In the early 1980s, Europe was like a vast well of inspiration that flooded the imagination of British youth. You could see it in the clothes, hear it in the music, and experience it (after a long ferry ride across the English Channel). With Brexit upon us, will British youth lose this connection? With a shuffle down memory lane, below are five of the more memorable recordings I recall that capture this spirit of Europe in the UK.
If any doubt remained whether Brexit would actually happen, the December 2019 British general election settled this question. It will happen. How vast will the changes be for those who inhabit the British Isles? Only time will tell how far the continent will feel in the future.
I think back to the early 1980s, when Europe provided British artists and musicians with an alternative well of inspiration. Punk was dead. The mod revival was running its commercial course. Meanwhile, the tone, rhythms and taste of continental Europe seemed lighter and more sophisticated than the brash and big-haired pronouncements coming from America. Consider the context. President Reagan's relationship with Margaret Thatcher emboldened her drive to slash and burn the welfare state. Meanwhile, Europeans were debating its expansion.
In 1986 British filmmaker Alex Cox was making his Nicaraguan political pastiche, Walker, in Spain. The Clash’s Joe Strummer was on set. He had a small part, as an actor, and a major one, scoring the soundtrack. Interviewed in the music press at the time, Strummer gushed how time spent in Spain is a reminder of how uptight and unhappy is life in Britain. To illustrate his point, he went on to describe how he had watched a couple ride by on a Vespa. The woman sat side-saddle and wearing no helmet. He was dumbfounded. This carefree attitude to safety would not do in the UK! He then went on to express how maybe the continent could teach those of us in Britain how to live.
Today, I am reminded how important European music, film, politics and fashion helped to shape the soundtrack of life in dreary Thatcher’s Britain. With exit from the European Union, will continental Europe fade as a source of inspiration? I hope not. British (and increasingly English) nationalism’s rise relies upon this idea that the British must regain control over their lives. European impositions on the UK are the source of the current unhappiness. Or that is how the narrative goes. And yet, how liberating will this nativism be?
From my experience as a student in London in the 1980s, not everyone finds inspiration from past imperial glories. In fact, class rigidity and insular obsessions for all things British cultivate a climate of repression, boredom, and a desire to break out and create something new. So much of the post-World War II period has been devoted to breaking from the past, not wallowing in it.
This may explain why many of my mother's generation left for America in search of something new. An art student, she traveled by boat to New York City in 1960. Ironically, she left too soon. Once in the United States, she missed the eruption of youth culture and creativity that is epitomized by the Swinging London of the second-half of the decade. David Batty describes this cultural sea change beautifully in his remarkable 2018 film, My Generation, featuring Michael Caine.
For the first time, working class kids found a world of opportunity open to them. This resulted in the influx of new ideas and people entering higher education. Alex Seago's revealing book, Burning the Box of Beautiful Things, examines the pivotal role these new opportunities for students in British art schools had upon British popular music. Incubators for creativity, British pop art served as a gateway to an extremely creative rise in British pop music. Almost every rock and roll biography describes how “it began in art school.”
In the 1960s, young people encountered economic opportunity. They also wished to overthrow the old order (defined by class, tradition and war). Youth sought inspiration from new places: America brought jazz, rock and roll, Hollywood, and the idea of the teenager. Continental Europe also delivered a breath of fresh air through cinema, clothes, transport (think of Vespa and Lambretta) and a sense of lightness that, perhaps, can best be described as post-war optimism.
You can still observe it (albeit in a rather tired state of affairs) in the political project that is the European Union. Government funding for art, culture, and human development became important elements to the social contract. Perhaps, one of the better examples is the travel scholarship for students, called the Erasmus Program. In January 2020, questions remain as if and how British students will be able to participate in Erasmus in the future. To get a sense of how amazing is this European opportunity, watch the trailer for the 2002 French-Spanish film, L'Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment). Ah, the joys of carefree youth in Barcelona, courtesy of public funds!
