For the first of my subject-based /Tuesday Ten posts in 2022, I’m picking up on a suggestion thread that I did in the weeks before Christmas, and had got me thinking.
/Subject /The Class System
/Playlists /Spotify / /YouTube
/Related /128/Royalty and Privilege /321/Privilege
/Assistance /Suggestions/81 /Used Prior/11 /Unique Songs/72 /People Suggesting/35
/Details /Tracks this week/10 /Tracks on Spotify Playlist/9 /Duration/34:30
There is an obsession with class in the UK. Whether you are working class, middle class or upper class, regardless of whether these are really relevant these days (especially with the gutting out of the traditional working-class by industrial decline and the smashing of unions), but one thing that remains constant is that the upper classes do well for themselves, always seeming to retain power and influence.
I guess I am “middle class”, these days – educated, in a professional, white-collar job role, living in the home counties. But I’ve not always been in that position, and remain keenly aware of what I’ve lived through in my younger years. Such an experience appeared also to be borne out by the suggestions from friends in the thread, with few, if any, songs celebrating the upper classes, that was for sure.
Anyway – thanks to everyone who submitted suggestions – the stats around those have now moved to the info box above.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound me. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me, or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
/Knowle West Boy
We open this week with Tricky’s searing tirade against snobbery, which came after a few years silence from him in the 2000s, and following a period post-Maxinquaye where he seemed to be consumed by paranoia as if the glare of public attention made him retreat ever further away. This punky snarl was a clap back against those who might sneer at his origins in one of the council estates of South Bristol, and his defiance around his origins is obvious across the song.
I’m more than familiar with life in council estates. We as a family moved to one after a bumpy patch during and after the 1991 recession, moving through a couple of shorter-term houses and downsizing somewhat, ending up in the midst of a sprawling council estate on the hills south of Huddersfield, one that didn’t have a great reputation – and was a good way from our then schools, which we did remain at – it was just that bit longer to get to them by bus. That said, it was a solid base for the rest of my teens, and indeed my parents only moved away in the past five years (for accessibility reasons, as my stepmother’s declining mobility made the steps down to the house from the road almost impossible to deal with).
It is fascinating how the snobbery around council estates persists. They were built by councils across the UK as a way to deal with the aftermath of World War I (they began to be build as a result of the Housing Act 1919), providing better housing for those who had sacrificed so much, but also to begin clearing the appalling slums that remained in British cities, and building of such estates continued for decades. Thatcher turned things the other way, offering “right to buy” that effectively ceased such building, instead cynically giving council house residents the chance to buy their own houses for a knock-down rate, with the clear aim being to create a new generation of Tory-voting homeowners.
What it actually did was strangle housebuilding rates, cause property prices to balloon to levels that are now unaffordable to many, and see a great many people become landlords, owning two or more properties, while the quality of houses stagnated as these private landlords showed little interest in truly improving their houses.
For me, living in a council house was sometimes tough, sometimes frustrating, but frankly, it provided that certainty we as a family needed, and we all benefitted in some way.
Living in poorer environments, though, sees a great many young people with few prospects and even less hope. For us, our route out was university, as we fled the nest and, for the most part, my siblings and I spent time some way from home as we made our own lives. But that’s not possible for everyone (and indeed, I never quite completed that plan, taking a different route in the end), and Tracy Chapman’s masterful ballad explains the issues elegantly. She and her friend are exploring the ways to get out of their dead-end town, with nothing to lose and everything to gain – escaping abusive and/or absent parents, low-wage jobs and a total absence of hope. Their solution? A fast car, to get them over the town lines and to the city, where they can reinvent themselves and become “better”. The sting, though, is that they start their planning all over in the city, to get that bit better to be in the suburbs, and that fails too, as they remain in that cycle of working-class poverty all over again…
/Greetings to the New Brunette
/Talking with the Taxman About Poetry
The Bard of Barking has long been a strident, working-class voice in British music, with honesty and positivity in his songs and words that are perhaps unusual amongst his peers. Sure, he wanted to make a change, but I think it’s fair to say that he also wanted to celebrate his way of life too. The opening track from his third album, and the one I remember more than any other from hearing in my childhood (my dad was a fan for some time, as I recall), sees Bragg addressing the class divide in relationships, as a proudly working-class protagonist, fond of simple, traditional pleasures, tries to find common ground with his clearly middle-class, church-going girlfriend, and it is uncomfortably clear that the protagonist is being looked down upon because of his origins. But, Bragg somehow still makes it an uplifting, thrilling song, and by the end, you’re cheering on the protagonist as their life takes another step forward, despite the snobbery.
