Margaret Thatcher's burial this week may have brought a physical end to the Iron Lady's legacy, but the media, particularly the music inspired by her politics, will long remain. Here are three ways Lady Thatcher managed to imprint herself on the British – and world – music scene.
Between high unemployment, racial tensions, the miner's strike, and the Falklands war, England was not a sunny place to be during the Thatcher years. "There [was] no future/In England's dreaming," as it were.
With its "one chord, two chord, three chord" approach to composition, punk music flew on to the scene in the midst of Britain's economic, social and existential crisis through a whirlwind of simple power chords. Despite being caught between the tension of radical nihilism and leftist utopianism, England's punks first took up the cause of blasting England's monarchy, the most famous being the Sex Pistol's classic, "God Save the Queen."
But the queen, a relatively politically dormant figure, was far from the ideal muse. Thatcher gave the British music scene not just the shot in the arm it needed, but her reign also helped bring unity to an emerging but ideologically divided genre of music. Thatcher's prickly leadership style and own blend of anti-establishmentarianism made her a natural foe – much more so than the benign sovereign mocked in "God Save the Queen."
It's hard to imagine the queen and her parade of corgis fighting back with the same vigor as the Iron Lady, and as anyone who has ever seen a Sex Pistols show knows, real punks love a good fight.
Changing the Soundscape (and Economy) of Britain
As Stuart Maconie, a British journalist, noted on a recent NPR broadcast, "Thatcherism" – the view of Thatcher as the embodiment of ruthlessness – was a regional phenomenon. To quote:
The different areas of Britain responded differently, I think. In London, in the south, which was more affluent and more her natural constituency, it had the effect of producing a kind of apolitical response; in that you got the New Romantics, and you got a kind of bright and shiny, aspirational pop, a padded-shouldered version of pop that was about nightclubs, about dressing up…
But in the north of England, let's say, and in Scotland, I mean, you got a very different response. I think you got a response of people like The Smiths, which was to sort of be a more defiant kind of reaction against it, a sort of defiantly northern, some would say dour, but I would say a sort of more confrontational pop. I mean, there were some explicitly political records. Morrissey recorded - Morrissey and The Smiths recorded a tune called "Margaret on the Guillotine."
Looking at Thatcher's conservative strongholds in the south, this makes sense. London, the birthplace of style-conscious New Romantics like Duran Duran, swung Tory, as did other southern regions like East Anglia, Essex and the South. New Romantics' songs like Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" could resonate on a superficial level, but that's about it.
Meanwhile, Manchester, Wales and Scotland all leaned heavily towards Labour, particularly West Scotland. Here punk and indie rock thrived. And it's no wonder. Scotland, a huge industrial hub, lost a fifth of its workforce in the first two years of Thatcher's rule. Wales, the North of England and Scotland were all set to lose their primary source of employment through the mine closures announced in 1984.
"Maggie Thatcher, the milk snatcher" may have divided Britain's music scene geographically, but her vibrant and abrasive political persona brought together musicians across genres, uniting them in protest. In Morrissey's words, "In truth, of course, no British politician has ever been more despised by the British people than Margaret Thatcher."
The rather spirited song titles and lyrics of the most notable anti-Thatcherite songs testify to this aggression. "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead" by Klaus Nomi – a cover of the Wizard of Oz track, which broke into the charts in both the Republic of Ireland and the U.K. after Thatcher's death; "The Fletcher Memorial Home" by Pink Floyd; "How Does It Feel" and "Thatchergate" by Crass; "Kinky Sex Makes the World Go ‘Round" by the Dead Kennedys; "Margaret on the Guillotine" by Morrissey; "Tramp the Dirt Down" by Elvis Costello; "No Alternative But to Fight" by Dub Syndicate, are just a few. Even Chumbawamba got in on the fun before they became a one-hit wonder with "Tubthumping."
Some were more extreme than others. Morrissey, on one hand, asked in "Margaret on the Guillotine," "When will you die?" Anti-Pasti, a Derbyshire anarcho-punk band, called for "no Maggie Thatcher and no government!" And, finally, the Dead Kennedys set Margaret Thatcher up to moan erotically every time a new atrocity is pronounced in "Kinky Sex Makes the World Go ‘Round." Artist Billy Bragg's plea for moderation – "Sweet moderation, the heart of the nation, desert us not" – may have fallen on deaf ears. When the existential void of "no society" hit and profit did not, the music got even louder.
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