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Sugarman
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Post subject: Nelson Mandela / The Most Potent Protest Song Ever Recorded Reply with quote

By Fraser McAlpine

26/06/13

Former South African president Nelson Mandela, 94, is currently critically ill in a hospital in Pretoria. He has been attempting to fight off a recurring lung infection, which has left him struggling to breathe unaided. Already his official spokesman has urged supporters not to hold out “false hopes” of a full recovery, and prepare for the worst.

If they should turn out to be correct, his political legacy, his potency as totemic figure of unyielding principle against an unforgiving and racist regime, will be discussed and debated on TV news shows across the world.

And when that happens, I would be most surprised if any of them neglected to play the Special AKA song “Nelson Mandela” (or “Free Nelson Mandela,” if you bought the single) at some point. Even in countries where this 1984 single wasn’t a hit — No. 6 in the U.K. charts — the effervescent joy of this most demanding of protest songs is so closely aligned with with hard-won public geniality of the man himself that the two appear impossible to separate.

And that’s a remarkable thing, given that the song was constructed in the midst of a period of high stress and confusion within the Special AKA camp, one that lasted more than three years.

In 1981, when they were still known as The Specials and enjoying a No. 1 single with the literally dread-full “Ghost Town,” the band’s three singers, Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staples decided to go their own way and formed Fun Boy 3. This, together with songwriter Jerry Dammers’ move into creating deeply challenging songs about rape, racism and domestic violence, across some unusual time signatures too, meant a steep decline in the band’s fanbase.

Sessions for the battered collective’s third album In The Studio were pock-marked with rows and stormings-off. Guest musicians were brought in, founder members would strop off, and the songs were, in the main, a tough listen. Protest music in the classical sense, where the misery of the subject matter is met and matched by the oppressive nature of the music itself.

Even “Nelson Mandela,” the exception and glowing gem of warmth and welcome in the middle of a musical war-zone, was afflicted with strife and turmoil. On one hand, Lynval Golding, having split from Fun Boy 3, appeared in the studio to help record it, as did Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger from The (English) Beat. On the other, singer Stan Campbell walked out of the band just after recording his lead vocal, and then had to be cajoled into making TV appearances and filming the video, before once again striding off into the sunset.

The point being, an angry song about a political prisoner in South Africa, held captive for 21 years (at the time of writing), and written and performed by a bunch of chippy former pop stars who appeared hellbent on throwing their success back in the faces of their fans, has no business being this happy, this celebratory, and this powerful.

And this was no broadside at the state of things, like “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” and no unspecific response to a totalitarian threat, like “We Shall Overcome,” this is one very specific demand, for one very specific outcome, taking all of its weight and substance from the irresistible force of pop music.

To a generation of British kids who had never heard of him before “Free Nelson Mandela” is all they ever needed to know about the man. Fittingly, Jerry Dammers, who wrote the song, had no idea who he was until he attended an anti-apartheid concert in 1983. Had he then come up with something more hectoring or angry, it’s possible the anti-apartheid movement would have had a very different level of support throughout the 1980s. Certainly in South Africa the song was seized upon as an instant anthem for the African National Congress.

And when Paul Simon released Graceland three years later, recording with South African musicians and almost accidentally blundering into the global debate about apartheid, guess who was picketing his London concerts for breaking the UN cultural embargo? Jerry Dammers. More bickering, more aggression, more anger, and yet the music remains potent, uplifting and joyful.

And what’s most interesting is that when Nelson Mandela was finally released in 1990, and then became president in 1994, he effectively assimilated these qualities into himself. A powerful leader, yes, but also a symbol of hope: a victory for the good guys.

“Free Nelson Mandela?” “Oh, you have.”

Which just goes to show that expression about honey and vinegar isn’t just for use when making a cake.

http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2013/06/nelson-mandela-and-the-most-potent-protest-song-ever-recorded/
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Last edited by Sugarman on Sat Jun 29, 2013 8:54 am; edited 1 time in total
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Fri Jun 28, 2013 10:57 pm
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Imani
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Good article.

