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Mixing Pop and Politics: Author Daniel Rachel Talks To Tootal Blog

For readers of a certain age there was a golden era for protest songs. A time before reality TV talent shows when passionate messages coupled with infectious melodies could regularly crack the Top 10. A period charted by musician turned author Daniel Rachel in his absorbing book Walls Come Tumbling Down, winner of the Penderyn Music Book Prize for 2017.

We selected ten “angry anthems” and asked Daniel to share his thoughts on each of them.

1.The Clash ‘Police And Thieves’ (1977)

Written by Junior Murvin & Lee Perry. From the album The Clash. U.K. Album Chart #12

The Clash, particularly Joe Strummer, had enquiring minds. Paul Simonon and Mick Jones grew up in South London, and were imbibed with Black Culture, which intensified when they moved to West London. It was natural that the sound they grew up with would infect their music.

The Clash: Their 1977 debut album (CBS Records)

I love the way you get the kind of On/Off Reggae beat of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’ guitars. Then just before the guitar solo it breaks from the Reggae rhythm and gives way to more typical Clash sounding chugging guitars. Watch the footage of them doing this in Birmingham in 1978; I think it’s at Barbarella’s. There’s a vibrancy to that performance, not only in the close-up of the camera work, which is right on Strummer’s face, but when he moves out of shot the camera remains on the microphone and you’re left waiting for him to come back into shot.

There’s also footage of a National Front rally outside Digbeth Civic Hall that same day, which turns into a confrontation between the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism and the police. There are two people that were in that melee; one is me, as a little boy who has inadvertently been driven into the melee by his parents. I thought it was very exciting and I was taken by the colours, and the look of the Skinheads. And the other person there was Ranking Roger.

2. Tom Robinson Band ‘Glad To Be Gay’ (1978)

Written by Tom Robinson. From the Rising Free E.P. U.K. Singles Chart #18

TRB headlined the Rock Against Racism carnival in Victoria Park by dint of their hit ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’, so they had a greater status than The Clash at that point. They are not really a Punk band, but Tom in his sort of school uniform, Roger Huddle’s Black Power fist logo behind them, plus Danny Kustow’s kind of Punk guitar, brings an importance to this song. It’s a hugely important and equally inflammatory song.

In the introduction, Tom says the World Health Organisation have categorised being Gay as a disease, 302.0. He discovered that because of Paul Furness, who had set up Leeds Rock Against Racism and worked in the medical records department at Leeds Royal Infirmary. It was Paul’s job to get code numbers for the doctors, and he found the classification, and told Tom Robinson about 302.0. It’s printed on the EP sleeve, on the side. That was an astonishing political statement, 302.0 eventually was removed from the World Health Organisation directory in 1990.

3. Steel Pulse ‘Ku Klux Klan’ (1978)

Written by Steel Pulse. U.K. Singles Chart #41

David Hinds of Steel Pulse heard that David Duke, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan, was going to make a visit to Britain. In the song David is imagining walking down the road, kicking a can, when somebody from the Klan jumps out in front of him. This song brings the politics of Birmingham, Alabama to Birmingham, West Midlands.

Steel Pulse ‘Ku Klux Klan’ (Island Records). The first single from their debut album, ‘Handsworth Revolution’.

Steel Pulse went to the South (of the U.S.), and they played ‘Ku Klux Klan’; David told me the day after the band had left there was a lynching in the city where they had been performing. Because of the age he was he didn’t have any fear about performing ‘Ku Klux Klan’, in that kind of atmosphere and climate, nor the potential danger that the band where in. That’s quite extraordinary.

David Hinds grew up listening to British White radio. He’s a fan of Pop music; the Stones, The Kinks and The Who, but also bands like the Average White Band. David used to make a 45-minute trip across town, from Handsworth to college in Bourneville. His bus journey charted the change of colour of the city, so when he arrives at college, he’s gone from the black world of Handsworth to the white world of Bourneville. All this influences the way he sees the world, the way he writes music, the way he sings and puts together Steel Pulse. They don’t follow the tropes of what you might associate with Jamaican Reggae. And that’s as valid that Steel Pulse should be playing with ‘White Man’s music’ as The Clash are playing with ‘Black Man’s music’.

4. Linton Kwesi Johnson ‘Sonny’s Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)’ (1979)

Written by Linton Kwesi Johnson. From the album Forces Of Victory. U.K. Album Chart #66.

The most intimidating man I met for Walls Come Tumbling Down but what a hugely eloquent and powerful poet he is. He may have been one of the first people ever to take Patois and put it into a written form; as Linton points out, Robbie Burns spoke in the dialect of his homeland, and so Linton had the right to do so too.

I think that the impact of the records he made with Dennis Bovell is not dissimilar to how you might consider 16th Century broadsides. The news of the street and of the people being delivered as a bulletin; it was the news that was not being told by the British media.

As with John Cooper Clarke poetry was beginning to be an accepted form of voicing opposition to the establishment. In the Eighties Seething Wells and Attila The Stockbroker supported The Jam at Hammersmith; then there’s Pop Art Poem on Sound Affects, and, of course, Paul Weller sets up Riot Stories, his own poetry imprint, so there’s a connection there. And a Number One artist has sanctioned it.

