What does a nation in crisis sound like? It's a pertinent question for our uncertain times, which has of late been occupying Bob Stanley. For Stanley, an author and member of electro-pop group Saint Etienne, it's not political speeches or protest chants, but rather the popular music produced in times of difficulty. Either way, he found his answer in his homeland of Britain.
Though wracked by political instability, haunted by supply shortages, vexed by the Northern Ireland border and deeply divided on Europe, it's a Britain that also boasts a vibrant pop culture making vital music, which Stanley and his bandmate Pete Wiggs have compiled on a fascinating new album. By turns resigned, defiant and escapist in tone, the compilation captures what Stanley calls "the grain of the era."
The era in question is not contemporary Britain, however. Three Day Week: When the Lights Went Out, 1972-1975, covers another tumultuous period, when industrial unrest, oil shocks, European debates and the Troubles fuelled uncertainty and decline. Three Day Week - the title refers to the British government’s 1974 electricity conservation measure - attempts to reflect the atmosphere then.
Very few of the tracks are directly political. But there's the feeling of things being rationed. The music sounds like it was made during wartime
“It just sounds like the era to me, it’s partly how I remember it,” says Stanley, whose 2013 pop history Yeah Yeah Yeah attests to his encyclopedic musical knowledge. “Very few of the tracks are directly political. But there’s the feeling of things being rationed - electricity actually was being rationed, instruments were hard to come by. The music sounds like it was made during wartime.”
It’s a timely compilation, whose parallels with contemporary events are obvious. (The album’s release was timed to coincide with the original Brexit date.) It raises a wider question too, of how pop music, an artform so attuned to the present, deals with political and social turmoil. It’s a subject with particular resonance in a country with as turbulent a recent past as Ireland’s. Confronted with turmoil or decline, how do musicians react?
In the 1970s, British musicians were in downbeat mood, if Three Day Week is anything to go by. Although remembered as a decade of garishly OTT fashion and music, a different picture emerges here. So the Kinks and Strawbs mix jaunty tunes with a sour fatalism, while melancholy suffuses songs by Adam Faith and the Sutherland Brothers Band. The disillusion of the counterculture is evident on tracks by Hawkwind and the Edgar Broughton Band.
The Troubles are even acknowledged, as on Phil Cordell's ostensibly apolitical Londonderry. But helped by glam-inflected bangers by The Troggs, Cockney Rebel and Stud Leather, Three Day Week takes the listener on a compelling journey through the lesser-spotted pop moments of 1970s Britain.
“Pop music for me is always most interesting when you’ve got this mix, the overtly commercial but also this strangeness or artistic pretension sneaking in,” says Stanley. “The idea that Adam Faith or the Troggs sum up the era more succinctly than (progressive rock giants) Yes or Genesis.”
It's not the first time Stanley and Wiggs have taken this approach. They've overseen the similarly remarkable compilations Paris in the Spring and State of the Union, which showcase the changing music that emerged from France and the US in the aftermath of the upheavals of 1968. "I try to look at familiar artists in a new way, and as a way of exploring an era that everyone thinks they know inside out," says Stanley.
Of course, it’s just one way of looking at the past half-century of events, even musically. But at a time when historical narrative is diversifying and consensus fracturing, the accessible medium of pop provides unexpected yet illuminating insights into the past. Plus you can hum along to them.
In Ireland, popular music hasn't always been in tune with its environment. True, the sentimental yet stoical country and western of Ray Lynam, Philomena Begley and the late Big Tom McBride chimed with squeezed rural audiences in the 1970s, while the folk scene could be a political bush telegraph. But the rock music of Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher was more apolitical and escapist in attitude and outlook.
The Boomtown Rats had a string of UK hits before Bob Geldof trained a sardonic eye on Ireland in the 1980 single Banana Republic, deriding the hypocrisy he saw back home
The advent of punk, with its energy and outrage, led to a different approach. Paul Cleary was inspired by the movement's DIY rawness to form his band the Blades, but it also helped shape a broader outlook. "With The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Jam, it was a bit of a mish-mash of ideas, but they were all pretty much well-meaning," Cleary recalls. "I had no real idea of what I wanted, but I knew what was wrong and why I had a chip on my shoulder."
He wasn't the only one. More pop-rock than punk, The Boomtown Rats scored a string of UK hits before singer Bob Geldof trained a sardonic eye on Ireland in the 1980 single Banana Republic, deriding the hypocrisy he saw back home. Equally disaffected but more elegiac was the Radiators' album Ghostown, which painted a mournful portrait of 1970s Dublin through a prism of myth and nostalgia.
Both bands had left Ireland by then, however. Those who stayed behind didn’t always pay attention to the economic decline around them, even as Irish rock music enjoyed an illusory boom in the wake of U2’s success. U2 themselves were alive to injustice, as songs like Pride underline, but preferred vague motivational positivity when it came to their home. “I believe in the bells of Christchurch/Ringing for this land,” sang Bono on A Celebration in 1982, as the country sank into depression.
Other Irish musicians were more agitated. “How it became political, was that I got frustrated hearing people pretending they were street-level,” says Cleary. “It dawned on us that we were the real deal.” Rather than resort to sloganeering, Cleary mixed kitchen-sink realism with a pop-punk sensibility. “The political is always very personal,” he says.
The Blades’ 1982 single The Bride Wore White dealt with teenage pregnancy and marriage, though its implicit target was “the repression of the Catholic church”, while 1983’s soul-influenced Downmarket used an everyday vignette of a bus stop to capture the atmosphere of stagnation. “On a superficial level, it’s mundane and prosaic, but it’s meant to be like that,” says Cleary. “It’s a day in the life of a nobody, which I was and am. People maybe take too much out of it, or not enough, but that’s what a good song should do.” Certainly, few tracks better evoke the grit and greyness of urban Ireland then.
Self-Aid now seems well-meaning yet tin-eared and paternalistic, a cautionary example of what happens when pop wears its social conscience too earnestly
Such street-level awareness collided with the amorphous aspirations of the Irish music mainstream, when U2 headlined Self-Aid, the 1986 benefit concert in aid of the unemployed. “The whole thing was just so badly thought out,” Cleary says. “With something so intrinsically involved with government as unemployment, it just didn’t sit with me at all.” Cleary is more forgiving now - “I think U2 felt obliged to take part” - but Self-Aid now seems well-meaning yet tin-eared and paternalistic, a cautionary example of what happens when pop wears its social conscience too earnestly.
Stardom didn't preclude engagement, however. When Sinead O'Connor became a global star with her 1990 single Nothing Compares 2U, everything about her was a rejection of the mores then still prevalent in Ireland. Much of this was down to O'Connor's personality, as when she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II on television. But her hit The Emperor's New Clothes was an unflinchingly honest and defiant account of being a single mother in a country where women had little autonomy over their bodies, with contraception, divorce and abortion all banned. That such a strong lyric was delivered over a slick dance-pop production only heightened its impact.
Throughout all this time, the Troubles loomed. Stanley's anthology highlights how the northern situation crept into British music in the 1970s, with references to the IRA on Mike McGear's misanthropic track Kill. Bigger British stars dealt with the issue too, with John Lennon singing Sunday Bloody Sunday and Paul McCartney (McGear's older brother) urging Give Ireland Back to the Irish.
As the violence intensified, such sentiments sounded naïve. Again, the snarling DIY ethic of punk gave voice to those on the ground. As the Belfast punk scene provided a haven for disaffected youths from across sectarian lines, local band Stiff Little Fingers decried the atrocities and division around them on exhilarating tracks like Alternative Ulster and Suspect Device.
Equally notable, however, was the reaction of the Undertones to the conflict. Despite coming from the republican heartland of the Bogside in Derry, the band made their name with melodic pop-punk songs of adolescent longing, such as their classic, Teenage Kicks. “We didn’t want to sing about the Troubles, we wanted to escape from it, because we were living it every day,” recalls Damian O’Neill, the band’s guitarist. “We didn’t even think of writing anything, the way Stiff Little Fingers were doing. We just loved the pop sensibility thing.”
O’Neill admits the band members had “strong views”, but “we were nervous that if we did do a song, it had to be really clever, not po-faced, but subtle.” When they eventually addressed the subject, it was in oblique manner. Released during the hunger strikes in 1981, It’s Going to Happen made no direct reference to the ongoing strife, though lyrics like “stupid revenge is what’s making you stay” didn’t need much decoding. With its tough brass section and insistent chorus, it was a hit that also encapsulated the tension of the period.
O’Neill would go on to form That Petrol Emotion, who took a more explicitly political stance while still making danceable music. But The Undertones, who still tour today, show how to balance pop nous with wider engagement during difficult times.
Anthemically sincere though the song is, Sunday Bloody Sunday now sounds portentous and self-conscious, saying more about Bono's instincts than the reality of the situation
By contrast, U2 took a typically epic approach when they sang about the Troubles on Sunday Bloody Sunday. Anthemically sincere though the song is, it now sounds portentous and self-conscious, saying more about Bono’s instincts than the reality of the situation.
With the arrival of the Celtic tiger in the Republic and the peace process in the north, such urgency largely dissipated. Northern acts such as Divine Comedy and Ash made peerless pop records infused by louche irony and punky exuberance respectively, as though relieved by the changed landscape. Meanwhile, it's no coincidence that the boom years coincided with the rise of Louis Walsh's hugely successful boy bands Boyzone and Westlife. Walsh's commercially astute, suffocatingly bland chart fodder seems a perfect metaphor for the compulsive consumerism that gripped the country.
Then came the 2008 crash. Much like the financial fallout, the musical consequences are ongoing but often hard to discern. The confessional honesty of Conor O’Brien’s act Villagers seems apposite at a time as conventional politics give way to issues of identity, gender and culture. But there are still artists who have captured the texture of contemporary Ireland, from the vernacular narratives of Lisa O’Neill to the multicultural hip-hop of Rusangano Family.
But while musicians clearly remain plugged into society, it's harder for their music to seep into mass consciousness. "The problem generally is that pop doesn't have the same seat at the table that it used to have culturally, it's just not as significant," says Stanley. But all is not lost. Pop music can still be vital and relevant. Stanley cites Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, arguably the world's biggest pop stars, as "amazing role models" whose recent albums have made a serious cultural impact.
Maybe it’s only in hindsight that we can discern the songs that truly capture times of discontent and uncertainty. Pop is made for the here and now: perhaps only time can sort the wheat from the chaff, or The Troggs from Genesis.
“I don’t know if there’s an equivalent now, but I’m sure there’s music being made that reflects the Brexit mood now,” says Stanley. “It’s always easier to spot these things in retrospect. Maybe in 15 years someone will put a compilation together.”
Three Day Week: When the Lights Went Out, 1972-1975 is on Ace Records