Protest Music Project: Andy Worthington Interviewed on Songwriting and His Influences
As part of a continued effort to push back against the idea that there is an absence of protest music or protest singers and bands, Shadowproof launched our “Protest Music Project.”
We’ve featured a new protest song each week. Shadowproof also published a list of twenty-five protest albums from the 2010s a few months ago.
Now, to take this project to the next level, I present an interview with Andy Worthington of The Four Fathers, a band based in the United Kingdom.
Worthington is well-known for his work campaigning and writing about Guantanamo Bay, but he also has a band which produced a major song, “Song for Shaker Aamer,” that was used in the U.K. to campaign for the release of Shaker Aamer. His band recently released an album, “Love and War,” with eight songs. It can be found on Bandcamp here.
For Shadowproof’s “Protest Music Project,” Andy spends over 40 minutes talking about his music, what inspired him to write songs about austerity, Shaker Aamer, CIA torture architects, etc, and what kind of protest music has influenced him. Clips of Andy’s music play throughout the interview, and at the end of the interview, Andy discusses one of his favorite protest songs of all time.
Hopefully, this is the start of something tremendously engaging at Shadowproof. I intend to do many more interviews about protest music with musicians like Andy.
Listen to the interview by clicking on the below player. You can also listen and download the interview by clicking here. It’s also available on iTunes under “Shadowproof Presents.”
Below is a transcript of the first part of the interview with Andy Worthington.
GOSZTOLA: First, for people who are unfamiliar with what you do, share a bit because you’ve been busy these past few weeks, especially since the British prisoner who was in Guantanamo, Shaker Aamer, has been released. So talk about what you do and what you’ve been up to these past few weeks.
WORTHINGTON: To give a little bit of the bigger perspective, I’ve been researching and writing about Guantanamo for nearly ten years. As a result of having done so much research, it’s an issue that as well as reporting about I think it’s something I find essential to campaign about as well to get the place closed down because it’s such a legal, ethical, and moral abomination; you know, such disgrace on every level. So, that’s what I’ve been doing.
Although I’ve been obviously writing all this time and I write a lot about Guantanamo, I’ve also been involved in campaigns. So a few years ago I setup the “Close Guantanamo” campaign with Tom Wilner, who is a U.S. lawyer who represented the Guantanamo prisoners in their Supreme Court cases. And then last year I setup a campaign here in the U.K with an activist friend, Joanne MacInnes, called “We Stand With Shaker,” which was aimed principally at raising attention about the case of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantanamo. And we did this through an idea that I had, which was a giant inflatable figure.
My intention was that it would pop up whenever the senior government ministers were everywhere and would literally be the elephant in the room. But, of course, you can’t actually go around inflating giant figures near the Prime Minister or other senior officials of government or you’d be very swiftly arrested. But we worked out that it was something that might catch on if we could try and get MPs (because there were supportive MPs) and celebrities involved. It kind of took off really. We ended up with a lot of people involved.
It wasn’t just us. The mainstream media in the U.K. got behind Shaker’s case in a way I have to say would be hard to imagine in the U.S. And also there was such significant parliamentary support across the board; so, major people in the Conservative Party as well as the Labor Party, proper cross-party support. We ended up getting Shaker Aamer out, which happened on the 30th of October.
I’m very glad to have been involved in that in the sense of a campaign that worked because I suppose we spend a lot of time fighting against things that are longstanding injustices that take such a long time to deal with that actually getting some kind of success does feel quite good.
GOSZTOLA: Let’s get into your music and talk about it. For people who are unaware, your album is called “Love and War,” and you posted it. You’re distributing it through Bandcamp. This album has eight different songs and one of them is called “Song for Shaker Aamer.” Can you talk about putting that song together?
