There can be no tougher DJ gig than the Conservative party conference. It is not that it’s a discerning crowd. But it’s once the politicians have left the stage that the complaints start. This year Liz Truss herself was said to have selected M People’s Moving On Up to soundtrack her arrival at the lectern: it’s a determinedly upbeat anthem, if you don’t listen to the lyrics about packing your bags and moving on out. But the outgoing PM’s choice was not endorsed by M People, with founder Mike Pickering – a longtime anti-Tory – tweeting his anger.
Not that the band could do anything about it: the choice of music at such events is down to the discretion of the venue, not the label or artist (though it’s a different story for party political broadcasts). But just as there is a tradition of political protest music, there’s an equally long one of musicians protesting against politicians’ use of their songs. We spoke to artists who have had their songs co-opted by politics against their wishes.
At last year’s Conservative party conference, Friendly Fires’ song Blue Cassette played as Boris Johnson walked on stage to give his speech. The band responded on Instagram to clarify that their permission to use the track had not been sought: “If we’d have intended them to use it, we’d have named the track Blue Bunch of Corrupt Wankers.”
Jack Savidge (drummer): It’s a strange, sort of vertiginous feeling to hear that someone’s using a piece of your music to further their own interests; that it’s the Conservative party makes it all the more irritating. It seems like every year a different artist gets that peculiar “honour”. It feels like being taken advantage of: we haven’t had any dealings with the Conservatives, yet they think it’s OK to use our stuff without prior approval.
I found out from a deluge of text messages and tweets. We had a quick chat about it, and realised that it warranted a response. We didn’t want people to think that we had sanctioned it. We sat down to think about what might be appropriate to say. We ended up saying that the Tories are corrupt wankers. It seems self-evident that the Tories are corrupt wankers, so why not try to drive that point home?
I highly doubt that Boris Johnson is a fan of ours – but there is a difference between being a fan and using music to get elected. They are trying to co-opt the emotion or feeling that the artist was trying to elicit in the listener, and use it to their ends. I think it’s right to feel protective of that. To us, Blue Cassette is about being blasted by memory. It’s a bit Proustian. It wasn’t meant to extol the virtues of slashing public spending.
I watched the video back, obviously, and it plays as Johnson’s walking to the stage, like he’s a boxer going into the ring – it’s bizarre. Plus they shoddily cut it so that you hear the same 15-second section twice – whoever did it really has a tin ear for rhythm and flow. It’s like a Conservative cut, the CCHQ re-edit.
I think most musicians truly want their music to have a life in the world beyond their control, for their work to reach into places they’d never imagined it going. But there are limits to that – and we found that a Boris Johnson ring-walk was ours.
Norman Cook, AKA Fatboy Slim, is a surprise favourite – or weapon of choice – of politicians, with his No 1 hit Praise You adopted by both Tony Blair in 1999 and Al Gore in 2000. But in 2004 Cook publicly condemned the use of Right Here, Right Now at the Labour party conference over his opposition to the Iraq war: “I want people to know I had no choice.”
Norman Cook: It’s a very strange feeling, when somebody appropriates your music in that way. As a musician you put your heart and soul into a record, so when somebody just hijacks it, it feels like a part of you has been torn out. It’s a bit like watching your girlfriend kiss somebody else.
I would normally be happy for my music to promote the Labour party – Keir Starmer actually asked me if they could use Right Here, Right Now at the last Labour conference, and I was more than happy to say yes. But that particular incident in 2004 just came at a time when I wasn’t happy with what Tony Blair had been doing in Iraq.
You quickly find out that you’re powerless. The way copyright works, all you can do is ask them politely to cease and desist, but normally by the time you find out about it the damage is done – there’s that association. All you can do is go on the record saying: “It’s not in my name: I don’t agree with this.”
I have 100% power over how my music is used in advertising – if I want it to be used to sell cornflakes, that’s my choice. I’ve knocked back multinational oil companies. But when it comes to politics, which is potentially far more damaging, there’s nothing. You’re not allowed to cover a song and change the words without asking the songwriter, so you shouldn’t be able to pervert the message of the song by using it for political means.
