Stand down, Margaret!
From Uncut, March 2009.
'Thirty years on from the beginning of Margaret Thatcher's reign of terror, Uncut revisits a tempestuous and invigorating period in British pop history. PAUL WELLER, THE SPECIALS, THE BEAT, UB40, SOUL II SOUL and THE FARM recall a time when mass unemployment energised a whole generation to learn one chord, learn another, form a band - and then make an insurrectionist statement on Cheggers Plays Pop...'
It’s 1980, and The Beat are scheduled to play their single “Stand Down Margaret” on the early evening kids TV show Cheggers Plays Pop.
“We had to get the song on by stealth,” laughs lead singer Dave Wakeling. “Our genial old Jamaican saxophonist, Saxa, explained to presenter Keith Chegwin that ‘The Stand Down Margaret’ was an old Caribbean dance. ‘Come now Cheggers,’ he was saying, ‘let me show you how to dance The Stand Down Margaret…’ and he invents some ridiculous little dance routine. Then we start playing the song and unzip our jackets and we’ve all got T-shirts emblazoned with pictures of Maggie Thatcher…”
If it seems remarkable that an insurrectionary anthem – whose royalties were being donated to CND – could be broadcast to millions of schoolchildren on a teatime show, it was something that would be repeated many times during the 1980s. In quick succession came militant screeds of social reportage from the frontlines of urban Britain: “Going Underground”, “The Earth Dies Screaming”, “One In Ten”, “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang”. As Toxteth, Peckham, Southall, Handsworth and Bristol St Pauls burned during the riots of July 1981, the No 1 single was the hypnotic roots reggae prowl of The Specials’ “Ghost Town”, where Neville Staples’s eerie pronouncement “people getting angry”, seemed to capture the zeitgeist.
“Never before had we seen pop getting so brazenly political,” says Ali Campbell of UB40. “Thatcher was a hate figure that seemed to unite everyone.”
Baby boomers and soixant ouitards will try and convince us that the Sixties was the high-water mark of the protest song, but it was under Thatcher’s 11 years in power that politics really seeped into pop. Somehow, a prime minister whose favourite single was Patti Page’s “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window” found herself name-checked in dozens of songs. Those few pop stars who came out as Conservative supporters – Gary Numan, Tony Hadley, Joan Armatrading, Billy Mackenzie, Lulu, Errol Brown from Hot Chocolate, Jon Moss from Culture Club, Leee John from Imagination – rarely escaped with any credibility.
Some bands who emerged in the early Thatcher years came from a distinct ideological position, with neo-Marxists like The Gang Of Four and Cabaret Voltaire influencing the “entryist” tactics of Heaven 17, Human League and Scritti Politti. More potent was the generation of post-punk and Two-Tone bands, whose protest songs grew organically, angered by the effects of mass unemployment and urban decay. “It’s just Rule One for any songwriter – write what you know,” says Paul Weller. “When you’re confronted by headlines every day about mass unemployment, when you’re seeing devastation of industry and public services, it’s going to find its way into your lyrics. ‘Going Underground’ was a frustrated response to the old saying that people get the government that it deserves – ‘the public gets what the public wants’. That anger fuelled a lot of my material at the time.”
“We never wanted to make despondent music,” says Ali Campbell. “We wanted to make happy music to lift us out of misery, to give us an irie feeling. We were never soapboxers. It’s only because of what was going on in the wake of Thatcher – three and a half million unemployed, cutbacks in public spending, threat of imminent nuclear war – that those early tracks like ‘Madam Medusa’ and ‘One In Ten’ are so bleak.”
“It helped that you had someone who was the very embodiment of evil in power,” says Jerry Dammers. “You have to remember that it was an incredibly politicised era. People were arguing in pubs about monetarism, inflation and unemployment. Everything became political. Not mentioning Thatcher, in a way, was as political as singing about her!”
Malcolm McLaren has since suggested, tongue only slightly in cheek, that punk went hand-in-hand with Thatcherism. Both attacked the postwar consensus, both asserted the primacy of the individual, both served as a model for private enterprise. But punk’s rage was quickly channelled by the left into Rock Against Racism, a coalition first mooted in August 1976 to combat the rise of the National Front and to register disgust at Eric Clapton’s inflammatory onstage comments at the Birmingham Odeon earlier that month. The movement came of age when The Clash headlined an Anti Nazi League Carnival at Hackney’s Victoria Park on April 30, 1978. While some of punk’s swastika-decorated nihilism survived –John Lydon’s socialist baiting, the more politically dubious fringes of Oi! – the spirit of Rock Against Racism dominated pop for much of the 1980s, with several political advocacy events following a similar structure.