5. Ruts ‘S.U.S.’ (1979)

Written by Dave Ruffy, John ‘Segs’ Jennings, Malcolm Owen, Paul Fox & Richard Mannah.

From the album The Crack. U.K. Album Chart #16.

Ruts ‘The Crack’ (Virgin Records). Also includes ‘Babylon’s Burning’ and ‘Something That I Said’.

How mad is it that a Reggae band – Misty In Roots – finance and put out a Punk band’s single on their own label (People Unite)? Misty and The Ruts formed an alliance, so when Dave Ruffy, on the drums, and Segs, on the bass, were trying to play the Reggae music they loved they were being tutored, literally, by Misty. But Misty themselves were British. And the interesting thing is that Malcolm Owen was married to a mixed race girl; Ruffy says in Walls Come Tumbling Down that Malcolm was getting hit by traffic both ways. It’s a stunning line. The Ruts also got quite an Asian following, by dint of their Southall connection. That wouldn’t have been easy, for a young Asian girl to be going to a Punk gig in ’78, ‘79.

During the Southall riots of ’79, the People Unite offices were trashed by the Special Patrol Group. Misty’s manager, Clarence Baker, was clobbered over the head and rushed to Intensive Care, which becomes another Ruts song ‘Jah War’. So, The Ruts, and Misty, were important politically, and played some mean Reggae rhythms.

6. Stiff Little Fingers ‘Alternative Ulster’ (1979)

Written by Gordon Ogilvie & Jake Burns. Did not Chart.

Not all but most of Stiff Little Fingers’ lyrics were written by their manager, Gordon Ogilvie, a journalist writing for the Daily Express in Northern Ireland. Ogilvie wrote the lyrics for this song and then gave them to Jake Burns, saying ‘would you write a song called ‘Alternative Ulster’? When Gordon saw the band at a rehearsal two weeks later Jake said, “I’ve finished it. Listen to this”. Before that SLF were just doing Jam covers, and hadn’t yet become the band that we know them as.

In 1978 Stiff Little Fingers’ got in touch with Tom Robinson and landed a support tour with his band. SLF weren’t only talking about Northern Ireland; they were talking about the freedoms of youth. Gordon says in Walls Come Tumbling Down that if The Clash can talk about “Sten Guns In Knightsbridge” then there is a legitimate argument for Jake to be singing about the British military presence in Northern Ireland

I love SLF’s first album; Jake’s voice is like listening to razor blades, really fantastic. As a kid I loved playing it because you knew it would cause maximum offence to anyone in adult hearing vicinity, which is always exciting.

7. The Specials ‘Ghost Town’ (1981)

Written by Jerry Dammers. U.K. Singles Chart #1

On this record The Specials master Reggae. It’s interesting they return to Reggae because in ’78 as The Coventry Automatics, when they supported The Clash, they were trying Reggae with a Punk fusion, and they don’t really get back into that until this point.

The Specials always sounded more early Reggae / Rocksteady to me than Ska. When you think of ‘Skinhead Symphony’ on the Too Much Too Young EP, those songs are all from ‘68/’69; that’s Reggae, isn’t it? But it is the greatest EP ever. Absolutely! Not even The Beatles can match it. So exciting.

The Specials ‘Ghost Town’ (2 Tone Records). Three weeks at No. 1 in 1981.

The week before this got to No. 1 The Specials played the last Rock Against Racism Carnival in Leeds. They were the headline act, with Misty In Roots and the Au Pairs. Jerry Dammers tells a great story that when they got to the trombone solo, Rico didn’t play. Jerry goes over and say’s, “Rico, Rico! Play now!” And Rico says to Jerry, “Me nah feel for play, Jerry”.

As a young kid, it never dawned on me that 2 Tone music was political. I would just sing along to, “Just because you’re s a Black boy/ Just because you’re White/ Doesn’t mean you have to hate him/ Doesn’t mean you have to fight”, or when Ranking Roger toasting on ‘Doors Of Your Heart’; “Stick him in your living room and turn off the light / Bet you wouldn’t know if he was black or white”. The politics only began to infiltrate my mind as I developed a social conscience. Until then they were just great pop songs, but sub-consciously they were educating me.

8. Billy Bragg ‘Between The Wars’ (1985)

Written by Billy Bragg. U.K. Chart #15.

The EP was dedicated to the Miner’s Wives Support Group; unfortunately the record was released just as the Miner’s strike finished. It’s an incredible EP. The other songs are ‘Which Side Are You On?’ by Florence Reece, ‘World Turned Upside Down’ by Leon Rosselson and Billy’s ‘It Says Here’. The words to all four songs are imbedded in my mind

‘Between The Wars’ is a ‘them and us’ song, isn’t it? You have that; we have this. You say that; we say this; Billy was the one-man Clash. It’s folk-punk. I feel hugely connected to this record. I was at school and we had a production of Pride & Prejudice, and I was The Butler. We were due to perform on a Thursday night – Top of the Pops night – and I knew that Billy was going to be on; I was such a fan. I said to, my drama teacher, “I’ve got a little portable TV, can I bring it in, because I don’t want to miss it?” and she let me! Our ‘backstage’ area was the school gym; I took the TV in and I made everyone watch Billy doing ‘Between The Wars’. He sang it live. I was really excited because not many people were Billy Bragg fans. I thought, “Yes!”