That same year, my sister was at a shopping centre in Hatfield where the Tory party was canvassing, and they were playing Right Here, Right Now. She went up to them and said: “My brother does not support you, and he would not be happy with you playing this music.” Then she went up and switched it off. I think musicians should be allowed that recourse: if they play your music on stage, you should be allowed to walk up and switch it off.
With the Tory party, I would run all the way on to the stage and put the Benny Hill theme on instead – that’s their anthem. I can see them all crying cancel culture: “They won’t let us use their song!” That’s because none of us like you!
After climbing to No 1 in 1994, D:Ream’s club hit Things Can Only Get Better was resurrected as the sound of Blair-era optimism. With singer-songwriter Peter Cunnah’s blessing, Labour used it as the theme for their 1997 election campaign, and it became the soundtrack to the end of 18 years of Tory rule.
Al Mackenzie (musician, D:Ream): Things Can Only Get Better went to No 1 in 1994. The song had already done its thing when Pete’s manager was approached by Labour. They were going to use it regardless – but they still asked. It’s just polite, if nothing else. Pete’s manager suggested that it would be advisable to get involved, and Pete – like most people at the time – wanted the Tories out. It seemed like a win-win situation. But after Iraq, it kind of backfired. For years the song was linked with Labour. It lost its way for a while; people wouldn’t touch it, and you get stupid commentary on social media. I had some guy almost suggesting that I was responsible for the war.
Over time it’s healed, and been used in more positive ways. It’s an uplifting tune but it’s got nothing to do with politics. We were just a band making music, trying to make people dance and be happy. There is definitely a group of people, who might not be that into music, who only know it as Labour. But, funnily enough, around 2009, the Tories came to us wanting to use it. They couldn’t do it without our permission, and we said no.
Pete’s been very clear that he wouldn’t want to get involved in something like that again and, politically, he and I are quite different now. I’m much more left – my politics are anti-Tory, basically – and he’s quite disillusioned by all of it. Now we think mixing music and politics isn’t a good idea. But I can’t imagine how any musician could be pro-Tory, the way they have treated the arts.
The Dandy Warhols
When Theresa May exited the stage at the 2011 Tory party conference to an ambiguous guitar riff, bands on both sides of the Atlantic rushed to distance themselves. First Primal Scream, hearing their song Rocks, issued a statement saying that they were “totally disgusted” that their music was being appropriated by the Tory “enemy”. Then May’s exit music was confirmed to have been Bohemian Like You by the Dandy Warhols and singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor piled in online from Oregon: “Why don’t these assholes have rightwing bands make them some rightwing music for their rightwing jerkoff politics?”
Courtney Taylor-Taylor: You put your music out there into the world and you can’t control what happens to it most of the time. It isn’t a screaming outrage or anything. It mostly is just insulting to your sense of propriety. Any artist worth their salt has to know that you’re leaving your ego open to a real bruising by releasing any real expression of yourself, your joys, your sadnesses, your life.
You would never let any politician use your music, if you had a choice, especially one you disagree with. Your songs are just like your children, and you wouldn’t send them out to become extreme right-wing idiots for money. A real artist, with a real soul, would never let that happen. There’s no amount you could be paid. You just can’t sell out – it would hurt your day-to-day life, and your self-esteem, too much. If Trump had ever used any of our songs, I would have felt like the world was ending even more than I already did. Bruce Springsteen [whose song Born in the USA Trump has used at his campaign rallies] must have just been apoplectic. Can you imagine? Holy shit! I had dinner with him once. He would have been the most insulted of any possible musician.
In 2020 Biden’s team got together musicians to support him – I think it was me, the singer from the Drive By Truckers and, like, two other bands. That was the entire roster of bands that was actively going to do something to support that campaign. I was like, what happened to the 60s, man? Everything was a protest song!
I had a song about that dipshit Trump, called Don’t Make America Hate Again, and an old song, Mission Control, that fit into the vibe as well thematically. But I would have fucking played Ohio, if I didn’t have those. I would have done whatever I could. I did it because it’s what you should do, or at least, I believed so. Did it make a difference? Ha ha ha. Nope! I was completely fucking hammered when I did it. Pretty stoned, too. But I’m so happy to have President Biden. God, it’s been such a great relief. We’re halfway through, though – what’s going to happen in two years?