Protest songs thrive on combat.
Complicated policy details may cause the songwriter's pen to freeze but larger-than-life politicians who polarise opinion enable the ink to flow. It is striking that, despite all the frustration and ferment of the punk era, nobody wrote a memorable song about Jim Callaghan. But to musicians on the left Margaret Thatcher was an irresistible super-villain who threw all the conflicts of the time into sharp relief. Penny Rimbaud of anarcho-punk radicals Crass once told me: "I think Thatcher was an absolute fairy godmother. Christ, you're an anarchist band trying to complain about the workings of capitalist society and you get someone like Thatcher. What a joy!"
Never before had a British prime minister so explicitly identified certain sectors of society as enemies — trade unionists, socialists, liberals — and so diligently set out to crush them. Thatcher's infamous description of Arthur Scargill's miners as "the enemy within" (the Argentinian dictator General Galtieri being the enemy without) spoke volumes about her need for foes and this Manichean outlook cut both ways, as did the strength of her personality. The single word "Thatcher", said with appropriate contempt, handily encapsulated everything the 1980s left opposed.
Even before Thatcher entered Number 10 she was being personally singled out. "Maggi Tatcha on di go wid a racist show," intoned Linton Kwesi Johnson in 1978's It Dread Inna Inglan. Joe Strummer originally wanted to illustrate the Clash's The Cost of Living EP, released on election day 1979, with a collage including Thatcher's face and a swastika. Just a year into office and the Beat were singing Stand Down Margaret ("please," they added politely).
The reason is that bands that hated Thatcherism didn't need time to warm up. Steeled and educated by punk, they were already battle-ready. As Tracey Thorn writes in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, "politicisation seemed to be the norm, and would continue to do so well into the 1980s. Even as musical styles changed, and many of the old punk battles were left behind, for those of my age the ideals of the late 1970s remained a driving force." Contrary to the clip-show version of the 1980s, all yuppies, Princess Di haircuts and Duran Duran, it was the heyday of political pop, and the leftwing counterculture in general. They already had the values and now they had the villain.
Musical responses to Thatcher came in three varieties. There were songs that took a hard look at the country, especially during the early 1980s recession and the Falklands war: the aimless dispossessed of Ghost Town, the conflicted dockworker of Shipbuilding, the struggling poor of A Town Called Malice, the despair-poisoned citizens of the The's Heartland. There were the character assassinations: Crass's incandescent Falklands response How Does It Feel to Be the Mother of 1,000 Dead (quoted to the lady herself at Prime Minister's Question Time), the Blow Monkeys' somewhat premature (Celebrate) The Day After You, Morrissey's Margaret on the Guillotine and Elvis Costello's venomous Tramp the Dirt Down.
I could name dozens more but there are hundreds in the third category: whole careers, like that of the Smiths, implicitly underpinned by opposition to Thatcherite values. Look at the long list of people who played benefit gigs for such causes as the miners' strike or Red Wedge and you'll find such seemingly unlikely names as Wham! and Spandau Ballet's Gary Kemp. Asked by Smash Hits to name the last book she read, Tracey Thorn replied The British in Northern Ireland: The Case for Withdrawal. This was just the kind of thing you did in the mid-1980s.
Of course Thatcher lasted longer than anybody expected, but her real victory lay in permanently changing the culture so that by the time she was finally toppled – not by the Beat but by the backbenchers – the deep-seated oppositional values that Thorn described were ebbing out of music. Pulp's The Last Day of the Miners' Strike retrospectively traced the path from resistance ("people marching, people shouting") to escapism ("socialism gave way to socialising"). The fight went on too long; people got tired and craved release; only a few, like Billy Bragg, had the stamina to continue.
Thatcher remains a potent bogeyman for some. Hefner released The Day That Thatcher Dies, which is surely on heavy rotation today. Frank Turner, despite sharing the Iron Lady's admiration for Hayekian economics, wrote Thatcher Fucked the Kids in 2006. Just the other month Primal Scream's single 2013 condemned "Thatcher's children".
But the circumstances that created that third category of musical protest, broad as well as deep, have gone. Thatcher's ascendance galvanised a generation of dissenters, but her long-term impact on British culture ensured that, despite some notable exceptions, their ranks were never really replenished.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Matthew Rutledge