Political Songs | Ping Pong – Stereolab

‘Ping Pong’ is the song that got Stereolab labelled as a Marxist band. It makes a sweeping, big-picture political statement and rose to No. 45 on the British singles chart.

It was particularly odd, but impactful songwriting advice that a young Laetitia Sadier received in September 1989, advice she took and has applied to her work ever since.

She had just turned 21 and moved from France to London, where she joined far left-wing English indie band McCarthy in their – as she put it – “last five minutes”. They were recording their third album, Banking, Violence and the Inner Life Today, which was also their swansong.

McCarthy’s radical songwriter, Malcolm Eden, sat her down and said, “Don’t ever talk about your heartaches in a song.”

She recalled in a Red Bull Academy interview a few years ago, probably only half tongue-in-cheek: “Somehow it was like a threat. You know, like, ‘Or I’ll kill you.’ I was like, ‘Alright then, I better not.’ Indeed, for years, it’s true, I never talked about my heartaches.”

But as she remarked more seriously, “I really got his point. I was also politically motivated.”

After the band broke up, Sadier and McCarthy guitarist Tim Gane continued what would be a 14-year-long romantic relationship. They would also form what to many would be the perfect pop band, Stereolab.

‘Stylistic experiments’

From 1990 to 2009, when they announced their indefinite hiatus, Stereolab mesmerised intelligent music fans with their experimental avant-pop. They took in some of Velvet Underground’s drone rock; krautrock a la Can, Faust and Neu!; idiosyncratic, easy listening exotica from the likes of Esquivel, Mantovani and Martin Denny; lounge from artists such as Burt Bacharach and Françoise Hardy; 1960s pop; French new wave; Philip Glass and Steve Reich’s minimalism; hip-hop; jazz; and bossa nova and then made their own highly original music.

Over their 13 studio albums and countless singles, Stereolab always sounded new, yet recognisable, especially with chanteuse Sadier’s unemotional voice, droning organ-driven and analogue synthesiser sound, and lyrics often sung in French. As the AllMusic website put it, “deceptively simple”, yet “providing the basis for a wide array of stylistic experiments over the course of their prolific career”.

“With their gossamer female backing harmonies and motoric pulse,” said British magazine The Wire, “Stereolab make resolutely unmacho music.”

There was often a hint or suggestion of humour, as in was that a wink, a nudge or a smile? Song and album titles were often self-deprecating, like a really understated sketch by British surreal comedy group Monty Python: the album Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, single John Cage Bubblegum and 1993 EP The Groop Played “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music”.

Stereolab often referenced culture and politics – for example, a 1940s and 1950s surrealist group called Cobra, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, electronic composer Wendy Carlos, the Dada art movement and Marxist theorist Guy Debord – but without getting too clever for their own good.

Marxist label

The anticapitalist Stereolab were regularly described as a Marxist band. But Sadier, who wrote their lyrics, says she was more influenced by Cornelis Castoriadis, a radical Greek-French philosopher who initially belonged to the French Communist Party and was critical of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, accusing it of being a “bureaucratic capitalist state”.

In 1948, Castoriadis helped form the radical Socialisme ou Barbarie (socialism or barbarism) group, which was also the name of its journal. It was the title, too, of the 2003 debut album of Sadier’s side project, Monade.

While the situationists and surrealists also had an influence on Stereolab’s thinking and lyrics, the song that got the band “branded” as Marxist was Ping Pong, off their third album, Mars Audiac Quintet, released in 1994.

If ever there’s been a song that doesn’t talk about heartache, it’s Ping Pong. It is brilliant eccentric pop music that makes a sweeping, big-picture political statement without resorting to easy sloganeering.

Ping Pong reached No. 45 on the United Kingdom’s singles chart and it’s doubtful many songs about Kondratiev waves – long-term cycles of economic expansion and contraction in capitalist economies – have climbed higher than that on the charts.

The song is delivered in an almost detached, sing-song way, with Sadier sounding like a weary observer:

It’s alright ’cause the historical pattern has shown
How the economical cycle tends to revolve
In a round of decades three stages stand out in a loop
A slump and war then peel back to square one and back for more

As she told the Red Bull Academy in 2015, Ping Pong is “basically about the cycle of destruction within the capitalist cycle of eating its own crap and engendering crisis and deeper in the war to repair everything, to get the economy back on track, produce, produce, produce, repair, rebuild and then another crisis.

“Except that now we’re at a stage where it’s not a crisis anymore. Can we call this a crisis? It’s not a crisis, right, because a crisis happens and then you either die or fall off the cliff or you change and you evolve, but we’re just stuck. Since I was born, it’s been la crise économique (economic crisis).”

In her lyrics, Sadier isn’t fooled by this capitalist cycle and sarcastically remarks:

There’s only millions that lose their jobs and homes and sometimes accents
There’s only millions that die in their bloody wars, it’s alright

It’s only their lives and the lives of their next of kin that they are losing
It’s only their lives and the lives of their next of kin that they are losing

Trickle-down, happy-go-lucky capitalism anyone?

Don’t worry be happy things will get better naturally
Don’t worry shut up sit down go with it and be happy

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