Know Your Enemy: Thatcher vs. Pop

18 Apr


“Mixing pop and politics he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses”

So sang Billy Bragg in 1988, when he was Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards.

Bragg – more than Morrissey, more than Weller, more than Wylie, more than any of his contemporary “spokesmen for a generation” who had gone on to trouble the upper echelons of the UK top 40 charts – had been forever tarred with the “a bit political” (© B. Elton ) brush from the moment he claimed to have been a miner, a docker AND a railwayman in front of the gooning masses on Top Of the Pops in 1984. Yet Between the Wars was Bragg’s first bona fide Top 20 hit, the first actual traditional (albeit self-penned) protest song many of the pubescent audience may have ever heard.

But during what historians will inevitably dub “The Thatcher Years”, protest songs were not uncommon. Despite Billy Bragg’s debt to Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Dick Gaughan (the latter’s World Turned Upside Down was also featured on the value-for-money Between the Wars EP), protest songs were a going concern between 1979 and 1990, especially in the early years of the Thatcher Cabinet. Stand Down Margaret by The Beat and Ghost Town by The Specials were but two examples of 2-Tone’s contribution to the genre, while the subsequent purveyors of irritatingly radio-friendly reggae-lite UB40 actually delivered a genuine anthem for the unemployed in the dubby One In Ten. Crass kicked up a post Falklands storm with their “Thatchergate” tapes, while Sheep Farming In The Falklands was just one of their various barbed attacks on Mrs T. Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding was a minor chart hit for Robert Wyatt (himself no stranger to political songs – remember Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’?)  in 1982, and Costello (with his Irish family roots showing through) would have another pop at the so-called Iron Lady with Tramp The Dirt Down, where the artist known to his mum as Declan not so much danced on Maggie’s imagined grave as vigorously stomped upon it to ensure her zombie did not prize open the coffin lid and stalk the land. Of course, cremation was never an option for Thatcher – the lady was not for burning.

THATCHER Crass_5 (3)

The 1980s are often depicted as “the decade taste forgot” (was it VH1 who coined that one?), meaning shoulder pads (the fashion accessory, not the 1986 “Bend Sinister” album cut, which like 95% of The Fall’s output is pure genius), new romantic couture, over-the-top make up for men and women and silly haircuts all round (guilty as charged, m’lud) etc… but the 1980s were also the decade where political activism and a sense of genuinely wanting a better world for you and for me (to quote another dead 80s icon equally adored and reviled during his career) were actually the norm for young adults… and students in particular (remember Steve Coogan’s character who mocked such right-on “student types”?)

The 80s – under Thatcher – saw the rise and fall of political implication. Apartheid, feminism, the miners’ strike, animal rights, student grants: all things that provoked demonstrations, fundraising and “action” – for or against depending on the cause – and with the rise of Thatcherite thinking that echoed that of Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gecko yuppie character in zeitgeist flick “Wall Street” –  greed was good.

As concepts such as greed, unfettered ambition and looking after number one turned from what one’s parents considered to be vices to what one’s neighbours considered to be virtues, interest in saving the whale or putting pressure on government to intervene in international emergencies (like famines etc, not in wars for oil etc) waned. Supermodels who claimed they would rather go naked than wear fur started wearing fur again. Although it may well have been that they just liked getting naked in the first place, it seemed now that principles were often flexible, so long as they were in the best interests of the individual holding them.

I recently read an article that claimed that Band Aid and Live Aid were responsible not only for “killing the protest song” (with Farm Aid, Ferry Aid and a whole host of other charity singles featuring a progressively higher year-on-year intake of half-forgotten popstars singing cover versions propelled into the Top Ten by guilt-ridden record buyers and hardcore fans of the artists roped in to do the singing)  but for reducing the need for government money to be poured into disaster funds, as these records would serve that very task. With Do They Know It’s Christmas? and all the INTERNATIONAL revenue from that, plus the video and the publicity generated, why would the government need to search for the keys to the coffers? Plus this clever move was diverting public attention to trouble at home, like the miners’ strike. Pits closing down? What about the starving millions in Africa, for Christ’s sake? You never had it so good! No wonder Thatcher was so keen to shake Bob Geldof’s hand (and probably hurry up his knighthood)!

No more, please!

No more, please!

