Tag Archives: billy bragg

Know Your Enemy: Thatcher vs. Pop

18 Apr

thatchblue

“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.

John Peel: home truths

18 Oct


As is the case when one’s heroes are thrust into the tabloid spotlight for the wrong reasons, there are normally three options.

The first is to mount a vigorous, impassioned defence as to how your godlike idol could never have done such a thing, or that the very thing your godlike idol is alleged (or even has been proved) to have done is really “not all that”.

The second is to spurn your godlike idol for being charlatan and a fraud, sever all emotional ties with him or her, burn all related memorabilia you may have accrued during your blind years of ignorant fandom and publicly announce to all and sundry that he or she is no longer the apple of your heart’s desire but the evil object of your deepest disdain.

The third option – probably the most English and by far the easiest – is to “keep calm and carry on” as if nothing had happened.

The unpleasant – and quite probably genuine – revelations this month that John Peel had engaged an ongoing (3-month) improper physical relationship with an impressionable 15-year-old Black Sabbath fan (female), back in 1969 (when he was around the should-have-known-better age of 30) has given a lot of us pause for thought. Here was someone widely regarded as little short of a saint committing one of the most repugnant crimes known to society.

The whole grisly Jimmy Savile scenario, while shocking and stomach churning, and certainly one that affected far more people, many of whom who were far more vulnerable, was somehow less of a shock because it had been the subject of jokes and rumours for years. Like many of my peers I wrote to Jim’ll Fix It as a boy and unsurprisingly none of this went through my impressionable mind, but decades later it became patently obvious that this jingly-jangly, cigar-smoking, latterly be-tracksuited character was definitely more uncomfortably strange than eccentric. I was also quite fond of Gary Glitter in the 1970’s too. Then again, these were the times when some people were shocked at the suggestion that the Village People (or Freddie Mercury, or Rob Halford)  were gay, let alone that a pudgy Bacofoiled-up preening turkey was a paedophile (ostensibly heterosexual) sex tourist.

Abusing the trust and ingenuity of minors is WRONG, even if you consider that they are “gagging for it”. Even if they actually ARE. It’s always wrong, no two ways about it.

THIS girl was fifteen too, I’ll have you know

Peel was probably the nearest I had to a hero, and as The Stranglers once pondered… whatever happened to all the (real) heroes? When Peel’s affair with this underage girl began, he had just come out of an unhappy marriage to an American girl of a similar age (which was freely admitted by Peel in his autobiography, and, if I’m not mistaken, before), possibly as an altruistic gesture to get another emotionally screwed up young person free passage out of the country and back to the UK (or even to help his own immigrant status working in the US) or maybe just to legally take advantage of a young “bit of skirt” (to use the demodé parlance of the day).. who knows. Although this is pretty worrying behaviour by 21st century mores, back in the 60s and earlier, it was apparently a common practice in that part of the US. NO EXCUSE, I grant you, but that’s how it was, and probably why these “revelations” did not shock Britain to its core when they were made, either in Peel’s lifetime or immediately after Margrave of the Marshes was published.

It is at this juncture that I feel tempted to engage in my own rather irritating vice, and one John Peel probably has something to do with – quoting song lyrics. And curiously the lyrics of another “fallen idol” in many of my peers’ eyes: those of Steven Patrick Morrissey. For it was Mozzer who stated that “Fame, fame, fatal fame” could play “hideous tricks on the brain“, and who himself went on to win himself enemies and lose himself fans when his militant vegetarianism and easy-to-(mis)interpret-as-racism comments about England or the Chinese veered dangerously into the realms of self-parody.

I imagine early transatlantic fame had also played a few hideous tricks on Peel’s brain as well, and sad as it is to admit it, I imagine that it wasn’t until he met “the Pig”, his future wife Sheila, that his brain settled down and he evolved into the benign patron saint of alternative music that he was until so very recently best known for being. I do recall someone on a Peel documentary – a fellow DJ perhaps, or maybe even his brother – saying that marrying Sheila was the best thing Peel ever did, a far greater thing than giving so many amazing musicians a leg-up in the business (along with a handful even he might have been glad to forget). Maybe this was the true significance of what on the surface seemed like a mundane platitude.

John Peel did not register on my conciousness radar until the early 80s, when I was at secondary school, by which time he  had been a married man for almost a decade. “My” John Peel didn’t play Black Sabbath, Yes and T.Rex but Bogshed, Yeah Yeah Noh and T. Chippington. And electro, and dub and happy hardcore… and more.

Just as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band bore little resemblance to Love Me Do.

He evolved.

The John Peel I “knew” would probably have been ashamed of playing some of the prog rock noodling that he aired in the 70s in the 80s or 90s.  Just as he was probably ashamed of certain other things that went on back then.

No excuse, but everyone makes mistakes, it’s just that some mistakes are a bit more serious than others. Or a lot more.

But being English, an unfortunate trait that both the late man and I share, we often tend to be fairly “matter-of-fact” about these things. The traditional English response to the classic opening conversation gambit “How are you?” is seldom “I’m fine!” but “Not bad ” “Can’t complain” or ” Mustn’t grumble“.

We’re not very good at the Tiger Woods-style mea culpa in dear old Blighty.

