Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Riot!


Sometimes people just can't do anything more constructive than throwing a brick through a window. The reason they do it might be because they feel there are no other options left to them, that
society, the justice system, repression and corruption have all conspired against them and have left them no other option than rebellion and destruction... And sometimes it's just because some rock and roll star has got them riled-up and emotional and because some authorities or group of authorities has prevented them from dancing or mixing with the opposite sex, the other race or the 'wrong' people who may be friends. People who feel unable to express themselves in peaceful and understandable ways then let loose such energy by igniting their hidden desires for rampant vandalism. Whatever the reason for the riot, music seems to play a bigger role than most people would think. From the very beginnings of Rock n' Roll, rebellious rhythms have influenced people from repression to action to rebellion to destruction, and there's no signs that it's going to stop... unless perhaps there are some great changes and/or music to be made in this world that just hasn't happened yet.

Bill Haley & The Comets 1958 European Tour
Bill Haley & his Comets were not known for trashing hotel rooms. They were musicians at the very beginnings, the invention of rock&roll so they were not a mild or innocent bunch, but were not the wildest band, and not known for having a particularly strange persona or theatrical presence, either. They were a rockabilly band that was better than most, but perhaps not as sexy as Elvis or as cool as Buddy Holly or young as Ritchie Valens. They had a handful of hit songs, a couple of hired-on support musicians and featuring a particularly talented saxophone-player. Their stage shows were not full of 'antics', although bassist Marshall Lytle sometimes straddled a very large upright double-bass as though it were a pony and sometimes that upright double-bass was swung around like it was made of paper. They sang a song called Rock the Joint, which had lyrics 'We're gonna tear down the mailbox, rip out the floor, smash out the windows and knock down the door.", but of course, the band never really did such things, though occasionally, the group played the song 'Tequila' with a little extra enthusiasm.
 Despite all this, whatever Bill Haley & His Comets did during their 1958 European Tour, it was enough to make people go f***ing bonkers! The tour was incredibly successful except for the fact that they seemed to unwittingly 'induce' riots, and did it more than once or twice. The group went from venue to venue around Germany, France and most of mainland Europe, and each concert started with the usual set of tunes and people clapping and stomping their feet. Halfway through the show people began dancing in the aisles, then crowding the stage, and then somehow the audiences were so riled-up by the time the show was over, they began jumping onstage, trashing seats and breaking windows.

Rolling Stones & Friends at Altamont 1969
The 'Altamont Freeway Free Festival' in 1969 was supposed to be a west-coast adaptation of Woodstock. A miniature one-day version of the peace and love that was the embodiment of the grooviest rock concert in history. The acts were supposed to be Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, C.S.N.Y, The Grateful Dead and the headliners were the Rolling Stones. It was made a free concert, a mild protest against high ticket prices and an invitation/promotion for people to come see a rock concert.
   Several things went wrong, however. The Altamont Speedway was/is a car-racing track in Northern California, today it hosts mostly NASCAR events, and alhough the nearby park may have some visual resemblance to Nasgur's farm (Woodstock), the actual stage and set-up was very different. People were without any formal seating, all standing on a piece of land that sloped down towards a stage that was only a little over waist-high. The event was organized on a relatively low budget and finalized with little time left. There was little or no co-operation from the municipal government and local police forces who were largely viewed as being anti-hippie. Moreover, someone representing the concert-promoters decided to hire the biker gang The Hell's Angels to act as 'security' to protect equipment and prevent people from getting onto the low stage. This biker-security force cost a whopping $500, paid in the form of beer, and no one dared suggest that the Angels might want to be sober to do their job. Grace Slick, singer for Jefferson Airplane, has commented that there were bad vibes at this show, and during this day-long event, as each act took to the stage, there seemed to be more distress, and perhaps drugs, building up within the bodies of the crowd. Members of Jefferson Airplane argued with Hell's Angels during their set and the Grateful Dead refused to perform when they heard of some of the actions taken by the security. By the time the Rolling Stones took the stage there were scuffles and fights breaking out. Mick Jagger had to stop singing to tell people to calm down and eventually the band had to quit playing after only a few songs and take a helicopter out of there. (It was a free concert, so anyone who complained got their money back!)
   In the end, a guy named Meredith Hunter, who had attempted to climb on the stage earlier in the day, was confronted by members of the Hell's Angels and stabbed. Hunter was rushed to hospital but died. An autopsy found he was high on methamphetamines. Witnesses stated Hunter was carrying a gun and the gun was found by concert-goers and appeared on the film recording of the event. The Hell's Angels member who stabbed Hunter, Alan Passaro was acquitted for reasons of self-defense.
   The whole incident at Altamont was captured on film, and was as well-documented as it could be under the circumstances, in the movie 'Gimme Shelter' (1970) and watching the video of this event is something strange to behold. It is as if the Rolling Stones provided the soundtrack to some film that is anathema to the normal state of humanity; an anthropological study of a rock concert gone wrong, depicting a wild mixture of drug-induced weirdness, frustration, violence, dancing, celebration and emotion that involves a biker gang, hippies, musicians, a dog wandering across the stage, and general mayhem.


