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Tim Chipping

Ranting & Reeling

Tim Chipping’s monthly column

I’ve been alive far longer than you might think I’ve been alive. I create the illusion of youth by wearing tight jeans, having silly hair and using words like “YOLO”, “sexting” and “Taylor Swift”. But I’m old enough to remember the miners’ strike, the Falklands conflict and the unshakeable belief we’d all die in a global thermonuclear war before our mock exams (that’s why I didn’t bother to revise).

From the perspective of a politicised child with scuffed Doc Martens on my feet and a bleached fringe in my eyes, the 1980s looked bleak. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer and those who’d been bafflingly elected to power on both sides of the Atlantic gambled with our lives in increasingly high-stakes games of international aggression.

Fortunately we had Billy Bragg to sing songs about it, which made us feel part of a gang vicariously sticking it to Thatcher with a 7" whose sleeve artwork insisted the buyer “pay no more than One pound and twenty-five pence” (an anti-capitalist gesture recently taken up by the manufacturer of Wotsits, much to my corner shop owner’s annoyance.)

The recent release of private letters between the Iron Lady and her tipsy namesake Princess Margaret don’t reveal what she thought of Bragg’s Between The Wars EP. But I knew a Tory supporter back then who liked the record despite its overtly lefty leanings, because they paid scant attention to song words. Maybe Mrs T was the same. I like to imagine her idly whistling the tune to Billy’s version of Florence Reece’s 1931 mine workers’ protest song Which Side Are You On?, blissfully unaware of its lyrical content as she watches Britain’s striking pitmen return to work – broken like the country by her actions.

But judging from her 1978 appearance on Desert Island Discs, Maggie didn’t like music – opting for a couple of nostalgic novelty records and the kind of classical tunes that members of polite society pretend to enjoy. Add to that a later insistence that her favourite song was (How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window? (The One I’ve Chosen To Import From Poland, A Decision That Will Decimate The UK’s Nationalised Canine Industry) and you have a leader clearly untouched by Euterpe.

You can’t really trust anyone who doesn’t like music, it suggests they lack something fundamentally human in their psyche. If a song can’t make you cry then it seems unlikely the plight of your fellow man ever will. It’s the same disconnect between yourself and the experience of others; an impenetrable level of sociopathy.

No matter how loudly and gruffly we bellow in praise of the good guys, the bad guys still frequently win. A song cannot change the world. It can’t even dent the political process, as the musicians and activists who released the absurd charity Christmas track JC 4 PM 4 ME will find out soon enough.

Billy Bragg’s debut single didn’t affect the outcome of the miners’ strike just as Picasso’s Guernica didn’t bring a favourable end to the Spanish Civil War. But they were not in vain. Art can only connect. And in days like these, when our countries are darkly divided, connections such as these shine a vital light.

All music is a protest of a kind. Even that awful rubbish you like.

Tim Chipping


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