Come to Milton Keynes

The sugary pop of 1985's 'Our Favourite Shop' by Paul Weller's The Style Council carried a brutal critique of the fantasies and realities of Thatcherism in the South of England during the tumultuous 1980s.

After breaking up The Jam, Paul Weller’s new work with The Style Council was effervescently melodic, danceable, and calibrated for mainstream success. Yet alongside its new pop musical structure lay a brutal, lyrical critique of life under Thatcherism, particularly in the singer’s native Home Counties. This is seen at its best in a single from 1985’s Our Favourite Shop concerning a particularly celebrated new town.

Developed as one of the last of the post-war new towns in 1967, Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire stood out from its predecessors through its comparative lack of traditional municipal socialist elements. Unlike Basildon, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld, or others, Milton Keynes seemed to play little lip-service to its social democratic roots – it was fundamentally about the rising structure of feeling of ‘aspiration’.

And yet, this was not an entirely illusory atmosphere. Material comfort was genuinely felt, and creative aspirations facilitated; Milton Keynes even spawned a vibrant, grassroots musical culture, documented extensively by Ruth Finnegan in her classic ethnomusicological text from 1989, The Hidden Musicians. As historian Lauren Pikó has argued, local community-based services proliferated. The town—then as now—is the administrative centre of the Open University, a ‘university of the air’ brought into being by Labour education minister Jennie Lee in 1969, which sought to extend adult distance learning on a national basis.

Yet from the late 1970s on, the town was also a testbed for Thatcher’s political project – a revanchist tearing-down of the post-WWII consensus, combined with a sentimental appeal to a nebulous, idealised nostalgia for a past that never was. Economically, Thatcher’s new right were unabashed radicals – but culturally, they harked back to symbols of imperial nostalgia, ‘the good old days’, and a recasting of the World War 2 as a nationalistic victory over ‘the Germans’ rather than against fascism; continuity with a sepia-toned past could be assumed, even as society was being dramatically overhauled (and, ultimately, denied).

Tellingly, Margaret Thatcher well knew the value of a place like this in the new England she was ushering in – she was on hand to open the shopping centre in September 1979, months after her resounding general election victory as a right-wing insurgent over Jim Callaghan’s effectively centrist Labour party at the time. Milton Keynes and its surrounds would become the solid electoral base for the New Right, built on the fast-fading, residual elements of the welfare state.

Born into a working-class family in Woking, Surrey in 1958, Paul Weller had some idea of the mentality of the ‘home counties’: locales that are often seen as preoccupied with rigidly middle-class respectability and clean suburban order, as well as defined by their satellite status to London. Their superficial unity was a great source of lyrical inspiration for the young Weller. In an NME interview with Paul Morley from 1979, he states:

We’ve been sort of knocked for writing class songs and that, but I feel justified in writing them. Woking’s a very class polarised town; there’s a very working class area and then a middle class, rich area, which is very extreme in that sense. But I never had it hard, you know what I mean?

Like many relatively comfortable working class southerners, Weller considered voting Tory, telling the music press in 1977 that he would do so in the next election – something he quickly backtracked on, claiming it was a joke to annoy The Clash.

In The Jam’s first records there is an inchoate distaste of the prevailing establishment—like the Sex Pistols, though less imbued with their cynical, nihilistic structure of feeling—that didn’t necessarily lean to the left so much as a general desire for ‘change’. Yet as the Thatcher’s ‘Great Moving Right Show’ began in earnest, Weller’s song-writing too shifted, evolving from the social-realist mod punk of the early Jam to a more politicised, Romantic social critique.

Quoting Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ in the liner notes of 1980’s Sound Affects signposted the record as the one where Weller refined his focus on the sites of struggle against contemporary alienation. His lyric writing honed in on the desperate search for human connection (‘Start!’), the ‘transformative’ nature of love (‘But I’m Different Now’) and a dispatch from the frontlines of urban desolation (‘That’s Entertainment’). ‘Pretty Green’ even mined the transformative and near-mystical quality of money itself.

Musically, The Jam developed into territories that fused contemporary music with 1960s popular modernism – ‘Off The Wall crossed with Revolver’, as Weller saw it. It also unashamedly referenced back to signifiers of British popular culture’s engagement with the avant-garde, both in The Beatles’ pastiche and the cover art’s homage to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. And whilst the patchier offering that was The Gift (1982) offered glimpses of continued brilliance—including the devastating ‘A Town Called Malice’—it was through The Style Council that this tendency went further still, embracing thoroughly modern’80s pop styles along with popular Marxism. Through The Style Council, Weller began to lyrically identify the root causes of the crisis, rather than its morbid symptoms.

And in terms of root causes, the extension of the ‘right to buy’ council housing was as instrumental as any for ensuring Thatcherism’s success as well as shoring up her base. This policy—whereby state-owned housing stock was sold at heavily discounted rates to council tenants—established the expansion of a property-owning class and a sense of class mobility, and with it, abandoned the inter- and post-war goal of the socially mixed housing estate. Milton Keynes itself starkly illustrated this shift – in 1977, 75 percent of houses in Milton Keynes were rentals; 14 years later, 75 percent were owner-occupied, the neoliberal transformation executed to perfection.

