In death, Margaret Thatcher is proving as divisive as she was in her long, long life. Judging by the quite spectacular spats currently playing out on Facebook and Twitter, it would appear mass culls are about to take place on a scale not seen since King Herod got the hump with the baby Jesus.
Saint or sinner, messiah or monster? These arguments will play out over the decades to come, but her huge contribution to the cultural landscape of Britain throughout the eighties is possibly the only aspect of her legacy that isn’t up for debate. Not that she showered funding on the arts or anything so forward thinking, oh no. 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. Do you enjoy what you do? If not, just stop, don’t stay there and rot.” 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, right kids?
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, Red Wedge mobilised The Smiths, Bananarama, Madness, Prefab Sprout, 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 (as seems likely to happen this week,) isnot making a political statement, it’s bandwaggoning (and cruel at that,) conducted mostly by people who probably weren’t even born when Thatcher was ousted in 1990.
In part two: sophistication and capitalist pop – the end of the decade.