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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 May, 2004, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Rocking against Thatcher
By Chris Heard
BBC News Online entertainment staff

The Thatcher years, which began 25 years ago, were a prolific period for protest music recorded by UK rock acts. What made it such a fertile time to rage against the machine?

Tory campaign poster
Protest music flourished in the UK in the late 1970s
"It's enough to make you stop believing when tears come fast and furious in a Town Called Malice".

So sang Paul Weller in The Jam's number one hit of February 1982, an elegy to humdrum everyday existence and broken dreams which barely disguised his fury about the state of Britain.

A powerful expression of disenchantment, it seemed to sum up the anti-government stance of a raft of British music acts during Mrs Thatcher's early years in Downing Street.

Issues such as high unemployment, the Falklands war, inner city racial tensions and the miners' strike provided the inspiration for a class of politically-motivated artists to vent their anger.

Mrs Thatcher came to power during an especially creative period for UK music in the early aftermath of the punk rock movement which had experienced its first stirrings three years earlier.

Thatcher protest songs
Stand Down Margaret - The Beat
Tramp The Dirt Down - Elvis Costello
Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards - Billy Bragg
Two Million Voices - Angelic Upstarts
Taking Tea With Pinochet - Christy Moore
Set against a backdrop of a three-day week and the winter of discontent, homegrown protest music began to flourish like never before, giving a voice to a young disenfranchised audience.

Among its earliest proponents were The Clash, whose debut album bristled with songs of urban blight and racial disharmony.

Rallying cry

Other punk bands joined this rallying cry of the dispossessed - among them, Sham 69, Chelsea, and the Angelic Upstarts - who would go on to chart the steeply rising numbers of the nation's unemployed with their 1982 album Two Million Voices.

Politically-motivated groups such as the Tom Robinson Band, The Jam and Belfast's Stiff Little Fingers tapped into a mood of repressed anger, releasing records that would define the electrically-charged atmosphere at the end of the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the nascent Rock Against Racism movement was enjoying growing support, culminating in the Carnival against the Nazis in April 1978 when 100,000 people marched through London for a concert in Hackney.

Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg was at the vanguard of UK protest music during the 1980s
As the Conservative Party's grip on power tightened, their opponents in the post-punk community began sharpening their pens.

Elvis Costello wrote Shipbuilding, a blistering condemnation of the Falklands conflict and brutal swipe at government policy, ending with the line: "Diving for dear life... when we could be diving for pearls".

The Specials' Jerry Dammers came up with Ghost Town, a mournful state-of-the-nation rant based on his depressing experiences of touring the UK with his racially mixed band.


It reached number one in the summer of 1981 - at the same time as racial tensions exploded in inner cities around the UK, spearheaded by rioting in Brixton and Toxteth.

"Ghost Town captured the political mood," said Alexis Petridis, rock critic for The Guardian. "It's absolutely remarkable the amount of rioting that erupted just around the time it was number one."

Mr Petridis said the early Thatcher years had been a productive time for protest singers at least in part because of her strength of personality.

Lady Thatcher
Lady Thatcher was 'easy to demonise', according to one critic
"If you are going to make political music you need to have something to react against, and there was plenty to react against.

"Britain was turning from around in a really dramatic way from the liberal, post-war consensus. Thatcher was far right enough that the National Front vote collapsed. She was a very easy figure to demonise."

But he said the political activism of the era ultimately did nothing to change the status quo.

'Thatcherite success stories'

Paul Weller went on to become a founding member of Red Wedge, the group of artists who sought in vain to get Labour into power in the mid-1980s.

Throughout the era there was no high-profile pro-Tory lobby active in the musical community, although Weller had once reportedly said he was voting Conservative, while Gary Numan publicly endorsed the party.

But Daily Telegraph rock critic David Cheal said "working class boys made good", such as Weller, were "archetypal Thatcherite success stories" - whatever political views they may have held.

Many of the anti-Thatcher records were released on independent labels - arguably themselves models of Thatcherite entrepreneurial flair.

Mr Cheal says this is evidence of "double think" going on at the time.

Could a similar wave of anti-government feeling ever stir the music scene again? Mr Petridis is unsure.

"People are pretty much contented with their lives now," he said.

"I think you need another cartoon villain figure to attack. Blair is a more difficult figure to demonise."

