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Ten Songs

Ken Livingstone Interviewed: Boris, The Other Boris, Music, Politics & London
Luke Turner , September 23rd, 2010 02:28

As the polls close in the contest to become Labour's candidate for London Mayor, we publish an interview with Ken Livingstone on music, politics, the day Thatcher dies, and who would be better at running London: Boris or Boris?

Back in August, the Quietus was invited, along with Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley and representatives from the music business scene, to comment on Ken Livingstone's plans for live music in London should he become Mayor in 2012. You can have a look at what he's proposing here. Now, never ones to miss a chance to play music to people from outside the world of music, we took along a Spotify playlist and some speakers, asked Ken to comment on some tracks, and discuss the issues raised therein. So if you've ever wondered what our past and potential future mayor makes of Morrissey's 'Margaret On The Guillotine', which former Prime Minister disappointed him by use of the c-word, and what it felt like to be referred to as a "sex machine" by Kate Bush, read on... (and listen to our Ken Spotify Playlist)

Lord Kitchener – 'London Is The Place For Me'

Lord Kitchener was one of the first West Indian immigrants to London, arriving on the Empire Windrush in 1948. In this lovely ditty, he sings optimistically of the Capital

Ken Livingstone: Did he do this in the late 50s? It's interesting when you remember how overt the levels of racism were. I went to school just south of Brixton and there were 2000 kids. It was only in the last year or two that London-born black kids started turning up in the school. It wasn't until I started working with a lot Ghanaians that I had a network of black friends. London was a monoculture and nothing really happened. I used to have a friend who worked in a bookshop on Charing Cross Road that's now demolished, and I'd come up all through the mid-60s, and we'd wander around, and go to the Lamb & Flag pub, and it was just empty. Even in the 80s when I was leader of the GLC and had to work late, I'd get the tube home from Waterloo to West Hampstead, and I'd be in the carriage on my own at nine o'clock at night.

Now, the tube's heaving. Then, London was quiet and dull, now it's transformed and genuinely a world city. And it's been transformed because of waves after waves of immigration. If we hadn't had those waves of immigration, we'd have diminished lives. And that has transformed music. When we started free festivals it was one stage with predominantly West Indian music and radical lefty groups, and we ended up with two or three stages, an Asian stage, and it was all mixed up.

The Beastie Boys – 'Fight For Your Right To Party'

The Beastie Boys Licensed To Ill tour caused front page hysteria in UK. Not exactly their most politicised moment, what will Ken make of the then rather dudeish lyricism?

KL: When is this from?

The 80s. Do you remember the public outcry when they came to the UK?

KL: There's always a public outcry.

What do you make to this musically?

KL: What defines someone's music taste is their teens and early 20s. It's that combination of your sexual awakening and the music of the time, it fixes you forever. You can enjoy stuff that comes along afterwards. My partner is 20 years younger so we have very different tastes, but I find myself more attracted to the stuff that was coming out in the 60s. It was also because our parents were so opposed to it all - just by growing my hair this length [gestures] I was denounced as a poof. I can't honestly say now what I thought of this record 25 years ago, but I would have been all in favour of it. You had all these young people protesting against Thatcher, and even Bananarama writing 'Give Us Back Our Cheap Fares' . Thatcher so divided society that you were one side of the other, there was no middle ground.

Robert Wyatt – 'The Age Of Self'

One of Robert Wyatt's most politically direct tracks, his plaintive yet powerful vocals attack consumerist society and exhort those on the left to hold onto their principles

I was wondering if you might have come across Wyatt due to his political leanings

KL: There's every chance I've heard him from Emma playing him.

He was always very engaged. Do you know Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding? He did that. I thought you might be interested to hear the lyrics.

KL: He understands class. Who did 'You Can't Get Me I'm Part Of The Union;? Every now and then a fairly mainstream band will do a track like that. The trade unions weren't 100% supportive, and there was a huge amount of controversy at the time. It must have been 1975 or 6. I remember Ted Knight saying 'I'm not sure if it's being subtly critical'.

What about the idea in the lyrics that if you're not staying true to your roots, your whole ideology is undermined?

KL: That's something I can completely identify with. I think having broadly stayed true to my beliefs as the world has changed completely around me. If you go back to the early 70s, my generation assumed we would have created a socialist society by now.

Have you found yourself having to work within what you have?

