Has there ever been a Protest Song more misunderstood than ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ by Ian Dury?
Released in 1981 to mark the International Year of the Disabled, the song was inspired by the movie Spartacus and specifically the scene in which the slaves all claim ‘I am Spartacus’. Disabled himself since birth, Dury envisaged the song as a rallying cry, a ‘Say it loud, I’m black, I’m proud’ or an ‘I’m every woman’. A shout of defiance. However it was met with shock and horror in some quarters, including even parts of the disabled community. It was condemned by the Spastics Society (a move they subsequently regretted) and banned by the BBC.
Disability was something to pity, not shout from the rooftops. The lyrics were too ‘on the nose’ for the 80s and Ian’s chart career was over. He would never set foot in the Top Of The Pops studio or the Top 40 again.
The story wasn’t over though. ‘Spasticus’ became a staple of the Blockheads live set until Ian’s death in 2000 as attitudes to disability evolved. The song moved from rejection to acceptance to iconic status and in 2012 it was performed by a cast of thousands as the centre-piece of the opening ceremony to the London Paralympics, exactly the ‘in your face’ defiant celebration that Dury must have envisaged all along. If only he had been around to witness that bittersweet moment.
I include both the original song (performed on Australian TV) and that Paralympics performance from 2012, featuring Stephen Hawking, Orbital and the large hadron collider in the introduction. Both are essential viewing.
In the meantime we will be back on Monday having spent the weekend contemplating our final choices.
Over to Roy:
From their debut 1997 release ‘Naxalite,’ which was an ode to the militant Naxalite movement in India, it was clear Asian Dub Foundation were no ordinary band. With their musical mix of Ragga, Bangla, Electronica, Hip-Hop and Punk they crossed over to ‘indie’ audiences through regular tours with Primal Scream. In 2003 they released this stinging attack on European immigration policy, with the frighteningly accurate prediction, “This is a 21st Century Exodus”.
While Skyhooks may have lacked the “bile and venom” of many protest bands, their number one single “Horror Movie” is part of a body of work they created which successfully challenged & changed the Australian pop music orthodoxy.
At the time of the song’s release in 1975, Australian pop charts were largely comprised of domestic covers of international hits (The Mixtures covering “In the Summertime”, Jigsaw’s version of “Yellow River”), home-grown female balladeers (Olivia Newton-John & Helen Reddy two examples) or masculine bands from a blues/pub-rock tradition (Daddy Cool, Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs & ex-Easybeat Stevie Wright). In 1975 all of this was transformed with the formation of Skyhooks & the advent of the national youth music program “Countdown”.
Australia’s answer to “Top of the Pops”, Countdown was broadcast on the government-owned ABC at the family-friendly time of Sunday 6pm and hosted by music producer Mollie Meldrum (imagine a less articulate John Peel). Unlike the understated Peel, Meldrum relished his king-maker role with enthusiastic and often hyperbolic assessments of the new talents he showcased. As a result of Countdown’s huge audiences, many of the acts premiered on the show would go on to mainstream success.
While it’s possible that both “Countdown” and Skyhooks might have succeeded without the other, it was a symbiotic relationship created at the perfect time. Skyhooks were regular guests on the program and while their glam rock, trans-sexual personas may have shocked many in the conservative, prime-time audience, the safe environment of Countdown allowed them enormous liberty.
Skyhook’s debut album “Living in the 70s” included nine other songs alongside “Horror Movie”, all with catchy hooks and radio-friendly durations. However, six of the ten songs were banned by the commercial radio industry for drug and sex references, something which helped fuel the band’s notoriety. Most significantly, key songwriter Greg Macainsh broke new ground for the Australian music industry by writing songs that spoke in detail of his home town Melbourne. Drawing on the practice of musical role-models like Chuck Berry, Macainsh’s songs included references to inner-city locales like Carlton and Toorak and local experiences such as buying dope outside the South Yarra Arms hotel. Indeed, a key element of the song “Horror Movie” is its reference to the Australian evening news services being shown at 6.30pm.
I’m not sure whether you’d exactly call my choice today a “Protest” song as such, but it brings together socialism, brotherhood and football, which is a suitably potent combination! In case you’re unfamiliar with its subject matter, it retells the famous Christmas Day truce of 1914, which saw British and German troops call an unofficial ceasefire and instead have a kick-around between the trenches. Not only was it thought-provoking, the chorus also got us all singing along as if we are on the Kop with creator, Peter Hooton, in the pre-Xmas period of 1990. Still very uplifting…even if history reminds us that this was just the first of many defeats on penalties that we continue to suffer to this day!
Similar to Andy’s thinking this one … not a protest song as such…. but more a sign of the times both then and certainly now.
May I refer you back to Lou Reed and that this choice from another New Yorker is ultimately a simple statement of fact.
This singer had a hit with it in 1983. However, it was originally written by Tom Gray in 1979 for his band, ‘The Brains’ and the recording of their debut album (to be produced by pre-U2 Steve Lillywhite) was shelved when the record company was taken over by a large German corporation and the new owners had no idea who the band were. Quite apt given the particular song’s title *
In the ‘80s Madonna had a healthy rivalry with this lady – but pretty soon, they each went down differing roads in their respective careers.
In simple and perhaps harsh terms, for example, Madonna got labelled as the Material Girl whereas this artist continues to be as quirky as possible and is celebrated for her humanitarian work and as an advocate for LGBT rights.
I also considered ‘True Colors’ and ‘Shine’ (a live performance in China) but decided on this one – mainly because it also best demonstrates her immense talent. It’s taken from 1987 and a concert in Paris and I still have it on the old video cassette and at the time was always fearing the tape getting chewed up in the VCR.
Now, it’s just a click away!
A kindred spirit / soul sister or should that be soul aunt to both Beth Ditto and Lady Gaga …
“We think we know what we’re doing, we don’t pull the strings
It’s all in the past now, money changes everything”
“They say we’ll be your friends, we’ll stick with you till the end
Oh but everybody’s only looking out for themselves
And you say, ‘Well, who can you trust?’
I’ll tell you, trust nobody else’s money
Money changes everything.”