At more than 700 pages including appendices, Guardian writer Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs (Faber & Faber, £17.99) certainly can’t be accused of skimping on the details. Adherence to the pun of the title has resulted in a thorough if necessarily left-wing history of political dissent since the Thirties, but don’t expect much emphasis on the music. There’s a reason polemical songs are the ones you admire for their commitment rather than sing in the shower.
But it’s precisely because there’s more protest here than song that the book does such a good job of exposing the poseurs. John Lennon, for example, stands revealed as the very personification of radical chic, a formerly gifted musician who by the Seventies would align himself with the Bonapartists if they were fashionable that week. Indeed, 33 Revolutions grips tightest when there’s something more at stake than showbiz cool: responding to the political violence that left thousands of Jamaicans dead lends a song more weight than worrying about your sales figures.
A book this ambitious will inevitably contain mistakes — you’ll listen in vain for an alto saxophone on Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, for a start — but there’s no faulting Lynskey’s conclusion that apathetic youth and the internet’s atomisation of the music industry have conspired to kill off overtly political music.
As befits a work that begins with Billie Holiday and ends with Green Day, this is one song of protest that finishes on a low note.