KL: My view is rather than just rage at your impotence you find the best way of achieving as much as you can within whatever constraints there are. It's not the world I would have created but you do what you can within it. Just simple things like the long campaign to abolish entrance fees to museums. And the moment we did, attendance doubled.

Manic Street Preachers – 'Natwest-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds'

One of the best and most aggressively political tracks on their debut album, the Manics glimpse into the crystal ball and uncannily predict the banking crisis. Watch our In Conversation piece with Nicky Wire and Tony Benn here.

KL: When did this come out? I looked at the lyrics and I thought they must have done this in the last 18 months. They should re-release it.

The Manics were obviously a group heavily influenced by punk, was that a movement you were aware of? It must have been occurring at the same time as you were heading into the GLC.

KL: I was obsessed with music in my late teens and early 20s, but when I started you only had Radio Luxembourg, they didn't play anything good on the BBC. And Radio Luxembourg had this thing where they'd never play an entire track, because people would be at home recording it. And then you had pirate radio come along, and pirate radio was on in everyone's houses. We were angry with Tony Benn because he introduced the legislation to abolish it! Have you seen film about pirate radio? They've been really kind, because Tony Benn is played by an obnoxious right wing ponce. It took us a long time to forgive Tony Benn for that, it was before he became left wing and radical. I was very heavily into music, it was the Stones and the Doors who I listened to most, and Cat Stevens. But then I got politically active and around the upheavals in the late 60s early 70s there was a lot of music influencing young people who were radicalised at that time. But by the time I got to the GLC travelling up and down the country night after night… I look at my music collection and 80% of it is before that.

Did politics take over?

KL: From 1981 when I became leader of the GLC all through the time leading up to becoming mayor, two or three nights of the week I'd be somewhere else in the country, doing a meeting or campaigning about this and that, and if I was in London I'd be busy too. I was on tour for 20 years! And then I became mayor and I almost never left London, and now I have two small children they're just into singing cartoons. I did go on tour with Red Wedge, with Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, and it was just a bizarre experience. The Labour Party was very keen on this, and then they started saying 'we'd like to have some input into Labour Party policy', but then it got shut down. They were quite happy to have Weller and Bragg generate youth enthusiasm, but they really didn't want to give them any power at all. Ted Knight was the other great radical lefty, and we went on tour with Red Wedge. They had us come out and play with Billy and Paul, and Ted was on the triangle and I was on the tambourine, and it was excruciatingly embarrassing. I have no musical skills. This is my voice.

The Rolling Stones – 'Yesterdays Papers'

One of Ken Livingstone's favourite bands rather cruelly dismiss an ex using the metaphor of unwanted newsprint. But what of the former mayor's relationship to the press?

KL: Yes, I remember this, but it was later on.

So you were a fan of the Stones from an early age?

KL: Their hair was considered an outrageous crime by my parents, and their outrageous lifestyle. There's a lovely a front cover of an old lady walking past Keith who's leaning against a wall smoking a fag, and the bubble comes out of his mouth saying 'want a nice time dear' and her response is 'not with you hairy ape'. That was my parents view, they were disgusting, they were debauching a generation. The Beatles weren't as challenging, and it was only after the Beatles broke up that the FBI considered Lennon a threat and were spying on them. I always see The Doors as America's answer to the Stones. It was that, and Forever Changes by Love. Apart from Arthur Lee, the rest of the band changed every time. He was about the only black singer in LA, in this horrendous racist place.

The whole history of LA is built on racism, the police were there to keep the blacks in the ghetto and the trade unions smashed. It was an occupying force, and it was against the law to have interracial relations, up until the mid-50s. It was such a racist society, and he had so much hassle and when that stupid three strikes and you're out law came in because he'd already got busted with one spliff, when he was stopped carrying a gun, he automatically got a life sentence. And there's another thing, the American constitution doesn't actually say an individual should have guns, it talks about the right of people to organise themselves in rebellion, but this has become so embedded as the ideology of the right. But then in 68 or 9, the Black Panthers chapter said 'well we're going to start arming ourselves for the struggle'. And immediately the government pushed through the most restrictive gun legislation - as soon as black people started carrying guns they changed it. Poor old Arthur Lee just happened to be stopped by the police and he had a gun in the car. By the time he came over and did a gig here I couldn't get to it, and that was before he died.

Do you think there's a parallel there with stop & search in London?

