I am an 80’s throwback. Born in the mid 60’s but the period when music began to resonate with me was from 1981 onwards. Why that particular year ? I don’t know. On Top Of The Pops everybody was having fun, having a party. I wanted to be invited.
It was also around this period that I was only a year away from the harsh reality of Thatcher’s Britain – No parties, just the dole. But watching these bands on the telly, in their bright colourful clothes, with the ballons, with the streamers. It took you away from the grey world outside.
At that time I was living in Liverpool. Only a few months before with my best mate Walter, we sat on some steps and watched the Rialto burn.
As mentioned I wasn’t long for the unemployment line and soon became one of the 3 & half million signing on. Things were grim. Strikes, picket lines and where I lived – the riots. Switch on the TV, take your mind away…
The country was unhappy. Toxteth I witnessed. There was also Brixton and more.
History is slowly beginning to repeat itself with the Tory government (yes I know coalition but the Lib Dems are just puppets) with benefit cuts, cuts to the NHS, high unemployment and recession once again. An unpopular leader leading the country down another dark path.
These days there are many outlets to express our anger and frustration about the Tories, so the outrage is spread out and looks thin on the ground. Back then it was more concentrated. There were only four TV channels and everybody watching them. It was actually easier for some to get there word out. To vent their feelings, to raise those issues.
Music can reflect what people are thinking and feeling. The musicians like the rest of us suffered unemployment and then wrote about it. The most famous example in 1981 was The Specials with Ghost Town. A perfect reflection on the state of things. It captured the mood perfectly.
The Specials obviously weren’t the first with social commentary. This has been going on every since popular music began. But to me it seemed that in the earlier part of the 1980’s there was an increase in these type of songs.
There was easily enough material for the songwriters. Thatcher and her battles with everybody. The dockers, miners, steelworkers… even the unemployed. Lots of misery and poverty around but also the open, raw capitalist greed.
Many bands attempted to raise awareness of fascism, racism, politics and the constant threat of a nuclear war. Even the established and well loved artist Paul McCartney sang about giving Ireland back to the Irish. But the single was subsequently banned.
Other acts such The Police and yes, even Spandau Ballet also sang about that always touchy subject.
Every time a musical act does a take on one of these issues though, they are criticised. How dare these pop stars talk about politics. They should mind their own business.
The argument is always there whether they should get involved or stay out of it. The thing is that sometimes it works and sometimes not. There are a few instances when it became a force for good – such as with Band Aid and the eventual Live Aid concert. But sometimes the song becomes a bit of an embarrassment. The chart pop stars of the 80’s addressing a current plight somewhere. Their smooth, popular image then dented when they cry about war. It’s like a stand up comedian suddenly stopping midway through his act to do a slideshow on the African famine. Sometimes an uncomfortable for us to witness.
A sample of potential embarrassment was with this line in a song, which was met with much derision when first heard:
“Don’t say you’re easy on me, you’re about as easy as a nuclear war…”
It was a throw away line, with the original message of the song not about a holocaust, but of relationships.
The rest of the lyrics in the verse before that line:
“People stare and cross the road from me
And jungle drums they all clear the way for me
Can you read my mind, can you see in the snow
And fiery demons all dance when you walk through that door”
Jungle drumming, snow visions, mind reading and to top it off – the demons:
The line is remembered and brought much unwanted attention to Duran Duran. A fan mishead the lyic and wrote to Simon Le Bon to ask what “yo bad azizi” meant.
This inspired them to create an experimental B side for a single released in 1990:
From a potentially embarrassing lyric – another song. But they still didn’t compose this about the actual event of a nuclear war. It was just a riff on a letter they received. And as far as I’m aware Duran Duran have never done any protest songs, have never tried to raise awareness for the rainforests or poverty… or anything like that. Correct me if I’m wrong though.