In 1984, underlining the newly forged idyll, the Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) commissioned an advertisement to highlight the town’s roaring success. Michael Nyman’s score updated English pastoral classicism for the consumer age, and MKDC’s short film emphasised the town’s youth, its community, and a profoundly rendered but profoundly nebulous ‘hope’. Known as the ‘Red Balloons’ advert, this has had a life of its own beyond its short-lived promotional intent, becoming—much like the ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ initiative of the 1980s—a classic example of successful municipal marketing. Yet when considered in relation to the era’s unfolding political upheaval, this focus-grouped bucolic narrative seems nakedly ideological, serving to firm up a wider political project just as communities both above and the Watford Gap were being pulled apart.

Apparently inspired to write it by viewing this same advert, the second single from The Style Council’s Our Favourite Shop was ‘Come To Milton Keynes’, a three-minute pop dissection of what many saw as Thatcherism’s heartland. Its melodic bounce, contrapuntal strings (arranged by John Mealing, better known as a composer of TV game show theme tunes, as well an orchestrator for hire) and exultant sound recalls nothing so much as peak McCartney in 1967.

Yet, unlike ‘Penny Lane’, the single satirises nostalgia rather than relishing in it. Unusually for a Style Council song at this time, the tune is composed in a more consciously retrospective idiom. From the warped fairground intro to the ‘trad jazz’ derived breakdown, the musical backing is a ‘multi-layered pastiche’, in the words of one of Weller’s biographers.

Dripping in irony throughout, the idyllic imagery that Weller mounts up in the initial verse ends up becoming uncanny – like an exaggerated sales pitch by a hyperreal estate agent (‘A nice new town, where the curtains are drawn, hope is started, and dreams can be born…’). Rejecting the highly aestheticized, twee social sphere suggested by the ‘red balloons’ advert, Weller turns his eye to the intense privatisation of experience inseparable from processes of suburbanisation. Mick Talbot’s keyboard arrangements are key to reinforcing this, cadencing between the upbeat pop bounce and jazz chord dissonance as easily as he switches from synthesiser to piano.

Shared insanity and community are paired together, as if the psychological/ideological work of shaping this 1980s subtopia is inherently contradictory and too great to bear. The town’s contained passive-aggressive rage is expressed through ‘the boys on the green looking for some slaughter’; youthful alienation cannot be excised from the shiny new scheme. The hollowness prevails to the extent that those stuck there look for escape in heroin, whilst the punning ‘mine’s the semi with the Union Jack on’ sees suburban patriotism intimately linked with erectile dysfunction.

References to Paradise Lost play on the dichotomy of the new town itself, an inversion of nominative determinism. The portmanteau of John Milton (roundhead, revolutionary poet, and the author of modern England’s first poetic epic) and John Maynard Keynes (intellectual architect of Bretton Woods, the economic system that shaped the post WWII period, before the hegemony of monetarism) points to the denialism of any fundamental changes to the British state.

This profound constitutional conservatism—anatomised by cultural theorists Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson in the sixties and seventies—is marked by a steadfast attachment to anti-modern feudal structures. The ideology of Thatcherism parroted the line that ‘everything’s fine’, refusing to remotely acknowledge the backward class system’s long-term decline. The insistent ‘May I’s? (‘May I walk you home tonight… May I slash my wrists tonight?’) reiterates a sense of politeness through gritted teeth, violence turned inward. The repeated harp glissando which closes the song, much in the style of the end of a Golden Age Hollywood dream sequence, underlines the parodic unreality of Weller’s travelogue.

The off-piste sweetness of the song’s pop form conflicts with the lyric’s strident, declamatory voice, in some respects similar to near contemporaries of the group, such as the Pet Shop Boys (‘West End Girls’) or Frankie Goes To Hollywood (‘Relax’). As with these groups, there is an inherent queerness to The Style Council, as well as a wholehearted embrace of the newly instantiated form of the music video, ever more significant since the emergence of MTV in 1981.

The video for ‘Come To Milton Keynes’ casts Weller and Talbot as slightly shabby music hall performers, tapping into the vocabulary and residual anti-establishment energy of John Osborne’s 1957 portrait of Suez-era imperial decline, The Entertainer. It’s a scathing and brilliant piece which complements the song perfectly: Vaughan & Anthea’s video highlights the irreverent and subversive humour of the song, presenting as it does young kids cosplaying as boot boy toughs, alongside Weller and Talbot parodying their own handsome pop star presentability.

Yet what separates The Style Council—in this song as with so many on Our Favourite Shop—is the sheer force of political anger and urgency that runs through it. And by contrast to other bands that developed a ‘new pop’ sensibility from post-punk roots—Scritti Politti or Orange Juice, for instance—The Style Council’s radical tension between left-wing intelligence and modern pop moves is not so far from the surface. As with his social-realist and Romantic forebears, Weller is fascinated by the most extraordinary aspects of the ordinary—good, bad, and deranged—delivered in a register that refuses to talk down to his listeners.

To me, it is, like much of The Style Council’s work, an attempt to craft a left-wing popular music without abstraction, related to the group’s involvement in the Red Wedge campaign to rally an anti-Thatcherite youth vote in the run up to the 1987 general election. And while anatomising space and place is as crucial to the Style Council as it is to one of Weller’s more commonly cited forebears, Ray Davies, Weller’s focus on Our Favourite Shop is one of myth-breaking rather than myth-making.

Profoundly and iconoclastically punk in this respect above all else, The Style Council’s collective genius was to bring this iconoclasm to bear in trying to imagine a future beyond the limited imaginings of a neoliberal present, and to deliver it as demystifying mass cultural pop.