A couple of years later my best mate, Simon (of Ocean Colour Scene), who was working at the Birmingham Post got in contact with Billy’s press people and got tickets and a bumper press kit sent to him, for Billy’s show at The Alexandra Theatre; Michelle Shocked was supporting him. Simon didn’t like Billy much but afterwards he said, “God! It was like watching a stand up comedian”.

9. The Housemartins ‘Flag Day’ (1985)

Written by Paul Heaton and Stan Cullimore. Did not chart.

Billy Bragg’s wife, Juliet, who had managed The Selecter and ran 2 Tone Records with Rick Rodgers, talks so passionately in the book about what Paul Heaton’s voice does to her and the tone in his voice, which cut through to the marrow. “Too many Florence Nightingales, not enough Robin Hoods…” What a strange choice for a single; it didn’t chart but it was followed by ‘Sheep’, which creeps in at the bottom end of the chart and then, ‘Happy Hour’, which was magnificent and went top ten.

Paul told me at this time he hadn’t yet got his handle on political lyrics. The Housemartins had that lightness that a band like The Redskins didn’t. He said, “You just wanted to tickle them under the arm a little bit”. There are so many great political songs on the second Housemartins album. There’s some telling lines about Margaret Thatcher on ‘Five Get Over Excited’; ‘Feigning concern, a conservative pastime, Makes you feel doubtful right from the start / The expression she pulls is exactly like last time, You’ve got to conclude she just hasn’t a heart’.

The Housemartins ‘Flag Day’ (Go! Discs). Failed to make the singles chart but was No. 10 in John Peel’s Festive 50 of 1985

Like Elvis Costello, Paul resisted joining Red Wedge. Paul came down for a meeting in London; he went in and a ‘Wedgee’ was barefooted. Somebody was probably wearing loafers without any socks on. Paul said, ‘This isn’t my crowd’. Basically, he’d been spending his time on the frontline during the Miner’s strike, and he wasn’t really getting the “Southerners” thing, even though Billy Bragg, and Paul Weller, and The Communards and Junior were all at the meeting; Paul said it wasn’t his scene. He had a few demands of his own; the abolition of the monarchy, and nationalising the record industry. Red Wedge rejected his ideas.

I told Paul how his lyrics fed into my life and what they meant to me and to my peers and he said, “It’s funny. You tell me my lyrics have influenced you but Paul Weller influenced me and Joe Strummer influenced him”.

10. The Style Council ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down!’ (1985)

Written by Paul Weller. U.K. Chart #6.

In Birmingham, Style Council fans that I knew were people that looked like Casuals. They would wear espadrilles with no socks and jumpers tied across their shoulders. It’s the reason why I resisted The Style Council. I didn’t like the kind of people that liked them. And then, you watch their videos, and Paul’s rubbing Mick’s chest and they’re on boats together and that kind of nonsense. The thing about ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ is, it sounded more like The Jam.

It is an incredibly didactic lyric, but it’s being delivered in a manner, and with a melody and a rhythm that’s really exciting and that’s the basis of any great protest song.

Jerry Dammers talks about the reference to the walls of Jericho, and how it has been since discovered that the wall fell because it had been undermined. Jerry’s saying music alone isn’t enough to bring walls down; there’s got to be some form of collaboration. That is why Paul Weller decided, alongside Billy Bragg and Annajoy David, to do what nobody else had ever done in Rock ‘n’ Roll history and go to the corridors of power; and go to Parliament to effect change. To do the opposite of Punk, which was anti-establishment. They were encouraging people to register to vote and to get change from within. Gordon Brown vindicated Red Wedge’s goals in 1990, when he delivered a White Paper on the music industry, and then by Neil Kinnock, whose policy papers for the 1992 General Election had Red Wedge ideas within them.

Red Wedge was hugely influential, particularly on a generation who would express themselves 10 years later in 1997, and equally in Labour Party policy. That’s an amazing achievement for Pop Stars. That’s the guy that’s on Top Of The Pops rubbing Mick Talbot’s chest; influencing Labour Party policy. It’s incredible.

Walls Come Tumbling Down by Daniel Rachel was the winner of the Penderyn Music Book Prize for 2017. John Harris, writing in The Guardian, described the book as “a triumphant oral history”, whist Shaun Keaveny on BBC 6 Music called it “A colossal and brilliant book”.

Walls Come Tumbling Down is published by Pan Macmillan and available in paperback here https://goo.gl/T7AYnL

Daniel is also the author of Isle Of Noises: Conversations With Great British Songwriters (a Guardian and NME Book of the Year). For more details visit www.danielrachel.com