On Your Marx: British Leftist Pop Bands and the 1980s

 

 

Although Margaret Thatcher became British Prime Minister in May 1979, her ascension to power had seemed horribly inevitable for some time. Tapping into the growing public resentment of the Labour Party government’s relationship with the trade unions, which had resulted in a series of nationwide strikes, and having drafted her manifesto, Thatcher called for a vote of confidence in the government in 1977. After a string of increasingly desperate coalition deals with Britain’s thirteen Liberal MPs, Jim Callaghan’s government eventually collapsed and Thatcher swept to victory in the resultant General Election.

Having replaced Edward Heath as Conservative Party leader in 1974, Thatcher focused on a monetarist economic policy of severe public sector cuts and privatisation, which drew support from the International Monetary Fund in 1976. This approach to governing deviated sharply from the post-war consensus that had maintained the welfare state and nationalised services, encouraging full employment. When IRA bombing campaigns, race riots, football hooliganism and street violence became the norm in the 70s, Thatcher aimed to reintroduce the conservative, moral values that were seen to have been lost during the permissiveness of the 60s. The effects of the policies her Tory government introduced throughout the 80s would have a profound and irreversible impact upon the working class of Britain.

As the rise of Thatcher was quickly gathering pace, the punk movement exploded in the UK in 1977. Although it struck a jolt to the core of society, the movement’s mass appeal made it difficult for bands to move beyond the simple three-chord rock that had made it so popular in the first place. Its confused use of Fascist symbols, along with the violence that plagued many punk gigs, often attracted the far-right National Front: an audience that many bands inspired by punk’s ‘Year Zero’ attitude wanted to distance themselves from. When punk came to an abrupt end in 1978, the acts that arrived with the post-punk movement, although just as confrontational as their predecessors, were more engaged with literature and art, and were also more politically aware.

To these musicians on the left, Thatcher – pitting the trade unionists, socialists, and liberals as the enemy – was a malevolent, Wicked Witch-type figure who threw all the conflicts of the time into sharp relief. Chart music in the early ’80s in the UK was well stocked with songs addressing sociopolitical issues and artists generally stood up to the Iron Lady in one of three ways: 1) social commentary (e.g. Ghost Town by the Specials), 2) direct character assassinations (e.g. How Does It Feel to Be the Mother of 1,000 Dead by Crass), or 3) those whose values and ideals stood in exact opposition to Thatcher. This latter group, headed by the likes of Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, and under the guise of the Red Wedge, were outspoken and active in both protest and in playing benefit gigs for miners and the CND throughout the decade.

Many left-wing, socialist bands also cropped up during the turbulence of the 80s and, although the majority never received mainstream success, they stayed true to their ideals. Here I present a few of my favourites:

 

McCarthy

Formed in the East London borough of Barking in 1984, just as the spike of widespread unemployment, the miner’s strike and the poll tax riots was reaching its apex across Britain, McCarthy were viewed as a politicised Smiths, replete with chiming guitars and lyrics that alluded to the cracks in the facade of the once-great British Empire. Their music was constructed around the anti-Thatcherist, anti-capitalistic lyrics of singer/guitarist Malcolm Eden, and the jangling folk-indie notes delivered by lead guitarist Tim Gane.

Despite their lyrical content being very much concerned with contemporary issues, and the pop melodies that accompanied them being certainly radio-friendly, McCarthy never succeeded in receiving much airplay – aside from the immortal champion of fringe indie bands, John Peel, who hosted several of his famous sessions with McCarthy on his BBC Radio 1 show.

Ironically named after the US Senator Joseph McCarthy, a figure best remembered in the history books for leading the anti-communist witch-hunts of the early 1950s, McCarthy were ostensibly grouped into the C86 scene, as their track Celestial City was included on the NME cassette compilation that spawned the indie scene. Indeed, the C86 release was vitally important to the development of the band, as Eden recalls: “It’s what first got us attention. Musically we were pretty similar to those [C86] bands. I think our general attitude was a bit different though.”

McCarthy released three studio albums between 1987 and 1990 but, by the end of the 1980s, the idea of a band being the voice of a generation was an outdated one. Highlighting this fact, their debut single, Red Sleeping Beauty, reflected the idea of their fellow musicians being asleep while “there’s still a war to win.” It protested the lack of protest against the systematic gutting of the British working class, commenting on a dearth of disobedience to the powers, which would could come to define the pop charts in the late ’80s.

