Britain’s decision to leave the European Union divided the country. And nowhere is the Brexit debate livelier than within the music community
Should we stay or should we go? Musicians divided on Brexit
London’s Grosvenor Square, in the high-class Mayfair district, is a park well known for protests: until recently its neighbouring buildings included the US embassy, where many marches have culminated. But on August 19, a rather different protest group gathered there. This performance featured no angry rants or chants: the Brexit Big Band make soulful, playful, innovative orchestral jazz. It may be the most pleasing noise to emerge from this political hot potato.
The band is the brainchild of brilliant experimentalist Matthew Herbert, who has tackled various weighty issues over the years. This project is a direct response to Britain’s ongoing attempt to exit the European Union, after the contentious 2016 referendum, where Leave narrowly triumphed over Remain. Herbert’s group gathers performers from Europe and beyond, aiming to spread harmony via music.
The project officially began in March last year, as Britain announced its EU departure by triggering Article 50. And its big finale is due to coincide with Britain’s supposed eventual exit in March next year: the band will release an album featuring more than 1,000 global performers.
Brexit has been Britain’s major talking point since the referendum was announced in February 2016, dividing political parties, families and the music community. You might assume that most working musicians would be pro-Remain, because of worries about red-tape while touring, if nothing else. But views differ wildly, and the music emerging from this struggle veers from celebratory songs to furious polemics – and experimental big-band jazz.
Perhaps the most interesting Brexit disagreement features the creative duo behind legendary 1980s band The Smiths. As solo acts, both have addressed the issue musically, but from opposing perspectives.
The referendum was initial inspiration for guitarist Johnny Marr’s new concept album Call the Comet, which imagines a more peaceful world where Brexit – then US presidentTrump – did not happen.
Conversely, former frontman Morrissey described the 2016 result as “magnificent”. His song Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage is thought to be pro-Brexit, with “Jacky” referring to the Union Jack. During one radio session, he added a telling chant: “Brexit, exit, Brexit, exit.”
Music legends bolster both camps. The Beatles’ Ringo Starr and The Who’s Roger Daltrey are openly pro-Leave, while Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger is a vocal Remainer. He released a witty, but woe-filled, Brexit lament late last year: England Lost. Most notable post-Brexit music has come from the Remain camp, perhaps unsurprisingly – painful splits are fertile lyrical ground.
That pain is particularly acute in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly for Remain. Edinburgh’s The Spook School were recently nominated for Scottish Album of the Year for Could It Be Different?, which tackles post-Brexit bad vibes, notably on the rousing Bad Year. It features a suitably discordant intro. “I wrote the lyrics the day after the Brexit vote,” singer Nye Todd explained. “I was feeling very despondent.”
Music became a key campaign battleground, before the June 2016 vote. Gruff Rhys – best known as frontman of Welsh indie-rock band Super Furry Animals – campaigned for Remain, and even wrote a ballad: I Love EU. Meanwhile, the Leave camp arranged a controversial music festival, Bpoplive, which was eventually cancelled when most of the bill – including Sister Sledge – withdrew.
Most politically active pop and rock acts bemoaned the referendum result, but on the Leave side, a new DIY scene emerged, dubbed Brexit folk. Amateur singers celebrated with anthems such as The Brexit Song (We’ll Be Strong) by Peter Parsons, a jaunty anthem in which the veteran singer squeezes the awkward line: “We’re leaving the European Single Market” into the chorus.
Leave and Remain voters remain at loggerheads. Late last year, folk-rock icon Billy Bragg released the song Full English Brexit, about an older voter who shows refugees little sympathy: “I know some are fleeing from war zones,” he sings, “to keep their young children from harm, but my parents stayed put through the Blitz years. And me? I was sent to a farm.”
Nicky Wire, of the Manic Street Preachers, was unimpressed. “What was that Billy Bragg song – Full English Brexit?” he asked a Q magazine journalist, before ranting. Wire’s native Wales voted heavily to leave the EU – “I don’t agree but I can understand it,” he said.
Wales and Cornwall both voted Leave, despite substantial EU funding. Earlier this year, Welsh/Cornish singer Gwenno released the track Herdhya (Pushing, in Cornish), which is “about the feeling of isolation after the Brexit vote, being stuck on an island”, she explained, with “people who are trying to push society back to a regressive idea of the middle ages that has never existed, and imposing that on everyone else”.
As tensions rocketed, the post-referendum period saw a significant rise in hate crimes, and that sense of a divided society persists. Black British singer Ebony Bones has also described feeling “very isolated, and disconnected from the UK” while making her new album, Nephilim, shortly after the Brexit result: it spawned the fiery track No Black in the Union Jack.
Meanwhile, young rapper – and Drake collaborator – Dave berated former prime minister David Cameron on single Question Time, for resigning after the referendum he instigated: “Are you bathing in the sun while them papers have a run/At the woman [Theresa May] that you left here to handle it?”
Songs for healing
Music might also help to heal those divisions. Last month, a show titled Free Folk in Brexit Britain toured the UK, featuring female Polish trio Sutari in collaboration with British folk act Dead Rat Orchestra. They performed, as the tour’s name suggests, a series of free shows that actively explored the referendum fallout.
Herbert’s Brexit Big Band has evolved as it tours Europe, working with new musicians and singers in each city. The band still features anarchic ideas such as setting the Article 50 document to music, but it is now less about protesting, and all about positivity. One choir-heavy song, You’re Welcome Here, mirrors a campaign that sprang up during the post-referendum tension, aimed at Europeans living in Britain: people wore safety pins to say “stay”.
“There were some Europeans in the choir who were in tears when we first rehearsed that,” Herbert told the Politico website. “One said: ‘In my whole time living here, no one’s ever told me I’m welcome.’”
The one positive about periods of uncertainty and disharmony is that some powerful music will almost certainly emerge, with powerful messages, too.