Thursday, April 26, 2018

Punk: Fly The Flag

Stiff Little Fingers: Fly The Flag

It is a complete coincidence that our Punk theme follows our Jokes, Pranks & Fools theme, since one of the meanings of being punked is being the victim of a prank. Although people may go there, I suspect that most of the posts over the next couple of weeks will be about punk music (or songs with the word in the title).

As I think I’ve mentioned somewhere before, when I showed up in college in 1978, I had begun to dip my toes into “New Wave” music, but found “punk” music, such as The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, to be basically unlistenable. It didn’t take too much time working at WPRB before I did a full 180 on that, and began to appreciate much of what is called punk. That being said, my tastes have always leaned toward punk bands that could write good tunes, and still have problems with some of the more hardcore bands that sound like a bunch of screaming. But that’s me.

Stiff Little Fingers was a band that I fell hard for, and fast. My introduction to them was their second album, Nobody’s Heroes, which came out in 1980. It was only later that I discovered their excellent debut album, Inflammable Material, and the song that vaulted them to prominence, “Alternative Ulster.” It was clear that SLF were a political band—the first album was mostly about the “Troubles” in their native Belfast, and I learned, much later, that the advance that they got from Chrysalis Records before recording Nobody’s Heroes allowed most of the members to flee to the relative safety of London.

“Fly The Flag” was the song that stuck out to me then, and I still like it today, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to be one that gets mentioned much in discussions of the band or its music (and it doesn’t even make some of their “best of” collections, which is crazy). It is anthemic and stirring, but its energy, and singer Jake Burns’ gruff vocals, place it clearly in the punk style. The song is also, from start to finish, sarcastic. It appears to be sung from the viewpoint of an ultra-conservative super patriot, similar to the rhetoric advanced by the fascist National Front in Britain at the time. But because the message of the song seemed so contrary to the band’s other music, it was clear that they were mocking that position, not supporting it. (You had to be careful, because other punks at the time did support racist and nationalist policies). If anything was a giveaway, though, it was the repeated “gimme gimmes” that made it clear that they were pointing out the selfishness of the ostensible narrator and his ilk.

Burns has written that the song was a response to the Thatcher generation, and “the whole ‘me, me, me’ attitude and the naked greed that was around at the time.” But he was horrified when National Front supporters took the song at face value.

When I started writing this, I just wanted to discuss a band that I haven’t written about, and a song that I like. But when I listened to it again, it struck me that it works today (with a minor change of venue) as a satire of Trumpism, with its cruel anti-immigrant and nativist sentiment, its greedy social Darwinism, and mocking of the “helpless.” I mean, here are just some of the lyrics:

Gimme a nation where people are free 
Free to do and free to be 
Free to screw you before you screw me 


Gimme a Britain that's got back the Great 
A race of winners not cramped by the State 
And only the helpless get left at the gate. 

SLF put out an excellent live album and another studio album, both of which I played the crap out of on the radio. They released one more studio album in late 1982, which I have no recollection of, before disbanding. They reformed in the late 1980s, with former Jam bassist Bruce Foxton replacing original member Ali McMordie, and have put out albums and toured, with some lineup changes, on and off since then. I admit to not being aware of any of this music.

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