KL: Well there's… the key thing… there were 25,000 policemen when I was elected and I got it up to 32,000. With turnover and retirement, something like 40-50% of our police have been in the force for under five years. Leaving aside the bad copper who might be a racist, a good copper will be able to use stop and search really effectively five or ten years down the road, when he's got the experience. When he starts he's going to make a lot of mistakes and get it wrong, but there are all sorts of signs police pick up on, the way people move. A computer can do it, by watching the way someone walks through a car park it can tell whether they're going to try and rob a car, a computer can tell whether someone is going to commit suicide on the tube. These signs are there, you broadcast your intentions with almost everything you do and a good copper eventually gets to learn that. Stop and search is always going to be there, but you have to make sure it's not racially profiled. You're looking for the person who might be carrying a bomb or a gun.

Thinking about the song 'Yesterday's Papers', you've obviously had quite a fractious and difficult relationship with the Evening Standard, now it's in the hands of a former KGB man...

KL: ...It's got a lot better! I'm on the last chapter of my autobiography, and I've included all the things that papers have said about me. When you add all the worst things that have been said over about 30 years, it's really quite shocking. Because you forget about them. I don't know if you remember the speech I made in Singapore after the London bombings, which everyone said was the best I'd ever made, except for the Daily Mail where Simon Heffer said how awful it is that this city has such a slimy stinking little git of a mayor. You just can't please everybody all of the time. But also the idea that papers can just pile that stuff out, incredibly poisonous personal and vindictive stuff. And then the papers say why won't people come into politics. It's not so much not wanting yesterday's papers, but today's as well.

Kate Bush – 'Ken'

How many men would have loved to have a song written about them by Kate Bush - and especially one that refers to them as a "sex machine". The song was recorded for a special edition of TV series The Comic Strip.

Did you like the track, Ken?

KL: Of course I was a fan of the song. What was particularly funny was that I think she was bigger in the States than here, but it used to be the case that ten years ago there are people writing 'who is Ken? What is GLC?' I suppose it's a bit like if someone heard about the Bananarama track and asked 'what cheap fares?' You have to be at least 50 to remember it.

You seem to have been quite a popular subject in songs.

KL: I did stuff with U2, and then over the years because the GLC was putting on concerts and then when I was mayor. Even in between, when Blur did the gig against tuition fees, so I've always been around the edge of the music world.

There's a line in the Kate Bush song where she calls you a 'sex machine'

KL: If only this were true. If only Kate Bush had seen me as a real sex machine?

Jarvis Cocker – 'Cunts Are Still Running the World'

The track with which Jarvis Cocker made his return from Paris, arguably one of the finest songs he's ever written. A slow build, a grandiose finale, and a damning indictment of the status quo

KL: It's interesting because the c-word... I was chatting with Oona King, and she suddenly referred to someone using the c-word. The last time I heard someone in my nexus of Leftists using the c-word was 1980. No-one ever has, it is totally and completely unacceptable to feminism. And yet I remember standing in the House of Commons tea room and it came booming out 'I'm going to have to vote for a little c-word like you rather than Jeffrey Archer'. All the waitresses serving were traumatised. It was quite often used by people at the core of New Labour. I think anybody who got involved in any feminist campaigns in the 80s can't use that word. Blair used it at one point, and went [adopts naughty boy voice] 'oops'.

It's one of those signs that help define where you are politically. For people who went through all the struggles of the 80s when feminism had such a mountain to climb, an awful lot hasn't been achieved that they wanted, but an awful lot has changed in people's attitudes to women. It's something that defines what your political background and makeup is. Jarvis is obviously using it in a way that's quite different. I've always liked Jarvis Cocker, and he's not using in that derogatory way. It's just you can't use it in my circles.

What about the ideas of this song? There's the great line "they say the cream will always rise to the top, but I say hey, shit floats".

KL: If you go back to the very earliest societies in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia it's very interesting. Everyone thinks that the pyramids were built by slaves, but they weren't. They were built by skilled artisans who went on strike for better wages and the simple fact is that the moment since the first humans came together in anything bigger than a small village, there have been those people running it with the power and the wealth and those people who didn't have it. So the idea that we've moved beyond class and we're all in this together, it's always been bollocks. You can go to Scandinavia and societies like that where it's much more equal and government is more in tune with the popular mood, but in Britain and America it's become an elite that screws the rest of us relentlessly. It's got worse.

How about after the election, how do you feel you as a politician can help people get repoliticised?

