What Two Merchants’ Children Have to Do with Two Topical Songs (Or, What Paul Weller and Dr. Robert Taught Me about Economics and Society)
A number of my friends know that I have a problem very similar to Martin Tupper, the fictional character whose life was the story of HBO’s 1990s series Dream On. For Tupper, who had spent his entire childhood parked in front of the tele (as the opening montage made clear), nearly everything anyone uttered was likely to bring to mind a scene, complete with dialogue, from some film or television program. In my case, words and phrases in conversation are just as likely to bring songs to mind. Over the last several weeks, as both current and future events have weighed on my mind, two different songs keep haunting me—both from England, both from the 1980s, both written by avowed socialists, and both formative for some of my sonic and political outlooks.
The first is a song called “All Gone Away,” from the Style Council’s second full length album Our Favourite Shop (released in the US as Internationalists with a different tracklist and cover) in 1985. The Style Council was primarily a vehicle for the music of former Jam frontman Paul Weller. Rather than give you the lengthy assessement of Weller’s career over the last few decades, I’ll refer you to the biography on the All-Music Guide, adding only that Weller’s music, both old and new, keeps revealing new depths to me as time goes by. The song in question is one of many pointed critiques of deindustrialization and deregulation under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It is, as well, a stinging commentary on the ills of neoliberalism and the man who is arguably its patron saint: Milton Friedman, the son of two dry goods merchants. While I might be reading too much into things, I think the track’s sunny, lilting bossa nova accompaniment serves as a “Nero fiddles” to the “as Rome burns” of the lyrics. Every news report about the current world credit crisis brings back to mind the final words of “All Gone Away”:
Come take a walk upon these hills
And see how monetarism kills
There’s nothing left, so
They’ve all gone away…
It’s about as bleak an assessment of Friedman-inspired policy’s effect on those at the bottom of the economic ladder as a committed leftist might hope for. Indeed, a couple of songs later, Weller’s lyrics indicate that he’s aware of the wider, pernicious effects Friedman’s influence has had for those intent on oppressing others for economic gain. Thus, in “A Stone’s Throw Away,” after suggesting whom the men in uniform really serve, Weller sings hopefully (but not very convincingly):
Wherever honesty persists
You’ll hear the snap of broken ribs
From anyone who’ll take no more
Of the lying bastards’ roar
In Chile, in Poland
Johannesburg, South Yorkshire
A stone’s throw away
Now we’re there…
I’ve known the words to all of these songs for well over two decades, and though I didn’t grasp all of their implications as a late-Cold War teen, they’ve been growing richer and richer for me as I’ve learned more. I can see now the way that they’ve worked their way into my psyche and helped me to recognize some fundamental things about the world around me—both then and now.
The second song that’s been on heavy silent rotation is from She Was Only a Grocer’s Daughter, the third full-length album by the Blow Monkeys. A number of commentators have suggested the group might have had greater commercial success had they not been denied visas to perform in the US in 1985, reputedly because of the socialist leanings of Dr. Robert, its leader—and a collaborator with Weller since the Blow Monkeys disbanded in the early 1990s. The album’s title is a not-so-subtle reference to Thatcher. As was the case above, current events keep bringing one track from this album to mind—the one that begins the vinyl LP’s second side: “Celebrate (The Day After You).” Once British programmers realized the import of the lyrics of the song, a duet featuring the late Curtis Mayfield, it was banned by the BBC. Among the offending lines were those of chorus:
We’re gonna celebrate (repeat)
’Cause this party’s overdue
It’s the day … after you.
I could certainly see why anyone who had been negatively affected by Thatcher’s policies would celebrate her imminent departure, in hopes that a new administration might improve things. That’s certainly how I felt sixteen years ago, the last time I was hoping I could attach the song to a real-world event: the 1992 US Presidential Election (luckily, then I could).
I feel again now as I did then: anxious about my country’s future and especially concerned about cynical politicians’ ability to manipulate potential voters. I’m still not sure where I’ll be on the night of 4 November, but wherever it is, I hope I’ll be able to give the song another purposeful spin…