Walking through the streets of Berkeley is akin to wandering through a massive grave for flower power memorabilia and psychedelic vibes. Skeletons of the counterculture movement stand idly by, looming over the either oblivious or habituated pedestrians passing through. Ghosts of the past shelter in nooks throughout the city, hiding amongst the vintage jeans and faded album artwork outside of Rasputin’s. Even though the bell bottoms are long ripped, there’s still a counter beat as steady as the beginning riffs of “Revolution 1” drifting through the air. An ominous parallelism can be drawn to the music of yesterday as the words of those nearly forty years before us begin to animate themselves on current TV headlines even though our situation is drastically different from the past. Or is it?
In 1971, The Beach Boys addressed their dwindling reputation with the comeback album Surf’s Up. Although the album oscillates between somber, reflective melodies and hard-hitting tracks, one song, in particular, is as eerily in-tune to the rhythm of today as it was when it was composed forty-six years ago. “Student Demonstration Time” calls back to an era when the Free Speech Movement was a living, breathing entity and not edgy monochrome photos plastered on the wall in an overcrowded café. Through the lyrics of this surf rock classic, the same questions and concerns about civil unrest come back to life in a way that would make most of us wonder if they were written in the last century or last week.
Just after the first few chords, writers Mike Love, Mike Stoller, and Jerry Leiber immediately produce an image that perhaps resounds a bit too strongly in the minds of current Berkeley students: “the winds of change turned into flames / student demonstration spark.” Not only is this lyric relevant literally, it’s also interchangeable with the current that has been pulsing through demonstrations across the nation in the past few years. Of course, the degree of lawless revolt is no match for the sixties, but it’s hard to not also simultaneously recall memories of shock watching the Ferguson riots unfold in 2014.
“Student Demonstration Time” also attends to some “violence spreading down south” and delivers a poignant line: “nothing much was said about it and really next to nothing done / the pen is mightier than the sword, but no match for a gun.” In the context of when this song was written, this alluded to the Jackson College shootings, but the modern listener could wonder if The Beach Boys simply discovered time travel and knew a second wave of civil rights conflict would occur in the 21st century. No matter what side you decide to interpret this lyric on, this potent truth juxtaposes the upbeat melody and forces a question on the role both hostile demonstration and law enforcement have on civil campaigns. Whether it’s the former disrupting peace or the latter enforcing order excessively, either way, it’s the same conclusion: in the end, if violence is there, progression is likely not. Perhaps this solemn verdict is why the rest of the song heads in an unexpected direction when compared to the pro-activism energy of the track.
Despite the intended audience existing half a century ago, “I know we’re all fed up with useless wars and racial strife / But the next time there’s a riot, well, you best stay out of sight” could be voiced by Kanye in 2017 without alarm. It wouldn’t, however, because the idea of placidly standing by is just as rejected today as it was during the events mentioned in the song. This lyric, and the repetitively iterated “stay away / when there’s a riot going on” as the song fades is an idea hardly conveyed in pop culture and wouldn’t touch the cycle of unruly civilian resistance in the presence of political dissent. The Beach Boys were being uncharacteristic with these lyrics as artists in this era, as a quick listen of the infamous “The Times They Are A-Changin’” would make clear, but maybe this time their forewarnings are finding traction; with the latest instances of significant nonviolent protest such as the Women’s March, there may be a future unanimously unbelieving of brute force to catalyze action as shown in the historic song.
Written by Delaney Gomen