Politics And British Pop, 1979-1990: A CD

Even After Closing Time…

This is the first of two CDs following the threads of British political pop from 1979, the date of Thatcher?s first election victory, to 2005. It is flawed and incomplete, due to being compiled in three hours with an MP3 collection, an erratic P2P connection and a handful of suggestions. The single biggest omission is ?Maggies Last Party? by VIM ? gmails of that very welcome.

You would no doubt have approached things differently, and I?d like to hear about that. The second disk will be dealt with in a separate essay.

THE GANG OF FOUR – “Armalite Rifle”
“I disapprove of it. And so does Dave.” In 1979 politics was part of the alternative music status quo. Bands like the Gang of 4 sang about nothing but. Nowadays bluntly political songwriting is very much a fringe activity and as likely to be mocked as lauded. How did this happen? On “Armalite Rifle” the Gof4 present argument and conclusion with an air of bleak reasonableness. Earnest, but compelling.

NOTSENSIBLES – “(I’m In Love With) Margaret Thatcher”
“She’s so sexy” Feeble jokepunk, taking liberties with the hated name in a way that dates it as much as the music. Not all political music was serious.

UB40 – “One In Ten”
“A statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care.” My first ‘political’ memory is of seeing UB40’s video for this on a pop show and being hugely affected by the lyrics. Listening back it’s a bit ‘great chorus, shame about the song’. But it’s an early example of the kind of ‘state of the nation’ records that were a feature of the anti-Thatcher era.

THE SPECIALS – “Ghost Town”
“Too much fighting on the dancefloor” The British “Blowin In The Wind” in that its genre-breaking amazingness seems by itself to have convinced every rock critic that writing political pop is a fundamentally Good Thing. (Obviously “Ghost Town” is better than “Blowin In The Wind”, don’t get me wrong). This extraordinary record is also the rod that has been used to beat bands ever since – if Jerry and Terry did it, why can’t you?

ROBERT WYATT – “Shipbuilding”
“And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday.” From an aesthetic standpoint this is probably the best anti-war song ever. In terms of giving people something to chant or learn or rally to, it’s obviously less successful. “Shipbuilding”‘s role is to condemn, not prevent, so this hardly matters.

WHAM! – “Wham! Rap”
“Well listen Mr Average, you’re a jerk!” Revolt into style! The new pop era is often described as apolitical and compared to the few years previous, it was. It’s also described as crypto-Thatcherite: here’s George M. to remind us that the reality on the ground may have been different. No such thing as society here, true, but an enthusiastic endorsement of dole scrounging which wouldn’t have pleased Central Office.

CRASS – “How Does It Feel?”
“…to be the mother of a thousand dead?” One of the most common slurs on political pop is that it “preaches to the converted”. Yes, it does. So what? A lot of the early 80s anarcho-punk hardcore are still involved in grass-roots political and community schemes which have done a lot of small goods. This kind of fierce music acted as a spur and a glue, even if the system endured.

THE HUMAN LEAGUE – “The Lebanon”
“And where there used to be some shops” On the other hand most slurs are justified when it comes to pop musicians feeling they should “do something, you know, political”. The redeeming feature here is that “The Lebanon”, pompous echoed drums aside, is a great little tune from a band at least near their peak. Its contribution to geopolitical harmony may be minimal but I’d still play it out.

THE IMPOSTER – “Pills And Soap”
“And the camera noses in to the tears on her face” Elvis Costello addresses the nation in a song rich in disgusted wordplay and poor in listener reward. Another pitfall of the political song: often it doesn’t do anything except make you feel bitter and miserable.

THE STYLE COUNCIL – “Walls Come Tumbling Down”
“You could actually try changing things!” In my opinion the best thing Paul Weller ever did. Impossibly rousing, heart-on-sleeve, danceable, unifying – the dream of Red Wedge realised in three minutes. Pity those three minutes were as good as it got. Attempts to harness pop music for mainstream activism have been one major reason the ‘genre’ lacks credibility now.

STING – “Russians”
“How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?” Another major reason the genre lacks credibility now.

BRONSKI BEAT – “Smalltown Boy”
“You are the one that they talk about around town” Songs rooted in sexual and sexual identity politics were a feature of the post-punk era (neglected on this comp because I’m dense) and the occasional example hit big in the mid-80s. Good use of a video in tandem with a song, too.

MCCARTHY – “Red Sleeping Beauty”
“While there’s still a world to win” The strange tumbling rhythm of this suggests to me that there’s lots still to be written about mid-80s indie. Hopeful and bittersweet, which sums up indie’s attitudes to politics and romance, come to think of it.

SMILEY CULTURE – “Westland Helicopter”
“Life is like a ladder, Smiley” Toasting fantasia in which Smiley Culture buys Thatcher’s Westland shares in return for his villa. “I love your patter” says Maggie, or rather an increasingly shaky Maggie impersonator. The entrepreneurial culture skewered, maybe.

MICRODISNEY – “Gale Force Wind”
“Watch your friends become the kind you hate” The 87 election victory was the high watermark of the Thatcher era: the implosion of Red Wedge made political songwriting bitter, turning it away from rousing the troops and towards dissections of life in a Thatcherite world. The Pet Shop Boys’ Actually, recorded in 1987, is essentially a Thatcherite Britain concept album, as is Microdisney’s venomous 39 Minutes, from which this song comes.

“They came and drew us diagrams” More elegiac songwriting, this time about housebuilding: a faintly un-pop subject which serves as a more general metaphor for Thatcherism’s assault on community and social roots.

BILLY BRAGG – “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward”
“Mixing pop and politics, they ask me what the use is.” The obvious closer, this, a rumination on five years spent shouting back the tide, guitar in hand. The distilled sound of Labour’s ‘one more heave’ philosophy and still stirring despite everything.

And then what happened? Dance music, and Thatcher’s resignation, and suddenly the iron focus of opposition wasn?t there any more. Nobody was going to write a “Tramp The Dirt Down” about John Major. So what on Earth was pop going to do next?