A History Of The Rubbish Number Ones That Accompanied Britain's Riots

From Notting Hill to Tottenham, via Brighton and Toxteth, Britain has its fair share of famous riots. Shame the songs at the top of the charts were absolute cack...
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From Notting Hill to Tottenham, via Brighton and Toxteth, Britain has its fair share of famous riots. Shame the songs at the top of the charts were absolute cack...

In 1971, Gil Scott-Heron debuted his poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, re-recording it the following year with added grooviness and some of the best jazz flute playing ever heard by human ear (sorry, Ron Burgundy). The re-recorded version - which, amazingly, was only ever released as a B-side –would become for many the definitive Scott-Heron track. In one of the final verses, he raps “the theme song will not be written by Jim Webb or Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash or Englebert Humperdinck. The revolution will not be televised”.


Well, I've not heard Englebert Humperdinck's Eurovision entry, but several people I know have, and though it hasn't triggered any individual acts of rebellion or violent dissent, it's definitely left a number of them suffering from fairly violent post-traumatic twitches. Tom Jones certainly won't be providing the soundtrack to a revolution any time soon, as he's too busy giving those chairs salvaged from the Blake's 7 set a new lease of life every Saturday night.

But the lyrics got me thinking: everything gets a theme song now, everything from football teams to the new M&S clothing range to feminine hygiene products. Even the spittle on Jamie Oliver's chin spawned a chart hit (“Dancing In The Moonlight” by Toploader).

Similarly, historical events get assigned their own tunes, mainly by lazy television researchers who set archive footage to the sound of the same songs ad infinitum in countless documentaries and news reports, until they become inextricably linked in the public imagination (“Candle In The Wind”, to offer one particularly irksome example).

So there was me thinking about how much Britain likes to kick off now and again, smash some windows, maybe balls up a politician's summer break if at all possible. We may lack the revolutionary zeal of some other nations, but by God, we do like a bloody good riot (as long as the weather stays fine).

So what exactly were the rebel-rousing songs playing in the background during these periods of civil unrest? What slices of rock 'n' roll sedition were sat at the top of the charts when we decided that we were going to switch off the television set and go and do something less boring instead?

What I found wasn't just surprising. In many cases, it was fucking appalling.

Notting Hill Riots (30 August – 5 September 1958)

Gangs of Teddy Boys roam the streets of West London armed with iron bars and butcher knives, motorcycle chains, petrol bombs and razor blades, attacking Notting Hill's West Indian community with such ferocity that race relations is put - and stays - on the political agenda. Police reports described events that were, by 1958 standards, so incendiary that they were kept classified for over forty years. The Teds were openly defiant of police authority (“Mind your own business, coppers!”) and were labelled by the police - with a turn of phrase that would have had Bill Hicks wincing at the tweeness of it all –as “ruffians”.

So what was at the top the Hit Parade? Was it Jerry Lee Lewis, the Killer himself, singing “Great Balls of Fire”?That hip-swivelling corrupter of youth, Elvis Presley, singing“Jailhouse Rock”? Nope, neither of them, although both songs had been big hits earlier in the year (though admittedly not as big as Perry Como singing “Magic Moments”, which topped the charts throughout March and April). The No. 1 song that bank holiday weekend when it all went bad was “When” by The Kalin Twins. As musical acts go, it's the equivalent of having Tony Blair turn up on your doorstep with that weird rictus grin of his and refuse to leave until you've agreed to vote for him. Except there's two of the bastard.

Mods and Rockers, Brighton (10-13 May 1964)

We've all seen Quadrophenia, so something like “My Generation” by The Who would have been blaring out of jukeboxes in greasy spoon cafeterias up and down the country around the same time, right? Actually, in terms of historical accuracy, Quadrophenia is a complete nightmare, and by rights its “goofs” section alone should be enough to crash the IMDb servers. By the time the Mods and Rockers clashed on Brighton Beach that Whitsun bank holiday weekend, The Who had barely formed and still weren't even 100% set on the name (they spent part of that summer recording as The High Numbers before switching back to The Who). “My Generation” wouldn't be released as a single for another eighteen months.

