Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Neither Washington, nor Moscow, but Eton?

Interesting article by John Harris in today's Guardian looking at the seemingly bizarre phenomenon of English Conservative politicians expressing their love for the anti-Conservative music of their 1980s youth. That Tory leader David Cameron claims to like The Smiths, Billy Bragg and The Jam is not new - the latter particularly amusing as Cameron went to top toff public school Eton, satirised by The Jam in a song that included the line 'Hello, hooray, I'd prefer the plague/To the Eton rifles'. Paul Weller of The Jam at least remains uncompromising about this period according to Harris: "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."

More surprizing was to hear that Conservative MP Ed Vaizey was a fan of avowed trotskyists The Redskins: 'he still treasures a vinyl copy of their sole album Neither Washington Nor Moscow - strap-lined, in keeping with a Socialist Workers party slogan, "but international socialism"'.

The article mentions a day that I remember well: "Bragg has a theory that when he, The Smiths and the Redskins played a benefit for the doomed GLC in 1986, Cameron was probably in the audience". The gig in question was actually the Greater London Council-sponsored 'Jobs for a Change' festival on 10th June 1984, in Jubilee Gardens on London's South Bank. The GLC, then controlled by the Labour Left, was in the process of being abolished by the right-wing Thatcher government. Whatever the limitations of municipal labourism, the GLC did put on some fantastic free festivals in this period. As well as this one with The Smiths, I also saw The Pogues at an event in Battersea Park (1985) and The Damned, The Fall. New Model Army and Spear of Destiny in Brockwell Park, Brixton (1984). These were huge events, 80,000+ plus.

I could hardly forget seeing The Smiths but what sticks in my mind from that time is a feeling of powerlessness not of collective strength. While The Redskins were playing, a group of fascist skinheads stormed the stage. Despite there being thousands of avowed leftists in the crowd and only a few dozen nazis (at most), the former mostly fled in panic. Shortly afterwards a group of anti-fascists punks, Class War and Red Action types found each other and chased the fascists through the crowd - only to be slagged off by other festival-goers for being aggressive and spoiling their party. Later I saw the skinheads returning towards the festival over Waterloo Bridge - when I tried to summon up some interest from stewards I was met with complete indifference. After all these people had only just physically attacked one of the bands playing, nothing to worry about!

In the light of this I would have to reluctantly agree - albeit from a diametrically opposed perspective - with Tory MP Vaizey who is quoted in the Guardian article saying: "People could do all this ranting from the stage, but you knew it wasn't going to change the tide of history."

There are some interesting considerations in this whole discussion about the limitations of pop politics, and despite my loathing of Conservative appropriation of music that I love, I would also question any suggestion that people should automatically let their taste in music determine their political perspective, even if the bands' political perspective is a good one - that way lies the aestheticization of politics and the abandoment of critical thinking.

There is a recording of The Smiths GLC set out there somewhere


Anonymous said...

Funny coincidence, because I first saw this post today (early Thursday morning here in NYC), but on the same day that you posted this, I posted a clip on my blog of Billy Bragg performing with Kate Nash and then perused some other Billy Bragg material at YouTube, where I found this interesting interview footage of Billy talking about his political involvements of the past and his feeling that it was easier for young bands to politcally engage back in the day:


Of course, in the U.S., it wasn't quite as politicized, but I think that even here, punk and postpunk bands 25 to 30 years ago were much more likely to have radical (or even anarchist) sentiments than today's crop of "indie rockers."

Transpontine said...

Hi Richard, hope all's well. I saw you'd posted that Billy Bragg/Kate Nash video, my partner saw them doing this at a charity gig at the Union Chapel in London. Billy Bragg now lives in rural Dorset in the South West of England, where we went on holiday recently. There is a little country town there called Bridport which has become fairly trendy, and where the old cinema has recently been re-opened. I laughed out loud when I read this report of it in the (right wing) Daily Telegraph: 'Among the cinema's other patrons are... film director Mike Leigh, singers Billy Bragg and PJ Harvey and Astrid Proll, the former Baader-Meinhof terrorist'.

Unknown said...

I was at the "Jobs for a Change" festival and remember it well. As a free festival on soon-to-be-vacated property, it was totally un-policed and had a wild, law-less atmosphere. People climbed the walls of surrounding buildings to get a better view. It was a hot summer day and some decided clothes were optional. But, most importantly, The Smiths were brilliant. Not sure I want them to re-form, but if they do, I'll be there anyway.