Mark Twain once wrote of a memorial service, “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying that I approved of it.” The following comments regarding Margaret Thatcher having ascended to the choir invisible are written with that same attitude, a spirit no doubt shared by millions in the U.K. and around the world.
When I heard the news on April 8, 2013 that the “Iron Lady” had passed away at the age of 87, it was like receiving word of a long-time nemesis having given up the ghost. Numerous memories of Thatcher came to mind, none of them pleasant, as I waited for the deluge of corporate media sophistry that would conceal the real legacy of Maggie Thatcher.
This “anti-obituary” will be told through some of the graphics and songs opposing Thatcher that were produced in England during her reign, which is a very wide field indeed. There was The English Beat’s Stand Down Margaret; Robert Wyatt’s version of Shipbuilding (written for him by Elvis Costello); Costello’s own Tramp The Dirt Down; Morrissey’s Margaret On The Guillotine; UB40’s Madam Medusa; the Au Pairs’ Armagh (about the torture of Britain’s Irish political prisoners); The Exploited’s Let’s Start A War Said Maggie One Day; Anti-Pasti’s No Maggie Thatcher and No Government, and many other songs too numerous to mention.
This piece of writing will primarily focus on two influential punk bands that gave Thatcher and friends a collective headache, Chumbawamba and Crass, but first a few things about Maggie you will likely not hear about in corporate news coverage of her passing.
I remember Thatcher as the Education Secretary for Edward Heath’s Conservative government (1970-1974). She imposed spending cuts on the state education system, eliminating free milk for schoolchildren, an act that earned her the everlasting title of “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”.
Things only got worse when she became Prime Minister on May 4, 1977.
Prime Minister Thatcher introduced austerity to the U.K., implementing savage cuts to social spending and making race-to-the-bottom neo-liberal casino capitalism the new norm.
Working class England was ravaged by her monetarist economic policies as manufacturing and industrial jobs disappeared – a legacy that continues with the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Thatcher took Britain to war over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands… a filthy imperialist escapade that earned her the contempt of Latin America. She mobilized the state to defeat striking British coal miners, and totally decimated the mining communities of northern England’s coal belt. At the House of Commons she attacked the miners by referring to them as “the enemy within”, saying; “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty”.
Thatcher refused to negotiate with Irish Republican prisoners in Britain’s notorious Long Kesh “H-Block” prison camp; interned for committing paramilitary acts in the cause of an independent Ireland, the inmates were waging a hunger strike in 1981 in order to gain political prisoner status. One of the protesters, Bobby Sands, was elected as a member of the British Parliament during the strike. Ultimately, Thatcher let Sands and nine other Irish Republican prisoners starve to death rather than talk to them. IRA recruitment went through the roof, and upwards of 150,000 people attended the funeral of Sands in Belfast, Ireland.
Thatcher supported the apartheid regime of South Africa and in 1987 stated “The ANC is a typical terrorist organization. Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land”.
She struck a solid alliance with Ronald Reagan, agreeing with him that hundreds of U.S. nuclear missiles should be deployed across Europe in order to pressure the Soviet Union. She allowed Reagan to base 160 nuclear cruise missiles in the U.K., 96 at the Greenham Common U.S. Air Force base, and 64 at the RAF station in Molesworth.
Thatcher supported General Pinochet, who staged a fascist coup d’état on September 11, 1973 that drowned Chile in blood. Pinochet’s military dictatorship (1973-1990) murdered tens of thousands of Chileans, still more were kidnapped, tortured, and forced into exile. As late as 1999, even after his 1998 arrest on charges of torture and murder, Thatcher thanked Pinochet for “bringing democracy to Chile“. There is more of course, but it is outside the scope of this blog to list each and every one of Thatcher’s misdeeds.
Of all the music produced during the Thatcher years, the most caustic and vitriolic attacks against Maggie came from punk rock; in fact it is hard to imagine the genre at all without the Iron Lady. From the Sex Pistols to the Clash, from Discharge to Conflict, punk bands may not have mentioned her by name, but they laid waste to Thatcherism and the ruling class it served. As the perfect icon of reactionary state power, Maggie gave punk something to flail and wail against.
Outside of England, Chumbawamba and Crass were hardly known (save for small circles of miscreants like myself), a fact that remains unaltered by time; both were extremely influential in their own way, making tremendous impact on punk and dissident culture in the U.K. Crass formed in 1977 after the group’s founder, Steve Ignorant, saw a performance of the Clash. Chumbawamba formed some years later in 1982, in large part influenced by the artistic/political stance of Crass.
