On Message and Quality: the Case Example of Catch-22’s Permanent Revolution

625506This article is a review a wrote for the Red Wedge Magazine

I would like to talk about a particularly out of nowhere subject, a 2006 concept album by the third-wave Ska band Catch-22 entitled Permanent Revolution. Now some might wonder why would I bother with an album by a band far past its prime from 7 years ago. Well for one I don’t believe many on the far-left are even aware that this album exists, for as the name indicates, Permanent Revolution is about the life of Leon Trotsky. Yeah, go figure. Secondly, and I will get to this later on, is that this album illustrates a certain point I have about art on the left.

So lets begin with the band itself. The story of Catch-22 is somewhat infamous Ska music scene, that hyperactive older sibling of reggae. During the 90s Ska had its so-called Third Wave. The first wave being its origins in Jamaica in the ‘50s with bands like The Skatalites (starting a long tradition of Ska garage bands just adding the syllable “ska” to a part of their name), the second being the 2-Tone period during the 70s in Britain with such bands as Madness and The Specials. The ‘90s Third Wave saw a rather rough synthesis between 2-Tone style Ska and American pop-punk (leading to the common epitaph that Ska is just punk + trumpets), combined with some moderate mainstream attention with bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish being the most famous.

Catch-22’s first studio album, the 1998 Keasby Nights, is likely one of the highest quality works to come out of this period. But the band would promptly split just after its release, with the principal talent and song-writer Tomas Kalnoky going on to form a competing, and arguably better, band Streetlight Manifesto. Catch-22’s first album post split, Alone In the Crowd, isn’t bad per se, but you can see the beginning of the long descent, and its very much clear that the remaining original band members are trying to copy Kalnoky’s style. It feels like they are trying too hard. Their subsequent albums only got worse. Then we come to Permanent Revolution.

To begin with, yes, this exists. This is a full studio ska-punk biographical album about the life of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. What is interesting is that they never once use Trotsky’s name in the album. Rather each song is associated with a particular year in Trotky’s life. So track 2 “The Spark” is 1905 and about the first Russian Revolution, track 3 “Party Song” is 1917 and is about the October Revolution, track 7 “Bad Party” is 1927 and about the Stalinist purges of the Communist Party of the Left Opposition, and the second to last track “Opportunity” is on Trotsky’s exile to Mexico and assassination there in 1940.

So on one hand this is clearly an album put together by people very versed and sympathetic to the life of Leon Trotsky. The lyrics for “Opportunity”, and I’ll quote the whole thing because I find it actually quite a touching reflection of this revolutionaries’ life, goes like;

Hardships faced. We’ve been disgraced.
Our plans for the land are degraded by menacing hands.
But history’s compelling us, telling us to do it all again.
As far as I can see, everything that we had believed
is more true now than ever before.
If the truth be known, we would do it all again.

Bureaucracy and hypocrisy are contagious and make us all victims eventually.
You can take my life from me, but we will do it all again.
The seeds of truth will grow.
The people will know of the visions that we have endeavored to show.
And like the river we will flow.
We Will do it all again.

Faceless men who represent no idea or purpose intend
to prevent revolution though revolution,
but we could do it all again.
Even when I die, I hope you won’t cry,
for my life has been happily spent in the struggle…
and I love you so I would do it all again

We got low, down in Mexico.
It seems so far after having been so close.
We got low, down in Mexico.
We lost everything except the things that matter most.

Other songs touch on the difficult decisions that faced Trotsky as the leader of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, and the sorrow he felt after Lenin’s death as the counter-revolutionary vultures of bureaucracy began to circle overhead. The person who wrote these songs truly cared about the legacy and work of Trotsky. You have these lines from the last song in the album, “Epilogue”;

Why would a man who believed in no god
Sacrifice all he had
To kill or be killed in pursuit of a cause
Was the fate that called to him

And you can say he might be crazy
And some can’t understand
That a life spent doing less than all you can would be a waste.

Beautiful stuff. But I want you to read and re-read over those lyrics. Try your best to come up with a way and a tune by which they could be song while still being lyrical and pleasant to the ears. If you can, congratulations, because Catch-22 most certainly couldn’t.

Another example, this from the track 1 “Prologue”. These are first lyrics song in the album, our introduction to the entire style of the album and the skill of Catch-22 as musicians;

A hero was part of a movement from the not so distant past,
He and others like him felt the world was changing fast,
So they embarked on a journey with their very best intentions,
And thought that what began with them would never find an end.

I assure you, the singing of these lyrics are just as clunky and awkward as you can imagine. And that brings me to my other point here about this album; even though I like some songs on this album (“Party Song” and “Opportunity” being my favorites), heck I even like the album as a whole and will continue to listen to it, but I have to admit this is a bad album.

The lyrics feel jagged and entirely disconnected to the songs being played. The music itself is uninspired, the instrumentals rather boring, the musicians showing very little marginal skill. While Tomas Kalnoky and Streetlight Manifesto had gone on to really break some new grounds in Ska (though the pace at which they release new albums is maddening slow), Catch-22 seems very much stuck in the mud of their current skill level. It is a fact Permanent Revolution, despite coming out in 2006, is the band’s most recent album, even though they are still touring. At best this album is nothing special, at worst, well …

Art, especially mainstream Art, has an interesting relationship with the Left. Any time a mainstream movie, TV show, album, or what have you, takes up the flag of the Left in some way or other, there is a certain amount of abandoning of criticism that goes with it. “Yay! They actually notice us!”

My favorite example of this is V for Vendetta, the 2005 movie, not the original comic book. Now this movie is awful. Just awful. The acting, the script, the way it adapted from the original source material, the characterizations, Natalie Portman’s fake British accent, all awful. It is another in the long line of abominations the Wachowskis siblings have produced. But because the movie has a certain amount of radical panache to it (though severely watered down from the original graphic) and its implicit criticism of Bush’s War on Terror, the film has gotten so much free traction in Left circles, some thoroughly adopting it and its iconography, despite the fact that it’s a terrible movie.

Other examples abound, but the point is at the end of the day I want quality with my message. Art can rightfully be judged on the merits of its actual execution alone as well as what it is trying to say. We shouldn’t suspend our critical eyes and ears just because the artist in question happens to be on our “side” of the political divide. If anything that’s more reason to hold them to a higher standard. That album, movie, painting is now a representative to the world of those politics, put some damn effort into it.

Permanent Revolution could have been a masterpiece, a work that helped to ignite interest in the life and ideas of Leon Trotsky amongst a mass, young audience. But now, no, its just a mere curiosity for the already converted.

If you are trying to say something with your work, excellent, we need more art in this world that’s got something radical to say. But please try to say it with some actual skill. Message is great, quality delivered messages are the best.

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About redpleb

I'm a socialist, an activist, a worker and an all around troublemaker here in New Jersey. You can find me on twitter @RedPleb
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