I originally intended to post this clip last week before my ISP put up a roadblock so here it is again. Tom Robinson performing the title track of his classic debut album (in New Jersey of all places) and doing a Maggie Thatcher impersonation — this was only two months after she first became Prime Minister.
I’m not actually sure if I ever had my own copy of this poster but if not I would have been about the only Lefty student in the 1980s who didn’t. It must have been hanging on the wall of every bedroom I slept in or living room I partied in during my art school days, and is as iconic a symbol of its era as the Tennis Girl poster — just the thing to have on the wall of your student digs when you brought a girl home to listen to your Smiths’ records because it showed that you were into politics but had a sense of humour too.
Amusing though it was, it did reflect a real anxiety that Ronnie Reagan was crazy/stupid enough to start a nuclear war – limited to Europe of course — and that Maggie, his ideological girlfriend, was too turned on by the size of his missiles. This feeling wasn’t just reflected on student bedroom walls either as the possibility of nuclear holocaust was all over popular culture at the time. There was When The Wind Blows in book shops, Two Tribes in the pop charts, and Whoops Apocalypse on the telly along with the nightmarish Threads which still gives me the willies today (the whole film is on YouTube if you want to relive the horror). We were hardly reassured by the government’s Protect and Survive booklet either.
Apparently, before it became a poster this image originally appeared in the Socialist Worker newspaper which surprises me because I had a mate in the SWP at the time and they didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humour.
At least they said “please” which was very nice of them.
I suppose a lot of people will be posting Elvis Costello’s “Tramp The Dirt Down” today but not me. Even back in the 80s at the height of my Maggie hating I thought that was a stupid, over the top song. No matter how wrong, divisive, and damaging she was, and how many lives and communities she destroyed on the altar of her beliefs I could never take pleasure in her death. I wanted her gone, and maybe even locked up for crimes against the working class, but it was her ideology I wanted to die, and sadly “Thatcherism” is still very much alive today, even in the Labour Party.
So I’m not sure how I feel today. Very mindful of the passing years because such a major figure from my youth has now exited and gone into the history books, and a bit surprised that she actually died which proves she was human after all.
Take it away, Arthur.
Download: Strike – The Enemy Within (mp3)
This photograph is like the 1980s captured in one shot, full of so many signifiers of the era it could be a tableaux staged by some conceptual artist as a commentary on the decade of greed and flash.
I don’t know where the picture was taken but it looks like the typical suburban home of the newly-property-owning, Thatcher-voting class known as Essex Man. The building work is a sign of the re-make/re-model boom years and the sports car (red, probably) an obvious symbol of gaudy, flaunting-it, Loadsamoney success and excess — a major upgrade from the owner’s previous XR3i and paid for with the profit from selling British Gas shares.
Sitting on the bonnet is the dream girlfriend (after Samantha Fox anyway), Page 3 stunna Linda Lusardi looking like the archetypal Essex Girl with her frizzy perm, short skirt, tan legs and white high heels, all dressed up for a night out at Stringfellow’s.
This is the new England that Maggie created where the past has been dumped in a skip and future is brand-new, turbo-charged, is having an extension built, and has big tits.
Download: Goodbye 70s – Yazoo (mp3)
In 1972 unemployment in the UK hit 1 million people for the first time since The Great Depression and there was concern that it would cause some sort of social breakdown in the country. By 1980 Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister and the number had grown to 2 million, and only three years later it was a whopping 3 million. During those 11 years punk had been and gone and we’d had strikes, power cuts, economic crisis, a 3-day work week, riots and a Winter of Discontent – society might not have broken down but it was definitely feeling a bit stressed out and in need of a holiday. But Maggie told us there was no alternative to her tough love and the only advice her Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit had for the unemployed was to get on their bikes if they wanted to find a job. What a lovely man he was.
I was one of “Maggie’s Millions” on a couple of occasions myself in the 80s and though I was only out of work for a few months at the most, being on the dole was a depressing experience. With nothing to do all day and little money to keep yourself occupied, just getting out of bed in the morning can be hard as you wonder what the point of getting up is. But I was lucky, I didn’t live in a town that had its factory or coal mine shut down (or to be in profession that had factories) but up North you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting someone who’d lost their job and their future when England’s manufacturing and industrial base collapsed and died. I didn’t have to choose to cut down on beer or the kid’s new gear either, but there were days when I had to choose between cigarettes and food – I nearly always chose cigarettes, ten Marlboro lasted a lot longer than a meal did.
It says something about how unemployment dominated the landscape that one of the most popular and relevant bands at the time took their name from a form given to people on the dole. When you sign on in England you are given Unemployment Benefit Form No.40 which you have to bring to the dole office every time you claim benefit, this is more commonly known as a UB40. There can’t be that many other bands named after government paperwork and their debut album “Signing Off” had a replica of a UB40 card on the cover.
I had one of these tan coloured ones when I was first on the dole but it was changed to a minty green at some point, they were probably thinking the brighter colour would make the whole unemployment experience a bit more cheerful.
Younger readers might only think of UB40 as purveyors of light, singalong pop-reggae, but before “Red Red Wine” made them stinking rich and ruined them they were a serious, overtly-political band who had more in common with The Clash than Musical Youth, singing heavy songs about being on the dole, poverty and social injustice. Bloody good they were too, “Tyler” is from the debut album and these two 12″ single mixes show them stretching out in a more Dub-wise direction, I don’t know if these are available anywhere but they should be.
Download: Tyler – UB40 (mp3)
Download: I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (12″ version) – UB40 (mp3)
Download: The Earth Dies Screaming (12″ version) – UB40 (mp3)
“I think they were absolute fucking scum — especially Thatcher, who I think should be shot as a traitor to the people. I still think that, and nothing will ever change my opinion. We’re still feeling the effects of what they did to the country now, and probably always will: the whole breakdown of communities, trade unions, the working class — the dismantling of lots of things.”