WORTHINGTON: What happened really, Kevin, is I decided life is too short not to fulfill your dreams. So one of the things I have always loved to do alongside writing was singing, writing songs, playing the guitar, playing music. With some friends, we got together and we started off playing covers. We started off playing a few older songs I had written. Then, I found I was actually really enjoying using music as another outlet for what I do through my journalism; so writing about topical issues that concern me. As you call it on your site where you’re looking at “Protest Songs of the Week,” I got involved in protest music essentially.
I’m quite capable every now and then of writing the odd love song, but I like music that reflects my concerns and my concerns primarily are about politics. So one of the things that arose is this kind of quite bouncy, cheery, roots reggae tune. Roots reggae from the late ’70s is the music I grew up with, particularly with the punk music at the time, and Bob Dylan. This is the kind of music that has left an indelible impression on me. So I love reggae music.
It just turned out that here was this tune that is quite sunny and upbeat, but I used that to carry the message of Shaker Aamer, still held in Guantanamo.
GOSZTOLA: It strikes me, since you talk about your influences a little bit and listening to roots reggae and punk. I know that in the U.K there is quite a history with punk music and roots reggae groups tapping into protest music to push campaigns. I think people who hear this interview may probably be well aware of the band, The Specials, and the success they had with their “Free Nelson Mandela.” And so, I think “Song for Shaker Aamer” is almost along those lines.
WORTHINGTON: I hope so. Special AKA song for Nelson Mandela was such a massive thing. And music has become atomized that obviously, along with so much of culture, it is difficult to know how you can get a message out to a lot of people. But you know I am glad that people who have heard “Song for Shaker Aamer” really get it, really like it, and really understand that it is coming from that kind of tradition.
And you know what we didn’t talk about, Kevin, it’s probably worth doing that I took the liberty of taking some of Shaker’s words, the only recorded words of his from Guantanamo, which a U.S. TV crew recorded when they were on a visit two years ago. They didn’t know he was there, but he knew they were there. And as they walked through his corridor, he started shouting out these eloquent messages about letting the world come and visit to see how things are in Guantanamo. Incredibly powerful.
I think that obviously that really adds some weight to the song. But, I am very glad to hear that it works as a protest song. That’s what I’ve been doing with some of the other songs that are on the album, and I’m actually on a creative roll right now and I’ve been writing whole load of new songs. Most of those are dealing with political issues.
As far as I can see, to appropriate a rather corny phrase but one I believe is quite true, if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. I know what the score is in the U.S. because I’ve been working on the Guantanamo issues for so many years, but I live here in the U.K. I’m certainly under no illusions and nor should anybody in the U.S. be under any illusions that the kind of barking mad Republicans that you have is a particularly American phenomenon. We have a crazy right-wing government at the moment who mean very deliberate harm to pretty much everybody in this country who isn’t rich.
GOSZTOLA: That’s a good segue into the next song that you have here, which is “Tory Bullshit Blues.” It’s pretty obvious what kind of statement you’re trying to make, but let’s get into how you derived inspiration for this song.
WORTHINGTON: This song is just a kind of fast clattering blues. I think the direct inspiration for it would be listening to songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan. It’s definitely a big part of the story of the political music that I like to listen to. As a young man, particularly when I was at university, I really got into Bob Dylan. And so Bob Dylan’s political songs really mean a lot to me, as we were mentioning before. Actually, they came a bit after the kind of punk and new wave music that I was growing up with as a teenager, which a lot of politics ran through that. And then when I was at university, that’s when I also got into reggae music. And reggae music at that time, of course, was extremely political with a conscious message that so many artists were portraying and one that really resonated me. So, “Tory Bullshit Blues” fits that ’60s-style of fast rock and roll protest song.
It’s my attempt at comparing and contrasting Thatcherism, and what that was in the States was Reaganism—Reagan and Thatcher in the ’80s and their destruction, as it was in the U.K of the state, and the liberation of the financial services industry to start making money. I think the modern story of the mess that we’re in is really the result of those things where the ball was set rolling by Reagan and Thatcher in the ’80s.
