When I was at university ten years ago I often saw T shirts with a picture of Gil Scott-Heron, who died last Friday aged 62, and a slogan ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. Initially I had no idea what it meant so one day I said to a student I saw wearing one “Cool T shirt. Who’s the guy?”
“Er…not really sure” came the reply.
Indeed, that was generally the reply. I quickly realised that for every twenty people buying T shirts that featured a cool guy with shades, afro and beard saying ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, there was, perhaps, only one person who had actually listened to the record on which he said it.
Gil Scott-Heron was a one hit wonder like Hanson or Brian and Michael except more people have actually listened to ‘MMMBop’ and ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’ than have ever actually heard ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. You wouldn’t know this from the fawning coverage given by the media; The Guardian referred to Scott-Heron’s “prodigious output” despite mentioning only one song other than TRWNBT and in an interview on Channel 4 News Krishnan Guru Murthy and Jazzie B of Soul II Soul failed to mention any song apart from TRWNBT. Is this the sort of coverage Joe Dolce can look forward to?
TRWNBT isn’t a great song. Its a Lawrence Ferlighetti poem set to jazz music, exactly the sort of thing first done by, well, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And as even Scott-Heron admitted, it certainly wasn’t the progenitor of rap music. A Jew from northern Minnesota could lay greater claim to that title and he was, possibly, as inspired to write ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ by Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ as by Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’.
You don’t need a great record to generate a great slogan. Lot’s of people will have heard of ‘A Pessimist is Never Disappointed’ by theaudience and ‘There’s a Guy Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ by Kirsty MacColl without being able to hum them. But ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ isn’t even a good slogan. Consider the wall to wall coverage given by 24 hour news channels to the events in the Middle East lately, look at the blanket coverage of the recent tuition fee protests/riots, sometimes you feel as though there is nothing but the revolution on tele.
Whenever someone mentions Gil Scott-Heron they are really saying ‘I am cooler than you’. I listen to colliery band music so if they say it to me they are probably right. Perhaps those T shirt wearers simply join the Che Guevara T shirt wearers and Alanis Morisette in their blindness to irony, in this case of buying a T shirt bearing a slogan taken from a song about the dehumanizing evils of mass consumerism. And at least they have this going for them; Gil Scott-Heron was not the bastard Che Guevara was. But if I’m asked to explain why a guy with one unoriginal hit to his name a few decades ago gets such intensive media coverage I’d have to answer “Er…not really sure”