I read somewhere that Free Nelson Mandela took just four days to record, in sharp contrast to the rest of the album. It's the most upbeat on In The Studio (with the exception of Girlfriend).
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Sat Jun 29, 2013 7:57 am
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Harry
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I think I remember reading that Jerry had the tune of the song in his head for a long time before he wrote the song.
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Sat Jun 29, 2013 4:13 pm
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Fun Boy
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A great joyous record. Elvis Costello did a great job on it and should have produced the whole of ‘In The Studio’. No doubting Jerry Dammers creative talents but even producers need a producer sometimes. The songs sound over worked and over mixed, all the life squeezed out of most of them. I have seen a YouTube clip of The Special AKA doing a couple of tracks on a live TV programme and the versions are much better than the album. They should have gone out and played live before recording the album.

I think Dammers was wrong to picket the Paul Simon gig as those South African musicians took part by their own choice. He was right to criticise Queen for playing Sun City but over the top to call them the prototype Nuremburg band.
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Sun Jun 30, 2013 4:43 pm
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Harry
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Jerry and (whats left of) Queen patched things up. They performed alongside him when Amy Whinehouse sang "Free Blakie My Fella" when it was Mandela's 90th birthday...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HiPmMMaHCk
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Sun Jun 30, 2013 5:22 pm
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Trojan
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Fun Boy wrote:

I think Dammers was wrong to picket the Paul Simon gig as those South African musicians took part by their own choice. He was right to criticise Queen for playing Sun City but over the top to call them the prototype Nuremburg band.


From the Telegraph of all places:

"He was criticised for breaking the UN cultural boycott which decreed that no artist would work or present their work in South Africa as part of the fight against racial segregation. The ANC condemned him for not asking them if he could be there, as did Artists Against Apartheid. Protesters on the streets waved posters bearing slogans such as "Yankee Go Home" and "Go Back Simon". Eventually he returned to New York, followed by the musicians he was working with, hurt by the crisis but sticking to his guns that the purity of his art was above the political situation."



http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/lucyjones/100063781/should-paul-simon-have-defied-a-un-boycott-to-make-graceland-in-south-africa-under-apartheid/
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Mon Jul 01, 2013 7:44 am
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Imani
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Fun Boy wrote:
A great joyous record. Elvis Costello did a great job on it and should have produced the whole of ‘In The Studio’. No doubting Jerry Dammers creative talents but even producers need a producer sometimes. The songs sound over worked and over mixed, all the life squeezed out of most of them. I have seen a YouTube clip of The Special AKA doing a couple of tracks on a live TV programme and the versions are much better than the album. They should have gone out and played live before recording the album.



I remember a BBC 2 series presented by journalist Robin Denslow back in 1984 (Eight Days A Week) that reviewed each week's releases. UB40's Robin Campbell was a guest on the week In The Studio came out and said much the same about the recordings 'like they'd gone over them a few times.'

I always felt fear was a factor in them not playing live. It was a completely new band and at that time, I'm sure lots of Specials fans would have turned up and been disappointed. If they'd had a different name altogether, maybe that would have removed that weight of expectation.
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Mon Jul 01, 2013 5:07 pm
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Fun Boy
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I think you are right about the name and the fear factor the band legacy meant for the new members.

I remember the programme but not what was said though the response to the album was very muted. There was Robin Denslow and 3 guest reviewers including Robin Campbell. Can’t remember who the other two were.

Not sure the AKA were ever really a band or even friends on any level. More like a collection of people who laid down tracks in the studio as required by Mr Dammers who probably wanted it to be band but couldn’t pull all these people together. I love the videos they made to go with the album though. Seeing the old Wag Club decor, and that ‘Burnt Out Stars’ graffiti at Gerrard St was still there till about 2002.