KL: There is nothing attractive about the life of a politician. The idea that somebody might want to be a politician for the lifestyle is horrendous, and so for me the only reason to be there is to do the things you want to do, and see the changes you want to see made. But unfortunately there are an awful lot of people who get off on the glamour. I think unfortunately there are an awful lot of people who had dysfunctional childhoods and go into politics because they want to be loved. I can't think of a worse career choice. If you want to be loved, be a musician, be a nun, whatever. Do not go into politics, because people are always going to loathe politicians because we make decisions people don't like. Even when I make a decision that ended up being popular like the congestion charge, still 40% hated it. Do not go into politics if you want to be loved.

Which leads us to…

Morrissey – 'Margaret On The Guillotine'

As his recent comments about the Chinese demonstrate, Morrissey has never been one to make a subtle statement when a brutal gesture pops beneath the quiff. Does Ken agree with the sentiments of the song where SPM fantasises about a spot of decoupage and the Iron Lady?

KL: …if only it were true.

Do you still feel the legacy of Thatcher?

KL: Oh yes. If you look at the history of the Post War world, in 1945 a Labour government and also the Truman administration following on from Roosevelt, set in place 30 years of Social Democracy, wealth differential was narrowed and lifespan improved. In the 1970s everyone said things were terrible, it wasn't, it was a bloody wonderful time. Womens' wages caught up with mens massively, the length of holidays went from two weeks to three or four, the average working day was cut by 40 minutes and crime levels were nothing compared to now. It was in a sense a much fairer society. And then Thatcher came in here and Reagan in America and wrenched it into rebuilding inequalities of wealth, huge profits to corporations, and there were going to be casualties. And we're still suffering. When Cameron talks about a Broken Britain he's right, but quite a lot of it he's not being honest with admitting who broke it.

The tragedy is Blair and Brown went along and didn't challenge that. Whoever Labour elects now, and in a sense Obama in America, has to challenge that central orthodoxy. There's a great book called the Spirit Level that demonstrates that everything that is wrong in society - drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, crime - is directly related to inequality of wealth. So this book charts the 20 main Western economies, the USA is the worst then Portugal and the UK, the right down the other end you've got Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, they - and I'm not opposed to pre-marital sex, I'm not some frumpy Tory MP - but in the Netherlands young people lose their virginity about two years later than here, and the unwanted teenage pregnancy rate is one tenth of here. I had a Dutch girlfriend and we had great sex, but they just don't feel as pressured, and do it when they're ready. They're more confident than that. And that's the sort of society I'd rather have.

And when Morrissey sings he has a dream of Margaret on the Guillotine, one wonders if the reaction when she does die of natural causes is going to be a strange one…

KL: I think Margaret Thatcher is a severely damaged individual. She had a grim childhood, cold baths, discipline, order. There was no happy childhood there, and that's the case with most people who are political monsters. But, when she dies she's just another human being who dies. If we could go back and prevent her being born, that'd be a different matter, we'd all have been saved, but if it hadn't been Thatcher it would most probably have been Tebbit, someone would have come up and done the same.

Boris – 'Farewell'

And finally, a track from Boris' Pink that sees the Japanese rock troupe in more reflective mood. With Boris the blond toff now saying he'll stand in the 2012 mayoral elections, is Ken hoping to bid him 'farewell'?

KL: They're not called Boris after Boris?

No, sadly. They're generally quite a heavy band, but this a beautiful piece of music. Quite ambient.

KL: I don't think you can call him ambient.

Are you looking forward to taking on Boris?

KL: I'm looking forward to defeating him. I don't enjoy debating with him because he isn't really honest, he said during the last campaign fares are too high, then he rams them up. I much prefer debating with someone like Thatcher or Tebbit. Boris has just gone through life shambling like Bertie Wooster, 'oops sorry I've fallen on your wife', 'oops, what a laugh'. When Boris ran against me, London was going quite well. People had forgotten how messy it was ten years earlier, and they could indulge that - they were angry at the Labour government. It wasn't a serious ideological argument. The cuts now are going to be devastating, and he has broken every promise. And he just doesn't do anything. We're always in competition with New York and Paris, and rising new cities like Singapore. It's just laziness, when you've got the second best job in English politics.

So you prefer Boris the band to Boris the mayor?

KL: I'm sure Boris the band would do a better job of running London, even if they don't speak English.