In early 1981, Rock Against Racism briefly resurfaced in a small series of gigs, Rock Against Thatcher and Rock Against Sexism. In June 1981 the Glastonbury Festival renamed itself The Glastonbury CND Festival, with the likes of Madness, New Order and Aswad going on to play anti-nuclear benefits. In September 1981, UB40 played several benefits for those arrested in the inner-city riots two months earlier. In 1984 everyone from Test Department to Wham! played fundraisers for striking miners; at the same time dozens of outfits – including The Smiths, The Damned and The Fall – all played in a seemingly endless series of “Save The GLC” concerts in support of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, then on the verge of being abolished by central government. Later events like Artists Against Apartheid followed a similar line.
The usual complaint about political pop was that leftwing bands merely preached to the converted. In fact, there were crowd elements who remained resolutely unconverted, with avowedly anti-racist Two-Tone bands such as Madness and The Specials often becoming magnets for neo-Nazi skinheads.
“What was frustrating was that there were plenty of people in the audience who just liked the sound of the music and the look of the clothes,” says Jerry Dammers. “They didn’t particularly agree with the lyrics. In fact, ha ha, there were people in the band – and Terry [Hall] has been pretty clear about this on this a few times – who didn’t agree with the lyrics!”
Most astonishingly, some who lapped up the anti-Thatcher pop of the early 1980s now sit on the Conservative Party’s front bench. George Osbourne has expressed his love of The Smiths, The Jam and The Clash, as has Old Etonian David Cameron, who cites The Jam’s “Eton Rifles” as one of his favourite singles. Trumping them both is shadow spokesman for culture, media and sport, Ed Vaizey, who has come out as a fan of the SWP-aligned Redskins.
“I like passion, in politics and in pop, even if it’s misguided,” says Vaizey. “And I got passion from all those bands – The Specials, The Beat, The Jam, The Redskins. It’s become a cliché, but Thatcher was one of those Marmite figures – you either loved her or you hated her. Even those who hated her had to acknowledge that she was an iconic figure, and as such she became a lightning rod for dissent.”
Pop’s most concerted effort to oppose Thatcher came in November 1985, when Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, together with MP Robin Cook, launched the Labour Party-funded initiative Red Wedge. A seven-date UK tour followed in early 1986, with a core group of Bragg, Weller, Dammers, Johnny Marr, Jimmy Somerville and Junior Giscombe. Another tour before the 1987 General Election added Matt Johnson, Captain Sensible, The Blow Monkeys and various leftwing comedians to the bill.
In retrospect, Red Wedge seemed to conclude pop’s dalliance with organised politics, largely because it failed to attract young voters. The 1987 General Election not only saw another Tory landslide, but also showed that Labour were still supported by fewer first-time voters than the Tories (34%, up from 29% in 1983, but still lower than the Tories’ 45%).
Political pop went into decline: the few anti-Thatcher anthems that followed were desperate, wearying fantasies of her death – Morrissey’s “Margaret On The Guillotine”, Elvis Costello’s “Tramp The Dirt Down”. That brief burst of positivist leftwing pop of the mid-1980s coinciding with Red Wedge (The Kane Gang, The Redskins, The Housemartins, The Style Council, The Christians) started to fizzle out, the messages of resistance drained from the lyrics until only the vestiges of retro soul remained.
“People became resigned to Thatcherism,” says Peter Hooton of The Farm. “In Liverpool around 1979 and 1980, people were angry, listening to The Clash, The Jam, The Specials. By the mid 1980s, that had been replaced by resignation. For most the 1980s, young unemployed kids in Liverpool were listening to Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. Partly it was nostalgia for an age they felt was better, partly it was the amount of heroin that was sweeping through the city. You can’t really enjoy The Clash on heroin.”
By 1987, unemployment had been stubbornly stuck above three million for more than four years, with youth unemployment in excess of 60% in parts of Britain. “Ironically, it was the ideal culture for forming a band,” says Hooton. “You noticed that not just in Liverpool but all around the country. If you were in a band and you were serious about it, you certainly couldn’t hold down a day job. So you had this massive explosion of bands around the country rehearsing in the daytimes and then playing live at night. And, with the expansion in higher education, there seemed to be more venues for people to play.
”The irony was that very few of these bands were that political, even at a time that the NME, for instance, seemed to have become a Redskins fanzine. Liverpool might have been the country’s most militant and politicised city in the country at the time, but what pop did it produce? Frankie Goes To Hollywood! You can’t get much more escapist than that!”
For some, the escapist tone of 80s pop started to chime with Thatcherism. Some started to take up the entrepreneurial spirit that Thatcher came to embody, be it the Happy Mondays or Soul II Soul. “We were children of Thatcher,” says Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B. “And, for us, Thatcher legitimised a lot of things. In the old days, Arthur Daley figures were seen as rogues. But they became respectable, and so did we. The kind of parties that might have been illegal in the old days were now legitimate.”