In those early years the two groups spearheaded the politicized subsect of punk that came to be called “peace-punk” or “anarcho-punk” for spotlighting anti-war, anti-authoritarian, and anti-capitalist themes. Crass came to my attention in 1979 when they sent a review copy of their first 45 single, Reality Asylum/Shaved Women, to L.A.’s Slash magazine, where I worked at the time. The challenging slab of vinyl was unlike anything us Angelenos had ever heard before, and so Slash published a full article about the band in its last issue… which was most likely the first major article written about the group in a U.S. publication.
Crass released a string of albums and singles from 1978 to 1984 before they disbanded. It was difficult listening on the whole, even some of my punk friends in the early 80s would not listen to them, but I always found the group more than intriguing. To me, one of their most inspired recordings was their third album, Penis Envy (1981), an indictment of male dominance, conformity, and war, all delivered with the band’s typical melodic chaos.
Another recommended recording would be their single, Nagasaki Nightmare (1981). Few works in the annals of music history have attempted to deal with truly horrifying real world events, but this particular recording succeeded like few others. It is their most remarkable effort. It should be remembered that despite all of their outrageousness, their brutal sound, and their total lack of radio airplay – Crass nevertheless consistently reached the top of the Indie Charts.
In 1982 Crass responded to the “Falkland Islands” war with a scorching aural attack titled, How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead?
The song was a slap in the face to Thatcher and the British ruling class over their war against Argentina on the issue of Falkland/Malvinas Islands sovereignty.
The Guerra de las Malvinas, began in April of 1982 when Argentina sent its military to secure the Islands, which Argentinians call the Malvinas and have always claimed as their territory (they continue to do so).
The British government under Thatcher deployed Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to make the Argentinians surrender the islands to the British Empire, having “claimed” the islands in 1833. The Malvinas are some 300 miles from the coast of Argentina, while they are around 8,000 miles from the U.K.
The uneven war lasted 73 days, ending June 14, 1982 with Argentina surrendering the territory to the U.K. The conflict took the lives of 649 Argentine soldiers, 3 Falkland Islanders, and 255 British troops… just shy of the 1,000 alluded to in the Crass song title. How Does It Feel was recorded in London in August of 1982, the single came shrouded in a black paper sleeve printed with a thousand tiny white graveyard crosses representing the war dead. The single included a folding black and white poster artwork of a horribly wounded U.K. bomber pilot, his face mutilated from combat. Under a banner reading “Welcome Home”, the vet hugged his gleeful blonde wife on the airfield tarmac. The song itself was frenetic, filled with atonal guitar noise and anguished shouted lyrics;
“How does it feel to be the mother of a thousand death? Young boys rest now, cold graves in cold earth. How does it feel to be the mother of a thousand death? Sunken eyes, lost now; empty sockets in futile death.”
Conservative MP Timothy Eggar defended Thatcher and the war, telling the press that the Crass single was “a vicious, scurrilous attack on the Prime Minister and the government”. Eggar condemned the record for being “obscene”, and Crass responded by saying the true obscenity was the war. The Tory party made an effort to prosecute Crass under the U.K.’s “Obscene Publications Act”, but the attempt failed once the Attorney-General ruled the single did not breach the law.
As a follow-up, Crass released the single, Sheep Farming in the Falklands, in April of 1983. The single’s flipside was titled Gotcha! The cover art featured the otherwise black and white Crass logo, this time done up in the colors of the Union Jack.
The flipside jacket was a photograph of a World War I veteran whose face had been mutilated by bomb splinters – the word GOTHCHA! floating above his face in capital letters.
The image sans text, came from the classic anti-war book, Krieg dem Krieg (“War against War”) by the German artist Ernst Friedrich (1894-1967). Friedrich first published his book in 1924. A diatribe against those who start wars, his book combined appalling photos of war wounded soldiers with devastating text. Needless to say Friedrich ran afoul of the Nazis and fled Germany in 1933. I have prepared an essay on Friedrich, which you can expect in the near future.
The song, Sheep Farming, begins with a short snippet of an actual news broadcast recounting the attempted government prosecution of Crass over the aforementioned How Does It Feel. The song then launches into feverish pandemonium – screeched and squealed – first sneeringly condemning the imperial war (“Friggin in the riggin another imperialist farce, another page of British history to wipe the national arse!”), and then, dripping with bitter sarcasm, offering a jingoistic narrative as told through the voice of an imaginary war supporter (“Onward Thatcher’s soldiers, it’s your job to fight…”). Laced with expletives, the song ends with all musical structure falling apart, like a great battlement blasted to bits by artillery fire. The final words of the composition, aimed directly at Thatcher, likely comprise the most insulting language ever committed to vinyl.
