Listen to this track by Barking, Essex-based left-leaning jangle pop maestros McCarthy. It’s their 1986 single “Red Sleeping Beauty”, the harbinger for their first album that would appear the next year, I Am A Wallet.
The band put themselves across as a sort of politicized Smiths, with jangling guitars and lyrics that alluded to the cracks in the facade where mid-to-late ’80s Britain was concerned. They built their sound around the political lyrics of singer/guitarist Malcolm Eden, and the chiming folk-indie lines laid down by lead guitarist Tim Gane.
McCarthy formed in 1984, just before the height of the unemployment rash and miner’s strike in England, as well as the dismantling of the social safety net at the hands of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. Despite their material being very concerned with those particular times, by the time this track came out on the Pink label, they didn’t get much radio play internationally, or even domestically, other than by way of the immortal champion of fringe indie bands John Peel, who hosted several of his famous sessions with McCarthy.
But, they would provide another service to music as a whole beyond their small but vital output by the end of the decade, even if at the time, they appeared not to make much impact.
McCarthy, named ironically after Senator Joseph McCarrthy, he of the HUAC hearings in the early 1950s, was a part of the C86 scene most overtly as their “Celestial City” was included on that landmark NME compilation. They dealt in satirical themes, and echoey post-new wave texture, hooking into a certain groove where “pop music as protest” was concerned, included (rightly or wrongly) in a spate of similarly motivated political songwriters at the times.
Maybe their lack of impact had to do with timing, since by the end of the 1980s, the idea of a band being the voice of a generation, talking about political issues, was a few years old. The end of the decade definitely saw acts of this kind of direction being sidelined. This song seems to reflect that, the idea of being asleep while “there’s still a war to win”. It seems like this tune is protesting a lack of protest, commenting on a dearth of disobedience to the powers that be as reflected on the charts by 1986, until Public Enemy came along, of course.
The fact that they didn’t set the charts on fire kind of proves the point, maybe – that protest music or singles with political themes just didn’t sell records in the mid-80s, unless you were U2. But in other ways, that friction with the channels of the establishment would provide fuel to the fire to keep them going, even if they never became U2 themselves as a result.
Yet all would not be lost where McCarthy was concerned. For one thing, they did inspire fellow musicians and students of a certain kind of rock songwriting. According to Nicky Wire, bassist and lyricist of Manic Street Preachers, McCarthy and particularly I Am A Wallet, was the cornerstone on which the Manics were built, a favour returned in the form of cover versions of several McCarthy songs over their career, including this one. Secondly, by the end of their life, the band took on a new member in Lætitia Sadier by 1990. And when the band broke up, Tim Gane and Sadier, who were an item as well as being bandmates, formed a new band for a new decade – Stereolab.
For more information about McCarthy, check out this article by a fan which also lists their discography, including their multiple Peel Sessions.
Also, have a read of this interview with John Williamson of McCarthy.