Protest songs: Marching to the beat of dissent

The Falklands War inspired a wealth of protest songs. But in today’s multi-media world, they’re becoming an outdated art form, says Hardeep Phull

On 23 May 1982, Mori conducted a survey of just over 1,000 British adults regarding the then Conservative Government's handling of the Falklands War for the BBC's Panorama programme. Seventy-five per cent of those polled expressed approval at Margaret Thatcher's handling of affairs and a remarkable 80 per cent felt that the Government was just in its initial decision to land on the South Atlantic islands. Statistically at least, the chances of hearing a dissenting voice were small and while British pop music had thrown up plenty of anti-Thatcher feeling in her first three years in office, there seemed to be few speaking out on this issue. "On the face of it, the war seemed like a pretty straightforward argument at the time," remembers Billy Bragg, 30 years on. "To me, it seemed as though there were these fascists in Argentina who were repressing their own people and now wanted to do the same to the people on this island."

But following the surrender of Argentine forces on 14 June, the victory party faded into a national hangover consisting of distasteful jingoism, traumatised troops, fractured families and the realities of a second term in office for Thatcher – something that seemed distinctly unlikely before the conflict. It was a shift in mood first captured on vinyl by the release of the song "Shipbuilding" in August 1982. Written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer but sung in its first incarnation by former Soft Machine singer Robert Wyatt, the track lamented the tragic ironies of a naval war bringing life back to the forgotten shipbuilding industry of northern England, but also requiring those revitalised communities to send their sons off to battle aboard the very same vessels.

Wyatt later referred to the track "as punk on Valium, punk without the energy" but at the opposite end of the scale, anarchist outfit Crass were offering more than enough zeal to make up for "Shipbuilding"'s shortcomings. Their song "How Does It Feel (To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead)?" had been written towards the conclusion of the conflict but was recorded and released in the months after. Singer Steve Ignorant sounded perilously close to coughing up a lung on the single, such was his fury with the commander-in-chief. "What made me so angry was I knew there were people of my age or younger, saying goodbye to their wives and families and probably never coming back," he remembers. Although they were a fringe concern for the wider public, Crass' apoplectic release caught the attention of both major political organisations. Conservative MP Tim Eggar attempted to have the band prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act while they simultaneously received letters of support from the Labour Party. "I was really scared at that point," adds Ignorant. "Firstly, I didn't want to be involved in party politics, but I also felt that if I was becoming too much of a nuisance for the Government, it wouldn't take too much for me to just disappear one night." Nevertheless, the single still topped the indie charts in November of 1982 and the similarly indignant offering "Sheep Farming In The Falklands" repeated that success the following year.

With the Prime Minister using her success in orchestrating the war effort to leverage herself into a position of political power, the hollow feeling of victory in the Falklands intensified. Wyatt's "Shipbuilding" earned a re-release in May of 1983 and became the Rough Trade label's first ever Top 40 success. Costello also thought the song to be relevant enough to re-record it himself and include it on his landmark Punch The Clock album with a mournful Chet Baker trumpet solo thrown in for good measure. Meanwhile, Roger Waters seized artistic control of Pink Floyd for their album The Final Cut in order to voice his disaffection with the legacy of the conflict. Frustrated at the lack of diplomacy shown by the British Government following the Argentine invasion, the bass player devised a complex narrative for the album, featuring a cast of often emotionally disturbed British servicemen, who combined to create a requiem for the post-war dream of peace and prosperity. It would be Waters' last contribution to Pink Floyd, as his determination to pay homage to the troops drove a creative wedge between him and Dave Gilmour, and resulted in Waters leaving the band.

The post-war atmosphere had also sparked a change of heart from Bragg who, by the release of his 1984 album Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, had become one of the prominent voices of political pop music in Britain. That album contained "Island Of No Return"- a sad and harrowing tale of life on the frontline in the South Atlantic, as told through the first-person perspective of a distraught squaddie. "I don't think I would have written that during the war," adds the singer who himself had once enlisted in the British Army in 1981 before buying himself out. "During the war, it was more about General Galtieri but after, it was more about Thatcher. He was doing what he did to avoid political trouble at home but the shock to me was subsequently realising that Thatcher had done the same."

It may have been a small number of songs that emerged around the time of the conflict but according to Bragg, the chances are it would be an even smaller number should a similar conflict arise today. "For someone like me, writing a song was the only way to broadcast myself back then," he reflects. "Now, with such a myriad of media options that you can participate in, writing a song isn't the first thing that occurs to people." For Ignorant, just the idea of being in an explicitly political band seems like a dated concept in the technological age. "We thought we were an information bureau in a way because we wrote songs about anarchism and pacifism, which introduced people to these ideas for the first time. I'm not saying technology is a bad thing, but you can Google all that information now. If that technology hadn't existed back then, would there have been a band like Crass? I don't think there would." It thankfully didn't turn out to be Britain's Vietnam as some had initially feared but nevertheless, the Falklands War (eventually) threw up a powerful body of protest songs, the likes of which may never be heard again.

The Falklands War may have only lasted for two-and-a-half months, but numerous songs would make reference to it for years after. Bradford post-punks New Model Army included "Spirit Of The Falklands"– a seething critique of the nationalistic atmosphere whipped up by media during the conflict – on their 1984 debut album Vengeance. Two years later, with the memory of the Falklands fading, Joe Jackson reflected on the continuing injuries being suffered due to unexploded landmines on the islands on his track "Tango Atlantico". On their 1991 song "Another Man's Cause", folk-rockers The Levellers combined mentions of the Falklands with the more recent memory of the Gulf War to tell the story of a family of soldiers decimated by frontline deaths. And as recently as 1998, metallers Iron Maiden offered an elegy for both sets of soldiers through their power-ballad "Como Estais Amigos".

But of all the songs connected with the Falklands War, arguably the most successful and enduring has turned out to be "Brothers In Arms" by Dire Straits. Although written at the time of the conflict (and subsequently released on the multi-million selling 1985 album of the same name), frontman Mark Knopfler has stopped short of connecting the song with the war explicitly. Despite that, its obvious lyrical references to warfare and the video's grainy animations of terrain that seemed remarkably similar to that of the disputed islands, an inseparable connection has developed. The track was even re-recorded and re-released in 2007 for the benefit of the South Atlantic Medal Association – a charity designed to help soldiers struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder travel back to the Falklands as part of their treatment.

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