Five of the best: British political songs of the last 20 years
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Five of the best political songs of the past 20 years from British artists, featuring Stormzy, IDLES, Thom Yorke and more. By Matt Bull.
I once went into an Irish bar in Dusseldorf and before they served me, they said "No politics and no religion". After agreeing, confused as to why I would talk about either when I could just be enjoying a lovely litre of Weizenbier, I ordered my drink, sat with my friends, and endured some tortuous karaoke from drunk locals.
Clearly, the landlord would rather listen to Robbie Williams tributes on repeat than a discussion about Merkel's immigration policies but each to their own. Either way, the "No Politics" rule stuck with me. Sometimes, politics can be so divisive that you can alienate people before even getting to the point of why you're writing an article for a music blog in the first place.
Well, readers, have no fear. This tenuous introduction is just about worthwhile. For while Tuesday marked the day of the US Presidential Elections, we will be doing our best to keep politics out of it and stick to what we know. If only Trump would do the same, eh? OK, no more, I promise.
From the rebellious teenagers of the 60s who listened to Elvis and The Beatles, often seen as anti-establishment by their prudish, protective parents, to the in-your-face politics of 70s punk, the protest songs of the 80s, Britpop of the 90s, and songs of all varieties before, during, and after, politics has often featured in music. Below are some of our favourite British political songs from the last 20 years.
Thom Yorke - Harrowdown Hill
Released on his debut album, The Eraser, in 2006 (although written round about the time of Radiohead's Hail to the Thief back in 2003) Yorke wrote 'Harrowdown Hill', a song he described in The Observer as "the most angry song" he'd ever written.
The lyrics are about David Kelly, a British weapons expert who is presumed to have committed suicide after telling a reporter that the British government had falsely identified weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Kelly's body was found in the woods of Harrowdown Hill, near Yorke's former school in Oxfordshire.
Thom Yorke is not shy about writing about political themes. Idioteque (2003) was written about global warming, 'Fake Plastic Trees' (1995) about Canary Wharf, and Radiohead's album Hail to the Thief (2003) was mostly written in response to the resurgence of right-wing media. Definitely worth a mention, then!
Stormzy - Crown
So much of modern grime, hip hop, and rap is political, referring frequently to issues such as racism, social class, police brutality and violence. Stormzy is a figure who hasn't shied away from taking a strong political stance, coming out in support Corbyn's socialism and making many political references in his 2019 Glastonbury set, including the Union-Jack, Bansky-designed, stab-proof vest that he was wearing.
'Crown' is one such song that makes a stance: "If you knew my story you'd be horrified. The irony of trappin' on a Boris bike". An incredible lyricist and a powerful performer, Stormzy remains as relevant as ever.
Idles - I'm Scum
As lead singer, Joe Talbot, professes "Everything is political". I could have chosen any song from their excellent discography as an example. Brutalism (2017) features Mother "The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich" and their recent release Ultra Mono (2020) features Carcinogenic "Cramming people into high-rises while selling their welfare for low prices" but their award-winning second album, Joy in the Act of Resistance (2019) features one of my favourite political songs.
Not only is I'm Scum a catchy, bassy, gritty song, performed brilliantly in their Tiny Desk session on YouTube but its lyrics are great too: "I sing at fascists 'til my head comes off. I am Dennis Skinner's molotov. I'm lefty, I'm soft. I'm minimum wage job. I am a mongrel dog. I'm just another c***". This snowflake is, indeed, an avalanche.
Elbow - Leaders of the Free World
Written by Guy Garvey to express his dismay at George Bush's re-election in 2004, 'Leaders of the Free World' (2005) featured on Elbow's third studio album. A typically-Elbow, guitar-driven, rock song, this song's lyrics is a great criticism of the childish attitudes of politicians and world leaders. Still relevant today perhaps?
If anyone is accustomed to Garvey's radio show on 6Music, you'll associate him with chilled songs and a calm demeanour, with not a bad word to say about anyone. This makes this quote about 'Free Leaders...' even better: “I saw footage of Bush Senior and Junior when the latter was voted in for his second term. George W. was all but shrugging his dad off and hogging the attention and I could suddenly see him as an 8-year-old. A spoilt, nasty, selfish little shit-for-brains. He’s officially the most powerful man in history.”
PJ Harvey - The Words That Maketh Murder
The album PJ Harvey's 'The Words Maketh Murder' came from, Let England Shake (2011), was written over two and a half years and recorded over five weeks in a church. It won the 2011 Mercury Prize and was Harvey's second win, an unprecedented feat. Quite simply, it was, and still is, a brilliant, poignant, angry, inventive compendium of anti-war songs.
My selection from this excellent album is 'The Words That Maketh Murder'. She writes an account from a soldier who witnesses traumatic events unfold from war: "I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief" before wryly ending with the almost jaunty finish "What if I take my problems to the United Nations?". The power of lyrics exemplified by this stand-out work.
It's worth noting that all the above songs are left-leaning. The liberal-minded, creative industry is often at odds with the meritocratic attitude of most governments. Indeed there's a brilliant article written about the artists that have been angered by Donald Trump using their music without permission (including Neil Young, REM and Elton John).
But, for a meagre attempt at impartiality, listen to Van Morrison's new songs, which were written in protest to the government's coronavirus lockdown. It's still anti-government but it's also anti-logic, having read that he thinks coronavirus is hoax, so it's the best I can do.
The only way to be truly impartial is to find a song written about how great our government is, but, for some reason, I still can't find one I'm afraid...
Let us know what songs would make your list @BFloodlights.