The single’s inserted mini-poster and lyric sheet bears an artwork of Thatcher, wide-eyed and smiling, holding what appears to be an enormous phallus sculpted from excrement. Circling the repulsive portrait are the words, “Birds put the turd in custard but who put the shit in no. 10?”
The title of Gotcha! referred to the May 4, 1982 edition of The Sun, which originally offered the revolting headline of “Gotcha” when reporting on the sinking of the Argentine Navy cruiser, the ARA General Belgrano, by a British Royal Navy submarine, the HMS Conqueror. The Conqueror struck the Belgrano outside of the war zone with two torpedoes, killing 323 crew members. The infamous Sun account gloated that “Our lads”, “had the Argies on their knees” after “torpedoes from our super nuclear sub Conqueror” had blasted the cruiser.
Gotcha! had the same song structure as Sheep Farming, alternating between earnest denunciation and sardonic pro-war narrative. Crass took the war propaganda of The Sun and inverted it, exposing the national chauvinism, racism, and warmongering of the state and its sycophantic media with the song’s opening chorus;
“Gotcha! – you Argie bastard, Gotcha! – you fucking Spik, Gotcha! – you Latin bender, Gotcha! – you Dago prick… We gotcha, gotcha, gotcha – gotcha, gotcha, gotcha – we gotcha, gotcha, gotcha – Our boys have got it right!”
Sounding like the heat of battle from the opening to final chords, the relentlessly unpleasant song creates the impression of a soldier, indeed, an entire nation, gone mad with war lust: “This is Thatcher’s Britain built on national pride, built on national heritage, and the bodies of those who died to wave the flag on the Falklands, to protect us from the Irish hordes, to support the rich in their difficult task of protecting themselves from the poor”. Listening to the song, one can imagine the eyes of war enthusiasts bulging as their spittle flies into your face while shouting: “Yes, this is Thatcher’s Britain, so let’s increase the strength of the police. Let’s expand the military, let’s all arm for peace. Let’s suppress all opposition, let’s keep the people down. Let’s resurrect past histories for the glory of the crown.”
Chumbawamba achieved “commercial success” with their 1997 “dance hit” Tubthumping, but it is a lesser work that gives little indication of the full depth and breadth of what the band was capable of.
In 1982 I first heard Chumbawamba on a double record compilation put together by Crass and released on their Crass Records label that same year. Titled, Bullshit Detector Vol 2. (after a lyric from the Clash’s song, Garageland), the compilation consisted of 38 tracks from the same number of British punk bands. Chumbawamba’s cut Three Years Later was easily forgotten, a grating ditty with the repetitive lyrics, “You can’t do nothing if you haven’t got money”. Still, there was something to the lurching mechanical-like beat and jangly guitar noise… a portent of things to come. I still posses my copy of Bullshit Detector for its anti-Monarchist cover design and illustration, a consummate example of punk aesthetics.
I really took notice of Chumbawamba in 1985 when they contributed two songs, The Police Have Been Wonderful and Fitzwilliam, to Dig This: A Tribute to the Great Strike. Dedicated to the Miners Strike of 1984-1985, the album was a fund-raiser for the striking miners and all money raised from the sale of the record went to the “Miners Solidarity Fund”. The LP featured cuts by Poison Girls, Mekons, The Ex, Omega Tribe, Leningrad Sandwich, Men They Couldn’t Hang, Akimbo, and Steve Lake.
Chumbawamba’s contributions to Dig This were a far cry from their earlier hard-core punk sound. The Police Have Been Wonderful had a mild techno sound achieved in the studio through repetitive looping tape. Over the hypnotic soundtrack the group sampled news broadcasts of Thatcher lauding the police for the way they handled the strike, “Most of us who have watched the scenes on television have only the highest praise for the police” – an outrageous statement in itself since the entire country was watching TV news reports of brutal police actions taken in crushing the miner’s strike.
Fitzwilliam was a hauntingly beautiful ballad about the people of the mining town of Fitzwilliam braving violence from police and scabs, and enduring government and media lies throughout the duration of the strike. In the middle of the song (lyrics here) a poetic juxtaposition is made between the working women of the mining town and Prime Minister Thatcher: “Woman and woman in opposing extremes, between man-made heaven and popular dreams, between twisted detachment and learning to breathe – one locks the prison, one sets herself free”.
The Mineworkers strike lasted a year but was eventually defeated by repressive legislation and Thatcher’s use of raw police violence and brutality. After the strike collapsed, Thatcher closed 25 coal mines in 1985, and 97 more would be closed by 1992. In a report published in the Guardian after Thatcher’s death, one miner, a veteran of the 1984 strike, put it this way: “It was class war. The people above didn’t want us to win. The people with money didn’t want us to win. If we had won, they wouldn’t be able to get away with what they are doing now, cutting benefits for disabled people and things like that. The unions would have stopped them. But we lost.”
