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Maggies musical legacy

Margaret Thatcher mobilised musicians like no other leader, says Warwick Holt at the Side Project blog

Over the past few hours, the tributes have been flowing to mark the passing of the former British Prime Minister known as the “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher.

World leaders have hailed the first female British PM as a strong and determined leader who remade Great Britain and helped end the Cold War, but in the musical world the eulogies are far more scathing.

A social media campaign to drive “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” to number 1 has seen it rocket up iTunes and Amazon charts. But while the Wizard of Oz song is a potent symbol of the hatred many felt for her policies, there are other songs re-entering the charts that directly reference Thatcher.

In fact it’s difficult to think of another individual who has had so many direct references in popular songs. Coming to power in 1979 at the tail end of the punk movement, she coincided with a musical climate that was heavily politicised, and her divisive policies led to a youth backlash.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a pro-Thatcher song. The closest might also possibly be the earliest to reference her directly, the Not Sensibles’ (obviously tongue-in-cheek) “I’m in Love with Margaret Thatcher”.

But the mood of subsequent songs were decidedly angrier. The rising ska movement saw The (English) Beat release “Stand Down Margaret” in 1980 and Madness damn the Conservative Party with 1982’s “Blue Skinned Beast”.

But perhaps the most classic of all was The Specials’ “Ghost Town”, a damnation of London in which “Government leaving the youth on the shelf”. “Ghost Town” was produced by Elvis Costello, a man who penned several incendiary anti-Thatcher songs of his own.

The literate songwriter’s 1982 “Shipbuilding”, originally recorded by Robert Wyatt, looked tragically at the lives being lost in the Falklands War. But Costello’s most damning and direct piece was “Tramp the Dirt Down” from 1989, whose image of stamping and laughing on Thatcher’s grave has seen it receive a bump up the charts today.

Others also fantasised about Thatcher’s death: Morrisey called for “Margaret on the Guillotine” in 1988, while years later there were two songs celebrating “the day that Thatcher dies”, by Hefner in 2000 and Pete Wylie in 2011.

The Falklands War was a flashpoint for a great deal of musical ire, with even Pink Floyd – the virtual antithesis of punk – releasing an entire album, “The Final Cut” devoted to the war. As well opening by asking “Maggie, what have we done?” the album suggested that Thatcher be housed in “The Fletcher Memorial Home” “for incurable tyrants and kings”. Despite the album’s divisive politics it still reached number 1 in the UK.

But it's singer-songwriter Billy Bragg who probably best emblemises anti-Thatcherism in the public mind, though he didn’t directly reference her in song until six years after she’d left office, with the 1996 “Thatcherites”.

Bragg today posted on social media that “this is not a time for celebration” and suggested that “raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady” won’t change the “mess” in which Britain finds itself today – which is what he feels is Thatcher’s true legacy.

As well as being The Project’s Web Producer, Warwick runs a Media Empire, and occasionally tweets @wokholt.

The opinions expressed in The Side Project blog do not necessarily reflect those of The Project or the Ten Network.