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World Well Lost – Songs from Thatcher’s Britain

pivotal” and “momentous” are, by now, clichés. Thrown around with casual disregard, such epithets are applied to almost any given decade in the 20th Century. That said 1980’s Britain, under the controversial leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, saw a rather inordinate amount of pivotal and momentous events. Luckily, this particular time period also had pop music videos. As such, it’s easy to get an insight of sorts into what sometimes feels like another world.

Orange Juice – Rip It Up
Released: February 19, 1983
UK Chart Peak: #8

“Rip It Up” is simply one of the most effervescently perfect singles ever. In the video Edwyn Collins and band are first seen performing in a rather cheap looking spaceship. They then ascend—dressed in Hawaiian shirts, sun hats, and slacks—to a drizzly British high street. The image is fitting; the song and band were a ray of sunlight in Britain’s perpetual rainy Wednesday afternoon. It may be a stretch, but with the Falklands and the miner’s strike looming, it serves as a fitting farewell to the heroic optimism of the post-punk years.

The Kinks – Come Dancing
Released: August 6, 1983
UK Chart Peak: #12

“Come Dancing” starts as the kind of jaunty calypso that typified The 70s Kinks, with Ray Davies reminiscing about the big band dances that his sister attended when he was a child. The video cutely brings the song’s scenario to life: Davies plays his sister’s spiv-like suitor, whilst the action is observed by his boyhood incarnation. Like many of his songs, “Come Dancing” nostalgically hearkens back to some lost post-war wonderland… until a series of huge distorted power chords rip the song apart. We cut from the young Davies strumming a tennis racket in his bedroom to the grown-up rock star Ray. In the final frame Davies—in spiv costume—angrily rips down a Kinks poster, seemingly making clear that it was Davies’ generation that destroyed his childhood world. Yet, those power chords are an uncanny echo of “You Really Got Me.” A lost moment is being mourned, but is it 1946 or 1966?

Paul Young – Love of the Common People
Released: November 19, 1983
UK Chart Peak: #2

“Love of the Common People” isn’t all that bad. But there is something wrong. Paul Young has the same sort of musical energy as Orange Juice, but it’s an energy gone sour. Listen to the lyrics: “Daddy’s gonna buy you a dream to cling to.” Much like Thatcher’s own line (“There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families”), this celebration of faith and family leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.

Black Lace – Do the Conga
Released: November 24, 1984
UK Chart Peak: #10

Generally remembered as a horrific novelty act, Black Lace’s series of dance routine themed hits have become wedding disco perennials firmly embedded in the fabric of British life. There’s something loveably archaic about the video. From the businessmen in pin stripes to the oversized northern matriarchs, the video accidentally captures an innocent side of the pier bawdiness that soon disappeared almost completely.

Pet Shop Boys – West End Girls
Released: November 23, 1985
UK Chart Peak: #1

The metaphor is writ large, Chris Lowe is literally see-through. Pale and ghostly, the duo stalk a purgatorial London—Neil Tennant suited and serious, Lowe scruffy and inscrutable. Upon the Lenin referencing line (“From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station”) we see cars flying past a group of protesters unable to share in Britain’s free market future. Cold and desolate, it captures a city in limbo—a moment after empire but before Starbucks and Subway.

The Housemartins – Five Get Over Excited
Released: March 23, 1987
UK Chart Peak: #11

In the popular consciousness, The Smiths—above all—represent the “other” eighties. Sure, it was a grim decade of disillusionment and disenfranchisement, but Morrissey would have been disillusioned and disenfranchised whenever he’d been born. The Housemartins, on the other hand, offered a more localized reaction to the decade. These badly dressed northerners (and southerner Norman Cook) ooze a stoic sarcasm, poking fun at the booming Londoncentric world of cappuccino cool.

Neneh Cherry – Buffalo Stance
Released: December 10, 1988
UK Chart Peak: #3

OK, Neneh Cherry isn’t British—but she did adopt a faux London accent, so we’ll count it. The reason this track ends this list is simple: its anti-materialistic hook seems to signal an end to the greed that characterized the 80s. It’s a record that seems to suggest a better future—and a diverse national identity. Whether this ever came to pass is highly debatable, that this is a truly classic piece of pop is not. The magic of pop is its ability to conjure possible new worlds. This song, and a number of others on this list, have that quality in abundance.

By: Paul Scott
Published on: 2006-11-30
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