Red Wedge was an alliance of working class punks and aspirational, Face-reading suburbanites with a social conscience. From 1987, music and comedy tours helped to get Neil Kinnock elected Labour Prime Minister, almost.
Labour-aligned celebrities failed to resist the rise of New Labour. The temptation is to consign Red Wedge to history along with memories of Ben Elton’s radicalism.
Tempting, but a mistake. Because more than at any time since the 1980s, we don’t need this fascist groove thang…
The Eighties are back, almost. We have a Conservative government. We have haunted, alienated electro-pop on the radio. Oh, and rioting.
Missing, however, is the phenomenon of popular artists – musicians, comedians, TV celebrities – using the platform that fame provides to lead the cheer for liberty, equality and fraternity.
Social media allow celebs to back causes (more often, they back activist brands linked to causes) and to sound off without their PR handlers hovering. The instantaneous nature of mass participation in social media creates a “we’re all in it together” vibe: you can express personal solidarity with Jonathan Ross over his phone being hacked, counsel Adele to ignore the haters, etc.
At the same time it’s alienating because, like mass media in the Eighties, it still depends on ‘key opinion formers’, with a lot of Twitter followers, to toss each crumb-like call to action before the plebeian masses.
There was a similar dichotomy at work in the long years in which Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Celebrities from working class backgrounds – people who suddenly had some money and power but were not, then, part of the Establishment – used their temporary position in the public eye to complain about the state of the emerging society, and the world generally.
This was despite the fact that it was the relative affluence of Thatcher’s Britain, plugged into global capitalism, that gave them their platforms to begin with. Without kids with Saturday jobs to buy vinyl singles, its doubtful that Paul Young would have been in a position to let Ethiopia Know It’s Christmas Time. (‘Top of the Pops’ got in there early on December 25th. For Abyssinian Christians, it’s on January 7th, but it’s the thought that counts). Old pop stars, film actors and millionaire philanthropists telling us to wear a rubber bracelet and Make Poverty History has the same sort of disempowering empowerment effect, today.
An economic shift that was already underway before the 1979 election was hastened in the Eighties, through direct government policies: away from heavily unionised, traditional industrial output – like coal mining and making cars – to what Margaret Thatcher’s mentors including Sir Keith Joseph called “sunrise industries”. The winners by 1987 were (less heavily unionised) media industries – advertising, branding – management consulting, the design and engineering end of high technology, and above all else financial capitalism: banking, investment and commodities trading.
(A loser was the science end of high tech development. Sir Clive Sinclair was derided for coming up with a plastic car that ran on a washing machine motor. He still hasn’t got much credit for making the initial investment in a company that came up with the processor that you probably have in your mobile phone, right now).
In 1987, the glass ceiling had been raised a little higher than before for some people from lower income backgrounds. There were free university degrees, and more importantly there was money. Vast confluences of it, rivers of cash rushing around the deregulated City of London and back into the economy, raising up disposable incomes and house prices.
A very small number of people who did very nicely thank you out of advertising, music, the film and TV industry, remembered their origins and all the people they’d met on the way to the top.
One was Glenn Gregory. An innovator in electronic dance music – first as part of the (brilliantly, presciently named) British Electric Foundation, and then in Heaven 17 – he made pop records that re-imagined their native Sheffield’s post-industrial landscape as Detroit or Philadelphia: empty factories as desolate cathedrals, dance music as the gospel of the machines, electronics as the world soul. One of their early singles as B.E.F., influenced heavily by Bowie’s ‘Low’ and Brian Eno, is called ‘Decline of the West’.
Drawing on American soul and funk, Heaven 17 were the British equivalent of Motown’s in-house musicians the Funk Brothers, of Iggy Pop, Germany’s Kraftwerk and hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. All had observed that the repetitive beats of industrial machinery and computer-based composition do the reverse of what you’d expect: rather than creating bleak and soulless music, electronics draw attention to the feeling of joy and freedom in doing the same thing a lot of times, then doing it slightly differently. The story about Kraftwerk spontaneously getting up and dancing in character to James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ in a German club is not apocryphal.