By the time of their debut 1986 album, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, Chumbawamba had already moved beyond hard-core punk to embrace pop, folk, a cappella, and “world music” forms – though they were certainly capable of launching a raucous sound barrage at a moments notice (listen to the cut Invasion as proof – lyrics here). Despite the lack of stereotypical punk dissonance and cacophony, Starving Children embodied the anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist punk moral code; it was a concept album that offered a scornfully derisive view of corporate control of culture.
Other high-points in Chumbawamba’s recording career include their second album, Never Mind the Ballots… Here’s The Rest of Your Life. Recorded in 1987, this brilliant concept album exposed the con-game of elections under capitalism: “Said the Party to the adman, ‘We’ll conjure up a gimmick – the way to lead an ass is with a carrot and a stick. Dig down for minorities, promise them concessions, ride in one their backs, and then teach them all a lesson”. (It was the album young people in the U.S. should have listened to prior to the 2008 presidential elections.) Also high on the list would be the group’s third album, English Rebel Songs: 1381-1984. This extraordinary recording presented traditional protest songs from throughout England’s history; from the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, to songs of the Diggers (1649), and Chartists (1840s).
After 30 years of writing, recording, performing, and agitating, Chumbawamba called it quits in July of 2012, but ever forward thinking – they had planned something special for the future.
“In anticipation of the great day” they wrote and recorded a seven track EP in 2005 titled In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher (you can see them performing one of the songs, So Long, So Long, in this 2009 concert).
Over the years the band encouraged fans to pre-order the EP for £5 (around $7.60 U.S.), giving their word that the recording would be released on the day of Thatcher’s death. Years after they recorded the EP, Thatcher died on April 8, 2013. The band mailed out the Memoriam CD that same day. Chumbawamba posted a statement that read:
“She’s not been gone more than a few hours, and already the national media have cranked into gear and begun the blandly respectful eulogies – at their most critical they seem to be only able to say: ‘She polarized opinion … what’s certain is how much of an impact she made on Britain … etc etc.’ Twitter set off at a pace with a thousand ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ messages only to be followed by a slew of bleeding heart liberals bemoaning the fact that people were daring to celebrate someone’s death.
Pah! Let’s make it clear: This is a cause to celebrate, to party, to stamp the dirt down. Tomorrow we can carry on shouting and writing and working and singing and striking against the successive governments that have so clearly followed Thatcher’s Slash & Burn policies, none more so than the present lot. But for now, we can have a drink and a dance and propose a toast to the demise of someone who blighted so many people’s lives for so long. If we must show a little reverence and decorum at this time, then so be it. Our deepest sympathies go out to the families of all Margaret Thatcher’s victims.”
The wealthy and the powerful of this world mourn Thatcher’s death. Prior to her April 18, 2013 funeral, Prime Minister David Cameron told BBC Radio 4, “We are all Thatcherites now“. Offering a timid rebuke to the remark, Cameron’s Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Party co-conspirator Nick Clegg squeaked, “I certainly wouldn’t call myself a Thatcherite. I am a liberal. She wasn’t a liberal.” Ah yes… a liberal. In an official statement, President Obama said “The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the class divide, street parties celebrating Thatcher’s death took place throughout England. The largest occurred in London’s Trafalgar Square, where upwards of 3,000 people drank Champagne and sang “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead” from the classic Judy Garland The Wizard of Oz movie. The song became a sensation with anti-Thatcherites, who succeeded in making the song the number one hit on U.K. iTunes “top ten” category. Hundreds turned their backs on Thatcher’s funeral procession as it made its way to St. Paul’s Cathedral, while in the former coal mining village of Goldthorpe, South Yorkshire (its coal mine closed in 1994 due to Thatcher’s policies), residents gathered in the village square to burn Maggie in effigy.
The following is pertinent, so please bear with me. Just prior to Maggie’s death I viewed the classic American film-noir, Ruthless. Starring Zachary Scott, the 1948 flick told the story of a predatory capitalist’s rise to power, and how he mercilessly crushed all those in the way of his acquiring endless profits… going so far as to abandon the woman who loved him, Martha Burnside (played by Diana Lynn).
Scott’s character of Horace Vendig met his match in the equally venal oligarch, Buck Mansfield (played by the incomparable Sydney Greenstreet). Without giving away the end, a character who witnessed Vendig’s downfall, said of him: “He wasn’t a man… he was a way of life”. Likewise, consider this essay regarding Thatcher, not as an attack on an individual, but as a critique of “a way of life”.
Thatcherism is alive and well, but so is the resistance.