Soundtrack to the Strike
“So we’ll march day and night by the big cooling tower, they have the plant but we have the power.” There were echoes of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant around Britain last week, as the country’s public sector workers took strike action. Shortly before being taken out and shot in front of her family, Liz from Back Street Indie joined them to a soundtrack of rebellion and uprising. And now she’s somehow posthumously written about it.
Last week, along with two million others in the UK, I decided to strike. It was the second time in a year that I’ve decided to do so and it’s not a decision I took lightly. People don’t just walk out of work at the drop of a hat, especially when a precious day’s wage it at stake in these austere times. Yet like many others, I felt absolutely compelled to do so. The coalition chaos we find ourselves living in are unfairly trying to make hard-working people pay for the mistakes of some Etonian elite; the ones who played with the figures as children play with toys, idly throwing them around from playpen to playpen. The biggest irony of all is that the figures are still being played with ”â unregulated ”â to the point where yesterday the chancellor had to embarrassingly admit that something still wasn’t going quite right. And yes, I am angry that that the workers are, yet again, being made to pay for the mistakes of others as has happened throughout history. This is not a generalisation, because when you cut through all the subversive political spin, that is exactly what is happening.
So, that afternoon I went off to march in town with my fellow public sector workers. And to accompany me on my way, I decided to compile a playlist of suitable songs. Music has been associated with strikes from the earliest of days; workers gathering together en masse to sing songs of solidarity and protest. My mix has songs about protest, songs about despair; songs about the weariness of work, songs about hope, songs about poverty and above all, songs about the reasons people like me strike in the first place”Â¦
The Specials – Ghost Town
This excellent 1981 song from the legendary ska-band was written by Jerry Dammers in response to seeing some elderly women selling their possessions on the streets of Glasgow. This harsh image acted as a catalyst for a song that addresses the extreme poverty, despair and urban decay faced by many in UK at a time of mass unemployment. The broken, weird, strange sounding chords of this song perfectly capture the dystopic mood of the time.
Woody Guthrie – This Land is Your Land
Written way back in 1940 and released in 1945, Woody Gutherie is still considered one of the finest protest singer-songwriters of his generation. Influencing many of the mighty beat poets and singers of the 1960s, Gutherie’s song is a beautifully simple recording about equal rights during the height of the depression in America. It paints a real picture of life in America, dispelling the myth of the American Dream. It’s a song about unemployment, dispossession and above all else wanting a fair deal.
The Redskins – Lean on Me
Great indie-punk rock/rockabilly sound from the 1980s that is all about not giving up and struggling on; about not getting ground down in all the recession woes. Catchy, upbeat and gloriously addictive, this is a great sound inspiring solidarity and uniting through the tough recession-clad times. The powerful vocals from lead singer Chris Dean are a great antidote to cold, dark strike days.
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
The Mercury Prize winner’s brooding, echoing lyrics do much to dispel any rose-tinted views of glorious, green England. A macrocosmic track that tells things as they are, Harvey’s entire album successfully rocks England to its core with its classy downtrodden melancholia. A great soundtrack to life in this strange twenty-first century world, Harvey helps us to figure out what on earth is going on.
The Jam – Town Called Malice
When I hear this 1982 track from the great album The Gift, I am always transported back to the late-eighties when my own parents were out on strike at the height of Thatcherism and worker unrest. A song about a decaying, restless town, the song captured the mood of broken Britain well. “Rows and rows of disused milk floats stand dying in the dairy yard”Â was particularly resonant with me as I still remember the day at primary school when my classmates and I went for our 11 o’clock bottle of milk only to find it hadn’t arrived”Â¦
Billy Bragg – There is Power in a Union
One of the great slogans on the posters around town last Wednesday was “Remember the Unions got you the weekend”Â, and indeed Bragg’s brilliantly angry track is the ultimate work-protest song. In typical Bragg style, he sings candidly about standing up for fair rights for workers and for all. Simple and anthemic, the song has an old-fashioned communal workers feel about it.
Bob Dylan – Maggie’s Farm
The brilliant 1965 song from the album Bringing it all Back Home is a brooding, bluesy song about working for some oppressive employers. “Well he hands you a nickel, he hands you a dime; he asks you with a grin if you’re having a good time”Â¦”Â It’s full of dark Dylan humour and was ironically written as a counter-piece to the folk-protest songs Dylan was trying to distance himself from in his electric era.
Tenessee Ernie Ford ”â 16 Tonnes
A classic blues song with the famous chorus line “sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt”Â The song has had many successful incarnations, not least that sang by UK singer Frankie Laine. Tenessee Ernie Ford had a number one in 1955 with this as a B-side; it’s a timeless song about working all day for very little, and simply wanting a fair deal.
The Smiths – Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
The thing I’ve always loved about Morrissey is his ability to sing about the most pessimistic things imaginable in such a beautiful melodic voice. This one is included here for the telling line; “I was looking for a job then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now”Â Struggling to get a job, then getting a job and discovering it’s so awful that it was a complete waste of time in the first place. Cheery Mozza at his finest.
Lonnie Donegan ”â Rock Island Line
This 1956 classic song, originally recorded by Leadbelly, is not strictly speaking a strike song. However, it is a song about getting one over on authority, in this case smuggling pig iron past a toll gate. Sung by many a disgruntled worker in the 50s America especially, the song is about trying to earn a few extra quid in harsh times.
Bruce Springsteen – The Promised Land
Springsteen is at his finest in this hugely underrated song. The dispossessed, the lonely, the ones who need support are all the topics of this song about working hard and feeling like you’re getting nowhere “Working all day in my daddy’s garage, driving all night chasing some mirage”Â he sings in this strangely uplifting song.
Pulp ”â Last Day of the Miners Strike
“I tried to make the song more allusive than some Billy Bragg thing”Â Jarvis said of this track featured on Hits. It’s brooding Jarvis and a subtle, completely unique take on that early 1980s period. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Thought provoking and classic Pulp.
As the government don’t appear to be entering any negotiations with the unions, I will no doubt be on strike again soon. Which gets me thinking about all the other great songs I could have included here”Â¦ suggestions for strike track list two on a postcard please!
Editor’s Note I couldn’t let this list pass without adding this one to it. I’m struggling to think of a better, more touching depiction of union action and protest in pop culture. “Dental Plan!”