Just ask Nick Clegg.

Often a dignified silence is considered best, not unlike in the Vatican City.

The mighty fall..

Nonetheless, the whole “Dead Radio One DJs in Paedo Shocker” scandal (linking Peel to Jimmy Savile’s shuddersome predatory “activities” in a similar way to the way George W. Bush linked 9/11 with Saddam Hussein) also shows a continuing hypocrisy in British journalism, especially of the tabloid variety. Did anyone notice that the Daily Star turned Peel’s grim 3-month dalliance into THREE YEARS? Google it yourselves, I’m not linking to it here. And the Daily Mail, whose awe at such horror has turned it into the WORLD’S favourite – or maybe I should say “favorite”, there are so many Americanisms and US spellings in their damn hackery – online paper, while simultaneously printing stories about how Punky Brewster or the nine-year-old on the Cosby show is no longer jailbait, or that some 15-year old model is “looking good“.

Billy Bragg, whose gift of a mushroom biryani to John Peel famously opened the door to “fame”, probably addressed this tabloid hypocrisy best in this ditty “It Says Here“, when Auntie Beeb allowed him to say the word “tits” in front of Selina Scott and thousands of other breakfasting Britons in 1984:

If these accusations made against John Peel are true (and it looks like they probably are, given the acknowledgement of a sexual relationship in the unmistakable Peel vertically-inclined handwriting that appeared in the press) , then his actions cannot be defended or excused. The papers, just as they have ensured the words SAVILE ROW will no longer be associated with tailoring but with sexual predators at the BBC, have forever associated Peel with underage sex.

Of course it takes “two to tango”, and I would like to imagine it was she and not he who made the first move, but that is still no excuse. He was also unaware of any “impregnation” (despite the era of “free love” having  made its mark, I imagine a widespread awareness of “safe sex” was yet to hit a pre-AIDS-aware world), although he may have suspected as much he was never informed.

But the papers are always willing to place their godlike judgements.

In another situation where the man was less of a role-model figure, then maybe the girl might have been derided as “loose“.

Or have we forgotten Charlotte Church and her “voice of an angel”?

What good does dragging up the misdoings of the dead if it does not go hand in hand with an investigation of the living and the apparent  “anything goes so long as no-one knows” culture of the BBC and other institutions, and if it merely causes distress, grief and embarrassment to surviving spouses, children or other relatives?

All hands on decks

The regrettable prevalence of haterz and trolls in this (totally) wired world often means that even friends, Peel-friendly musicians or merely admirers of Peel’s championing of diversity and “the new” against the same-old-same-old are ignorantly tarred with the child-abuser-apologist brush unless they “disown” him.

It’s all so black and white… so “us and them“.

To end this rather atypical post I will just state that I will be “Keeping It Peel” on October 25th… although I am expecting to read a lot of tweets and the like saying “I’m Keeping it Peel today, I’m shaggin’ a 15 year old LOLZ” to go with the “Now I know why he loved Teenage Kicks” and “Gives a new meaning to the words ‘Peel Sessions’quips that pass for wit these days from people who usually find the notion of creating a false death rumour (to get their egos trending on Twitter) hilarious or who send threats of violence or death to footballers each time they fluff a penalty or whatever.

I’ll leave the last words – more or less – to Morrissey once again. Although these words could well be addressing himself, I’d like to redirect them to reference the post-Sheila, post reckless-wild years-John Peel, facing the wrath of the self-righteous media and the Frankie-Boyle-wannabes on the social networks. This was the John Peel I “knew”, or at least the John Peel I grew up with.

“It’s so easy to laugh,
           It’s so easy to hate,
                 It takes strength to be gentle and kind”

The song – “I Know It’s Over“, as you may have guessed – is sung from the grave, and seems to be appropriate for someone who was frequently described as both “gentle” and “kind” during the time I knew of him.

I also do feel that Peel himself – once he’d expunged his demons with the help of the family he created to replace the distant absent parents he had suffered in real life – would have been totally disgusted with his younger self, but that his matter-of-fact dismissal of his relationships with “groupies” etc was his stiff-upper-lip boarding school upbringing showing through.

After all, he was a devoted father of four, and regrettably, for some of us men, maturity only comes with parenthood.

So this coming October 25th we will be celebrating the good that Mr. Ravenscroft produced and how (as I’ve stated previously in these parts) the music made the people come together and how (musical) PREJUDICES were broken down thanks to his sterling work. Which is in no way a defence of child abuse, whatever a handful of haterz and trolls and tabloid journalists might want to make you believe.

Jarvis Cocker – a fellow Peel devotee – was once, you will recall, moved to invade the stage and make comical (read “obscene” in tabloidese) gestures to protest at Michael Jackson’s “god-complex” at the Brit Awards. He later explained that if Jacko had stuck to what he was good at (i.e.: making great pop songs like Billie Jean and Thriller and moonwalking) instead of trying to “heal the world” (and inviting small children to stay over at Neverland) he would still have been universally hailed as a genius instead of a fallen star in his later years.

John Peel, contrary bugger as ever, did most of the good in his life after the bad bits.

* Another, possibly better written piece on the subject here.

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