British Political Pop 1990-2005

This is the second of a pair of compilation CDs giving one potential outline of how British pop acts tackled politics. This CD looks at the post-Thatcher era, from 1990 onwards. This coincides with my own life as a voter – the first time I was eligible to vote was in the 1992 general election.

“Bigotry, intolerance and racial intolerance!” Gary Clail had a long and honourable association with Tackhead, producing hard-edged, politically-themed dance records through the Thatcher years. This bizarre record, festooned with italo piano riffs and decadent diva vocals, was his land-grab on the mainstream. Its big-picture conclusions – “There’s something wrong with human nature!” – clumsy lyrics and none-more-passionate vocal ranting have made it a weathervane for cynicism about political pop, but for all the easy laughs it’s still a very enjoyable record.

“Stand up and beg for Sergeant Kirby” Like most of Carter’s songs “Bloodsport” tackles a specific issue, in this case racist abuse in army barracks. Like most of Carter’s songs it is also undermined slightly by its vaguely feeble wordplay (“The coldest stream guards of them all”??) but for eye-popping anger and cheapo drum machine pop you couldn’t beat them. Here the machines are coaxed into a glitterbeat rhythm that puts the song into a strange agitpop-schaffel territory.

SIMPLY RED – “Wonderland”
“The end of an era, our future no clearer” A quite bad record – limp melody, limpid singing – but one I feel a personal connection to. In April 1992 I was backpacking round Europe and anticipating returning to a Labour government: no luck. The friend I was with had this Simply Red song, about the fall of Thatcher, on a tape and I listened to it repeatedly and sadly on European trains as the reports of a Tory victory came through. I’m disappointed I downloaded it as I remember it as being much more forceful and incisive than it is: it still sounds like the end of something, though.

CREDIT TO THE NATION – “Call It What You Want”
“Lots of people all they need is a push!” 1993-4 saw a resurgence (of sorts) of political pop, with bands politicised by Tory harrying of dance culture making agitated hip-hop-fuelled rock, and the ‘New Wave Of New Wave’ groups creating exactly what the name suggested. Backed by the weekly press for a while, the records were fairly unpopular and when Britpop came along the media dropped ‘collision pop’ at once. The link between indie and left politics may have held, but the need to express it lyrically was gone.

The specific issue fuelling ‘collision pop’ was racism, specifically the rise of the fascist British National Party, which won its first ever council seat in 1993 in Tower Hamlets in London. This explains the anti-fascist message of “Call It What You Want”, enthusiastic hip-hop whose sampling of Nirvana grabbed student ears (like mine!) immediately. Rapping deficiencies notwithstanding this record stands up very well. Ah, the snakebite-lacquered dancefloors of my youth!

CHUMBAWAMBA – “Timebomb”
“Unattended at a railway station, in the litter at the dancehalls” The IRA bombing campaign of the early 90s saw London targeted regularly: hence this terrorist-themed dance-pop hit (maybe MIA should cover it). Despite being catchy as hell this didn’t sell, and is now just one more nostalgic anthem for me.

HUGGY BEAR – “Herjazz”
“This is happening without your permission!” The British wing of Riot Grrrl in full voice. The theme is male co-option of a feminist revolution, and on Radio 1 this sounded genuinely like nothing else. It also sounded petulant, incompetent, confused blah blah blah – none of this mattered cos modern punk scenes are always about micromarketing, one-to-one targeting, personal wake-up calls and doubtless “Herjazz” caused a few. I was no way part of the target demographic and got on with my life.

PULP – “I Spy”
“It’s more a case of haves against haven’ts” Britpop was political mostly by inference – most of the songwriters liked to try a bit of social commentary, but tracks like “Girls And Boys” are documentary, not editorial. Pulp, no surprise since they grew up as a band in the 80s, wrote some obviously political songs – eg “Cocaine Socialism” – but Different Class while never prescriptive, is all about the curdling of class and sex, and “I Spy” goes straight to the resentful, righteous groin of the matter.

D:REAM – “Things Can Only Get Better”
“You ain’t ever gonna know me – but I know you” Some songs have politics thrust upon them. D:Ream’s uplifin’ house hit from 1994 was adopted by the New Labour team for its 1997 campaign. From an eight-year distance the razzmatazz of New Labour looks staggeringly naff, and even at the time nobody liked this song, but like Bill Clinton’s sax it marked the moment at which the political establishment declared “Hey, we’re aware of pop music.” May sound a bit sour now.