Instead, the honours went to The Searchers with their single “Don't Throw Your Love Away”. Not a bad song, I suppose, but not really one you'd want to find yourself humming whilst trying to lob a deckchair at a policeman's head, is it?

The Battle Of Grosvenor Square (17 March 1968)

Thousands gather for a mass protest (against the US war in Vietnam) in central London. There are skirmishes between police and breakaway groups of protesters, police on horseback wade in and it all kicks off big time. BBC reports on the day faithfully catalogue police injuries (many of the protesters were armed with clumps of earth. Clumps of earth? The brutes!) whilst fastidiously playing down the sort of damage that burly men on bloody great horses armed with fucking big sticks can do. Rings a bell, though I can't think why.

In a neat bit of circularity, Mick Jagger was in the crowd that day, and felt compelled to pen “Street Fighting Man”, a song which is now indelibly linked in popular imagination with the protest movement of 1968, despite the fact that it didn't even make Top 40 in the US (many stateside radio stations refused to give it any airplay, worried about its seditious message), and wouldn't be released as a single in the UK until 1970, long after the dust had settled.

What was No. 1 in the charts the day the police decided they'd had enough of the Dixon of Dock Green bollocks? This was...

Brixton Riots (10-12 April 1981)

The Metropolitan Police make the schoolboy error of forgetting to order state-of-the-art riot equipment before inflaming racial tensions with overzealous use of stop-and-search powers in predominantly black communities. As a result, they're forced into the position of having to do up all the buttons on their tunics and the chinstraps on their helmets before grabbing the nearest dustbin lid for protection. I mean really, who brings a dustbin lid to a petrol bomb fight?

And the man providing the soundtrack to all this violence? Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Shakin' Stevens...

Toxteth Riots (4 – 11 July 1981)

When Liverpool exploded on 4thJuly 1981, Michael Jackson was looking at enjoying his second week at Number 1 with “One Day In Your Life”. When the smoke cleared one week later, he'd been usurped by The Specials singing “Ghost Town”,which of course went on to become the anthem of early 80s youth alienated under Thatcher. I bet you can't guess who knocked The Specials off the top slot, though? Go on, I'll give you a clue: “There's an old piano and they play it hot, behind the green door....”

Broadwater Farm Estate Riot (6 October 1985)

A couple of days earlier, and Broadwater Farm's riot song would have been a very different incarnation of former Street Fighting Man Mick Jagger prancing about with David Bowie singing“Dancing In The Street”. As it was, the riot played out whilst Midge Ure enjoyed his only solo hit with “If I Was”. A week after that, and “The Power of Love” by Jennifer Rush was Top of the Pops. We can only wonder that it more people had been exposed to the redemptive force of Jen's power ballad just a few days sooner, then maybe the whole ugly episode could have been averted.

Poll Tax Riot (30 March 1990)

Occupying the No. 1 slot was “The Power” by Snap. Last year in Korea, a class of twenty people doing Tae-Bo exercises to this song were able to shake the 39-storey building they were in so violently that it had to be completely evacuated. Can you imagine what might have been if the Poll Tax rioters had been aware of the song's awesome potential for seismic disturbance on that day in 1990? Mind you, a week later, and their riot song would have been “Vogue” by Madonna. I'm not at all certain a bit of mass voguing would yield quite the same results.

Oldham Riots (26-28 May 2001)

With this at No.1, I'm surprised the entire country didn't tear itself apart in a frenzy of self-destruction.

England Riots (6-10 August 2011)

I'm sorry. I have no words. I mean, it's nice to have a unifying theme and all, and that Jagger name does keep cropping up over the decades, but this is absolutely fucking awful. There's just no excuse for this at all. Christ.

I have to disagree with the late, lamented Gil Scott-Heron. If past form's anything to go by, come the revolution there's a fighting chance that the theme song will be sung by Tom Jones or Englebert Humperdinck. Just, please, anyone but Cher Lloyd.

The Toxteth Riots: 30 Years On

What To Wear To The Water Riots

The All-Too-Quiet Riot

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