Squats bred some of the best UK music – the Tories want to shut them down

The following post is by Carl Loben, originally posted on the  Louder Than War blog.

Squat culture has been the backbone of creativity for years.

The right wing press would like to paint a picture of marauding lunatics stealing your home from under your nose but the truth is far more blurred. There are countless empty properties, kept empty to bump their price up. Large tracts of the city left empty whilst people are homeless. Musicians are traditionally skint and need space to create. Some people abuse this position and some people make great use of the space.

David Cameron now wants to make squatting a criminal offence. The idea came from Mike Weatherly MP, who shared a panel with Louder Than War at the Great Escape music conference in Brighton where he talked a lot about his interest in pop culture, a pop culture that will struggle to exist without space.

What do Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), ex-Eurythmics man Dave Stewart and Virgin billionaire Sir Richard Branson have in common – apart from being some of the richest men in the UK? Well, when they were younger and trying to make their way in the world, they were all squatters. When Bob Geldof was trying to get the Boomtown Rats off the ground in London in the late 70s, he lived in a squat. Joe Strummer’s band before The Clash, The 101ers, was named after the house where the band all squatted together – 101 Walterton Road, Maida Vale. Before the Sex Pistols shot to fame, Johnny Rotten squatted with Sid Vicious after he got kicked out of his house. Squatting has often been a necessity for impoverished musicians when they are just starting out.

 

In his law and order press conference on Tuesday morning (21st June), Prime Minister David Cameron announced that squatting will become a criminal offence. There are far less squatted properties these days, and the clampdown on legal aid has denied most squatters the opportunity to get legal representation in 2011 anyway.

Statistically, there were 738,414 empty homes in 2010 – so there are probably about the same amount now. Many of these languish empty for years, while homelessness is on the increase. With mortgages out of the reach of most and rent increases – and increasingly large deposits – increasing hardship for tenants, having a secure roof over your head is becoming harder to maintain.

Most people don’t squat as a lifestyle option – it’s more a necessity. The various late 70s/early 80s musicians who squatted – Boy George, Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, Annie Lennox, Sid, Joe etc – were only able to kick-start their music careers when they didn’t have to worry about rent and bills. As soon as they became successful, they stopped squatting and moved into more comfortable property. It’s doubtful that many of the bands from the punk, post-punk, New Romantic and 80s electro-pop would’ve got anywhere if they hadn’t been able to sign on the dole for long periods of time, and some of them – like, by the same token, members of Depeche Mode – had to live in squats. In the late 80s/early 90s, members of My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab and the Levellers lived in squats, and a whole load of punk bands, dub collectives, Riot Grrrl acts and DJs would’ve played early gigs in squatted art/community centres – whether in the UK, or much of Europe. This still happens today.

 

The tightening of the screws has meant that less musicians from poorer backgrounds are able to spend time on their art now without having to fit it around a full-time job. It seems that unless daddy is a hedge fund manager – like members of NME darlings The Horrors or The Vaccines – then you’re less likely to be able to sustain a career as an independent musician.

In history, Enclosure Acts in the UK meant that wealthy landowners grabbed most of the land for themselves. Prior to this, peasants had a degree of economic independence by owning a few strips of land on which they grew food to feed their families. After enclosure, peasants had to work for the landowner, or migrate to cities to work for factory owners, usually in pretty poor conditions. It’s to escape working in a dead-end job and to express themselves artistically that many musicians forge a path in music. It should be a human right to have a secure place to live, and sometimes musicians still need to squat in order to sustain themselves. Housing is a huge global and complex issue, and over a billion people worldwide live in squatted housing in areas such as shanty towns on the outskirts of big cities. In the UK, there are many less squatters than there used to be (and so much less of a ‘problem’), but it’s always good for a ruling elite to have some scapegoats, eh?

David Cameron is no doubt trying to appease the Tory Right and Rupert Murdoch’s team at The Sun by appearing tough on squatters. Various sensationalist newspaper headlines on people squatting in Hampstead mansions or old pubs owned by Guy Ritchie have no doubt smoothed the way for this new law, but what about the Libyans squatting a Hampstead mansion owned by Colonel Gaddafi? The Evening Standard in London and other Tory papers couldn’t get enough of them.

By criminalizing squatting, David Cameron is condemning the next generation of music-lovers to be subjected to pant-wetting rich kid indie bands like Mumford & Sons and X-Factor pop tarts – forever. Where is the innovation going to come from?