So long - the musical legacy of Margaret Thatcher
Now that the dings have been donged, we’ve said so long, and the dirt’s been tramped down, The Point’s Graeme McIver assesses the cultural legacy left by Margaret Thatcher and takes a look at some of the music and songs she inspired. Get in touch pop pickers, and let us know what your own favourite anti-Thatcher songs Top Ten might look like.
“Her handiwork wreaked havoc on the Mersey
Brought hunger onto Teeside and the Tyne
There was ten per cent employment in the
Bogside Five per cent in Ballymurphy and Ardoyne
From these wastelands she created
Young men coaxed into regiments to train
To maim, to kill, live out her murderous fantasies
And carry out her orders on Goose Green”
Back in 2006 during the filming of his concert at the Dublin venue The Point, Irish folk singer songwriter Christy Moore introduced a song, “Ordinary Man” by Grimsby born musician Peter Hames. The song outlines the struggles of an ordinary man who loses his job, family and home during the recession of the 1980’s. Before starting the song Moore commented,
“I’ll say one thing about Thatcher… there was some great songs written during her reign.”
The death of Margaret Thatcher on April 8th has brought interest in these songs and those who have performed them back to the fore.
On the Sunday following her death, a social media campaign to get the song, “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” from the film, The Wizard of Oz to number one almost succeeded when it reached number two in the download charts. The song was number one in Scotland and even entered the charts in Ireland.
Ironically, Thatcher died on what would have been the song’s writer Yip Harburg’s 117th birthday. Writing in the blog, “21st Century Socialism”, Noah Tucker stated;
“The 600 songs which Yip Harburg wrote during his lifetime express humanism, protest against existing conditions, hope for a better life, and optimistic love, undimmed by its often grim or false context. They include ‘Brother, can you Spare a Dime’, ‘It’s only a Paper Moon’, ‘April in Paris’ and of course ‘Over the Rainbow’.”
When Harburg’s son Ernie was contacted by curious media outlets looking for a quote about the use of the song then presumably the right-wing press would have been disappointed when he gave the following response;
“Yip Harburg, lyricist of The Wizard of Oz film, would have been amused that 'Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead' rose to the top of the charts when Margaret Thatcher died. W. S. Gilbert and George Bernard Shaw taught Yip Harburg, democratic socialist, sworn challenger of all tyranny against the people, that “humor is an act of courage” and dissent. Those who sang the song 'Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead' in the film The Wizard of Oz celebrated the end of tyranny at the hands of the Wicked Witch of the East. That celebration was not in L. Frank Baum’s book. Yip’s artistic leadership put it into the film. (Yip also brought the rainbow, also not in the book, into the film.) Yip said, “Humor is the antidote to tyranny” and, “Show me a place without humor and I’ll show you a disaster area.” Yip believed tyranny is caused by the policies of austerity, imperialism, theocracy and class supremacy, which deny most people human rights and economic freedom from poverty and want. A song — music and lyrics — allows singers and audiences to “feel the thought” of the lyric. 'Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead' is a universal cry against the cruelty of tyrants and a protest against the ban on laughter at that cruelty. For the 99 percent, laughing and joy are required at the funeral of a tyrant. According to Yip, humor gives us hope in hard times.”
It is doubtful that either the Daily Mail or The Telegraph will have included Ernie’s quote in their coverage of Thatcher’s funeral or its aftermath - although, given the spin and distortion practiced by the likes of The Mail on Sunday it is perhaps surprising that quotes were not attributed to Ernie Harburg that left the reader with the impression that Yip was a fully fledged member of The Iron Lady’s fan club. Early in 2012, the paper published an interview with Noel Gallagher entitled, “It was All better Under Thatcher” in which the former Oasis songwriter and guitarist was said to have praised Thatcher’s time in office as a golden period for the arts. Outraged at how his words had been twisted, Gallagher responded by saying,
“I've read the story and I must say it's very misleading; any great working class art, fashion, youth culture etc came to be IN SPITE of that woman and her warped right wing views and NOT BECAUSE of them…also for the record, on the day that she dies we will party like its 1989. Just so you know."
Fellow Mancunian song-smith Morrissey published a forthright statement in response to Thatcher’s demise. He had already written, “Margaret on the Guillotine” and included it on his first solo album,Viva Hate released in 1988.
