Britain was THE great exporter of the world from the Manchester cotton mills which were reputed to plume with smoke and factories that were deafening to work in, Sheffield would lay claim to the steel industry and London, the centre of the Empire, was and still is a bustling hotbed of creativity and innovation.
Being the first industrialised country, Britain was ahead of many of its counterparts and many flocked to the country for work and to be part of this dynamic part of the world, and where the action lie.
Elected in the late 70s, Thatcher went ahead with her notion of exporting as much of the industry that created Britain’s wealth overseas, or just dismantling it. This time will be noted for posterity by the bands that emerged from this era such as The Smiths, Joy Division, The Pogues and the like. They all painted a picture of a gloomy Britain, one that was oppressed by Thatcherism and council estates ran rife with poverty. You can still see the remnants of this past in many S.Yorkshire areas which still haven’t recovered from the era of the Miner’s Strikes in the mid 80s. The songs and the culture surrounding that decade defined Britain at the time and when I go abroad performing shows and tell them I’m from England, people are still enamoured by the songs and culture of this era.
There were many things that Thatcher wouldn’t dare try to privatise, some of which were the dole (welfare) and the NHS. The bands from this era, up to The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays in the late 80s/early 90s, have all mentioned that they wouldn’t be where they were if it wasn’t for the dole. The dole at that time offered some sort of respite for artists and musicians who were between jobs or even touring as you could sign on at any jobcentre across the country. I’ve even heard personal accounts of organising tours making sure you could sign on in a jobcentre along the way.
In ’97 there was a new wave of optimism in Britain and after nearly two decades of Tory rule, a Labour government rose to power.
I was only 10 at the time and I remember a sense of optimism in the air, briefly. Such things as child tax credit, minimum wages were introduced transforming the lives of everyone. Or everyone who lived on my street. It seems ludicrous to think back that Noel Gallagher entered Downing Street to speak to Tony Blair about launching a new type of benefit which if you were a musician, it enabled you a certain amount of flexibility and freedom whilst getting your benefits. This is the first time a government has accepted that there isn’t such a thing as an apprenticeship into the arts, just hard graft and time. I’ve encountered a couple of people who are 10 years older than me who have benefited from this.
Blair’s government began to export culture as Britain’s new identity. ‘Cool’ Britannia was the new image, where we exported a notion that Britain was where it was ‘happening’, and it was. Where once we made ships and cars for the world we would now flog Britpop and Lara Croft.
I would be one of the last generations of people to make a living out of music by building myself up from the dole, as times were easier 5-10 years ago. I make no bones about this or hide this fact, you need a certain amount of time to create, which a ‘normal’ job wouldn’t allow for a full-time creative project. I wonder where the flourish of British music will come from now as it’s impossible to juggle the benefit system with a music career. Even Arts Council grants are being slashed. I read an article once where in the early 90s around 70% of music in the charts were musicians from working class backgrounds, in the mid noughties, under 40%. There is a definite correlation here. Times aren’t so optimistic as they were in ’97 for creatives.
But perhaps in these times of immense uncertainly under Brexit, the idea that hard times bring great art might be the only silver lining…however, that’s if we choose to make it.
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