No defence: EDL uses anti-fascist Manic Street Preachers song on video to promote rally

The hijacking of the Welsh group's 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next' is just the latest outbreak of musical misappropriation - and has landed them in legal trouble

If it is true that ridicule is the most potent political weapon, the English Defence League has just shot itself in the foot. The far-right party seems likely to be the butt of the nation's laughter after it emerged it chose a vigorously anti-fascist Manic Street Preachers song on a video to promote one of its upcoming rallies. Worse (for them, if not for the rest of us), the error could land them in legal trouble.

A video highlighting an imminent march against "radical Islam" in Birmingham has the Welsh band's song "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" as its backing track, apparently oblivious to the fact that it was written in homage to the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. It even features an anti-fascist slogan used in the conflict, including the line: "So if I can shoot rabbits/Then I can shoot Fascists," thought to derive from a conversation between a Republican fighter and his brother.

Representatives for the Welsh rockers, who are said to be "shocked" at the misappropriation of their song, are flexing their legal muscle and have demanded that the EDL delete the video.

"The Manic Street Preachers have been dedicated anti-fascists and anti-racists all their lives," said Weyman Bennett, the joint national secretary for pressure group Unite Against Fascism. "It's ironic that the EDL are using an anti-fascist song to actually encourage fascism. It is slightly Orwellian; they are taking what is a struggle for equality and trying to turn it into something about division."

Referring to the legal action, the writer Bonnie Greer tweeted: "Today can't get much better than this." Though few of their political opponents will have much sympathy for the EDL, their howler belongs in a rich tradition of people misconstruing lyrics. Perhaps the most celebrated was Cliff Richard, pop music's most celebrated Christian, recording a single entitled "Honky Tonk Angels", evidently unaware that Honky Tonk Angel is Southern US slang for prostitutes. He asked for this record label, EMI, to withdraw the song but not before they had minted 1,000 copies, which are now collectors' items.

Singer Lou Reed has also attracted his share of misunderstandings. The BBC was criticised for using his single "Perfect Day" to help raise money for Children In Need. The song is about the experience of a heroin trip. And when he was on BBC Radio 1, Tony Blackburn made Reed's most famous single, "Walk on the Wild Side" his record of the week, seemingly oblivious to its sexual content, including mentions of "giving head".

Paul Weller, who wrote Jam's "Eton Rifles", about a fight between privileged schoolboys and demonstrators, was torn between derision and anger when David Cameron chose the song as one of his favourite songs. Weller said: "Which part of it doesn't (Cameron) get? It wasn't intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps." It is not known if Cameron was fully au fait with the ironic meaning of Pulp's "Common People", which he once admitted to enjoy singing while driving.

Rockers' rights

Radiohead and Keane v the Tories

Singer Thom Yorke said earlier this year he would "sue the living shit" out of David Cameron if the Prime Minister dared to use a Radiohead song in an election campaign. Keane were "horrified" when the Tories used their hit "Everybody's Changing" during the 2010 election.

Massive Attack v William Hague

Hague incurred the wrath of the hip-hop group when their tune "Man Next Door" boomed out before the then Tory leader released his pre-election manifesto in 2000. The band issued an expletive-ridden statement distancing themselves from Mr Hague, while the Tories blamed the mistake on a trip-hop-loving sound engineer.

Silversun Pickups and Survivor v the Republicans

Mitt Romney received a cease and desist letter last year from the Silversun Pickups over the Republicans' use of "Panic Switch" on the campaign trail. Newt Gingrich was sued for playing Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" in his presidential campaign.

Bruce Springsteen v Ronald Reagan

In his 1984 re-election campaign Ronald Reagan used Springsteen’s famous song “Born in the USA“, which relates the story of a man who went to fight in Vietnam and then came back to the USA disaffected and alienated. It also laments the futility of the Vietnam War with the words “I had a brother at Khe Sahn, Fighting off the Viet Cong, They're still there, he's all gone.” Sprinsteen’s grim and sombre song is far from the sort of jovial patriotism that Ronald Reagan was famous for.

Rolling Stones v Angela Merkel

In 2005 Angela Merkel angered the Rolling Stones after she used their 1973 song “Angie” during her general election campaign. The song was a strange choice as it was about the end of a relationship and included the less than rousing lyrics “Angie, Angie, when will those clouds all disappear? Angie, Angie, where will it lead us from here? With no loving in our souls and no money in our coats.”

Additional research by Ben Mackay

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