Squeeze are a band who were formed in 1974, when I was nine and the eloquent East Midlands firebrand Grace Petrie was around ten years away from being born. They were invited onto BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show last Sunday to perform their splendid song Cradle To The Grave (the theme tune for the splendid BBC comedy of the same name), and a few days before, singer and co-songwriter Glenn Tibrook found out that they were going to be on the same edition as the Prime Minister. But not until ten minutes before the live performance did he decide he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t slip in a new verse. So, without the rest of the band knowing, he did. It was sung, live, to a visible audience of two: Andrew Marr and David Cameron (who’d been on to smarm about how his government’s dismantling of council housing wasn’t that at all, even though it is).
I grew up in council houses
Part of what made Britain great
There are some here who are hell bent
On the destruction of the welfare state
As an act of protest it was calm, collected and heartfelt. You can read Tilbrook’s full account of why he did it here. Even if Cameron wasn’t paying attention, we were. (It was Danny Baker, old pal and co-writer of the series that bears the song’s name, who tweeted about it, and interest among the righteous snowballed from there.) I think the fact that it went a bit viral is due to a broader thirst for protest in the arts. I have loved Squeeze since Cool For Cats, and although their best known songs are beautifully observed social documentary, rather than out and out socialist anthems, a beating heart is always audible, and anyone who had a heart would surely be on the side of people who can’t afford to buy their council houses rather than the side of the developers and landlords who will cash in on their blameless misery.
My blood was stirred by Tilbrook’s stand. It must have been even more exciting to catch it as it went out. What a thrill such subversion provides. If he’d sworn, or thrown down the mic, or stuck two fingers up at Cameron, it would have been less of a moment. To instead attack him with poetry, which is what it is, is poetic. This government will cut the subsidised arts down to the bone if they have their way, as they believe, in the space where their hearts might beat, that if the arts can’t pay for themselves in a free market, they have no place in the public arena.
I tweeted in the heat of the moment about Squeeze, but was defeated in my constant aim of clarity by the 140-character limit, and it didn’t quite come across, which is why I’m expanding upon the fire in my belly here, and will keep typing until I’ve finished! Anyway, out of a self of righteous dismay with the generally apolitical malaise of today’s mainstream pop and rock music, this is what I wrote:
I called Squeeze “old” because, well, they are. The band itself is 42. Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford are 58 and 61. They have been around. And the truism goes: you get more right wing as you get older. I have personally found this not to be the case, but you do see people’s priorities change when they have children and find themselves inevitably sucked into the system, with less time for the luxury of dissent. (Do you know that quote by literary critic Cyril Connolly? “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”)
I find myself getting angrier and angrier about injustice, cruelty, materialism, privatisation and lack of compassion. Some days I wish I’d calm down. I may not have been on a march since 2003, but this is chiefly because that particular protest’s failure to change the course of history knocked the protesting stuffing out of me. (I even tried writing letters to my MP and to the PM but they had no effect either, and Iraq was duly invaded, as planned long before anybody tried to stop the war.)
So the sight of a band who’ve been around since the mid-70s seizing the moment on a live political discussion programme and having their say warmed my heart. My tweet was not aimed at “young bands” who are politicised. I’m well aware that a pocket of young artists are as pissed off as I am. I may not know all their names, or be au fait with their politically charged music (as I’ve long since stopped going to gigs on a regular basis), but as Billy Bragg’s official biographer I keep abreast of political music via him. We collaborated on a new chapter to my book only two years ago, and in writing about Billy’s endorsement of Jake Bugg, Grace Petrie and others, I felt a connection with them. Having first heard Grace Petrie through Josie Long when we did a 6 Music radio show together, it gave me enormous pleasure to type “Petrie, Grace” into the updated index of Still Suitable For Miners. (I still wonder to this day why Josie and I were not invited back. We were told that the station had loved what we’d done, but the call never came.)
Anyway, true to form, my Tweet was read by some as a sweeping generalisation against all “young bands”. It was nothing of the sort. But Twitter can be a cruel interpreter of raw feeling. To me, there is no difference between what Squeeze did and what Petrie, Seán McGowan and Chris TT do. I remembered this dispiriting moment from a 2011 article by Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian. We join Grace Petrie onstage at the University of London:
“You guys at UCL,” she says. “You’re pretty political, right?” A handful of students raise a feeble cheer, and Petrie’s face falls. “That’s not quite what I expected.”
She wins them over in the end, but the message is: it ain’t easy being political. One of her first songs was Goodbye To Welfare, so it’s easy to see the link with Squeeze. My dismay was clearly never with her, or the others who fight the good fight. It was with the general state of pop and rock music made by the young and aimed at the young, but to my ears bereft of struggle or friction. I actually sometimes think that the mobile phone age has bred an intractable complacency. You can’t blame a generation for succumbing to the touch-screen intimacy of the smartphone and taking their eye off the bigger picture – after all, nobody even looks forward when they’re walking along now. Their face is in that little glowing oblong, their ears plugged, their attention all used up. This victory for the system makes political artists all the more rare, and all the more vital.
Sam Duckworth (formerly Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly), who raises a “Stop Bombing Syria” placard in his Twitter avatar, wrote to me of “the death of the counter culture in the under-30s.” It sort of breaks my heart. In a better world, protest artists would be on television. Maybe not on Andrew Marr, but somewhere on the BBC, with its public service remit (although I guess the BBC has bigger fish to fry, what with the Tories bearing down hard at charter-renewal time). When I was a teenager, we had Something Else on BBC Two, a “youth” magazine show that introduced me to so many things, not just Joy Division live (something it’s now famous for doing), but also political poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Cooper Clarke and Craig Charles. I may be remembering it – and the subsequent Oxford Road Show – through a rose tint, but I was a “youth” and somebody was speaking to me. Also, there was nothing else on and no mobiles, so I went out on my bike and listened to records with my friends, and talked.
Nothing more boring than a man in his fifties hymning his childhood, but I hold the youth of today to a high standard. I don’t expect Adele (whose music I like) to bring down the government. But I don’t hear any politics in the dreary music of Ellie Goulding or Florence Welch either (and they seemed to come up via 6 Music with a certain degree of credibility), or in any of the acoustic singer-songwriters like Ed Sheeran, or James Bay, or whatever the other ones are called. They’re the worst; they come on like troubadours, one man and a guitar, and they say next to nothing.
People on Twitter started listing bands and artists who are political for me, and the fact that I’d not heard of many of them tells you a lot. Enter Shikari and the King Blues I’m familiar with, but (and I’ll try and put links in to their websites here) less so Tim OT, Against Me!, Gecko, The Lagan, Josiah Mortimer, Dru Blues, Brigitte Aphrodite, Chas Palmer-Williams, Ducking Punches, Perkie, Colour Me Wednesday, Onsind, Will Varley, Itch (from the King Blues), Grant Sharkey, Beans On Toast (thanks to Seán McGowan for most of those, but others chipped in).
It’s an underground movement, as it has to be. But the very technology that seems to be turning the populace into zombies, unable to communicate verbally or emotionally, also empowers unknown or unsigned artists to get their music out there, often for free, via Soundcloud or Bandcamp. Squeeze are a well-established band from another era of contracts and distribution and copyright and Walkerprints, and for them to make their stand, on live television, in the daytime, on the BBC, puts them in the same boat at Grace Petrie and the others mentioned here.
That’s what I meant.
I’ll end with a self-referential couplet from a song by Billy Bragg written and recorded in 1987 for the Workers’ Playtime LP:
Mixing Pop and Politics, he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses …
Now form a band!*
* Sorry, another ancient reference.