Music and the movement
From Bob Marley to The Clash, Aphex Twin to Speech Debelle, housing estates have generated extraordinary musical talent for the past 40 years. Simon Brandon looks at the reasons why and wonders whether today’s young inhabitants will be similarly inspired.
When Bob Marley wailed about being trapped in the concrete jungle in 1972, he could have been talking about any of hundreds of inner-city estates worldwide.
In fact he was talking about Trenchtown, the area of public housing in Kingston, Jamaica, where he was raised and whose inhabitants nicknamed it the Concrete Jungle. It not only inspired his song, it gave its name, eventually, to a genre of dance music. Jungle has its roots in Jamaican reggae; its etymology points back to the same place.
Housing is woven throughout popular music. Creative types have long been advised to ‘write about what you know’; for many bands and artists, that has meant the council estate. It has been a place from which to escape - ‘No chains around my feet, but I’m not free… I know I am bound here in captivity,’ as Marley sang - or somewhere with which to identify oneself and to celebrate. Housing, the estate environment and even homelessness (see box overleaf: elocution lessons) have shaped music and even whole genres over the past 40 years - and music has duly reflected our estates and inner cities back to the listening public.
Estate of mind
Identity is only part of the story, however. The geography of estates and the demographic shifts caused by the vagaries of property market rents have played their part in shaping the development of popular music, too.
The Hulme estate in Manchester, for example, had become notorious for crime and social deprivation by the 1980s. Its landlord, Manchester Council, acted by lowering rents and moving single youngsters in - some of whom became progenitors of the Manchester rave scene, a movement which influences electronic music across the board today.
‘[Techno musician] A Guy Called Gerald, [electronic group] 808 State - they all had flats in that block,’ says Dr Rob Strachan, a lecturer in music at the University of Liverpool. ‘They used to hold raves in the empty flats. It was a direct result of the council’s housing policy. As people move out of inner cities, other people move in. The depopulation creates a creative space.’
Demographic shifts and cheap housing may have provided fertile ground for musicians, but so did the wider economic backdrop to much of the 1970s and 1980s. While unemployment grew, so did the amount of time those out of work could spend practising, playing and writing. ‘The dole culture had a thematic and a creative effect,’ says Dr Strachan. ‘People had time to gestate.’
Liverpudlian band The Las exemplified this; the track Doledrums from their eponymous 1990 album is a wry and tuneful look at the boredom and poverty of life on benefits. Joblessness, although a drab state of affairs, was - like the estates on which they lived - a part of their lives and identities.
The Farm, also from Liverpool, named themselves after Cantril Farm, the notorious estate where its members had grown up. Music was, says Dr Strachan, ‘a way to reclaim these places… taking somewhere with a bad reputation and using it as part of their identity’.
The poverty, unemployment and deprivation of Britain’s estates and inner cities in the 1970s and 1980s caused a lot of rage, too. David Eastgate, chief executive of Hyde Group, was one of that era’s angry young men. His band The Larks’ most famous moment was, he says, releasing a single called Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out in 1984, the year of the miners’ strike. He was the drummer.
‘You had a disenfranchised general public,’ he says. ‘If you weren’t wearing a pinstriped suit and driving a Porsche, you were in the underclass.’
The fermenting unrest of the 1970s’ inner cities can be heard in Guns of Brixton, recorded by The Clash in 1979. ‘When the law break in, how you gonna go - shot down in the pavement, or waiting on death row?’ sang Paul Simonon over a loaded, prowling bass line. It prefigured south London’s Brixton riots, when anger among the area’s deprived black community exploded into violence, by nearly two years.
Talking ‘bout my generation
Such overt protestation is arguably missing from today’s pop music. ‘I think it’s quite sad it’s not there anymore,’ Mr Eastgate says. ‘Most music now is asinine, drivel, a marketing exercise.’
The fact that housing estates are no longer the generators of anger-driven protest music they once were could reflect well on the work of the social landlords - like Hyde - that have rebuilt, regenerated and transformed estates and the lives of their inhabitants since the dark days.
Mr Eastgate, however, isn’t convinced. ‘It’s disengagement,’ he says, a little wistfully. ‘People aren’t interested in the broader issues. Maybe we have become less extreme in our politics, so the music is much more middle-of-the-road.’
But housing continues to shape the soundtracks of today’s youth. These days music is increasingly visual. This is the age of the music video; here, it seems, the housing estate has retained its aura of menace.
In 1997, director Chris Cunningham made a video to accompany electronica artist Aphex Twin’s breakcore shocker Come to Daddy. It opens on a deserted estate crowded with looming tower blocks, all coloured with a palette entirely drained of warmth. An old lady walks her dog in between piles of rubbish, watched from the shadows by a gang of malevolent children who begin to terrorise her.
It’s all pretty disturbing, but then so is the music - the words ‘I want your soul’ and ‘come to daddy’ screamed repeatedly over a fractured electronic mugging. The location chosen for the video was the Tavy Bridge shopping centre on the old Thamesmead estate in east London, which was demolished in 2007.
