So, those who despise Margaret Thatcher for her vindictiveness and spitefulness want to celebrate her death by propelling into the charts a song about the death of a witch. Those who laud Thatcher for her supposed love of freedom want to ban that song. And the BBC settles on a cackhanded ‘compromise’ by censorsing the song while pretending it is doing no such thing. Nothing, perhaps, could better express the inanity of contemporary politics than the crass, puerile controversy around Ding Dong the Wicked Witch is Dead. Once, protest songs provided the soundtrack to political struggle. Now political struggle is reduced to getting old songs into the charts.
But what of the actual protest songs of the Thatcher years? These were the years of mass unemployment and inner city riots, of the miner’s strike and the hunger strikes, of the poll tax protests and the Falklands War. Yet, even in the 80s anti-Thatcher protests were all too often overwhelmed by personal loathing and descended into little more than an outpouring of vindictive venom. And so did the protest songs – from Morrissey’s Margaret on the Guillotine (And people like you/ Make me feel so old inside/ Please die) to Elvis Costello’s Tramping Down the Dirt (I’d like to live/ Long enough to savour/ That’s when they finally put you in the ground/ I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down). I have excluded from my list all these personal hate pieces (though I was tempted to include Elvis). I have also left out all the protest songs that don’t relate directly to the policies and events and experiences of the Thatcher years. So, for instance, I have included the Gang of Four’s Ether (which is about the H-Blocks) but not their far superior classic tracks such as Damaged Goods, Anthrax and Natural’s Not in It. (It is worth remembering also, in the context of musical censorship, that the band was thrown off Top of the Pops after it refused to change the lyrics of its first hit single, At Home He’s a Tourist. The BBC objected to the line ‘And the rubbers you hide in your top left pocket’, finding it highly offensive, and demanding that ‘rubbers’ be changed to ‘rubbish’. The band refused)
It still leaves us with a cracking list (and there are countless tracks left out from Crass’ How Does it Feel? and the Manic Street Preachers’ NatWest – Barclays – Midlands – Lloyds to the Clash’s Clampdown and the Style Council’s A Stone’s Throw Away; there are also many I have probably forgotten, my memory, like the protest song tradition itself, having eroded with old age).
The Specials, Ghost Town
Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding
Linton Kwesi Johnson, Sonny’s Lettah
The Gang of Four, Ether
Billy Bragg, Between the Wars
Roy Rankin & Raymond Naptali, Brixton Incident
Sinead O’Connor, Black Boys on Mopeds
The Jam, Town Called Malice
The Selecter, Bristol and Miami
Top photo by Dave Parry from the Thurcroft Main Colliery and Village website.