Did the protest songs of the Thatcher era have any effect? Or were they doomed to failure? Can protest music ever inspire people? BBC News Online users sent in their views - the following comments reflect the balance of the opinions we received. .

The fact remains that Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister in 3 consecutive elections. Why all the complaints? It's very easy for musicians to shout insults from their ivory towers, provided it doesn't negatively affect record sales.

As a former member of the Anti Social Workers who used to play benefit gigs with the likes of Billy Bragg and author of "I'm a journalist... get me out of here" (which deals with this very subject from my days as a NME hack) - I have to say there is just as much to protest about now with the war-mongering Bush and Blair coalition. But where are the truly radical bands who have the courage of their convictions? I can't see it in bland acts like Travis and Coldplay. Only the Manics, Asian Dub Foundation and more conscious rap artists like Dizzee Rascal and Ms Dynamite are mixing music with a message. The 'Love Music, Hate Racism' campaign is trying to recapture the Rock against Racism days but doesn't seem to have the profile.
Paul Wellings, London

I do remember a succession of political illiterates ranting about their sense of malcontent.
SD Dobson, Dundee, Scotland

Margaret on the Guillotine, a gem by Morrissey
Paul Bowes, Cambridge

I remember the protest songs - written by people who believed that the world must keep them in luxury, and whining when they found it wasn't so.
BJF, London, England

Red Wedge didn't achieve much more than to wreck a few music careers
Jason, London
BJF from London is so wrong. Many of these protest song raised money for out of work miners and people starving in africa.Protest songs were all we had against Thatcher.
VH Burge, Plymouth, Devon

Music has always been a catalyst and also a healing force throughout the ages. From the days of the early 'field hollers' which gave birth to the Blues, and helped soothe the slaves to Hitler's use of Wagner to promote Nazism. Music can have a powerfully subliminal effect. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez changed people's views through their powerful songs. Just think of those songs they wrote... up to today they are still used to alert the masses. America would've been a different country had it not been for bands like Crosby, Stills & Nash and Arlo Guthrie. Music, to me, is the ULTIMATE weapon against injustice and is effective, if used in a positive way.
Peter, Canada, formerly from London

Billy Bragg: a glorifed busker who still won't shut up about the 80s. He's one thing Thatcher must be blamed for.
Tim Orion, London

Strange that the article omits the mention of CRASS, who in the climate of the time not only had reactionary poetry and music banned, but were accused by the Times of being "in league with the Kremlin" - this band very much epitomised my memories of mid eighties punk, and its reaching for better things: plus their home brewed stencil based "promotional material" practically was the DIY scene of the day. As far as Thatcher coming to power at an "especially creative period of British music" - surely it's more to the point that it was the wave of right-wing sentiment that brought Thatcher to power which created such poverty and self serving greed that musicians had to be creative or starve?
Feargal, Dublin, Ireland

Strange, at least, that the article omits the mention of "The" front cover...Iron Maiden' Sanctuary, featuring Eddie slaying the Prime Minister.
Marco, Brighton, UK

Red Wedge didn't achieve much more than to wreck a few music careers.
Jason, London

The late Kirsty MacColl's Free World starts with the uncompromisingly direct lyrics: "I thought of you when they closed down the school and the hospital too/ Did they think that you were better, they were wrong". Wonderful piece of music, stingingly powerful lyrics and an excellent example of a protest song.
Andrew Norris, London, UK

The list of bands that spoke out in the late 70s and early 80s just shows how far things have come, and how there is such a dearth of similarly outspoken artists these days. While a lot of high profile artists have opposed the Iraq 'war', they are hardly shouting it from the rooftops, afraid I imagine of the 'damage' to record sales (or more likely the fear of the record company that they will be associated with such 'radicalism'?). With such populist opposition to the war, this should not be the case.
Simon, Watford, UK

I remember seeing Runrig at Glasgow Barrowlands in the early eighties. The lead singer - whose name escapes me - ranted on like a despot about the evils of Thatcher and her Government. The majority of the crowd lapped it up. No doubt they've all grown up and now see how sad and ill informed they were.
Guy, Brighton

On Elvis Costello's album Spike, he sang 'Tramp the dirt down' with the chorus, 'And when they finally lay you in the ground, i'll stand non your grave and tramp the dirt down' Surely it doesn't get any more anti-Mrs T than that!
Ashley, Leeds, UK