The kind people
Have a wonderful dream
Margaret on the guillotine
Because people like you
Make me feel so tired
When will you die?
The years since he wrote the song have clearly not diminished the former Smith’s frontman’s hostility towards Thatcher. In a statement released the day following her death he said,
“Thatcher was not a strong or formidable leader. She simply did not give a shit about people, and this coarseness has been neatly transformed into bravery by the British press who are attempting to re-write history in order to protect patriotism. As a result, any opposing view is stifled or ridiculed, whereas we must all endure the obligatory praise for Thatcher from David Cameron without any suggestion from the BBC that his praise just might be an outburst of pro-Thatcher extremism from someone whose praise might possibly protect his own current interests. The fact that Thatcher ignited the British public into street-riots, violent demonstrations and a social disorder previously unseen in British history is completely ignored by David Cameron in 2013….In truth, of course, no British politician has ever been more despised by the British people than Margaret Thatcher.”
On the day of Thatcher’s funeral, as a mark of “disrespect” the Glasgow based Chomsky Allstars provided a free download of the track, “So Long.” (The Witch is Dead.) Taken from their debut album 'Rhyme, Treason & Rhythm'. The song includes the lyrics, “satan himself is looking kind of nervous”and calls Thatcher, (a) “conviction politician who was never convicted.”
I contacted Martin Chomsky from the band and asked him on his views on Thatcher and the inspiration for the song:
“Frustratingly, I just wasn't eligible to vote in the 1979 election. Brought up on a diet of The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Ruts in a West Midlands deeply embroiled in industrial strife, I watched on disenfranchised as 'Red Robbo' became a household name - a pantomime villain for a slavish media. Yet the punk-ska 2-Tone movement that grew out of these ashes had finally given us a voice of resistance and unity. People forget that, before the Falklands war, Thatcher was in fact the most unpopular Prime Minister in history and that 'Stand Down Margaret' was the alternative national anthem. But she and her advisers knew full well that this 'victory' over a bunch of ill-disciplined and poorly-trained teenage Argentine conscripts gave the whole neo-con Chicago School ethos the opportunity it needed to take a foothold in the West.
Within 18 months she was fighting another, bigger battle - the class war against the miners: 'the enemy within', with Arthur Scargill cast as the new pantomime villain. In its wake, the rights of trade unions were repealed. Wages tumbled and working hours increased, right in line with Thatcher's call for 'a return to Victorian values'. Now, where once you could work and save for a rainy day, the 'right-to-buy' fiasco had left the working classes burdened with crippling debt. Millions cowed by Thatcherism, crushed by its stealth and sociopathic ruthlessness. In death, Margaret Thatcher's statement that 'there is no alternative' appears less a throwaway jibe than a dire dystopian prophecy.
Write a song about it? It's the least I could do.”
The song, “Stand Down Margaret” that Martin mentions was perhaps the best known anti-Thatcher songs of the 80’s that actually name-checked her. Written by the Birmingham based ska band, The Beat, and released and the b-side of the single Best Friend the song gained a cult status amongst those opposed to Thatcher and her policies.
I said I see no joy
I see only sorry
I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow
So stand down Margaret
Stand down please
Stand down Margaret
Dave Wakeling of The Beat told the website songfacts.com;
“Thatcher fell head over heels with her teenage heartthrob, Ronald Reagan, and went about trying to dismantle any sense of social unity that England had: breaking the unions, letting people go out on strike and starve. And in a very few short years she managed to turn people in England from neighbors to competitors."
2-Tone stable mates of the Beat were the Specials from Coventry. Although it does not specifically mention Thatcher it is their haunting single “Ghost Town” which arguably provided the soundtrack to Thatcher’s Britain for the millions of unemployed and disenfranchised. The song topped the charts for three weeks and is as relevant today in contemporary Britain as it was when released in 1981.
This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can't go on no more
The people getting angry
In a bid to combat Thatcherism and the Tories, musicians such as Billy Bragg, The Style Council and The Communards combined together in the mid-80’s to form Red-Wedge advocating that young people should get actively involved in politics, and the Labour Party in particular.