The emerging electronic popular music liberated the humanity immanent in the patterns of music and the laws of physics, the stuff of machinery and of the Universe. The decline of the steel industry and high rates of unemployment gave rise to Sheffield’s electronic scene of the early Eighties. Something to do in the downtime. It has influenced, and continues to influence, popular music, through decades of post-industrial Northern Soul. New Order and 808 State being the obvious continuation of this in the late Eighties.
At the same time, Heaven 17’s records (they were vinyl records then) contained a sadness, the sense that escape was only to an unattainable, aspirational dream-version of America and the near future: to a fantasy of Detroit where the Funk Brothers turned out endless, timeless hits; artisan craftsmen in sharp mohair suits, producing the Sound of a Young, desegregated America, like cars on an assembly line. (Not the real Detroit, where Motown boss Berry Gordy could fire his non-unionised production force without notice, over-night, and decamp to Los Angeles).
Despite having an album in the Top 75 for 76 weeks called ‘Penthouse and Pavement’, glorifying yuppie-ism at the same time as embracing and elaborating on this inherent paradox, Gregory and Heaven 17 also observed that a lot of people in Sheffield were on the dole just as they were making it big. This was in 1981, two years into Thatcher’s first term. Conservative policies of deindustrialisng and deskilling meant many people in their late teens and early twenties – the same age as the band – didn’t have the opportunities, or wealth, that they had. Gregory, Billy Bragg – who never forgot his roots – and others with a platform on TV and through the pages of the music press, resolved to do something about this.
Another was Jimmy Sommerville, an exceptional singer and song writer, who was and is – not to put too fine a point on it – gay. This has tended to overshadow his other attributes, like being in a fine Gallic, Scots and Northern working class tradition that has no real Southern or English equivalent: of the singer as bard, orator and preacher, spreading the word with a voice that is threatening, piercing, persuasive through its delicacy and beauty. It lends itself perfectly to torch songs but Sommerville isn’t channelling Judy Garland, or Edith Piaf, or Gloria Gaynor. With the possible exception of Sylvester, there is only one.
His band the Communards had a following that was inclusive of the young and dispossessed (many of whom were gay themselves), gay professionals, and the radicalism that was becoming fashionable in the early Eighties. They dressed like graphic designers – or rather graphic designers dressed like the Communards – all-black, Paul Smith and Lacoste, skin-head or flattop haircuts.
The skinhead and pyschobilly scenes of Britain’s inner cities had blended strangely with the emerging Style culture of ‘ID’ and ‘Face’ magazine readers, producing audiences of cloned class warriors. They would have looked equally at home in the gay clubs round the back of Old Compton Street in Soho, which had spawned Gary Numan, the Blitz kids and New Romantics, or manning the picket lines during the Miner’s Strike. They would have been equally terrified of scuffing their Doc Martins in either situation.
Black leather orthopaedic shoes designed to withstand acid and high impacts, without a mark on them, and worn by people selling ‘Socialist Worker’ on street corners is an apt metaphor for what was going on: Left wing politics had ceased to be about the physical process of industry. The work-in was no longer an emotionally-loaded weapon of industrial disruption that union bosses could wield, because the factories were all shutting. Politics had become about adopting stances, having a message or a slogan, an anthem. The locus of power was with the marketeers.
The outflanked Left was gearing up to produce demagogues obsessed with semantics and aesthetics: how people say things rather than what they’re saying. Inevitably, the same society that produced two hours of perfect Friday Night music TV in Channel Four’s ‘The Tube’ ended up substituting popular culture for pure, synthetic bullshit: ‘Network 7’ led inevitably to ‘The Word’, ‘Eurotrash’ and the uningestible pudding-like kibble of boobs, bums and “edgy” reality TV that the channel – once at the vanguard of minority broadcasting – is now.
The same thing was happening throughout the decade in oppositional politics. Organisation at the factory, community centre and working men’s club level was relenting to a form of academic Left politics, obsessed with dialectics and Public Relations theory. Militant created many of the techniques that New Labour perfected, after Militant’s demise: centralised news management, spin doctors wearing suits advertised in GQ. The RCP and Living Marxism became the purest form synthetic bullshit radicalism. We still live with this legacy, since the RCP cult dropped the Marxism, becoming ‘Spiked’ and the all-pervasive ‘Institute of Ideas’ (so long as Frank Furedi thought of them).
In retrospect, it’s lucky that the gay activist community had prominent gay men like Derek Jarman and Sommerville to rely on, who had benefited from the sloganeering culture obsessed with aesthetics, but had retained their integrity. Britain’s gay citizens found themselves on the receiving end of two onslaughts in the Eighties: one epidemiological, the other political, which left them undefended by their state from the ravages of Nature. HIV/AIDS still doesn’t discriminate, but in the initial outbreak one of the highest rates of infection was among sexually active gay men, before antiretroviral drugs kept full-blown AIDS in check.
Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, a moral crusade by Conservatives against the “promotion” of gay lifestyles by local councils, was meant to undermine the rise of gay liberation throughout the UK but it also, quite coincidentally of course, gave a rationale for Tory councillors to shut down projects and individuals promoting Left Wing agendas. (Because, surprise, surprise, a lot of gay activists were also Lefties back then). The intentional chilling effect was to limit teacher’s ability to give school children accurate information about sex and the risks of spreading HIV, because they risked losing their jobs if they portrayed gay sex as “normal”.
The gay community had to rely on itself to spread not only sexual health information, but also the idea of solidarity within the community for sufferers, carers and the bereaved. Peter Tatchell has continued to build on this philosophy, grounding his activism in both the humanity and universality of human rights, but also finding his organising base much more in the kinds of autonomous action that are suddenly pivotal to revolutions everywhere in the world.
The death-toll in the early years of the AIDs outbreak was and is overwhelming. This staggeringly cruel, wrong-headed and basically objectionable policy nearly killed even more people. I get angry writing about this – and make no apologies for it – because I saw one of my own friends waste away and die in a matter of months from the disease; it’s impossible to not get angry if things like this happened to your friends and family. This is one of many reasons why some of us still, viscerally, hate and mistrust the rank and file of Conservative Party members. The Tories’ institutional capacity for spite and intolerance is prodigious, a tradition that’s alive and well on the back benches this week.
This is a lot of the reason why people who would like to support Labour keep going back, despite constant drubbings and disappointments: at least they aren’t the Tories. The Labour Party might be hung up on draconian law and order measures, while having a soft spot for breaking international law itself, but there isn’t quite the same tolerance for batshit crazy bigots. “Socialism”: clue’s in the name; the idea is social unity, including being sociable. There is wisdom and tyranny in the crowd, in equal measures.
My feeling, as not-a-Socialist, is that Red Wedge deserves to be revisited for this reason: while it’s now possible for people to self-organise using online tools in a way that was unimaginable thirty years ago, popular culture – music, dancing, visual art, TV, cinema, films – can be a way for individuals to find assent from the majority for a course of action. The wisdom of the crowd is a greater force than its countervailing capacity for tyranny when people are having fun.
Using pop music to take radical messages to the masses didn’t work, in retrospect, at least in terms of returning a Labour government. Yet it’s interesting that in 1987, the Communards and Paul Weller could find common cause. He’s the Modfather now but in the late Eighties the Style Council were a casual’s band. It’s hard to explain to people in their twenties now who or what casuals were (and, probably, still are in some cases) and what they represented.
Long story short: they were the bullies at my school, and so named because they tended to wear casual but smart clothes. It was an evolution of the Mod idea, sartorially, but by the Eighties it had ceased to be about Ska and Motown and had become all about soccer violence and buying your own council house. It was aspirational, about imposing one’s will, the equivalent now would – I suppose – be the frightening end of what we’d call the ‘chav’ culture. (I’m bound to say the estate full of chavs down the road from me are fairly non-threatening, if you disregard their habit of setting the town ablaze every year. But it’s Lewes and everyone does that). I’m not suggesting Paul Weller was ever a homophobe. I am stating very directly that much of his fanbase as I knew it in 1987 would have been. Red Wedge was an odd and – one must presume – uneasy alliance of scenes and audiences.
Red Wedge was important as much for the lessons learned as anything else – that it failed to reshape politics and get young people involved in sufficient numbers to win elections – as for its moderate success in fusing various audiences and subcultures together as an alliance of convenience. Traditional Labour values weren’t as appealing as the Conservative’s pipedream of a share-purchasing, council-flat-owning people’s plutocracy.
At the time, “political” pop music was sneered at because… well we like a good old sneer in Britain, don’t we? In the plot line of ‘Eastenders’, the band (called ‘The Banned’… no, seriously it was) that made the single ‘Something Outa Of Nothing’ was originally called ‘Dog Market’ by an earnest young man besotted with Neil Kinnock’s speeches. I implore you to subject yourself to the entire track. It’s a warning from history: the Eighties must never come back, entirely. Not unless you want a world full of sub-Steely Dan wine bar music played on stabby Synclavier keyboards, and sung by soap opera actors. La Roux is how it starts, people.
I digress. The Labour Party as it was in 1987 was unable to excite enough young people to get into power, and left itself open to ridicule through inept (if sort of loveable) efforts to connect with the youth. That proved that meetings in big halls and handing leaflets out in the street weren’t going to change anything. Nor was Tracey Ullman. Red Wedge was an attempt to get a mandate and it proved that Labour didn’t have one among new voters. That, in itself, was a useful exercise, I’d argue.
Why have we ended up with a situation where the ambition of major political parties is to be the one calling for “renewal” with the most drearily ambition-free agenda? (“I think we should take a radical stance this time, Ed. Let’s go for four bullet points on the pledge card rather than five. Keep it simple, we’re after the working class dad vote”).
The trade union base and the cultural and social fora that went with it – that had been the recruiting-ground, lifeblood and church of Labour activism for the first eighty years of its life – were on the decline in the late Eighties. This allowed the barristers, hidden persuaders and message merchants to effectively hijack the party and make it uninspiringly electable. It meant that Old Labour ideas like internationalism, and solidarity between workers and their communities, were consigned to the bin of Old Labour history. War on Want has kept some of those ideas alive on trickle feed, but in the trade union movement the embodiment of those ideals – the public sector NALGO union – was subsumed inside UNISON, which by the mid-Nineties had become a mortgage and insurance broker that happened to be a big trade union.
In revisiting Red Wedge as a movement, I don’t suggest that those mistakes – not even mistakes, really, just misapprehensions about how things were going – should be repeated as well. I’m not calling for a nostalgic retreat to Eighties Left politics to respond to a repetition of many of the same social conditions.
What was important about Red Wedge then is equally important now: music, comedy, social scenes and culture generally enabled disparate groups to navigate one another’s agendas and ideas. A leadership and assent to a common cause was able to emerge from a complex and diffuse set of goals, around issues like the idiocy of Section 28, and support for the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.
I’m struck by the choice of name of, arguably, the most political band in Red Wedge, the Communards. Taking its inspiration from the brief Paris Commune that lasted from March to May 1871, one of the “lost precious moments” of Marxist mythology, the band evoked the spirit of the Commune in that it had a vast, rotating roster of artists and musicians on stage. For a few months in the Spring of 1871, the original Communards not only set up barricades and food kitchens, but also cabarets, drinking clubs and intellectual salons. These are the same people you can see in Impressionist paintings of the period: one of the neglected legacies of the Paris Commune is the idea that revolution can be at the cutting edge of popular culture. Smashing the state is fun, and has the possibility to be sophisticated, to embrace nuance, as well as to be violent.
There’s a sense that current oppositional politics in the UK is tribal, that there’s no logical meeting of minds occurring: I don’t see what back-to-the-land Greens and literary anarchists at the Dark Mountain festival who I spoke to a few weekends ago have in common with hacktivists, disenfranchised Old Lefties, New Left intellectuals. Or with E.M.A. kids with recently looted plasma TVs and No Future.
I do see that they all have valid and pertinent points. British society does look like its teetering on the edge of something very nasty, a slide and decline, if not an imminent collapse. All the old models and slogans to explain the polis are campy, redundant, broken. We need radical new ways to negotiate the social contract.
I also have a sense, I put it no more strongly, that autonomous action online lends itself to a continuation of the Eighties pre-occupation with aesthetics, posturing and bullshit; and tends to attract people who seem allergic to joy, who prefer being grumpy to changing things.
A shared feeling of happiness, or even of revulsion, is assent from a crowd, if not from the masses. That’s a start. I continually ask myself of fringe politics that claims to be a “movement”: “where are you moving me? Will I, in fact, be moved?” The Red Wedge artists were, individually, people who should be regarded as living national treasures (and would be, in France) for their ability to express the emotion that’s implicit in fighting for freedom and equality; an emotionality that’s divorced from British political culture at the moment. Red Wedge collaborator Jerry Dammers wrote ‘Nelson Mandela’. Do I need to say any more?
Before Christmas, I articulated something that’s as near as I come to a political manifesto, over on my film meta-commentary site, blackmassmovies.com. I hope you’ll forgive me cutting and pasting the chunk of text in question. It’s the progression of the argument – or rather the linkages between the things I’ve observed – that’s the key thing I’m trying to convey:
The PR mantra of the 1990s – “perception is reality” – has been rendered effectively meaningless because public perception has shattered. The mechanisms of shaping opinion that dominated in the Eighties and early Nineties – three or four TV channels, newspapers, glossy mags, targeting youth through ‘Top of the Pops’ and Saturday morning kid’s TV – have fractured beyond recognition.
Hundreds of TV channels and Sky+ contribute to this, but it’s mainly down to the internet. Print-based newspapers are seeing their advertising and subscriptions falling, and fear they may go the way of record companies. With touchy-feely spin no longer as effective as it was, we are left with the old sales pitch and Simon Cowell yelling things. Public life feels increasingly kitsch as a result. British culture has turned into a tribute act to its own heyday, twenty years ago.
As Paul Morely said recently of the XX’s Mercury Prize:
“The Mercury Prize nominees, some of which I love very dearly, their music is based on a sound which once upon a time was based around disruption and subversion. Nowadays, of course, it’s just lifestyle and decoration.”
In the cultural sphere, acts of disruption, dissonance and dissent have become part of a nostalgic homage to the past.
A crucial difference between the Eighties and the tribute act is that contemporary culture, in its populist or elitist modes, no longer presents a real threat to the established order. To a great extent it is the Establishment. The radical energy that gave rise to Red Wedge and the anti-Apartheid movement has dissipated over twenty years of uninterrupted economic growth. Months away from greater social upheaval than under Margaret Thatcher, where is the joyous, communal revelling in bad taste of an Alexi Sayle gig now? (An emotionally exhausting experience that was somewhere between two hours of mass euphoria and mass vomiting). Where is the next Derek Jarman? Are we expecting M.I.A. to do all the heavy lifting, like a Serge Gainsborg of agitprop internationalism?
The right to question orthodoxies, to cause offence, has been co-opted by humourless authoritarians like IoI / Spiked. Challenging, confrontational art is a differentiated marketing widget, with a new brand of vodka to sponsor every installation piece at Shunt Vaults. Brechtian alienation has ceased to be a way for the audience to retain its critical faculties. It’s become another bourgeois bohemian lifestyle affectation. Verfremdungseffekt now belongs with bespoke coffee emporia, burlesque, ukuleles and trilby hats.
I expect that a new movement modelling itself on Red Wedge would rub a lot of people up the wrong way, if it was doing its job. Just as Jimmy Sommerville’s very appearance in the Eighties upset some people, still threatened by the idea of a successful, out gay man on ‘Top of the Pops’.
However, I suggest that the most outrageous, subversive and annoying thing people could do right now is to be reasonable, civil, thoughtful, witty, and to listen to one another. Shameless, exhibitionistic, intemperate, shouty behaviour is ok for the TV schedules on a Wednesday night. But who watches scheduled TV these days?
(I’ve been listening to the Special AKA on Spotify and checking Twitter out of the corner of one eye while I write this, though I’ve got ‘Newsnight’ recorded to watch later. And on the Special AKA: how did the prettiness of ‘What I Like Most About You Is your Girlfriend’ elude me during the Specials revival? Say what you like about the internet, it’s great).
#solidarity doesn’t require a lesson on Twentieth Century Polish history to have immediate meaning and value. It does need some meeting of minds, understandings, to coalesce into a movement with popular assent. I believe that occurs through collective acts of goodwill, human warmth, joy at being alive. Music is an expression, if not the defining collective expression, of this human experience.
As the proto-anarchist thinker at the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, William Godwin, put it beautifully:
The cause of justice is the cause of humanity. Its advocates should overflow with universal good will. We should love this cause, for it conduces to the general happiness of mankind.