Musical fallout: Pop goes the politician...

David Cameron's declaration that 'Eton Rifles' is his favourite song has prompted a furious response from Paul Weller. The truth is that politics and pop just do not mix. By Cahal Milmo and Andy McSmith

Friday 16 May 2008 00:00

1. Paul Weller & David Cameron

In the latest proof that politics and pop do not mix, David Cameron's attempt to show that you can be a Tory and yet be into raw protest songs has earned a scathing rejection from the singer/songwriter Paul Weller. The "Modfather" was disgusted to hear that Mr Cameron had selected the 1979 hit "The Eton Rifles", by The Jam, as his favourite track.

In the latest proof that politics and pop do not mix, David Cameron's attempt to show that you can be a Tory and yet be into raw protest songs has earned a scathing rejection from the singer/songwriter Paul Weller. The "Modfather" was disgusted to hear that Mr Cameron had selected the 1979 hit "The Eton Rifles", by The Jam, as his favourite track.

Mr Cameron was a 12-year-old Eton schoolboy when the song was written, and seems to have missed the point that it was a satire that ridiculed Eton boys rather than praising them.

"Which part of it didn't he get? It wasn't intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps," Mr Weller says in this week's issue of the New Statesman magazine. The unwanted tribute made him decide to revive the song on his current solo tour, because "it's just as powerful now, just as relevant, as it was in 1979".

Weller, who will be 50 this month, wrote the song after seeing television pictures of Right to Work marchers being jeered by public schoolboys as they passed through Eton en route from Liverpool to London. It was the first major hit for The Jam, reaching No 3 in the charts.

When David Cameron was asked on a recent Radio 4 programme to name his favourite track he replied: "'The Eton Rifles', inevitably. I was one, in the corps. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to. I don't see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs."

Mr Cameron cannot have been unaware of Weller's politics. In the 1980s, the musician was a leading figure in Red Wedge, the network of artists who campaigned for the Labour Party and other left-wing causes. He has since become disillusioned with Labour, and rejected a CBE in 2006. He described Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, as "corrupted by power" – but was equally critical of Boris Johnson, also an Eton schoolboy when "The Eton Rifles" was written. He told the New Statesman: "How can you vote for a man who looks like he's got his mum to cut his hair with the garden shears? He's a gibbering idiot, like Tim Nice-But-Dim."

2. John Mellencamp & John McCain

In his critically-acclaimed song "Our Country" , the Grammy-winning musician John Mellencamp exhorts the government to do more to "help the poor and common man", and suggests that religion may not be the answer to all of humankind's ills.

Quite why the managers of Republican presidential candidate John McCain's campaign would choose such an anthem was therefore a bit of a mystery. When "Our Country" started booming out of the public address system at McCain rallies in recent weeks along with another Mellencamp song, "Pink Houses", their creator revealed that he was a staunch Democrat and was none too pleased that his lyrics were being enlisted in the crusade to prove that the Vietnam veteran was a "true conservative".

A representative of Mr Mellencamp said: "If you're such a true conservative, why are you playing songs that have a very populist pro-labour message, written by a guy who would find no argument if you characterised him as left of centre?" Mr McCain's aides agreed and the songs were dropped.

3. Arctic Monkeys & Gordon Brown

In the summer of 2006, when Gordon Brown's allies were doing everything in their power to force Tony Blair to get out of Downing Street, the Chancellor, as he then was, decided to give his image a makeover, with lilac ties, family photographs and soft focus interviews. The most startling aspect of this image change appeared in New Woman magazine, in which Mr Brown was quoted as saying that the music of the Arctic Monkeys "really wakes you up in the mornings". This later morphed into a story about Gordon plugging his iPod into his ears first thing in the morning for a rousing blast from the teenagers from Sheffield. But in a later interview, Mr Brown proved unable to name a single track by the band he supposedly loved so much. He confessed that he actually preferred the anaemic Coldplay. He had meant to say that the Arctic Monkeys would wake you up in the morning, should you be listening to them.

4. Noel Gallagher & Tony Blair

The sight of the youthful new prime minister and the Oasis rock idol sharing a joke over a glass of champagne at the infamous "Cool Britannia" reception in Downing Street in 1997 became one of the defining images of New Labour's ultimately counter-productive flirtation with celebrity.

It was later revealed that Mr Blair had voiced concern that Gallagher would "do something crazy" inside No 10. A telephone call to the Oasis manager Alan McGee produced assurances that he would behave impeccably.

But the love affair between Britain's biggest band and Labour fizzled out. Last year Mr Gallagher said he had got "carried away" with Mr Blair's landslide: "We thought it was going to be John F Kennedy and for a year or two it was. Unfortunately, for this Labour government, they are going to be saddled with the Iraq war and nobody can get around that." The only bright spot for Mr Blair was that the star considered all politicians with equal disdain, saying: "David Cameron is no different from Tony Blair."

