Politics of free music: an interview with Jean-Marc Rouillan (2)
Second part of the interview with Jean-Marc Rouillan, a founding member of Action directe (first part here). The Isle of Wight festival 1970, the Damned, the Rolling Stones, and Cream are taking part in this blog post.
Resisting the commodification of music
Luis Velasco-Pufleau: This incident resonates with another episode in your book Je regrette, in which you talk about wanting to “free the music from the merchants”, at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970.1
Jean-Marc Rouillan: Our generation of activists was used to groups being born in pubs or small concert halls. We would have a beer and listen to music; there was a whole atmosphere. Then came this trend of big concerts, initially free, but we soon found ourselves behind big investors who made money with that. There were the first editions of the Isle of Wight Festival, but I didn’t go, given the price of the tickets and the concentration camp atmosphere of the music: they held the festival in the countryside but were putting up high walls to protect their business. In 1970, there was a call from activists to go to the Isle of Wight and force the organizers to make the festival free. We went over and for two weeks fought every night with the cops, with Hells Angels and with the private security agents trying to protect the thing. We kept fighting until the festival was free. Free music was a political struggle; we understood it as such.
LVP: You refused the commodification of music while supporting musicians themselves.
JMR: Musicians have to be able to make a living from their music, which is why we paid like everyone else when it came to small concerts, when we knew the money went to the musicians. But at Wight or Woodstock, they were big companies that were set up to make so-called free, peace and love festivals. But it was to make money. It wasn’t easy to fight against commodification, the monopoly of these big companies who understood that they could make a lot of money with rock—when it was our music, the music of the pubs, the music of the small concerts, the music of our meetings. This struggle lasted from the 1970s to the punk era. There was a divergence there. On one hand there was the music listened to in big venues, like at La Villette. Music imprisoned, protected by the police. On the other hand there was punk, with the Do It Yourself spirit. People were saying, “I can play punk, too. So we are going to make our own music again, because this is no longer ours. It has been taken over”. The spirit of free music was to find a common space with musicians, like in British pubs in the early 1960s.
LVP: Making music yourself was an act of emancipation?
JMR: Yes, emancipation of people, and also of music. Because sometimes bands have pushed the boundaries of music itself. With their shouting, for example, it was more an expression of rage than the music from soul or blues that we were used to hearing.
LVP: What was the music you didn’t listen to, the music you couldn’t stand?
JMR: We had a word for it: “soup”. We couldn’t stand this music, which is no more than a commodity. For example, I listened to the Rolling Stones until 1972–1973. After that, it was just “soup”. They did disco and other things to make money. When music becomes only about making money, there is no longer any political message. Not only in the lyrics, but also in the sound.
LVP: Were there any other British bands you couldn’t stand?
JMR: Bands like Cream, in which Eric Clapton played. Clapton is someone I’ve never liked, even when he was with the Yardbirds. Clapton was one of the people who stank of “I want to make money; I play guitar to make money”. He was not someone who played a role in struggles; moreover, later on, he was a sympathizer of the ideas of the National Front and all that fascist bullshit. Kind of like David Bowie: he made great songs, but it smelled too much like money. It did not fit with the militant commitment of our generation.
LVP: In terms of your anti-imperialist ideology, did you associate certain groups with US imperialism?
JMR: I think that from the moment bands sold their music to big managers, their music somehow “imperialised” our culture. Even bands like The Velvet Underground; it smelled too much like fake underground. The bands I followed were bands I saw in pubs or small gigs.
Featured Image: “All we needed was love”. By Paul Townsend, source flickr (CC BY-SA).
- Rouillan, Jann Marc, Je regrette, Marseille, Agone, 2016, chaps. 175-176. https://agone.org/jeregrette/