Premium

Who writes better songs – Leavers or Remainers?

Damon Albarn of The Good, The Bad and The Queen performing in New York
Damon Albarn of The Good, The Bad and The Queen performing in New York Credit:  WireImage

Brexit has inspired artists from Damon Albarn to Morrissey. James Hall assesses their efforts 

Now in his mid-70s, Sir Mick Jagger could be forgiven for opting for an easy life. Few would hold it against him for whiling away his days between Rolling Stones tours in the members’ enclosure at Lord’s or on the beach in Mustique. And yet in July 2017, Jagger rush-released two of the angriest songs of his career. England Lost and Gotta Get A Grip were rough and anxiety-ridden political commentaries, fuelled by the singer’s fears about Brexit. “We obviously have a lot of problems,” he said at the time. Jagger was not alone. Musicians have reacted in a variety of ways to Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Largely but not exclusively pro-Remain, their artistic responses have ranged from allegorical to satirical to sad.

With the Government preparing to finally reveal the shape of Brexit, how should we judge the array of songs that have been released? Are they any good? And will any come to be seen in the same light as classic protest songs, such as Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ or Edwin Starr’s War? Jagger aside, we’ve had Brexit songs from Billy Bragg, Damon Albarn’s The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and Morrissey.

Prof John Street, an expert in music and activism and professor of politics at University of East Anglia, says that the protest song as a form of artistic expression appears to be alive and well. “There’s lots of talk that the protest song is dead or dying. But I think people still feel moved to do it,” he says. “Whether anybody takes any notice is another matter.”

The array of Brexit songs have taken different forms. Such a complicated – some would say dry – issue doesn’t lend itself to detailed lyrical analysis. Who but the most ardent political geek would enjoy a song about hard borders, backstops, or frictionless trade? So the artists have instead gone conceptual or focused on Brexit’s emotional impact. While Jagger’s songs were agitated blasts, The Good, The Bad & The Queen opted for bruised melancholia in their new song, Merrie Land. Bragg, meanwhile, wrote the bleakly nuanced but biting ballad Full English Brexit from the point of view of an old Leaver concerned about the changes around them. “I’m not racist,” the song goes, “All I want is to make things how they used to be … Nobody’s listening to me.”

Albarn and Bragg are Remainers, but Morrissey most definitely is not. In 2016 he described the UK’s decision to leave as “magnificent” and last year’s Jackie’s Only Happy When She’s Up On Stage ends with a repeated coda about everyone “heading for the exit”. Although the singer has denied that it’s about Brexit, it’s pretty clear that Jackie is the national flag and the song is an allegory about Britain.

With the EU vote split roughly half and half, musicians clearly didn’t care about potentially alienating 50 per cent of the country’s listeners. However they still face the challenge of writing a protest song about an event that has already occurred. Unlike, for example, protest songs such as civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome or Free Nelson Mandela – songs that became popular as their respective movements gained traction – the Brexit songsmiths are in a sense writing post-protest songs.

Perhaps aware that leaving the EU is almost a certainty, Albarn opted for “a letter of farewell” to the Britain we know. Merrie Land is an affecting poem that’s full of references to silver Jubilee mugs and (political) clowns rolling into town. It’s also infused with a sense of foreboding of what’s to come. Albarn last week told BBC Radio 6 Music he didn’t want the song to be “embittered or aggressive”.

Rather, he wanted it to be “considered and emotional, and utterly from the heart”.  On that basis, he has succeeded. “The problem with a lot of protest songs traditionally has been that they are lectures rather than attempts to engage people,” says Street. “Contrast standard protest songs with something like Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding, which is a protest song about the Falklands War. It is told in such a sympathetic and empathetic manner that you are not invited to think that the issue is simple and straightforward. The protest songs that work better are the ones that are less strident.” Street says that between Jagger, Morrissey and Albarn, he’d expect Merrie Land to stand the test of time best. “It’s not hectoring, it’s reflecting”. It also has an air of mournfulness, which, for many Remainers, represents how they are feeling at the moment.

Reflective subtlety wins, it seems. This is a lesson yet to be learnt by U2, who recently attracted criticism for blatant anti-Brexit messages on their UK tour. Standing in front of a vast EU flag, Bono talked of the “loss of shared dreams” that Brexit will entail. He is entitled to his opinion. But if I was a Leaver who had paid £100 for a ticket, I’d probably have taken offence at being told this. By contrast, at a show in Brighton on Tuesday night, former Talking Heads singer David Byrne told the audience that three members of his band were from Brazil. “They are immigrants and we couldn’t do the show without them,” was his only reference to anything political all night. It was all he needed to say.