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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Re-writing music history

John Harris writes in today's Guardian about how the Tories are trying to claim the music of anti-Thatcher bands of the 1980s for themselves. He starts by recalling events from January this year when David Cameron visited Salford:

On January 10 this year, David Cameron was in the north-west, visiting a youth project in Salford, Greater Manchester. On the face of it, the trip chimed with his passion for "social enterprise", but as Cameron well knew, his destination was a local holy-of-holies: Salford Lads Club, the local Victorian landmark where the Smiths were photographed in 1986 for the inside cover of their finest album, The Queen Is Dead. In PR terms, the visit was thus a "twofer": a chance for Cameron not only to push the new compassionate Toryism, but to once again yak on about one of his supposedly favourite rock groups and thus remind us that the Conservative party is now groovier than anyone could have imagined.

The plan was for him to have his photo taken in front of the building à la the Smiths, but the local Labour party got wind of the script, and dispatched a pack of activists to foil him. Their placards featured such slogans as "Salford Lads not Eton snobs" and "Oi Dave - Eton Toffs' club is 300 miles that way", and they would not be moved, so Cameron went home without his snap.

The photo-opportunity was more than a moment of nostalgia on Cameron's part however:

In the two and a bit years since he became Conservative leader - in fact, since he crash-landed in frontline politics circa 2004 - Cameron has taken a leaf out of the Tony Blair manual, and underlined his iconoclastic approach to politics by going on and on about the music he likes. The names he has dropped have included the Nevadan indie-rockers the Killers ("very good and quite energetic"), the Georgia-born songstress Katie Melua ("cheesy", but also "brilliant"), and the snore-inducing sub-Coldplay troupe Snow Patrol ("excellent"). The iPod bought for him in 2005 by his wife Samantha apparently includes music by Johnny Cash, U2, the reggae maestros Sly and Robbie, and the rotund guitar-pop quartet the Magic Numbers. When he was on Desert Island Discs in June 2006, his selections included tunes by Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd.

Most of the above names are either avowedly apolitical, bereft of any substantial content or in thrall to the Bono school of messianic non-politics, but some of the music Cameron affects to like sits in a rather more awkward place. He praises the Smiths for their "brilliant" lyrics; while he was at Eton, he says the music of the Jam "meant a lot"; his initial shortlist for Desert Island Discs included Kirsty MacColl's version of A New England, written by Billy Bragg. At one time or another, all of them were leaders of a subculture that pitted a good deal of British rock music against the party Cameron now leads, but he swats away that incongruity with the same blithe confidence he has used to remarket the Tories as zealous environmentalists and friends of the poor. "I don't see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs," he says, and that seems to be that.

As Paul Weller asks, which part doesn't Cameron get?
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