What has happened to political pop music?

Where Red Wedge sailed on optimism, pop and politics today make odd partners.

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I’ve been reading a great new book by Daniel Rachel – Walls Come Tumbling Down: the Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge, which tells the story of that moment from the late Seventies to the mid-Eighties when pop and politics seemed intertwined. The narrative is told entirely through direct quotations from participants – including yours truly, talking about my early experiences at RAR gigs and the big Anti-Nazi League rally in Victoria Park, as well as my involvement with Red Wedge, the loose collective of musicians who supported Labour in the lead-up to the 1987 election.

The book has a glorious stream of behind-the-scenes anecdotes. One of my favourites is told by Billy Bragg, recalling the time on tour when he and his mates were partying in a hotel room directly above mine, causing me to go into full Angry Mum mode and ask them to turn that racket down.

That very same night, thankfully in a different hotel, the entire Tory government was nearly blown up by an IRA bomb. Billy relates how, down in reception the next morning, he explained to me, in some detail, why it was a good thing the cabinet hadn’t been killed, as that would have led to the imposition of martial law. What I love most about the story is the image it conjures of us having this conversation – he, presumably tired and hungover yet still ranting at me about the government, while I stand with my arms folded, waiting for him to finish so I can tell him off for being a selfish and thoughtless hotel guest and ask him who he thinks is going to clean up that mess after him.

The book has lots of moments like that, and is full of personal insights into a time when artists were struggling to make sense of the political landscape and formulate a response to it. Sometimes one anecdote contradicts the previous one, and that seems very true to the spirit of the time, Red Wedge in particular being a fairly disparate group of people, with some shared aims and yet also vast differences in outlook, and background, and music.

What shines through is an optimism – an innocence, even – which I think would be regarded as political naivety now. Less cowed by potential criticism, we didn’t bother so much about whether we were doing the right thing, or whether we were doing enough, and (perhaps most importantly) we didn’t have to worry about getting slagged off on Twitter for doing anything at all. And so we just got on and organised gigs and marches and meetings. Maybe the pop world is more cynical now. Maybe the whole world is.

Did it seem easier because the fascists still looked like fascists? I’m reminded of that Michael Rosen poem: “I sometimes fear that/people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress/worn by grotesques and monsters”. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the National Front really did look like monsters, and were so clearly the enemy. No hiding behind smooth suits and placatory rhetoric. We lived in tribal times, with clearly defined lines, and you knew which side you were on.

But it’s funny how it’s still artists from those times who get called on to feature at political events. Paul Weller, a Red Wedge stalwart, is about to do a gig in support of Momentum – with a band including Robert Wyatt. There are younger acts on the bill, too, but I can’t help thinking how Weller’s career began with the Jam in 1976, 40 years ago. Hard to imagine Rock Against Racism in 1978 rounding up artists from 1938. The Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby, perhaps. Artists from before the war, for heaven’s sake.

It does say something about the more tenuous link between politics and today’s pop generation. And the upcoming series of Momentum gigs is named “Concerts for Corbyn”. I’m confused by that. Red Wedge was an attempt to unify all our causes into one common cause, but this new label is potentially divisive, even a bit culty. I’m not sure why they’re not called Concerts for Labour. Or Unity. Or Something. No doubt someone on Twitter will politely explain it to me. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage