by Carl Wilson
If this week has given us anything so far, it’s that a lot of people have learned about the great British anti-Thatcher songs of the 1980s and 1990s. (Although anyone who thinks, like Slate’s David Wiegel, that “we Americans had nothing like this” really wasn’t paying attention.) Elvis Costello’s Tramp the Dirt Down would be the great anthem specifically looking forward to Thatcher’s death (rivaled by Hefner’s The Day That Thatcher Dies and Morrissey’s Margaret on the Guillotine) but one I haven’t seen mentioned is this song from one of my favourite albums, The Mekons’ 1989 Rock’n’Roll.
It doesn’t call out Maggie by name (though it does mention “the hard lady”); in fact the only political figure name-dropped is an American, Oliver North (“Boring Ollie North down in the subway dealing drugs and guns/ turning little liars into heroes, it’s what they’ve always done” – and this was decades before North became a Fox News pundit). Instead it’s about a whole suite of Thatcherite policies, in the “culture wars” ambience of censorship and intolerance of the ’80s.
What I like best is its demonstration of the particular, peculiar sense of humour you develop when you spend a decade being near-continuously pissed off.
The now-odd-sounding lines, “This song promotes homosexuality/ It’s in a pretended family relationship/ with the others on this record/ And on the charts and on the jukebox/ And on the radio” refer to Thatcher’s family-values legislation Section 28, while the earlier, “These lines are all individuals/ And there’s no such thing as a song” parodies Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society.” (Man, she was a piece of work.) “Even the silent are now guilty” refers to legislation her government passed saying that while accused people would retain the right to remain silent, judges and juries would be free to interpret their silence as an admission of guilt. The line “turning journalists into heroes takes some doing” is a joke about the popularity of Charter 88, a petition protesting Thatcher’s restrictions on press freedom. And finally, the closing lines take off from Thatcher’s notorious line on immigration that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped” – turned around to say “people are really rather afraid of being swamped by selfishness and greed.”
I’m sure there are other references I’m missing. The title is of course borrowed from Kathy Acker’s then-new, excoriating novel, which in turn I guess was playing on the title of Nagisa Oshima’s classic Japanese S&M art film, which in France was called L’Empire des sens, “empire of the senses,” itself a play on Roland Barthes’s book about Japan, The Empire of Signs …
“All unacceptable gropings have been removed from the screen. Only eyes full of unspeakable thoughts remain.”