The news of Margaret Thatcher’s death this morning (8 April) has seen the expected outpouring of mixed emotions. On one side, the feeling that no one should be rejoicing over an old lady’s passing; on the other, well, all that rejoicing’s hard to ignore. For every observer turned off by the gloating, there’s another who’ll point out lives ruined, industries flattened, jobs swept away with the flick of a pen.
Let’s prise something positive out of the whole argument – the notion that great art flourishes in unlikely circumstances. And Thatcher’s government certainly created a hostile terrain. From cutting subsidies for the British film industry to progressively reducing arts funding in general, the Tory government of the 1980s appeared set on blunting the sharper edges of our culture. Of course that had to fail, and particularly with music. The greatest political music builds a bulwark against the enemy, and rallies engaged fans to the cause. This is Thatcher’s contribution to pop music.
The forces mobilised quickly. The Specials knew their history and drolly re-set Bob Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’ as a soca-meets-supper-club-jazz sneer at the incumbent PM at the end of 1980. That “she says she’s fifty-four” lyric didn’t even need to be changed – well, it was a couple of months out, but come on. Elsewhere, “National Guard” becomes “National Front”, but the song stands as a protest without too much tweaking. They were beaten to the punch though by fellow ska revivalists The Beat, whose ‘Stand Down Margaret’ made the top 30 in August 1980. It was telling that the more marginalised fragments of UK culture were the first to rear up.
Electronic music got a look-in too. Gary Numan was an early supporter of Thatcher and the new Conservative government – something of a lead balloon for his career, at least in the eyes of the music press – but he just managed to squeeze out the immortal frigid-pop of ‘Cars’ and ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’. An exception perhaps, although the dystopian visions didn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for the status quo. Meanwhile, Heaven 17’s ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ turned up in 1981 to make great clanging statements from the other side of the ballot box, taking down Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to the strains of vital, burbling electro-funk. Dance music would still be standing defiant a dozen years later as a future Conservative government tried to shut down the rave scene.
Pop really got its opposition front bench together with the creation of politico-cultural organisation Red Wedge in 1985. With heavyweight support from then-Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the collective aimed to get the kids into the voting mindset for the 1987 election. Musically, Red Wedge were led by The Style Council – then righteously tearing into the government with ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ (“You don’t have to take this crap…”) – and Billy Bragg, who made his name with stark, gravelly attacks on the Tory administration, from ‘Between The Wars’ (“I’ll give my consent to any government/That does not deny a man a living wage”) to ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’, minting a new British protest folk built on the firmest of foundations: adversity.
Onto the personal, it’s a sentiment to make you wince today, but Elvis Costello’s 1989 track ‘Tramp The Dirt Down’ represented the unfettered vitriol of the time. Folky and ironically elegiac, it has the veiled bite but doesn’t quite pack the punch of ‘Shipbuilding’, his earlier swipe at the wrongheadedness of Thatcherite policy, made famous by Robert Wyatt. Costello certainly felt the fires burning when he turned on Thatcher – take, too, the quiet rage of ‘Pills And Soap’, recorded as The Imposter in 1983.
Let’s wince too at Morrissey’s ‘Margaret On The Guillotine’. “The kind people have a wonderful dream… when will you die?” It falls to Morrissey to sum up the feelings of one half of the internet, but doing so with a lilting ballad in the spring of 1988 doesn’t so much celebrate death as call for a political head. Just a few months after another whopping election victory, it’s sung more in hope than expectation, but ‘Margaret On The Guillotine’ was a suitably malevolent end to Morrissey’s first solo album, showing the old dog had lost none of his bite even if he’d lost his band. This was anti-Thatcherism as a badge of commitment.
And all that without mentioning Hue & Cry’s blue-eyed, double-edged funk assault ‘Labour Of Love’ and The Blow Monkeys’ equally blue-eyed ‘(Celebrate) The Day After You’, which admittedly brought some genuine funk with the guest-starring Curtis Mayfield, an American who might have wondered what he was doing laying into Thatcher. Although that didn’t stop Aimee Mann on ‘You’re With Stupid Now’.
In terms of quality, it’s a mixed bag. The anti-Thatcher canon embraces the sublime – Billy Bragg’s richer lyrical turns, The Style Council’s firebrand soul, The Specials’ grassroots polemic – but also the clunky – Morrissey’s grand guignol, Costello’s more browbeating moments, tune-avoiding hotheads like The Redskins. Whatever you think of the results, this political environment fed a pop scene that was diverse, angry and motivated. When the era came to an end after the Tories’ own Night of the Long Knives in autumn 1990, there was just one voice singing from a different hymnsheet – Jonathan King, with ‘We Can’t Let Maggie Go’. You can’t pick your friends in this game.