The 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’.
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.
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.
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?