Music/Features

A British punk band predicted Brexit 39 years ago

September 5, 2017

The Adverts were ahead of their time. By, like... decades.

The world seems a more politically unstable place right now? No shit. But if we were to trace a line back—when did it start to really feel that way? With Trump’s inauguration? Think just slightly before that, to an event that stunned Europe, the U.S., and everyone else watching. It started with Brexit. The U.K.’s narrow vote to leave the European Union in June of last year was one of the first major shocks kicking off the current period of unrest. Nobody expected it, not even those who voted for Brexit.

And yet, in an astronomical act of music prophecy, a song that was written nearly forty years ago— decades before the vote—somehow, predicted the entire Brexit fiasco. Of course we’re talking about The Advert’s angry, anthemic, and perfectly phrased, “The Great British Mistake.” And what a perfect description that song title is. Since Brexit, there have been numerous calls for a second vote, and the fear of a disastrous economic crash still haunts the current Brexit negotiations.

Britain has given the world so much, but it’s taken a lot, too. One thing we can thank the UK for is punk rock, which turned a hefty four decades old last year. It’s only fitting then, that we acknowledge how an amazing song by one of punk’s flagbearers would herald such a political earthquake.

Originally recorded as a mid-album cut for the iconic London band’s 1978 debut record, Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts, singer TV Smith has said he originally wrote the track as a description of punk’s sudden and messy emergence from reserved, upstanding British culture.

The Advert’s brief existence was an example of a punk band burning bright, but not for long. They gave us some absolutely killer songs, and created a style icon with bassist Gaye Advert, whose look would later influence Joan Jett and others. Despite breaking up three years after forming, they left an echoing impact.

“The Great British Mistake” has gone on to have a resonance of its own though, and its lyrics can be read as the perfect narrative of the Brexit car crash. One week after the Brexit vote, The Washington Times posted it in an article titled, The Week In One Song. Examining the actual lyrics, you could imagine Smith had some kind of crystal ball to see into the messed-up summer of 2016.

Let’s break the song down:

“The Great British mistake! / was looking for a way out / was getting complacent / not noticing the pulse was racing…”

Essentially, we know the Brexit vote was called so Prime Minister David Cameron could silence those members of his Conservative Party who had turned grumbling about the EU into a form of art. “We’ll have a public vote,” he declared, looking for a way to get out of this situation of constant sniping from the back benches of his party.

But no one expected the UK Independence Party, long associated with hissing at the EU and protecting British symbols like the pound and pint, to pull off a victory. The UK’s major parties, including Cameron, got complacent—big time. In a changing world, moving forward into the great unknown, he simply couldn’t foresee the UK having to leave the big European family.

It was a mistake. British people had, like the US, had a taste of what post-industrial, post-job security, post-2008 crash life was like. It was, by and large, mostly bollocks. They wanted to go back to what the opposition painted as simpler, more assured times. Essentially, the pre-EU era. Cameron’s mistake was one that rocked Washington during the 2016 election; failing to notice the racing pulse of populism amongst the voters.

“We couldn’t adapt / so we couldn’t survive…the people take a downhill slide into the gloom / into the dark recesses of their minds”

This was, once again, a great summation by Smith (intended or not) of fears about where the UK might go. With Trump waiting in the wings, and arch-nationalist Marine Le Pen in France cheering on Brexit, the nature of society seemed to be up for debate. A pointed reference to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451 further compounds this fear.

The reference to people not being against each other (“I’m not racist but…”), but against “bad concepts” like the EU, like out-of-control immigration, or diminishing sovereignty, painted the arguments of the Leave side pretty effectively.

“The genie’s out of the bottle / they didn’t mean to free him…devil behind them”

This line feels like Smith practically had a crystal ball into the day after the vote. People were genuinely shocked. The idea that both leaders of the UK’s two main parties couldn’t convince people that leaving the EU was a huge risk to British families, British jobs and Britain as a whole was incomprehensible. The question remained, what was going to happen next?

A total stop on immigration? European citizens being kicked out of the UK? A further slide to the right? These are all questions that buzzed around the pubs and streets of the UK—and still do.

“When will it be over…How can they avoid it? Avoid It? AVOID IT!?”

The crescendo of the song, desperately asked by Smith over and over, is the exact question, phrased in this exact way, that numerous politicians and voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland are asking. The UK has just published a position paper that hopes to at least clear up the situation with Northern Ireland’s border—a contentious issue to say the least. Evidently, it hasn’t gone down well. 

With the country’s government now passed to Theresa May, everyone’s hoping a total bureaucratic nightmare can be avoided. The path to actually delivering Brexit is still covered under a fog of “How the hell do we deliver this?” But this righteous track by the Adverts, with the chorus banging in our ears, hangs over Brexit proceedings like a never-ending car alarm from decades past.

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