Wednesday, April 10, 2013

education in the grooves when you're let down by the news

In my late teens and early twenties, I was a bit too young to understand the nature of politics, both locally and globally. As people did in previous decades, I got some information from my favorite artists and records.

I didn't live through Margaret Thatcher's rule first hand. We had a mess on our own shores with Ronald Regan, whose presidency is currently in revisionist mode. While I was aware, I wasn't engaged.

Here are three records from the Thatcher era that made me look a little more deeply into a place I have called my second home for nearly twenty years. Strangely, they all seem timely today in a slightly unsettling way.

The first one is the parenthetical prefix of "(Celebrate) The Day After You" by The Blow Monkeys featuring Curtis Mayfield from the longplayer, "She Was Only A Grocer's Daughter", whose title referenced Thatcher's familial ties. Released in 1987, it outlines the party plans after the Conservative party has been deposed.

The second Thatcher era single that gave me a reason to try to understand what life was like in the UK, before I started traveling there regularly, was one that I knew directly affected me.

"No Clause 28" was a brave and honest move from Boy George. It highlighted the heinous, controversial and bigoted addition of Section 28 to the Local Government Act of 1988, an amendment which stated that a local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality or promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

The track begins with a sharp slap to the face by a Thatcher impersonator - "The aim of this government is to make everyone as miserable as possible." Yikes! Imagine how that sounded upon first listening to this funky house track.

George is unforgiving in his delivery. It was a way of putting a bit of distance between him and his past with Culture Club. The gender bending was still at the forefront, but the loved up sounds and songs took a back seat to something close to George's heart. His identity and that of so many gay men and women.

Of course, the political nature of the record along with his then recent drug charges didn't help the single garner significant airplay. But it was an important record which included a cheeky pre-sampling clearance of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", some Public Enemy shout outs, and a severe rap in the middle of it which was the first time I heard AIDS mentioned in a pop song. An important record, especially in light of the LGBT struggles we face today.

Here is the third and final Thatcher era tune that turned me toward the UK newspapers.

Slice of Red Wedge anyone? Paul Weller was no stranger to political activism. His social commentary during his days in The Jam held steadfast and strong when he transitioned into The Style Council.

In 1984, in the thick of promotion for TSC, Paul Weller recorded "Soul Deep", a funky slice of politics. He invited a few friends over to record this charity record, under the moniker of The Council Collective, in support of the debilitating and violent miners strike which horrified many citizens of the UK.

The paragraph on the back sleeve of the single said it all:

"The aim of this record was to raise money for the Striking Miners and their families before Xmas but obviously in the light of the tragic and disgusting event in South Wales resulting in the murder of a cab driver, some of the monies will also go now, to the widow of the man.

We do support the miners strike but we do not support violence. It helps no one and only creates further division amongst people.

This record is about Solidarity or more to the point - getting it back! If the miners lose the strike, the consequence will be felt by all the working classes. That is why it is so important to support it. But violence will only lead to defeat - as all violence ultimately does."

And they managed to perform it on "Top Of The Pops"! Scandalous! Those were the days. Education in the grooves when you're let down by the news.

Actually, I forgot the single that first brought my attention to British politics. The riots and racial unrest. The encroaching industrial wasteland. The feeling of desperation. And it went to number one on the UK singles chart."Ghost Town" by The Specials was the one that caused you to feel the winds of change in Great Britain.

In the early days of MTV, this video received quite a bit of airplay. The haunting, howling feeling throughout the record is a bit frightening. It's the stark, bleak, smothering sound of something evil approaching. The only diversion from that sense is the ska meets dancehall breakdown which sounds like its bleeding out of a radio broadcast from the past. This was the one that first piqued my interest in politics as a source for pop music inspiration.

What was happening in the land the inspired me as a musician and a music fan? I needed to know more.


  1. These were all great politically motivated singles! The BM track is very near to my heart with a plethora of fine remixes. I always sort of thought that the Blow Monkeys broke up when Thatcher left office, leaving them lacking a focus for their songwriting. The Boy George track I only have the Razormaid mix of, but it's a thing of wonder that's a far cry from the soft sounds of Culture Club. But "Ghost Town" was an indisputable classic. They captured the racial tension fallout of 1981 like a sonic polaroid with that haunting track!

  2. I was a student of all things political and all things British in the late 70's and early 80's. My Anglophile musical tendencies led me to understand the discontent among Britons much more than the average American, I'm sure, but was certainly shared by many of my like-minded friends.
    When I was sitting home on my normal Monday off watching BBC World News most of the day being quite revisionist itself, these three tracks you have mentioned above as well as Soul Deep by The Council Collective and The Beat's Stand Down Margaret came to mind. Like Reagan, she will be re-evaluated and then 20 yrs from now re-evaluated again. Time tends to be kind to those who are controversial in life.