Paul Weller, 2008
Until George W. Bush came along I never thought I could hate a politician as much as I did Maggie Thatcher. All the things I complain about on this blog that depress me about modern England can be traced back to her doorstep in one way or another and we’d be here all day if I went through the litany of her crimes but Mr. Weller’s quote above pretty much sums up my feelings in his usual blunt style. Maggie was the stern Nanny/Headmistress who told us we’d all been bad children in the 60s and 70s and we had to take our medicine no matter how bad it tasted or she’d send us all to bed without any supper — or throw us out of work. Your average English Public Schoolboy gets turned on by that sort of cold-shower discipline which explains why so many chinless wonders loved her, it’s just a pity the rest of us had to take the medicine too. Maggie wanted to re-make Britain and she did, but to do that she had to tear it apart.
As a 20-something student you’d expect I’d be politically involved but it could be a depressing experience in the 80s. I voted for Ken Livingston, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and she won every time — though with Ken it wasn’t at the ballot box, she just abolished the GLC instead. I went on marches to save the GLC, in support of the Miners Union and CND, I joined the Labour Party and even took part in demonstrations and a sit-in to save my own college from being merged with another one in the next town, all to no avail. She always won — apart from the Poll Tax of course, I missed that little riot though.
But her biggest victory is everywhere you look in Britain today. It was a bit of cliche on the Left in the 1980s that she wanted to turn the country into the 51st State of America (though that was mostly a joke about her sucking up to Ronald Reagan) but that’s basically what happened, she turned the country over to the free market and big corporations who now dominate the landscape both metaphorically and literally. The rich got a lot richer and everyone else had their jobs, traditions and communities traded away for the price of 24/7 shopping in bland town centres dominated by a few big chains and an entire industry devoted to the worship of wealthy celebrities. The country has become just as soulless, vulgar and status-obssessed as America at its worst. Even sadder, the process has continued and been even worse under a bloody Labour government. Well, she did say there was no alternative.
Though I would like to thank her for all the wonderful music she inspired, without her we wouldn’t have these records (and many, many, many more). Maybe she wasn’t that bad after all. Actually, she was.
Download: Blue – Fine Young Cannibals (mp3)
Download: Homebreakers – The Style Council (mp3)
Download: Shipbuilding – Robert Wyatt (mp3)
Download: Talkin’ Blues (Story of The Blues Pt. 2) – The Mighty Wah! (mp3)
Download: Strike – The Enemy Within (mp3)
Before rap became the designated voice of black youth — or “the black CNN” as Chuck D called it — the black experience in England was best expressed through Reggae, particularly the records of poet Linton Kwesi Johnson who read his angry rhymes in a heavy patois over skanking music provided by producer Dennis Bovell’s Dub Band. Unfortunately the black experience in England wasn’t all that great.
If you were a young black man in England during the late 70s and early 80s you probably felt like you were living in a police state instead of Jolly Olde Blighty. The hated “Sus” law gave the police the power to stop and search anyone they suspected of having committed a crime (or be about to), a power they mostly used to hassle young black men on the street time and time again. Also notorious were the uniformed thugs of the Special Patrol Group, a “elite” mobile unit of the Metropolitan Police whose idea of combatting crime and civil disorder was smacking people about with their truncheons (or killing them in the case of Blair Peach.) No wonder many Reggae songs of the era referred to England as “Babylon.”
Download: Inglan Is A Bitch – Linton Kwesi Johnson (mp3)
The combination of this heavy-handed policing with chronic unemployment made England’s inner cities pressure cookers that could blow at any minute. There had been a riot at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival where the police had to defend themselves with dustbin lids from a hail of bricks and bottles thrown by black youths (which inspired The Clash to write “White Riot”) but far worse was to come. The shit really hit the fan in 1981 when Brixton exploded into one of the worst riots the UK had ever seen. Over a weekend in April cars and buildings were set on fire, the police were attacked with petrol bombs (the first time those had ever been used in England) and fire engines were attacked when they tried to put out the flames. By the end of it the place looked like a war zone.
A school friend of mine who joined the police force told me he was on duty in Brixton during the riot and had to spend the night in a police minivan parked near the “frontline” on Railton Road. When he woke up some of the other coppers had written “NF” in the condensation on the windows (but backwards so people outside could read it.) Lovely bloke, the good ol’ British bobby.
It wasn’t so much a race riot (white kids joined in the action too) as an anti-police, anti-state “uprising” fed by anger at the state of the nation: 2.5 million unemployed, crumbling inner cities, poor housing, and a Prime Minister who gave speeches about the country being “swamped” by alien cultures while giving the police a huge pay rise.
Download: Di Great Insohreckshan – Linton Kwesi Johnson (mp3)
1981 turned into a a long, violent year as riots broke out all over England, from Handsworth in Birmingham, to Toxteth in Liverpool (that was a bad one), and Moss Side in Manchester as well as smaller incidents in other cities. I remember one night back then news went round that a riot had broken out in Fulham where I lived, it just turned out to be some kids having a fight outside McDonald’s but it shows how on edge the whole country was. In one of those rare moments of pop culture capturing the zeitgeist The Specials “Ghost Town” got to number one in July that year, it’s eerie sound perfectly reflecting the tense, nervous state of the nation:
This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry
It happened all over again in 1985 with more riots in Brixton and Toxteth, but the worst was at the Broadwater Farm estate in North London where a policeman was hacked to death. Race relations in the UK have improved in lots of ways since then, but as the Stephen Lawrence case showed, the more things change the more they stay the same.