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18 February 2008

From pop to politics

The road from music stardom to political office is not always an easy one and yet a surprising numbe

By Paul Evans

Politics is showbusiness for ugly people, or so the old joke goes. “There’s a lot in that,” accepts Peter Wishart, who can proudly claim to be the only MP to have appeared on Top of the Pops.

He is amongst that select group of musicians who are able to express their convictions with erudition and passion. Others have wrongly assumed that their fame is sufficient qualification to hold forth on the issues of the day.

Take Spice Girl, Geri Haliwell. In 1996 she want on record to warn the electorate that Blair was “not a safe pair of hands with the economy.” And five short years later, she bouncily appeared in a Labour party election broadcast. Or Jay Kay, who once critiqued Tory fiscal policy by explaining that, “the Government, they take the piss.”

Very rarely though, you will find a successful musician who has abandoned the decadent fast lane of pop wholesale; in exchange for ill-tempered meetings with resident associations.

The Blur drummer, Dave Rowntree, raised a few eyebrows last year – when he stood as the Labour candidate for Marylebone High Street in London’s local elections.

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“I think Billy Bragg showed that you can be politically astute as well as a successful musician,” he argues. While the likes of Bono (“he undid all his good work, but what can you do?”) associate themselves with issues on a scale to match their egos, for Rowntree it was the closure of a old people’s home in Westminster that motivated his run for office.

Peter Wishart, one-time keyboardist with the Scottish rock band Runrig, and current SNP member for Perth and North Perthshire, concurs that a mucical background need not count against the budding politicain. He draws parallels between working in music and politics, observing that: “as politicians we have to put on a show, and we do spend hours rehearsing.”

Wishart accepts, however, that Runrig’s interest in politics was out of the ordinary. He recalls: “with most bands, the discussion at the back of the tour bus is usually sex, drugs and rock and roll – with us it was Scotland’s constitutional question.”

Elsewhere in the world, musicians have found the transition to political life more bumpy.

Eirik Glambek Bøe, one half of Norwegian indie duo Kings of Convenience, last year sought support as liberal candidate for a seat on Bergen Council. He sees potential complications for any artist embarking on a political career. “In politics, compromises are inevitable. But for an artist a compromise is hard to swallow,” he says. “A politician should stand somewhere between pragmatism and idealism, but the role of an artist is to be someone who is ahead of his time – an outsider”.

Meanwhile in the US, Motown legend Martha Reeves is now a local politician in Detroit. But after backing a rise in city water rates, she faced public picketing outside her home. For someone used to unquestioning adulation, the sting of public anger can be difficult to adapt to.

A handful of musicians have made it all the way into government. Australia’s new premier Kevin Rudd recently appointed Peter Garett, once lead singer of Midnight Oil, as his Minister of the Environment. And Brazil’s Culture Minister is singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil, who in the 1960s was jailed by the country’s military rulers for his protest music.

Dave Rowntree is laconic in his take on the two worlds, noting: “you enter both with a handshake, and leave with a boot up the backside”. But after seven years on the green benches, Peter Wishart has lost none of his idealism. He still regards music as integral to his political outlook. “Music has always been the soundtrack to political change,” he says, “whether revolution or devolution – change would be inconceivable without the songs”.

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