Talkin' about a revolution

Politics and pop held hands in the Seventies; T-shirts screamed their message in the Eighties. Now, Nineties celebrities have finally found an axe to grind, says Cayte Williams
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If there was an award for best PR campaign in the face of adversity, the Liverpool dockers would win it hands down. On strike for over three years, their cause got less national press coverage than the Milton Keynes Flower Show (they claim they were blacklisted by the national press), so they took publicity matters into their own hands. They produced a rip- off Calvin Klein T-shirt that has proved the coolest thing to wear since Helmut Lang turn-ups.

"I saw someone wearing a cK T-shirt, and thought we could fit the word 'dockers' around it," says Tony Melia, a former shop steward from Liverpool docks who now helps former dockers re-train in work skills. "We designed and printed them in September 1996 when we had been in dispute for a year. The T-shirts had the desired effect because you had to take a second look before you realised what it said." The words "500 Liverpool dockers sacked since September 1995" were emblazoned across the front with the "cK" in "dockers" used as the logo.

Although the dockers' dispute has been settled, with two-thirds of the striking dockers receiving a financial settlement, money raised from a CD will go to retraining the other third. The Liverpool dockers came up with the idea, and Creation records were only too happy to help.

In Nineties Britain, pop has collaborated with art, fashion with interior design, films with restaurants, style with sport, in an orgy of cultural cross-pollination. There's the Damien Hirst/Blur working relationship, Urban Outfitters selling Luc Goidadin's clothes alongside Jam's lampshades, Soho House has the film world propping up its bar, and the England football team trotted off to France in Paul Smith.

But where is politics during all this frantic friendliness? The one thing Nineties popular culture has not been is politically contentious. Although a host of stars dutifully fell in behind New Labour at election time, any carping about strikes and workers' rights seemed to smack too much of Red Wedge, "Choose Life" T-shirts and artists like Sting. It's all far too Eighties. But nearly 15 years after the miners' strike, politics and pop are flirting once more.

The Manic Street Preachers aren't just loved by the nation because they belt out a good tune and are still mourning the loss of a founder. Their number one single, "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next", is a wake-up call in a national pop chart stuffed with manufactured boy bands and pseudo hacked-off rappers.

The Manics' album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, takes its name from a speech by their hero, Aneurin Bevan, Welsh socialist and NHS founder. As it stormed the charts in September, outstripping its nearest rival by nearly 100,000 copies, it seems our appetite for rebellion has returned.

Socially conscious celebs are deserting the New Labour government faster than Tories are flocking to it. Just ten months into its tenure, popsters spoke out against the government in the NME. Under the headline "Ever Get The Feeling You've Been Cheated?", stars like Jarvis Cocker, Ian Broudie, Cerys Matthews and Ian Brown condemned the government for going back on its promises for social reform. "At least the Tories were honest about destroying trade unions," said Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie.

Music and politics have grown even closer in the last month with the Creation release of Rock The Dock, a compilation album released to raise money for the Liverpool Dockers. The album features the newly politicised Oasis, Primal Scream and Ocean Colour Scene.

So where did the Liverpool dockers' initiative come from? "Basically we wanted to attract the attention of young people," says Melia. A host of musicians, footballers and comedians have popped on the tops, from Bobbie Gillespie, Noel Gallagher, Cast and Space to Sean Hughes, Lee Hurst and Robbie Fowler.

Fowler, the Liverpool striker, was the first footballer to wear the T- shirt during a 1997 European Cup-Winners' Cup match. After scoring a goal, he lifted his club shirt to reveal the offending item (he incurred the wrath of the FA, but became the most romantic of Working Class Heroes).

"Robbie and Steve [McManaman, his team mate] bought the T-shirts and made a pact that whoever scored first would show it," explains Melia. These boys aren't celebs hoping for a bit of working-class kudos, they have the docks in their blood. "Robbie comes from Southend in Liverpool which has a lot of docker history."

And it wasn't just sporting heroes who wore them. The dockers' T-shirts became a uniform at music gigs. "We were invited to sell them at rock concerts," continues Melia, "at the Oasis concert in Earls Court last year and at concerts by Cast, Space, Dodgy, Chumbawumba and Primal Scream." They proved their worth. The dockers sold nearly 50,000 T-shirts, and at pounds 5 each they proved "very worthwhile financially" with all profits going to the dockers' Family Hardship Fund.

When the Essex Fire Brigade Union went on a 14-week strike earlier this year over job cutbacks, they learnt from the dockers' incendiary devices. The fire-fighters brought out their answer to the Dockers cK, with a take on Adidas. The trade name was replaced with "adinuff" underneath the world-renowned triangular logo. The message read "Fire-fighters and control staff have adinuff. Essex strike 1998." The dispute has been settled and the T-shirt got them great publicity.

All Saints' Melanie Blatt and Shaznay Lewis wore the T-shirts at the V98 festival in Chelmsford this summer. More infamously, Ian Wright, the West Ham striker, wore a T-shirt backing the fire-fighters at Upton Park. After scoring, Wright took off the shirt and threw it towards the crowd before putting his club shirt back on and coming back on to the pitch. "Someone gave it to me before the match, and I decided to wear it," said Wrighty after the match. "I'm supporting the Essex firemen 100 per cent."

It's the return of a tradition we once had in spades. In the Sixties, fashion and politics were lovers. Anti-Vietnam "Make Love, Not War" badges had the kind of kudos now reserved for Prada, while Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and a host of plectrum- loving folkies spurred on the rebellion. In the Seventies, pop and politics lived in perfect harmony. Who can forget such monster hits as "You Won't Get Me I'm Part of The Union" (meant to be ironic but ending up as a lefty anthem)?

The Eighties was the decade of the protest T-shirt. In 1984, Katherine Hamnett's frontage yelled "58% Don't Want Pershing" when she met Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street before plummeting into vapid slogans like "Passports for Pets" and "Choose Life". The music industry came out for Labour with Red Wedge concerts and miners' strike benefits, with artists like Billy Bragg and Paul Weller moaning to rather than motivating the youth of the day. The Yuppies just didn't buy it.

So why has political protest regained its credibility? The answer is a mixture of disillusionment and a new generation of consumers who don't remember the sad strikers-and-singer-songwriters' alliance. New Labour received the kind of rapturous national homecoming once reserved for Richard the First. Bad King John was swept out of power and we were all waiting for the new beginning. Unfortunately, what many expected to be a golden era has turned into a Ratner age. It might have looked promising straight out of the packaging, only to disappoint on close inspection.

But we should enjoy the revolution while we can. How long will it be before Sting appears in a doCKers T-shirt? (If anything is going to ruin their future it'll be that old Tantric toad). Or Mick Hucknall starts bringing out protest songs ("My Money Belt's Too Tight To Mention")? It's only a matter of time before celebs jump on the politico-cred bandwagon or big business pretends it has a heart. The revolution will be televised, but Rupert Murdoch will own the rights.

'Rock The Dock' costs pounds 9.99 and is available from record shops throughout the country