Aside from attacking the ills of British society, the band’s lyrics also dealt with wider issues in a biting and satirical fashion, no more so than their 1988 single Should the Bible Be Banned, which recounts the ‘narrator’ being driven to kill his brother after reading the biblical tale of Cain and Abel. Wondering “Should the bible be banned / To keep the peace?,” the song’s aim was to reduce to absurdity the inevitable calls to ban books and films following well-publicised acts of violence. Similarly, God Made the Virus brilliantly mocked the religious right’s homophobic views when it came to the AIDS epidemic that almost engulfed the ’80s: “Though you’ve slaughtered the foe of the family / This holy disease wastes the enemy / If you’d only send a special death / For the lesbians and the communists.”

Although they never set the charts on fire by the time they called it quits in 1990, or whether that was their aim at all, McCarthy would leave a legacy. For one thing, they did inspire and lead fellow musicians and students towards a certain kind of rock songwriting. Manic Street Preachers bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire – whose band would fuse socialism and literature in the early ’90s – accredits McCarthy as being the cornerstone on which the Manics were built, and called their 1987 debut album I Am A Wallet “the most perfect record, a Communist manifesto with tunes.”

 

Gang of Four

David Fricke of Rolling Stone once described Gang of Four as “Fusing James Brown and early hip-hop with the bullet-point minimalism of the Ramones, [they] were a genuine revolutionary force in their pursuit of working-class justice. The Leeds foursome bound their Marxist critique in tightly wound knots of enraged funk and avenging-disco syncopation.”

Widely considered to be one of the leading groups of the post-punk movement, Gang of Four – named after the counter-revolutionary collective in post-Maoist China – started out in 1977, while singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill were enrolled in the University of Leeds’ fine art department; a space where, the duo recalled, Marxism and the notion of intervening in popular culture was actively encouraged. Delivering a uniquely angular guitar sound that accompanied their neo-Marxist message, this desire to intervene drove them on.

At the time of the band’s inception, unemployment was approaching 6% in industrial Yorkshire. With the far-right National Front using Leeds as its northern base, students in the city were especially disliked, and Gang of Four infuriated its far-right punk scene. There was plenty of aggression to their music, though, and the four were no shrinking violets: at their first gig, at Thames Poly in Woolwich, Gill smacked a skinhead in the face with his guitar.

On the back of their debut single, Damaged Goods, and thanks to the support of DJ John Peel, the band signed to EMI in 1979. Reveling in the irony of being on a worldwide conglomerate music label while putting out albums with lyrics that fought against that very thing, their debut LP, Entertainment!, was released at the tail end of the ’70s. The album’s sound and message seem to foresee the decade to come.

In journalist Simon Reynolds’ opinion, “Every aspect of the record – the lyrics, the music, the artwork … is perfectly aligned”. The lyrics underpinning Entertainment! served to somehow make the listener complicit in the processes it critiqued: passive consumption of reactionary media, or historical narratives that reinforced the symbolic order of white over black, rich over poor. The alienation in the words and music was best captured in the album’s closing track, Anthrax, with the insistent drums jarring with a deep bass loop, below a wave of cold guitar feedback. Inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s split-screen film Numéro Deux, two overlapping vocal lines complemented and clashed with each other, instinctual revulsion about love laid over a spoken-word part about how “what happens between two people” shouldn’t be “shrouded in mystery”.

When the relative mainstream success of their first EMI single, At Home He’s A Tourist, led to an invitation to perform on Top of the Pops, a refusal by the band to change the reference in the chorus from “rubbers” to “rubbish” saw them censored from the show. It was a move which infuriated EMI and drummer Hugo Burnham looks back on that moment as the one that “essentially killed” the band’s career. With the 1981 release of their second album, Solid Gold, it was evident that Gang of Four were struggling to find a new direction; while the LP included some strong tracks, the overall sound was of a more traditional rock style compared to its predecessor, and King’s lyrics attacked proto-Fascist clichés and resorted to lazy anti-Americanisms. Subsequent albums saw a change in personnel and a move towards a more dance-funk sound for the band, but the creative heights of Entertainment! were perpetually out of reach.

Although Gang of Four’s dream of articulating a Situationist critique of consumer capitalism in mainstream media had ultimately failed, what remained were some incredible records, which continue to inspire listeners and musicians today.

