Feature: Ten Songs About… England
Billy Bragg ‘Take Down The Union Jack’
Pretty simple, this one. Billy Bragg has been recorded state-of-the-nation public addresses for decades now and it doesn’t get much more blistering than ‘Take Down The Union Jack’. A simple, mournful modern-folk ballad that deals with England’s personality crisis and the loss of ‘Great’ Britain, “Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset/ And pile all those history books, but don’t throw them away/ They just might have some clues about what it really means/ To be an Anglo hyphen Saxon in England.co.uk”
Lady Sovereign ‘My England’
UK grime-pop-starlet Lady Sovereign has been bringing the best of chav-rap to the rest of the world of late. ‘My England’ sees the Brit-hop star turn her eyes homewards and correct a few common misnomers about her homeland: “No I don’t watch the Antiques Roadshow, I’d rather listen to Run the Road/ And smoke someone’s fresh homegrown/ And not get bloated on a plate of scones/ Cricket, bowls, croquet, nah PS2 all the way, in an English council apartment.” Unfortunately, perhaps, her observations are completely accurate.
Sir Hubert Parry and William Blake ‘Jerusalem’
It’s surprising how far back you have to go to find a positive composition about England. Whilst ‘Jerusalem’s music was written in 1916, the lyrics were penned by poet William Blake was written over 100 years earlier. Renowned for it’s ability to set the hairs on the back of your neck on end and stir-up (oft misplaced) feelings of national pride in an increasingly apathetic population, ‘Jerusalem’ is the blurb for a nation that has a more diverse and powerful history than it can remember to shake a stick at.
The Clash ‘English Civil War’
There are any number of great Clash tunes that could fit the bill and make this list, but, for my money, I think ‘English Civil War’ sums up the state of affairs in England (at the time of writing) the best. Born out of Strummer’s fears of a reappearance of far-right extremists in the late ’70s, ‘English Civil War’ took an American folk tune and reapplied it to the UK’s social situation. A he sings, “As we watched the speech of an animal scream/ The new party army was marching right over our heads.” Strummer is pointedly reminding the free-thinkers not to fall prey to simplified politics and scapegoat-ism.
Baddiel, Skinner & The Lightning Seeds ‘3 Lions’
You can’t talk about England at length without mentioning the beautiful game, and more importantly our consistent disappointment and love/hate relationship with the England national side. Fed up with cheesy football anthems, comedians Baddiel and Skinner teamed up with Brit-poppers the Lightning Seeds to produce ‘3 Lions’, a new national anthem for the ’90s. The song’s ability to simultaneously address the nation’s disillusionment with previous performances and inspire hope and pride in the home side struck a chord. The song was an instant success and it even turned up as an anthem in the stands throughout the cup competition. They were no singers though.
Sticking with the football theme, ‘Parklife’ was one of Cool Britannia icons Blur‘s biggest hits. Quintessentially British, ‘Parklife’ summed up a timeless lifestyle and millions of child-hoods: jumpers for goal-posts, smashed beer glasses, feeding the pigeons and rude dustmen all feature in the song’s effortless imagery. ‘Parklife’ is the culmination of a youth spent forcing down fish fingers in an effort to get out the door to your mates. Blur always had a knack for encapsulating the British atmosphere and combining it with sing-along choruses and big guitars, and this song is no exception.
Kate Bush ‘Oh England My Lionheart’
Be-nippled songstress Kate Bush invented the outlandish quirk-pop niche nowadays occupied by the likes of Feist and Lykke Li. ‘Oh England My Lionheart’ sees the singer imagining an English pilot’s last thoughts as his plane is shot down and plummeting towards the earth. Although Bush herself has distanced herself from the song (and indeed, the whole ‘Lionheart’ album) it is a nice and original ode to the country she calls home. The medieval instrumentation can be a bit overbearing and cringe-inducing, but it doesn’t detract from excellent vocal lines and her usual high quality lyrics.
The Jam ‘Eton Rifles’
The only single to be released from fourth Jam LP ‘Setting Sons’, ‘Eton Rifles’ sees Weller and company addressing ‘a bunch of tossers’ from public school Eton, who Weller read had heckled a ‘Right To Work’ march. “All that rugby puts hairs on your chest/ What chance have you got against a tie and a crest,” sings Weller as he picks apart the nepotism upon which the country is founded. The song’s not only great for its lyrics, but also for that jarring chorus-hook which you can’t resist but jolt along to. Ironically, Conservative Party leader, and one-time Eton pupil David Cameron has claimed that him and his school mates were big fans of the Jam and of this song in particular.
Art Brut ‘Moving To L.A.’
As you may very well be aware, the British have an obsession with the weather and ‘Moving To L.A.’ finds Art Brut frontman Eddie Argos, considering a migration to warmer the climes of America’s West Coast. Yes, you could say the song is not strictly about the UK, but really it’s about all the things in England that might motivate such a move. Sunny acoustic guitars combine with a moan-along chorus to form an anti-anthem for hibernating Brits. As usual Argos’s brilliant sense of humour and droll delivery make the tune, “Sunshine on a rainy day/ Makes me want to move away/ I think I’ve got it sorted/ I’m gonna get myself deported.” A-men to that.
The Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy In The UK’
Name one band that can match the ‘Pistols in their ability to make such an impact on popular culture with such a small catalogue of tunes and I’ll eat my own socks. Whilst ‘God Save The Queen’ would be the obvious choice, ‘Anarchy In The UK’ has been generally less abused in these lists. Yeah, the lyrics don’t make much sense, but Rotten was all about conveying feelings rather than facts and ‘Anarchy In The UK’ does this brilliantly. “Your future dream is a shopping scheme” rings as true today as it did when the tune was originally penned. Plus you’ve got to love any song that was written purely because the singer wanted to open with the line “I am the antichrist”.
Written for SoundProof