Margaret on the Guillotine

Written by: Simon Mee

In Greek mythology there were nine muses who inspired creation and embodied the arts.

Clio, the muse of history, carried a scroll; Terpsichore, the muse of dance, would often play the lyre; while Melpomene would act her role as the muse of tragedy while wearing a theatrical mask. But it is Euterpe, the muse of song, whom we turn to. With a name derived from the Ancient Greek for ‘giver of much delight’, the muse of song was often pictured playing the aulos, or flute.

Euterpe was said to be the source of musical inspiration, fanning the flames of creativity within men. Between lines of verse and prose there lay shadows of her presence. Who could be the modern equivalent of such a figure? The answer would, arguably, have to be Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister of Britain.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

Meryl Streep stars as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady has re-entered our lives once more. This week, a eulogising biopic, starring Meryl Streep, will be released on British shores. The movie has already attracted criticism for casting in a sympathetic light a woman who was anything but sympathetic herself.

Admittedly, Thatcher is not your standard muse-material. Indeed, you struggle to reconcile the words ‘giver of much delight’ with, well, the way her face looks. And there is always the problem of replacing the flute with a handbag that is capable of bodily harm when swung. These are understandable concerns.

For, when we think of inspiration, the example of the 1960s model Pattie Boyd often comes to mind. According to music legend, her beauty drove Beatle George Harrison to write Something and Isn’t it a Pity – two of his finest works. She later inspired Eric Clapton to pen Layla. The musician Joan Baez was said to be the source behind Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me, Babe; and Janis Joplin, in her own way, while lying on an unmade, crumpled bed, gave rise to Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel No. 2.

But what other person could inspire such emotion, such anger, as Thatcher? The Baroness elicited passion, joy, hatred, envy and disgust across large segments of the British nation. And if we are no longer Thatcher’s children, then we are at least her grandchildren; for the legacy of her two administrations remains. Rising social inequality; the deregulation of the City; and the lost generation of unemployed young people. Furthermore, during her rule the parameters of political debate shifted decisively to the right. There they remain. When it comes to the Iron Lady – gushing biopic or no – you are forced to choose a side. Thatcher has left us no alternative.

But what she has left us is a musical legacy. Anger and hatred among large segments of the left inevitably inspired music. Take, for example, that quintessential band of Thatcherite Britain – The Smiths. It can be said that Morrissey, the band’s frontman, wasn’t Thatcher’s biggest fan. In fact, he was probably her worst enemy. At the height of the Thatcher era, he released his 1988 solo record, Viva Hate. One of the album’s more notable tracks – and there were several – was Margaret on the Guillotine.

Gently crooning along to a languid guitar, Morrissey sang:

The kind people
Have a wonderful dream
Margaret On The Guillotine
Cause people like you
Make me feel so tired
When will you die?
When will you die?
When will you die?
When will you die?
When will you die?

For a man famed for subtle, erudite lyrics (The Headmaster Ritual from Meat is Murder, anyone?), Morrissey got straight to the point when it came to the Tory leader. In this sense, it was arguably a song that Thatcher would have liked. The daughter of a Lincolnshire grocer always appreciated straight-talkers. But Morrissey is not alone. What of The Special’s Ghost Town, a single released in 1981?

The song happened to hit the charts at a time when Britain’s urban centres were in riot. Its eerie charm and subdued melody mean Ghost Town has now evolved into a staple track on every decent Halloween party playlist; but for the middle-aged out there it is still synonymous with social conflict, unemployment and violence.

This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry

Of course, Margaret on the Guillotine and Ghost Town are just two examples. But there are far more. (To view a list of the other tracks inspired by Thatcher, click here.) Euterpe would have been proud. Even Ireland’s Sinead O’Connor got in on the action with her anti-Thatcherite song Black Boys on Mopeds. (It is presumed that this was one of the few periods of her musical career when she wasn’t busy berating the Pope.) By the time the late 1980s arrived, several prominent musicians within the British music scene, such as Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, formed the Red Wedge Collective. The group took to touring across the nation, encouraging young people to vote and support the Labour party in an effort to throw the Tories out of government. In the end they failed, and John Major had to do it for them.

It is said that time heals all wounds, however. How has Thatcher’s reputation fared as the years progressed? Has it improved? If Mogwai’s 2011 album, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, is anything to go by, the answer is a resolute ‘no’. The highlight of the record is a track entitled George Square Thatcher Death Party. (A candidate for song title of the year, surely?)

There are no lyrics in the song – just ridiculously good music to dance to. It is remarkable how much hatred is reserved for a woman who, during an interview with Smash Hits magazine in the 1980s, admitted that her favourite song of all time was Lita Roza’s 1953 cover of (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window? (A valiant effort to reconnect with the disillusioned youth, Maggie, but try harder next time.)

In fairness to Thatcher, British prime ministers have never had it easy in song. Her two predecessors, Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, are immortalised in The Beatles’ Taxman, a diatribe that kick-started 1966’s Revolver with a bang.

To his credit, however, Thatcher’s successor, John Major, was so boring that he avoided inspiring any music whatsoever. Bullet dodged there.

All three of these men could never hope to equal the musical influence of the Iron Lady. Through her policies and, indeed, rhetoric, she set in train a new, more volatile trajectory of modern music in Britain. It remains today. Her grandchildren still live in ghost towns, singing “up rolls the riot van“.

It is perhaps here we note that Euterpe was also the muse of elegies – songs of mourning.


Author: Simon Mee

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