The Thatcher Era's Effect On British Music

Apr 12, 2013
Originally published on April 12, 2013 10:55 am

Margaret Thatcher, who died this week, has gone down in history as one of the most transformational British leaders of the 20th century. Her decade in power, in the 1980s, reshaped Britain's economy and society, with her free-market Thatcherite policies. It also produced a remarkable output of music about Thatcher and her reforms.

What was it about Thatcher that inspired so many British musicians? To find out, Morning Edition spoke with British author, journalist and music critic Stuart Maconie, who says the different areas of Britain responded differently to the Thatcher era.

"In London and the South, which was more affluent and more her natural constituency, it had the effect of producing a kind of apolitical response," Maconie says. "You got the New Romantics, and you got a kind of bright and shiny, aspirational pop — a padded-shouldered version of pop — that was about nightclubs, about dressing up, about going out."

Maconie says the song "Gold," by the London new wave group Spandau Ballet, became "a shorthand for the aspirational end of Thatcherism in those years" — much to the dismay of the man who wrote the song, guitarist Gary Kemp.

"He actually joined what was called Red Wedge, which was an organization of pop musicians in Britain trying to get the Labour Party re-elected," Maconie explains. "I know that it angers Gary Kemp to this day ... that he's seen — because of the way that music sounds, because it sounds so kind of well-upholstered and shiny-suited — that he's seen as being an arch-Thatcherite when in fact he was a Labour supporter."

In the North of England and in Scotland, Maconie says, the response to Thatcher was more defiant. The English Beat's "Stand Down Margaret" took a confrontational tack, urging Thatcher to resign. Morrissey made things personal, closing his 1988 solo debut Viva Hate with a track called "Margaret on the Guillotine."

"It wasn't just a political response; it was a kind of gut emotional response," Maconie says. "In the north of England, the effects of Thatcherism were quite visible: Factories closed down, mills closed down, mines closed down, and people were put out of work. And of course, you've got to argue, she was an easy person to become a figurehead. She even looked like she should be on the prow of a ship."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, we have heard a lot this week about the life of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died on Monday. And as we head into the weekend, we thought we would take a look at her impact on music. Thatcher's reforms helped revive Britain's economy, but did it with wrenching economic reforms that dramatically altered society, sometimes causing violent upheaval. And that inspired a lot of memorable songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUNS OF BRIXTON")

THE CLASH: (Singing) You can crush us, you can bruise us, but you'll have to answer to oh, guns of the Brixton...

GREENE: That's the British punk band The Clash, with "Guns of Brixton," catching the mood of discontent in the early Thatcher years. In the north of Britain, traditional industries closed, dragging communities down with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOWN CALLED MALICE")

THE JAM: (Singing) And a hundred lonely housewives clutch the milk bottles to their hearts, hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry. It's enough to make you stop believing when the tears come fast and furious in a town called Malice...

GREENE: And this is a song called "Town Called Malice," by The Jam. Journalist and critic Stuart Maconie - from Manchester, in northern England - says the kind of songs that were written depended largely on where the bands were from.

STUART MACONIE: The different areas of Britain responded differently, I think. In London, in the south, which was more affluent and more her natural constituency, it had the effect of producing a kind of apolitical response; in that you got the New Romantics, and you got a kind of bright and shiny, aspirational pop, a padded-shouldered version of pop that was about nightclubs, about dressing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLD")

SPANDAU BALLET: (Singing) Gold, always believing it's gold. You've got the power to know you're indestructible...

MACONIE: But in the north of England, I'd say, and in Scotland - I mean, you got a very different response. I think you got a response of people like The Smiths, which was to sort of be a more defiant kind of reaction against it, a sort of defiantly northern; some would say dour, but I would say a sort of more confrontational pop. I mean, there were some explicitly political records. Morrissey recorded - Morrissey and The Smiths recorded a tune called "Margaret on the Guillotine."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARGARET ON THE GUILLOTINE")

MORRISSEY: (Singing) The kind people have a wonderful dream, Margaret on the guillotine...

GREENE: I mean, that's not just anger at the state of society. That is very personal.

MACONIE: People personified it. I mean, it was called Thatcherism. I mean, it was - she became more than just a person. She became a kind of shorthand for ruthlessness, a kind of callousness, a disregard for working people. And it wasn't just a sort of political response. It was a gut, emotional response. Because don't forget here, where I'm speaking - in the north of England - the affects of Thatcherism were quite visible. Factories closed down, mills closed down, mines closed down; and people were put out of work.

GREENE: People connected her directly to that. I mean...

MACONIE: And of course, you've got to argue, she was an easy person to become a figurehead. She even looked like she should be on the prow of a ship. There is no such thing as society, she famously said - you know, the idea that profit was the ultimate goal. And so you got that kind of response - "Stand Down Margaret," by The Beat, which quite explicitly called for her to resign - which she was never going to do, obviously.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND DOWN MARGARET")

THE ENGLISH BEAT: (Singing) I said, I see no joy. I see only sorrow. I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow. So stand down, Margaret, stand down, please. Stand down, down, down, down, down...

GREENE: Did they know that there was no chance of them getting what they wanted, when they made this song?

MACONIE: Well, I think they were just trying in their own way, I think, maybe, to be sort of pleasant about it. I'm sure they had much more of an angry lyric they could've come up with. But I think "stand down, Margaret; stand down, please" - I quite like that about it. I think - I love the idea that it's almost sort of supplicant, in a way. They're saying, oh, please; just make it stop. You know, they're appealing to her better nature - a better nature, I don't think she really had.

GREENE: But a polite appeal.

MACONIE: A polite appeal, a very British appeal.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: We've been talking about the music of the Thatcher era with the author, journalist and music critic Stuart Maconie. He joined us from Manchester in northern England. Stuart, thanks so much.

MACONIE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINEAD O'CONNOR SONG, "BLACK BOYS ON MOPEDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.