Tara Brabazon: Pop songs offer the perfect sonic handbag for bashing racism

Tara Brabazon turns up the volume of Ghost Town to hear a soundtrack in keeping with our times

November 4, 2009

Music is a constant companion for my writing. Rhythm assists both punctuation and motivation. Hitting keys in syncopation with the frenetic 175 beats per minute of “gabba” hardcore techno medicates the repetitive brain injury of emailing. Kraftwerk facilitates the building of difficult paragraphs gathered (tentatively or desperately) at the extremities of knowledge. While the band’s Robot Ralf intoned “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn”, a generation of English-speaking clubbers sung the phonetic facsimile as “fun fun fun on the autobahn”. Whatever the translation, the fusion of electro-pop forges creative connections between old ideas.

I am a sucker for story songs. These tracks feel like we are peeping through a window at a lost world. These expansive sonic vistas are increasingly important in education. With UKIP surfing to success at the European Elections, the BNP pretending to be part of democratic liberalism on Question Time and Gordon Brown a wounded – if not a dead – prime minister walking, it is a difficult time to work in universities. When words like repatriation enter public discourse, the purpose of our teaching and writing is clear. It is necessary to open our classrooms and conversations to talk honestly about multiculturalism, dissent and discrimination.

In such a context, I am attracted to productive popular culture that presents alternatives to scapegoating stories that lambast foreigners for not being British. We foreigners cannot help it. This accent is not exaggerated to extract sympathy for sharing a home country with Paul Hogan and Greg Norman. Yes, Craig Revel Horwood does stretch his vowels with the regularity of a bowel movement. The lad is from Ballarat, a dusty regional city in Australia. They do not say “choor choor choor” in Ballarat. They do not say “choor choor choor” anywhere, but particularly not in a tough goldfield town where men are men and women laugh at them. What is poignant is that a boy from Oz deems it necessary to assume such affectation for the bee-bee-see.

In the search for alternative ways of speaking, living, being and thinking, there are certain tracks that trawl an alternative reality. Like cinema without pictures, story songs provide a world of loss, longing, regret and hope. Obvious examples that hook into a bigger culture are Ultravox’s Vienna, Maximo Park’s Books From Boxes, the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, the Triffids’ Wide Open Road, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat, Bob Dylan’s Tangled up in Blue, The Wailers’ Get up, Stand Up and the Pet Shop Boys’ Being Boring. Through these songs, dramatic personal histories become abstract, complex, creative and shared.

What transforms an entry on a music chart into transformative popular culture is not a question of lyrics, melody, harmony or rhythm. From the first hearing, they are panoramic, expansive and heavy with possibility. They are a sonic handbag to carry through life. Whenever feeling trapped, cornered or confused, these cinematic songs allow us to borrow an experience. We “see” Terry meeting Julie at Waterloo Station, Al Stewart’s muse running like a watercolour in the rain or Maximo Park’s stadium lights standing out like flares. These songs whisper of a defiant life where listening promises belonging.

These musical memories are not frozen in the past but dance into our present. This year is the 50th anniversary of Island Records and the 30th of the 2 Tone label. These commemorations are important to acknowledge in 2009. Through the credit squeeze and resultant crunch pounding our universities, the Specials’ greatest story song – Ghost Town – is ripe for revival.

It is difficult to believe Ghost Town is nearly three decades old. Like much of 2 Tone’s output, the Specials’ combination of punk, rock steady and ska enabled a sonic migration of Caribbean colonial histories and African-Cuban rhythms into a Britain negotiating the difference between running an Empire and leading a Commonwealth.

It is not an easy journey, but different rhythms foreshadow greater political diversity. Even at their pop height, the Specials confronted violence and racism on and off stage. Vocalist Terry Hall says: “We don’t like violence at our concerts; we’ve made that clear from the outset. We offer music as an alternative to fighting. It’s easier to use your energy dancing than punching someone in the mouth.” The Specials survived the fighting on the dance floor and unified in 1981 to record their masterpiece, Ghost Town. This song is odd, troubling, otherworldly and radical in equal measure. Disturbing similarities surface between Thatcherite ghost towns and Brownite boarded-up city centres. While shoppers ride the consumerist boom, others suffer unemployment and house repossession.

Pop at its best can translate a personal experience into shared public consciousness. Ghost Town is a sonic documentary that fuses popular culture and anti-racist struggles. The song shadows a time when the National Front and race riots ran through the streets. It offers a different type of music journalism, singing about an undeclared civil war fought over interpretations of the word “British”. The Specials construct a vision of both a multicultural future and the language to express disquiet about injustice.

The song’s music video features the band squeezed into a car, cruising around abandoned streets. Many images from Margaret Thatcher’s first term capture the triumphs, tragedies and social dislocation. Much of this footage involves Brixton, Toxteth and the Falklands. The Specials driving through night-time Coventry is an evocative intervention in easy narratives of riot and war. Since uploaded to YouTube less than two years ago, this music video has been viewed more than 894,950 times. The comments left in response to witnessing this glimpse into social chaos are engaged, curious and evocative, aligning music and experience.

A trace of the Specials’ Ghost Town lives in contemporary music whenever Lily Allen writes a sonic ethnography about urban life or the Killers extend uncomfortable personal metaphors into wider social commentaries. While noting this homage, it is time to return to the original. The Specials – at their best – log the cost of racial violence. In a time of border protection and cries for repatriation, it is important to remember that nationalism is the retreat of the cowardly and the frightened. To limit our world view to an antiquated (and racialised) concept of a single, homogenised nation is nostalgic, insular and unproductive.

Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time cracked the brittle veneer of liberalism to display a despairing racism that shields unexpressed class-based rage. After leading journalists to a post-industrial car park to explain his response to the programme, Griffin blustered: “[The Question Time] audience was taken from a city that is no longer British. That was not my country any more. Why not come down and do it in Thurrock, do it in Stoke, do it in Burnley? Do it somewhere where there are still significant numbers of English and British people and they haven’t been ethnically cleansed from their own country.”

While distasteful, his statement could have been even worse. From a member of the BNP, “ethnically cleansed” is a politically correct(ed) description of genocide. We should be grateful he summoned a description from the last Balkan conflict, rather than his favourite historical patch: the Second World War. Once more though, he missed the point. The hostility he faced during Question Time did not take place because the programme was recorded in London, rather than Burnley, Stoke or Thurrock. The event could have been held in Liverpool, Salford, Leicester or Coventry with a similar audience response. He realised that it is easier to blame educated, cosmopolitan, trendy London types for modern and intelligent interpretations of history, justice and equality rather than acknowledging the wide-ranging diversity in the British population.

Those of us living in the UK have choices. We can continue tired attempts to find a “real Britain” that never existed. Or we can locate, commemorate and mobilise those cultural moments that welcome plurality, diversity and ask difficult historical questions, rather than celebrating military “heroes” and colonial “triumphs”. One critique of Griffin’s statement that “his” country is being “ethnically cleansed” is to play a 30-year-old music video that drives through urbanity, inequality and dislocation.

Story songs share a social history beyond what is recorded in census data or “managed” by immigration policies. They document an experience of living through change. The Specials’ video for Ghost Town features a cramped car jolting through the contradictions of class, race and nation. Like Griffin’s appearance on Question Time, this video is not comfortable viewing, but in the long term, social justice is strengthened through it.

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