While many British eyes were transfixed on America and Europe for inspiration, I grew up in the USA and attempted to follow trends in the UK (long before the internet made this easy). Aside from (and perhaps because of) summers with my family in England, I felt like I lived in exile. I knew UK tastes and sounds, but instead spent Friday nights watching Love, American Style on ABC television. This takes me back to the summer of 1976. I spent the USA Bicentennial at Opryland in Nashville, TN. It was red, white and blue fireworks, country music, and rollercoasters. One week later, I left for London to experience the decade’s famous heatwave of 1976 and to catch my first glimpse of punk rockers (milling about Kings Road, near my grandparents' home).
Later that year, NBC's Today Show aired a “shocking” report on the rise of British Punk rock. I remember assuring my parents that I would not become embroiled in that “filthy mess.” Hilariously, the opposite occurred. Spending my teenage years in New Orleans record stores (eventually as an employee), playing in bands and on college radio, I dove into punk head first. Soon, I became inspired by the rest of the New Wave, Mod, Electronica (not that we called it that then), New Romantics, Ska, etc.
At the time, it was difficult to tell which sounds were coming from New York versus London. All of it seemed exotic and far away. If it were not for New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Trouser Press, and then followed by a generation of fanzines and strange (and artful) publications to provide navigation, I would not have been able to decipher one musical lineage from another.
An avid collector of vinyl recordings, I came to learn how decentralized the pressings. The myriad of small labels that emerged reflects the independent scenes that had cropped up all over the place: From Manchester's Factory Records to London's Stiff or Rough Trade. But that was just the top of the pile. There was 2-Tone, Beggar's Banquet, Cherry Red, 4AD, Postcard, and not to mention a vast number of do-it-yourself label names that adorned the many punk and post-punk 45’s I still own. Biodiversity at its best!
One label stood out for me: Belgium's Les Disques du Crépuscule (French for twilight). Its roster of artists was eclectic — from The Skids's frontman, Richard Jobson, who recited poetry to the ambient jazz of the Duritti Column. No longer was punk, just punk. Rather, the cry to destroy had actually become a call to create. Just as the 1960s generation sought to overthrow the old order, punk was keen to keep this process moving. This is not to say that categories of music had disappeared. However, you did get the sense that it was open season on experimentation and appropriation (a term that now elicits so much controversy). Artists forged new edgy styles from the past with a new-found internationalism. Having experienced 30 years of globalization, this seems so obvious. But at the time, there was something new and light in the air.
This was why I became so curious about the Belgian record label. It was like a siren call to the English speaking world that there is a world of creativity and dialogue out there, and most of it is not spoken in English. What a revelation! At this same moment, the European Economic Community (EEC) was morphing into the European Union (EU). In London at the time, I remember more and fresher clementine oranges on fruit stands in London. French wines were always available, but not as plentiful and affordable as they came to become. In short, parts of the UK were becoming more European. The “old” England was disappearing. Chip shops, jellied eels, green grocers were disappearing. While the change was slow, you can hear it in the recordings. Some of the change was welcome (i.e., Hello Europe!), and some of it less so (i.e., the homogenization of daily retail and conglomeration of consumer choices). Today, I would be alarmed if I could find an actual independently-owned and operated cornershop in West London. I know they exist, but they are few in number (and now replaced with one of the big three grocers’ “locals.” But that is food. Let’s turn our ears to music.
