Where will the next generation get its political anthems from?

5th November, 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

  • Comment Call on all Labour candidates to take local health and wellbeing boards to task over cold homes

    Call on all Labour candidates to take local health and wellbeing boards to task over cold homes

    For years fuel poverty campaigners have been calling on politicians to recognise the affects of cold and damp homes on the health of our most vulnerable households. As early as 2011, a report from the World Health Organisation proved that on average nearly 8,000 people die in the UK every year due to living in cold homes – three to four times the number of people who die on British roads and far worse than really cold countries like Germany […]

    Read more →
  • News Is Gareth Thomas planning on running to be London Mayor?

    Is Gareth Thomas planning on running to be London Mayor?

    The next London mayoral contest is only a little over a year away. Although between now and then there’s the general election to think about, it’s been quite clear for a while now who will throw their name into the hat to be Labour’s candidate (and some already have): Tessa Jowell, Diane Abbott, David Lammy, Christian Wolmar and Sadiq Khan. But it looks like there could be another name to add to that list. BuzzFeed have reported that Gareth Thomas, MP […]

    Read more →
  • News Another Tory MP’s campaign goes out in the wrong seat

    Another Tory MP’s campaign goes out in the wrong seat

    Last month we reported how Tory MP David Burrowes had gone out doorknocking in the wrong constituency – and ended up at a Labour MP’s house. Now it’s been discovered that another Tory MP has a little trouble working out who he is supposed to be representing. Voters in Hammersmith recently contacted their MP, Labour’s Andy Slaughter, when they received campaign leaflets from Chelsea & Fulham MP Greg Hands. Slaughter promptly sent a letter to Hands, asking him to investigate the […]

    Read more →
  • News Here’s what happens when you search David Cameron’s name on Twitter today

    Here’s what happens when you search David Cameron’s name on Twitter today

    David Cameron’s desperate attempts to get out of debating Ed Miliband dominate today’s news, as his spin doctor Craig Oliver sends a petulant letter to broadcasters, telling them that the PM will only take part in one debate at the end of March – and only if the leaders of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Green Party, UKIP, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and maybe the DUP are all there too. Oliver’s huffy letter complains that the broadcasters have proved consistently willing […]

    Read more →
  • News Jim Murphy says Ashcroft poll “bad news for Scottish Labour but great news for the Tories”

    Jim Murphy says Ashcroft poll “bad news for Scottish Labour but great news for the Tories”

    As we covered last night, yesterday’s Ashcroft polling showed Labour doing extremely badly in Scotland.   Of the five Labour seats polled north of the border, Ashcroft showed the party losing all but one – Jim Murphy’s seat East Renfrewshire. And the Scottish leader is only ahead by one point. Ashcroft also found Labour losing Kirkcaldy – the seat from which Gordon Brown is stepping down in May – where Labour were 50 points ahead of the SNP in 2010. […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends










Submit