From their debut 1980 album I Just Can't Stop It, the wonderful Birmingham ska-reggae outfit, best known for their hit Mirror In The Bathroom, was among the 2 Tone label's finest bands (alongside The Specials). They released this upbeat and unambiguous protest against the Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher after her first year in office. Although she stayed in power for more than a decade, changing the political landscape for a generation, it's hard to exaggerate her level of unpopularity during a period of rising unemployment, while she set about privatisation of the entire transport and utilities infrastructure. While the 70s was beset by strikes and inflation, her response was to entirely take away power from unions and hand the nation's wealth to investors. The lyrics also anticipate against what later saved her political future through what became a PR coup - the Falklands War, although the words actually refer to a public fear of a nuclear World War III, a prospect thought very realistic while Thatcher cosied up US president Ronald Reagan during a proliferating arms race against Soviet Russia.
The song was originally recorded with Prince Buster's song Whine and Grime preceding it. The band, known as The English Beat in the US, and the British Beat in Australia, was fronted by Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger. They have since reformed in different combos, but after the 1983, guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele later went on to form Fine Young Cannibals, which we've prevoiusly highlighted on SOTD.
Wakeling explained in an interview about this song: "Thatcher went about trying to dismantle any sense of social unity that England had: breaking the unions, letting people go out on strike and starve. And in a very few short years she managed to turn people from neighbours to competitors. A lot of people bought shares in the gas company and the train company and the water company, bought shares in the companies that our dads had already paid for. And in doing so turned everybody into competitors - instead of neighbours now we were competing as investors, jealously guarding our shares. Our people stopped talking to each other at bus stops. People started to become more suspicious of each other."
In a BBC documentary, also identified by the Guardian newspaper in 2008, Conservative MP Ed Vaizey said he was a big fan of the band, and couldn't understand what they had against the royal family's Princess Margaret. This is symptomatic of just how much such a political representative is in touch with public opinion. Overall, the political names and faces may now have changed, but the message of this song all sounds rather familiar and contemporary …
I said I see no joy
I see only sorry
I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow
So stand down Margaret
Stand down please
Stand down down down down down
Down down down down down …
You tell me how can it work
In this all white law
What a short sharp lesson,
What a third world war
I sometimes wonder
If I'll ever get the chance
Just to sit with my children
In a holiday jam
Our lives seem petty in your cold grey hands
Would you give a second thought
Would you ever give a damn, I doubt it
Stand down Margaret
Everybody shout it
Stand down Margaret!
Work, white law
War, war, war, war, war …
Here's a live version, from the TV programme OTT of 1982, the anarchic adult version of ITV's children's programme Tiswas, introduced here by standup comedian Lenny Henry. It's hard to imagine such an overtly anti-party political song to be allowed to be broadcast on television these days:
And finally, the brilliant dub version:
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