Radical bands that speak out against anything these days never get on big labels and are never heard on the radio or any music TV chanel. These bands do still exist but there is no one to listen to them apart from a bunch of 15-18 year olds that are always being told its a fad and you'll grow out of it and find something new.
Tom, Manchester

I'm surprised you don't mention The Strawbs - 'You can't touch me I'm part of the Union', a considerably better song than any of the above - and directed against the tyranny of the 1970s unions.
Tommy, London

Listening to the Clash and the Sex Pistols made you feel that you actually had a stake in your own world, eventually you grow up and realise that it's run by a handful of people for a handful of people and everyone tells you that coming to terms with this shows maturity.
Stuart, Manchester England

Do you have any idea how silly you look taking seriously the affectations of pop singers to be social critics?
Oliver Kamm, London, UK

For my 19th birthday I saw Elvis Costello at the Top Rank in Cardiff and he started off with "Stand down Margaret". He reflected the sentiment of most of the crowd and a whole generation of youth. Billy Bragg, Morrissey, Costello et al actually gave the youth a voice that I somehow think Busted never will...
Carl, London

I grew up in the era that gave us the Sex Pistols and Billy Bragg etc. And now that we've passed through I have to say that I'm very relieved. There's nothing more tedious than music with a political agenda.
David, Ithaca, NY

Being French, I remember a famous French singer singing about Margaret. Renaud's lyrics were quite harsh but magnificient: "There is no female hooligan, stupid and murderous, there is none even in Great Britain, but of course Madam Thatcher". The rumour says Renaud has been banned from UK since this song.
Slick, Harpenden, England

I do so love this rewriting of history. Most of the bands you mentioned were started out in the mid to late 70's, and their dissatisfaction with Britain was rooted in the Wilson/Callaghan Labour governments, pre Thatcher. Yet it seems to be fashionable to pretend that their songwriting was inspired by the perceived injustices heaped upon the UK by the post '79 Tory government. If find it highly unlikely that Paul Weller wrote such songs as 'Down in the Tube Station at Midnight' in mid '78 as a prediction of what might happen if the Tories got into power a year later. Its still a great song but lets not pretend it (and many others like it) was protesting about something it clearly wasn't, and admit that a large number of late 70s 'protest' songs were not anti Thatcher, whatever some people would like us to think with the benefit of hindsight.
PJ Westwood, London, UK

There is absolutely no doubt that the period saw some of the most creative and original music ever to come out of these shores. Dare I suggest that if we'd had a caring government, high to full employment, better racial harmony, etc., then we'd have produced bland, boring, manufactured rubbish? Bit like now really.... No-one rebels in Paradise; can't have your cake and eat it, folks!
Rob, London, UK

I was there in Victoria Park in '78 listening to the Clash and Billy Bragg with a 100,000 punks and anti-rascists. It was one of the most memorable days of my life. We miss you Joe! If you want to find politically active rock bands today - look to Sweden with bands like The (International) Noise Conspiracy and Randy. Even here in Canada with Propagandhi. But above all look to the States where organizations like Bands against Bush and Punkvoter now mobilizing many influential bands and a wide range of disaffected youth.
Bill , Hamilton, Canada

Surely someone else remembers "The Grantham Grizzler" by the Blow Monkeys? Albert
Albert Feathers, London, UK

I think Peter from Canada sees the bigger picture and the history. Genuine guys like Bill Bragg and Joe Strummer followed a long and honerable tradition that includes Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs & Tom Paxton. Personally I respect them all.
Mike Allen, Royston, Herts

Many of the songs that you claim to have been anti Thatcher were in fact more about a general hatred of organised society in general
Matt Davis, London
These bands and their music also had a great impact on the "scene" in the U.S. -- a sort of second wave British Invasion, although smaller and more under the mainstream's radar. During the Reagan years, British bands like the Clash and the Gang of Four provided a musical pole for oppositional forces to rally around culturally. Rock against Racism likewise came over to the U.S. -- I was involved in it a bit myself -- directly inspired by Britain's. What was different was that the working class origins of this kind of music in Britain was not by and large reflected in the constituency that grew up for it here. In any case, I still love this stuff.
Jay Moore, Marshfield, Vermont U.S.