With The Specials split there will always be a big ‘what if…’ for me regarding the never to be 3rd album. ‘In The Studio’ and Fun Boy Three’s ‘Waiting’ were similar in sound and subject matter. A third studio album by a Specials which had given up touring and got down to work writing and experimenting in the studio might have been a masterpiece appearing in 82/83.
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Mon Jul 01, 2013 10:53 pm
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Imani
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Fun Boy wrote:
I think you are right about the name and the fear factor the band legacy meant for the new members.

I remember the programme but not what was said though the response to the album was very muted. There was Robin Denslow and 3 guest reviewers including Robin Campbell. Can’t remember who the other two were.

Not sure the AKA were ever really a band or even friends on any level. More like a collection of people who laid down tracks in the studio as required by Mr Dammers who probably wanted it to be band but couldn’t pull all these people together. I love the videos they made to go with the album though. Seeing the old Wag Club decor, and that ‘Burnt Out Stars’ graffiti at Gerrard St was still there till about 2002.

With The Specials split there will always be a big ‘what if…’ for me regarding the never to be 3rd album. ‘In The Studio’ and Fun Boy Three’s ‘Waiting’ were similar in sound and subject matter. A third studio album by a Specials which had given up touring and got down to work writing and experimenting in the studio might have been a masterpiece appearing in 82/83.


One of the other guests was John Taylor, whose response was fairly muted, unsurprisingly.

I also liked the videos the AKA made, they were simple but told the stories and captured the mood of each song. Out of interest, that 'burnt out stars' graffiti; I've a feeling that's what Madness were also referring to in their song Victoria. Gardens.

A third album would have been great but too much pressure within and outside the band got the better of them.
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Tue Jul 02, 2013 3:31 pm
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Sugarman
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The Big Issue
05/07/13

The Specials' Jerry Dammers: “Many people hadn’t heard of Mandela before my song”

The Specials founder reveals why he wrote a song that would rally a generation against South African apartheid


Jerry Dammers believes that it’s the simplicity of The Specials’ Free Nelson Mandela that transformed the three-chord tune into an international wonder.

Dammers was at the centre of that moment in history almost 30 years ago when The Specials AKA helped spread the name of Nelson Mandela into previously untouched territory.

Free Nelson Mandela was the song we heard in the final grinding years of Mandela’s imprisonment - and it is the song we heard when, in 1990, he was released, squinting and saluting, into the sudden sunshine of a joyous world.

“I’m very proud of it,” Dammers told The Big Issue. “A lot of people over the years have told me that they hadn’t heard of him before my song. But I was just another cog in the wheel. What I did was nothing compared with people who gave their lives in South Africa, or with people like Mandela who spent a quarter of a century in prison.

“That was a huge sacrifice. I just happened to have access to the media at that time.”

It all started on a summer’s evening in 1983 when Dammers went out to a gig in London that was being held in honour man whom he – in common with most Britons at the time – had never heard of: Nelson Mandela.

By the end of the night, Dammers was left angry and inspired – and he finally had some lyrics to finish that sweet tune that had been nagging at him for so long.

Free Nelson Mandela, with its jaunty brass and joyful vocals, is a sugar pill; a protest song that slips down easy and sounds just fine on Top of the Pops.

“That was the secret of its success,” said Dammers. “Probably if I’d sat down and tried to write a song specifically about Mandela it would have been some really earnest thing with an acoustic guitar and it wouldn’t have worked so well.

“The main vocal tune is just three notes – C, D and E. It couldn’t be simpler or more catchy. The lyrics are angry but the song was positive, like – this is going to happen!”

To read more from Jerry Dammers on Free Nelson Mandela, buy this week’s Big Issue, on sale now

http://www.bigissue.com/mix/news/2653/jerry-dammers-many-hadn-t-heard-mandela-my-song

http://www.bigissue.com/tags/special-aka
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