For this year's Record Store Day, Matt Johnson has released his first new material for 15 years – a one-sided 7" single called We Can’t Stop What’s Coming. In fact, as he reveals in the new documentary The Inertia Variations - a film essay that uses Johnson's experience to investigate the notion of creative stagnation resulting from anxiety - it's the first time he's written a song or even sung one in a very, very long time.
So, as the singer-songwriter peeks above the parapet for the first time since the start of the millennium, it seems a good time to remind ourselves why we ought to care.
Heartland is the perfect title for this song of passionate frustration written after ten years of Thatcher's Britain. It's a song about the cultural and political decline of a great country from the perspective of an Englishman struggling to understand why no one else has noticed.
The refrain "This is the 51st state of the USA" might be taken as the knee-jerk reaction of a xenophobe, but Johnson's concern was that Britain was giving up its sovereignty for the promise of a few scraps from the American table. The so-called "special relationship" between Britain and America had been revitalised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan and the British Left was outraged by the thought of policy being shaped from the White House at a time when High Streets were slowly filling up with branches of McDonald's.
This song is Matt Johnson's Hamlet - an epic tragedy of a diseased nation led by the corrupt - a nation which is the author of its own fate, doomed to watch events inexorably play out.
Heartland is inspired as much by the rampant military and cultural imperialism of America as by a growing sense of disappointment in Britain, as embodied by the grotesque, Ralph-Steadmanesque "lager lout" who adorned the single's sleeve, painted by Matt's late brother Andy Dog Johnson.
"When Washington talks exporting democracy to the world, what they really mean is exporting free market capitalism," Johnson told Dutch arts magazine 200% in 2007. "What US foreign policy is really all about is opening up foreign markets for huge corporations to exploit. It has nothing to do with bringing representative democracy to the citizens of these countries. When the American President preaches to the world about how ‘peace loving nations’ should respect international law do many of us pause and reflect that America has dropped more bombs on more countries than any other nation in history? That it treats international law with cavalier disregard whenever it doesn’t fit in with US self-interests. Not that Britain was any different at the height of its empire of course."
Heartland was recommended for the Music to Fight Evil playlist by Tristan Chapman.
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After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.
A high-speed combination of punk chorus and ska verse, Mustard Plug's singalong Unite and Fight is just one of a sensational 28 tracks on the Ska Against Racism album compiled by Bad Time Records in 2020 to raise funds for non-profit organisations working to improve education, opportunity and justice for black people in the USA and beyond. With a barrelling momentum and a repudiation of violent action, this uplifting song is a call to arms for those of us committed to disarmament.