5. Eartha Kitt & Lady Bird Johnson

The abandoned daughter of a white plantation owner's son and a black sharecropper, the singer Eartha Kitt was a huge star in the Fifties and Sixties. Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson invited her to a celebrity luncheon in the White House to discuss inner-city problems. The President just wanted publicity, but Kitt thought it was meant to be a serious discussion and berated Johnson for sending teenagers to die in Vietnam. Lady Bird was said to have burst into tears, later implying she feared her husband would have a heart attack. White House press briefings about Kitt's "rudeness" led to her being blacklisted. Her telephone was tapped, and she was tailed by FBI agents. Unable to work, she fled to Europe.

6. The Rolling Stones& Angela Merkel

Dogged by criticism that she was "frumpy", Angela Merkel and her spin doctors in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) needed a tune to strike a more uplifting chord with the German electorate when she ran for election in 2005.

Ms Merkel began to leave the stage at rallies to the strains of "Angie", the Rolling Stones' 1973 hit from their album, Goats Head Soup. The problem came when word of the musical marriage between the sexual energy of Mick Jagger and Ms Merkel's carefully tailored suits reached the Stones' management. A terse statement said: "We didn't grant permission. We are surprised that permission was not requested. If it had been, we would have said no."

The CDU insisted it had checked with Germany's music distribution rights regulator, but "Angie" and Angela were not to be found in the same room again. As the song puts it: "Angie, you're beautiful, but ain't it time we said goodbye?"

7. The Beatles & Harold Wilson

Given that when Labour came to power in 1964, the Beatles were the most popular rock band in the world, it was understandable that the new prime minister, Harold Wilson, should want to bask in their reflected glory. So he awarded them an MBE each, to the disgust of war veterans who had earned their medals risking their lives for their country. Screaming fans mobbed the gates of Buckingham Palace during the groups' investiture, in October 1965. Later, Paul McCartney scandalised the nation claiming they smoked pot in the Palace lavatories while they were waiting. John Lennon handed back his MBE in 1969 with a note saying: "I am returning this in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against 'Cold Turkey' (Lennon's solo single) slipping down the charts."

8. Jefferson Airplane & Richard Nixon

It is an enduring mystery why Tricia Nixon, daughter of the US President, thought it would be cool to invite Grace Slick, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, to a White House reception in 1970. Slick had written the 1960s hippie anthem "White Rabbit", whose final words – "feed your head" – were a blatant call to the young to take mind-altering drugs. Another single, "Mexico", was a direct attack on Nixon's drugs policy. When Slick arrived at the White House, she was refused entry by security men , because she came accompanied by a suspicious-looking "bodyguard". This was the radical political activist, Abbie Hoffman. Slick revealed later that the two of them had planned to spike Nixon's tea with the hallucinogenic drug, LSD. Drugs and alcohol ruined Grace Slick's singing career, but she is still alive, aged 68.

9. Bruce Springsteen & Ronald Reagan

When Ronald Reagan took to the stage in Hammonton, New Jersey, on his 1984 re-election campaign, it was judged a perfect opportunity to invoke the spirit – and lyrics – of one of the state's foremost sons.

The actor turned politician told the crowd: "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen."

The inspiration for such a eulogy was interpreted to be "Born in the USA", Springsteen's hit of the year. Unfortunately, what Mr Reagan's speechwriter took as a eulogy to America's dreams was an angry condemnation of the modern USA by an unemployed Vietnam veteran.

As Springsteen's lyrics put it: "Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I'm 10 years burning down the road/Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go."

The singer was less than impressed. He told Rolling Stone magazine: "I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what's happening, I think, is that that need is getting manipulated and exploited. You see that in the Reagan election ads on TV."

10. Massive Attack & William Hague

If any politician knows the pitfalls of trying to appear at one with Britain's urban youth, it is William Hague. After several unhappy encounters with street culture involving baseball caps and casual slacks, the Tory spin doctors were determined to hit the right note when their then leader addressed a conference in 2000 to launch a policy document entitled Believing in Britain.

Where once "Land of Hope and Glory" might have poured from the speakers, the mixture of jazz, hip-hop and soul pioneered by Bristol-based dance band Massive Attack announced the arrival of Mr Hague at the podium.

The musicians were less than pleased with the use of their song, "Man Next Door". In a statement, delicately entitled: "We're completely fucked off with the Tories", the group said: "Massive Attack have not and never will support the Conservative Party. If our music has been used by the Tories it is without our knowledge or our permission. The misappropriation of our music by any organisation or broadcaster will be dealt with in the strongest way we can."

Conservative Central Office said the music had not been intended for broadcast. A spokesman said: "It's a massive attack over nothing."

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