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Twenty Alternative British Anthems (Part Two)

These days, there is a plethora of lists. Wherever you find them – on television, in magazines, even on Amazon.com – they always reek of a lazy, self-serving, inexpensive mission to provoke utterly trivial debate. I dread the inevitable day when an independent production company makes a show called ‘The Top 100 Lists’, in which we will see ‘Top 100 Celebrity Catfights’ vying with ‘Top 100 Sporting Cock-ups’ for the ranking of most entertaining list of all time. The show should itself be hosted by the Top 5 of list presenters, which for me would involve:

5. Angus Deayton
4. David Letterman
3. Alan Carr
2. Jimmy Carr
1. A Ford Ka (with welded doors and Jeremy Clarkson trapped inside)

Listing is a disease. Just because Nick Hornby wrote some good books, it does not make his predilection for listing okay. Worse still, listing is infectious. Even when there are official rankings, people insist on debating their own unofficial rankings. Nature abhors a vacuum, and lists seem to be nature’s first choice for filling a vacuum with meaningless chatter. I once had a perfectly good game of snooker ruined by lists. Snooker is a quiet game, with no need for endless chatter. Part of the reason for going to a snooker hall is that it is one place where you can have a late night drink whilst enjoying some peace and quiet. However, my competitor insisted on repeatedly asking me how I would rank the top ten male tennis players in the world. Or the top ten female tennis players. Or the top ten racing car drivers of all time. Or the top ten root vegetables. After a while, I found myself contemplating the top ten methods of suicide. Then I reconsidered, and thought about the top ten methods for homicide. If my fellow player was intending to engender good conversation, he failed miserably. If he was trying to put me off my game, he succeeded wonderfully. No, it takes a brave and resolute man to resist the temptation to fill up useful space with useless lists. I am neither of those things, so here is the continuation and completion of the list I started last week: the top alternative British anthems.

10. Kaiser Chiefs – Never Miss a Beat

In their short careers so far, the Kaiser Chiefs have shown an uncanny ability to graft downbeat polemical poetry to upbeat post-punk. There were several songs that could have been on this list. ‘I Predict a Riot’ (Watching the people get lairy/ Is not very pretty I tell thee) characterized the claustrophobic feeling of being in a town spinning out of control. However, it was not very topical – they were no riots around the time of release (although if there were, chances are the song would have been shelved until a less controversial time). ‘The Angry Mob’ (We Are The Angry Mob/ We Read The Papers Everyday/ We Like Who Like/ We Hate Who He Hate/ But We’re Also Easily Swayed) carved through the hysteria that abounds in modern life. Even The Sun admitted it was “a clever, accessible pop song”. There are others too, but I am going to select the recent hit ‘Never Miss a Beat’. It perfectly captures the disenfranchised, disenchanted, and dystopian worldview of many young people, whilst speaking a language that could have been taken word-for-word from conversations held up and down Britain every day.

9. Billy Bragg – God’s Footballer

Sadly, I couldn’t find a link to this sublime song, part homage, part homily, about Peter Knowles (brother of better-known Cyril Knowles of Tottenham Hotspur). Peter Knowles gave up his football career at Wolverhampton Wanderers in order to devote himself to his religious beliefs. Bragg, in a beautiful folk tune, tells us the story of a man who “scores goals on a Saturday, and saves souls on a Sunday”. Without wanting to sound blasphemous, it is almost a hymn to the beautiful game, whilst still reminding us that there is more to life. The tune can be found on Bragg’s 1991 album, ‘Don’t Try This At Home’.

Bragg, an Essex boy well known for his punk, politics and protesting, has written several other songs that could have made this list. As I could not find a link to my preferred choice, I thought I might as well pick a better singer than Bragg as well. This video features Kirsty MacColl, doing her cover of Bragg’s ‘New England’. The line “it’s wrong to wish on space hardware” is alone enough to earn this song an honourable mention.

8. PJ Harvey – Sheela Na Gig

Despite rumours to the contrary, even Brits have sex. They just have their own, peculiarly British, way of being messed up about it. It takes a bold songwriter to thrust straight for the sexual jugular. PJ Harvey deserves double praise, not just for eviscerating the ambiguous and sometimes misogynistic British attitudes to female sexuality, but also by drawing upon a metaphor with historic and national connotations to do so. A Sheela Na Gig is a form of carving found on churches all over the British Isles. However, the carvings are not what you might expect to find on a church: they depict crouching women, holding their vulvas open for public display. The symbolism is perfect for a story about how some find female sexuality both compelling and repulsive at the same time.

7. Radiohead – Creep

I needed to find the male yang to PJ Harvey’s female yin. That was not easy. Where would I look for a song that offered an alternative view of British male sexuality? I was looking for a song that confirmed that the boys were no less screwed up about sex than the girls. The Smiths were already on my list, and they were more interested in romance than sex. Then I remembered one band who had done so much to change the soundscape. They made it possible for the Coldplays and Snow Patrols to become worldwide stars, but we should not hold that against them. And this song was such an enormous hit, it guaranteed they could do whatever they like with the rest of their career. The only question is whether it is British or not. Radiohead is British, but is this song? To be truthful, I cannot tell. Take a look at the video, which shows Radiohead’s performance at Glastonbury in 1997. The crowd, drenched from torrential rain during the two days beforehand, are not just part of a sing-a-long. They are part of a sing-a-longing. I was lucky enough to be there, at what some journo decided to list as one of the ‘top 10 Glastonbury performances’. Thinking about that place and time, my only answer is that ‘Creep’ is universal, and eternal (but I still want it in my list).