/Coat of Many Colors
/Coat of Many Colors
Dolly Parton has never been shy about talking about her upbringing in rural poverty, but crucially, with her power and success over the decades, she’s made a genuine difference by investing her wealth in programs to help others. Like the Imagination Library (a book program that ensures all children get an equal chance at reading and learning), and her investment in the Moderna COVID vaccine, as well as an awful lot of other charitable work.
A genuine treasure, then, and in one of her signature songs, she reminisces about the patchwork coat made for her as a child, as that was the best that could be made with what they had – and most importantly, how she shrug off the cruel taunts and wore it with pride. Ironically, of course, recycling of clothes – either by passing down to others, or reselling or donating to charity shops – is now very much in vogue, as the environmental cost and waste of clothing manufacture (especially “fast fashion”) has become clearer and more understood. But the poorer, working classes have been doing this for a long time, as a necessity.
Liverpool Britpop oddballs Space made quite a splash with a number of striking singles in their early days (Female of the Species remains a fantastic Bond-theme pastiche, for example), but their greatest character study remains the Ghost Town nods of Neighbourhood. Clearly describing – exaggerating all the characters for comic effect – a close-knit working-class street, it lovingly touches on a variety of people, all of whom are very different, but are all proud of what they are, and crucially support each other when the bulldozers are threatened, standing up for their diverse community.
Erasure are one of those groups that I’ve long had a passing knowledge of, but rarely have I dug too deeply into their songs, and now I’ve listened to The Circus again, perhaps I’d missed out somewhat. Another seething track from the eighties laying into Thatcher-era Britain, Andy Bell crackles with anger at the failures experienced by the working class, as industry closes, other industries are privatised, and jobs start to be in short supply. This was the reality in the UK then, and for many since, not a great deal has changed, as entire towns are still looking for ways to haul them out of poverty and isolation decades on.
/The Monochrome Set
/The Ruling Class
/Volume, Contrast, Brilliance…
Just a few years before Erasure’s song, the post-punk band The Monochrome Set released a song that takes a slightly caricatured look at the upper classes and their different world: where an entitled young man is dressed “the right way”, educated “the right way”, and gets all the handouts and support they need, effectively rigging the system to ensure that they will always, always succeed. This song was released 39 years ago, and looking at our current, Eton-educated Prime Minister, absolutely fucking nothing seems to have changed. We’re still in a country run by the upper classes for their benefit, and we will never have a fucking chance of overturning it.
/I LIKE TRAINS
/Patience Is A Virtue
The newest song in this weeks’ post comes from Leeds band I LIKE TRAINS, whose brilliant KOMPROMAT cast a weary, furious eye at a world regressing fast over the past years in 2020 (and indeed was album of the year on this site for 2020). One of the highlights from this album was this track, coming at the midpoint of the album and being something of a centrepiece to understanding the band’s aims. This is a song drenched in privilege, considering the view of the upper classes that they were “born” to rule in the UK, digging into those moments where the mask slips and such ideas spill out into the open. David Martin’s dispassionate, sprechgesang delivery only heightens the anger on display, as the band squall around him.
/Diseases of England
Another group seething at the British state of affairs in terms of Class are The Indelicates – this obvious choice is far from the only song that I could have included, frankly. Class is a traditional-sounding song, broadly based around a brass-led swell, as Simon Indelicate rages at the English disease of deferring to their “betters”, unable or unwilling to ever change the system, instead voting back in the same sodding people (and class) every single fucking time. By the end, as this roars to a climax, even moderately-minded me wants to storm to damned barricades.
/You Pay Peanuts You Get Monkeys (You Pay Nothing You Get Nowt)
Grace Petrie has been a formidable voice in recent years, and I only wish they were better known for their excellent – and entertaining – political-leaning folk music. That said, I only wish I had seen them live more, the only time so far was a short set supporting The Dresden Dolls on their return to London a few years ago.
As a song to sum up the issues of the new working class – the young – in the new Millenium, this perhaps hasn’t been bettered, as the tales of workfare, zero-hours contracts and less-than-minimum wage exploitation are rattled through, compared to the rich kids who get everything paid for. Inequality starts young and persists in the lives of many, forever.
Change is needed, and it starts by not having Tories in power, perpetuating a broken system.