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David Stubbs Explores The Battle Between Thatcherite Pop And Marxist Funk
David Stubbs , March 27th, 2009 12:01

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As you digest Mr Stubbs' words, listen to the Thatcherite Pop vs. Marxist funk Spotify playlist

The Eighties are often caricatured as the decade in which "we" all went a little bit silly, reacted against the austere disaffection of punk by wearing legwarmers, coloured rimmed glasses, highlights in our hair and swigging cocktails. (NB to makers of I Love The Eighties-style retro-docs and the inane pop commentariat in general: No "we" didn't. Only the twats).

The Eighties were polarised but complex times. Punk, which determined even seemingly antithetical things like Depeche Mode and ABC, was itself a reaction against Old Labour rather than New Tory and was itself part of the same coin as Thatcherism, revolting against the same, dreary, dysfunctional 70s Britain. It's no surprise, therefore, that Paul Weller stated that The Jam would all be voting Conservative at the 1979 general election. Ian Curtis of Joy Division also voted Tory, even having the cheek to cadge a lift from the Liberal candidate to the polling booth. And yet, Weller would later be synonymous with the pro-Labour coalition Red Wedge, while Joy Division were for many the soundtrack to the anger and anxiety felt by many during the ravages of the early Thatcher/Reagan years.

The rise of so-called New Pop, the likes of Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran and Wham! was viewed at the time and has been viewed retrospectively as the first flourishing of "Thatcherite pop". Michael Hann, writing in The Guardian has been able to denounce Spandau as such, citing singer Tony Hadley's commitment to the Conservative party. However, at the time, the real leader of the group, Gary Kemp, would have been more circumspect. The Spandau's were part of a painfully hyper-hip London club scene and to have pledged allegiance to Maggie would have represented at the time a far more grotesque gaffe than that later committed by Geri Halliwell when she associated Girl Power with an admiration for Mrs Thatcher. Sure, the narcissism and unabashed, mascara-thin superficiality of the New Romantic scene is arguably the supreme pop expression of Thatcherite "self-interest" - and yet, it was very popular in areas like Leeds and Wales, hit hardest by the recession, where dressing up rather than down was considered an act of young working class defiance in adverse circumstances. Wham! were all Tropicana and Go For It! But they also celebrated the potential freedoms afforded by the apparently perma-dole culture of Thatcherism. Conversely, the more dressed down white ska scene produced Madness, who always had problems shaking off their National Front following, while Oi, a purist mutation of early punk, was commemorated with an album entitled Strength Through Oi, a cringemaking reference to the Nazi slogan Strength Through Joy.

Punk purists were wary of the incorporation of funk into post-punk, which they felt smacked of disco-ist hedonism. But punk-funk was always the most radical step, one first taken by ardent politico Bristolians The Pop Group with the likes of 'For How Long Must we Tolerate Mass Murder' and 'We Are All Prostitutes'. Thereafter, The Human League expressed subversion through synthpop, Shriekback, Scritti Politti and Gang Of Four adopted funk/disco mores to push through a subliminal, Marxist agenda, while Heaven 17 executed a sort of double-axle of irony with 'We Don't Need This Fascist Groove Thang' which was both sarky and sincere at the same time. Their 1981 debut album Penthouse And Pavement, moreover, looked like a visual precursor of the late 80s yuppy era with its ponytailed execs, etc. And, as they became more of a pop proposition, it became less clear whether they were brilliantly effective double agents, or mere purveyors of the sort of enervated, defeatist, bland neo-soul/pop which characterised the mid-80s and represented a sort of defeat to the new reality of right wing pragmatism.

Anyway, such were the times, in which the battle lines, though complex and argued tortuously in the then-more powerful and radical inkies, were at least strongly drawn. Where are those lines now?

This week's Spotify playlist features Heaven 17, The Human League, Gang Of Four, Shriekback, Scritti Politti, Cabaret Voltaire, The Slits, Wham!, Duran Duran, The Fall, Gary Numan, The Jam, Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode, ABC, Joy Division, The Pop Group. Listen here.

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harry hall
Mar 29, 2009 10:28pm

Interesting article but it does tend to narrow the battle down to chart pop v. journo rock...

1. the early eighties are too often portrayed by the journo rock brigade as a time of 'post punk' but that was very small scene that was often intertwined with bigger and far more influential scenes like Goth, punk fallout, two tone

2. Paul Weller said he world vote Tory to wind the Clash up...he was 18 at the time...

3. 'Strength Through Oi' was actually named after the Skids 'Strength Through Joy' EP- not very clever but not a deliberate attempt at Nazism. None of the Oi bands were Nazi bands although some of their followers were- but then some of the followers of most bands probably lean that way...

