Owing to a previous engagement, I turned down the chance to party with Oasis in 10 Downing Street. Instead we went to the next “Cool Britannia” reception. This time the stars from popular music were M People.
Tony Blair’s Number Ten was inspired by receptions given by Harold Wilson in the Swinging Sixties when attendees included the Beatles. Guests were invited in balanced pairs – two trade union bosses offset by two captains of industry for example. Two TV reporters matched with columnists from the posh and popular press. There were doubtless representatives of classical music mingling with the pop stars.
However widely Blair threw open his big tent, it wasn’t big enough. Someone was always left out and unhappy. The mixer parties were cancelled after the second one. As a working journalist I’ve accepted invitations from across the political spectrum, from Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party to Momentum and many points in between. I certainly did not regard my presence as an endorsement of New Labour.
It turns out that M People saw things differently. Those associated with the group are “livid” after their hit Moving on Up, was chosen by Liz Truss for her entry at the Conservative Party Conference this week – slogan Getting Britain Moving, in case you had forgotten already. The group’s founder Michael Pickering thundered “no permission was sort and we are very angry”. M People had previously endorsed Labour’s use of the song. The band’s magnificent singer Heather Small now has a son who is a Labour councillor in Westminster. James Small-Edwards tweeted on message: “An apt choice this tired and out of touch government is indeed moving out.”
The people who made the music have a right to protest when people they don’t like play it at public events. It is a hollow publicity gesture though because no band can possibly approve who hears their recordings at millions of parties, weddings and funerals.
Janet Street-Porter asked cruelly “shouldn’t [Pickering] be pleased that his band is back in the spotlight after years in the wilderness and his music used as background muzak in shops and restaurants?”. She suggested that stars only object to rightwing politicians purloining their songs for commercial reasons, fearful that the association might damage their brands.
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Whatever. Pop stars harrumphing about their music playing at the Tory party conference are as predictable as standing ovations.
The Conservatives may change their leader but they can’t dodge the brickbats. Last year Friendly Fires, a group still beyond my ageing ken, bashed Boris Johnson for playing Blue Cassette.
I doubt Theresa May was responsible for her pop soundtracks; hymns are more her thing. Still they piled in on her. Florence & The Machine issued a press release: playing You Got The Love was not approved. Calvin Harris, Rihanna’s sometime collaborator, got vicious when the Prime Minister walked on to This Is What You Came For. “I do not support or condone happy songs being played at such a sad place”, he pontificated, before diagnosing “liver cleanse needed” for the Prime Minister. Courtney Taylor-Taylor fulminated against “righwing jerkoffs” when Mrs May walked off the stage to the Dandy Warhol’s Bohemian Like You.
David Cameron enjoyed talking about his favourite bands, to no avail. Keane was “horrified” when Everybody is Changing, was played at the Conservative’s 2010 manifesto launch. Primal Scream were “totally disgusted”, although it is uncertain that Rocks was played at the event. My favourite Cameron put-down came from Johnny Marr of the Manchester’s most self-regarding band: “Stop saying you like The Smiths”, he ordered the Prime Minister, “No you don’t”.
Grumpy Britpoppers are only just catching up with their American competitors. Rockstars have been complaining about Republicans playing their music at least since 1984 when Ronald Reagan tried to adopt Born in the USA. Springsteen also rebuffed Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan for appropriating the song.
The hook line “Born in the USA” is irresistible to campaigners, even if Bruce Springsteen’s belter about the hardships faced by Vietnam war veterans is one of many examples of the lyrics of borrowed songs not being exactly appropriate to the occasion. In similar vein John Millen Camp protested to Reagan, George W Bush and John McCain over their use of Rock in the USA.
Many Republican candidates have been on the receiving end of “cease-and-desist” letters from musicians. They include Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, both Bushes, Michelle Bachmann and Mike Huckabee.
War hero and senator John McCain, the relatively centrist Republican nominee in 2008, was not spared. The alphabetical list of those warning him off included Abba (Take A Chance on Me), Bon Jovi, Foo Fighters, Jackson Brown, Orleans and Tom Petty.
Sting gets points for integrity having asked both Al Gore and George W Bush not to use his music in 2000.
Donald Trump deploys thumping music to stir up the crowds at this fund raising rallies. Inevitably the great provocateur has “the greatest” list of pop complainers, headed by Adele, Aerosmith, Elton John, Neil Young and REM.
The Rolling Stones went to court as You Can’t Always Get What You Want effectively became Trump’s campaign song but gave up. Politicians pay for blanket licences for bodies such as BMI, and are free to choose from millions of recordings after that.
When they repurpose songs, right wingers make the valid and inclusive point that they are just as human as everyone else, and enjoy the same emotions and music. Since Republicans and Tories are such prolific repeat offenders annoying popstars, they may also be doing it for the sake of it, just to annoy.
Pop stars tend to be prominent members of the liberal elite – they seldom mix with right of centre politicians, let alone endorse them. Hilary Clinton had Paul Simon and Katy Perry performing live at the Democratic Convention in 2016, Trump made do with a house band. When David Cameron tried to emulate Blair’s parties, Cilla Black and Kathryn Jenkins topped his guest list.
Cliff Richard may have offered his homes to both Labour and Conservative politicians, but, in general, those on the left have slipped more easily into the pop lifestyle ever since JFK adopted High Hopes as his 1960 campaign song and Frank Sinatra along with it.
It can be a mistake to get too close as Blair’s Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott found out when Chumbawumba tipped an ice bucket over him at the Brit Awards, a perennial hot ticket for political liggers. Years later, Liam Gallagher lamented the Downing Street party as “a cynical ploy”, wrongly attributing his invitation to Alastair Campbell.
Political leaders and pop stars are now “celebrities” together but we only enjoy listening to the musicians. Recorded music has changed the way political parties come together. Nobody wants to hear live bands pumping out tunes like Happy Days Are Here Again, for decades the staple of the Democratic Party. Communal singsongs of the Red Flag, Jerusalem and the National Anthem have become shuffling embarrassments with reporters on the lookout for who knows the words.
Conservative conferences will go on playing pop songs and pop stars will go on complaining in the media. That way everyone should be happy. They could adopt M People’s greatest hit, Search for the Hero, as their shared theme tune.
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