Back in the summer of 1989, I had a collective “what the f*** was that?” moment with a small group of friends.
I’ve stolen the WTFWT term from the DJ Andy Kershaw, who has used it to describe moments in his life where new music has stopped him in his tracks. A song or a gig that suddenly snaps you out of your thoughts or movements, takes your full attention and things are never the same again as your musical journey takes a new unexpected twist.
We were watching, as we did in between NES sessions (memory dictates it was Zelda, memory could be wrong), pirated Skateboard videos. I wasn’t a skater due to being crap at anything physical or skilful outside of computer or board games, but my friends were.
My interest was in the music in the videos. While we had stalwarts of underground music available on the radio, the real underground music could only be found on Skate videos.
And so, one summer, we’re watching these kids from California dreaming of their lifestyle. Cool clothes, empty pools in their back garden, huge municipal skate parks and sun. I’m just watching, pretending I know what the tricks are.
About halfway through the video we stop. A song opens, an opening guitar hook, a scream and then “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success.” We were introduced to The Replacements.
The song played through in mutual silence. When it finished, we shared a look of what the f*** was that. Rewound and spent the next hour rewinding and replaying, while trying to record the song onto a tape from a cassette recorder held up to the TV speaker.
Context is everything. It was 1989, we were 15, it was a small town and the only option for employment was a local factory which was just going through another round of mass redundancies.
As Tommy Tiernan said,“We couldn’t have found work even if we’d have wanted to.” Our hormones had drawn us to the angst of Husker Dü, Dinosaur Jr, etc, but there was little that expressed just how bad the outlook for our generation was right then.
Now there was The Replacements. Past their peak and on the way out as a band. They’d never been the darlings of the European music press or radio, that had been reserved for REM and the Pixies. They became the perfect “cult” band for us.
Nobody liked them anymore, not that many liked them in the first place. We couldn’t be accused of being the late 80s version of hipsters.
Nothing can ever do as much justice to the self-destructive, troubled history of the band as last year’s biography “Trouble Boys” by Michael Mehr. Everything was always a fight.
Recording albums started and continued to be a nightmare between the general belligerence of the band to accommodate the opinion and advice of the producer and the short window of ability to actually play and record due mostly to alcohol. They fought with themselves, but especially with anyone who was in authority.
Despite all that, they were still on the cusp of fame all they had to do was play two songs on Saturday Night Live. Stay sober, not mess about. Just go on and play. Of course they got blindingly drunk and their now notorious set effectively saw them banned from mainstream television.
Through my obsession with everything Replacements related, outside of the music, there was one key thing that had me hooked. I knew these guys. I went to school with them. I was related to them.
There but for the grace of God, I could have been them. Except, due to lack of talent, I wouldn’t have been in a band, I’d have been dead, or in the army, or on disability, or stuck in that gap of people in their 40s and 50s, unemployed and 10-20 years too young for anyone to take on.
There but for the grace of god, I’d have probably ripped up my Labour membership and looked at the populist far right too.
The Replacements weren’t right wing. They weren’t left wing. They were pretty much that politically apathetic, angry at everything, cynical, beat-up, desperate, no prospect youth that is out there outside of the main metropolitan areas.
As with me and my friends, the release for that life, the escape, was music. For most of us, it only ever got to be a mental escape, living vicariously through the words and musicianship of our betters. But for a few, like the Replacements, it really was the only thing they could do to escape their lives.
It’s easy to see, reading about their early years in Minnesota (the bad part as opposed to Husker Dü’s decent part) how these guys are now the angry disillusioned on 4Chan or Reddit.
As sweeping a generalisation as the portrayal of every Brexit voter as a racist northerner or Trump supporter as a redneck hick. Culchies in their bootcut jeans, wearing their county jersey to the local sticky carpets nightclub on a Saturday, slavishly voting for FF or FG and only sympathetic to the Church.
Anything outside our enlightened metropolitan perspective, generalised with a simple retort. You’re just a bigot. Your opinion cannot be one of personal experience or nuanced. I can support the Palestinian plight, but not terrorism. I can be anti-Israel policy, but not anti-Semitic. I can have nuance, but not you.
They are the Bastards of Young, just as I was, just as The Replacements were. Except, for my generation it was pre-internet, the left was still a viable alternative. It wasn’t centrist. It was left.
It was populism of its day, speaking to us with little and little prospects of anything different. There were few saying anything different, our boogeyman was those on the right, those who espoused Thatcherism or Reaganism of the time.
Then as the left moved more to the centre, as the prospect of them achieving power became a reality, that attraction was no longer there.
We were told globalism was good. Relaxing financial regulation was good. You were a racist if you disagreed because you’re putting yourself and your family’s need for food and shelter over the new location of your factory in India and their needs.
You’re only angry because you hate brown people. Here’s a few bob to retrain at FAS as a forklift truck driver, there’s loads of call centre jobs in Dublin, you just aren’t trying hard enough.
The blame shifted and there was no one else offering people a political answer. If you didn’t agree with centrist politics, you were wrong, backwards, and a bigot.
And so that void was filled online for the youth and it was filled by the Far Right for the older generation. It didn’t have to be, but we didn’t all party.
Centrism made things good for the lower middle classes and above. Benefits and handouts became the unsustainable pay-off to those who were being left behind, while we sold their houses from under them and sneered at them for having a nice telly.
But it wasn’t benefits they wanted, if we listened, it was a chance, it was prospects, change. Like 81 years ago, the British who took part in the Jarrow March, they weren’t going to London to hand in a petition for more handouts (after devastating and crippling welfare cuts…thanks for war lads, sorry we broke your industry in the meantime), they went to ask for help, help in getting work.
After the 1980s when it became necessary to make that request again and after decades of successive governments, successive political parties ignoring the request, this time around Jarrow voted Leave.
Of course, they’re just racist. It couldn’t possibly be nuanced.
There was no “Road to Wigan Pier” for this generation. Nothing written or spoken about to give the middle classes a nod to what was happening on their doorstep. Instead they were portrayed as lazy, entitled, criminal, cheats and now racist. Poverty was global, they just didn’t know how good they had it compared to others.
The violent few on the left. The anti-Semitic few. The “snowflake” (for they exist) few. The “virtue signalling” few. They don’t speak for us. They don’t portray us on the left.
We get riled up when critics use them as sweeping generalisations of all that is wrong with the left. These few exceptions are used to belittle and undercut a socialist democrat’s argument. We are nuanced in our opinions from our experiences.
There will be those who voted for AfD who are just filled with hate and racism. Just as AfD feed on that with their own brand of populism. But there will be many who have been left behind economically and politically.
The parties that used to speak for them long ago abandoning them or ignoring them or dismissing them as protectionist racists just because they’re thinking of their own difficulties and not thinking about the wider issue of global poverty. If there is only one party speaking to them, how else can they engage in change?
The door was left open to those who would speak to and speak up for this now growing population. The left abandoned them and left the void open to the far right to peddle hate and offer hope.
It’s not too late though. Regret over Brexit and Trump shows this (if only we could stop sneering at them). It seems that in a pique of hopelessness and no other alternative people have opted for extreme votes.
As the dust settles, they have realised what they overlooked in their protest. Give them the alternative and the rise of the Far Right can be stopped.
The alternative has to be prepared to listen first without judgement, without interrupting with their own views from their metropolitan biases.
The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please. There but for the grace of god went I.
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