Some budding musicians, DJs and label bosses took advantage of Thatcher’s business initiatives. “I wonder how many lefties like myself,” said Tony Wilson in 2000, “look back now with misty eyes on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, that great nurturer of the young.” The scheme paid claimants a supplement on top of their weekly dole money to assist a business start up, providing they also put in £1,000 of their own money as capital. Although the scheme was eventually abandoned after creating thousands of short-lived business failures, it managed to assist fledgling labels like Warp, Creation and Domino.
If much of Thatcher’s legacy came in the form of union “reform” – clamping down on industrial action and breaking the closed shop – the Musicians Union provides an interesting case in point. Throughout the 1960s and Seventies, the MU had earned a reputation for failing to embrace the changes brought about by recorded pop music and the promotional video, drawing up agreements with government and broadcasters that now seem like archaic “Spanish practices”.
“I’m a big supporter of the Musicians Union,” says Jerry Dammers. “But there were some daft, Luddite regulations that continued until the 1980s. They had a downer on synthesizers, for instance, believing they put string players out of work! Also, when you mimed on Top Of The Pops, unions demanded that you had to re-record the track, to ensure that no musicians were put out of work. Of course, no one ever, ever re-recorded their tracks! They just had to book a studio, in case they got investigated by a union official, and sat in their drinking tea and watching TV. Then they’d go on TV and mime to their record. It became a huge racket.”
Other MU regulations were abolished under Thatcher, including a joint “exchange scheme” with the American musicians unions. “It was a logistical nightmare,” says music promoter John Cumming. “If you wanted an American act to play in Britain, you had to ensure that an equivalent number of British musicians were playing an equivalent number of ‘man days’ in the US. There was a ridiculous degree of horse-trading involved. If there’s one positive thing that Thatcher’s government did, it was getting rid of that.”
Other fears about trade union intransigence crept into the pop world, as Dave Wakeling recalls. “We were at No 4 in the charts with ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’ and we were going to do Top Of The Pops. We got there, and found out there was some industrial dispute with the cameramen or something. We were almost in tears, pleading with them. ‘Can’t you see – if we do TOTP we could be No 1 next week! It’s what we’ve dreamed about since we were kids!’ There was a lot of anti-union feeling in the band after that, which you could say was a little ironic.”
Broadly, the Stand Down Margaret generation remain refreshingly unapologetic about their hatred of the Conservative Party. “I’ve probably become a bit apolitical in the last 10 or 15 years,” says Paul Weller. “But I still think that Thatcher should be shot as a traitor to the people. We're still feeling the effects of what her and her party did to the country, and probably always will: the whole breakdown of communities, the dismantling of trade unions, the attack on health, education and industry."
“She dismantled everything that valued as British people,” says Ali Campbell. “The National Health Service, the labour movement, free education. I struggle to think of a single positive thing about her reign of terror.”
“I can only hope that Obama’s victory represents the end of the ludicrous trickle-down economic theory we’ve been beholden to for the past 30 years,” says Dave Wakeling. “I played a gig in California the night after Obama’s victory and ‘Stand Down Margaret’ got the biggest cheer of the night. This from people who weren’t even born when it was released! That hatred runs deep…”
Ten Great Anti-Thatcher Songs
1 The Beat
Whine And Grine/Stand Down Margaret (1980)
Polite insurrection set to uptempo reggae and African hi-life guitar
Madam Medusa (1980)
Moody, ten-minute dub tribute to Mrs T which put UB40’s later pop-reggae confections to shame.
(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang 1981
Cringeworthy lyrics, but check out the finger-popping electro-funk bass lines.
4 The Specials
Ghost Town (1981)
Eerie, doom-laden mix of dub, jazz and Bollywood vocals which still sounds remarkable 28 years on.
5 The Jam
A Town Called Malice 1982
Smart lyrics and a Motown-lifting bassline which pioneered “soulcialism”.
6 Robert Wyatt
Elvis Costello’s lyric recounts the tragic irony of an unemployed man who finds work in a shipyard before his squaddie son is killed in the battleship he’s built.
7 Style Council
With Everything To Lose 1985
Weller at his angriest, later reworked as “Have You Ever Had It Blue” for the Absolute Beginners soundtrack.
“Margaret On The Guillotine” 1988
Deliciously spiteful fantasy of Mrs T’s execution.
9 Elvis Costello
“Tramp The Dirt Down” 1989
Costello replaces the elliptical political allusions of “Pills And Soap” and “Shipbuilding” with this blunt death fantasy.
10 Kirsty MacColl
Free World 1989
A bile-filled, sorrowful letter addressed to Thatcher, recorded with Johnny Marr.
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Words by John Lewis