Popular Music in Thatcherite Britain
In 1976 punk culture began to take shape in London. By the end of that year it had achieved nationwide notoriety thanks to the Sex Pistols’ controversial appearance on ITV’s Bill Grundy show. While this led older generations to view the subculture with disdain, some involved with the scene saw within it a potential for transformative political discourse. In the same year that the Pistols gave punk rock the reputation which arguably increased its appeal to impressionable youths, older popular music aficionados and members of the far-Left Social Workers Party set in motion plans for an organisation called Rock Against Racism (RAR) – a movement which intended to show how many people involved in rock music were against the racist views of the increasingly popular National Front.
From 1976 into the early 1980s, hundreds of concerts were put on under the RAR banner, including 3 huge carnivals in London and Manchester. Punk was integral to RAR’s success: the majority of the bands which played these concerts were influenced by the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and as such, over many years and publications, punk and politics have been seen by some as essentially intertwined. The talk of anarchy, class, gender politics and sexuality within the music of the period is also integral to this view, but in terms of active political movements RAR stood alone within the subculture.
As the shock of punk began to fade – and the era commonly described as ‘post-punk’ began – Britain saw the election of a new Prime Minister: Margaret Thatcher. In office from 1979 until stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party in 1990, Thatcher oversaw a great deal of social change in the United Kingdom, some of which saw very strong opposition from the general public. Issues such as the Falklands War, the Miners’ strike and indeed continued racism were touched on in songs by punk-influenced acts such as Crass, Billy Bragg and the little known British-Pakistani quartet Alien Kulture. Meanwhile the post-punk environment saw many bands beginning to experiment with new sounds and musical styles, as well as dealing with broadly political subject matters in their songs such as capitalism and further exploration of class and gender politics. The increase in popularity of some of these new musical styles saw Synth-Pop acts such as the Human League beginning to dominate the charts alongside the aspirational capitalist imagery of the New Romantics. Meanwhile several musicians who found their voices thanks to punk and post-punk became involved in the international humanitarian event Live Aid and the Labour Party youth initiative Red Wedge, both of which found inspiration from RAR.
While describing punk as a ‘political movement’ is problematic, it is clear that in the decade that followed the establishment of the Sex Pistols’ notoriety many performers began to see further possibilities for their music – be it the discussion of politics and social issues in their songs or supporting causes. Can we say, however, that punk was unique in presenting these opportunities? The protest movements of the 1960s were an inspiration to the instigators of RAR, and, as a reaction against the ‘progressive’ stadium rock of the 1970s, some of the music of this period can be viewed as attempts to return to the simplicity of early rock music. Through this research I aim to develop a clear picture of the correlation between politics and popular music during the Thatcher decade and question how strong an impact each had on the other.
Dr Sarah Hill
Book Review: ‘Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu’s Zaire’, Bob W. White, Popular Music, 29/3 (2010), p. 483-5
2011-12: Undergraduate teaching, Cardiff University
BMus: Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
MA: Cardiff University (Music, Culture and Politics)