The Enemy Within – Strike (1984)
Lest anyone should think otherwise, Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas wasn’t the only topical, “issue-based” single of December 1984. With the UK miners’ strike moving into its tenth month, three singles appeared at much the same time, each offering its own commentary on the longest – and (give or take the odd scuffle down Wapping way) the last – of this country’s major industrial disputes.
Listening to them again twenty years later, Strike by The Enemy Within – the least commercially successful of the three – emerges as the strongest piece of music by some distance. Put together by the same team (Adrian Sherwood/Keith LeBlanc/Tackhead) that had been responsible for No Sell Out, 1983’s pioneering Malcolm X cut-up, Strike does the same job for Arthur Scargill (“The most gorgeous redhead since Rita Hayworth” – Julie Burchill, The Face), setting excerpts from his speeches against stark, stuttering electro. Surprisingly for such a time-specific piece, it retains a good deal of its resonance to this day.
But can we say the same for The Redskins? Led by a former NME journalist, this deeply politicised punk-soul trio were effectively the house band for the Socialist Workers Party, with singles such as Kick Over The Statues, Bring It Down! (This Insane Thing), The Power Is Yours and It Can Be Done! Impeccable left-wing credentials aside, there’s something tinny and strained about the would-be clarion call of Keep On Keepin’ On!, with its Motown-pastiche bassline sounding as if it had been lifted from A Town Called Malice rather than Holland/Dozier/Holland. It’s also now impossible to listen to its earnest exhortions (“If it takes a year, we’ve gotta take it…“) in isolation from the knowledge that the strike collapsed just three months later, the miners’ defeat also signalling the inexorable decline of both the trade union movement and the British coal industry.
A heroically principled and uncompromising stance – or naive, shallow, manipulative posturing which barely disguised its hidden agenda? Oh, but you had to decide. For this was an age of binary choices and clear-cut ideological certainties, where fence-sitting was derided from both sides.
However, listening to Paul Weller & the Style Council, Jimmy Ruffin, Junior Giscombe and a cast of thousands trying to imbue clunkingly prosaic lines (“Just where is the backing from the TUC?“) with some approximation of gritty “authenticity”, on this borderline-embarrassing stab at re-creating the “hard times” funk of US outfits such as Brother D & Collective Effort, Defunkt and the Valentine Brothers, you might find it increasingly hard to suppress a smirk. To say nothing of the cringingly misplaced “solidarity” of a bunch of pop stars deploying the first person plural so readily – because, like, this is our struggle too, yeah? You know those two adjectives that the right have always delighted in bashing the left with: “sanctimonious” and “self-righteous”? Well, it is difficult to argue convincingly against their presence on this effort (which nevertheless crawled as high as #24 on the UK singles chart, giving Paul Weller his smallest hit in over six years).
On the other hand, it does put Weller’s curmudgeonly scowling on the first Band Aid single into context. Don’t they know there’s a war on?
Coming up later (after a six-hour round trip to an industrial estate outside Rickmansworth chiz chiz) … one more MP3, which might put a somewhat different complexion on things.
However… flipping over to the B-side of the Soul Deep 12-inch, for its first playing in 20 years, I find this…
…which is a lengthy interview with a couple of striking Nottinghamshire miners called Bob and Chris (complete with a baffling writing credit for “Weller/Talbot”, but I’m sure there’s a VERY SOUND EXPLANATION for that). Instantly, the cynical smirk that had been spreading during the previous two tracks was wiped straight off my face.
In December 1984, in the rather less than glamorous surroundings of the John Carroll Leisure Centre in Radford, Dymbel and I DJ-ed a benefit night in aid of the miners’ strike, as organised by the local branch of the Labour Party. (My first DJ gig ever, in fact.) This turned out to be a decidedly disillusioning experience.
For – as PJ O’Rourke infers in this month’s Word magazine – in those almost unimaginably far off days, one of the great things about lining yourself up with the left was that you were simultaneously lining yourself up with all the cool kids. All the sharp, aware, sexy people, with the just-so flat-tops and the button-fly shrink-to-fit 501s, were sporting “Coal Not Dole” stickers on their donkey jackets and rattling collecting tins outside the refectory in the Portland building on campus. And, wa-hey, I was going to be DJ-ing for them!
Except, well, perhaps there were better things to do that night than shuffle on down to the John Carroll Leisure Centre. Which just left a couple of dozen morose old hippies – lank, centre-parted hair and shit-brown sweaters – skinning up in the corner and displaying absolutely no interest whatsoever in the contents of the singles boxes which Dymbel and I had spent all afternoon putting together. (Except for one solitary over-enthusiastic punkette from Tyneside who kept fruitlessly pestering us for “Nellie The Elephant” by the Toy Dolls – but to be frank, she was neither here nor there.)
With less than an hour left to go, Dymbel and I decided that it was only right and proper to play something that was directly related to the strike. Out came the just-released Soul Deep… and over to the decks wandered a solidly built man in his twenties, incongruous in sober suit and tie, who politely asked if he could take a look at the record sleeve.
“I’m on the B-side of this, you know. Have you listened to it?”
It was Chris, the younger of the two men interviewed. Decent, dignified chap – as you’ll hear if you play the MP3 (encoded at 96 kbps, to save space). I’d forgotten this until now, but I think we stopped the music and let him make a brief speech. Actually, we must have done – because then Dymbel introduced the Redskins record as being about the strike, in the hope that this would finally get the hippies off their arses.
It didn’t. At which point we just went “oh sod it”, and – all lingering aspirations of credibility finally cast aside – slapped on Jumpin’ Jack Flash. It filled the floor. As did Free’s All Right Now, and all the other dinosaur rock classics we followed it with. (I can still remember shaking my head in scornful disbelief: imagine only being able to dance to records which were at least 12 years old! I had a lot to learn.)
I wonder what happened to Chris and Bob – whose voices on this interview (and is that Gary Crowley talking to them?) sound like echoes from a world that has all but vanished. Impossible – utterly impossible – to imagine these sentiments, or anything like them, being expressed in the Britain of 2004. For of the wide range of emotions I experienced in the course of listening to this, the one that ultimately lingered was one of a great, ineffable sadness: at all which has been lost, and replaced with… what, precisely?
Coming soon: that filthy version of Cristina’s Disco Clone. Best stock up on the Kleenex, lads!