6. David Bowie – Life on Mars

Long before the BBC came along and cashed in on a song by naming a series after it, there was a song. The title, and melody, hint at the outer-worldly themes so common in Bowie’s music. The lyrics, in contrast, depict a brutal crushing reality, that provokes the subject into craving escape. Bowie paints a masterpiece in urban misery – look at those cavemen go… look at the law man beating on the wrong guy… Rule Britannia is out of bounds…

‘Life on Mars’ is perhaps the most British of all Bowie’s songs in terms of ethos. However, the history of the composition is international. In 1968, Bowie was asked to write English lyrics for a French song called ‘Comme D’Habitude’, but before Bowie’s version was released, Canadian songwriter Paul Anka acquired the rights to the music. He wrote his own English-language version, especially for one very particular star. The resulting recording was Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. Bowie, disappointed on missing out, wrote ‘Life on Mars’ as semi-parody, semi-revenge. Bowie admits as much in this interview.

The songs have much in common, in terms of chords and melody. But whilst Sinatra’s hit was uniquely Sinatra and American, Bowie’s was uniquely Bowie – and British.

5. Elton John – Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)

Bowie was not alone when it came to singing about cavemen. Long before the Happy Mondays and their 24-hour party people celebration of debauchery, before Lily Allen decided it was cool to get drunk whilst handing out awards at ceremonies (see here), and before her dad had penned such memorable lyrics as ‘Eng-er-land’ and ‘Vind-er-loo’ (hmmm – I see a connection), Elton John and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin had come up with the ultimate in hooligan anthems. Everything else became an anti-climax the moment the lad Elton started banging on his joanna and belting out lyrics like: “a couple of the sounds that I really like/ Are the sounds of a switchblade and a motorbike/ I’m a juvenile product of the working class/ Whose best friend floats in the bottom of a glass”. He may be short, ugly, gay, balding, and getting on, but my money says the man born Reg Dwight would take the combined Allens in a fight – any place, any time (but especially on a Saturday night).

4. Arctic Monkeys – I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor

Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys has already marked himself as a songwriting talent that only comes along once in a generation. His songs resonate with stories mature beyond his years. They communicate an unsentimental realism, expressed in a vernacular that is defiant in its authenticity. Having written so many good songs already, it was hard to choose which one to include here. Listen again to their first hit, a song that collides a thousand truths in three minutes.

3. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Oliver’s Army

Costello’s passionate love affair with song writing continues to echo on, but he is best remembered for this landmark tune. ‘Oliver’s Army’ was written after Costello visited Belfast in the late 1970’s. It criticizes the British Army for targeting disadvantaged young men, who upon leaving secondary school were confronted with a stark choice between boot camp or dole queue. It is typical of Costello to bridge a multitude of associations. The song’s title refers to Oliver Cromwell’s puritan New Model Army, whilst the lyrics refer to trouble spots across the world, such as apartheid-era South Africa. Pulling no punches, the song includes the lyric “Only takes one itchy trigger/ One more widow, one less white nigger.” It is an anthem, a lesson about socio-economic realities, and a cracking pop classic. What a great way to subvert the nation – stinging political satire served up on Top of the Pops.

2. The Jam – That’s Entertainment

Other than for the money, why does The Enemy bother? Anything they do, Weller & co. have done already – and better. Whether bemoaning the ‘Town Called Malice’ or castigating the snobs of ‘The Eton Rifles’ who heckled unemployed demonstrators, The Jam were grit, were Brit, were real and original. If you are going to copy them, you might as well be a tribute band. If you’re going to claim to be a fan, like Tory leader David Cameron, you should be moved by the words as well as the tune. In ‘The Eton Rifles’, Paul Weller wrote about class division, a point seemingly lost on Cameron, the ex-Etonian. To be fair to PM-in-waiting, Jam bassist Bruce Foxton sent his own son to be educated at Eton, so class division is not what it used to be. Amongst the jewels Weller’s songwriting talent, the finest is ‘That’s Entertainment’. Harrowing and beautiful, you cannot help be moved by its message of the grim acceptance of a life of urban decay and destitution.

1. Pulp – Common People

Can a song get any more British than this? Forget the jingoistic fervour that surrounds Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches. Forget God Save the Queen. This is the song that should be used to close out the Last Night of the Proms. Jarvis Cocker’s composition has everything that is good about British music. It is poppy, and lyrical. It is witty, and intelligent. It is bright, and caustic. It is personal, political, introspective and fun. You can dance to it, or ponder its meaning. It tells the story of a boy meeting a girl, and the story of a meeting between privilege and poverty. Ultimately, it does more than just defend the common people from the class tourist it depicts. This song ennobles the ‘Common People’. It tells how they “…dance and drink and screw/ Because there’s nothing else to do” to a eurodisco beat that might encourage anyone to dance, drink or screw. Like the characters he sings of, Jarvis’ song is a triumph that transforms the mundane into the magnificent. Instead of being downtrodden, the common people are the heroes of this song, with their appetite for life never quenched.

Noel Coward once remarked that it was “extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. Pulp’s classic celebrates the potency of the common people of Britain, and that is why it is my number one. Feel free to get up and bop around the room when you play this video. I know I will.

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