April 08, 2013 7:00pm PT by Jonathan Bernstein
Margaret Thatcher and the Rise and Fall of the Great British Pop Protest Song
In early 1997, I interviewed the Spice Girls who were already massive in their U.K. homeland but had yet to release their debut single “Wannabe” in America. Amid frequent and voluble declarations of their Girl Power manifesto, Geri Halliwell blurted out, “We love Margaret Thatcher!”
My eyes bugged out like a Tex Avery cartoon wolf. Ginger Spice was proudly giving voice to a statement that few British musicians -- especially those active during the Thatcher dominance years that ran from 1979 to 1990 -- would even admit to thinking. That was a hectic decade for the British music scene: the mod revival was replaced by the rise of the New Romantics who were supplanted by blue-eyed soul acts, anthemic stadium rock bands and the Acid House movement. All these divergent strands of British musicians were united by a single common thread: They all detested Margaret Thatcher.
The disparity between Britain’s pop stars and its politicians was not always gaping. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson seized as many opportunities as he could to pose for photo opportunities with The Beatles. Tony Blair hobnobbed with the likes of Blur’s Damon Albarn and Oasis’ Liam Gallagher, happily accepting the label of Britpop Prime Minister. Current Downing Street occupant David Cameron can’t stop broadcasting his love for The Smiths.
But Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday at the age of 87, made no attempt to buddy up to Boy George or Bono. She had bigger fish to fry: She had a nation to remake in her image and, in order to do that, she needed to annihilate all opposition. Her war on trade unions, on socialism, on liberalism and work-shy spongers who depended on state benefits caused many an outraged songwriter to pick up a pen in protest.
These weren’t aggrieved acoustic laments delivered in coffeehouses filled with the faithful. These were huge hit records that were all over the radio at the time.
The Specials addressed Thatcher’s dismissive attitude to the nation’s unemployed underclass in “Ghost Town” (a song so ominous it was used to telegraph fear in the opening moments of last week’s Doctor Who). The group also would refashion Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” as a mocking reflection of life in Thatcher’s Britain. Paul Weller gritted his teeth and poured out anti-Thatcher invective with both The Jam (“Town Called Malice”) and The Style Council (“Money Go Round” and “Walls Come Tumbling Down,” among many, many others).
The English Beat voiced their disdain with the genteel “Stand Down Margaret.” The Blow Monkeys fantasized about a Thatcher-free world with “(Celebrate) The Day After You.” UB40, a band named for the unemployment benefit identification card that was the lifeline of the people Thatcher had dismissed as parasites, hit back at their nemesis both with their debut hit “One In Ten," and the fearful “Madame Medusa” (“From the land of shadows comes a dreadful sight / Lady with the marble smile / Spirit of the right”).
Anti-Thatcherism was so pervasive it could make spiritual bedfellows of anarcho-punk commune Crass, who protested the Falklands war with “How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of A 1000 Dead?” and Wham! who played benefit shows for striking miners.
Perhaps the most poignant song released in the '80s U.K. protest era was Robert Wyatt’s tremulous rendition of Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding,” a song about a dock worker in the dubious position of seeing his ailing industry turn around because of the need to replace British ships sunk in the Falklands war. Costello proved himself a cottage industry when it came to attacking Margaret Thatcher. Recording under the nom-de-plume The Impostor, he issued “Pills And Soap,” a nightmarish imagining of the nation if Thatcher was re-elected in 1983 which, of course, she was. Costello also was responsible for 1989’s venomous “Tramp The Dirt Down.” In common with Morrissey’s “Margaret On The Guillotine” from 1988’s Viva Hate, Costello openly begs for Thatcher’s death: “When they finally put you in the ground, I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”
Time being the great and merciless equalizer that it is, Costello and Morrissey got their wish. But the life of the British pop protest song died way before Margaret Thatcher. Subsequent generations preferred to immerse themselves in hedonism or to bow and scrape in front of rich men on TV talent shows. Perhaps the U.K. musical community had a collective epiphany that music was no place to express feelings of hopelessness and rage. Or maybe Margaret Thatcher lit a spark of hatred so intense that no one since has proved worthy of similar loathing.