A great leap forward

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:

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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.)

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thinking allowed

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It was announced that David Bowie had died, aged 69, at around 6.45am. I found out, as is the usual way of things now, via social media. I logged on to Twitter at around 7.15 and the first tweet I saw was by Gavin Hogg, which had been retweeted by Nige Tassell. I didn’t, at first, get it.

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So I scrolled down and confirmed it. This was devastating news, not least in light of the fact that we bought his new album yesterday, and purchased the recent Mojo with him on the cover, to have a good read about the making of said album (and of Scary Monsters in a separate feature). Certainly, he looked a little wizened in the new photos, and especially in the video for the single, but nobody outside of his family and close friends can have known that he’d had cancer for 18 months. Not as shocking as someone famous you admire dying in a car crash, for instance, but shocking nonetheless. We shall hear no more new David Bowie music in our lives.

Anyway, I will pay tribute to my all-time favourite musician elsewhere. I blog herewith about David Cameron, who had this to say.

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What David Cameron, or David Cameron’s office, says via his Twitter account impacts on way more people than anything I will ever say. He has 1,327,911 followers. He is the Prime Minister of a country. His party were voted in at the last election. Of course he has 1.3m followers. Many of these followers will take everything he or his office types at face value. And indeed, I am not saying he didn’t “grow up listening to David Bowie.” David Bowie is always on the radio. Unless you only listened to Radio 4 or Radio 3, or don’t listen to the radio at all, you’re going to hear David Bowie’s hits. I’m not even saying that David Cameron doesn’t think he is a “pop genius” or a “master of reinvention.” But when I saw the tweet (I follow David Cameron as you must know your enemy), I felt indignant.

I read the comments under David Cameron’s tweet, posted by his office within around ten minutes of the official announcement by David Bowie’s office, and this was the gist: “Fuck off … Fuck off, you twat … You prick … Oh do fuck off … Fuck off, dish face … Bowie was the antithesis of everything you stand for … Piss off … Twat.” Rather than join this jolly mob of abuse the Prime Minister will never read, which would be water off a prick’s back in any event, I simply retweeted his tribute with a footnote of my own.

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Note, I used the epithet “Sir,” to distance myself from any foul-mouthed abuse. This was intended to back-reference what Johnny Marr said when David Cameron voiced his appreciation of the Smiths. He “forbade” him from liking the band, as I’m sure you remember.

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Anyhow, my “You are not allowed to comment” comment was passed around by those who agreed with the sentiment. I felt strongly and passionately about the insidious and hollow way our Prime Minister uses social media to attach himself to what he thinks are issues that will endear him to the electorate. Jumping in with a personal tribute to David Bowie, on the great man’s untimely death, felt particularly ghoulish to me. Part of my problem is the motivation behind it. I have plenty of evidence that David Cameron’s motives are not always sincere or honest. He was on Andrew Marr only this weekend explaining why selling council houses would be good for people living in poverty and at no point actually told the truth, which is that he despises anyone without the get-up-and-go to be rich and if they can’t afford to buy their council house, then all they’re doing is preventing less lazy people from buying it.

I see David Cameron as a hateful figure. A dimwit without the empathy to understand what it’s like to grow up without a helping hand. He lacks the intelligence to see how much ire he stirs up when, say, he turns up in his wellies to be interviewed about the floods in Cumbria when it’s his government that has cut flood defence spending, and engineers his photocall so that he doesn’t have to speak to any ordinary people who have been flooded out.

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That’s the background for my tweet, something most people who care to follow me understood. But a few took violently against it. I took abuse from individuals who called me, variously, a “fascist”, a “totalitarian”, and, in one illiterate case, a “fuck whit”. Before blocking them, I checked to see if they were Tories, but it was hard to tell. One compared me to Donald Trump in my haste to disallow one elected man from commenting on the cruel passing of my favourite artist from cancer. I’m pretty sure you can’t be a fascist if you are against one single person? And it would be a pretty useless totalitarian state that oppressed one citizen.

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My dislike – and disenfranchisement – of David Cameron is not based on his race, or ethnicity, or his political views, or his detachment from the country he is chopping up and selling off; it is merely based on his being David Cameron, and a grudge I have been building up for five years. One rather more reasonable person on Twitter claimed to also “dislike his politics” but remained affronted that I had disallowed the PM from commenting on David Bowie (as if perhaps I had some kind of administrative or legislative power to do so). Mind you, “disliking his politics” does not quite go far enough to describe my feelings about David Cameron.

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So, RIP David Bowie. And do shut up, David Cameron. Someone else sarcastically asked me to provide a list of those who can and cannot comment. Easy: everybody else can; David Cameron can’t. Hope that clears it up.

