I’ve been umming and ahhing over writing about this song for far too long now. So I’m just gonna write the damn thing.
The trouble is that I honestly feel that to some extent with this song Phil reached some kind of perfection. The mixing of his own songcraft with the kind of confident politicking that would inevitably be all too fleeting. There is a wonderful certainty about this song both in content and style. And while his song writing (and song crafting) would continue to evolve and strengthen, the certainty of his political convictions would do anything but.
This then is a beautiful snowglobe of a song, capturing not just an idea but a moment of harmony between content and style, between a songwriter and his politics, and between a singer and his audience. How am I gonna back up such grand assertions, I honestly don’t know…
The title itself is something a giveaway – The Ringing of Revolution – the word “ringing” is crucial. It suggests clarity. Phil would later change it to The Rhythm of Revolution, apparently because it sounded better, but perhaps also because he had already lost some of that clarity. Rhythm suggests the slow building of pressure, ringing suggests a certainty and urgency.
This the kind of song that only Phil Ochs could write. This is the kind of song that only Phil Ochs did write. Read cold on the page the lyrics seem harsh and stark and somewhat brutal – that killer line at the end that “only the dead are forgiven” kind of sums it up. Yet there is something disarmingly sweet about the delivery, something almost lullabyish. For all the brutality and violence of the lyrics, it is steeped in fantasy. Not the wild flights of fancy of The Doll House maybe, but certainly a key stepping stone towards When In Rome, a song with which it shares so much. This is revolution as fairy tale. Songwriting as wish fulfilment. Phil as Hollywood director.
Something else that disarms the listener is Phil’s spoken word introduction, filled as it is with humour and no little self-deprecation. It’s a funny thing (in both senses of the word) to introduce what appears to be such a brutally serious song with such a daft introduction. It brings to mind an idea that would later be used with far less subtlety on Outside of a Small Circle of Friends; this idea of content and style working against each other. In the latter case the style of the song (a jaunty jazziness) allows Phil to almost smuggle in some pretty cutting lyrics. The same isn’t quite so true here, but it certainly allows Phil to grab the listener’s attention and once he gets it he makes damn sure they can soak in every word. And that’s the point. Phil’s delivery belies the caustic lyrics by being careful, showing up the lack of restraint in the lyrics by showing the upmost restraint in his performance. It’s a wonderful thing to behold.
Hollywood is perhaps a key reference point, one accentuated by, and not solely attributable to, his spoken word introduction. Phil’s lyrics are not so much poetic as cinematographic. They sweep and swoop like a camera on a crane. Phil flits from looking in at the “merchants on style” and the “soft middle class” to zooming in and listening in to their desperate conversation. By the third verse we are inside their minds, reading their thoughts. And here comes the first key line, as the separateness of those attacking and those being attacked is described as the “distance only money could measure”. From here on in we are left in no doubt – what is being enacted is a Socialist revolution. The moneyed getting their comeuppance.
A key difference between the lyrical camera of Phil Ochs and the real cameras of Hollywood is a distinct lack of sentiment. There is no backstory, no seeking of understanding, certainly no empathy. More to the point, this is a film that would never be made. The villagers with the pitchfork are Hollywood enough, but the Frankenstein’s monster they are hell bent on destroying most certainly isn’t, for this monster is Capitalism. Phil casts these monstrous Capitalists with the spirit of Charles Laughton (he of Hunchback of Notre Dame fame), a less attractive film star you’d be hard pressed to find. They are undoubtedly the villain of the piece. They don’t even begin to question their own innocence, all they do is plead for mercy. At their last they try to cling on to their final vestiges of wealth (“with pillows of silk they’re embracing”) and end up being mocked for the very thing that has created this desperate situation. Their desperation being met not with violence (not straight away anyway) but with the laughter of the crowd. It’s a mean scene for sure.
This is the end scene of a movie already played out. As such it is total fantasy. It is Phil’s gift to us that he allows to share in it, if only for a few moments. Then again…
There is a key moment in Phil’s introduction where he describes those being attacked as being the “last of the idle rich…the last of the folk singers”. It’s a throwaway, daft remark. Or least it is delivered as such. Yet there is something else there. Phil isn’t willing to create a simple us and them scenario, where the audience is on his side and they, together, attack this other. Ringing of Revolution is followed by Is There Anybody Here? and Love Me I’m A Liberal, two songs that are hell bent on confrontation. I didn’t use the Frankenstein reference glibly (well, I did at first, but thinking about it is rather apt). The point being that if this is a song attacking Capitalism (which it is) then this “last of the folk singers” line is a little reminder of the culpability of all those present, Phil included. Far from being the antidote to pop music’s excesses, folk music by 1966 had become almost totally inseparable from it. In striving for popularity folk singers had become part of the very thing that so many of them had proclaimed to be opposed. The nadir was perhaps reached in 1965 with the release of Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction, a pop song masquerading as a folk song*. Phil may have attacked the song due it a lack of quality rather than anything to do with its authenticity, but one could argue that the two things are inexorably linked.
So drink it in. For all Phil’s complaints about Barry McGuire his best response was a song such as this this – fun, sincere and deadly serious. Only Phil Ochs could pull off a song like this. And here it is in all its unapologetic glory.
*I feel the need to add that I really like Eve of Destruction. It’s a bit silly as well as being terribly insincere, but I can’t help but enjoy it all the same.