Where will the next generation get its political anthems from?

November 5, 2009 9:16 am

Red WedgeThe Paul Richards column

Last Thursday in the Times Phil Collins offered the view “with the exception of Billy Bragg, and even he will be remembered for the love songs, nobody seems to be able to do political songs anymore”.

If it had been Phil Collins as in the Cadbury gorilla it might have been a bigger story (“Genesis drummer says modern pop is rubbish”). But the Phil Collins in question, leader writer for the Times and former No.10 speechwriter, makes an interesting point. I don’t follow pop music as I used to when I was a teenager, so I don’t want to comment on the state of modern music. But it is true that in the 1980s there was a political role for protest songs which seems to have disappeared.

The miners’ strike 1984/5 saw an upsurge in political music, and a fusion of political messages and music. In the loft I have tapes which were sold at fundraisers with everything from pub-rock to traditional miners’ ballads. One, ‘Easington Colliery Disaster’, had a lyric which has stuck with me: ‘there’s no medals made for miners/but they are heroes all’. Ewan MacColl recorded ‘Daddy What Did You Do in the Strike?’ Chumbawamba, best known for soaking John Prescott with water at the Brits, recorded ‘Fitzwilliam’ a haunting song about a dying pit village. Billy Bragg reworked Pete Seeger’s ‘Which Side Are You On’ with lyrics about the police tactics of preventing movement around the coalfields, and the hardship faced by striking miners’ families.

From the ashes of the miners’ strike support gigs came Red Wedge in 1986. This was a collective of bands and performers formed to support the Labour Party in the run-up to the 1987 election. There were tours, benefit gigs and appearances at Glastonbury. The bands associated with Red Wedge included Billy Bragg, Paul Weller’s the Style Council, and the Communards, and others made guest appearances including Madness, the Smiths, and Prefab Sprout. There was a comedy tour too with Ben Elton, Lenny Henry and Phill Jupitus (who also designed a series of lapel badges for Labour Students, now worth literally pence). One of the leading lights behind Red Wedge, Annajoy David, is currently fighting a spirited campaign as Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Scarborough & Whitby.

Not all political bands supported the Labour Party. The Housemartins, now remembered for ‘Caravan of Love’, claimed ‘Marx and Jesus’ as their influences, and their early records (‘Flag Day’, ‘Stand At Ease’ and ‘Freedom’) were characterised by revolutionary lyrics. At one of their gigs in Hammersmith the support act was billed as ‘Melvyn Goat’. Imagine our joy when it turned out to be Billy Bragg. The Special AKA brought out their ‘In the Studio’ album in 1984, which contained the classic ‘Racist Friend’ (‘If you have a racist friend/now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end’) and of course the top-ten leftie floor-filler ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.

Special AKA

There was a Manchester band called Easterhouse, named after the Glasgow housing estate, who supported the Revolutionary Communist Party. I went to one of their gigs in a venue called Bay 63, underneath the Westway in Ladbroke Grove. There were RCP paper sellers outside the concert, but I don’t think they sold many copies

The Redskins were a Socialist Workers Party band, and they enjoyed more commercial success. Their album was called ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’, and the SWP slogan appeared on the Socialist Worker masthead. Their revolutionary anthems ‘Keep on Keeping On’ and ‘Bring it Down This Insane Thing’ even made it into the UK singles chart.

Redskins

They were at the centre of a riot at a GLC event ‘Jobs for a Change’ on the South Bank when Nazi skinheads attacked them onstage. I was in Battersea Park watching the 3 Johns and Working Week at the time. The GLC was forever putting on free concerts with a political message, culminating in the last night of the GLC in 1986 in Jubilee Gardens with Eddy Grant playing live.

Ken GLC

John O’ Farrell was there too, and as he records in Things Can Only Get Better:

“On the night that the GLC was officially abolished thousands of pounds of fireworks lit up the sky. It was fantastic – if only all those Conservative voters in Bromley and Finchley could have seen how much of their money was being wasted! Then, on the stroke of midnight, workers from the London Residuary Body moved in and started ripping everything down, signs, placards, banners – anything with a GLC logo on it – while the crowd looked on and booed.”

