65. The Specials – Ghost Town (1981)

OK, back to some history and politics. If you recall, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. The British economy was in a dismal state, and the very conservative Thatcher adopted a wide range of social and economic policies that primarily protected the rich and left the poor to suffer through her eleven years in office. (I’m sure that, like Grindelwald, she imagined she was doing this “for the greater good.”)

This may sound melodramatic and one-sided, but it’s tough to be even remotely balanced when discussing Thatcher. There’s a new biopic about Thatcher starring Meryl Streep called The Iron Lady coming out that will open in January, and already the old wounds are re-opening; you should be prepared for some heated discussion about the film in the coming weeks.

One of Thatcher’s core beliefs was that inflation was a bigger problem than unemployment, and so she focused her economic policy on raising interest rates, cutting taxes on the rich, and cutting spending for the needy, rather than on creating jobs and maintaining a strong social safety net. As a result, the poor bore the burden of the suffering, and life in the inner cities got very tough as unemployment rose. Civil disturbances began in 1980, and Jerry Dammers of the Specials wrote “Ghost Town” to reflect the urban decay and violence that were coming to characterize inner city life.

Note the combination of reggae and middle eastern influences in the backing track — The Specials were looking to bridge cultures, creating solidarity within the working class across racial lines. When the band put the song out in 1981, tensions were reaching a boiling point, and when the riots broke out over the summer of 1981 in 35 different cities, “Ghost Town” became a soundtrack for the summer — bleak, nihilistic, trancelike. And The Guns of Brixton were lurking in the wings.

The Specials

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64. Television Personalities – Parties in Chelsea (1981)

To cleanse the palate after the bitterness of The Fall, here’s something sweet and fun from Television Personalities.

The falsetto chorus kills me.

Dan Treacy (of TVPs)

63. The Fall – Leave the Capitol (1981)

Most of our focus so far has, of course, been on London, but we would do well to remember that London isn’t the only city in England (or Britain, or the UK — remember that these are all different). The Greater London Urban Area has a population of over 8 million, a little under one-sixth of the UK as a whole; but much of the other five-sixths of the country live in substantial cities as well. Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and Glasgow all have populations over 1,000,000, while Newcastle, Liverpool, Nottingham, Sheffield, Belfast, and Bristol are all over 500,000 — and as a rule, these cities resent bloody London for thinking that it’s the centre of the universe.

From a British music point of view, the main rival to London has long been Manchester, which — I have to admit — has turned out some seriously good bands over the years. We find a similar rivalry in British football, where Manchester United and Manchester City are currently holding first and second spots, while three London-area teams (Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, and Arsenal) are currently third, fourth, and fifth in the Premier League. (You would do well to choose your allegiances soon… this is serious business, much more serious than Yankees v. Red Sox.)

One of Manchester’s greatest and least lovable bands is The Fall, a band composed of of Mark E Smith and whoever else happens to be near him at the time. Smith is perhaps the one of the strangest and sourest guys in the history of rock music — you can check out of some of his oddest interview moments here, or better still, you can watch this fantastic BBC documentary about The Fall here.

Here’s The Fall telling Londoners to “Leave the capitol… and exit this Roman shell.” Empires come in a variety of shapes, of course.

“Pan resides in Welsh green masquerades.” Nice line, that. I’m working now to get some optional (and inexpensive) weekend excursions planned for the coming months so that you will all get the chance to Leave the Capitol a few times, if you wish.

Mark E Smith

62. XTC – Towers of London (1980)

To ease us into the 1980s with style, here’s a track from XTC.

It’s not a sharp, angular masterpiece like “Making Plans for Nigel” or a lush neo-pastoral masterpiece like “Grass,” but it’s pleasant enough, and it’s a song about London — and that, as you will recall, is the name of the game.

XTC

61. Squeeze – Up the Junction (1979)

Whoops — I thought we were done with the 1970s, but I looked it up, and it turns out that this one dates from 1979. Mea culpa.

Here’s a charming song from Squeeze, set in Clapham Junction, just a little west of where you’ll be living. Or at least it’s charming for the first five verses; then it gets miserable and sad for the last two.

Lily Allen does a pretty great version too, if you want to check it out as well (or instead):

Squeeze

60. Talking Heads – Cities (1979)

Here’s a strange little song from Talking Heads, in a killer live performance from 1982. This one has been stuck in my head for the past few days, so I thought I’d try to get it stuck in yours too…

I have no idea why David Byrne claims that London is a “small city,” but he sure is right about it being “dark, dark in the daytime” — at least in the winter. London is much further north than you’d probably expect — it’s on a latitude that falls in between Calgary and Edmonton up in Canada, far north of anything in the continental US. And although it’s really quite warm in the winter in London, winter days in the UK are noticeably shorter than they are in the US. I’ve been finding that I really notice it when it gets dark before 4 PM. (I just checked, and tomorrow in London the sun sets at 3:57…)

And that’s all I’ve got for this one. Onwards into the 1980s!

Talking Heads

59. Ian Dury and the Blockheads – My Old Man (1977)

Ian Dury was another of London’s great voices, a total character. He drew heavily on music hall traditions dating back to the late nineteenth century, but at the same time, he was at the forefront of British new wave, and so he was something of a paradox. He was never much of a singer, but was a fantastic bandleader — check out the killer bass line in this track, for example. As a lyricist, he had an uncommon flair for rhyme and all sorts of other wordplay. He was also a polio survivor — he caught the disease when he was seven, and had limited use of one arm and one leg for the rest of his life. He was also an outspoken campaigner for disabled rights, and an early AIDS activist. A fascinating guy. (Apparently there was a biopic last year starring Andy Serkis, but I haven’t seen it. Anyone?)

Here’s a song Dury wrote about his dad, a London bus driver and chauffeur, the sort of man who “dropped his aitches” — as in ” ‘ow’s things, love?”

Dury died of cancer back in 2000. I just discovered that there’s a memorial bench for him at one of his favorite sites in Richmond Park — a solar powered bench that you can plug headphones into to listen to some of Dury’s songs. Cool!

Ian Dury