“There is No Alternative” – a bitter, prophetic sound bite driven deep into the vernacular of 1980’s Britain by Margaret Thatcher, echoing the free market ideologues of the Chicago School of Economics and her transatlantic counterpart Ronald Reagan in the USA. In this period, 40 years of post war political consensus was erased, as an ideologically charged right wing government took its opponents to task. During this tumultuous decade the logic of unfettered capitalism became established as simple common sense. Today, in the face of a sustained economic crisis and biting austerity, the late 20th century neo-liberal mantra goes largely unquestioned in any meaningful, coherent sense in what is a hollowed-out, atomized political environment.
Culturally, Margaret Thatcher presided over a bitter, pessimistic age, with the free market running rampant to the backdrop of growing unemployment, racism, homophobia and cultural reaction with the likes of Wham, Duran Duran and Kid Creole & the Coconuts providing the soundtrack. Easterhouse were an underground band whose creative energy and courage of conviction shone out both musically and lyrically amidst the anodyne sludge of 80’s pop, and were inevitably ignored by the record-buying public – in part for the political content of their music. Easterhouse were among the most articulate and exciting bands of the mid 1980’s, as well as being amongst the very few artists at the time who “protested” I.e. openly questioned the hegemony of free market values and the capitalist system.
Easterhouse: Post-Punk Radicals
Formed in Manchester in the early 1980’s by brothers Andy and Ivor Perry, Easterhouse took an explicitly direct, politically engaged approach to their music. They fused the politically committed lyrics and impassioned delivery of Andy Perry with a powerful rhythm section punctuated by Ivor Perry’s jagged, sparkling guitars. The groups’ sound was reminiscent of Stretford neighbours The Smiths (whose singer Morrissey was a stalwart of the militant Mancunians), blended with the agit-prop adrenaline rush of The Clash and the fragile melancholy of another Manchester group, The Chameleons, with Andy Perry clearly drawing on the lyrical tradition and charisma of Joe Strummer and Bob Marley, both in content and delivery.
Named after a notorious Glasgow housing scheme, Easterhouse readily acknowledged their second-generation Irish roots and the non-conformist origins of their musical tradition, with live sets including renditions of the Irish rebel song “Johnny I Hardly Knew You”. For Andy Perry, rock and roll was a force for self-education and social criticism in the face of an ideological onslaught from the Right, and he was quick to distance himself and the group from the prevailing musical climate of the time, insisting Easterhouse belonged to a “different tradition of music that articulates the wishes and ideas of a mass of people”.
The music of Easterhouse was a celebration of anti-heros: No “great men”, just individuals taking protagonism in their own lives and attempting to transform their conditions. Andy Perry’s lyrics debated the necessity to formulate a coherent, progressive opposition to the Conservatives and learn from the past defeats of the Left. The Manchester group in fact confronted themes that made many on the Left uncomfortable: the shift to the right of the Labour Party, the implicit conservatism of the trade union movement and the protracted resistance to British rule in Northern Ireland. Signed by London indie label Rough Trade, they issued the seminal “In Our Own Hands” EP in 1985, followed by the blistering “Whistling in The Dark” in 1986 – a powerful, Clash-inspired allegory of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 – the tale of a government’s bloody vengeance against “the enemy within” and of lessons of past struggles that went unlearned.
Standing Against the Odds: “Inspiration”
The following single, “Inspiration” took Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands as its subject matter – a chilling tribute recalling the darkness and solitude of resistance, delivered by the soulful voice of Andy Perry. The song’s uncompromising position of support for Sands and the hunger strikers exposed the historic ambivalence of many on the Left to the demands for civil rights and political self-determination in Northern Ireland. In these times of “peace” and devolved government, it is conveniently forgotten that in the mid-1980’s during the so-called ”Troubles”, Irish immigrants in Britain and their children (an invisible mass of some two million people) were routinely exposed to casual racism in their daily lives, on TV and in the popular press. This offhand colonial chauvinism extended to the music press and the supposedly progressive alternative milieu in Britain. Being second-generation Irish (like the Perry brothers) and outspoken in their political views on Ireland, Easterhouse proved an anomaly to ambivalent London-based music journalists, looking to categorise them under a generic “indie guitar pop” label and sidestep the issues raised in their songs.
Easterhouse’s debut LP “Contenders” came out on Rough Trade in late 1986 to critical acclaim, offering a collection of finely crafted, powerful songs that was well received by the group’s existing fan base on the indie circuit, yet failed to achieve any exposure or airplay beyond John Peel’s late night radio show. The pulsating opening track “Out on Your Own” is a stark portrait of the state of opposition to the Thatcher government, with union leaders “talking profitability”, ineffectual sloganeering and well-worn reformist solutions to social problems imposed from above, leading Andy Perry to declare “It’s only foolishness to speak your master’s words…this foolish ideology has made the fight a mockery”; the overall conclusion? There is no one who stands up for him, that he faces the fight alone.
The vitriol of “Out of Your Own” is contrasted by the folky, surging ”1969”, a reaffirmation of the original struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland, exploring the destructive British colonial presence abroad and its practices of internment without trial and H-Block torture, as well as offering a blistering critique of those on the Left “who talk, but when the chips are down stay loyal to their King & Crown”.
Easterhouse were also capable of irony and self-deprecation, demonstrated on “Get Back to Russia” – a classic British put-down over the ages for anyone opposing Cold War political orthodoxies or speaking out against the Right, as Perry senior observes” anyone who questions is an agitator, infiltrator..You’re entitled to your say, but nothing too extreme, that’s not the English way…” and arrives at the conclusion that “England made me, let England deal with me”…
“Take a Thought, Give it Flight”…
Though promising so much, and undoubtedly committed to their political goals, Easterhouse imploded shortly after “Contenders” was released. Ivor Perry quit the band due to differences with his brother Andy (forerunners of the Gallagher brothers, so it would seem) to form The Cradle. Andy reassembled a new incarnation of Easterhouse to release the laboured, uninspired “Waiting for The Red Bird” in 1989, which spawned a minor US hit “Come Out Fighting”, peaking at number 82 in the Billboard chart.
In 2017, things do indeed look bleak in Britain. The free market voluntarism of the Thatcher decade gave way to the continuation of her work by Tony Blair’s managerial New Labour in the 1990’s – both political figures shaping the foundations for the technocracy that serves the country’s ruling oligarchy In the 21st century. In the midst of the most sustained global economic downturn since the 1930’s and despite widespread disillusion with the political and economic system we live under, it appears that “there is still no alternative”. In the absence of a constructive critique of capitalism that can connect the aspirations of working people to an inclusive and democratic politics of social solidarity, it appears that little can be done to advance a new, progressive political language to address the issues of our current situation.
Easterhouse, the black sheep of the 1980’s British independent scene, have thus unwittingly come back into fashion – their message and observations from three decades ago are starkly relevant today. In spite of their times, Easterhouse demonstrated the capacity of popular music to articulate radical political ideas in a cogent, intelligent way, proving far more effective than any meeting or manifesto.With the growth of insular, reactionary, nationalist movements across Europe continuing apparently unchecked and what remains of the Left increasingly estranged from the broader population, it is the militant spirit of Easterhouse that provides a powerful inspiration for our 21st century protests.