4. Just because punk purists didn't like funk doesn't make them backwards looking, not sure why mixing funk with punk made you any more clever or more radical than someone who preferred punk...although it did create some great music and Gang Of Four were a great band but so were Crass who used the scorched earth of punk and made it avante garde and then got written out of history because they never played the media game...

5. interestingly enough the Human league had a Tory voter in their ranks which sort of negates this theory of the loveable radical punk funkers...

6. Ever seen a journalist dance! nope...that's why their love of funk is even more baffling...

7. post punk punk funk was hardly a new idea...Led Zep had already toyed with the same sort of ideas...

8. why are Killing Joke never included in these round ups of bands adding disco and funk to their sound? they were there before most of these bands and did it in a really effective manner- they didn't play the media game so maybe thats why they get written out of history...

9. the battle lines are as strong now as they ever were and the debate remains...younger people understand...

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John Doran
Mar 30, 2009 12:49am

This isn't a round up of bands adding disco and funk to their sound. It's a playlist of bands who voted or epitomized Tory or Labour values or confusingly sent out mixed messages.

Those wanting to read an article on Killing Joke will be pleased to know we have a feature on them coming up to coincide with their ATP appearance. And, defying the media conspiracy to deny them the oxygen of publicity, you'll be pleased to know that they made our top 20 reissues of 2008.

And without wanting to state the bloody obvious - CRASS were/are anarchists. They didn't vote. How does that mark them out as either Tory or Marxist?

Likewise, before the end of the year we will be running features on CRASS, The Subhumans and anarcho punk.

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Alex Ogg
Apr 1, 2009 12:47pm

1. Agreed. And well put. And as stated elsewhere, some of the divisions between ‘punk’ and ‘post-punk’ currently in vogue are largely retrospective ones and weren’t nearly as clear-cut at the time.
2. Agreed.
3. That’s a long debate. What has always galled me, however, is the fact that while the criticisms of Bushell and Strength Thru Oi! were valid, a band as critically revered as Joy Division/New Order could play with similar imagery (on at least one count more overtly) and get hardly any of the same approbation.
4. Agreed broadly – but Crass actually grew from the avant garde rather than evolved from punk. And yes, they have been written out of history not just because of a refusal to play the media game, but more specifically because they refused to embrace core rock ‘n’ roll values.
5. You can see the incorporation of ‘funk’, as you can hip hop and other musics of (ahem) black origin - as progressive. But the whiff of elitism remains. Vic Godard turning to crooning is just as progressive and liberating and radical as The Pop Group, surely? But then some of the more extreme elements of hardcore and other punk derivatives completely transgressed the trad rock idiom, and probably had a more profound influence.
6. No comment.
7. Would have to listen to Led Zep to determine the veracity of this statement and I’m not going there.
8. Another point well made. And when does the World Domination Enterprises revival start?
9. Agreed. Apart from the last part.

One thing that David gets completely correct, however, is the continued recycling of this bizarre notion of the 80s as some kind of free-for-all hedonistic orgy. It wasn’t like that round our way. In fact, when short of cash a long time ago, I featured as an extra on Peter York’s Eighties. I remember we got paid to turn up in clothes that “we would wear to a party”. I followed that brief, only to be told that the director simply could not believe that I was attired in my Friday night best. The man had no ken that for many of us, the dinner party/meeja circuit didn’t exist. So he lent me one of his suits, which was the first time I’d worn one aside from a wedding. The scene I was in featured the popping of champagne corks. Not entirely subtle, and woefully less than accurate.

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Fiona Peters
Jun 16, 2009 3:59pm

1. True. But the so-called "post punk" stuff has stood the test of time far better than most of the rest, which is probably why people go on about it more.

2. Nope. Listen to Time FOr Truth on the first Jam LP - he meant it, maaan.

3. Fair enough. I dont know a thing about Oi except that loads of its fans were Nazi skinheads. If the bands werent then fine. Are you sure though?

4. Mixing punk with anything is obviously more progressive than just playing the same stuff over again. What's this stuff about "playing the media game" anyway? Do you think that all music journalists and authors automatically hate bands who "dont play the media game"? That's insane. If anything its the opposite.

5. Which one of the Human League was the Tory? It would be interesting to find out.

6. Why are you obsessed with journalists and media? It makes you sound a bit weird.

7. Led Zeppelin had played some sort of funky rock stuff. They never really did much that sounded like The Gang Of Four, did they?

8. "media game" again, how weird.

9. What lines are these then? And considering you seem to have been around since punk, you cant be including yourself in those younger people. So how would you know, eh?

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Sandra Lane
May 2, 2012 9:53am

Strength Thru Oi wasn't knowingly a pun on a Nazi slogan, it was a pun on the title of a Skids ep that came out earlier that year

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Feb 20, 2013 10:52pm

good reading. the 80s were contradictory with post punk not wanting to like anything closely related to disco. keep up the good work

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