GOSZTOLA: Another song that I really appreciate on this album is “Fighting Injustice,” which you wrote. It’s about this austerity that is not only in the United State but fairly global at this point in time in history. I like the whole lyric of “living on the dark side,” and I imagine you may have pulled that out of your time covering dark subjects like Guantanamo.
WORTHINGTON: Certainly, the dark side is famously Dick Cheney’s line about what the United States was going to do after the 9/11 attacks. We’ll have to go to the dark side, if you will, is what he said. It’s associated with him. I used the phrase in connection with him elsewhere, but I suppose having spent so long looking at Guantanamo and the War on Terror and then also to find what’s in some ways stealthily crept up on us since the global crash in ’08 is that our governments are now cynically further enriching the rich, not punishing them for what happened, and deliberately making false economic rationales for making life as difficult as possible for all the poorer and more vulnerable people in society. That it’s all very connected.
And so it seemed very appropriate when I was writing that song that the dark side that I’m hoping to entice people away from is something that across the board is defending illegal wars, drone killings, indefinite detention without charge or trial, torture, as well as the types of economic terrorism that I think that our government are responsible for both domestically and internationally.
It’s a slightly bigger issue here in Europe than it is in the States about having a right-wing government trying to undermine the state provision of services. The narrative in the United States seems to me is a little bit weird that people have this notion that there is no socialism in the United States when actually an infrastructure of a functioning economy is essentially socialist in so many ways. Everybody pays into something that is for the common good. People are kind of fooled in the United States to think that is something terrible and everybody is robust and frontiers-like and self-sufficient. When in fact, a lot of the elements of what government does can be viewed as socialist, and a lot of those things are actually good for all of us.
In Europe, we have much more of an understanding that we as taxpayers pay money to our government to provide us with a range of services. Therefore, I think we’re wearier of having a radical right-wing government like the terrible people that we have in power in the U.K. at the moment, who are saying we want to privatize everything in this country apart from obviously what they’re not saying is their own salaries and a few other parts of the defense industry and a few other parts of the judiciary. But their so carried away at the moment with themselves that they are even starting to talk openly in public about how they want to privatize almost everything.
This is dangerous. This is so obvious that what it means for something like our National Health Service, which is an astonishingly good service. I have been very ill. My family have been very ill. I think it is fair to say that all of us quite possibly owe our lives to the NHS. But the NHS works on the basis that a proportion of everybody’s tax money goes into it to support everybody. It’s a kind of generalized insurance that is paid for by the whole population, apart from the people who are very poor. What it ends up with is everybody gets access to it if you need it.
If you get really ill in this country, nobody asks you how much money you’ve got. When you go into hospital, nobody’s asking you how much money you’ve got. When they send you home, nobody’s asking you how much money you’ve got. Nobody asks you to pay for it because, whatever it is, the 10 percent of our GDP that goes to support the NHS, which comes from our taxpayers’ money, means that it works on that basis. And I know from talking to my American friends the stress that comes from living in the States where you don’t have that absolute provision of free treatment to everybody who needs it and what an absolute miracle it is.
GOSZTOLA: Everyone in America likes to talk about not wasting taxpayer dollars, but you have a song called “81 Million Dollars.” And this is about money that the U.S. government spent on CIA torture architects. James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were these architects, who developed these techniques. I’m really impressed by this song. It’s a really topical storytelling kind of a song, and it’s very—Well, I can see looking at your Bandcamp [page] that you’ve gotten some praise from people who are in the field, who have connections to the military, who appreciate you calling attention to this through your music. So talk about coming up with “81 Million Dollars.”
WORTHINGTON: A part of me hopes that it will be picked up on by anti-torture activists in the U.S. My intention wasn’t that when I wrote it. My intention was anger and indignation at the revelation that Mitchell and Jessen, the contractors who basically setup and run the CIA’s torture program, that the company they setup was paid $81 million for doing that. That amount just struck me as so wrong.
