In 2001, British beatniks Coldcut – the experimental electronic music duo of Matt Black and Jonathan More – formed a political party. It allowed them to drive around London in a campaign bus with a massive sound system during that year’s election in the United Kingdom but, unbeknown to the authorities, it was a spoof.
They called themselves The Guilty Party. “Our slogan was, ‘We’re all guilty, so vote guilty’,” More told me two years ago, when they visited South Africa for a music project.
During their “political campaign”, they blasted Coldcut music, cut with samples from speeches by Tony Blair and William Haig, from the loudspeakers of the campaign bus. The two happy pranksters used a spoonerism as their main policy tenet: Cannibalise legalism.
But over their 32 years together, Coldcut have always been more than avant-garde tricksters or highly rated cut-and-paste beat pioneers.
Genuinely progressive politics
In 1990, they started Ninja Tune, which is still regarded as one of the most successful and influential independent record labels of all time. They’ve released groundbreaking, offbeat and eclectic electronica, jazz, hip-hop, rock, funk, soul and even folk, from a wide range of artists.
On top of that, their politics have always been genuinely progressive.
“Politics influences everyone, but some people don’t notice that,” said Black in 2017. “I’m aware that politics is the air that I breathe, or waiting for the bus that is cancelled because of the cutbacks, or the test that my dad can’t get in the hospital because of cutbacks to the NHS [National Health Service]. So, yes, I’m aware of it. Politics is my life, it is everyone’s life.”
Both remain solid socialists, even though Black thought that “the left is fucked” and that it “needs to be remixed”.
Taking on the logging industry
In 1998, Coldcut recorded a powerful eco-socialist protest song against industrial logging, Timber. “I think Timber was the best expression of our political position. It just put something that is evil in context by showing it,” said More, that evil being the destruction of rainforests, which play an invaluable role in sustaining life on earth.
This is how it works: Rainforests are found in the tropical areas near the equator. They make up 6% of the Earth’s land surface, but produce 40% of its oxygen, according to a National Geographic fact sheet. But large portions of rainforest are cut down every year for logging, mining and cattle ranches. Brazil houses a third of the remaining rainforests and already more than 19% of the Amazonian rainforests have been lost to deforestation since 1970. Inhabitants of the rainforests, human and animal, see their home disappearing.
It is set to get worse. Hours after taking office in January this year, Brazil’s new far-right and populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, launched as The Guardian explained it, “an assault on environmental and Amazon protections with an executive order transferring the regulation and creation of new indigenous reserves to the agriculture ministry, which is controlled by the powerful agribusiness lobby”.
Machines to fight machines
Timber comes from Coldcut’s fourth album, Let Us Play, which came with interactive games and videos, including one for Timber.
The song is unique in that it is simultaneously a sonic and visual track. As musicologist Timothy Warner explained in Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film edited by Robynn Jeananne Stilwell: “Most of the sounds and images used are derived from the same source: footage from a Greenpeace film on the destruction of the rainforest. Coldcut use the sounds of falling trees, axes, chisels, chainsaws and logging machines to build up the track through sampling. The most noticeable elements in each section are directly mirrored by the moving images: axes cutting, chisels splitting, chainsaws starting, etc.”
Timber is an electronic protest song without lyrics, built with samples, sampling and sequencing over a compelling and hypnotic bassline. It is a profoundly sad song for the voiceless, in itself almost voiceless – there’s a monkey chattering and a disembowelled human voice from the jungle, but both are electronically warped to accentuate the alienation of the onslaught on their rainforest habitat.
But words aren’t necessary because the evocative visuals, enthralling sounds and the viewer/listener’s imagination and empathy tell the story.
Ironically, machines are used to protest against machines. But of course the people behind the machines have different intentions. Timber is a brilliant song on so many levels. And with developments like those in Brazil, it resonates to this day.