This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance
No British politician of the last century has provoked such a visceral response within the music community as Thatcher. Countless artists took aim at her directly, but Thatcher was more than just a figure to be name dropped. She was a common enemy, a target for the malaise of the time, and a bogeyman figure, whose presence in music was felt if not seen. Artists used music to respond to societal rupture and economic deprivation at the hands of her government.
The formation of the Red Wedge in 1985 directly intertwined music and politics in opposition to Thatcher. Hoping to oust Thatcher in the looming 1987 election, a collective of left wing musicians fronted by Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, and Jimmy Somerville formed. Although they took their name from a Russian communist poster of 1919, they were inextricably linked to the Labour Party. They launched in Westminster with MP Robin Cook in 1985, and kept an office at the party’s headquarters, in which they produced an election pamphlet entitled ‘Move on Up’, that offered their vision of a post-Thatcherite socialist Britain. Their success however was in their 1986 tour which involved not only the frontmen but popular musicians sympathetic to the cause; notably the Smiths, and Elvis Costello. Frontman Somerville, himself openly gay, liaised with ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ two years earlier to headline their famous ‘Pits and Perverts’ benefit gig to raise money for striking miners and their families. With the Conservatives’ third election victory, it is hard to see how their 1986 tour amounted to any success at all. But as Bragg himself mused retrospectively, ‘in the darkest days of the Thatcherite 80s, there was a feeling that something had to be done.’ In this sense, what was ‘done’ was the creation of a movement combining anti-Thatcherite music and political education, which encouraged young people to find their political home in the Labour Party.
Afro Caribbean music was an equally important arm of musical protest against Thatcher. Thatcher’s Conservative party was merely one decade removed from Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Thatcher herself rode to power endorsing this sentiment, infamously quoted as claiming ‘people […] are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture’ in an ITV interview in 1978. The richness of musical protest to Conservative racism should not be underestimated. A ska revival of the late 1970s, spearheaded by Coventry label Two Tone records, put bands such as Madness and the Specials on the national scene. Two band members, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple, were Jamaican born, a part of the Windrush Generation. Their 1981 release ‘Ghost Town’ became an anthem of the era, and was speculated to be describing the band’s home town of Coventry, holding a mirror up to the experience of inner city life across Britain. Their canny re-release of Bob Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’ substituted Dylan’s reference to the National Guard for the National Front, updating the countercultural anthem of the 60s to attack Thatcher and the burgeoning far right.
Numerous artists were highly politicised by their experience of the 1980s and the social ills which accompanied it. However, the North/South divide was keenly felt and not everyone in the music industry was equally politicised by their experience of the 80s. The neoliberal moment translated differently for some well to do London musicians. The ‘New Romantics’, including artists such as Boy George, Marc Almond, and Annie Lennox, produced apolitical pop anthems which some saw as jarringly far-removed from the material circumstances of others, particularly in the north. Others have argued that it is simplistic to assume that these artists espoused Thatcherite values, as they embodied counterculturalism in other ways: with their flamboyant, androgynous clothing and Glam Rock style of music.
Joy Division’s late Ian Curtis also surprisingly voted for Thatcher in 1979. However, the band’s later incarnation New Order and the introduction of Acid House in the UK provided the escapism that many needed. Whilst not overtly political, it is no coincidence that the second summer of love in the late 1980s saw raves spring up in disaffected post-industrial northern towns. Among the most famous of these was the ‘Joy’ rave in Rochdale in 1989, attended by tens of thousands and lasting for 24 hours. Although a far cry from some of the more pointed anthems which attacked Thatcher, rave culture induced a moral panic in Conservative ministers. This led to the implementation of anti-rave legislation past even Thatcher’s tenure, culminating in the ‘Criminal Justice and Public Order Act’ of 1994.
Thatcher was the establishment, and music was countercultural. The impact of her policies -whether socially conservative, or economically neoliberal, inspired an almost united front in the music industry against her. It almost seems like we’re experiencing a similar rupture today: the upheaval of a pandemic, a Conservative government employing ‘divide and rule’ tactics to withhold furlough money from the North, the potential for a culture war already poisoning discourse in the US. We’ve already had Stormzy’s bold pronouncements, and on the other hand an unsuccessful attempt to revive the spirit of the 80s with ‘Labour Live’. But it remains the essential paradox of our time that despite the undercurrent of rage at our circumstance and our government, we’re unable to physically gather to dance or play music as a creative outlet. No doubt the creative fervour is there for a musical protest to rival that of the 80s, but the uniqueness of our circumstances means it remains to be seen.
By Phoebe Myers