Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Days of pop creating real political ding dong are gone

It may be the shortest song ever to hit the the Top 10, but the chorus of disapproval it has aroused will ensure it lives long in the memory.

The row over Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead made its bid for the No 1 spot the most talked about chart battle since Oasis v Blur at the height of 1990s Britpop.

In the end, it fell just short, like the Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen in 1977 – though the conspiracy theorists say that song was deliberately kept off No 1.

As protest songs go, Ding Dong! is hardly a classic.

This is no Blowin' In The Wind, A New England, or even Alternative Ulster.

What is interesting is that the visceral hatred invoked by Thatcher, which resurfaced over the last week, is a reminder of just how bland and apolitical modern pop music has become. Thirty-five years ago, one couldn't move for rock stars queueing up to attack the Conservative government. Today there is a deathly cultural silence over austerity Britain.

In the 1980s, musicians as diverse as Elvis Costello, Paul Weller, The Smiths and Sting wrote songs attacking Thatcher, or her policies. A wide range of musicians took the side of the striking miners when Arthur Scargill's NUM took on Thatcher's government.

Benefit concerts were held and even Wham!, seemingly the poster boys of Thatcherism, made an appearance at one.

The bibles of thinking music fans in the 1980s, the NME and Melody Maker, were full of political content. On the eve of the 1987 general election, the NME had a cover story on then Labour leader Neil Kinnock with the headline 'Lovely, lovely, lovely!' Hard to imagine a similar publication doing the same for Ed Miliband today.

The prevalence of political pop in the 1980s led to the terms agitpop and politcopop being coined.

Some musicians, however, were not just content to write protest songs and signed up to campaign for the Labour Party under the banner of Red Wedge.

Red Wedge got funding from Labour and the trade unions and even had an office at Labour's then headquarters in London.

The link-up suited Labour as it was desperate to reconnect with young voters, a majority of whom had voted for Thatcher in 1983.

Weller and Billy Bragg were the driving forces and their efforts culminated in a 12-date tour on the eve of the 1987 election.

Labour's vote did not substantially rise, but its share of the youth vote overtook the Tories.

Red Wedge was dismissed by some as a cringe-inducing failure. Even some its participants admitted this to a certain extent.

In ways, Red Wedge was a harbinger of the greater synthesis between showbiz and politics. Today, David Cameron can cite The Jam's Eton Rifles as one of his favourite songs – it would be inconceivable to imagine Mrs Thatcher having done likewise.

Today, instead of politicopop, we have posh pop and one wonders whether the paucity of working-class heroes such as Weller, Bragg and Morrissey has some role to play in this.

Another factor is that politics is simply less polarised, as the cross-party tributes to Mrs Thatcher have re-emphasised.

An interesting footnote to Red Wedge was that one of its last outings was in Belfast, where Billy Bragg performed in 1988. He later admitted this may have been his greatest folly.

He said: "What I learned in Northern Ireland is that there is no fence to sit on. Almost every sentence you say can be judged in a sectarian way."

Even for the king of agitpop, music had its limitations.

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