 

The Style Council

When Paul Weller disbanded The Jam in 1982 and announced the creation of the Style Council, many working class mods were left suitably enraged. Started in 1976 by the 18 year old Weller, The Jam were an intense and self-consciously proletarian band, and the teenager’s coarse vocals came to reflect the frustration and alienation of his generation, through classics like The Eton Rifles and Going Underground. To many hardcore Jam fans, the urban grit, rage and authenticity that defined the band seemed to count for nothing when the man they called ‘the Modfather’ decide to turn to the silky, vacant sheen of the New Romantics for his new musical project.

This outrage was, of course, a gross oversimplification and the truth was more complex, especially when it came to politics. In a 1978 interview with the NME, Weller announced (as a riposte to being on tour with the left-wing, socialist Clash at the time) that “we’ll all be voting Conservative at the next election”, and the band draped themselves and their albums in the Union Jack – albeit in a calculated move to distinguish themselves from the legions of anti-establishment punk acts at the time.

During the latter years of The Jam, Weller became one of pop’s most prominent critics of the Tory government; however, it was the Style Council that turned out to be the angrier and more staunchly political of the two groups. The band – which initially comprised of Weller and keyboardist Mick Talbot, but grew to include drummer Steve White and Weller’s then-wife, vocalist Dee C. Lee – were a world away from the Middle England image of The Jam: ardent socialists, cosmopolitan vegetarians, who wore Armani mackintoshes and played benefit gigs for the CND. The Council were also integral to the aforementioned Red Wedge, which aimed to encourage young people to vote for the Labour Party in the 1987 General Election.

Musically, the Style Council allowed Weller to break free of the stylistic confines of The Jam, creating an eccentric but radio-friendly mix of smooth jazz, soul, and electro-pop, replete with swooning string arrangements and parping synths. Weller was still capable of captivating subtlety beyond the smooth veneer – You’re The Best Thing, the second single off the band’s 1984 debut, Café Bleu, was a love song based on socialist values, while The Whole Point of No Return, from the same album, saw him playing unaccompanied fingerpicking jazz, the soothing melody belying astute lyrical observations about the class-ridden state of Britain under Thatcher, and a fairly radical call to rise up and take back ‘the property of every man’.

After releasing a further three albums, which all reached the Top 20, the Style Council broke up in 1989. In an interview the following year, Weller stated: “It’s something we should have done two or three years ago. We created some great music in our time, the effects of which won’t be appreciated for some time.”

 

Easterhouse

Formed in Stretford, Manchester in the early ’80s by brothers Andy and Ivor Perry, Easterhouse first came to regional prominence after being championed by Morrissey when he asked the band to support the Smiths on their 1983 UK tour. Deriving their name from the vast working class housing estate in Glasgow, they signed to famed indie label Rough Trade, following a number of years with London Records, and were widely praised for early singles Inspiration and Whistling In The Dark, which perfectly encapsulated the essence of the band: left-wing political rhetoric and echo-laden guitar patterns. Whistling In The Dark implored working class people to turn away from the Labour Party that had betrayed them all their lives and stand on their own feet.

Idealistic and genuine, Easterhouse practiced what they preached – with their Irish, working-class backgrounds, the band were active members of the now-defunct Revolutionary Communist Party and composed numerous songs about the Irish political cause, including featuring a portrait of Republican prisoner Bobby Sands – who died on hunger strike fighting to be labelled a political prisoner in 1981 – on the cover of Inspiration.

Internal strife broke out soon after the release of the band’s debut album, Contenders – which reached #2 in the Indie Charts in July 1986 – and Ivor Perry went on to form the short-lived Cradle. Andy Perry kept the name Easterhouse, but by the time of 1989’s Waiting For The Red Bird album, he was the only remaining original band member. In a vain attempt to crack America, the album failed to make an impression even in Britain, and lead single Come Out Fighting, with its anthemic rock pretensions, failed to make the charts. With all songs written solely by Andy, the critics panned the LP: although the political content was still high, with tracks such as Stay With Me (Death On The Dole), the soul and subtle melodies of its predecessor were lacking.

Easterhouse’s impact was, aside from one great album and a few strong EPs, minimal when it came to the mainstream charts, but along with other Manchester guitar groups of the time, like the Chameleons, they laid the foundations for the Madchester movement and the subsequent explosion of interest in the city in the late ’80s.