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Maggie Thatcher: the rock ‘n’ roll years

Eighties Britain may have been grim, but it had a great soundtrack.

Clash 04 12 2013Enlarge
Members of The Clash in 1978. The punk group captured the zeitgeist when riots were tearing through derelict neighborhoods of London and other cites. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Margaret Thatcher's Britain could be an unforgiving place for a teenager. There was fighting in the streets, rampant unemployment and money was too tight to mention.

But although life may have looked grim, at least it had a blistering soundtrack.

From the incendiary rock of The Clash to The Smiths' melodic gloom, the dance-floor politics of the 2 Tone bands and the simmering outrage of Elvis Costello, the Thatcher era fired up a golden generation of angry young musicians.

"It was the heyday of political pop," music writer Dorian Lynskey, wrote in The Guardian after Thatcher’s death on Monday.

"To musicians on the left, Margaret Thatcher was an irresistible super-villain who threw all the conflicts of the time into sharp relief."

She had barely taken office in 1979 when The Specials delved into Bob Dylan's back catalog to sing "We ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more" and their 2 Tone colleagues The Beat produced the reggae hit “Stand Down Margaret.”

As reactions to Thatcher's death raised old divisions among Britons this week, time seems to have done little to dull the hostility of musicians from that time.

"I'm proud to have put out songs opposed to her as she changed our country for the worse," said Jerry Dammers of The Specials. "Britain is no longer self-sufficient and we don't pay our way in the world anymore."

Morrissey, the former vocalist of the Smiths, was even more scathing.

"Thatcher was not a strong or formidable leader. She simply did not give a sh*t about people," he posted on a fan site. "No British politician has ever been more despised by the British people."

Back in 1986, Morrissey's first solo album “Viva Hate” contained a ballad titled “Margaret on the Guillotine.”

"The kind people have a wonderful dream — Margaret on the Guillotine," he crooned. "People like you make me feel so tired, when will you die?"

Beyond the direct attacks against Thatcher, music provided an outlet for youthful dissatisfaction over racism, class divisions, inner city decay and a raft of other evils blamed on her government.

The Specials' “Ghost Town” and “Guns of Brixton” by The Clash captured the zeitgeist when riots were tearing through derelict neighborhoods of London, Liverpool and other cites in 1981. The Jam's No. 1 hit “Going Underground” warned health service cuts would lead to "kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns." And Costello's “Shipbuilding” was an anguished lament over the Falklands War.

Marginalized youngsters may have been powerless to rescue Britain's doomed coal mines, halt the warships sailing to the South Atlantic or even save their student grants, but the UK's musical opposition provided a loud voice for their frustrations. Top 10 hits in 1984 made British kids feel that buying a record could feed the world or free Nelson Mandela, whom Thatcher once branded a terrorist.

The music still resonates today under current Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, a staunch defender of Thatcher's record. "She made our country great again,” he told the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Cameron is spearheading large cuts to social welfare under the auspices of anti-crisis austerity and plans to hold a referendum on taking Britain out of the European Union, one of Thatcher’s favorite punching bags.

Ironically, he has also sought to boost his street cred by claiming to have been a big-time fan of The Smiths. The Jam's hit “Eton Rifles” was a favorite with Cameron and his chums at Eton, he’s said, regardless of its searing attack on the privilege represented by the elite private school.

"Which bit didn't he get?" The Jam's former frontman Paul Weller said of Cameron in a 2008 Guardian interview. "I think they were absolute f**king scum — especially Thatcher, who I think should be shot as a traitor to the people."

Many others appear to share similar views. A Facebook campaign launched this week to make “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” Britain's No. 1 song succeeded Thursday in placing Judy Garland's Wizard of Oz tune at the top of the iTunes UK chart.

Still, with the decidedly unpolitical boy band One Direction currently Britain's top musical export, there’s little sign of today's young Brits expressing musical outrage on a Thatcher-era scale.

That may be happening elsewhere in Europe, as youth unemployment rates running over 50 percent in some countries appear to be fueling a political pop revival.

Hip-hop star Boss AC dominated airwaves in Portugal for much of last year with a ditty called “Sexta Feira (emprego bom já)” (Friday — a good job right now), which expresses anguish at the lack of jobs and cash.

In “Parva Que Sou” (Fool that I am), the group Deolinda turned to the country's traditional fado music to produce what has been called the "anthem of a generation" with its message to young jobless: "what a stupid world where you study just to be a slave."

In Spain, veteran metal-rappers Def con Dos are enjoying a comeback with their recently released album “Espana es Idiota.”

The title track includes the words: "rather than have the Forth Reich turn us into its puppets, it would be better if Gibraltar lets us become English; we can't stand the disgrace any more, of living in a monopoly where the bank always wins."

Although rock and rap are the medium of choice for musical discontents from Athens to Alicante, a group of classical musicians became a YouTube sensation in Spain after forming a flash mob to play The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” for people waiting in an unemployment office.

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Over in Greece, an alternative scene of hip-hop rebels rooted in the country's long tradition of protest song has emerged to entertain crowds at the anti-austerity demos that regularly fill streets and plazas in Athens.

"Greek hip-hoppers are the ones coming out in squares with lyrics about the crisis, usually very negative, that we have no hope," says Maria Paravantes, a music writer based in the Greek capital. "These groups are really young kids, as young as 15, playing in their garages or basements, and they are actually very good."

Prominent among the new wave is Soul System, whose song “Flame On” has become a rallying call for resistance to austerity. Older Greek rockers are also singing out.

Founded 20 years ago, the band Ypogeia Revmata, whose name means “underground currents,” have adapted the words of a 1970s protest song to ask: "what would we lose without all of them, the Germans, the professors, who would know much more if they didn’t gratify their stomachs? I’m sick and tired of them all.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/united-kingdom/130412/margaret-maggie-thatcher-rock-n-roll