Song Of The Day 11/29/2015: The Mekons – “Empire of the Senseless”

A Sentimental Education – This is from a hugely great album called The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll, released to wild acclaim and almost no sales in 1989. The first side, such as it was in the era when CDs rendered sides moot, was one of the strongest raw rock sides of the entire decade. It contained three great elbow-hoisting anthems: "Memphis Egypt" (a perfectly genius leadoff track), "Only Darkness Has the Power" and today's offering. There's a great song sung by Sally Timms, "Club Mekon," which had one of the greatest opening couplets ever: "When I was just seventeen sex no longer held a mystery/I saw it as a commodity, to be bought and sold like rock n' roll." There's a great cautionary tale called "Cocaine Lil" which purveyed the totality and childishness of drug consumption. There's two other great songs too. It's great, great, very great. It's so great.

I always thought "Empire of the Senseless" was specifically about America only because it mentions "boring Ollie North down in the subway dealing drugs and guns." In turning to this song recently I felt it reflected the dual spheres of current American political thought: the last-chance ascent of displaced soldiers of hyper-morality and the evolving libertarian acceptance of alternative lifestyles. But I was wrong from the get-go: The song was a referendum on the social warfare conducted by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980's, which for awhile was as popular a subject in British song as puppy love or dancing.

Of particular note were two lyrical quips. "These lines are all individuals and there's no such thing as a song" directly quoted Thatcher's 1987 proclamation in an interview with Women's Own magazine: "I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it... They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

The other was: "This song promotes homosexuality/It's in a pretended family relationship with the others on this record." This was a direct assault on Section 28, a clause of Local Government Act 1988 that was enacted throughout the U.K. Headed "Prohibition on promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material," this nasty piece of business stated that: "A local authority shall not (a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality; (b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." Scotland repealed this sucker in 2000; by 2003 the rest of the empire had followed suit. Hilariously, the Mekons found themselves having to censor the word "homosexuality" in their music video for "Empire of the Senseless"; they replaced it with "margarine," citing a lyric that occurred later in the song: "Baked beans, sugar, and margarine/Bread, jam, groceries and lard for the unsentimental." Well, thank God that's over, right?

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