Deep south

Michael Hodges talks to the songwriter Paul Heaton about pop and politics

Shortly after the coalition took power, Billy Bragg picked up his telephone. "Billy," said a sparky, Hull-tinged voice, "we're back in business. We'll start shifting records again."

“Wotcha mean?" replied Bragg. "Wotcha mean?" Paul Heaton laughs at the recollection. "Billy didn't really see it that way, but I think it may be time to rally the troops again."

As the moving force of first the Housemartins and then the Beautiful South, Heaton, now 48, has been rallying the troops since 1983. Although he is a well-known socialist - or one of "the people of good nature and heart", as he puts it - the immensely popular songs he and David Rotheray wrote for the Beautiful South were not calls to arms, but acute, often wistful evocations of the lives of the people who suffer when the right takes power. In effect, Heaton soundtracked the late Thatcher and Major years, selling 6.5 million records as he did so.

So Heaton has done well under Tory governments, hence the joking call to Bragg. But as he releases Acid Country, a solo album that calls at one point for "a war on greed and not a war on poverty", he senses little taste for dissent or even comment among his peers in the music industry today. "Sometimes you meet people and you think, 'Oh, they're exciting and they're quite nice to me, they're funny.' And then you look at their lyrics. I only went to state school but you just think, 'Well, they didn't even go to school at all.' The problem is that the whole culture that exists on radio, on television - any media - is: 'Don't say anything live on the show; you've just got to make sure you don't say the wrong thing.'

“I went on The Wright Stuff recently and I said what I wanted, and Matthew Wright was chuckling about how outrageous I was. Fifteen years ago it was absolutely commonplace to hear someone like myself on a programme like that. Now the culture in pop music and the culture in politics are very similar - keep your head down. I think that dates back to Red Wedge."

Red Wedge, a pressure group/rock revue show formed in 1985 and fronted by Bragg, Paul Weller and Jimmy Somerville, was supposed to politicise the nation's young music fans and take Neil Kinnock out of Tracey Ullman videos and into Downing Street. Lacking the active participation of Wham or Queen, it pointed instead to electoral defeat in 1987 and a further decade of Tory government.

But Heaton wasn't part of it. "When I first talked to Red Wedge, they wouldn't agree to argue for a nationalised music industry, so I walked straight out. You can't go posturing, saying we should keep this nationalised, we should nationalise this, if you think your own industry is above that. I am one of the few people who believe in nationalising the music industry. I think it would be a fantastic thing." He's not joking. He has also talked to Rotheray about the possibility of nationalising the Beautiful South's astonishing back catalogue, but "unfortunately we have a government that won't be interested in that".

Similarly, Heaton refutes the suggestion that, having had so many hits, he must be immensely wealthy. "I've run everything that I do as a co-operative since 1986. I've stayed in the country; I've paid maximum taxes when, you know, Sting, Bono, Geldof, Costello, all them . . ." The names hang heavily in the air for a second before Heaton softens slightly. "I think what happened with someone like Bono is he listened to financial advisers, and the next thing he wasn't even paying Irish tax and he was moving his money abroad to Holland. I've never had any financial advisers. Banks have occasionally said, 'Look, you're stupid,' but I've always said I'm not investing my money in anything other than government bonds."

Unlike Bono, Heaton's social activism has been community-focused and targeted. He toured the UK by bike this year, playing pubs in an effort to get people to use their locals, but he holds no illusions. "You've got to be careful with smaller issues like that. Because at the end of the day they'll eventually concede on gay rights or on keeping the pubs open; they can easily invent a subcommittee for anything we throw at them. But they won't give in on the banks, they will never let go of capitalism."

Yet isn't pop music simply the entertainment arm of capitalism, keeping the workers singing along? "I'm not sure if my lyrics would fit into that. They're maybe a bit too angry; I'm not trying to make people sing along. I'd rather my next album - though I'm not sure there is a record company that would do this - came with kit instructions for a bomb. At least then you know what to do when it gets really bad."

“Acid Country" is on the Proper Records label

Michael Hodges writes the Class Monitor column for the New Statesman. He was named columnist of the year at the 2008 Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his contributions to Time Out.