Martha and the Vandellas and Detroit Riots 1967
Why did three black women from Detroit call out people all around the world to dance in the streets? It was supposedly to have a great party, but some have suggested that what they really meant was for black people to go out and protest, asking people if they were ready for change in the form of 'a brand new beat'.
   After protest and race-based riots began breaking out all over the United States, and especially prevalent in cities that happened to be mentioned in the song 'Dancing in the Streets' (and don't forget the Motor City), the song by Martha and the Vandellas began to take on a secondary meaning. Some DJs played the song while they told listeners of protests that were being planned or already happening in urban centres. Some of the protests even took on the characteristics described in the song: Swinging, swaying, records playing, Dancing in the streets. As a result, the song was banned by several radio stations to prevent the possibility of supposedly inciting riots.
    Was it really a protest song? A call for people to take to the streets? In all public statements made, Martha Reeves has said that Dancing in the Streets is a party song, something written to get people up and dancing. Mark Kurlansky's book 'Ready for A Brand New Beat' suggests it may have been a little more. Marvin Gaye is credited as being one of the writers for the song Dancing in the Streets and he is well known for becoming more overtly political in his songs in his early 1970s album 'What's Goin' On'.
   In 1964, however, Marvin Gaye may have been taking part in a black cultural/musical tradition called 'masking' in which a song was written with certain words that would suggest a more simplistic meaning for some people (white people). But another meaning was understood by those who were culturally more familiar with the street-level use of language. The idea is not uncommon to black music. The song Shake, Rattle & Roll, written by Joe Turner is, on one level, a dance tune for partying, however a closer look at the lyrics suggest there are hidden sexual messages which are 'masked' to avoid the censorship that existed at the time.
  A party song that called out to all the world? And why dance in the streets? It seems that the songs may have had some deeper meaning, however, while 'Dancing in The Streets' may have inspired action, it is likely disingenuous to suggest that the song was intended to incite violence and rioting. The writers and original Motown performers of the song, including Martha Reeves and Marvin Gaye could not have possibility wanted a song about dancing to result in the deaths of 43 people, over a thousand injured, over 7 thousand arrested and over 2 thousand buildings burned or destroyed. All this in Detroit alone. And, song or no song, perhaps none of this would have happened if race relations had been a little better in Detroit in 1967.
 
Los Angeles, AKA:Rodney King Riots, 1992
Rodney Glen King III was brutally and unnecessarily beaten by police. There is no doubt about it, although some idiots like Rush Limbaugh will deny it. The incident was captured on a video camera weilded by a concerned citizen that was some distance away. This confused video shot in 1991 was clear evidence of the police brutality of the officers in question. However, it wasn't until the pigs responsible for it were brought to trial that the real frustration of the incident achieved it's terrible fruition.
 A little over a year after the incident, officers Koon, Powell, Briseno and Wind were brought to trial for assault with a deadly weapon, which was donwgraded to use of excessive force. The jury of ten white people, one latino and one asian person acquitted three of the officers and hung the jury on Powell.
   The acquittals were the ignition spark to begin the Los Angeles riots of 1992. thousands of people went out into the streets, throwing rocks, burning buildings, looting and even shooting people. These riots were clearly fuelled by black anger against an unfair legal system and that anger had been building for a while.
    Caught up in the attention of the Rodney King riots was the band Body Count, who actually released the song 'Cop Killer' before the riots happened. The song was quickly banned once the riots began and this heavy metal band became a target for scrutiny and censorship. The song was removed from their debut album and warning labels denoting 'unsuitable language' were added to the cds in retail stores. It seemed all too convenient that this metal band had Ice-T as its lead singer so that those defenders of the police and people supportive of the acquittals could use this excuse to blame black culture and hip-hop. (Body Count is still a heavy metal band to this day, but somehow media in 1992 turned a metal band into an excuse to criticise rap music morals and gangster-generated lyrics.) At the same time the song's lyrics of rage served as a lightning rod for those who had real feelings of anger towards what they viewed as a corrupt police force.

    The acquittals would cause riots in several other cities, including Miami, Florida, the home of the ska-punk rock group Sublime. The riots were long over when the band Sublime released their self-titled album in 1996, which contained one of the most well-known songs about the riots. However, as is typical of the character of lead singer Bradley Nowell, the song called 'April 29, 1992 (Miami)' is told from the point of view of a looter. Bradley tells the story as though he himself ripped off a music store to get the band's P/A system and the guitar that you're listening to when you listen to the album (which may or may not be true). He even describes how he went back for more looting because it dawned on him that he needs new furniture.
   Two of the police involved would serve time in jail due to a verdict by a Grand Jury held later.  Rodney King would successfully sue for damages, but would go on to live a checkered life due to difficulties with drugs and alcohol and died of heart failure in 2012. At the same time he was an unwitting spokesperson for the inequities of the American justice system and many of the problems which led to the police brutality of 1992 are still seemingly just as prevalent today. Sadly, there seems no reason why this couldn't happen again, and many have referred to similarities of the Rodney King riots and the circumstances that caused the more recent troubles in Ferguson, Missouri and the Black Lives Matter protests. (Sublime copyright has suddenly turned very strict and it has suddenly become more difficult to find these videos of Sublime's song interwoven with scenes from the actual riots of the time that the song is referring to)


