Now Thatcher I Call Music
Now Thatcher I Call Music
by Niall McMurray
She was only a grocer’s daughter, but no-one has provoked more arguments than Margaret Thatcher. Debate about her legacy has continued to rage in the years since her death, but there is perhaps one aspect of it upon which we can all agree: her huge contribution to the cultural landscape of Britain throughout the eighties. Not that she showered funding on the arts or anything so forward thinking – instead she inspired a generation to rise up and express their frustrations through the foremost artistic medium of the day: pop music. Hitherto, the standard for protest song was either folkish whimsy or angry punk – designed to make a point, and effectively at that – but rarely delivered squarely to millions of viewers on Top of the Pops on a Thursday night.
The Specials fired off the first salvo in the mainstream pop war, with the super-bleak, politically charged (and absolutely fantastic) Ghost Town hitting no. 1 in the UK just weeks after parts of the country had exploded into riots. Sandwiched between chart toppers by Michael Jackson and Shakin’ Stevens, it took the class divide out of the broadsheets and emphatically into school playgrounds, the singles wall in Woolworths and nightclubs around the country. Just a few months later in February 1982 The Jam arrived in the top spot with the fiercely angry A Town Called Malice – sample lyric: “To either cut down on beer or the kids’ new gear, it’s a big decision in a town called Malice.” Thunderously exciting, it had us kids going mental at school discos as we flicked our Paul Weller fringes (well, the girls did,) and while we may not have known exactly what they were on about, the teachers did.
Brilliantly, Wham! started out as anti-establishment oiks, larking about on telly in June of ’82 with the deceptively sharp Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do) turning the by now familiar-to-millions humiliation of standing in the dole queue into a winningly obstinate two-fingered salute to the government: “Wham, bam, I am a man, job or no job you can’t tell me that I’m not.” Of course within a few months George and Andrew were poolside, extolling the virtues of free cocktails at Club Tropicana, but that’s Thatcherism for you in a nutshell.
By 1985 pop had even organised itself into an army of sorts, with the formation of Red Wedge – a collective featuring some of the biggest names of the day, specifically designed to engage “the kids” in politics and oust Thatcher from power in the 1987 general election. Led by the trinity of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Jimmy Somerville, the Wedge mobilised The Smiths, Bananarama, Madness, Prefab Sprout, Everything But the Girl, Sade and many more in a bid to get Labour back into power. Whether this rattled Mrs Thatcher or not isn’t recorded, but it’s interesting to note that around the the time of the Wedge’s greatest activity she consented to an interview with Smash Hits and an appearance on the BBC’s kids’ show Saturday Superstore (where she reviewed Pepsi and Shirlie’s Heartache, noting quite correctly that it didn’t sound very much like actual heartache.)
Can you imagine any of this happening today? The best we can manage seems to be the protest download, which is about the most passive thing you can do other than doing nothing. Sending Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead! into the UK top ten was nothing to do with making a political statement and everything to do with bandwaggoning (and cruel at that) conducted mostly by people who probably weren’t even born when Thatcher was ousted in 1990.
As the eighties wore on, pop got a bit more sophisticated and shiny. Mrs Thatcher did too. At the same time unions crumbled, AIDS loomed, things that were publicly owned were privatised (see Shopping by Pet Shop Boys for an arch take on this) and an awful lot of people bought their council house. And money flowed, for some. But the pop fight continued, albeit dressed to reflect the times. Consider the blue-eyed soul of the Blow Monkeys, most notably 1987’s (Celebrate) The Day After You) which delivered a polished anti-Thatcher message designed to slip comfortably into the CD players of Dire Straits lovers everywhere.
1987 saw Wet Wet Wet bring back a little of Wham!’s rough and ready approach with their debut hit Wishing I Was Lucky – another cry from disaffected youth dressed up in a killer tune. Harmless enough, but if you were a teacher and a pupil wrote “I lie kicking in the gutter and wishing I was lucky, it’s the only life I know” as a poem, you’d be phoning social services wouldn’t you? It’s an astonishingly effective précis of just how many people felt excluded from Thatcher’s capitalist boom. Of course, Wet Wet Wet are actually a terrific example of Thatcherism in action as they pulled themselves up from nothing and made shedloads of money before – and pay attention here pop aspirants – imploding in a blizzard of cocaine and mediocrity.
There are dozens of much more angry, much more direct examples – Billy Bragg, Heaven 17, Elvis Costello, and everything by Chumbawamba. But in terms of the charts, it seems that the resistance had rather run out of steam. The Communards fought the good fight longer than most, issuing a pair of singles in 1988. The first, For a Friend, was a genuinely heartbreaking expression of personal loss, and also fury at the government’s slow response to the onslaught of AIDS (“Another man has lost a friend, I bet he feels the way I do….tears have turned from anger to contempt.”) Given the subject matter it’s a miracle it made it all the way to no.28. The second, There’s More To Love, was a pointed, almost nursery rhyme-like reminder that (to paraphrase the lady herself) children do have an inalienable right to be gay. It was a direct response to Section 28 (which had just passed into law) prohibiting the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools as a normal way of life. The government’s earlier message of “Don’t Die of Ignorance” now felt like it came with an implicit “but do die” tacked on at the end especially for gay people. There’s More to Love made it to no.20, but it was pretty much the last hurrah for political pop in terms of chart performance.
The Iron Lady wasn’t, however, done with influencing the charts. By 1987 (and for the remainder of the decade) much of the top 40 starts to look like it’s been privatised. Apart from occasional stealth raids by The Communards and Morrissey, it’s all songs about having a good time and getting (or not getting) what you want, with the occasional charity record thrown in to make us feel like we we’re giving something back. I won’t hear a word said against Stock Aitken and Waterman tunes, but it’s hard to argue that their all-conquering ‘Sound of a Bright Young Britain’ wasn’t the sound of a brainless young Britain enjoying the short term pleasures that Mrs Thatcher brought. They took the her vision of a classless society and applied it to pop, turning checkout girls into stars and ultimately succeeding where she failed. Mel and Kim probably summed it up best, chanting “Fun! Love! Money!” on 1987′s hit F.L.M. What else was there?
Well, as history has shown us, lots. Time was running out for Mrs T, and in her place we’ve had a succession of leaders who have never quite got the hang of annoying the youth of today to the level where they turn themselves into pop stars in order to make a point. It’s that sense of being voiceless, of being wronged, of wanting to get off the dole that gave rise to some of the best and most affecting music of the decade. Famously, Bananarama made their first Top of the Pops appearance while still signing on – I doubt you’d catch Little Mix attempting the same trick. Perhaps we need a bit less Viva la Vida and a bit more Viva Hate. Anyway – in a roundabout sort of a way – we have something to thank Margaret Thatcher for after all – a decade of brilliant pop. Well I never.