The Jazz Butcher: Olof Palme
The Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated on 28 February 1986. Exactly when Pat wrote and recorded this song I don’t know, but as the split with Max Eider came later that year (27 November, after a gig in Zurich), it was some time in 1986; the recording surfaced on the fabulous compilation Big Questions (The Gift of Music, vol.2) released the following year.
Around the time ‘Olof Palme’ came out, the only kind of leftist political songwriting that got attention was in the vein of Billy Bragg: passionate, direct, unambiguously committed. (And by the way, if my sources are to be trusted, Billy Bragg and Pat Fish were born on the same day in 1957.) Most indie bands were perceived as anti-Thatcherite and belonging to a 1980s version of the counter-culture, but there was a gulf between indie irony and playfulness on the one hand, and what counted as political writing on the other.
For me at least, ‘Olof Palme’ was a revelation about a different way of writing political songs. It’s the first song in this series that doesn’t currently have a version on YouTube, but there’s a snippet on the Jazz Butcher website that gives a flavour:
Although Max contributes, this is almost a solo piece; it’s broadly in the cafe-jazz line of Jazz Butcher writing that started with ‘Party Time’. There’s another strand to their early writing that I haven’t represented here, except perhaps in ‘What’s the Matter Boy?’, and that’s kind of witty drinking song; Max Eider’s ‘Drink’ and ‘Down the Drain’; ‘Olof Palme’ grafts that strand onto a more serious purpose, but keeps the light-hearted tone.
Well, you didn’t read about him in the English papers much
But he used to govern Sweden with a magic touch
Everybody liked him even though the liquor prices were high
And my god are they high
But all the taxation helped to pay the bills
For stuff like better work conditions and the curing of ills
It made sense, and ladies and gents that’s why…
I can’t think of any other song that makes a concise justification for redistribution and makes it light-hearted. Reminding us of the high price of alcohol in Sweden while exhorting us to drink in Palme’s memory is a lovely touch. It’s not the first political song in the Jazz Butcher’s work: ‘Real Men’ from Scandal in Bohemia has macho masculine identity in its sights; more tongue in cheek, ‘Red Pets’ on Sex and Travel celebrates all things female and Eastern Bloc to an unstoppable rockabilly beat; and in ‘Southern Mark Smith’ there’s a passing reference to the BBC as an mouthpiece of the establishment. But ‘Olof Palme’ is the one where Pat really nails it, quietly, modestly, and brilliantly.