Welcome To Dystopia: Dorian Lynskey’s 1984 Playlist

Dorian Lynskey's recent book The Ministry of Truth looks at the culture and context of George Orwell's classic dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Ahead of a talk about the book this coming Tuesday at Waterstones, Covent Garden, he picks out ten of the best examples of pop songs adhering to that nebulous genre, 'George Orwave'

The ingenious hosts of the Yacht Rock podcast came up with “George Orwave” to describe the paranoid pop songs, such as Cheap Trick’s ‘Dream Police’ and Corey Hart’s ‘Sunglasses at Night’, that proliferated in the run-up to Orwell’s year. While many songs could be loosely described as Orwellian, far fewer explicitly engage with Nineteen Eighty-Four. Of those that do, some are merely curios, like Lisa Stansfield’s forgotten B-side ‘The Thought Police’ or Girls Aloud’s ‘Big Brother’, with its blithe chorus: “Big Brother’s watching me/ And I don’t really mind.” And you would need to hate Orwell with the passion of a 1950s Stalinist to enjoy Rick Wakeman and Tim Rice’s 1981 concept album 1984, on which Chaka Khan and Kenny Lynch duet on a disco number called ‘Robot Man’. Still, some songwriters appear to have drawn serious inspiration from Orwell’s deathless dystopia. Here are 10 of the best.

Spirit – ‘1984’ (1970)

Given his low opinion of Hollywood movies, comic books and hedonism, it’s unlikely that Orwell would have taken to rock’n’roll if he had lived to see the 60s, although he might have made an exception for Paul McCartney’s democratic humanism and music-hall throwbacks. Nevertheless, Nineteen Eighty-Four was a mainstay of counterculture bookshelves so Orwellian rock was inevitable. California heads Spirit were early adopters, releasing this paranoid call to arms on the cusp of an anxious new decade: “Oh, where will you be when your freedom is dead 14 years from tonight?” Spirit’s omnipresent spies have “plexi-plastic eyeballs”. Orwell didn’t think of that.

Stevie Wonder – ‘Big Brother’ (1972)

In songs such as Rare Earth’s ‘Hey, Big Brother’ and John Lennon’s ‘Only People’, Big Brother became a catchy synonym for The Man, so vaguely applied that it was unclear whether the songwriters had actually read the book or merely got the gist of it. Stevie Wonder’s deceptively beautiful riff on Orwell’s Stalinoid enigma stood out by thoughtfully updating the idea for the era of political assassinations, mass protest and conservative backlash. Big Brother is Richard Nixon (“The President of your soul”), while Airstrip One’s prole district maps onto the American ghetto: “Someday I will move on my feet to the other side” echoes Winston Smith’s faith in the potential of the proles to rise up. Around this time, information was leaking out about COINTELPRO, the FBI’s program to surveil, infiltrate and sabotage left-wing groups such as the Black Panther Party, which gave the narrator’s fear of being watched (“you got me all in your notebook”) a timely kick.

David Bowie – ‘1984/Dodo’ (1973)

Bowie may have been furious at Orwell’s notoriously protective widow Sonia for rebuffing his attempt to turn the book into a rock musical (“the whole thing was originally Nineteen-bloody-Eighty-Four”) but surely it was for the best. It’s hard to imagine Bowie at this stage — paranoid, impatient, cocaine-frazzled — having the narrative discipline to pull it off and his writing sessions with playwright Tony Ingrassia went nowhere. Diamond Dogs, his Plan B, played to his strengths. Besotted by William Burroughs’ cut-up technique, he remixed Orwell’s text and combined it with the hip, manic dystopias of Burroughs and Burgess to create hysterical anthems like ‘Big Brother’ and ‘We Are the Dead’. The medley ‘1984/Dodo’, which Bowie debuted during his mischievously titled TV special The 1980 Floor Show and later released as a bonus track, illustrates the depth of his reading, with a précis of Winston’s colleague Parsons’ betrayal by his own daughter: “He thinks he’s well screened from the man at the top/ It’s a shame that his children disagree/ They coolly decide to sell him down the line/ Daddy’s brainwashing time.” The superior album version of ‘1984’ introduces another Orwellian Easter egg: “Looking for the treason that I knew in ‘65” refers to the arrest of Ingsoc’s alleged traitors Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford. Diamond Dogs was a far more radical and original journey into the headspace of Nineteen Eighty-Four than any musical could have been.

The Jam – ‘Standards’ (1977)

Far more comfortable with sarcasm and menace than the 60s generation, punks were able to flip the perspective and write from the vantage of the torturer O’Brien rather than Winston Smith. Amid the chaos and hysteria of the 1970s, a quasi-fascistic longing for a strong leader infected mainstream conservatism and the same fears that inspired Alan Moore’s initial idea for V for Vendetta animate Paul Weller’s authoritarian cosplay here. For all its adolescent bluntness, it does show a working knowledge of the novel and assumes the same of the listener: “Ignorance is strength, we have God on our side,” he snaps. “Look, you know what happened to Winston.”