London, Manchester, Birmingham Riots 2011
Just when you thought all riots were caused by racial tension and the anger and frustration of black people who are fed-up with an unfair system of policing and political repression...
 In Tottenham, North London, on August 4 2011, police shot and killed a black protester named Mark Duggan. Early reports suggested that Duggan had a gun and fired on police, however there were enough people/witnesses that didn't believe the cops' 'official story' and they held a memorial march/protest on Aug 6, 2011 and some three hundred people arrived at the doorstep of the local police station demanding to speak with the Chief Inspector, who did come out to speak with the crowd.
   The Inspector's responses were not considered 'satisfactory' by the audience and one member of the crowd, a young girl swung a champagne bottle at an officer. When the girl was swarmed by several officers, the crowd became more agitated and eventually people began running, scuffling with police and this fracas spilled over into a place called Tottenham Hale Retail Park, where damages to local businesses ensued.
   The next two nights brought about scenes of numerous riots in several different places. Looting, arson and mass deployment of police were the course for two straight nights and even a third in some places. Five people would die and numerous were injured.
   As much as the toll of destruction seemed terrible, it somehow seemed even more shocking, to white people, that the vast majority of people rioting and looting were white people! In previous riots, historically, there were usually a majority of black or minority ethnic people leading the charge, and a few whites who happened to participate. In these London riots of 2011, it seemed that it was the whites, who were leading the rampant destruction and looting and it was the minorities that were the smaller numbers choosing to participate. Everybody seemed to notice this, and how could you not? It seems like we've been indoctrinated to believe that only black people were capable of a real riot and the rest of us are just a bunch of tame sheep who only go crazy at rock concerts.
   Historian David Starkey, on a BBC news program called Newsnight, gave a dubious explanation that blamed 'gangster culture' (i.e.: Hip-hop) which was influencing English youth so profoundly that "whites have become black". Others have come up with numerous other explanations that may or may not hold up under scrutiny. But Very Us Mumblings has one explanation that the intellectuals of the UK may not have considered, and that's that whites in England may have been wanting this riot for some time. All they had to do was listen to what the Clash were saying in 1977, and they would've known well-ahead of time. In the song 'White Riot' Joe Strummer suggests that it's the black people who are brave because they are willing to pick up a brick and riot in the streets and face the police, while at the same time suggesting that white people are too cowardly to try such a thing. Thirty-four years later, Joe Strummer and the Clash were proven right, and perhaps all these white people needed was to ramp up the anger to finally do it.


The Herd
 Early rock and roll riots were often viewed as being the release of pent-up frustration and a backlash against unecessary repression of youth-driven hormones and enthusiasm. Societal repression played a part in the early scuffles and riots at the very first rock concerts. The 1958 Bill Haley tour in Europe actually mimicked what was happening in the 1950s, at certain rock concerts in the U.S,  where whites were seperated from black in the audience, usually by a rope, and of course, once the music started, those ropes got torn down and everyone started dancing together, causing local authorities to PANIC!! Efforts to clamp down on all this 'dancing in the aisles' and mingling of white and black rock n' roll fans only led to more rioting. In this context, preventing people from dancing in the aisle at a Bill Haley concert may have caused the youthful crowd to unleash their energy in other, less constructive ways.
   In Altamont, however, a combination of too many different and conflicting personalities and drugs along with a uniquely troublesome security force (or lack thereof) can prove a volatile combination that turns a peaceful rock n' roll show into a tragic death scene.
   Political repression of dissent and discriminatory policing policies that target minorities, a faulty justice system, and racial tension seems to be an ongoing concern, but the London riots show that race-tension is not actually needed in the mix where drastic inequality exists. In some ways, ignoring the needs of and wants of the public can cause such pent-up frustration to become expressed in more violent ways.
  And while there's something to be said for avoiding the emotional, racial, political and even musical repression that causes pent-up frustration to be released in the form of something so destructive as a riot, sometimes the cause is much more simple than race, inequality or police brutality:
    In some ways the most obvious catalyst for a riot is alcohol and team-sports combined with the natural instinct for people to herd into groups of 'us' and 'them'.
  Sports riots happen more often than most people realize and can be just as destructive and dangerous as any rock or hip-hop or motown or race or inequality riots, and they seem to happen largely without any seeming concern or desire to address the problems causing it or to prevent the next one from happening. (Except to increase security or police presence at such events). But the Sports riot is sometimes the worst in terms of actual damage and destruction. And just in case you think that Sports riots were just a bunch of sore losers, you can consider the 1986 Montreal Canadiens, who succesfully WON the Stanley Cup and then had some 5 thousand of their fans rioting down Ste Catharines street causing about $1 million in damage. And yet despite this powerful 'herding' instinct of sports fans, it seems pointless to tell these rioters that they are destroying their own city, not that of the other team.


Thanks to Patrick at CapitalRev, whose vlog on Herding psychology helped to inspire this music based blog on Riots!