A trip down Nathan Lane

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In reviewing the season finales of three great US imports for Telly Addict this week – Boss, forever, on More4; The Good Wife, for now, on More4; and Modern Family, for now, on Sky Atlantic – it dawned on me that Nathan Lane stole scenes in two out of three of them. What an asset he is, whether playing a gay wedding planner, or a possibly straight court-appointed trustee – how does Broadway operate while he’s away? Also, the grim documentary series on BBC2 Police Under Pressure; and I am proud to present the clip of David Cameron trying to be cool by mentioning Game Of Thrones on Prime Minister’s Questions, courtesy BBC Parliament. Except he said, “Games Of Thrones.” Of course he did.

I now pronounce you

GAY MARRIAGE OPPONENT HOLDS SIGN IN PROTEST OUTSIDE STATEHOUSE

Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, according to the old song. It’s true enough, even though you see horses pulling carriages less these days. It doesn’t specify in the lyric that the people getting married have to be a man and a woman, although having been written in the mid-50s by Sammy Cahn, its implication is likely to be that you should be a man and a woman in order to get married, because you did in those days – and still do in all but nine of the United States – but the song’s sentiment has lasted well over the years. So even though Sammy – most famously through the voice of Mr Frank Sinatra – is implicitly promoting legal heterosexual union, it is still one based wholly in love, so would surely apply to a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, and any transgender combination in between.

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage.
This I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the other.

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
It’s an institute you can’t disparage.
Ask the local gentry and they will say it’s elementary.

Try, try, try to separate them, it’s an illusion.
Try, try, try and you only come to this conclusion:

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage.
Dad was told by mother you can’t have one
You can’t have none.
You can’t have one without the other.

I ask you this: how much time have you spent in your life agonising over what you think about gay marriage? For me, since the issue of civil partnerships first arose this century, it was probably a couple of seconds, after which I arrived at the obvious conclusion: why the hell not? There is, to me, literally no reason why not. (Fortunately I am not bound by religious dogma of any kind, so my decision is final and resolute.) But it seems that out there in the world of traditional, right-wing thought, especially religious right-wing thought, some people spend an awful lot of time wrestling with the issue. Actually agonising over it. To the point of sending worried delegations to government and taking to the streets with placards.

Even though my views on the banning of fox-hunting are clear – another issue that took up a lot of Parliamentary time during the first act of the New Labour government but eventually passed – I can easily see why some would vehemently disagree with my point of view. I find it much harder to empathise with those who are against gay marriage.

What harm can it do? I posted a Tweet about it this morning, after seeing another Tory on the news bemoaning David Cameron’s apparently radical plan to promote its legalisation with an opt-out for any church that disagrees with the equalisation of rights for all humans, and wondering why, seriously, it would bother a heterosexual so much that a homosexual person might love someone so much that they wish to make it legal, on equal terms with their heterosexual neighbour? If they hold the institution of marriage so dear, why would they legally discourage people from entering into it, just because they are gay?

Commitment to a partner via the tradition of marriage, whether religious or secular, is no bad thing. But there are no rules. Some couples raising kids out of wedlock appear to be doing a great job; and some who are married are having a rotten time of it and may inadvertently be lighting a fuse to future anxiety in their kids. I’m sure gay parents will screw up, too. We’re all human. And that’s the point. No? Some single parents do a better job than unhappily married parents, too. Why is that hard to understand? It takes all sorts.

Homosexuality has been legal in this country for most of my lifetime and the age of consent equalised with the heterosexual equivalent; why dig your Tory heels in on this particular issue? Marriage would make adoption of children easier for gay couples, but I expect the real burst-bloodvessel Tories would be against that too.

What bothers me the most is that even the retired colonels qualify their homophobia with, “We’re not anti-gay but …”, which is always a giveaway, but in this case might even be true on a very superficial level. (I expect they don’t mind what the gays do “behind closed doors”. How tolerant of them.) So you’re not anti-gay, but you deny gays equal rights? Then you are anti-gay. My Tweet to this effect – common sense, as far as I can see – was re-Tweeted about 360 times during the day, and is still being re-Tweeting as I type. I’m glad that it struck a chord, although I wish I lived in a country where it didn’t need saying out loud.

I had one dissenting voice on Twitter – I much prefer preaching to the choir! – from a person who I’m not going to name, as I found their comment calm, honest, non-combative and, in its own way, rational. I also find it easy to sidestep. They wrote, “Why not create a new institution giving the same legal rights as marriage?” Their problem was in calling it “marriage.” I have heard this caveat before. So they weren’t even against gay marriage per se, they were just against it being called “marriage.”

Can this just be a semantic argument, after all? Is it not the institution of marriage but the word of marriage that matters to those against the gay upgrade?

The Commons vote is tomorrow. They’re saying that Cameron’s enthusiasm for the vote-winning legalisation of gay marriage – and that’s surely all it can be – will sink him, and he will be stopped by the “old guard” of the party he seems nominally to be trying to modernise while he and his baronet pals are actually driving the welfare state into the sea and forcing the poor to beg for their food, thus doing what no Tory party has achieved in our lifetimes.

There, I’ve thought about gay marriage for way longer than the subject needed to be thought about. I hope you’re happy, retired colonels on the news! (You don’t look it)