Wot no mention of The Blow Monkeys who released at least 5 anti-Thatch singles in the run up to the 87 election and called their album She Was Only A Grocer's Daughter?
Mr Peter, London

Oliver Kamm sums it all up. No one took the slightest bit of notice and people did not run out to buy the records because they thought "Hey, great another anti Thatcher song, must buy it" I bought Ghost Town because it was a very good tuneful catchy record
Dave johnson, Newcastle UK

There was more than just anti-Thatcher sentiment. Rock against Racism brought many musicians and people together. Why on earth did we do it all if all we got was Tony Blair!
Chools, N.E.Scotland

Riots in London, Millions Unemployed, Social exclusion? All this we can forgive Margaret .... but Billy Bragg?
Walt, Norwich, England

Anti-Thatcher music didn't stop in the eighties, either. Quite recently, a Hefner album included the track 'The Day That Thatcher Dies'.
Aidan, Glasgow, Scotland

Can't say I got all the polical meaning here in the US, but there is no denying it was and is great music. Saw Elvis Costello last year...he is still great. And the Jam still holds up.
Don, USA

The fact is that many recording artists were enormously successful during the Thatcher years. The bands listed above did owe their success to Margaret Thatcher's policies as restrictions on enterprise were lifted and taxes cut, thus giving people more money to go out and buy those albums. Also, a number of '80s rock bands have Margaret Thatcher to thank for their huge successes. Bands such as Simple Minds, Depeche Mode, Wang Chung, Duran Duran, Bananarama, Kajagoogoo, Culture Club, Sting, The Police, A Flock of Seagulls, Missing Persons, Joe Jackson, Big Country, Phil Collins, Genesis, Mike & The Mechanics, Peter Gabriel, Robert Palmer, Johny Hates Jazz, Samantha Fox, Sheena Easton, Gary Numan, OMD, Wham!, George Michael, Rod Stewart and many, many others were hugely successful during the Thatcher years and they owe their success to one person and one person only: Margaret Thatcher.
jeff, Macon, GA, USA

I loved being part of something that felt worthwhile. Did it change anything? Probably not. Were we right? We stood up for what we believed in.The rally at Victoria Park where EVERYONE sang along with Tom Robinson Band was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I can still hear Polly Styrene now. I wouldn't have missed it for anything. And what about John Cooper Clark and Benjamin Zephaniah and Lynton Kwesi Johnson? Poets! Yeah.
Phineas, Milford Haven, Wales

I would reccomend that you listen to "The Final Cut" by Pink Floyd. This album sums up the Thatcher years. Roger Waters in full flow.
Geoff , Cardiff, Wales

Billy Bragg has built an entire career on his anti-Thatcher stance. His songs are at best forgettable, at worst dire, and one must wonder whether he would otherwise have made any impact at all on the public consciousness. He owes Mrs Thatcher a great debt of gratitude.
David Jones, Llandudno, United Kingdom

Thatcher was such an easy target, most of my friends growing up in the eighties thought she was thoroughly mad. There were protest singers, but it was more that mainstream bands dealt with real issues, and still made it into the charts. Blair's Britain is bland and boring, and really Blair's secret or success is that he too is boring. Margaret may have been mad, I may have said "Rejoice Rejoice" when we finally got her out of power, but to give her credit in this "funny old world" she at least provided a target, something Blair is too bland to do.
Ed Manning, Coventry, UK

I remember articulate song writers such as Billy Bragg, Joe Strummer, Paul weller, Terry Hall et al having firmly held views on all matters political. Being, personally, one of Thatcher's Boys, I fundamentally disagreed with most of these views . . . but at least they had views. This is what is sadly lacking from the current bunch of manufactured bands.
Gary Newman, Plymouth, Devon

The fact that the pop world is shallow nowadays should not be a reflection on those who went before them
Jaz, Australia
Many of the songs that you claim to have been anti Thatcher were in fact more about a general hatred of organised society in general.Whilst it is true that the likes of the incredibly boring Billy Bragg did manage to make a minor career by infiltrating their unpopular trot politics into music the vast majority of post punk protest songs were not so much anti Thatcher as anti Society.
Matt Davis, London,UK

Stuart, above, from Manchester sums it up perfectly! Music was right in the 80's to highlight the destructive changes wrought by making big business uber alles! People are more cynical now because of the end of the Bevan dream, against their wishes, though music is so corporate now it would be insincere for pop bands to be political.
Joski, London