Come to Daddy wasn’t the first time the estate had been used in a film, however. Stanley Kubrick chose Tavy Bridge as the home of Alex, the antihero from his science fiction classic A Clockwork Orange, in 1971. The estate’s use as a location mirrored the fortunes of much social housing built in the 1960s: from futuristic cityscape to derelict urban wasteland in a little under 40 years. At least the expectation of anti-social behaviour perpetrated by young inhabitants remained constant.
More recently, the video for Mercury Prize winner Dizzee Rascal’s track Sirens, released in 2007, used an estate as its setting. It also had a strong political point to make. The video begins with the singer and his younger brother at home in their council flat - the door is charged down by a white horse ridden by a man in full hunting regalia, who clumps threateningly through the house before chasing his quarry between the tower blocks.
Evidently, despite the work of successive governments, local authorities and social landlords, and despite the progress made in combating prejudice over the past few decades, the estate can still be a reminder of polarisation and inequality.
The poor housing, unemployment and poverty that concentrated musical talent and generated so much anger made way for an era of relative prosperity. But now there is a recession on. Public spending is on the way down and unemployment is on the way up again. Could we see a return to the musical fertility of the Thatcher years?
It’s possible, says Dr Strachan: ‘Pop music is always a reflection of its time.’
Roddy Radiation, guitarist in legendary ska band The Specials, grew up in a Coventry council house. The experience inspired him to write Concrete Jungle, which included the lines: ‘In the alleys and the doorways/ Some throw a bottle right in your face.’
‘I grew up in a coal mining village outside of Coventry called Keresley End,’ says Roddy, explaining the story behind the song. ‘It had one council house street and the rest were pit houses. Families from all over the UK… came to work down the pit, and some of these families were pretty rough and ready. This was in the late 1960s, early 70s when I was in my teens.
‘At that time the skinhead fashion was at its height and most of the pit family lads were skinheads, whereas me and my mates who lived in the council road followed the Rolling Stones, The Kinks and rock music and wore our hair long and dressed like our heroes. So we became their local punch bags.
‘I couldnt wait to leave! So after a fall out with my father I moved into Coventry central and slept on a mate’s settee for several months until me and my girlfriend got a flat in Hillfields by the football ground as it was then. This was where the local imigrant population lived - Caribbean and Indian/Pakistani mostly at that time.
‘We lived there for three years. By this time I’d changed my appearence and become a punk rocker, which made me even more of a target for the local thugs.
‘My punk band The Wild Boys had split up and I’d moved in with my girlfriend’s family with the intention of buying a house and getting married. I worked as a painter and decorator for the council. At that same time a drinking buddy Jerry Dammers asked me to join his band the Automatics, who a year later changed their name to The Specials.
‘I brought one of my songs from the Wild Boys which I’d written about my experiences in the mining village and living in Hillfields, the song I called Concrete Jungle.’
‘Am in my hostel bed, my eyes them red, my belly ain’t fed.’ So begins Speech Therapy, the album that won this year’s Mercury Prize. Its writer, 26-year-old rapper Speech Debelle, left her south London home aged 19 and moved into a homeless hostel. It was an experience that she says changed her for the better.
‘Growing up I came from a comfortable background,’ she says. ‘When you get to that age you start to become adult, you have to learn to look after yourself. But that was an extreme version. I met a lot of people whose childhoods and backgrounds were nothing like mine… I had to grow up, fast. It made me a more rounded person. I can understand both sides of the fence now.’
Her lyrics are often reflective, both in tone and of the personal changes she went through during those times. ‘I got half a cup of hope and I’m sipping slow,’ she sings in Better Days, a meditation on finding a new direction in life.
And there is social commentary among the lyrics, too. The album’s penultimate track, Wheels in Motion, is a lament for community spirit, as well as a comment on today’s inner cities and their cheek-by-jowl inhabitants: ‘Build a house on a house and you take the privacy out, move the poor people in and the rich move out.’
‘We’ve definitely lost something,’ she says. ‘My gran used to take a plate of food to my neighbours. [She] saw it as her duty to integrate. The difference now is that the average young person wouldn’t do that. They do what they want to do and f*** everybody else.’
The private landlord as muse
Private landlords have found their way into popular music - well, the bad ones have. Carter USM, an English indie band from the early 1990s, had their biggest hit with Sherriff Fatman, a surreal and only lightly disguised ditty about slum landlords. Fatman is described as a ‘born-again Rachman’ - a reference to Peter Rachman, the portly and infamous landlord who made his money exploiting the Caribbean immigrant community in west London in the 1950s.
The Police were a little more direct. The B-side of 1979’s Message in a Bottle was called, simply, Landlord: ‘You own a street and a block of flats, you earn your living like the other rats… You’ve no morality what do you care, you deal in poverty you buy despair.’
Just 29 years later, the government-commissioned Rugg review recommended regulating the private rented sector to root out rogue landlords (Inside Housing, 23 October 2008).