News that Neil Young has taken down The Donald for using his song “Rockin’ in the Free World” as he strode down an escalator to kick off his presidential campaign (and has now offered his song to socialist Bernie Sanders instead) showed that there is perhaps limits to the exploitation of music. Not since Thom Yorke threatened to “sue the living shit” out of David Cameron if the prime minister used a Radiohead song in an election campaign has music and politics clashed so bad. This week the Corbynistas were slated mercilessly for their retro pub rendition of the Red Flag (which used to be a regular at Labour Party conferences), but if beardy comrades are embarrassing, nothing, just nothing can compare with the toe-curling, buttock-clenching awfulness of Brian May’s evocation of Jimi Hendrix atop Buckingham Palace in 2002. If you have to, you can watch it here.
I say nothing, actually, John Lydon doing butter adverts was cringeworthy and the Clash’s Levi ads kind of spoiled the band that brought us Guns of Brixton. And, if the Queen guitarist was like an outtake from the third series of Alan Partridge, nobody was really surprised because Queen was always a sort of naff parody of shite prog rock. So the joke was less jarring, than, say, Noel Gallagher sipping champagne with Tony Blair at a Downing Street party for the great and good of ‘Cool Britannia’. If each generation has its epiphany of pop and politics – from Woodstock to Live Aid (admittedly a crap comparison from authentic counter-culture to charade schmooze) – the sculpted pop moment to enhance the candidates or parties campaign is an altogether more devalued exercise.
If Blur’s Damon Albarn sooked up to New Labour and in 1996 Blair presented a lifetime achievement award to David Bowie (dressed in Union Jack coat) at ‘the Brits’, the love-in between pop and politics culminated in New Labour’s use of D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ in 1997. It stands now as a tragic moment of real hope, which looks desperate in reflection after the crashing failure of Labour to deliver.
Things got much worse, not in politics but in the spin-doctors obsessive desire to over-do this experience.
The ‘connect’ between leader and song became more and more tenuous and more and more ridiculous. In 2005 Tony Blair actually walked out to Sham 69’s – If The Kids Are United. I shit you not. A year earlier he had the bare face cheek to walk out to Fatboy Slim’s Right Here Right Now and in 2008 that Madchester groover Gordon Brown stepped out to James’s Sit Down . Maybe more stand down? In 2011 the SNP joined the party with the subtle but counter-intuitive ‘Let’s Work Together’ for their PPB.
All of this nonsense maybe reached its true purest form when the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 was designed by Danny Boyle and celebrated the NHS as it was being dismantled, sold off and privatised. But if the unreflective monsters of spin can be forgiven for endless exploitation of popular culture, how do you explain the deep-level unreflective stupidity of our Prime Minister who declared a few years ago on radio that the Jam’s Eton Rifles “had a special meaning for him as he had been in the cadet corps at Eton”. Paul Weller’s reaction was fun.
If Corbyn’s crowd singing the Red Flag marks a farcical denouement of the disastrous New Labour political experiment in song, there’s a rich seam of actual protest songs that they could draw on. But probably best not to bother.