On the lasting effect of Thatcher vs. that of protest music, while Thatcher has at least introduced a new word in the English language, protest music hasn't (yet). What about Pistolism? Wellerism? Braggism perhaps?
Roel ( a non-native speaker), Los Angeles, California

What about Pink Floyd - The Final Cut. An ENTIRE ALBUM about the subject. Not their best work, but some gems in there.
Armand Morton, Apple Valley, CA

I disagree with Oliver Kamm, there was a time when pop singers were poets and social critics. The fact that the pop world is shallow nowadays should not be a reflection on those who went before them.
Jaz, Perth, Western Australia

Protest songs have never had the effect that we hoped for during any era! Nice gestures and all, but they were never strong enough to make a change. Now we have a breed of nice and trendy pop stars coming from every angle and there is no way I would buy a "protest" record from the likes of what we have now. Rap is the best we can look for in terms of message nowadays, problem is, the English don't rap (apologies Roots Manuva) and the Americans do, but its all about the bling! Protest tunes are dead in the water mate.
john pipkin, Reading, UK

Biting the hand that feeds is a luxury given to the middle class. When this luxury is earn't by those that can't afford it the bite has teeth. Very few protest songs are authentic.
Kevin Hayhoe, UK

"Protest songs were all we had against Thatcher"... Not True. We live in a democracy. You could have tried to vote her out.
Peter , Nottingham (U.K)

For those who have never heard it, the recent Sylvian and Sakamoto collaboration 'World Citizen' strikes me as a stunning yet simple modern day protest song.
Jon, Stoke-on-Trent

There is no doubt that most of the groups that protested about her, and proclaimed their socialism, all made a lot of money from attacking her and now live very comfortable lifestyles.
Steve Lewis, Bexleyheath

What about all the gay singers and groups who made social comment music from the mainstream? Of course, in the early 80s, merely being visibly and openly gay was progressive in a way, but explicit responses to Thatcherite policies such as the notorious clause 28 (Boy George) and homophobia in general (Tom Robinson, Bronski Beat, Communards) made gay politics mainstream. And they were so much more interesting than the bland wimps we get now, like Will Young.
Alex Warleigh, Limerick, Ireland

Billy Bragg is not only an incredibly talented songwriter/lyricist who captured a time when an evil government sought to further their own cause, he's also clearly politically astute. Look at his ideas for Lords reform that are finally being taken seriously. As the man once said, 'Just because your going forwards doesn't mean I'm going backwards'.
Joe , UK

I remember listening to Billy Bragg 'performing' at the Fleadh one year. My main recollection is wishing he would just shut up.

The truth is people have now realised that politics and music do not mix. Thatcherite Britain was about the politics of selfishness, something we have largely left behind. I think also younger people now feel there are more legitimate ways to demonstrate disaffection than in say 1981.
Baxter Pearson, Coventry, UK

As a terminally unemployed Mancunian in the 80s I truly adored Elvis Costello's Tramp The Dirt Down, in which he promised to visit Maggie's grave when her toes turn up, and do the needful as per the song's title. Alas, this classic song only appeared on UK TV once... on Channel 4's The Tube, I seem to recall. Why not get Elvis to sing it on TOTP2 as a tribute to Maggie while she's still around to hear it?
Kevin Connolly, Belfast, Ireland

Some of the songs mentioned on here are great songs, some are poor. The good ones are still popular because they are well written and performed, not because of any political message. Particularly given that most of these bands had their musical origins in the mid seventies. They were just as angry before '79 and the Tory government as after.
Sven, Colne, UK

I wonder if people who say "politics and music shouldn't mix" also believe that all the other arts should stay clear of politics. It's patently absurd - all art has the right and the duty to comment on every aspect of our world. Politics has always been present in music - from Thomas Wright's collection of Political songs from the reign of John to Edward II to Edwin Starr's "War", Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come", Tracy Chapman's "Talking 'Bout a Revolution".. If "the 1980's taught us that politics and music don't mix", then they taught us badly. Politics is as valid a topic for music as boy meets girl is. If you don't believe me, ask Mozart and "La Clemenza di Tito"
Robert, Reading, UK

You mean to say that the Fast Food Rockers songs aren't full of witty, political comments??!!
Vince, Stevenage, Herts


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