If Britain was to select a new anthem, how would it go? Probably, thanks to a combination of political meddling and Eurovision-style voting by the public, it would be sung by Ant and Dec backed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra whilst featuring Brian May on guitar and Myleene Klass on piano. The lyrics would go on and on about how great and glorious and happy we all are (with no mentions of crushing rebellious Scots, unlike some versions of the ‘God Save the Queen’). The music would be written by a partnership between Noel Gallacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber, whilst the recording would be produced by Brian Eno, and promoted by Simon Cowell. It would begin with a hymn sung in Welsh by Charlotte Church, have a drum solo from Phil Collins in the middle, and would end with a choir of schoolchildren from deprived neighbourhoods, meant to represent the nation’s future, struggling to be heard over a swell of trumpets and timpani. And it would be crap.
The worst thing about British music is that we cannot applaud what is best about it. The best thing about British music is how it offers a medium for storytelling. Those stories are vivid, passionate and true. That means they often celebrate the dismal, champion the underdog and endorse the mundane. Over the decades, British songwriter after songwriter has found a way to entertain, emote and educate in a uniquely British way. This is the first half of my opinionated and ill-qualified run-down of the very best alternative British anthems.
20. Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip – Thou Shalt Always Kill
This was a rap by two improbable-looking white guys that lists the new rules for a distinctly modern polite society. It was also a viral hit that turned its creators from unknowns to break-throughs. I loved it, and so did many other people. This hit was genuinely created by the internet – as opposed to being a slick piece of internet distribution from existing stars (real or manufactured). The boys even made a fantastic video that spurred the YouTube hit rate. DLS vs. SP showed that British talent comes by being eccentric, eclectic, witty and intelligent, all at the same time. Would a band from any other country want to tell you how to spell “Phoenix”? (or “Pheonix”, as they would have it).
19. Travis – Why Does It Always Rain on Me?
Travis reached their personal peak of melodic miserablism with this number. Using the weather as a metaphor for life, “…the tunnel at the end of all these lights… is it because I lied when I was seventeen?…” they summed up the spirit of a nation that suffered a thousand rainy playtimes. Perhaps it was during those drawn-out afternoons that the band learned to strum their guitars. Whatever the explanation, the Scots band with the confusing name did Britain proud with this tune.
18. Pet Shop Boys – West End Girls
‘West End Girls’ is the ultimate hybrid of electro-pop and social commentary. The Pet Shop Boy’s first hit was about the collision of money, sex and class in old London town. It is a sublime creation – synthetic and poetic at once. There is something remarkable about overlaying a great dance tune with a wry analysis of the people on the dancefloor. If it had been written by an American, it would have been Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’. Need I say more?
17. Hard-Fi – Stars of CCTV
A rousing theme about petty criminals posing for those closed-circuit television cameras that have taken over British town centres? With this hit, Hard-Fi made a strong case for inclusion in the “only in Britain” category.
16. Asian Dub Foundation – Free Satpal Ram
This song stands as proof, if you still needed it, that a British sensibility about fairness and justice pervades the British people, wherever their ancestors came from. Speaking up for the case of Satpal Ram, a man imprisoned for defending himself after an alleged mistrial, this thumping tune namechecks the other miscarriages of justice of the era, including the plight of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four. The mix of musical forebears for this song is as diverse as multicultural Britain. But the message – demanding justice for all – is one that resonates down British history.
15. Chumbawamba – Tubthumping
The Yorkshire anarcho-wallies Chumbawamba had a lot of moments, some good, mostly bad. Reinventing themselves on a regular basis, mostly to avoid getting real jobs, they went (and seemingly continue to go) through numerous incarnations. When they focused their attention on lyrics and politics, they were truly awful. ‘Homophobia’ (“the worst disease”) and the subtle-as-a-brick-thrown-through-a-strikebreaking-miner’s-car-window ‘Love Me’ (“love me love me I’m a Liberal”) stand out as two low points in a career that plumbed such extraordinary depths that they eventually named a Pacific trench after the band (probably). However, when Chumbawamba briefly stopped ranting, and got the seeming hundreds of their band members to all play at once, they had a canny talent for booming, rousing, blockbusting anthems. In one glorious accident of sell-out capitalism crashing head-on with Chumbawamba’s maudlin sensibilities and big-band capabilities, they delivered the hit ‘Tubthumping’ on major label EMI. The track managed to sound totally apolitical, and there was even a special series of dance moves created for the teenyboppers at Top of the Pops. For once, though, Chumbawamba’s rhetoric was subtle enough to slip under the rader, thanks no small amount to a driving pop tune. The song actually celebrates the working-class, and their ability to enjoy life despite all its hardships. In a brief blaze of glory, the band used their one appearance at the Brit Awards to become the first music act to dismiss New Labour as sell-outs (for not supporting the striking dockworkers in Liverpool) and take a very direct pop at John Prescott (by throwing water over him). So, in some ways, they turned out to be ahead of their time. Though short-lived, their moment of glory was uniquely British. In this video, the ultra-lefties find themselves flogging their corporate wares on David Letterman’s show – but they still manage to slip in a rant:
14. The Pretenders – Brass in Pocket
This could be a controversial choice, with Chrissie Hynde being an American, but I think it deserves inclusion because of the all the British colloquialisms she threw into the lyrics. Like the words, the song is bold and brassy. Hynde could be talking on behalf of thousands of women, all over the country, as they ready themselves for a Friday night out.
13. The The – This Is The Day
Matt Johnson, main man, and often the only man in the oddly-named ‘The The’ was not a man afraid to sing about the big topics. His cannon covered all the major bases: death, love, God, and war. He railed against Thatcher’s Britain in the ‘Beaten Generation’, sang about warplanes in the Middle East and worried about his homeland turning into the 51st state of the USA. His best song was one of his earliest. It centres on one man’s story, but it could be any man’s story of modern-day angst: ‘you didn’t wake up this morning because you didn’t go to bed, you were watching the whites of your eyes turn red, the calendar on your wall is ticking… you could have done anything, if you’d wanted, and all your friends and family think that you’re lucky…” Johnson’s lyrical quirks and obsessions make his music quintessentially British, though in a twist of fate, he now makes his home in the US.
12. The Smiths – There is a Light That Never Goes Out
Morrisey and Marr’s fruitful partnership generated more than its fair share of classics. This number has all the unique Smiths’ hallmarks of love and despair. ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ is a fatalistic romance that mixes its gothic vision with images of an urban reality composed of double-decker buses and darkened underpasses. It is a uniquely British song from a uniquely British band. What else could one expect from a band called ‘The Smiths’?
11. The Beatles – A Day In The Life
Lennon and McCartney’s collective odyssey transports us from mundane to mystic by way of crescendos and a bus ride. He didn’t notice that the lights had changed… four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire… I’d love to turn you on… found my way upstairs and had a smoke, and somebody spoke and I went into a dream… never could see any other way… this song is uniquely British, and utterly timeless.
That is the first half of my personal top twenty of alternative British anthems. Jump to the next post to see the rest.