) with the epoch-making single "California Über Alles", they, unfortunately, started attracting a punk skinhead audience which failed to see the irony or criticism of right wing ideology in their songs. "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" was released in 1981 as direct rebuke and challenge of both Neo-Nazi ideology and violence at shows. Hard to comprehend on first listen, the lyrics are actually a quite articulate. "You still think Swastikas look cool?" Jello Biafra asks, cutting swiftly through the BS. "The real Nazis run your schools". Later on he reminds them that "in the real Fourth Reich, you'll be the first to go". Released as a single with "Moral Majority" on the B-Side, it came with a clear plastic lyric sheet and cloth arm band (see above) and was clearly meant to challenge listeners to think and take action against not just marauders on the punk scene but a rising tide of reactionary right-wing ideas sweeping across America in the early 1980s. By the looks of history, it wasn't a message that got nearly enough traction, but it continues to provide an electric jolt to the nervous system of those willing to hear its message.
6. All You Fascists - Billy Bragg & Wilco Buy Mermaid Avenue Vol. II
It only makes sense to end on the song from which this post gets its name. As you can tell from above, "All You Fascists" was a Woody Guthrie song that Billy Bragg re-purposed from a banjo-picked folk song into a crashing wall of punk fury with the help of Wilco. It's probably the high point of the entire Mermaid Avenue in terms of passion, volume, energy and kick ass-ness (yeah, I said it). Like "Helter Skelter" on The White Album, its sonic assault sets the song apart from its compatriots as a wall of angry guitars meet a distorted harmonica to created an unstoppable musical force that grabs your attention. I recently heard the song described somewhere as "proto-punk" but, in reality, the qualifier is unnecessary - it's the genuine article. Guthrie's words about ending Jim Crow and finding multiracial solidarity still strike me as optimistic but painfully unrealized all these years later. Even so, it's a song of eternal optimism and progress. And, as Billy himself reminds us, it's a goal we continue to reach every day.