Maggie Thatcher’s rule in Britain was, like the same years in Ronnie Reagan’s United States, a vicious attempt to move their nations as far right as they could. The process they began continues today with a ruthlessness that is only matched by its idiotic insistence that it is beneficial for the very demographic that has probably lost the most–the white working class. On the other hand, the attacks on working people and their unions, the theft of their nation’s wealth by the wealthiest people in the world, the blatant racism and the intensified love affair with nuclear weapons and power created some of the best political popular music since the Sixties, at least in Britain.
It is that music which inspires and informs Hugh Hodges recent book, titled The Fascist Groove Thing: A History of Thatcher’s Britain in 21 Mixtapes. Likewise, it is the history of Margaret Thatcher and her brand of selfishness packaged as politics that inspired and informed the music on those mixtapes. From Heaven 17’s recording of “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing” to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s radical reggae putting the police in their place and from the brash, even abrasive sounds of Penny Rimbaud and his band Crass to the Tom Robinson Band’s straight out rock against racism and homophobia, author Hodge’s story of the opening decade of neoliberal capitalism in Britain makes one thing clear: not everyone was buying the repackaged version of robber baron capitalism Maggie and her heartless henchmen were selling.
Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to matter whether or not everyone bought it. That is quite obvious if one takes a look around the world we live in today. Neoliberal capitalism has not so much remade the world as it has destroyed it. This is as true in Oklahoma City as it is in Yorkshire; as true in Paris as it is in Mumbai. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, money doesn’t just talk or swear, it has destroyed. It has destroyed the livelihoods of working people and it has destroyed their living space through a business approach that rejects regulation, thereby ensuring greater environmental destruction. It has devalued culture unless it’s corporate and made a mockery of art in every sphere. In other words, the world today is more Thatcherite and more Reaganite than it was when either of them were in power.
As The Fascist Groove Thing tells the reader, this began in 1979, when Maggie and her band of crooks won the British election. There were already plenty of signs that the welfare capitalist state that Britain had built after the destruction of World War Two was shaky. The triumphant western capitalist system set up in favor of Wall Street and Washington had suffered some serious assaults on its reign. The period of relative affluence among working class white people was waning. While this affluence looked different in Britain than it did in the United States, the reality facing the rulers in both countries was that they were going to have to go after the workers if the rulers were going to keep their mansions (or whatever it is they have). Disgruntled and disenfranchised youth were the first to express their anger. After all, they were the first to be disenfranchised. The Sex Pistols 1977 single “Anarchy in the UK,” while not much of a political treatise, was certainly a loud and angry howl. It was intended to offend and it did. However, it was another record from 1977 that was both more directed and more musical. The band and the record were called The Clash. The single “White Riot ” was a response to a police riot at the predominantly West Indian Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. Arguably, it is The Clash whose leftist political lyrics and catchy hooks–from fifties rock and roll to Jamaican dub–that would do more to define the resistance to Thatcher’s economic and race policies than any other band.
This book is about a lot more than that, though. The author’s familiarity with British popular music is obvious before one is twenty pages into the text. Hardcore punk, ska, novelty tunes, Irish punk and noise; it’s all covered. That coverage isn’t just songs overlaid on historical events or the opposite of that. There is critical discussion of the various protest movements. The women of Greenham Common and their years-long protest against nuclear weapons are discussed along with the massive anti-nuclear protests across Britain and Europe after Washington began placing nuclear-tipped missiles on British and European soil (a decision that was ultimately reversed.) The closing of the mines and the attacks on the miners’ union are as much a focus in this book as they were of numerous musicians during the conflict. This was Thatcher’s first major salvo against the working class. In a way, the firing of the striking air traffic controllers by Ronald Reagan was but a poor imitation of what Iron Lady Thatcher did to the miners. The line had been drawn and the vitriol would only intensify. Fortunately, for the Brits who had no love for Thatcher’s rule, their soundtrack would only get better and better.
The pointless war over the Falklands would provide Maggie with the support she needed for her next foray. Easy wars always seem to do that for dying empires. It would be the oppression of those subjects who came from the colonies that would provide some of the greatest moments of the history in these mixtapes. After racist attacks by police and British racists on immigrants along with the rise of the nazi National Front, a couple racist British politicians and some racist comments by Eric Clapton (not to mention David Bowie’s comments about fascism), anti-racist rockers and reggae musicians began organizing Rock Against Racism(RAR). From my recollection, its efforts to make racism fringe again were fairly successful. Some on the left criticized what they considered RAR’s white savior mentality. This was centered around the fact that RAR’s organizing was mostly focused on white youth. Lost in this perception, though, is that the National Front was trying to organize white youth, not Blacks. Consequently, it made political and strategic sense to counter the racists’ argument with one that emphasized white and non-white unity while keeping the focus on the true oppressor–the ruling class.
The Fascist Groove Thing is a political history, a music history and musical criticism all bound up in one fascinating book. The times it remembers and discusses are the roots of our current dystopian malaise. Like it was then, the music in these mixtapes is both tonic and topical, memory and manifesto. Author Hugh Hodges has done us a favor in writing it, both in terms of content and approach. If the story he tells does not satisfy the reader, there is a voluminous list for further reading and a massive discography.
(One more thing, even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Spotify is, there is a soundtrack for this book that includes every song in every mixtape put together in the text.)