Saturday, 13 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher and British Protest Music

There has been a lot of interest in the soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz following the death of Margaret Thatcher. Widespread debate has raged about Ding Dong, the witch is dead and BBC Radio 1’s decision to only play an excerpt of the song if it reaches number one. The reason I don’t want to hear this song is because it offends my sense of what makes for decent political music. It is an insult to the venerable tradition of the protest song. Ding dong, the witch is dead is politically vapid. It possesses no political traction or heightened feeling. This is a novelty exercise in viral tastelessness. It is instantly disposable and forgettable, rather than having anything daring, memorable or challenging to say.

For centuries, Britain has produced political protest songs. The 1381 Peasants Revolt produced the well-known rhyme, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" The civil and religious wars of the 17th century produced such movements as the Levellers and Diggers with their hymnal of incendiary ballads. Founded by Gerrard Winstanley in 1649, the Diggers were inspired by the Acts of the Apostles vision of living in community and sharing everything in common. Diggers attempted to farm common land in small egalitarian communities. Suppressed by the local authorities who viewed them as a threat to the status quo, very few of their protest song lyrics survive. Those that do, give us a flavour of their radical boldness:

The lawyers they conjoin, stand up now,
to rescue they advise, such fury they devise,
the devil in them lies, and hath blinded both their eyes
stand up now, stand up now!

The clergy they come in, stand up now,
the clergy they come in and say it is a sin
that we should now begin our freedom for to win.

Stand up now diggers all
'Gainst lawyers and 'gainst priests.
Stand up now, for tyrants they are both,
even flat against their oath, to grant us they are loathe
free meat and drink and cloth.
Stand up now diggers all!

The industrial revolution was the catalyst for an increase in protest songs and ballads, such as The Triumph of General Ludd. Using a fictional persona, a Robin Hood character, the song expressed the concerns of the Luddite movement that had grown up in the cloth industry with the introduction of wide-framed automated looms. These could be easily operated by low-paid, unskilled workers and highly skilled weavers and textile workers found themselves unemployed:

No more chant your old rhymes about old Robin Hood
His feats I do little admire
I'll sing the achievements of General Ludd
Now the hero of Nottingham Shire
Those engines of mischief were sentenced to die
By unanimous vote of the trade
And Ludd who cannot a position defy
Was the grand executioner made
Whether guarded by soldiers along the highway
Or closely secured in a room
He shivers them up by night and by day
And nothing can soften their doom
Shall the whole team of humble no longer oppressed
And shall Ludd sheath his conquering sword
Be his grievance instantly met with redress
Than peace shall be quickly restored
Let the wise and the great lend their aid and advice
Never ere their assistance withdraw
Till full-fashioned work at the old-fashioned prices
established by custom and law

In more recent times, the work of the folk singer, Ewan MacColl, articulated concerns about nuclear weapons and the cold war. Young people found the folk song was, MacColl believed, “tailor-made for expressing their thoughts and comments on contemporary topics, dreams, and worries.” Donovan’s 1965 folk song, Universal Soldier, and his anti- Vietnam song The War Drags On gave musical expression to anti-war protest, as did John Lennon’s 1969 na├»ve anthem Give Peace a Chance. British folk music in the 1960’s was socially engaged and had real political bite. Today, we have the insipid, Mumford and Sons.

During the 1970’s Punk became the voice of musical protest. Songs such as God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols and If the Kids are United by Sham 69 gave vent to anger about youth unemployment and poor opportunities. To my mind, the greatest protest songs of this period came from the pen of Joe Strummer and The Clash. Writing about class, political, economic and racial inequalities gave Strummer’s writing a tensile energy. The lyrics to the 1977 song, Career Opportunities, is an example of Strummer’s political concerns:

They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I'd better take anything they'd got
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?
Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a cop?
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunities, the ones that never knock
I hate the army an' I hate the RAF
I don't wanna go fighting in the tropical heat
I hate the civil service rules
I won't open letter bombs for you
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunities, the ones that never knock.

