But the one that really tickled me was in 1981, when—in the guise of Creative Recording and Sound Services, which acronyms as C.R.A.S.S.—they persuaded Loving, a mushy romantic magazine aimed at young women, to run a special offer for the free flexi-single “Our Wedding.” Sung by Joy De Vivre, the band’s second female singer, to the accompaniment of strings, church organ and wedding bells, this supposed celebration of marriage was really a sardonic poker-faced expose of matrimony as mutual bondage: “Listen to those wedding bells/Say goodbye to other girls”; “Never look at anyone/Must be all you see.” Hundreds wrote in for the flexi before the prank was revealed in a newspaper article. Talking to NME in June 1981, the band’s Penny Rimbaud railed at Loving-type magazines as “obscene and despicable rags” peddling “teenage pornography” that “trivialized love and relationships.” “Our Wedding” later appeared on their 1981 No. 1 indie-chart album Penis Envy.
Green carried his “linguistic turn” through to Scritti’s next phase of pop crossover, with deconstructed love-songs like “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” (which vows to look behind “the strongest words in each belief”) and the huge UK hit single “The Word Girl.” But as with deconstruction in the academy, this abstruse close-work seems to have little to say about the world outside the text. Scritti’s domain became the politics of and inside pop, rather than bringing real-world politics into pop.
Pop picked up on these currents of anxiety with a string of songs about nuclear war. Kate Bush’s disturbing, if overwrought, 1980 single “Breathing” described “chips of plutonium” penetrating the bloodstream shared by a pregnant mother and her unborn child. Young Marble Giants’ “Final Day” was a hauntingly still and soft vignette—somehow more terrifying for its brevity—about our compliance and complicity in the madness of mutual deterrence. Despite the melodramatic title, UB40’s hit “The Earth Dies Screaming” was even more chillingly subdued: its dread bass and funereal pace turned the atmosphere ashen in the Top of the Pops studio.
The sleeves of its numerous 12-inch mixes resembled my school project, caked in data and diagrams about what a superpower showdown would entail for short-term lethality and long-term species-extinction. (A stylish chart totted up the death toll in categories ranging from nuclear winter and famine to disease and psychological trauma.) Yet as ZTT’s conceptualist Paul Morley noted wryly, “Two Tribes” was replaced, after two months atop the charts, by George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” Nothing changed, not even in pop, let alone in the outside world.
During the 1983 general election, while still a student, I did some canvassing for the Labour Party: a door-to-door, unswayable voter to unswayable voter trudge so discouraging it permanently soured me on the front-line grunt-work that’s the dreary, but indispensable, essence of political involvement. In the years between Labour’s resounding defeat and the next election in 1987, a cluster of prominent left-wing musicians—Billy Bragg, Paul Weller of The Style Council, Jimmy Somerville of the Communards—formed an organization to mobilise the youth vote: Red Wedge. That name made aesthetes like me recoil. (Although the phrase’s provenance turned out to be supercool—the title of a 1919 propaganda poster by Soviet modernist El Lissitzky—it probably sounded a lot better in Russian).
Me and my kind were also turned off by the overall aura of well-meaning worthiness that clung to the Red Wedge project, the demeaning use of music as a mere vehicle. But by this point – I’d started writing for the UK weekly paper Melody Maker - I had become persuaded that politics in pop was a busted flush anyway. To me, the only artistically potent expressions of the political in late ‘80s music were expressions of impotence: the flailing rage of World Domination Enterprises; the dissident defiance of The Smiths; the despondency of The Mekons. (Well, there’s also Public Enemy, but that’s a whole other knotty story).
I’m only there for the first night—by the time I get back to London, still blissed and babbling to anyone who’ll listen, Castlemorton is a front page story in all the papers and the lead item on the TV news. Questions are asked in Parliament about what should be done to end the menace of nomadic ravers who could descend in hordes on any genteel village in the country, inflicting their noise and outlandish dress sense upon the powerless locals. Rumors abound of hairy, smelly travelers taking a dump in the front gardens of Castlemorton residents, or trying to sell drugs to local children.
Spiral Tribe, canny media operators and aspiring martyrs, take all the credit and all the blame. All 13 members of the techno party crew are prosecuted for conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, in a long drawn-out case that will cost the public 4 million pounds but end in acquittal. For the truth is that there were no ring-leaders behind Castlemorton: its mass confluence was a viral happening, a swarming that anticipated the flash mobs of digital days to come and that spiraled way larger than the instigators had anticipated.