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6 subversive songs about the UK

BY Priscille Biehlmann

2nd Dec 2022 Music

6 subversive songs about the UK

From the Proclaimers and U2 to the Arctic Monkeys and Lowkey, these are some of the greatest protest anthems about the UK

The UK has a rich history of subversive songwriting. Sometimes subtle, sometimes funny and sometimes unashamedly partisan, these songs have the rare gift of reflecting social history as it’s happening.

Here are six of the best from the last century:

"The Manchester Rambler" by Ewan MacColl (1932)

Black and white image of folk singer Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl wrote this folk tune shortly after participating in the 1932 Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout, when hundreds of working women and men defiantly walked up privately-owned moorland in the Peak District to protest against restricted access of open countryside.

Several of the protesters were arrested after altercations with the gamekeepers, and the event became an important symbolic moment in England’s “Right to Roam” movement. MacColl’s song, and its lyrics pointing out the absurdity of aristocratic ownership of mountains and moorlands, became its lasting anthem:

“He said ‘All this land is my master's
At that I stood shaking my head
No man has the right to own mountains
Any more than the deep ocean bed”

But the most powerful refrain of the song is in the chorus, which stands up for working women and men (like MacColl himself) in all contexts:

“I may be a wage-slave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday”

 

"Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2 (1983)

Back cover of the U2 single Sunday Bloody Sunday depicting the band

This one is an obvious choice, as it’s often cited not only as one of the greatest protest songs of all time, but one of the greatest songs of all time too. The lyrics describe the shock felt by an onlooker of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland, where British troops shot and killed unarmed protesters—an act which took the British government almost 40 years to admit was “unjustified.”

The band members have made a point of saying the song’s message is against sectarian violence in all its forms, not just in Northern Ireland. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr once said of the song: “I don't care who's who—Catholics, Protestants, whatever. You know, people are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we're saying: why? What's the point?”

"U2 have made a point of saying 'Sunday Bloody Sunday's message is against sectarian violence in all its forms"

The senselessness and endlessness of the Troubles in particular (which lasted almost 30 years and finally abated through a peace deal that still feels precarious) is pretty specifically captured in some of the lyrics, though:

“There's many lost, but tell me who has won?
How long, how long must we sing this song?”

 

"English Girl" by Sister Audrey (1984)

The upbeat melody of “English Girl” doesn’t distract from its scathing lyrics, which express disappointment at the broken promises made to the Windrush Generation, who arrived in the UK from then-British colonies in the Caribbean in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies:

“My mother, my father too
If only they knew
For the promises of work and pay
Were only part way true”

"Sister Audrey's scathing lyrics express disappointment at the broken promises made to the Windrush Generation"

The harshest words come when Sister Audrey laments that even after 40 years in the UK, some people were still required to submit documentation to prove their legal status—which was impossible in many cases, as the Home Office had never issued them proper paperwork in the first place:

“They said, 'come on over here
We’ve got plenty of work to share'
And now forty years later
We must go and get some papers”

 

"Cap in Hand" by the Proclaimers (1988)

The band the Proclaimers standing by the sea shouting into megaphonesThe Proclaimers by Murdo MacLeod 2012

Leith brothers Craig and Charles Reid blend humour with rage in this one, to add another voice in favour of the long-suffering cause for Scottish independence. Unsurprisingly, the song had a revival during the 2014 Independence Referendum, becoming an unofficial anthem of the Yes campaign:

“I can tell the difference between margarine and butter
I can say 'Saskatchewan' without starting to stutter
But I can't understand why we let someone else rule our land, cap in hand”

“We fight, when they ask us
We boast, then we cower
We beg for a piece of
What's already ours, what's already ours, what's already ours”

The lyrics echo the sentiment expressed by Scottish poet Robert Burns almost 200 years earlier in “A Parcel of Rogues in a Nation”, which condemns Scottish politicians who essentially agreed to give up the nation’s independence in exchange for a few hundred thousand pounds:

“What force or guile could not subdue
Through many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor's wages.”

In both cases, the writers reserve their most fervent exasperation for their fellow Scotsmen, who passively accept British rule with their “cap in hand.”

 

"Riot Van" by the Arctic Monkeys (2007)

Like all the best Arctic Monkeys tracks, “Riot Van” sounds like pure teenage delinquency. The lyrics mock “those silly boys in blue” who seem to stop kids for no reason in particular, capturing the most universal subversiveness of all: teenagers pushing back against authority—especially the kind they deem useless.

In his quintessentially Yorkshire accent, frontman Alex Turner describes a scene between what sounds like a group of shady adolescent boys and a pair of policemen:

“'Have you been drinking, son?
You don't look old enough to me'
'I'm sorry, officer
Is there a certain age you're supposed to be?'”

But behind the cheeky tone, the band hints at something more politically poignant—perhaps chasing harmless adolescent loiters isn’t the very best use of public resources:

“And these lads just wind the coppers up
They ask why they don't catch proper crooks
They get their address and their names took”

They have a point.

 

"Ghosts of Grenfell" by Lowkey feat. Mai Khalil (2017)

The rapper Lowkey recording in the studio and wearing headphones

This song pays tribute to the 72 people who died in the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017. Written as a letter to “whom it may concern, at the Queen's Royal Borough of Kensington in Chelsea,” it lists every single victim by name, demanding that those responsible for the tragedy be held to account:

“We're calling for arrests made and debts paid
In true numbers known for the families who kept faith
We're calling for safety in homes of love"

"'Ghosts of Grenfell' lists every single victim by name, demanding that those responsible for the tragedy be held to account."

A public inquiry revealed that the tower’s combustible cladding, made by companies that knew the dangers it posed, was the main reason why the fire spread. As of 2022, no convictions have been made.

Banner photo credit: The Proclaimers by Murdo MacLeod 2012

Read more: The evolution of music: the music revolution of the 1960s

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