Nick Cave references Nina Simone and George Harrison when naming his favourite protest song of all time
At a time when political outrage has reached a boiling point, Nick Cave has been reflecting some of the politically strong messages that have impacted society.
While millions of people line the streets across the globe in protest of the institutional racism within society, a movement which has been sparked by the recent death of George Floyd, some musicians have responded with material with a strong political leaning.
Although public marching protests have existed for decades, the Arab Spring rising of the early 2000s sparked a new viewpoint on the ability to enact change. The Black Lives Matter movement has reopened up a longstanding crisis which still tackles the same issues society faced 50 years ago and beyond.
With protests from New York to London spreading the same message, the world is also witnessing uprisings in varying degrees with their own important messages. In Hong Kong the public are fighting government officials against a new law that would try Hong Kong residents in mainland China, the people of the Philippines are fighting a new anti-terror bill, Brazilians are fighting against severe police brutality and the residents of Chile are protesting a major food shortage. For years music and the artists responsible for the music have echoed society, commentating on themes of struggle and offering a rallying cry. From Bob Dylan to Kendrick Lamar. From Yoko Ono to Bob Marley and the Wailers. Nick Cave though, has resisted this urge.
The Bad Seeds frontman explained in a previous instalment of his Red Hand Files feature that he avoids writing protest songs because “they have little patience for nuance, neutrality or impartiality”. However, despite his desire to steer his creative vision away from that particular style of music creation, Cave has always enjoyed and celebrated those who thrive in that department.
Revisiting the topic, one of Cave’s fans wanted to know more of his opinion on overtly political material: “Is there a protest song out there that you greatly admire for the way it was written or arranged?” Damian asked as part of the latest instalment of his fan led forum. Reflecting on the question, the Bad Seeds man was quick to heap praise on the great Nina Simone, describing the iconic singer as “a living grievance machine”.
“In 1972 Nina Simone released a live album entitled Emergency Ward! that was, by her own admission, her oppositional response to the Vietnam War,” Cave wrote in response. “This record begins with an eighteen-minute rendition of ‘My Sweet Lord’, that could well be her greatest musical achievement. Nina Simone’s interpretation of George Harrison’s gentle cosmic entreaty ends up, in her hands, as a howl of spiritual abandonment and accusation.
“This rendition is a gospel thrill ride, with mantras, wild syncopated handclaps and weird background whoops, courtesy of the Bethany Baptist Church Junior Choir of South Jamaica, New York. The Hare Krishna chant has been removed and more ‘Hallelujahs’ have been added as Nina reaches back to her Methodist roots,” he adds before detailing some of the song’s lyrics.
“The great Nina Simone was a living grievance machine — her race, her gender, her misused talents (she wanted to be a classical pianist) — and this rage infused all her work, and is what makes it so multi-layered. Even her most beautiful love songs, which I count as some of the most incandescent works of art ever recorded, were marinated in a sense of resentment and contempt for the workings of the world. It is this exhilarating collision of opposing forces — love and scorn — that makes Nina Simone’s existential and political protestations so compelling.
“In this extraordinarily bold statement, Nina Simone stands defiant in the face of spiritual oblivion, and a world (and God) that so readily allows war and senseless carnage to occur. It is a protest song par excellence that serves as a form of transport, a vehicle that takes us on a complex and nuanced journey into transcendent rage. The song itself becomes a forge of fury, where Nina Simone stands conflicted and defiant and, in the final lines, pulls the heavens crashing down around our ears.”
Cave concludes: “Perhaps, this is the voice of protest we need right now — intelligent, questing, transcendent, raging and thrillingly complex.”