Music from deprivation

Friday 23 October 2020

Pete Paphides selects some of the best songs to come out of recessionary conditions


As a pop fan, I came of age in a period of recession. On my twelfth birthday, The Specials’ Ghost Town’ commenced its second week at number one. Thirty-nine years later, it is still hard to think of a song that renders inner city dereliction in an age of skyrocketing unemployment as perfectly as the song that soundtracked a summer of rioting – although it was certainly run close by UB40’s ‘One In Ten’, released just a fortnight later.

Thanks in part to their ubiquity on Top Of The Pops reruns, these are songs that my teenage kids know as well as I do. The clips appear on TV and it’s not just the music that prompts them to boggle. Watching an episode that first aired in April 1980, my youngest daughter saw Dexys Midnight Runners performing ‘Geno’, followed by Madness doing ‘Night Boat to Cairo’, and then UB40 airing their debut single ‘Food For Thought’. Between them, these three bands boasted 23 musicians in their ranks. “How did they keep going?” asked my daughter. As a musician herself, her thoughts immediately turned to the logistics of running such a big band long enough to actually get a set of decent songs together and hopefully secure a deal.

Dexys Midnight Runners in 1982

Herein lay an irony that no-one had properly stopped to consider. The proliferation of post-punk songs addressing social inequality in the early years of Thatcherism was expedited in part by a benefits system that could still just about sustain young people who weren’t quite ready to relinquish their dreams of making music for a living. The dole was, as Charlatans’ frontman Tim Burgess later put it, “an Enterprise Allowance Scheme for those of us who didn’t want to fill in the form”. And, for the main part, it worked extraordinarily well. Perhaps better than any of us stopped to ponder at the time.

Between 1980 and 1990, the British music industry enjoyed sustained growth from £251.8m to £680.8m – in no small part a result of the success enjoyed by groups such as Culture Club, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Spandau Ballet – all of whom finessed their sound while signing on. Wham!’s second UK hit was ‘Wham Rap!’, which saw George Michael singing about using benefits to hold out for a job that you actually want to do. Within six years, Michael was on his way to 20 million worldwide sales with the release of his debut album Faith. This was a system that also allowed The Stone Roses to keep going for six years before releasing the eponymous album that would go on to generate 1.2 million UK sales, inspire Noel Gallagher to start writing his own songs and several other bands to follow suit.

Throughout the 1980s, Jarvis Cocker made a series of extraordinary records bringing to life a Sheffield of bedsitter ennui and empty parks on rainy afternoons, narrated by a self-styled “freak” whose prospects lay somewhere between poor and nonexistent. When he finally managed to get a place to study film at Central Saint Martin’s College, it was the experience of those wilderness years that he was able to funnel into the creation of ‘Common People’ and, in fact, most of Pulp’s breakthrough album Different Class.

Jarvis Cocker poses by a Hillman Imp car, 1991

Working-class voices enrich music both fiscally and culturally. Manic Street Preachers’ ‘A Design for Life’ was inspired by stories about Welsh miners being forced to retrain for clerical work – hands swollen by decades of manual labour suddenly having to manage a computer keyboard. John Cooper Clarke’s poem ‘Beasley Street’ is a ground-level depiction of poverty executed with unflinching, painterly detail: “People turn to poison / Quick as lager turns to piss / Sweethearts are physically sick / Every time they kiss / It’s a sociologist’s paradise / Each day repeats / On easy, cheesy, greasy, queasy / Beastly Beasley Street / Eyes dead as vicious fish / Look around for laughs.”

It’s hard to quantify the possible futures lost when creative people are told that times are tight and it’s time to get real. And that’s one of many reasons why chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent suggestion that professional musicians affected by the pandemic should consider retraining in another profession is a depressingly short-sighted one.

For millennials and Gen Z-ers with no first-hand recollection of the bands I’ve mentioned here, it’s equally hard to feel the loss of what was never offered to you in the first place. All that Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Woody Guthrie needed was a guitar. And for the emerging generation of musicians who have emerged in a post-grime era, a laptop installed with GarageBand or Logic Pro is enough to get you up and running.

With more gaping holes in the state safety net than ever before – coupled with the systemic disadvantages faced by young people of colour – entrepreneurial pragmatism is woven into the fabric of grime and its more recent tributaries. On his brilliant recent single ‘10k’, Anglo-Nigerian rapper Obongjayar avers that amid a backdrop of “21st century paranoia /Iron walls /Barbed wire /Passports /Cross fire,” all that you can do is keep running “in the mighty name of the coin”. Similar sentiments also propel ‘Can’t Go Back’ by East London grime star Kojey Radical and Welcome To The Jungle’, the scorching recent single by Monkstar and Sharee Lewis.

