Graham Parker’s “You Can’t Be Too Strong” (from his classic 1979 album Squeezing Out Sparks) is a song about abortion which has been misinterpreted by some as pro-life because it has lines like “washed it away as if it wasn’t real” and a verse sung from the perspective of the embryo. But the only person vilified in the song is the man who got the girl pregnant and ran away from his responsibilities, leaving her with an awful choice to make. In 35 years of listening to it the only impression I got was that it was just a sad situation for all concerned. “You decide what’s wrong” he sings at the end of the chorus.
Rock songs like to deal with social and political issues in simple, singalong, punch-the-air cliches and you don’t often get a measured, nuanced take on a subject like this.
Living on the other side of the Atlantic now I really didn’t have a dog in the Scottish independence vote but I’m happy with the result purely because it increases the chance of a Labour government being elected who hopefully wouldn’t be as awful as the Tories. Even though I’m a Londoner I can see that the city has too much influence and we need a counterbalancing force in the North. Plus I have Irish and Scottish blood and think we’d lose something if the Celtic part of our identity went away — much as I’m proud to be English, being “British” is better.
But I must admit part of me would have been thrilled with the opposite outcome because it would have been a big kick in the balls to David Cameron and the entrenched Westminster status quo which seems to be much needed. There would have been something very punk rock about Scotland tearing up the UK and starting again.
Would have been a shame to lose so many great bands from the UK though.
This ad is a classic example of turning rebellion into money, in this case using women’s lib to sell booze. These ads are never aimed at people who already are adventurous, rebellious rule-breakers, but instead they’re for people who want to be like that. The message is always the same: Drink this, eat that, wear this, listen to that band, and you will be a cool person. One of the good things about getting older is not caring too much about that anymore, which is why advertisers don’t care about my demographic either.
The “until I discovered Smirnoff” campaign was so famous it inspired jokes like “I thought Cunnilingus was an Irish airline until I discovered Smirnoff” but was stopped in 1975 when the British government passed a law against alcohol advertising that claimed drinking the product would lead to sexual or social success. This is a witty ad but it does unfortunately equate women’s liberation with being sexually available, especially once you’ve got a few vodkas inside you.
Smirnoff certainly wasn’t the first company to co-op youth or social movements for the purposes of capitalism but I wonder who was. Probably someone in the 1920s using the Bright Young Things to sell headache powders.
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.
“They are the first band not to shrug off their political stance as soon as they walk out of the recording studio. The first band with sufficient pure, undiluted unrepentant bottle to keep their crooning necks firmly on the uncompromising line of commitment when life would be infinitely easier — and no less of a commercial success — if they made their excuses and left before the riot.”
It’s hard to overstate what a ballsy move it was for Tom Robinson to follow his catchy, radio-friendly Top 5 pop hit “2-4-6-8 Motorway” in 1977 with the strident anthem “Glad To Be Gay” but that was a time when lines were being drawn all across Britain and a lot of people felt they had to declare which side of the barricades they were on. It’s a lot easier being openly gay these days, cool even, than it was back then when homosexuals were often thought of as either perverted kiddie fiddlers or John Inman. A mate of mine at school told me he threw away his copy of “Motorway” in disgust when he found out Robinson was “a bloody shirtlifter” — but he joined the Young Conservatives when he left school so I guess he had issues.
Their third single “Up Against The Wall” is one of the most blistering records to come out of punk, a riot of guitars and pulverizing drumming (the terrific Danny Kustow and Dolphin Taylor) that hits you like a boot in the groin — or a truncheon over the head. This led off their classic 1978 debut album Power In The Darkness which, along with the first Clash album, is the best snapshot of the tense, angry atmosphere in England at the time. Some of it seems like naive sloganeering now but back then it felt like life and death, you were either on Tom’s side or you were with the National Front and the SPG.
This is a scan of an old flyer I have for an Anti-Nazi League rally in Fulham in 1981. If I remember correctly the National Front were going to march through the Broadway so the ANL were staging a counter-protest. I didn’t go to the rally because, for one, I thought it might get a bit violent (it did) and, secondly, it was on my birthday and getting a brick in the head from a skinhead wasn’t my idea of a good way to spend it.
The main reason I kept the flyer was because I loved the style of the ANL’s graphics. Their very bold and direct posters were the work of the great David King who in his time also designed The Sunday Times magazine, the covers of City Limits, and the sleeve of Electric Ladyland.
On the back is a polemical description of what the NF and British Movement are really all about and what life in England would be like with them in power, written in very simple language (“Don’t be conned, they’re all supporters of Hitler! And look what Hitler did!”) and obviously designed to appeal to the kids — the same ones the NF were also trying to recruit — especially bits like this:
Not sure if the musical part of that message would have worked though, I knew people (friends, even) who supported the NF and every single one of them loved reggae and soul music. Go figure. But I suppose you shouldn’t expect logic from a racist.