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 Miliband dismisses Lamont’s “branch office” claims in Daily Record interview

    Miliband dismisses Lamont’s “branch office” claims in Daily Record interview

    Ed Miliband has broken his silence over Johann Lamont’s resignation – and specifically allegations that Scottish Labour was treated like a “branch office” – in an interview with the Daily Record. Miliband told the paper: “I was proud to work with Johann in the referendum campaign. I see it differently from the way it’s been described. I think we changed in terms of the 2011 review (of the Scottish Labour Party), with a new Scottish leader, redrawing Scottish constituency parties to […]

    Read more →
  • News Timetable for London Mayoral selection confirmed

    Timetable for London Mayoral selection confirmed

    The timetable for Labour’s Mayoral selection ‘primary’ has been confirmed by the party this week. Following the party’s special conference and Collins Review this year, it was agreed that the selection would be open to party members, registered supporters and affiliates who have opted-in to membership, and will take place in the immediate aftermath of the general election. The timetable is as follows: Applications open: May 18th Applications close: May 25th Nominations (from CLPs, affiliates): received by June 15th Applications for the […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Polling Scotland New Scotland poll shows Labour trailing SNP by 29 points

    New Scotland poll shows Labour trailing SNP by 29 points

    Labour would face an electoral massacre in Scotland if the general election was held tomorrow, according to a new poll. Tracking the voting intention for Westminster seats among the Scottish public, the poll indicates that support for Labour is 19% points lower than it was at the 2010 election – meaning our support has roughly halved. The poll, carried out by Ipsos-MORI for STV, found support stands at: SNP 52%, Labour 23%, Tories 10%, Lib Dems 6%, Greens 6%, UKIP […]

    Read more →
  • News Blair: We should not chase after UKIP on immigration

    Blair: We should not chase after UKIP on immigration

    Tony Blair has warned the Labour Party not to give in to UKIP’s arguments on immigration, saying that the party has a “nasty core of prejudice”. In an interview with Progress, Blair says Labour should be take the line that UKIP are wrong: “Let’s be clear: We don’t think that UKIP’s right, not on immigration and not on Europe – so the first thing you’ve got to be really careful of doing is … saying things that suggest that they’re kind […]

    Read more →
  • News Scotland Murphy makes unity candidate pitch as Unite prepare to endorse Findlay

    Murphy makes unity candidate pitch as Unite prepare to endorse Findlay

    There are two interviews with Scottish Labour leader candidates in this morning’s papers. Jim Murphy launches his campaign by talking to the Daily Record (the same paper Johann Lamont did her resignation interview with last week), while Neil Findlay has a short conversation with the Morning Star. Murphy builds on the statement he made last night (“I’m applying for the job of First Minister”) by claiming he wants “to bring the country back together after the referendum.” He said: “I […]

    Read more →