I suppose it is difficult to figure out how creativity is expressed when you’re writing a song. Does the music come first? Do you have a tune? How do you get the lyrics in there? I can’t really explain that. Generally things—I probably get a tune and then try and come up with lyrics. We’ll come up with an idea and then try and fit what kind of narrative it is around it.
So the tune kind of turned up out of nowhere, and then I realized what I needed to put over it in a kind of spoken word way—it’s not entirely sung—was something that would express what the key elements were about the torture program and who some of the key players were. Just to get that down in the form of the song was something that felt very important to me.
It remains important to me because I think that these are people who have evaded accountability for their responsibility for their crimes; in introducing this program, which was brutal and in the end pointless. No information [was] obtained from it that was vital and such terrible harm [was] caused.
That’s the intent really is that this hopefully will be something that can strike a chord with other people, who are calling for accountability, because this song does build to this whole me intoning this list of senior officials from President Bush downward, who I describe as war criminals, and calling for people to be held responsible.
GOSZTOLA: One of the things I noticed is that the “We Stand With Shaker” campaign benefited from being able to reach out and involve other musicians. I noticed the picture that you have on your album you’re actually pictured with Roger Waters. He’s someone I think of as a good example of using his music in a political way to bring attention issues, even when some of it is more subtly political than this protest music that you’ve written.
Roger Waters is this figure in music that will call out other musicians when their politics are really bad. And so, you have some experience with Roger. What do you appreciate about how he’s gone after musicians?
WORTHINGTON: I first met Roger a bit less than two years ago, and the Rolling Stones were about to play in Tel Aviv. Roger has this thing of—He’s constantly trying in a major high-profile way to stop major recording artists [from] going and playing in Israel.
His explanation is entirely appropriate. He says this is no different from what was going on in South Africa in the 1980s, and yet in South Africa we managed to mobilize almost the whole of the entertainment industry to put pressure on South Africa. Yet, this isn’t happening with Israel.
When I met him, he was wondering if there was any way to persuade the Rolling Stones, which there wasn’t. I don’t think that anything would stop their money-making machine. Then, I was disappointed to find out that Neil Young was going to play there. I didn’t know where that was coming from.
Every now and then Roger pops up in the news because he sent a letter to some other artist, who is intent on playing there. And that plus the pressure from campaigners I know sometimes makes people withdraw from going there. It’s kind of sad and a reflection of the general depoliticization of the entertainment industry these days that there are so few prominent musicians, who are prepared to make a political stand. And Roger, really, when you start looking around, there’s Roger standing out really clearly.
GOSZTOLA: Part of the ’80s was really defined by the boycott, and it seems like musicians don’t have the stomach or the guts to do something like that. When they have an opportunity when they should be sticking their neck out in this sort of way and say I’m not going to play Israel or I’m not going to play Jerusalem, they are still going through with it.
WORTHINGTON: In the U.K., I don’t think pressure was exerted. This is not about Israel but about being contentious. After 9/11, at the time of the Iraq invasion, so now looking back at it that wasn’t long after 9/11. Yet, all those people who tried to put their head above the parapet to be critical of it. Of course, what happened to the Dixie Chicks? They were slaughtered for their criticism of the illegal invasion of Iraq.
I remember seeing a brilliant film. To redress the fact that I mentioned Neil Young shouldn’t of played [in Israel], I would like to say how brilliant I think he was when he went on an antiwar tour of the U.S., which must have been around 2005. But I can’t be entirely sure of that. He got Crosby, Stills, and Nash to go on the road with him.
Every night these kind of Republican redneck fans of Neil Young were showing up and booing at him and walking out. Every night he didn’t care. He just carried on regardless with a set that was about an antiwar tour, which is what was doing. It took a lot of nerve on his part, and it was incredibly powerful as well. To see him absolutely backing up his belief in what was important. It’s another shining example I think of what we’ve been talking about—the power of when musicians do engage in political issues.
*Part 2 will be published next week.