The following playlist is meant to illustrate that I was not alone in noticing continental Europe as a breath of fresh air. The outreach to Europe for daring new looks, new sounds, and tastes was something that helped to shape fashion and music in the UK (and thanks to MTV, also in the USA) during the early 1980s. Today, as the United Kingdom seems entirely disunited, Europe is still calling. In 1980, whilst Margaret Thatcher’s budget was beginning to dismantle the post-war social contract, The Chords were singing about “The British Way of Life.” Today, lead singer Billy Hassett lives in Japan. Another influencer at the time was fanzine publisher, Eddie Piller. While he spent most of the 1980s with his ear to the ground in search of the next groove, by the 1990s, he had launched the remarkably successful and open-minded Acid Jazz recording label. Today, he has become a mainstay in broadcasting and film as a commentator about youth subcultures, entrepreneur and writer. Working as a DJ who travels all over the world spinning discs to audiences in search of the groove, he exemplifies that modernist inclination to embrace the future and a world of new influences. He regularly performs for large audiences in all corners of Europe (new and old).
Performed with singer Tracy Thorn (whose folk jazz duo, Everything But the Girl, with husband Ben Watt, also cultivated a continental vibe), “The Parish Match” is maybe the best example of this embrace of Europe. When Paul Weller disbanded The Jam in 1982 at the height of the band’s popularity, he quickly got to work on something new with Mod revival keyboardist Mick Talbot to form The Style Council (TSC). What I like about this track is the abandonment of the electric guitar. Together with big hair, the electric guitar had become a symbol of America's virile stand against communism. By contrast, “The Parish Match” and the rest of The Style Council’s LP Café Bleu’s sights and sounds embraced European gentleness. It was like a yearning for a different social contract (than what was being played out in the time of the miner’s strike). It was as if Paul Weller had understood that quiet was the new loud, almost 20 years before Norwegian duo, The Kings of Convenience, released their LP, Quiet Is the New Loud. The rest of Café Bleu is just as strong, with one track a particular standout: The ode to class struggle, “The Whole Point of No Return.” Years later, Weller recorded a new version with Robert Wyatt. Another TSC single that pays noticeable attention to Europe is 1985’s “The Walls Come Tumbling Down.” While the song itself is a polemic directed towards the British ruling class, the video was filmed in Warsaw (six-years before the fall of the wall). The video is a treat to watch: The street life, streetcars, and glum faces in a Poland still positioned behind the Iron Curtain.
Liverpool's The Pale Fountains channeled Burt Bacharach long before Elvis Costello recorded his album together with the master of 1960s orchestral pop. I first discovered them via the Les Disques du Crépuscule Christmas compilation. With great use of echo, the clean sound brings listeners to another time and space. The video makes great use of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, thus introducing a generation of youth to Jean Seberg, vintage Citröen DS21 cars, and a sense of style that seems far, far away from 1980s Britain. The Crépuscule recordings that really captured my imagination are of Scotland’s Richard Jobson (of The Skids). He introduced me to French novelist Marguerite Duras and musician Virginia Astley, whose piano and oboe accompaniment (performing the music of French surrealist composer Erik Satie and American songbook classic of the 1930s, “Stormy Weather”) rocked my world. Jobson went on to form the Armoury Show (with mixed results) and then as a broadcaster for the BBC and independent filmmaker produced 16 Years of Alcohol in 2004. The title track of his poetry LP, The Ballad of Etiquette is worth a listen.
