Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 13:05 UK

Thatcher and the music


By Jeremy Vine
Presenter, Stand Down Margaret: Music's Response to Thatcherism

Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister Jeremy Vine examines pop music's response to Thatcherism.

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher inspired, for better or worse, much of 80s pop music

My student mate was horrified. "Barclays? Why on earth would you bank at Barclays?"

My answer, that it was the closest branch to my parents' home in Cheam and it had a nice blue signboard, did not impress.

"But apartheid - what's going on in South Africa - for God's sake, Jerry."

I remember the reprimand as if it was yesterday. In many ways 1983 still seems like yesterday.

I had arrived at Durham University, fresher than the freshest shirt my mum had ironed for me.

My studies would be in the north east of England; my home was in Surrey, where I had lived out my sheltered early years. But my English Literature degree was to be only a fraction of my education.

Students had political conviction in those days, and volcanic fury too.

By blithely signing up for a bank account with a company which was being boycotted for its investments in South Africa, my savvy friends (to whom I was "Jerry") thought I was showing indifference in the face of distant suffering. To me it was just a different coloured chequebook.

Anti-apartheid protesters
Students protested vigorously against South African apartheid

It was only two decades later, when I worked as the BBC correspondent in South Africa and saw that country's poverty and brutality for myself, that I cared enough to be moved.

Why were so many students so furious, so young? The answer is in one word: Thatcher.

It is extraordinary to imagine it now, especially after a period of government (think John Major, Tony Blair) where campuses have not exactly been lit up with protest, but many students in the early-80s spent every waking hour loathing Thatcher.

Elvis Costello

They got up early to hate her. They met for social events to hate her. They marched against her, argued about her, laid into her at every event they put on.

They probably accidentally won "Mrs T" more votes in middle England than any of her own supporters. Students protesting against the fact that we were - brace yourself for this one - no longer allowed to claim unemployment benefit during college holidays? Forget it, Buster.

Jeremy Vine in 1985
Jeremy Vine: Political apathy then set him in good stead for future journalism career

Our grants were slashed, our colleges creaked under the strain of new efficiencies, and around Durham the anger of miners was unleashed in a year-long national protest against pit closures. Students had an enemy - and you couldn't avoid her.

In a two-part series on BBC Radio 2, we are looking specifically at the music of the time and the way it was fuelled by the politics. It is fascinating stuff.

My song-writing hero, Elvis Costello, had started out with bitter broken-hearted songs like Lipstick Vogue - "You want to throw me away, well I'm not broken" - but Thatcher's first win in 1979 seemed to throw him into a lather of indignation which went on for at least 20 years.

Costello even sang, in Tramp the Dirt Down, a fantasy about dancing on her grave. I interviewed him recently and asked him if he meant it.

Red Wedge group
Labour-supporting musicians got together to form Red Wedge

"You bet. She is a war criminal," he replied unflinchingly.

Oh yes, the Falklands War. There was that, too. For folk rockers like Billy Bragg, the list of things to complain about was as long as the Beijing telephone directory.

Every gig I went to - even butter-wouldn't-melt Lloyd Cole is included in this - had a stand outside where they sold T-shirts showing a diagonal red stripe superimposed over Mrs Thatcher's face and the words Thatcherbusters emblazoned underneath. I never found out exactly what a Thatcherbuster was, but it did not sound pretty.

Red Wedge

I have to mention Joy Division too. They never said her name but at the time they really were The Greatest Band in the World. Their bleak, screeching soundscapes summed up the hopelessness of the post-industrial north of England.

That was gritty politics, too. The lead singer killed himself. Some of what happened around that time was indeed life or death; real life was very real indeed.

"While protest singers raged, a parallel force in pop seemed almost to mock them by accident"

Me? I muddled on, dragging myself out of bed for lectures but not for marches - strangely, my apathy would set me in good stead for a future career in journalism, where not taking sides is seen as a professional skill.

But how I loved the music. My favourite pop stars got together as Red Wedge to support the Labour opposition, although once again it seemed to be a case of assembling the 50 people most likely to make the rest of the country vote Conservative; after Labour's third defeat in 1987, they quietly burned the tambourines.

And there was another side. While protest singers raged, a parallel force in pop seemed almost to mock them by accident.

Thatcherism on vinyl

The New Romantics; bands like Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Dead or Alive, Visage and - ahem - A Flock of Seagulls, wrote escapist songs that were so many miles from closing pits and dole queues they could have been from another planet.

Paul Weller's transmogrification from The Jam singer (snarly) to Style Council frontman (sugary) embodied the shift.

Duran Duran
The lyrics of bands like Duran Duran epitomised Tory values

Duran Duran's most famous line: "Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand," seemed to translate as: "I've made a lot of cash under Thatcher and now I'm going to splash it out on a bird whose bikini is falling off."

With their high-stacked hairstyles and flashguns bouncing off limousine bumpers, the New Romantics celebrated low taxation, enterprise and the power of the individual spirit. They were also rather silly. But possibly without meaning to, they had printed the essential values of Thatcherism on vinyl.

Did she notice any of this? I reckon not. I can imagine Thatcher now, stuck in that top room at No 10, working till three in the morning with a glass of whisky at her elbow, cabinet papers spread across her lap.

She changed the country, but maybe she never realised how much she changed our music.

Jeremy Vine's documentary Stand Down Margaret is on Tuesday 16 and 23 June at 2230 BST on BBC Radio 2.



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