Bus driver
Ambulance man
Ticket inspector
I don't understand
They're gonna have to introduce conscription
They're gonna have to take away my prescription
If they wanna get me making toys
If they wanna get me, well I got no choice
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock,
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock.

I associate three great protest songs with Margaret Thatcher and her government. The first is Ghost Town by The Specials released the day after the first Handsworth riot in central Birmingham (10 July 1981) and two weeks before the wedding of Charles and Diana. The song made number one in the charts with its themes of social disaffection and decline. Blending melancholy and menace, the song captured an urban landscape eroded by dole queues, simmering violence and deep social divisions. It has lost nothing of its resonance today.

Elvis Costello’s Tramp the Dirt Down is full of naked rage and venom. This haunting protest song with its lyrical tautness is in the tradition of Shelley’s 1819 poem, The Mask of Anarchy, written following the Peterloo Massacre in that same year. Like that poem, Costello is less interested in political analysis and more in capturing the emotional anger that Margaret Thatcher provoked in some people. Morrissey’s Margaret on the Guillotine would be another example of this. Unlike Ghost Town which provided a description of the social effects of the Thatcher government’s policies, Costello’s song documents the feelings of frustration and impotence that many people felt during the Thatcher government. These feelings were not universal – “Basildon man”, for example, applauded Margaret Thatcher’s policies and non-consensual style of politics – but the feelings Costello captured were real for many people.

I saw a newspaper picture from the political
A woman was kissing a child, who was obviously
in pain.
She spills with compassion, as that young child's
face in her hands she grips.
Can you imagine all that greed and avarice
coming down on that child's lips?
Well, I hope, I don't die too soon,
I pray the Lord my soul to save,
Oh I'll be a good boy, I'm trying so hard to behave,
because there's one thing I know, I'd like to live
long enough to savour
that's when they finally put you in the ground
I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.

When England was the whore of the world
Margaret was her madam
and the future looked as bright and as clear as
the black tarmacadam.
Well, I hope, that she sleeps well at night,
isn't haunted by every tiny detail,
'Cos when she held that lovely face in her hands
all she thought of was betrayal.

And now the cynical ones say that it all ends
the same in the long run,
try telling that to the desperate father who just
squeezed the life from his only son.
And how it's only voices in your head and
dreams you never dreamt,
try telling him the subtle difference between
justice and contempt.
Try telling me she isn't angry with this pitiful
When they flaunt it in your face as you line up
for punishment.
And then expect you to say "Thank you"
straighten up, look proud and pleased,
because you've only got the symptoms,
you haven't got the whole disease.
Just like a schoolboy, whose head's like a tin-can
filled up with dreams then poured down
the drain,
try telling that to the boys on both sides,
being blown to bits or beaten and maimed,
Who takes all the glory and none of the shame.

Well, I hope you live long now, I pray the Lord
your soul to keep,
I think I'll be going before we fold our arms
and start to weep.
I never thought for a moment that human life
could be so cheap
'Cos when they finally put you in the ground
They'll stand there laughing and tramp the
dirt down

But for me, the leading protest singer in Britain during the 1980s was Billy Bragg, the Woody Guthrie of Barking. His most personal song, Between the Wars, was released in 1985 at the height of the miners’ strike. The proceeds from the record went to the miners’ strike fund. Beneath the politics, Bragg captures the profound disillusion experienced by individual lives and communities destroyed by poverty and unemployment. I kept the faith and I kept voting/ Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand./For theirs is a land with a wall around it/ And mine is a faith in my fellow man./ Theirs is a land of hope and glory/ Mine is the green field and the factory floor./ Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers/ And mine is the peace we knew/Between the wars.

Here is an example of British protest song writing at its very best. Angry, but full of human compassion. It is this song that should be number one this Sunday…and then, let us pray for Margaret Thatcher.

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