Though Guildford’s Stranglers has never been accused of being youthful (with its formation harkening back to the early 1970s), the band’s references to and popularity in places far afield has always made it a link to life outside Britain. On its 1978 release, Black and White, “Outside Tokyo” pays homage to the band’s popularity in Japan and role supporting the rise of Japanese punk and new wave acts. However, the real surprise track is the ominous and hilarious track, “Sweden (All Quiet on the Eastern Front).” It describes how dull and free of conflict is Sweden, the beacon of European social democracy. Of course, that is a far cry from the UK at the time (endless strikes that led up to the 1979 “winter of our discontent” and the change of government that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. However, it is the title track of the 1983 release, La Folie, that really positions The Stranglers as singing to European audiences. At the time, the band’s following in continental Europe was growing. Sung in French, “La Folie” (the song) is a dreamy number. Its release was quickly followed up with the next LP, Feline. It contains the hit, “European Female,” and this one, “Let's Tango in Paris.” To put this into perspective, while The Stranglers were tangoing in Paris, Americans were rocking out to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
The Times were the brainchild of Ed Ball. To me, he has always seemed like a man out of time. Like Paul Weller, his obsessions with 1960s cultural symbols feature prominently in song. Think of the 1982 single, “I helped Patrick McGoohan Escape” about iconic anti-establishment television program, The Prisoner. However, unlike Weller, he has never achieved the success or credit he deserves. Despite joining Creation Records in the late 1980s, Ed Ball’s various versions of The Times never seemed to click with popular appeal (as label compatriots, Oasis, took over the charts). Needless to say, I remember how influential he was among 1980s Mods precisely for this reason. Like Weller, Ball was looking to Europe in 1984, when The Times released the LP, Hello Europe! Though not as strong of a release as the 1986 LP with Americana themes, Enjoy the Times, Hello Europe! captures the wonder of places most working class British youth at that point had only seen on television news: Belgium, France, Spain, etc. While sunny holidays in Spain were already a thing, it was nowhere like its techno/rave days of the late 1980s/early 1990s. When I began to notice Hello Europe! in record store bins, it was not so much of a surprise to see the EU flag figuring so prominently, so much as a logical sign of the times. It was as if to indicate that, yes, we too are ready to embrace Europe fully (a decade after Edward Heath’s Conservative government brought the UK into the European Economic Community). What interests me about this track, “Blue Fire,” is its abandonment of jangly guitar pop and embrace of European techno.
German electronic music worked its way into the British imagination in the 1970s via several avenues. The BBC’s excellent 2009 documentary, Synth Britannia, covers the topic well: From the influential Tangerine Dream, Can, and Kraftwerk’s to the British acts that soaked up an entirely new approach to music — Ultravox, Cabaret Voltaire, Heaven 17, David Bowie and Brian Eno (who were actually living in Germany), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), and Gary Numan. Curious debates persisted as to whether the use of any electric guitars nullified an electronic group’s devotion to the future or to progress. I love many of the recordings from this period and remember the sense of relief that popular music need not fit the virile formula of guitars, bass and drum. In particular, I remember how Ultravox captured the cinematic longing for Europe with the video for the hit, "Vienna." Though I prefer the early (John Foxx) era of the group, the song and film channel Europe beautifully. It also opened up a space for an androgyny not seen this the hey-day of Glam. Think of the New Romantics and Boy George. However, two recordings stand out for me precisely because they also capture the paranoia of this age of machines: The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” (later recorded magnificently by Grace Jones) and Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric?” Both recordings channel British speculative fiction novelist J.G. Ballard and his dystopian glimpses into the structural violence that hides behind the relative safety of modern life. For Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army, the LP Replicas captures a detached fear for the future. Though we did not know it at the time, Numan has discussed his Aspergers syndrome quite openly. But there is more: While everyone at the time described Numan as a David Bowie clone, the resilience of his music speaks to an authenticity not otherwise found in other Bowie sycophants. There is a claustrophobia that comes through in Replicas that mimics Ballard’s cautionary tales of British suburbia. I saw him perform Replicas a few years ago. The songs sounded as fresh today as they did then. However, what impressed me more was how much darker is his newer material. He, too, has stretched out beyond the borders of Britain and its Brexit. He now resides in Los Angeles.
These are my 1980s memories of British pop culture embracing European integration at a time when the UK was tearing itself apart with the Miners’ strike, deindustrialization, the Cold War, and the hard angles of America’s “Greed is good” influence upon domestic politics. In short, the neoliberal project promised one thing (opportunity) and yet delivered another (reduction in social services). For many whom I encountered in music clubs, record stores, and marches, Europe represented a softer, brighter alternative. This seeped its way into the music. These are my memories of the soundtrack that reflects this dynamic. What are yours?