‘Here was a future for hands of skill’: Steel and Post-punk in the 1980s

Bands just don’t write songs about the steel industry anymore (alright, maybe they never did…). But for a brief spell in the mid-1980s two British rocks bands released albums, both of which made the top-twenty in the United Kingdom, that featured songs about Britain’s steel industry and its sorry decline.

In 1984 the Scottish band, Big Country, released their second album, ‘Steeltown’, and the following year the Welsh band, The Alarm, also released their sophomore effort, ‘Strength’. The two bands had much in common; they played a similar brand of melodic post-punk; their members were peers and friends; and they came to be seen, alongside contemporaries U2, as part of a Celtic rock revival (a recurring source of ridicule in the music press). They also penned a track each about the steel industry.

The hard rock and punk scenes of the 1970s were a largely anglo- (or London-) centric affair. Scotland could boast Nazareth and Wales had Budgie (a band who remained largely overlooked until their track ‘Breadfan’ was covered by Metallica a decade later) but neither had much to say about the places they came from nor the societies they lived in.

By the 1980s, however, a new generation of rock bands from Wales and Scotland were beginning to make an impression, with The Alarm and Big Country at the forefront. Their charismatic lead vocalists and guitarists, Mike Peters and Stuart Adamson, were too young to be part of punk’s first wave but they inherited much of its fiery political radicalism and social conscience.

Peters and Adamson may have been inspired by the ethos of punk but their lyrics also took inspiration from the world immediately around them. Growing up in Wales and Scotland in the 1960s and 70s, the steel industry was a looming presence in the industrial working class cultures Peters and Adamson inhabited.

The track ‘Deeside’ by The Alarm was an ode to the closure of the Shotton steelworks in north Wales, which ceased steel production in 1980. ‘Steeltown’ by Big Country, meanwhile, documented the fortunes of the Scottish steelworkers who migrated to Corby in the 1930s to build a new steelworks only for the plant to close half a century later.

But why did they care? Mike Peters and Stuart Adamson grew up dreaming of being punk rockers, not steelworkers or coal miners. ‘I don’t want to die like I saw you die, in a dead end job in a dead end way,’ sang Peters on The Alarm track ‘Father to Son’. In defiance of his father’s wishes to get a steady job in an aerospace factory, Peters was determined to pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician: ‘Today I can’t find nothing nowhere, Tomorrow I might find something somewhere.’

The whole ethos of punk (as loosely defined as it was) was about railing against your inherited culture and rejecting society’s established traditions and values. The Sex Pistol’s famously sang ‘no future’ but they arguably cared even less about the past. Stuart Adamson sang on the lead single from Big Country’s first album, ‘you can’t stay here when every single hope you had has shattered’, as though history was a burden on the present.

But perhaps by the 1980s punk had matured. Peters and Adamson clearly saw there was much to be cherished about the working class world they were born into – something that was brought into far clearer focus as it was slipping from view. ‘It’s a cruel world that kicks a man when he’s down,’ inveighed The Alarm’s ‘Deeside’, whilst Adamson lamented in ‘Steeltown’, ‘here was a future for hands of skill.’

Through their lyrics, ‘Deeside’ and ‘Steeltown’ were clearly intended as a political shot at the Thatcher government and the destruction of Britain’s industrial economy. But they were also pensive and wistful. ‘Finally the dream is gone,’ sang Adamson in Steeltown as he mourned the passing of an industry and a way of life. ‘Steeltown’ and ‘Deeside’ may have been shamelessly nostalgic but they were also highly emotive and their resonance remains enduring.

During the 1980s the industrial world that had characterised much of British society since the eighteenth century was slowly disappearing but bands, like The Alarm and Big Country, were determined that its passing should not go unnoticed.

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