You might be aware that Britain is in a bit of a pickle; a divided nation careering towards a snap General Election. There’s a lot of talk about a return to the 1970s which capitalises on the somewhat reductive image of a beleaguered post-1960s decade that didn’t know what to do with itself, a bleak and uncertain time of economic hardship and political unrest. The 1970s culminated with the election of the deeply divisive Margaret Thatcher and eighteen long years of Tory rule followed.
Tom Robinson Band encapsulated the mood of 1970s Britain. Their lyrics addressed government incompetence, homophobic violence, police brutality, racism and the salacious hypocrisy of the tabloid press. The anthemic “Glad To Be Gay” highlighted homophobic violence and aggressive policing that followed the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Similarly in “Up Against the Wall” Robinson questions the sympathies of a police force mired in accusations of racism, corruption and homophobia, snarling never trust a copper in a crime car — just whose side are you on?
“Up Against the Wall” is the rousing opener to the band’s debut album, ‘Power In The Darkness’ (1978). Britain’s disaffected teens, the dark-haired dangerous school kids / vicious, suspicious sixteen wearing their jet-black blazers at the bus stop / sullen, unhealthy and mean occupy the first verse. Hinting at a seething underbelly of racism, the white boys kicking in the windows and the fascists marching on the high street further emphasise the rising popularity of neo-Nazi group the National Front in the 1970s, something Tom Robinson protested with reggae band Steel Pulse and others at the Rock Against Racism Carnival in 1978. The reference simultaneously alludes to the hyperbolic fearmongering that surrounded punk, as moral panic had a field day linking anti-establishment music subcultures with the corruption of Britain’s youth.
For music so explicitly of its time, “Up Against the Wall” is more than just historical curiosity. This year guitarist Danny Kustow died, and it seems an apt moment to pay homage to his searing guitar riffs and the potent legacy of this blistering song. Whitehall, a term for the British government, is once again in shambles. The urgency of drawing attention to social and economic inequalities, racism and a rise in LGBT motivated hate crime remain as relevant in today’s Brexit Britain as when the song was first released.
(Song recommendation by Emily E. Roach)