My Top 20 Songs of 2012 #9: Plan B – ‘Ill Manors’

plan b ill manors

The flipside to Under The Westway’s dolorous celebration of the glory of the Olympics, was ‘Ill Manors’, the pre-Olympics single from Ben Drew aka Plan B. It arrived under a hail of approbation (mostly, it must be admitted, from left-leaning listeners like myself*), as the first genuine mainstream British protest single in years, perhaps since ‘Common People’ or ‘A Design For Life’. The approbation increased when it became clear that the rapper was keen to explain and expand on the single’s meaning. He wanted to “convey a message” by getting “under people’s skin”, explaining that the song needed “visceral energy” to achieve this ambition. He wanted to shock people into listening. If there’s one thing that can’t be denied about the record, it’s that it does have the visceral energy Plan B was after, using a sample from Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, as well as a chorus designed to inflame Daily Mail pitchforks: “Oi! I said oi! What you lookin’ at, you little rich boy!” It was difficult to ignore (despite some occasionally clunky lines referencing Luton and – bizarrely – the Kaiser Chiefs – oy!, indeed).

It should be pointed out that, unlike Pulp or the Manics, Ben Drew is not a working class kid. He readily admits that he is somewhere in between middle class and working class. This drew the ire of many an irate finger-twatter on the ‘Have Your Say’ comments sections of websites: “how dare he not be working class and talk about working class people!”. All of this ninny-speak conveniently forgot that: a) Drew is not from the comfortable middle-classes, he’s from the liminal class in between middle-class and working class (a bit like John Lydon, or even the Gallagher Brothers), growing up in Forest Gate and attending (after expulsion from school) the Tunmarsh Pupil Referral Unit in Newham; and b) Drew wasn’t necessarily talking just about working class youth, he was talking about those youths stereotyped as “chavs”, a term for which Drew reserved particular disdain.

Drew addressed his concern about this stereotyping in interviews at the time of the song’s release: “For me that term is no different from similar terms used to be derogatory towards race and sex, the only difference being that the word chav is used very publicly in the press… When you attack someone because of the way they talk, the way they dress, the music they listen to, or their lack of education, and you do it publicly and it’s acceptable to do that, you make them feel alienated. They don’t feel like a part of society… For every person who uses the word chav, there is a less educated person ready to embrace it. They say, well look, I’m never going to change the way you think of me, so actually I’m going to play up to it and fuel the fire.

This was getting to the nub of what Ill Manors was about: the psychology behind the riots of 2011. Drew was well aware of the self-destructive amorality behind the riots, but he was trying to explain it, not excuse it. As he pointed out at the time: “I’m not trying to condone what happened… It disgusted me… [but] it saddened me more than anything, because those kids rioting and looting have just made life 10 times harder for themselves. They’ve played into the hands of what certain sections of Middle England think about them.”

The song eschews solutions and embraces contradictions and moral ambiguity: “Keep on believing what you read in the papers/Council estate kids, scum of the earth/Think you know how life on a council estate is/From everything you’ve ever read about it or heard/Well it’s all true, so stay where you’re safest/There’s no need to step foot out the ‘burbs/Truth is here, we’re all disturbed.

I don’t think Drew actually means that there is nothing redeemable in the people he’s describing; if that were true, the song would be nothing but vile reactionary tripe. However, if you closely inspect the lyrics, or read an interview with Drew, then it becomes clear that these lines might accurately sum up the mindset of someone who feels so completely alienated by society that they might as well live up to the derogatory stereotyping** and lash out.

As pointed out by the excellent Dorian Lynskey (whose blog on the song is a much better summation of its merits than mine could ever hope to be), the excitement of the chorus is reminiscent of that of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’ – for people with nothing to aspire to except for stuff, why not go crazy? If you’re trapped, the illicit thrill in the impulse to smash to bits everything around you must be exhilarating. This is something that we can all surely identify with, even whilst being disgusted by the notion that someone would act on this impulse. This song was one of the rare moments where an artist tried to empathise with this seemingly amoral mindset. Ben Drew seemed to ask a question that a lot of others missed, or deliberately ignored: how will you ever arrive at a solution to a problem without attempting to understand the reasons behind that problem? That question is surely especially important when the problem results in something so cataclysmic.

In the end, Plan B’s predictions about more rioting during the Olympics seemed as fear-fuelling as the Daily Mail headlines he was referencing about the riots. It was a glorious summer, full of hope and achievement. However, with further cuts due to affect communities, further cuts to housing benefits (which look like they’ll be particularly detrimental in London, where working people on housing benefit will potentially be forced out of their communities, more than likely moving into what could become US-style ghettos), freezes on the increase in benefit payments to sub-inflationary levels, who knows what the next few summers are going to bring? It doesn’t feel as though any attempt has been made to address the reasons behind the riots and I still hear the word ‘chav’ liberally thrown around by educated people who should know better. Either way, ‘Ill Manors’ is a brilliant song, which perfectly captures the frustrations of an increasingly estranged underclass and does so (for the most part) without resorting to sentimentality or cliché.

 

*it would be foolish to write off the song as pandering to the left, due to the complexity and the importance of the underlying message

**a tautology?

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