Originally published September 2008. I chose this one because UB40 were in the news recently and I discovered that sadly a lot of Americans regard them only as some one-hit joke band loved by white frat boys.
In 1972 unemployment in the UK hit 1 million people for the first time since The Great Depression and there was concern that it would cause some sort of social breakdown in the country. By 1980 Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister and the number had grown to 2 million, and only three years later it was a whopping 3 million. During those 11 years punk had been and gone and we’d had strikes, power cuts, economic crisis, a 3-day work week, riots and a Winter of Discontent — society might not have broken down but it was definitely feeling a bit stressed out and in need of a holiday. But Maggie told us there was no alternative to her tough love and the only advice her Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit had for the unemployed was to get on their bikes if they wanted to find a job. What a lovely man he was.
I was one of “Maggie’s Millions” on a couple of occasions myself in the 80s and though I was only ever out of work for a few months at the most, being on the dole was a depressing experience. With nothing to do all day and little money to keep yourself occupied, just getting out of bed in the morning can be hard as you wonder what the point of getting up is. But I was lucky, I didn’t live in a town that had its factory or coal mine shut down (or to be in profession that had factories) but up North you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting someone who’d lost their job and their future when England’s manufacturing and industrial base collapsed and died. I didn’t have to choose to cut down on beer or the kid’s new gear either, but there were days when I had to choose between cigarettes and food – I nearly always chose cigarettes, ten Marlboro lasted a lot longer than a meal did.
It says something about how unemployment dominated the landscape that one of the most popular and relevant bands at the time took their name from a form given to people on the dole. When you sign on in England you are given Unemployment Benefit Form No.40 which you have to bring to the dole office every time you claim benefit, this is more commonly known as a UB40. There can’t be that many other bands named after government paperwork and their debut album Signing Off had a replica of a UB40 card on the cover.
I had one of these tan coloured ones when I was first on the dole but it was changed to a minty green at some point, they were probably thinking the brighter colour would make the whole unemployment experience a bit more cheerful.
Younger readers might only think of UB40 as purveyors of light, singalong pop-reggae, but before “Red Red Wine” made them stinking rich they were a serious, overtly-political band who had more in common with The Clash than Musical Youth. Bloody good they were too — especially live — and for a (mostly) white group they had a real feel for Reggae and knew how to do an extended Dub mix like these two beauties from 1980.
Proving that politics can be sexy, here is mod chanteuse Sandie Shaw looking very foxy while wearing a top that declares her support for Harold Wilson during the general election of 1970.
Wilson was the first British politician to tap into the power of pop stars to court the youth vote. He got himself photographed with The Beatles in 1964 before he became Prime Minister, and when in office awarded them MBEs for services to British exports. At that time giving state honors to mere pop stars was unheard of and controversial (now they all have bloody Knighthoods) but while Wilson was hitching a ride on the popularity of the Fab Four they ended up taking a swipe at him on “Taxman”.
Nowadays no one thinks anything of pop stars hanging out with politicians, but The Beatles kept Wilson at a distance because he was part of the square establishment and they wisely didn’t want to be used by the dirty, cynical world of politics. The socialist newspaper Black Dwarf made it clear what the radical underground thought at the time.
Politicians like the endorsement of pop stars because it makes them look far cooler than they are, but I doubt if it has ever changed a single vote one way or the other. Even the power of Sandie’s hot pants didn’t help Harold Wilson who lost the 1970 election to Ted Heath.
This is her superb 1969 version of a song from Led Zeppelin’s first album. Apparently Sandie was the first person to cover a Zep tune.
Having lived through a depressing string of Tory election victories in my younger days (1992 was especially hard to take) I expect to be let down again and they’re going to win today. But the fact that it’s got this close or is even in doubt gives me a tiny, tiny glimmer of optimism. You’d think I’d know by now not to get my hopes up.
So, come on Britain — especially you apathetic kids out there — give us something to cheer about. Don’t make the mistake America made last year.
Been a grim and relentless couple of weeks news-wise. Hard to believe Trump has been President for less than a fortnight and it already feels like he’s broken the world. But I am inspired by the amount of people out on the streets protesting — often spontaneously — which is like a hopeful light shining at the end of a horrible tunnel.
This 1989 House banger popped up on my iTunes the other day and sounded so very now it lifted my spirits even more. I hope it’s gonna be alright.
Now that 2016 is behind us we have to deal with the fact that 2017 might actually be worse. Even if no more beloved stars die or Bowie and Prince come back to life, this ignorant shitstain will be President of the United States.
His election was such a terrifying event that I joined the ACLU the morning after, and since then I have donated to Planned Parenthood and bought online subscriptions to some of the newspapers that still do serious, investigative journalism. It’s not much (so far) in the grand scheme of things, but I felt I had to put my money where my mouth is. If you aren’t going to stand up and be counted now, when are you?