Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock

by John Harris

The Labour Party's last organised dalliance with rock music had been announced to the world on the morning of 21 November 1985. At 11.30am, a crowd of 200 musicians, politicians, trade union officials and journalists gathered in a marquee, pitched on the terrace of the Houses of Parliament. They were served hot punch, and regaled by a speech from Neil Kinnock. The leader was there to place his formal approval on a new wing of the Labour Party's campaign structure: an organisation called Red Wedge. 'Can I first disabuse anyone of the idea that Red Wedge refers to my haircut,' he said, to a smattering of groans.

The name, taken from a Russian propagandist painting entitled Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge, had been suggested by Billy Bragg, who stood with Paul Weller - then in his avowedly political Style Council phase - as the new set-up's most recognisable face. The pair, along with a handful of other musicians, had recurrently bumped into each other on the platforms that often defined the life of the switched-on 80s musician. From there, it was only a short leap to formalising their alliance.

'They key event was the miners' strike,' says Bragg. 'That was the thing that heightened political awareness to such an extent than an initiative like Red Wedge could actually happen. You can't do things like that in an ideological vacuum. Red Wedge came about because we were constantly meeting one another - the same brands on different platforms, for different issues: the miners, Nicaragua, anti-apartheid, anti-racism. It was all the same people.'

Bragg also believes that the generational background of the Labour leader was crucial: without the enthusiasm of someone familiar with rock music, Red Wedge might not have come to life. 'Neil Kinnock was the first leader of any major political party who knew who Gene Vincent was; the first member of the post-war generation to lead a mainstream political party. That was really significant. He was a member of the Gene Vincent fan club, and a big fan of Phil Ochs. He knew that popular music could be used as a vehicle to spread ideas. He was aware of that. And that's really important. If it had been Roy Hattersley, I'm not sure he'd have got it quite so well. Kinnock was a bit of a rocker, in his spare time. I once saw him pick up a guitar and sing Help Me Make It Through The Night. It's a pretty hard song, that. I can't play it. I bet Blair can't play it.'

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