I remember the night well. My mates and I parked our Ford Escort on the Mall, went to the ICA to see a double bill with Half Man Half Biscuit and We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Going to Use it, and then walked across Westminster Bridge to the huge concert at County Hall. We met Norman Cook (now better known as Fatboy Slim). There were loads of police outside Parliament because, we told ourselves, there was a danger of the angry crowd storming the House of Commons. Incredibly, our car was still parked on the Mall at the end of the night, with not a ticket or clamp in sight.

Margaret Thatcher was especially singled out for the lefty bands’ opprobrium. The Newtown Neurotics sang ‘kick out the Tories/the rulers of this land/for they are the enemies of the British working man/and it shows, while that bastard is in unemployment grows/and it shows, in hospitals, factories and the schools that they’ve closed.’ The Beat recorded ‘Stand Down Margaret’ in the early 80s, which seems remarkably polite in retrospect. Far from polite was Elvis Costello’s ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, recorded in the last days of Thatcher’s premiership, which contains some of the most vicious lyrics in popular music: Costello’s hope is that he lives long enough to see Thatcher die so that he can stand on her grave.

If you were in left-wing politics in the 1980s, there was a fantastic soundtrack to the meetings, demos and picket-lines. The music of Paul Weller, Jerry Dammers and Billy Bragg inspired a generation of political activists, just as Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Merrie England motivated a previous generation. I wonder from where the next generation of lefties is getting its angry lyrics and political anthems?




Comments are closed

Latest

  • News US Tory adviser boasts about wages boom in America as British wages hit slowest growth on record

    US Tory adviser boasts about wages boom in America as British wages hit slowest growth on record

    Jim Messina, the former Obama adviser hired by the Conservatives’ to help run their election campaign next year, enjoys tweeting about the successes of the American President – despite his unpopularity with fellow Democrats for taking a job working with Cameron. He won’t be endearing himself to the Tories either if he carries on with tweets like this: While cheering on US wage growth may be a good idea for Democrats in the run-up to the mid-terms this November, the […]

    Read more →
  • News Miliband promises “biggest reforms of the railways since privatisation”

    Miliband promises “biggest reforms of the railways since privatisation”

    Ed Miliband pledged that Labour would introduce the “biggest reforms of the railways since privatisation”, during a visit to Hastings today. During a Q&A, Mliband told the audience that if the Tories were re-elected then commuters in the town could see their rail fares rise by £265 to almost £5,000 a year. He promised that a Labour Government would take tough action to ensure that this would not happen: “A Labour government would cap annual fares on every route and […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Despite the government’s claims of recovery, the foodbank crisis isn’t going away

    Despite the government’s claims of recovery, the foodbank crisis isn’t going away

    This week, following on from my work with Leeds West foodbank and the Yorkshire Evening Post’s (YEP) excellent campaign raising awareness of the issue, I attended the launch of a new foodbank in Horsforth, one of the wards in my constituency, to show my support for the valuable work they do. Our current MP, a Tory, has been completely silent on the issue, while members of his own government have refused to meet representatives of the Trussell Trust to discuss […]

    Read more →
  • News David Lammy latest MP to call for all-minority ethnic shortlists

    David Lammy latest MP to call for all-minority ethnic shortlists

    David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, has become the latest Labour MP to suggest applying all-minority ethnic shortlists to future parliamentary selections in order to increase representation for black and minority ethnic (BME) people in Westminster. Responding to research carried out by former Labour minister Parmjit Dhanda and the Insight Public Affairs group on the lack of representation in the House of Commons, Lammy said: “Clearly none of the parties have any room for complacency when it comes to BME representation. […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Scotland Even the hecklers get soaked in this old style political tour

    Even the hecklers get soaked in this old style political tour

    In the first of a new weekly Scottish Referendum column for LabourList, Labour’s Shadow International Development Secretary Jim Murphy, writes from the Western Isles and seaside towns leg of his #100Streets tour. When I started my #100Streets in 100 days speaking tour a couple of weeks ago I thought the biggest threat would be Scotland’s summer. Despite the weather you’ve seen on television at Glasgow’s brilliant Commonwealth games it has taken until yesterday for me to get properly drenched by […]

    Read more →