The Dead Kennedys – ‘California Über Alles’ (1979)

Jello Biafra took the punk maxim “never trust a hippie” to absurd extremes when he convinced himself that Jerry Brown, California’s groovy liberal governor and Democratic presidential hopeful, was a major threat to the Republic. As he later admitted, Biafra was wrong about Brown but this is still a fabulously strange satirical vision in which “Big Bro on a white horse” enforces mandatory meditation and jogging while dispatching his suede-denim secret police to arrest your uncool niece. Amid the gags, there’s a genuine shiver of threat when Biafra sneers: “Now it’s 1984/ Knock knock at your front door.” When he rewrote the song in 1981 as the anti-Reagan ‘We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now’, the humour grew several shades darker: “Welcome to 1984/ Are you ready for the Third World War?”

Ministry – ‘Faith Collapsing’ (1989)

Even 35 years on, our mental image of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and of dystopia in general, is shaped by Michael Radford’s faithful movie adaptation: the blue boiler suits, the red-and-black livery, Roger Deakins’ desaturated cinematography, John Hurt’s haunted expression. Only the glib Eurythmics soundtrack, imposed on Radford by the film’s backer Richard Branson after David Bowie botched his pitch, marred the gloomy tone. The film’s real musical legacy is its treasure trove of ominous dialogue, shrewdly sampled by the Manic Street Preachers (‘Faster’), El-P (‘Accidents Don’t Happen’) and Ministry, who dropped Ingsoc propaganda over a clanging industrial loop fit for the Two Minutes Hate.

Rage Against the Machine – ‘Testify’ (1999)

Nineteen Eighty-Four has always been relevant to some extent but never less so than in the triumphalist decade bracketed by the twin collapses of the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Centre. On its 50th birthday Orwell’s book was widely regarded as having more to say about the past than the future. For similar reasons, 1999 found the protest song at a low ebb, which made the incurable malcontents of Rage Against the Machine outliers twice over. This broadside against complacency climaxes with a paraphrase of one of Ingsoc’s slogans: “Who controls the past now controls the future/ Who controls the present now controls the past.” Zack de la Rocha had clearly been re-reading the book because the same album’s ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ declares, “Orwell’s hell a terror era coming through/ But this little brother is watching you too.” In a relatively good year for peace, affluence and liberal democracy, De la Rocha’s shrill warning, “It’s right outside our door!”, may have seemed alarmist. In hindsight he was on to something.

Radiohead – ‘2+2=5’ (2003)

Thom Yorke said that he was reminded of Ingsoc’s insane equation by the “Orwellian” language of politicians on Radio 4 during the long build-up to the Iraq war. ‘2+2=5’’s alternative title, ‘The Lukewarm’, refers to the people in Dante’s Inferno who ended up in hell not because they committed crimes but because they stood by while others committed them. The song begins by describing the dreamy passivity of the lukewarm who “sandbag and hide”, before exploding into a frenetic condemnation: “It is too late now because you have not been paying attention!” Whether or not “I try to sing along/ I get it all wrong/ ‘Cause I’m not” alludes to Winston’s dawning resistance, the whole song mirrors Orwell’s desire to stir his readers to awareness and reaction. As he wrote to a reader in 1944: “If one simply proclaims that all is for the best and doesn’t point to the sinister symptoms, one is merely helping to bring totalitarianism nearer.” Yorke has always pointed to the sinister symptoms.

Muse – ‘Resistance’ (2009)

Having already ventured into “George Orwave” with 2001’s ‘Citizen Erased’, Matt Bellamy revisited Nineteen Eighty-Four while making Muse’s dystopian concept album The Resistance. “It is very much based on the book 1984 by George Orwell,” he explained, “particularly the romance between Winston and Julia and the description of the act of sex and love as something political, the only place offering freedom from Big Brother.” Bellamy alludes to the Thought Police and the couple’s clandestine lovenest above Charrington’s junk shop but lightens his love-as-resistance theme with a dollop of arena-rock sentimentality. This romance will not end in Room 101. Orwell’s vision is too merciless for sci-fi glam bangers.

Akala – ‘Welcome to Dystopia’ (2010)

It’s surprising that there hasn’t been more overtly Orwellian hip hop in the vein of Sage Francis’s ‘Hey Bobby’ (“Don’t forget what two plus two equals”) or Aesop Rock’s ‘One Brick’, which cleverly rewrote the novel’s passage about preparations for Hate Week. For his DoubleThink album, Akala took a crash course in dystopian literature, consulting Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We as well as Orwell. “Reading those books seemed almost prophetic to me,” he said. “I found I could use that fiction as a vehicle to say something, as opposed to saying something outright politically.” ‘Welcome to Dystopia’ is a megamix of ideas from all three, transported into the 21st century, and it gets better as it moves from obvious targets towards an observation that Orwell would have appreciated: “If I looked at myself I would see I am the enemy.” By glomming onto doublethink, the novel’s most sophisticated and important concept, Akala hits upon an aspect of the novel that most Orwell-influenced songwriters miss: the seeds of tyranny, or at least complicity with tyranny, lurk in every human brain.

The Ministry of Truth by Dorian Lynskey is published by Pan Macmillan. On Tuesday 23 July, Lynskey will be in conversation with Hugo Rifkind at Waterstones, Covent Garden, London

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