The first time I ever heard Margaret Thatcher’s name was in a song. My uncle had given me a cassette tape of Gil Scott Heron’s Greatest Hits for my high school graduation, and right there, in the opening lines of the epic Ronald Reagan takedown “Re-Ron” was this curious riff:
Boy George in drag, or was Maggie Thatcher Reagan in drag?
Maggie and Jiggs, what a gig they got...
I hope I can be forgiven for not knowing who Thatcher was. I was, after all, an American teenager deeply focused on my own sexual prospects, not global politics.
But as it turns out, this was an entirely appropriate introduction to Thatcher, who died Monday at the age of 87. For no other modern leader — and perhaps no other political leader in history — inspired so much musical hatred.
As a cultural figure, Thatcher personified The Establishment. She had the look (varnished bouffant, power suits, pearls), the temperament (fierce, inflexible, humorless) and the policies (deregulate, lower taxes, shred the safety net, if all else fails declare war on a South American nation). She was, in other words, the living antithesis of rock and roll, “The Man” re-imagined as a maiden aunt who scoffed at any talk of social justice and rebellion.
This made her a natural muse for British musicians, who began writing protest songs about her from the moment she entered national consciousness. By my own informal count, she inspired at least 87 compositions, though I no doubt missed some. The range alone is astonishing, from The Specials (“Ghost Town”) to Pink Floyd (“The Fletcher Memorial Home”) to Richard Thompson (“Mother Knows Best”).
She was the living antithesis of rock and roll, “The Man” re-imagined as a maiden aunt who scoffed at any talk of social justice and rebellion.
Numerous songs gleefully envisioned her death, including Hefner’s “The Day that Thatcher Dies” and Pete Wylie’s more recent “The Day that Margaret Thatcher Dies.” This is to say nothing of “Maggie You C***” by The Exploited.
As this last title clearly illustrates, there was more than a pinch of misogyny in some of these tracks. Rock music is a mostly male preserve, after all, and Thatcher’s steely Iron Lady image was no doubt an affront to some.
For the most part, the songs Thatcher inspired are earnest expressions of distress at the conservative direction she took the country.
I’ve tried to winnow the list down to a few essentials. Here then, The Top of the Pops, as inspired by Maggie Thatcher.
1. Billy Bragg, “Between the Wars”
Along with former Jam leader Paul Weller and other musicians, Bragg formed a collective called The Red Wedge that sought to use songs to help oust Thatcher from office. The folk rock icon remains one of the most eloquent spokesman when it comes to articulating the deep sense of betrayal that many working class Britons felt in encountering the free-market zeal of Thatcherism.
2. Sinead O’Connor, “Black Boys on Mopeds”
I can still remember getting goosebumps the first time I heard this song, which does what great protest songs should: It reduces the grand abstractions of politics to a particular story about a particular tragedy — in this case the death of a young black teenager named Nicholas Bramble who died after being pursued by police.
3. Elvis Costello, “Tramp the Dirt Down”
“When England was the whore of the world,” Costello sings, “Margaret was her madam.” Tell us how you really feel, Elvis.
4. Morrissey, “Margaret on the Guillotine”
Costello fantasized about stomping on Maggie’s grave. But the former Smiths front man did him one better, by actually calling for her death on his debut solo disc, the aptly named "Viva Hate." The song managed to attract the attention of the British police, who made Morrissey the subject of an official investigation.
5. The English Beat, “Stand Down Margaret”
This ska masterpiece was recorded just a year into Maggie’s first tenure as Prime Minister, and therefore ranks both as one of the earliest — and most dance friendly — Thatcher-themed tunes.
6. Renaud, “Miss Manners”
In 1985, French Pop singer Renaud proved that Thatcher animus was powerful enough to cross The Channel. His song manages to praise women for their sensitivity and aversion to violence, using Maggie as a notable exception. Calling her a “she-hooligan” isn’t exactly elegant. But his song reflected a pervasive anxiety about Thatcher’s willingness to use police force — to break strikes, for example.
7. Frank Turner, “Thatcher F*cked the Kids”
Turner is a protest singer in the tradition of Bragg, a former punk rocker whose songs double as brilliant lessons in sociology. This song is especially useful in noting the grim legacy of Thatcherism, the ways in which her political philosophy placed personal greed above a sense of collective well-being.
So those are my favorite seven, but as noted, I’m clearly just scratching the surface when it comes to Margaret Thatcher, Rock and Roll Muse. So feel free to nominate your favorites in the comments section.
And for those of you who are Thatcher fans, take heart. The Maggie Canon does include at least one (sort of) loving tribute. Behold the weirdness that is “I’m in Love with Margaret Thatcher” by The Notsensibles...
This program aired on April 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.