Music has always offered the choice between escapism and counterattack.
I arrived in Britain on November 15, 1980, wearing a denim shirt, jeans and white patent leather ankle go-go boots that I picked up on Orchard Street, in New York. I was coming to meet a guitarist I had started dating when I was at Rolling Stone Magazine, and after he met me off the plane we rode into London on a double-decker Routemaster bus. Andy wasn't planning to leave The English Beat, the band he was playing with at the time, to move with me to New York. So I left my apartment on the Lower East Side - friends ended up dismantling it - and I found myself in his hometown of Birmingham.
Yet Britain's main manufacturing city was in a free fall of spiraling unemployment rates, heroin addiction and disillusionment. As more factories closed and the unions lost their clout, the service economy Margaret Thatcher championed wasn't reaching Nineveh Road in Handsworth where we lived in a worker's modest two-up-two-down terraced house. Next door, the husband of the Caribbean couple had been unemployed for longer than he cared to remember. Next to them, 80-year-old Irish Mab kept warm in winter by turning on the gas oven and leaving its door open. Late nights were frequently punctuated by a man drunk from too many pints of warm beer from our local, the Bolton Arms, who let out garbled anguished screams of a life gone wrong.
Andy had been born in a house a few blocks away, and during his childhood, Handsworth changed from a predominately poor white working class neighborhood into one of low-income diversity, after immigration from the West Indies and Indian subcontinent. The music he played in the English Beat, like that of the other multi-racial 2 Tone bands from the Midlands, grew directly out of this social transformation. However, reggae was more than just a musical influence, it was anti-authoritarian. Thatcherite transformation of once vibrant cities like Birmingham into what The Specials sang about in "Ghost Town" gave the music its potent social meaning.
When The Beat released a single with an infectious B-Side, Stand Down Margaret, in 1980, they performed it up and down the country. They were featured on kids' television shows like O.T.T. (Over the Top) with one of the country's few black actors, Lenny Henry, dancing wildly to the tune. It was broadcast on radio.
The English Beat had grown out of the ferment of punk. After the Queen's Silver Jubilee and the punk explosion of 1977, the music sharpened its focus after Thatcher won in 1979. Bands and singer-songwriters released numerous singles that targeted the new Prime Minister specifically, as the personification with all that was wrong with the way Britain was going. Audiences against racism, apartheid and class privilege expected music to address the major issues of the day.
Thirty-three years later, the opposite is true. An innocuous song like Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead sung by the Munchkins from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz was lucky that even five seconds were played by the Radio 1 Chart Show last Sunday. In a press release, the BBC said that they found the internet campaign that put the song at position number two at the top of the charts "distasteful." Radio 1 Controller Ben Cooper explained that because the song represents the views of "a segment of the population," it was not going to be played in its entirety. Instead a newsreader explained the controversy surrounding the song to Radio 1's teenage demographic. However, another 1979 anti-Thatcher anthem, I'm in Love with Margaret Thatcher by the Notsensibles was fully featured earlier in the chart program. Reaching number 35, its ironic meaning had been conveniently re-interpreted by pro-Thatcher proponents because of its inclusion in the 2011 movie Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep.
Cooper's stance on Ding Dong! only panders to the domination of public space by pro-Thatcher forces who organized the funeral. The police operation in charge of security is named 'True Blue' to suggest that any dissent is anti-patriotic. Simply by choosing that name, of all names, the London Met - recently implicated in the phone hacking scandal and the selling of confidential information to the tabloids - seems to have abandoned all pretence of political neutrality. Saturday night, as I cut through near where I live now in London, legions of police officers and vans were ready to pounce on demonstrators in Trafalgar Square. Many people object to the whitewashing of Thatcher's legacy and the unnecessary expense during a period of intense austerity. According to the latest opinion polls, overwhelmingly the majority of British people are against a publically funded state funeral.
Since last week the metal barriers to protect the funeral cortege have started to be erected along The Strand. For the UK Conservatives, their Republican counterparts and the various B- or C-list celebrities who will be in attendance this morning, Thatcher's final send off will seem more like Top of the Pops than the first PPP (public-private partnership) funeral. The only ones who will be missing are her now departed friends, the pedophile Jimmy Savile and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The event has all the makings of a rightwing love-in that will rival Woodstock or Glastonbury.
The Iron Lady's economic policies were responsible for more than just deregulating the banks. They had ramifications, which continue in homes and boardrooms across in Britain. There was a mean spiritedness to the cultural side of Thatcherism, which the music industry wholeheartedly bought into. Britain in the 1980s had been an incubator of exciting new music. The music charts were filled with homegrown bands, some who never reached number ones in America, but who were beloved at home. In time, these bands were dropped by the record companies and only stadium-fillers survived.
Now the free-for-all of the internet makes it virtually impossible for unknown musicians to gain a foothold unless they have some visual gimmickry that goes viral. Protest songs, British pop, Thatcher anthems, BBC, the worldwide web has become at its most vulgar a marketing tool, which allows groups with already established brands a timeless existence. It is as if they are preserved in formaldehyde, each in their own hermetically sealed time capsule. Instead of social media bringing everyone together, it has made the like-minded congregate around a single theme. It is more difficult now for a cultural cross-pollination of society to take place. In this arena Thatcher's dream has come true. Now we are all consumers in a free market economy. But who is producing the real creativity?
Music has always offered the choice between escapism and counterattack. At the time of another Tory meltdown - with draconian benefit cuts and the increasing privatization of the NHS - there is no new sound expressing political protest. Ironically people are voicing their disgust through Judy Garland and a Hollywood escapist fantasy from seven decades ago.
As I listened to the Chart Show, the "safe bet" singles, no-risk formulaic music, and predictability make the commodification of popular song complete. This is useful for BBC Radio 1, which uses nonthreatening content to appeal to a narrow age bracket. Maybe, however, Mrs. Thatcher's funeral and the caving in of BBC Radio 1 don't necessarily mark the end of Britain as a home to musical dissent. The anti-Thatcher anthems are a reminder of a fertile period when the relationship between music and politics was less than cozy. Not only did the young demand entertainment, they were encouraged and expected to speak their minds. Hopefully those times will come again.
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