Music and political struggles: an interview with Jean-Marc Rouillan (4)
Fourth ant last part of the interview with Jean-Marc Rouillan, a founding member of Action directe (first part here, second part here, third part here). The Clash, Small Faces and Jimi Hendrix are taking part in this blog post.
Music and the collective memory of political struggles
Luis Velasco-Pufleau: For you, can music be a political collective memory, a way of not forgetting the political struggles of the past?
Jean-Marc Rouillan: Collective memory is a struggle for both music and political acts themselves. If we leave the collective memory of our political struggle in the hands of those who won the battle, there is no longer any collective memory, only their version of the facts. When it comes to music, if we don’t go deep into the music of those years, it will always boil down to “soup”. I think our generation integrated the music it has listened to and produced, as a political act. This is rarely the case today. I think we have to keep at it: it’s important to explain this to the new generations. We have to fight to reclaim the collective memory of our music.
LVP: In what way is collective memory a condition for political struggles?
JMR: Collective memory is part of any revolutionary struggle. There is not one revolutionary struggle that was born spontaneously (as was thought of some 19th-century diseases). Collective memory is a breeding ground for struggles: if you know the past of the revolutionary movement, you find strength, experience and a lot of other things. There is no struggle without knowledge of the past: if we lose our collective memory, we lose the meaning of our struggle.
LVP: In what way is music part of this collective memory?
JMR: Music has a political history. There are young people who listen to music without knowing where it comes from. They think it comes from recent political movements. But if you know music history from the 1960s to the present, you understand that some music comes from other movements or has links to older political struggles. For example, there is a political history behind ska. It emerged in clubs in London, where only West Indians and Irish people were accepted, and they were denied access to clubs reserved for English people. So they created their own music. That’s why The Clash also had a penchant for other kinds of music, like reggae: Joe Strummer often went to these relegated clubs, where the first skins [skinhead movement] were located. All of this is nothing new and requires political articulation and understanding. Music is a constant fight under the influence of political struggles.
LVP: Do you think that the depoliticisation of music goes hand in hand with the depoliticisation of the collective memory of these struggles?
JMR: “Soup” that is produced reproduces commercial products. There’s nothing left, only emotion. It’s like a painter who just decorates your living room, who doesn’t express anything fundamental. There are bands that always make bland, colourless music, for elevators: empty music. When you listen to music, your feelings have to have a quality of reflection on the world.
LVP: Is this reflection on the world driven by the lyrics or by the way music is played and interpreted?
JMR: Both, even if sometimes it may seem contradictory. For example, the lyrics of the British bands you could see in pubs in the 1960s, like Them, Small Faces, even The Who, talk about love stories and small stuff. But in their music, we feel the confrontation, we feel the rage, we feel that they refuse the world as it is. They will shout in the middle of the solo… The expression of this refusal is angry even if they’re singing “I’ve got a date with my girlfriend in two hours”. It’s the music that speaks, not the lyrics. In creating their own take on soul music, The Animals or Small Faces added a spark of rage. They also added class content and the hope for something to change.
Pushing the limits of what is possible
LVP: For you, this music pushed the limits of what was possible.
JMR: Yes, absolutely. In the 1960s, we felt that there was still a barrier; but it was getting smaller and smaller. It finally exploded with Jimi Hendrix. From that point, we could do whatever we wanted. Musically, he did what he wanted because he was capable of doing it. In the same way, as a political movement, we were fed up with political parties and unions. So we said to ourselves, “We’re going to do things differently”.
LVP: How did this translate in your experience?
JMR: As soon as we got into a radical struggle against a deadly system, we tasted the fresh air of freedom and it was incredible. All we had to do was to enter into a radical conflict to be bigger, physically taller even, to straighten up. We said to ourselves, “All this is over; this world is over. I no longer want any part in it, because any participation in this world is fatal”.
LVP: For you, Jimi Hendrix embodied this breakaway?
JMR: There are forerunners to Jimi Hendrix. But with him, from the beginning in 1966, we felt that the door was open. What was not possible four years before, Jimi Hendrix said, “It’s possible now. We have decided that it’s possible”. It was a decision. And Jimi Hendrix would say “I’m free” in a seven- or eight-minute solo. Then, right away, people showed up to sell this freedom—major labels and concert managers. They played with this feeling of freedom, in order to sell it to our entire generation. They turned it into commercial products. We spent two or three years buying it, and then we thought, “No, we’re getting fucked”.
LVP: Until other musicians also refused to submit to the market.
JMR: Punks represented this renewal, the new spark in music around 1976–1977. They said, “We’re not going to fall into this ‘soup’ music trap. We’re going to make music ourselves, at home”. They wanted to tell us that anyone could be a member of the Sex Pistols. Everywhere, people and groups emerged, who wanted to make music without being great musicians. It was a new kind of freedom—even though, later, the market usurped this freedom too.
LVP: It’s a constant battle to avoid being turned into something else…
JMR: That’s true, as much for music as for Action directe. As long as some of us can talk, we can’t be controlled. We refused to sell out. And as long as we can thwart a political distortion, it is impossible to cross the divide that we dug between them and us. They can always present us as fools (or worse), try to make what we did sound like very little, mock our action. But as long as we are alive and able to provide our own account, being turned into something else will be very difficult.
This interview was published in the special issue of Transposition “Sound, Music and Violence“:
Velasco-Pufleau, Luis, “From Music to Armed Struggle, from 1968 to Action Directe: An Interview with Jean-Marc Rouillan”, Transposition, no. Hors-série 2, 2020, https://journals.openedition.org/transposition/3780. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/transposition.3780
Featured Image: The Jimi Hendrix Experience perform at the Culture House in Helsinki, 22 May 1967. By Hannu Lindroo, source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY).