Jimi Hendrix and the war

In the final Red Banner (Issue 63, March 2016) Michelle Charlton looked at how a great musician faced the realities of war at home and abroad.

In the pantheon of 1960s counter-culture Jimi Hendrix’s slot is assured. It seems that few documentaries about the radical atmosphere of the period can do without some footage or other of him wielding his guitar, or a snippet of his music to soundtrack images of peace ’n’ love, protestors on the march, or whatever. But the association between Hendrix and that generation of change was a genuine one, albeit complex.

It wasn’t always thus, however. In February 1967, with the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut single ‘Hey Joe’ moving up the top ten on the back of a Top of the Pops performance, their frontman was asked by a Dutch interviewer what he thought of American military interference in Vietnam. His reply can still cause surprise:

Did you send the Americans away when they landed in Normandy? That was also purely interference… but that was concerning your own skin. The Americans are fighting in Vietnam for a completely free world. As soon as they move out, they will be at the mercy of the communists. For that matter, the yellow danger should not be underestimated. Of course, war is horrible, but at present it’s still the only guarantee of peace.

The “yellow danger” had also featured in an interview the previous month: “After China takes over the whole world, then the whole world will know why America’s trying so hard in Vietnam.”1

Hendrix had a military background himself. Facing a prison term in 1961 after being caught in a stolen car twice in succession, he got a suspended sentence when the judge heard he was signing up for the military. But there is no evidence that he resented the army, and certainly none that he opposed its role in society. “I’m in the 101st Airborne. That’s the sharpest outfit in the world”, he wrote to his aunt. “If any trouble starts anywhere, we will be one of the first to go.”2 He wore the badge of the ‘Screaming Eagles’ with pride. His terrible eyesight apparently didn’t stop him making the grade as a sharpshooter, and years later he recalled the pure thrill of his parachute jumps.

But a year in, he wanted out. He told the psychiatrist that feelings for another soldier were causing him to lose sleep and weight, wet the bed, and masturbate excessively. In the end his superiors agreed to discharge him for “homosexual tendencies”.3 The extensive tales of Hendrix’s heterosexual exploits lead us to conclude that he was definitely faking it, and he always maintained that he was invalided out with a broken ankle from a parachute jump, a claim accepted and repeated by his biographers until recently.

The years of peace after the Korean war may have seemed a favourable time to join up, but with tensions resurfacing on the Korean border, the Cuban missile crisis threatening wider conflict, and US involvement in Vietnam gradually escalating, the prospect of being sent away to fight could have seemed very real. His musical ambitions provide a more likely explanation for his escape, however. He had formed a band with fellow soldier Billy Cox and was gigging whenever their army schedules allowed, but this was what he wanted to do all the time, without waiting two more years for his discharge papers. But again, no sign of opposition, disgust, or even unease with the US war machine can be found.

Hendrix shared the view of many Americans that their military was a force for good in the world, defending democracy against the red menace. Many black Americans had been driven into the army by poverty and racism, and if Hendrix had been a white Seattle teenager, the chances of him having to sign up, or even being arrested in the first place, would have been a lot less. However, the very fact of extensive black involvement in the military often served to breed some kind of pride and loyalty towards it.

Storming Britain’s pop scene from September 1966 on, Hendrix would have found himself in a milieu where opposition to the Vietnam war was largely taken as read. It was easier to oppose the war in Britain, a country not directly involved or known for repressing dissent as violently as the US did. For Hendrix to maintain a pro-war viewpoint for at least six months, and especially to express it publicly, took some doing—and caused some hostility.4 As was already evident from his songwriting, he was an intensely reflective person, and this must have been an opinion he had thought through and held sincerely.

But this all changed, and quite quickly. “Maybe I’ll have more to say later when I get more political”, he replied in August 1967 when dodging a question about ghetto uprisings in the US.5 In November he played his one and only Irish gig, in Belfast, and was interviewed for the Queen’s University student paper, telling them shamelessly: “I have no views on Vietnam because it doesn’t affect me personally.”6 But he had at least shifted from openly supporting the war to sitting on the fence.7

It’s unlikely that socialist artist Franklin Rosemont read the interview. That same month in the underground magazine Chicago Seed he was writing that Hendrix “ruthlessly attacks not only imperial­ism but the entire foundation of oppressive Western civilisation… the music of revolt has found its poet”.8 Of Hendrix’s output up till then, only ‘I Don’t Live Today’ could have inspired such a judgement. Musically and lyrically, it evokes the plight of native Americans, and Hendrix routinely dedicated it to them in concert.

Although the claim is exaggerated, it illustrates the way the wind was blowing. Hendrix was being identified with the counter-culture perforce, adopted by opponents of the system as one of their own, regardless of his own political statements or lack of them. They knew something he didn’t, at least not yet: that his attempt to make music which honestly faced up to life as it was couldn’t help but bring him into some kind of conflict with the powers that be. Almost as much as his hero Bob Dylan, Hendrix infuriatingly refused to be drawn into clear political statements. His interviews abound with vague nods in the direction of radicalism, but just as many airy refusals to be tied down to any specific group or philosophy. Gradually, though, his name got associated with a benefit here, a cause there, and before long he was firmly established as a musician of the left—although this was not as uncomplicated a label as it might seem.

As with many others, 1968 forced the issue. The war in Vietnam intensified, putting an end to pious hopes of a peaceful compromise. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the uprisings across black America delivered an obituary for the non-violence he espoused. Student revolutionary movements spiralled, and the Black Panthers’ open call to physically resist and overthrow the racist power structure had a mass appeal. Hendrix’s response to it all was never un­ambiguous, though.

‘House Burning Down’, from that year, portrays him brushing aside indifference to violence and demanding to know “why did you burn your brother’s house down”. He is told: “We’re tired and disgusted so we paint red through the sky”, but replies: “the truth is straight ahead—so don’t burn yourselves instead—try to learn instead of burn”.9 This seems to be a straightforward pacifism in the King mould, but the lyrics are only half the song. Musically, it is incendiary, speaking a fascination with the creative potential of violence, with Hendrix going to great lengths in the studio to create a sound matching the inferno he is meant to be against. “We made the guitar sound like it was on fire”, he proclaimed.10

His guitar then took on the US national anthem. It had featured in Hendrix concerts from mid-1968 on, but was given its peak performance at the Woodstock festival of August 1969. What seems initially just a modernised version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ soon cuts away to a swirling tussle of extended notes moving abruptly from one end of the scale to the other, distortion recoiling into feedback. It represents “a compelling musical allegory of a nation bloodily tearing itself apart, in its own ghettos and campuses, and in a foreign land which had never done anything to harm its tormentors”.11 Or as Hendrix himself put it, “We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, isn’t it?”12

At the end of 1968 he told a magazine that he was writing a song dedicated to the Black Panthers, and that there was a limit to peaceful protest:

Do it about three or four times, and then if it doesn’t happen then get your Black Panthers and your little army groups, not to kill anybody, but to scare them.… I know it sounds like war but that’s what’s gonna have to happen, it has to be a war if nobody is going to do it peacefully. Like quite naturally you say make love not war and all these other things, but then you come back to reality and there are some evil folks around and they want you to be passive and weak and peaceful so that they can just overtake you like jelly on bread.… You have to fight fire with fire.
You have to do something—not frustrated like throwing little cocktail bottles, you know, here and there, breaking up a store window. That’s nothing, especially in your own neighborhood. You should have people like the Black Panthers, who are trained, commanders, only together…13

It looks here as if Hendrix’s objection is not to political violence itself, but to misdirected violence: don’t burn your brother’s house down but your enemy’s house, and on an organised mass scale instead of isolated outbreaks of frustration.

By May 1969, though, he was dismissing them: “we have some sheep fighting under the form of Black Panthers and some sheep under the Ku Klux Klan. They are all sheep”.14 Being guilt-tripped into supporting the cause seems to have annoyed him above all. The ambivalence, even confusion, of his attitude to the Panthers comes across in a March 1970 interview:

It isn’t that I don’t relate to them… I naturally feel part of what they’re doing. In certain respects. But everybody has their own way of doing things.… But not the aggression or violence or whatever you want to call it. I’m not for guerrilla warfare.15

“Jimi wasn’t politically active”, as the Experience’s bassist wrote,16 and his music was where he expressed himself properly. When it came to the war raging around him, he did that best on New Year’s Day 1970 in a perfomance justly characterised as “one of Hendrix’s most towering achievements”.17 The Experience had split up by then, and he was now playing with his old army friend Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums as the Band of Gypsys, resulting in a markedly different sound. This was their second day playing the Fillmore East in New York, with the gigs recorded for an album.

Hendrix and Miles shared lead vocals on the opening number, ‘Who Knows’, after which Hendrix spoke to the crowd while retuning:

Happy new year, first of all, and I hope you have about a million or two million more of ’em. If we can get over this summer, heh, heh, heh. We’d like to dedicate this one to—the sorta draggy scene that’s going on—all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago and Milwaukee and New York—oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. We’d like to do a thing called ‘Machine Gun’.18

The US had a lot to get over from that summer, as swelling numbers of protestors met with increasingly ferocious responses from the state. The reference to soldiers is probably to both sides of that struggle, and meant above all to emphasise that there was a war going on at home as well as the one 9,000 miles away. Hendrix locates the battlefields of that war specifically here, and it is worth enquiring what exactly he had in mind.

In Chicago eight activists were on trial for conspiracy for protesting against the Democratic Party convention. Hendrix “laid some bread on us for the trial”, as one of them later told in the counter-culture jargon of the day,19 and the FBI noted his proposed involvement in a benefit gig.20 The defendants wasted no time in reducing the trial to farce. Black Panther leader Bobby Seale was bound, gagged and tied to a chair in court before getting four years for contempt. Chicago police murdered leading Black Panther Fred Hampton in December.

The mention of Milwaukee is more puzzling, a city that wouldn’t headline a list of contemporary political hot spots. But its black community faced heavy pressure from the police, with one man shot dead in 1969 in suspicious circumstances. The city’s new branch of the Black Panthers faced systematic police violence and harassment, with the ‘Milwaukee Three’ beaten and framed for attempted murder of a policeman in September. The repression succeeded in closing down the Milwaukee Panthers.21

Hendrix could hardly be playing New York and not add it to his list, but the city had seen plenty of rebellion and repression in 1969. Twenty one Black Panthers were on trial there, having been rounded up in a dawn raid and charged with involvement in bombings. The common link between the three apparently random cities Hendrix mentions is state repression of the Black Panthers, clearly indicating that ‘Machine Gun’ was inspired by them, at least in part. At the second show that day, Hendrix introduced his classic ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ as “the Black Panthers’ national anthem”.22

It wasn’t his first time. At a concert on 4 August 1968 he had dedicated ‘I Don’t Live Today’ to “all the soldiers that are fighting in Detroit, and Seattle and Washington. Oh yeah, and the soldiers fighting in Vietnam too.”23 Detroit and Washington DC were among the many cities which had erupted that April in response to King’s assassination. Hendrix’s reference to his home town, however, seems to relate directly to the Black Panthers. After two Seattle Panthers were arrested days before on trumped-up charges, a demonstration a mile from his birthplace spiralled into a violent confrontation with police.24

Hendrix’s handwritten lyrics to ‘Machine Gun’ survive, on the notepaper of a hotel where he stayed in June 1969,25 so it was about six months old now. Hendrix and Cox had performed it, with the Experience’s Mitch Mitchell on drums and Juma Sultan on percussion, on television in September, but this was a fairly un­inspired run-through, with most of the lyrics omitted and little of its musical potential on display.26 This time it would be different.

Performing the opening chords unaccompanied, Hendrix draws five short bursts from his guitar in quick succession, like gunfire. The next time he does it, Miles’s drums join in. “Machine gun”, goes the first line, “tearing my body all apart.” Over more “Gatling-gun snare shots”,27 Hendrix sings of military orders annihilating common humanity:

Evil men make me kill you
Evil men make you kill me
Evil men make me kill you
Even though we’re only families apart

But later on, the violence loses its power, rebounding on the oppressor:

I ain’t afraid of your bullets no more, babe, ain’t afraid no more
After a while your cheap talk don’t even cause me pain
So let your bullets fly like rain
Knowing all the time you wrong, babe,
And that you’ll be going just the same—
Three times the pain, and your own self to blame

Then, extracting sounds from his guitar like nobody else could, Hendrix paints a soundscape of war “that sonically matches Picasso’s ‘Guernica’… tortuously yet beautifully evokes a chaotic welter of tribulations”.28 The sound bends and breaks, dives down before coming up for desperate gasps of air, “a vast and infinitely moving picture”.29 Spinning reverb conjures up images of helicopter gunships and fighter planes, “mutated into a deathly, screaming howl”30 punctuated by the call-and-response gunfire traded with the drums. Miles, in a plaintive falsetto, presents the dual case of the invading soldier on a tour of duty and the soldier who resists him:

Don’t you shoot him down
He’s ’bout to leave here
Don’t you shoot him down
He’s got to stay here

Convulsions and bursts of pain cry out as Hendrix uses “the uncanny onomatopoeic power of his guitar to evoke the sounds of urban riots and jungle fire-fights”,31 while the percussion gets overtly martial, before it all ends, not in a climactic explosion but a slow death. As the applause dies down, Hendrix tells the crowd: “That’s one we don’t want to hear any more, right?” “No bullets!” adds Miles.

At the end of that month the Band of Gypsys headlined the Winter Festival for Peace at Madison Square Garden, a benefit for the Vietnam Moratorium campaign. It was Hendrix’s most overt support for a political initiative, but a disastrous gig which proved the end for the band. Mitchell replaced Miles for the year’s subsequent concerts. The “anti-war requiem”32 that was ‘Machine Gun’ would often feature but, for whatever reason, never with the same bite as it had on New Year’s Day.

Politics crept into Hendrix’s music more and more through 1970. ‘Ezy Ryder’ includes the line “Gotta get the brothers together and the right to be free”, but just thrown in there, apropos of nothing. ‘Freedom’ demands liberation from a pernicious individual rather than any social or political oppression, but is given an unavoidable political colouring, largely by the backing vocals of Albert and Arthur Allen. Billed as the Ghetto Fighters, they round off the song by repeatedly chanting: “Keep on pushing! Straight ahead!” in step with a military percussion that can only suggest feet on the march. ‘Straight Ahead’ became the title of the most transparently political lyric in Hendrix’s work:

we got to stand up, side by side,
got to stand together and organise—
power to the people, freedom to the soul—
pass it on to the young and the old33

It doesn’t succeed as poetry, and only Hendrix’s extraordinary guitar lifts the track above the ordinary. One critic believes that “his heart isn’t quite in this farrago of tub-thumping, positivist soul slogans… as if he’s trying to talk himself into these platitudes”.34 Fair enough musically, this misses the point politically: there’s no reason to conclude that Hendrix didn’t mean what he sang here, just that he failed to find a way to adequately express it as a musician.

Days after soldiers killed four anti-war protestors at Kent State University in May, Hendrix dedicated ‘Machine Gun’ at the University of Oklahoma to “all the soldiers fighting in Chicago, Berkeley, Kent State, Oklahoma”.35 Berkeley, California was in a state not far off martial law after a year and more of running battles between radicals and the forces of Governor Ronald Reagan. Playing there the same month, Hendrix introduced the song with: “I’d like to dedicate this to all the soldiers fighting in Berkeley. You know what soldiers I’m talking about.” He dedicated ‘Voodoo Child’ to the local People’s Park—opened in the teeth of violent state opposition—and to the Black Panthers, whose heartland was only a few miles away in Oakland.36

‘Machine Gun’ featured at the Isle of Wight Festival that August, but Hendrix’s introduction replaced American cities with what just seem to be random English equivalents: “we’d like to dedicate this one to all the soldiers that are fighting in Birmingham, all the skinheads, all the…” Mention of skinheads appeared to puzzle the crowd, and some laughter followed: the skinhead subculture was still new enough, and tended to be associated with right-wing politics if anything. “Yeah, well, you know what I mean, you know, yeah right”, Hendrix continued. “All the soldiers fighting in Bournemouth, London.” The seaside town of Bournemouth—which Hendrix pro­nounced in stereotypical American fashion as Bourne Mouth—was hardly a hotbed of radical protest, but he added as an afterthought: “Oh yes, all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam, I almost forgot. So many wars on.”

The festival was shambolic, though, as security battled to keep out non-paying customers before organisers eventually gave way and let them in. Hendrix was late on stage, and his equipment kept going out of tune. Before he got to the song’s first line, the frequency of the guards’ walkie-talkies crossed with that of his amps, and a clipped English accent was clearly audible over his guitar: “Security personnel, security personnel, are you receiving? Over.”37 Hendrix may have misfired in his attempt at identifying British street fighters to dedicate the song to, but the audio intrusion added a definite flavour of British military interference to it.

Days later in Copenhagen Hendrix dedicated ‘Machine Gun’ to “all people fighting for their own cause and their own rights… fighting for freedom”.38 The apparently widespread belief “that Hendrix didn’t have a political bone in his body”39 is spread by people with little understanding of bones, let alone politics. Initially convinced of US imperialism’s beneficent role in the world, he had moved to question the oppressive realities of American power at home and abroad, and soon identified himself with those in revolt against them. This identification was always problematical, premised on a reluc­tance to sign up to anything or anyone he hadn’t thought through fully, and his radicalism was frequently diffuse and confused. His early death in September 1970—a stupidly tragic accident with nothing rock ’n’ roll about it40—closed off any further political development, along with the intriguing musical directions he was still exploring. What we have is impressive enough, though: a musician of genius willing to open his mind and music to the cause of liberation.

Notes

  1. Quoted in Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek, Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy (Heinemann 1990), p 387.
  2. Quoted in Charles R Cross, Room Full of Mirrors: A biography of Jimi Hendrix (Hodder & Stoughton 2005), p 91.
  3. Ibid, p 93-4.
  4. Shapiro and Glebbeek, p 387, quote a wry attack by Folksingers for Freedom in Vietnam on Hendrix’s attitude.
  5. Hendrix on Hendrix: Interviews and Encounters with Jimi Hendrix, edited by Steven Roby (Chicago Review 2012), p 53.
  6. Ibid, p 72.
  7. Cross, p 248-9, quotes Eric Burdon, a friend who recalled Hendrix sitting above his London flat getting angry at anti-war demonstrators passing by: “When the Reds come down from China and they take over North Vietnam, and South Vietnam, and then they go for Japan, and beyond, then are you going to understand why the U.S. is there fighting these guys?” This seems to fit: Hendrix’s flat at 23 Brook Street (now adorned by a blue commemorative plaque) was on or near the route of big anti-war demonstrations to the nearby US embassy in March and October 1968. However, Hendrix’s girlfriend didn’t start renting that flat until June, and Hendrix himself was in North America from February 1968 to the end of the year, bar one week in June: Tony Brown, Hendrix: The Visual Documentary (Omnibus 1992), p 80-97. If there is a kernel of truth in Burdon’s recollection, it must refer to 1966 or early 1967.
  8. Quoted in Peter Doggett, There’s a Riot Going On: revolutionaries, rock stars and the rise and fall of ’60s counter-culture (Canongate 2007), p 155.
  9. Jimi Hendrix, The Lyrics (Hal Leonard 2003), p 75.
  10. Quoted in Shapiro and Glebbeek, p 533.
  11. Charles Shaar Murray, Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and post-war pop (Faber and Faber 1989), p 195.
  12. Hendrix on Hendrix, p 217.
  13. Ibid, p 150.
  14. Ibid, p 188.
  15. Quoted in The Jimi Hendrix Companion: Three Decades of Commentary, edited by Chris Potash (Schirmer 1996), p 28.
  16. Noel Redding and Carol Appleby, Are You Experienced? The inside story of the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Picador 1990), p 129.
  17. Keith Shadwick, Jimi Hendrix: Musician (Backbeat 2012), p 286.
  18. Hendrix, Band of Gypsys (album, Capitol 1970).
  19. Quoted in Doggett, p 337.
  20. https://vault.fbi.gov/james-marshall-jimi-hendrix/james-marshall-jimi-hendrix/view#document/p2
  21. Andrew Witt, The Black Panthers in the Midwest: The Community Programs and Services of the Black Panther Party in Milwaukee, 1966-1977 (Routledge, 2007), p 46, 51-3.
  22. Hendrix, Live at the Fillmore East (album, MCA 1999). Six months earlier he had introduced it to his audience as “a black militant song”: Shadwick, p 250.
  23. Quoted in Shadwick, p 208.
  24. The Seattle Times, July 30 1968.
  25. Hendrix, The Lyrics, p 102-3. See Brown, p 103-5.
  26. Jimi Hendrix, The Dick Cavett Show (DVD, Experience Hendrix 2002).
  27. David Henderson, ’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix (Bantam 1983), p 302.
  28. David Stubbs, Jimi Hendrix: The stories behind every song (Carlton 2010), p 110.
  29. Shadwick, p 288.
  30. Peter Doggett, Jimi Hendrix: The Complete Guide to his Music (Omnibus 2004), p 29.
  31. Murray, p 23.
  32. Greg Tate, Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the black experience (Laurence Hill 2003), p 48.
  33. Hendrix, The Lyrics, p 154.
  34. Stubbs, p 131.
  35. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvTxfUmiBxY
  36. Cross, p 296.
  37. Jimi Hendrix, Live: Isle of Wight ’70 (album, Polydor 1991).
  38. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qc2gZmcCAEk
  39. John McDermott with Eddie Kramer, Hendrix: Setting the record straight (Warner 1992), p 169.
  40. See Tony Brown, The Final Days of Jimi Hendrix (Rogan House 1997).

What a catalyst: Unloading the Eton Rifles

Following controversy over one of their hits, Michelle Charlton followed the political development of The Jam in Issue 53 in September 2013.

One reason to dislike British prime minister David Cameron—and we’ll have to stick to just the one reason, or we could be here all day—is the fact that he was educated at that bastion of English class privilege called Eton College. Unlike scholarship boy George Orwell who later turned against everything his old school stood for, Cameron’s mission in life has always been to keep the world safe for Old Etonians.

Soon after he started there, but before he enrolled in its cadet corps, the college entered the popular consciousness and the pop charts in the shape of the Jam single ‘The Eton Rifles’. Having floated to the top of the Conservative Party, Cameron looked back on the Jam’s influence in 2008, singling out that track as his particular favourite:

‘The Eton Rifles’, inevitably. I was one, in the corps. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to. I don’t see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs.

The song’s composer Paul Weller didn’t quite see it the same way: “Which part of it didn’t he get? It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.”1 His incredulity only increased:

How could he not understand what ‘Eton Rifles’ was about? It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? We could have had a great socialist leader for our country who’s been inspired by that song, and instead we get David Cameron.2

It was even proof for him of Cameron’s political incompetence: “If you can’t take the time or intellect to see what the song’s about—you haven’t got much chance of running the country, have you?”3

When this was later put to Cameron he replied:

of course I understood what it was about. It was taking the mick out of people running around the cadet force. And he was poking a stick at us. But it was a great song with brilliant lyrics. I’ve always thought that if you can only like music if you agree with the political views of the person who wrote it, well, it’d be rather limiting.4

Perhaps Weller, like his song’s protagonists, thought he was smart when he took him on, but it’s time to take a peep in the artillery room…

‘The Eton Rifles’

Weller, lead singer, guitarist and lyricist with the Jam, wrote the song during a rain-sodden caravan holiday on the south coast of England. Years later he outlined what has come to be the generally accepted inspiration:

The story was there for me already—the unemployment march started out in Liverpool and passed Eton college. All the young chaps came out to jeer and take the piss. It was a mini class war being played out.5

As Britain’s dole queue hovered around the million and a half mark, unemployment was a big issue in the late 1970s. A Right to Work Campaign offered opposition in the shape of marathon marches linking up unemployment blackspots and workers facing redundancy. One such march passed Eton in June 1978, but no mini-class war seems to have broken out. Marchers put on posh accents to chant: “What does one want—the Right to Work”, but the college’s head boy appeared to sympathise, telling them: “I hope your jolly campaign gets you somewhere”.6

In contemporary interviews, Weller made no reference to such an incident. “I got the inspiration for the song from watching a programme on the BBC called, I think, Camera,” he explained. “They showed an old photo of the Eton Rifles and I thought, what a great name.”7 When it was released as a single in October 1979, an old photograph of the Eton cadet corps did indeed feature on the cover. News of the marchers’ visit to Eton in 1978 could well have been in Weller’s mind, but if so, he moulded the story into something more confrontational than the reality.

A similar march two years later did in fact spark a row, and Weller saw this instance of life imitating art as something of a vindication:

with the Right to Work march, there was a minor incident in Eton College. So looking back, ‘Eton Rifles’ is a quite feasible story really. It wasn’t as ridiculous as people make out, class warfare, it’s quite possible.8

He wrote the song “in one go as it reads on the page”,9 and in the demo version he recorded solo in July 1979 the lyrical and musical structure is identical to the final version. A handwritten copy of the lyrics from that session confirms that, the only difference being that Eton is misspelled “Eaton”,10 suggesting that Weller hadn’t en­countered the college too often in his reading.

The song opens with people being told to drink up and head for the Slough area where a fight is taking place, only to find that “All that rugby puts hairs on your chest”, and the Eton boys are made of stronger stuff: “We came out of it naturally the worst… We were no match for their untamed wit”. The defeat also owes something to the cowardice displayed by some of the would-be class warriors:

What a catalyst you turned out to be
Loaded the guns then you run off home for your tea
Left me standing like a guilty schoolboy

Protestors of a musical bent prove to be less committed in deeds than in words:

Thought you were clever when you lit the fuse
Tore down the House of Commons in your brand new shoes
Composed a revolutionary symphony
Then went to bed with a charming young thing

While ‘The Eton Rifles’ is written from the perspective of those opposing the posh pupils, it pulls no punches in announcing a clear Eton victory. Its criticism is directed at left-wing protestors who didn’t translate their radical talk into action when it mattered. Such accusations are common enough among protestors, sometimes un­founded and sometimes with justification, and as the song presents an imaginary scenario, it can’t be proved or disproved here. But Weller’s decision to include such an accusation reflects a jaundiced view of the left. Bracketing composers of revolutionary songs with such hypocrisy likewise reflects a suspicion of left-wing musicians.

In interviews around the single’s release in October, Weller was clear that he wasn’t taking sides. The song was “just a piss-take of the class system… It’s also obviously a piss-take of these trendy socialists and fascists as well.”11 While it is healthy that Weller wanted to dismiss fascists too—at a time when they threatened to become a real danger in Britain—nothing in ‘The Eton Rifles’ resembles any ridicule of them. All of its ridicule is reserved for trendy socialists.

Cameron’s claim that the song had an influence upon his fellows is confirmed by an interview Weller gave to the Eton College Chronicle, no less:

Basically, it’s, like, taking the mickey out of class. It’s meant to be humorous—I think for a start the title’s funny. It’s an imaginary setting, the two classes clashing, with the trendy revolutionary saying to the man in the pub, “Come on, sup up your beer, there’s a row on up the road,” and it’s like, “The revolution will start after I’ve finished my pint.”

He admits that he had never gone near Eton himself, and emphasises that he meant no offence: “I’ve got nothing against Etonians personally. Eton’s just a symbol for the song. They’re not annoyed about it, are they?” On the contrary, the interviewer tells him, to which he replies: “Great, that’s fantastic. It’ll probably go to Number One.”12 Young Master Cameron must have been chuffed.

Before the Rifles

If the Jam and ‘The Eton Rifles’ being other than left-wing comes as a shock to some, it should be no surprise in light of the band’s history. While their home town of Woking in Surrey earns a footnote in socialist history as the place Friedrich Engels was cremated, it has been a rock-solid safe Tory seat for over a century now, despite seeing an influx of workers with its expansion after the second world war. Coming to mass attention in 1977, the Jam were open enough about being working-class Tories. In their first major interview Weller claimed:

The queen’s the best diplomat we’ve got. She works harder than what you or I do for the rest of the country.… All this “change the world” thing is becoming a bit too trendy.

He was more explicit a week later: “We’ll be voting Conservative at the next election.” Drummer Rick Buckler concurred: “It’s the unions who run the country.”13 Publicity pictures showed the band posing by Big Ben in Union Jack suits, a flag which also draped the stage at their gigs.

Within a few years Weller would be dismissing such sentiments as a cunning plan to wind up left-wing bands rather than a true reflection of the Jam’s politics, but other contemporary statements suggest they were expressing honestly held beliefs. Their lyrical forays into politics were cut from the same cloth. In ‘Time for Truth’ on their debut album, Weller lays into “Uncle Jimmy”—Labour prime minister James Callaghan, a deserving target—but not from the left. “Whatever happened to the great empire?” he sings: “You bastards have turned it into manure”. Nostalgia for the good old days of British imperialism is a hardy annual of working-class Toryism. The song demands justice for the killing of a man in police custody, even accusing Callaghan of wanting “a police state / So you can rule our body and minds”. But Weller explained his concerns in an interview:

I don’t think people realise how close we are to a police state. The Labour government will want everything state-owned soon. It’s getting to be like 1984 already.14

He was rightly worried at the expansion of state coercion in 1970s Britain—even if he exaggerated it—but lumped it in with the Tory bugbear of nationalised industry, and saw it as Labour’s fault specifically. Thatcher’s plan to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ seems to have appealed to him, and he wouldn’t be the only working-class person not to realise that she only wanted rid of those frontiers where they interfered with the accumulation of capitalist profit, intending to reinforce them beyond recognition where they might be needed to uphold it.

The Union Jackery was part of this plebeian conservatism, but also was intended as a nod to the Who, a key source of inspiration for the early Jam, with the Big Ben pose referencing the cover of their My Generation album. As it became clear, however, that the imagery would feed into the fascists’ attempt to gain a foothold on the music scene, the flag was put away. The criticism they came in for stung, as Weller admitted later that year:

I’m sick of everyone calling us conservatives and saying we’re not radical enough. I think Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher are cunts. I don’t trust any of them. All I said at that time was that I thought the Tories would do less of a bad job…15

He was partially motivated by a refusal to go along with a left-wing orthodoxy among bands, an admirable desire to think for himself rather than following the herd. But the opinions he held at the time were conservative ones, at the end of the day. By 1978 he was admitting: “I said a lot of very naïve things last year. If anything I’m apolitical now.” He was likely to vote Labour just “to keep the right-wing fascists out”.16 But above all, he was about making music, not political statements.

Politics can’t help but intrude, of course. In ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ Weller established the Jam as a real lyrical force. Those fascists make an appearance in the menacing scene evoked by the song, as its protagonist is assaulted by drunken thugs with the smell of “too many right wing meetings”. While this wasn’t left-wing in and of itself—thankfully, opposition to fascism in Britain in 1978 was not confined to socialists—the political note makes an important contribution to the nightmare.

However, Weller still seemed determined not to be a trendy left-wing songwriter. In January 1979 the Jam recorded a demo of ‘Strange Town’,17 although Weller had only one verse written to accompany three renditions of the chorus. This tale of a new arrival’s difficulty fitting in with the habits and attitudes of London was finished off that month, now including a pop at the urbanites’ political stances:

We’ve got our own manifesto
Be kind to queers
And oh so glad the revolution’s here

Weller proved that the casual homophobia wasn’t off the cuff when miming the song on Top of the Pops, flicking a limp wrist to accompany the word “queers”.18 The back cover of the single featured a poem—uncredited, but clearly by Weller:

we gotta solution
shoot all the rich men
put them in camps
give all the money to the poor man so he can be rich
don’t shoot us though we’re rock and rollers

His tongue is in his cheek here, and there is undoubtedly much to mock in the left-wing shapes thrown by some pop stars. But the very idea of far-reaching social change is being dismissed: Weller couldn’t see a way of being left-wing without falling into the tired cliché of the radical rocker.

But he was being pulled leftwards despite himself. ‘When You’re Young’ was hastily recorded in July 1979 as the Jam needed another single. It tells of the joys of youth, swearing “you’re never ever gonna work for someone / No corporation for the new age sons”, only to be brought down to earth by the crushing reality that “life isn’t like that… the world is your oyster but your future’s a clam”. The single’s B‑side ‘Smithers-Jones’, written by bass guitarist Bruce Foxton, is a great tale of a loyal member of the rat race commuting to the office to hear that his hoped-for promotion turns out to be the sack. The final verse, contributed by Weller,19 generalises his fate:

…now you’ve worked your arse off
But the only one smilin’ is the suntanned boss
Work and work and work and work till you die
There’s plenty more fish in the sea to fry

Setting Sons

By now the Jam were working on their fourth album. Weller intended Setting Sons to be a concept album focussing on three friends who meet up again after a civil war: “one joins the left, one veers off to the right while the third one doesn’t feel any particular affiliation whatso­ever. He’s the abstainer.” Asked which character was closer to himself, “‘The Abstainer,’ he replies immediately.”20 In the event, only about half of the album’s tracks fitted in to this concept, but it did allow Weller to explore political themes.

‘Thick as Thieves’ bemoans the loss of youthful comradeship and its ideals, while ‘Wasteland’ tells of devastated lives in a devastated landscape. ‘Little Boy Soldiers’ offers a totally different take on the “great empire” Weller once sang of, as a politician lures someone to “Shoot, shoot, shoot and kill the natives… beneath the flag of democracy” with the assurance that “God’s on our side and so is Washington”. In ‘Burning Sky’, written as a prose poem, the right-wing character cries off the friends’ reunion because he has an important business meeting:

I don’t want you to get me wrong, ideals are fine when you are young… there’s no time for dreams when commerce calls… And it’s only us realists who are gonna come through… and you’re just a dreamer if you don’t realise and the sooner you do will be the better for you… and we’ll all bow down before the burning sky.

Whether ‘The Eton Rifles’ is part of the concept, with the abstainer addressing the left-winger, is unclear.

It is preceded on the album by a song written in the same caravan on the same holiday,21 ‘Saturday’s Kids’. This unsentimental story of people like those Weller grew up with originally ascribed a level of political resistance to them: “it’s the system / hate the system / smash the system!”22 But by the time the final version was recorded on the same day as ‘The Eton Rifles’, that last line was transformed from defiance to bewilderment: “what’s the system?” Weller was being drawn to the left in his lyrics, but was valiantly resisting the attraction. This is the immediate context of ‘The Eton Rifles’ as far as his political development is concerned: a songwriter hesitating warily on the brink of political commitment.

After the Rifles

As it turned out, the support of Etonians wasn’t enough to get ‘The Eton Rifles’ to the top spot, but its peak at number 3 made it the Jam’s first top ten hit. Their success was confirmed in March 1980 when their next single, ‘Going Underground’, went straight in at number 1. The line “A show of strength with your boys’ brigade” seems to hark back to the Eton cadets. The song is scathing about the state of the world, but while its injustices “Make this boy shout, make this boy scream”, Weller suggests that few share his indignation, leaving him no alternative but to retreat:

You’ve made your bed, you better lie in it
You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust
You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns
And the public wants what the public gets
But I don’t get what this society wants
I’m going underground

Retreat was less of an option, however, for an honest songwriter with something to say about Britain in the 1980s. An alternative was hinted at in the single ‘Start!’ in August. Its stress on the power of real human communication, however ephemeral, can apply to many situations, but Weller himself was inspired by Homage to Catalonia, and specifically George Orwell’s fleeting encounter with an Italian who had come to fight Franco like himself:

As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy.23

Weller told an interviewer: “there’s a lot of talk of the ‘egalitarian society’ where all people are equal but this was it, actually in existence, which for me is something very hard to imagine”.24 Reference to the Spanish revolution was well hidden in the lyrics, though, and could hardly be fathomed in the absence of Weller’s external explanation.

‘Start!’ was chosen as a single in preference to ‘Pretty Green’, a forceful take on the power of money:

This is the pretty green, this is society
You can do nothing unless it’s in the pocket
…power is measured by the pound or the fist
It’s as clear as this

Both appeared on that year’s Sound Affects album, which featured an excerpt from Shelley’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’ on the back cover (“Rise like lions after slumber… Ye are many, they are few”). ‘Man in the Corner Shop’ contrasts the mutually blinkered visions imposed by class. ‘Set the House Ablaze’ takes to task someone seduced by fascism because “we’ve lost sight of the goals we should be working for”. ‘Scrape Away’ answers in advance those who would dismiss the attitude now emerging from Weller’s lyrics:

Your twisted cynicism makes me feel sick
Your open disgust for “Idealistic naive”
You’ve given up hope, you’re jaded and ill
The problem is you’ve got a catching disease

Politics was becoming an increasingly overt aspect of the Jam’s lyrics. With fascist groups still infesting the margins of British politics, ‘Funeral Pyre’ in May 1981 envisaged a neo-Nazi book burning:

I could see the faces of those who led
Pissing themselves laughing
Their mad eyes bulged, their flushed faces said
The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger

The following February ‘A Town Called Malice’ delineated with exceptional poetic skill the destruction wrought by capitalism “Struggle after struggle, year after year”. But this “magnificent howl of outrage at Thatcherite Britain”25 concludes that now “it’s up to us to change / this town called malice”.

By now the Jam were regular participants in benefit gigs against racism, youth unemployment, and particularly the nuclear arms race. ‘Just Who is the 5 O’Clock Hero?’ on The Gift, released in March 1982, presented the worker as the real creator of wealth, overwhelmed by bills and harassed by the rich. Commenting on the track, Weller was at pains to downplay the importance of his own position: “the nurses and the miners are the real heroes because they keep the country going—and not pop stars”.26 The album also featured ‘Trans-Global Express’:

Imagine if tomorrow the workers went on strike
not just British Leyland but the whole world
who would earn their profits?
who would make their bombs?
you’d see the hands of oppression fumble
and their systems crash to the ground

This unambiguously socialist statement pinned the Jam’s colours to the mast, but the vocals were mixed so low as to be unintelligible without the album’s lyric sheet in hand. The political message is almost smuggled in under the northern soul beat, and only those hearing it performed live could hear the outspoken message.

The Gift was the Jam’s last album, with the band breaking up at the end of 1982. Weller’s frustration had been growing as he saw the group becoming a fetter on progressing in the musical directions he was interested in exploring. The split had a political element too, at least after the fact. Certainly the greater freedom Weller found in the Style Council was reflected in a brace of classic socialist songs.

What a catalyst

David Cameron is wrong to see ‘The Eton Rifles’ as a protest song ridiculing his fellow cadets. The ridicule is aimed at the other side of the barricades—or at those not prepared to man them, at least—and at class conflict in general. Where Cameron gets it right is that calibrating your musical taste to an artist’s political views is a particularly idiotic way to tune your ears. It unfortunately remains common on the left, and occasionally appears on the right too. In fact, Cameron’s own attempts to embrace the Jam, the Smiths and Radiohead cannot credibly rid themselves of the odour of spin, a dishonest attempt to portray himself as a common man listening to cool music rather than a rich parasite impoverishing millions.

At the risk of stating the obvious, socialists should listen to and enjoy ‘The Eton Rifles’ because it is an excellent song. The lyrics are illuminated by a rare wit, and succeed in painting an enduring picture. While lyrics have been to the fore in this discussion, the song is a powerful piece of music too. Not just Weller’s guitar, but Buckler’s drumming and especially Foxton’s bass craft a memorable soundscape, admirably matching the threat and confusion of the scenario.

The song makes fun of the left, but that only adds to the charm. Firstly, the left often makes mistakes and fails to live up to its proclaimed principles, and should have the guts to admit it. Secondly, even our best attempts sometimes end in failure and farce, and we should be able to laugh at them even as we try to learn from them. The class war isn’t all doom and gloom, after all, and often features the absurd as well as the noble. An inability to face this leaves us in a poor position to fight.

“Though some of the lads said they’d be back next week” is the final affirmation in ‘The Eton Rifles’. Even though its author was un­sure whether or not to take the leap of faith towards socialist politics, he was aware that the class war of which he sang wasn’t going away because of an isolated battle here or there. Like it or not, that struggle is not one we can just opt out of, and the unavoidable defeats, humiliations and betrayals are themselves a necessary part of the process whereby, one day, we will be able to outwit and outclass the enemy.

Notes

  1. Both quoted in John Wilson, ‘Chasing the blues away’, New Statesman, 15 May 2008.
  2. Quoted in Paul Moody, ‘Paul Weller: “Success does strange things to people”, Uncut, December 2008.
  3. Interview with Channel 4 News, 19 April 2010, http://www.channel4. com/news/paul-weller-returns-to-politics-with-a-small-p.
  4. ‘David Cameron, we have a few questions for you…’, 25 November 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/nov/25/david-cameron-answers-questions?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038.
  5. Paul Weller, Suburban 100: Selected lyrics (Century, 2007), p 55.
  6. Socialist Worker, 17 June 1978.
  7. Quoted in Graham Willmott, The Jam: Sounds from the street (Reynolds & Hearn, 2003), p 129. A similar statement from another interview is quoted in John Reed, Paul Weller: My ever changing moods (Omnibus, 1996), p 99.
  8. Quoted in Lynden Barber, ‘Light my Pyre’, Melody Maker, 23 May 1981.
  9. Weller, p 55.
  10. See Richard Buskin, ‘Classic Tracks: The Jam, “The Eton Rifles”’, Sound on Sound, May 2007.
  11. Quoted in Reed, p 99.
  12. Quoted in Willmott, p 129-30.
  13. Quoted in Steve Malins, Paul Weller: The Unauthorised Biography (Virgin, 1997), p 45.
  14. Quoted in Reed, p 74.
  15. In his own words: Paul Weller, edited by Michael Heatley (Omnibus, 1996), p 57.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcts9zBH-jE.
  18. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-V_OZLcmJz4.
  19. Paolo Hewitt, The Jam: a beat concerto (Riot Stories/Omnibus, 1983), p 78.
  20. Nick Kent, ‘Weller’s Immaculate Conception’, New Musical Express, 18 September 1979.
  21. Weller, Suburban 100, p 38.
  22. In the demo version, available on the 1992 Jam album Extras.
  23. George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (Penguin, 1989), p 1-2.
  24. Quoted in Malins, p 81.
  25. As critic Graham Lock called it: quoted in Hewitt, p 109.
  26. Quoted in Reed, p 134.

Mining soul deep: A lesson in history (part two)

Following on from part one, in Issue 38 (December 2009) Michelle Charlton concluded her look at music in solidarity with the British miners.

By late 1984, the increasing isolation of their strike had led some miners to assault individual scabs. “No, it’s not good, is it?” was the verdict of Bob, one of the strikers interviewed for the B side of ‘Soul Deep’. “I don’t believe in that.” When asked if such tactics didn’t play into the enemy’s hands, he agreed that “It’s not doing us any good at all, no.”

Shortly after that interview was recorded, on 30 November, two strikers dropped a concrete slab from a bridge on to a taxi driving two scabs to work in Merthyr Vale pit: the driver, David Wilkie, was killed. It was a desperate act born of utter frustration. Scabbing was even more of a betrayal than usual in the close-knit south Wales coalfield, particularly here where 144 people had been killed in the Aberfan pit disaster eighteen years before. The police siege of the area was preventing any effective picketing, and two miners resorted to extremes. It emerged at their trial that another striker was on the bridge trying to persuade them against the act, and we can only imagine the arguments that took place there. Wilkie had been ferrying scabs under police escort for a while, but his death left behind a fiancée and three kids, with another on the way. It did nothing but harm, presenting the miners’ enemies with a gaping open goal.

It also allowed Polydor Records to push for the withdrawal of the record due to come out in support of the strike. “From the outset, the company was unhappy about releasing ‘Soul Deep’”, according to Dennis Munday who liaised between them and the Style Council. They claimed it would alienate the band’s potential audience, but—given that the record-buying public was well aware of where the Style Council stood politically—it just sounds like a corporation supporting its own side in the strike. The killing of Wilkie saw them redouble their opposition to the single, “bringing about immense pressure to withdraw it”, writes Munday. He stuck to his guns, though, forcing Polydor to accept that ‘Soul Deep’ would only be pulled if the Council Collective themselves wanted it pulled.1

Only the most hard-bitten supporter of the strike affected to remain unmoved by the Merthyr Vale tragedy, and those involved in ‘Soul Deep’ did have some heart searching to do. Rumours spread as thousands of copies of the single lay idle in a warehouse, and on 5 December the company announced its cancellation for “artistic reasons”, the standard record industry excuse.2 But after discussions between Paul Weller and Polydor, that thankfully proved a false alarm. The single would come out, it was announced, with some of the proceeds being diverted:

The aim was to raise money for the striking miners and their families before Christmas. In the light of the tragic event last week we will also be giving some of the money to Mr Wilkie’s widow. We still support the strike—because if the miners lose it will mean the end of the trade union movement.3

The lyrics were originally to be printed on the back of the sleeve, but Weller had them removed.4 Presumably he felt it was no longer appropriate to highlight the line “There’s blood on the hillside” in the chorus. The single was released on 14 December. “We just wanted time to think about it”, explained Weller in an interview. “I still think the strike’s got to go on and got to have support, but that kind of violence isn’t going to help anyone.”5 An advance of £9,800 went to Women Against Pit Closures immediately.6

Weller and Ruffin were interviewed on BBC Radio 1, and the Council Collective performed on Channel 4’s The Tube. Despite the reluctance of mainstream radio to play the single and the refusal of some record shops to stock it, it entered the charts at number 37, accompanied by a performance on Top of the Pops. Given the programme’s subsequent slow demise, it can be easily forgotten how central Top of the Pops once was to popular cultural debate. It set the agenda for schoolyard discussions up and down Britain every Friday morning, the previous night’s performances being cited as proof that The Smiths were genius, that Duran Duran were wankers, or whatever. The Style Council were notorious for not taking the programme as seriously as the BBC would have liked: deliberately miming badly, playing the wrong instruments, smirking at in-jokes. But the Council Collective were on their best behaviour for the cause, dutifully playing along amidst the moronic dancers and flying balloons. In a slight variation to the single, Weller even joined in the song’s rap, and the result manages not to be embarrassing.7

Later on the same Top of the Pops, Weller joined in the perform­ance of Band Aid’s number one ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, sheepishly miming Bono’s part as the future knight of the realm must have been washing his mullet that evening. While Weller was fully involved in the single’s aim of publicising and trying to alleviate famine in Africa, it is nonsense to claim that Band Aid “certainly inspired the Council Collective”.8 One of the many reasons ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ is such a dog’s dinner is that it mashes together a sorry hotch-potch of musical styles, whereas ‘Soul Deep’ has an underlying musical coherence to it. Plenty of other musicians could have been willingly roped in—Billy Bragg, for example, who had played support on the Style Council tour in March and was performing benefits in miners’ welfare halls across England at the time9—but the Council Collective was kept as a united collective of musicians with a broadly similar style, rather than a random grouping of hitmakers.

Apart from anything else, ‘Soul Deep’ had been recorded a month before Band Aid was assembled. Despite their mutual dislike, Bob Geldof had gone out of his way to get Weller involved in the project, bringing him into the studio to help put the song together the day before the stars turned up in front of the cameras.10 The Council Collective was not one of the rash of charity supergroups that followed in Band Aid’s wake. In fact, while benefit concerts with various artists were nothing new, and individual musicians had donated royalties from records, ‘Soul Deep’ may well have pioneered the practice of bringing together an ensemble to record a single for a good cause.

‘Soul Deep’ got as high as number 24 and spent six weeks in the charts, selling 100,000 and raising a decent sum of money for the miners.11 In Ireland, seemingly the only other country the single reached, it got to number 11—which goes along with NUM leader Arthur Scargill’s belief that Irish support for the strike was proportionately higher then elsewhere.12 But it was all a drop in the ocean when faced with a state willing to spend twenty times as much to defeat the miners. Those power cuts didn’t happen, other unions didn’t turn sympathy into action, and in March 1985 the miners went back proud but defeated. However, ‘Soul Deep’ had helped ensure that some miners’ families were fed, that some miners’ children got Christmas presents, that thousands of people got the message that their fight had to be supported.

The song featured in the Style Council’s live set throughout 1985, but the early part of that year was devoted to recording their second album Our Favourite Shop. Its predecessor was a very eclectic mix, but Weller promised that this would be different: “Though there’s still loads of styles on Our Favourite Shop, it’s more coherent and more confident. We took more time over it too.”13 The tracks do hang together a lot better, but after the instrumental that gives the album its title, it concludes with a track that sticks out: ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down!’ Unlike many of the tracks, its recording date is unknown: it seems to have been laid down late in March.14 Musically, it is noticeably less slick than the rest of the album, and the lyrics are far more rough and ready. The song bears all the hallmarks of being written quickly in response to the defeat of the miners’ strike and recorded soon after.

What’s more, the main influence on the lyrics is ‘A Miner’s Point’, the interview from the B side of ‘Soul Deep’. Chris’s point that solidarity from other workers in the energy industry was needed to cause power cuts and bring Thatcher to heel is openly evident:

Governments crack and systems fall
’Cause Unity is powerful
Lights go out—walls come tumbling down!

Bob’s belief that the working class was being weakened by consumerism and debt is also there:

The competition is a colour TV
We’re on still pause with the video machine
That keep you slaves to the HP

Their insistence that the strike was more than a simple industrial dispute is echoed too: “Are you gonna get to realise / The class war’s real and not mythologised”.

Some of these lyrics sound clumsy. One line refers to those who “dangle jobs like the donkey’s carrot”, with the emphasis on the second syllable of ‘carrot’ just so it rhymes with “not” two lines before. Then follows “Until you don’t know where you are”, which seems to be the work of a songwriter who didn’t know where he was when it came to filling in the next line. It’s not that Weller couldn’t write a political song that worked artistically too: the album is full of them, like the blatant call to arms ‘Internationalists’ with no such weaknesses. It all points to ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down!’ being written in the heat of the moment as a gut reaffirmation of socialist principle.

And that is the song’s abiding virtue. With the beaten miners’ strike still an open wound, it was a shot in the arm to hear a song that began: “You don’t have to take this crap / You don’t have to sit back and relax / You can actually try changing it”. As many on the left embarked on a long day’s journey into the right, hearing Paul Weller on Top of the Pops insist that the class war wasn’t mytholog­ised stiffened the resolve. On top of that, it was commercially successful, going to number six when released as a single in May, a position no later Style Council single would reach. Hundreds of millions heard it at Live Aid that July too. For all its shortcomings as a song, ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down!’ was a powerful and necessary political statement inspired by the thoughts of two strikers in Britain’s most important class battle for generations.

What is wasn’t was an attempt to slag other musicians. The line “You don’t have to sit back and relax”, claims John Reed’s biography, “alluded to the ‘Frankie Say Relax’ T‑shirt craze which followed the enormous success of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s single”.15 Paolo Hewitt takes it further, calling the line “a direct dig at the band Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Their single, Relax, had recently hit the number one spot. The band’s decadent image riled Paul.”16 First, ‘Relax’ was a hit a year and a half before, not “recently”. Second, while Weller was never shy in criticising other artists, no caustic comments on Frankie have emerged. Third, their subsequent single ‘Two Tribes’ was a prominent part of a popular anti-nuclear mood that the Style Council actively promoted. Fourth, when the Style Council played at a rally in February 1985 against compulsory training schemes for unemployed youth, Frankie Goes to Hollywood sent a message of support: “Frankie Say, Don’t Relax—Organise”.17 Fifth, the Style Council embraced the slogan T‑shirt themselves, producing one with the line “You don’t have to take this crap” next to a shattered image of Ronald Reagan to promote ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down!’ itself.18 Another contem­porary band may have influenced the song, though. ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ by Tears for Fears was all over the charts in March 1985, and one couplet may have given Weller the idea of linking power cuts with the fate of Jericho: “There’s a room where the light won’t find you / Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down”.

The rest of the Style Council’s career saw some great work, much of it still unappreciated, but the band entered a clear decline after 1985. In part this was musical, with their desire to experiment with new forms often confusing and sometimes failing. In part it was personal, with band members settling down to parenthood and private happiness. In part it was down to a worsening relationship with their record company after the departure of their trusted A&R man, culminating in their 1989 house album Modernism being rejected and the band calling it a day.19 But there was also a political element to it all. It got harder and harder to be a socialist in the aftermath of the miners’ defeat as Thatcher’s offensive on the working class steamrollered along. Being a socialist and expressing it in meaningful music was no easier, especially when the audience was shrinking and retreating. The Style Council’s pivotal role in the Red Wedge project was an admirable attempt to break out of the dilemma, but Red Wedge was always hamstrung by its attachment to an increasingly worthless Labour Party.

Paul Weller is still a rightfully acclaimed artist today, but politics don’t feature overtly in his songwriting. Fans of the anti-acquisitive love song ‘You’re The Best Thing’, with its timeless line “I’m content just with the riches that you bring”, were surprised to hear it bringing its author some more riches advertising a blackcurrant drink in 2003! But he has never disowned his political engagement in the 1980s. “It wasn’t a time to be non-partisan”, he said in the sleeve notes to the 2007 re-release of Our Favourite Shop:

It was too serious a time, too extreme. I wasn’t waving the Labour Party flag, but the socialist red flag, that’s for sure. …the trade unions were being worn down, we had the miners’ strike, there was mass unemployment: there were all these issues, you had to care, and if you didn’t you had your head in the sand or didn’t give a fuck about anyone else. You couldn’t sit on the fence.

In 1984 he sang that “I know as much as the day I was born”, but his response then was to “shout to the top”. In 1996’s ‘The Changingman’—arguably his finest hour as a solo artist—he similarly acknowledges that “The more I know, the less I under­stand”, but remains “waiting for the bang / To light a bitter fuse”. When that fuse is lit again, a radical Weller may return. The Conservative Party leader remarking last year that he thought The Jam’s ‘Eton Rifles’ was a rather spiffing tune certainly brought forth a visceral response from the song’s author, and a look back in anger at the years of Tory rule: “I think they were absolute fucking scum—especially Thatcher, who I think should be shot as a traitor to the people. I still think that, and nothing will ever change my opinion.”20

There’s nothing left-wing about seeking personal vengeance against individual capitalist leaders, of course, or even thirsting for the blood of the ruling classes in general: if anything, it detracts from the essential humanity that all socialism is founded upon. But Thatcher is an exception. The way she cruelly ground down the British miners, callously allowed Irish hunger strikers to die, ordered the killing of Argentinian conscripts sailing away from battle—it all sets her apart from the run-of-the-mill bourgeois politician. You might think Blair or Haughey were bad, but she has them well in the halfpenny place. A world without her will be an immeasurably better one. Our hopes were cruelly raised and dashed again earlier this year when she turned out to be just ill, but when she does finally go, millions will breathe easier and rejoice. And when those parties get going, ‘Soul Deep’ should be on the turntable.

Notes

  1. Dennis Munday, Shout to the Top—The Jam and Paul Weller: An inside story (Omnibus Press 2008), p 173-4.
  2. John Reed, Paul Weller: My ever changing moods (Omnibus Press 1997), p 174.
  3. Quoted in Steve Malins, Paul Weller: The Unauthorised Biography (Virgin Books 1997), p 133.
  4. Munday, p 174.
  5. Quoted in Reed, p 174-5.
  6. Iain Munn, Mr Cool’s Dream: The complete history of the Style Council (Wholepoint Publications 2008), p 71. In terms of average earnings, that would be equivalent to £34,279 in 2008 (www.measuringworth.com/ppoweruk), or about €40,000.
  7. The performance can be seen on YouTube. Weller and rap could be an unhappy combination, as proved by his woeful composition ‘A Gospel’ on Café Bleu.
  8. Reed, p 175.
  9. See Andrew Collins, Still Suitable for Miners. Billy Bragg: The Official Biography (Virgin Books 2002), p 127, 143-5.
  10. Malins, p 141.
  11. Reed, p 175—though Reed’s figure of £10,000 obviously refers only to the advance: writer and performance royalties on 100,000 singles would far exceed that.
  12. See Des Bonass, ‘Ireland and the miners’ strike’, Red Banner 22, p 54-5.
  13. Quoted in Reed, p 181.
  14. The last item for March 1985 in Munn, p 76, refers to it as a “newly recorded track”.
  15. Reed, p 178. This is repeated in his Complete Guide to the Music of Paul Weller & The Jam (Omnibus Press 1999), p 121.
  16. Paul Weller: The changing man (Bantam Press 2007), p 149. The fact that the word “Relax” had a capital R on the album’s lyric sheet may have confused them, but such use of capital letters is evident throughout that lyric sheet.
  17. Collins, p 156. See Reed, My ever changing moods, p 177.
  18. Munn, p 79.
  19. Incidentally, that album’s opening track features some ad libbing by Jimmy Ruffin from the ‘Soul Deep’ session. See Munday, p 214.
  20. Quoted in John Harris, ‘Hands Off Our Music!’, The Guardian, 18 March 2008.

Mining soul deep: A lesson in history (part one)

In September 2009, twenty five years after the British miners’ strike, in Issue 37 Michelle Charlton began a look at how music played in solidarity with the struggle.

Twenty five years ago, battle was joined between Britain’s miners and Margaret Thatcher’s government. On 12 March 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers began a strike against Coal Board plans to close scores of pits alleged to be uneconomic. The titanic struggle that ensued saw a widespread movement in support of the mining communities’ fight—and some of that movement took musical form.

The strike got underway in a busy period for the Style Council, the band formed by Paul Weller, after splitting up The Jam at the height of its success, with Mick Talbot and a transient mix of other musicians. Their first British tour started just as the miners’ strike did, with their debut album Café Bleu released days later. Their path crossed with the strike when their tour bus was stopped by police on the hunt for flying pickets.1

Their next single, in May, was ‘You’re The Best Thing’, but was released as a double A side with a new song, ‘The Big Boss Groove’. Its call to break with the capitalist way of seeing things—to “step outside the big boss groove”—chimed well with the spirit of the strike:

Get up is what we say
And don’t wait for judgement day
There’s too much going on
You may think you’re weak but together we could be so strong

In July the Style Council headlined a benefit gig for the miners in Liverpool where £3,000 was raised.2 An even bigger one followed at London’s Royal Festival Hall in September where they shared the stage, not only with the alternative comedians of the day, but with Wham! The appearance of George Michael’s pop group at a miners’ benefit has bemused and amused ever since, but it shouldn’t. In their early days the Style Council and Wham! recorded in studios close to each other, and Dee C Lee sang with both bands before becoming a permanent Style Councillor. Wham!’s early music did have a rebellious streak in amongst its poppiness, an urban image of refusing to get a job and conform. Above all, the fact that a band that had gone totally disposable months before (with the truly awful ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’) still wanted to show their support for the strikers underlines how deep the urge for solidarity went. This was a truly popular cause that didn’t just mobilise worthy lefties stroking their chins to meaningful lyrical juxtapositions, but reached out to teenage pop fans too. Anyone organising a strike benefit today should jump at the chance of having, say, Girls Aloud on the bill, rather than massaging artistic integrities with lesser-known acts.

The politics of the next Style Council single, ‘Shout to the Top!’, often escape listeners to this day. But those who missed its message to answer personal adversity with political revolt were left in no doubt by the promotion. The video featured the band performing in front of a wall painting of the miners’ strike. Adverts announced the single in no uncertain terms: “Make no mistake / this is all class war / fight back / Shout to the Top!”3

It seemed logical to release a single directly in support of the miners’ strike. The year before, Weller had donated his royalties from the single ‘Money-Go-Round’ to Youth CND, a cause always close to the band’s hearts. Their A&R man recalls a meeting “to discuss the next Council single and I could see he [Weller] was clearly moved by the plight of the miners and their families. He decided that rather than just offer money, he would write and record a song about the dispute and donate the royalties to the suffering families.”4 By now, it was clear that the strike would be long and drawn-out, and the realisation that thousands in mining communities faced a bleak Christmas galvanised people to do their bit.

The net was cast a bit wider than the Style Council itself. The Council Collective, as the ensemble was called, brought in people they had worked with before—Dee C Lee and rapper Dizzy Hites—alongside bassist Leonardo Chignoli and Vaughn Toulouse rapping, as well as two quite high profile vocalists. Junior Giscombe had hit the charts with ‘Mama Used to Say’ two years earlier, seeming to herald a new black British soul before his career inexplicably stalled. Jimmy Ruffin, a miner’s son himself, was a Motown veteran most famous for the 1966 standard ‘What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?’ They recorded ‘Soul Deep’ on the weekend of 22-23 September: music on the Saturday, vocals on the Sunday.

Right from the first verse, the lyrics pulled no punches:

Getcha mining soul deep with a lesson in history
There’s people fighting for their communities
Don’t say this struggle does not involve you
If you’re from the working class this is your struggle too

The speed with which the single had to be put together in­evitably meant that the lyrics were rushed, and in places it shows. For instance, “If they spent more on life as they do on death / We might find the money to make industry progress” is another example of Weller’s opposition to the arms race, but the sense of the line was sacrificed somewhat to fit the tune. Strangely enough, the strike is referred to as “Going on ten months now—will it take another ten?” But the strike was only six months old when this was recorded, and it was due to be released some time in its ninth month. ‘Eight’ or ‘nine’ are hardly difficult words to find a rhyme for, but Weller must have stuck with ‘ten’ purely because it rhymed with “Just living on the breadline with what some people send”.

However, given the haste of its composition, and the fact that a song written for a collective can’t really express the writer’s personal feelings, it does have some very nice touches. “There’s mud in the water, there’s lies on the page” conveys that year’s images of muddy pickets defying riot shields, but also the deliberate media campaign to muddy the waters of the debate. “No pit stops, no closures” simply but originally broadens the meaning of the commonplace motor racing phrase.

But the lyrics’ greatest achievement was to confront the difficult big question that the strike was posing. After so long on strike in so just a cause, how come the miners weren’t winning? A couple of weeks before ‘Soul Deep’ was recorded, the Trades Union Congress had met and pledged full support to the NUM, asking unions to boycott all coal and any fuels used to replace coal. If this were implemented—and plenty of workers would have responded to the call—it would have closed Britain’s power stations and ground industry to a halt, forcing the government to give way. Weller was quick enough to realise that the resolutions were unlikely to mean much. “Just where is the backing from the TUC?” asked the second verse, “’Cause if we ain’t united there can only be defeat”. Jimmy Ruffin’s knowledge of bitter battles fought by black miners in the US gave added point to the verse he sang:

Think of all those brave men, women and children alike
Who built up unions so others might survive
In better conditions than abject misery
Not supporting the miners is to betray that legacy

“But as for solidarity, I don’t see none”, bemoaned the last line of the chorus. “The whole record is about Solidarity,” explained Weller, “or more to the point, getting it back!”5

Musically, ‘Soul Deep’ is a fine example of mid-1980s dance music. Although Weller had produced the last Style Council single himself, he brought in Martyn Ware of Heaven 17, acknowledged masters of dance electronica, to mix the single. Bert Bevans (not yet the superstar DJ he was to become at Ministry of Sound) made a ‘Club Mix’ which is funkier and blacker: Weller’s vocals were replaced by Ruffin and Junior, meaning that only black vocalists can be heard on this version.

At over six minutes, the track was too long for a single, and so—in time-honoured disco fashion—it was split in two, Part 2 going on the B side. The 12” single featured a full version on the A side, with a fairly unique B side. ‘A Miner’s Point’ was a 17 minute interview with two striking Nottinghamshire miners by Paolo Hewitt, the music journalist who wrote Style Council sleeve notes in the guise of ‘The Cappuccino Kid’ (although getting anyone to admit this open secret is like getting Gerry Adams to say he was in the IRA). The miners, Bob and Chris, tell us they have been out on strike for eight and a half months, so the interview would have taken place around late November, close enough to the single’s release date—which may explain the uneven sound quality. But even twenty five years later, ‘A Miner’s Point’ gives a great insight into the issues of the strike and the beliefs that motivated strikers.

Chris, mining since 1980, sounds like a good example of the militant younger miners who powered the strike on the ground, though Bob, with thirty years down the pit, is no moderate either. This is no ordinary strike, insists Chris, but “a class war”, Bob having taken the words out of his mouth. But he is very bitter at miners breaking the strike and the failure of other workers to come out in support: “I can’t understand why we all haven’t stood together as has been done in the past”. Bob puts it down to workers being “in far too much debt” paying off car loans and inflated mortgages: he agrees with Hewitt that “material goods have, like, divided them”. Asked if there would be power cuts that winter, Chris replies: “Hopefully!” While he had no desire to cause people hardship, he maintains that “the only way, I’m afraid, that we’re going to win this strike is if power cuts take place”.

‘Soul Deep’ was due to come out in early December, the royalties going to Women Against Pit Closures. One of the greatest revelations of the strike was the way women in the mining communities came into their own, taking a lead role in organis­ing solidarity. There was no point donat­ing money directly to the NUM, of course, as the union’s funds were being snatched by the courts. A hit record in the run-up to Christmas looked set to raise a tidy sum for the miners, not to mention awareness of their cause. But the project was all but derailed at the last minute.

Part two >

Notes

1      Iain Munn, Mr Cool’s Dream: The complete history of the Style Council (Wholepoint Publications 2008), p 57. While Munn’s book is meticulous­ly researched, he seems to have the details of this incident wrong. He has their bus being stopped on the way from Nottingham to Newcastle, but the flying pickets were heading towards Nottinghamshire. They were more likely stopped the day before: travelling from Ipswich to Nottingham, the band could have been caught up in the police operation to prevent Kent miners picketing in the midlands.

2      Ibid, p 66.

3      John Reed, Paul Weller: My ever changing moods (Omnibus Press 1997), p 173.

4      Dennis Munday, Shout to the Top—The Jam and Paul Weller: An inside story (Omnibus Press 2008), p 172. A&R (artist and repertoire) is largely concerned with relations between artist and record company.

5      Quoted in Munn, p 71.