world party Private Revolution

World Party’s ‘Private Revolution’ Tackled Environmental Concerns 35 Years Ago

Seeds planted in the Reagan years continue to bear poison fruit. On Private Revolution, World Party presaged today’s “There is no planet B” slogan 35 years ago.

Private Revolution
World Party
3 March 1987

Someone’s been hiding the pieces.
Someone been burning down the trees.
So we need your revolution, baby.
There’s a planet to set free.

In 1986 President Reagan removed the solar panels from the White House roof installed there by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Reagan had drastically cut the Energy Department’s funding for research and development in alternative energy in an about-face. That and other rollbacks of environmental legislation signaled a return to corporate self-interest as a policy driver.

In 1986 and 1987, the biggest hits on the pop charts didn’t seem overly concerned with environmental issues. Eddie Murphy wanted to “Party All the Time”, Bon Jovi was “Livin’ on a Prayer”, and the Bangles motivated us to “Walk Like an Egyptian”. By the mid-1980s, the modern environmental movement had fractured into a cornucopia of causes, including anti-nukes and racial justice. The music of the day, by and large, did not champion those concerns.

Enter World Party, the solo project of Welsh musician and producer Karl Wallinger. After a stint playing keyboards in the Waterboys, Wallinger released Private Revolution, World Party’s debut album, in March 1987. Recorded and produced by Wallinger, its ten original songs center on environmental themes, emphasizing personal responsibility. It’s all set to a sound incorporating groovy psychedelic synths with earthy piano and percussion. Wallinger sings and plays all of the instruments, except for saxophone on one track by Anthony Thistlethwaite (Waterboys) and violin by Steve Wickham (Waterboys and In Tua Nua) on another. Backing vocals are provided by an unknown Irish singer named Sinead O’Connor.

From the first few bars of the title track, you might guess it’s an early Prince demo. The up-tempo synth pattern isn’t quite as funky as anything on Dirty Mind; it lacks the punchy drums and distinctive slap-and-pop bass. However, the two musicians seem to be raiding the same early ’80s keyboard presets. Wallinger, like Prince, is essentially a one-person band with different strengths on different instruments. The result isn’t uneven, but it can sound a bit thin when a single person plays all the parts.

Wallinger takes those party synths and sets them to more sobering lyrics. The 1960s may be considered the golden era of protest songs, but civic-minded ’80s musicians were no less sincere. They just didn’t see why you couldn’t demonstrate and dance at the same time. Wallinger adopts this attitude while also looking back to the sounds of the ’60s, crossing genres and styles. In World Party, the proto-psychedelia of the “Paisley Underground” meets the Minneapolis funk of “Uptown”.

The album opens with Wallinger as the joyful Pied Piper of environmentalism, leading the way in a poppy call to arms: “We are the revolution baby / Come to set you free.” Wallinger doesn’t want to lead a movement, though; he wants the listener to be the movement. In a nod to both Prince and the Beatles, he sings, “If you say you want a revolution, baby / There is nothing like your own.” The song is also reminiscent of Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”, recorded a year earlier, complete with punchy brass licks.

The album isn’t all socially-conscious-retro-psychedelic-dance-party. “All Come True” is a more subdued (though no less hummable) song that seems to advocate for self-reliance and inward reflection: “Got to find the brightness in the soul / Not look outside to find out where we are.”

The lyrics on “It Can Be Beautiful (Sometimes)” are more dreamy than didactic. Wallinger sings in a falsetto over a languorous arrangement of keyboard textures and atmospheric, tinkling percussion. The wistful refrain reminds the listener that even if the world is going to hell, it can still be wondrous.

“Hawaiian Island World” is the most overtly political song. It cautions against ignoring present danger in favor of dreaming of future paradise:

The woman of the house
She came screaming into town
We said sister why go crying
When you can watch it all burn down
And sit here dreaming
Of our Hawaiian island world?

The slide guitar on the track echoes Bob Dylan’s country leanings, as does Wallinger’s voice, with its Mick Jagger timbre and Dylan-esque phrasing. Wallinger’s influences are further exposed on a faithful rendition of “All I Really Want to Do”, the album’s one non-original song.

“Ship of Fools” was Private Revolution’s only hit single, peaking at 27 on the US Billboard Hot 100. The most commercially successful song on an album isn’t always the best, but one could make a case for “Ship of Fools” as both. Its mid-tempo groove is anchored by Wallinger’s bass line and strong backbeat, with Thistlethwaite’s sax providing texture and substance. The lyrics deride those who follow the siren’s call of exploitation and easy money:

Travellin’ the world, you’re in search of no good
But I’m sure you’ll build your Sodom like I knew you would.
Using all the good people for your galley slaves
As your little boat struggles through the warning waves.

Wallinger has no mercy for this lot, admonishing, “You will pay tomorrow.” The song doesn’t come across as heavy-handed, thanks to its loose, driving beat and its beseeching chorus: “Save me, save me from tomorrow / I don’t want to sail with this ship of fools.” It’s not a finger-wagging reprimand but a refusal to give up. It’s just as relevant today as it was 35 years ago.

It seems every new music movement forges a path to the future while borrowing something from the past. In the mid-’80s, hair metal was ascendant, with its vapid debauchery and AquaNet by the barrel. Bands like 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., and Midnight Oil rejected that aesthetic, joining World Party as environmental advocates in song. While they looked to the protest anthems of the 1960s, theirs was a new movement of socially conscious songwriters, with a new kind of music. Wallinger adopted the psychedelic styles of decades past while creating songs that were more danceable than trippy and more urgent than far out. Wallinger adopted a DIY credo like the punks before him, creating a one-person band to broadcast his message. 

It feels like social issues today are just as fractured and scattered as they were in the “greed is good” ’80s. The seeds planted in the Reagan years continue to bear poison fruit, and sometimes everything seems worse now than it did 35 years ago. On Private Revolution, World Party presaged today’s “There is no planet B” slogan:

But the world spins on regardless
Which is lucky for you and me.
‘Cause of all the places in a year’s ride from here
This is the only place to be.

Private Revolution reminds us that the world can be beautiful, but only if we keep it alive.