Style Council frontman Paul Weller recalled;
"Thatcher got into power in 1979, and from the Falklands war onwards, that was her wielding her power, the trade unions were being worn down, we had the miners strike, there was mass unemployment... You couldn’t sit on the fence. It was very black and white then. Thatcher was a tyrant, a dictator.”
The attempt by Red Wedge to help stop Thatcher gaining a third electoral term failed, but the anti-Thatcher songs kept coming from bands and songwriters of the time.
Following her death, music journalist and cultural commentator John Robb wrote in the blog, Louder Than War;
“Whilst it’s one of those truisms of pop culture- the devil may have the best tunes and the Tories always have the worst (Lynsey De Paul, Tony Hadley….) but for someone whose favourite song is apparently and, rather bizarrely, ‘How Much Is That Doggy In the Window’ Margaret Thatcher’s influence on music was pretty big.
Can there ever have been a British politician that inspired so many people! It seems bizarre that the right wing tyrant who believed that there no such thing as society Margaret Thatcher was, for many artists, a muse and an inspirational force in the mid eighties music scene.”
The list of songs about Thatcher seems endless, Tramp the Dirt Down and Shipbuilding by Elvis Costello, How Does it Feel to be The Mother of a Thousand Dead by Crass, More Tea Margaret by Robb Johnston, We Still Hate You by Terry Edwards, Thatcher You Cunt and Let’s Start a War by The Exploited, Waiting for Margaret to Go by Chumbawumba, Margaret’s Injection by Kitchens of Distinction’s, Spirit of the Falkland’s by New Model Army, (Celebrate) The Day After You Die by the Blow Monkeys and Curtis Mayfield, The Day Margaret Thatcher Dies by Pete Wylie, Iron Lady by the Raga Twins, Thatcher Fucked the Kids by Frank Turner, I’m in Love With Margret Thatcher by The Nonsensibles and Woman in Disguise by the Angelic Upstarts.
The musical stage version of Billy Elliot has a song, “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” whilst French songwriter Renaud nearly caused a diplomatic incident with his tribute “Madame Thatcher”. Paul Heaton’s Housemartins wrote “Five Get Over Excited” containing the lyrics;
“Feigning concern, a conservative pastime
Makes you feel doubtful right from the start
The expression she pulls is exactly like last time
You’ve got to conclude she just hasn’t a heart”
Whilst Billy Bragg, (who’s written a song or two about Thatcher) re-worked Robert Burn’s Ye Jacobites by Name to come up with;
You Thatcherites by name, lend an ear, lend an ear
You Thatcherites by name lend an ear
You Thatcherites by name, your faults I will proclaim,
Your doctrines I must blame, you will hear, you will hear
Your doctrines I must blame, you will hear
I remember my parents having a recording of the Scottish Folk band the Corries with a song called, “Who’ll Take the Baw Frae Maggie Thatcher?” whilst more recently here in Scotland, folk singer Alan Smart (Citizen Smart), whose Anti Bedroom Tax song, “Ye Cannae Huv a Spare Room in a Pokey Council Flat” has received over 160,000 youtube hits has re-worked Rod Stewart’s Maggie May in his “tribute”
All we ever wanted was a helping hand
but you patronised, stigmatised, rubbed our faces in the sand
A generation raised on the dole
A miners' strike that wasn't bout coal
Oh Maggie you couldn't have lied anymore
You sent a task force away from home
Sank the Belgrano as your cover was blown
Said Mandela was a terrorist
Apartheid needed time to work
So it seems Christy Moore was right - there have been some great songs written about Thatcher and her reign. The sheer number of artists moved to comment and make music about Thatcher and the effect she had on ordinary communities and people makes it seem all the more absurd that right-wing politicians and commentators have spoken about her as if she was a unifying figure in life and in death. So let’s keep the theme of division going….what’s your favourite anti-Thatcher song, let us know and see if we can get some good arguments going in the comments section below.
Further reading, viewing and listening
So Long by The Chomsky Allstars
Buy audio: http://chomskyallstars.bandcamp.com/track/so-long
Watch video: http://youtu.be/gFPT3leuLPI
Chomsky Allstars website: http://www.chomskyallstars.co.uk/
Citizen Smart – Wake Up Maggie
Ghost Town – The Specials
Stand Down Margaret – The Beat
Billy Bragg – Ye Thatcherites By Name
Other articles by Graeme McIver in The Point can be found here