Obongjayar grabs the mic in Manchester, 2017

On his breathtaking 2017 state-of-the-nation address ‘Question Time’, it was more in weary exasperation than rage that Dave intoned, “For twenty-two years my mum was doing the cleaning / Dreaming that her kids would have a better life / Go in bed at night, struggling with getting by / That’s the reality for millions of people in a nation.” A few months after the release of ‘Question Time’, then minister for culture Matt Hancock penned a column for The Times in which he declared himself “a fan of grime music” and hymned the contribution made by the genre “to our creative industries”. He wasn’t the first member of a Conservative Cabinet to sing the praises of rap music. Back in 2015, when he was still chancellor, George Osborne sang the praises of N.W.A. and, in particular, Dr Dre for building up “this headphones business [Beats] and [selling] it to Apple”.

Margaret Thatcher – nemesis-muse to so many musicians of that era – is no longer alive to see the result of her project on ensuing generations of musicians. But to hear Hancock and Osborne championing the entrepreneurial spirit of rap music – irrespective of what its leading practitioners might have to say about that – feels like an act of Thatcherite schadenfreude.

Perhaps American political philosopher Michael Sandel is right when he says that social democracy has “lost its ability to inspire working people, and its vision, its moral and civic vision has faltered. So for two generations after the Second World War, social democracy did have an animating vision, which was to create and to deepen and to articulate welfare states, and to moderate and provide a counterbalance to the power of unfettered market capitalism.”

On ‘Hard Bastards’, the incredible opening track of his 2015 album Bleeds, Roots Manuva presents a picture that, depressingly, rings far truer: “The underclass, the lowly class with no damn togetherness / The union that sold them out and sold them togetherness / Will look the other way, as the first world becomes the third world / There’s one world not three worlds, nothing free in the free market / Legitimate targets sitting suffocating for the classless society / And the endless enslavement.”

It feels more and more miraculous that, in the face of increasingly insurmountable odds, there are guitar bands that stay together long enough to make records that represent the experience of being young and broke in the age of austerity. Two of the best to come through in recent years, though, are Leeds four-piece Mush and Swansea trio Trampolene.

The lead singer of Trampolene, Jack Jones, mid-performance

Taken from the latter band’s debut album Swansea to Hornsey, the incendiary ‘Dreams So Rich, Life So Poor’ sees frontman Jack Jones singing “A future like/A bricked up window/Is hard to break through,” with the jut-jawed defiance of someone whose sole remaining energy source is the infernal synergy of his band’s music. The unaccompanied ‘Health & Well-Being (At Wood Green Job Centre)’ is inspired by a string of uneasy encounters between Jones and Jobcentre staff reluctant to believe his Crohn’s Disease was a realistic impediment to the string of warehouse jobs they kept trying to make him accept.

On their recent debut album 3D Routine, Mush offer a hypervivid composite picture of life below the breadline in 2020. Representative titles include ‘Poverty Pornography’ and ‘Gig Economy’, the latter of which goes: “No bail out for the plebs / No sleep for the dregs / You’ll have to tighten your belts / Heap praise on the entrepreneur delivery boys / Their grit is truly inspiring.”

If anything, it’s measurable in the surprise and relief we register when we hear young musicians summon a scintilla of hope in the current climate. But when someone does, and they do it as beautifully as Kae Tempest did with ‘People’s Faces’ earlier this year, it absolutely stops you in your tracks: “Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking / I stand weeping at the train station / ‘Cause I can see your faces / I love people’s faces.” There’s nothing intrinsically partisan or political about these lines, but context is everything. And in this of all years, ‘People’s Faces’ sounded as unbearably poignant as Louis Armstrong singing the line, “I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do/They’re only saying I love you.” Same sentiments, different words. Sweetness miraculously extracted from the husk of bitter experience.

For most artists, reports that we’re about to enter a recession will only be surprising inasmuch as, for them, the recession started when Covid took away their main source of revenue. It’s been surreal for many music fans of my age to see the once unassailable household names of our youth belatedly learning the self-sufficiency that has been a way of life for, say, Tinchy Stryder, who made more money at the beginning of his career from his Star In The Hood clothing brand than his record sales.

Lloyd Cole as he was in 1985

When I was 15, Lloyd Cole & The Commotions’ Rattlesnakes album supported me through my O-levels. Now, he’s tweeting fans thanking them for “support[ing] us through this period” by selling handwritten lyrics from that album. He’s by no means the only musician using sites such as Patreon and Cameo to generate the income suddenly lost by touring revenue. Of course, in an ideal world, both he and I would rather he were spending his time making new music than rewriting the words of ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’ in longhand. But the world has rarely seemed so far from ideal.

And imagine how much worse it would be were it not for the artists whose records we use as a brief respite from the turbulence that forced them into this situation. So £6.50 a month, is it? Where do I sign?

Photographs by Brian Cooke and David Redfern/Redferns,Visionhaus/Corbis, and GettyImages

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Much like in the 1980s, Britain is facing a period of mass unemployment. Matthew d'Ancona looks back to then – and ahead from now

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