Just as it is said that “the sixties really ended when The Beatles split up” (although that happened in the early seventies), we can probably conclude that the eighties really ended in September 1990 when a backstairs conspiracy lead to Thatcher’s arm being twisted and her being convinced that her resignation would save the party. The “wicked witch of Westminster” (as Pete Wylie called her) was politically dead in the water, her spirit perversely resuscitated by Tony Blair some years later as he embarked on his “third way” crusade to reform state education and the welfare state (by trying to run them like businesses and then sell bits of them off when they weren’t profitable).

Whereas the mid-eighties were all about promoting feminism and ending racism, the mid-nineties were all about women getting drunk and telling men to get their kit off (hey, equality!) and men ending up in a police cell after a night on the tiles. Students still drank heavily, but this time were more concerned with cellulite than apartheid. Thatcher’s dream of an ambitious society of motivated (read “unsubsidised”) men and women lead to a generation of directionless individuals hellbent on fame and bling.

While Morrissey had evoked the decapitation of Thatcher (after previously informing that the monarch had passed away), subsequent heads of state were seen as too bland or too boring to merit public slaughter, and even the much reviled war exploits of Tony Blair hand in hand with George W. Bush received scant musical attention bar a hitherto-unknown-in-the-UK all-gal country music trio saying they were a bit embarrassed at being Dubya’s homegirls. Ok, there was George Michael‘s cheeky Shoot The Dog ditty and accompanying cartoon video, but this remained more of a curio in the bottom draw of a one-time A-list songwriter than a genuine call for the head of Bush’s “poodle” on a silver salver.

the bitch is dead

It could also be – most ironically –  in part thanks to Thatcher herself that Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead! was chosen as a two-fingered send-off from the great British public to Margaret Hilda. Thatcher loved to simplify things to make them more easy for the great unwashed to understand. Monetarism was never mentioned by Thatcher, though that was exactly her philosophy. Instead, references to “good housekeeping” and the like peppered her public discourse. Thus, it only seems fit that such a simplistic and to-the-point chorus should be used to taunt the perpetrator of such social division. Puerile, yes… but simple. Short and sweet. A short sharp shock, something loved by the Tories since time immemorial.  Millions didn’t download the song for its musical (or let’s face it, its lyrical) message, and most probably never even played it. But a point was made, and certainly one that surprised people in the United States where Thatcher was universally worshipped for ending the Cold War along with Ronald Reagan. She had her enemies back home. And lots of them.

I would personally have favoured Crass’ chirpy, down-the-pub-singalong-round-the-old-joanna non-hit Whodunnit with its radio-friendly chorus of Birds put the turd in custard, but who put the shit in number ten?, but maybe a little-known song from an anarcho-punk collective wouldn’t have registered with the masses as strongly as a clip from a Hollywood film starring Judy Garland.

And now that Thatcher is dead and buried, isn’t it about time someone actually revived the noble art of the protest song? Guardian scribe Dorian Lynskey wrote a fine book about the art of the genre (not merely reviewing the Woody Guthries and Dylans of the oeuvre but also the once incendiary world of rap protest – Public Enemy and KRS-One being leading lights – which has now just descended into mere brag – with one “g” -and moaning and fantasising) and even has an equally fine blog about it. Eminem did protest about his mum a few times, Neil Young dedicated a whole album to “Living With War” and Bobby Gillespie has “got political” on record on occasion (as well as bemoaning the dearth of complacency in modern music during our current “hard times”) but protest on vinyl (or on mp3) is a fraction of what it was in Thatcher’s heyday.

Darren Hayman’s Hefner had a good try in 2000 though, but even that was celebrating The Day That Thatcher Dies (see vid below):

Sadly the wish-washy likes of David Cameron don’t quite inspire the venom that Thatcher did, despite some of his cuts being equally harsh. The only consolation we have from the Thatcher years is a collection of rather fine protest songs. What consolation will we have when the current coalition breathes its last, or when Cameron shuffles off his mortal coil??

Well, apart from this (which scraped its way into the UK Top 50 I do believe with a band title and a song title unfit for radio broadcast), just a horrendous cameo on a horrendous Blondie/Undertones pseudo mash-up from Cowell’s latest puppets One Direction.  Even the idea of the cameo was plagiarised from Neil Kinnock and Tracey Ullman.

Help save the youth of America, Billy?

God help the youth of the UK, more like.

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