Stickin’ it to the man
I don’t know who exactly The Man is, but I do know he should have it stuck to him. I’m also not sure what it is that should be stuck to him, but it should at least be enough to make those doing the stickin’ feel a bit better about themselves, even if only for a few fleeting moments of thrilling rebellion. It might only be a small or childish victory, like sticking a ‘love united : hate glazer’ sticker to a dibble’s back – which is literally stickin’ it to the man, even if it’s a woman – and it doesn’t even have to be done for any important cause, we can still enjoy it.
Here are seven rebellious moments, real and fictional, to feed the soul…
Johnny Cash At San Quentin (1969)
Because they try to starve the soul, prisons have to be the perfect place for breeding a spirit of rebellion. Films set in prisons have some great moments along these lines, such as The Shawshank Redemption and the lesser known Italian classic Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella), when in both cases a prisoner appropriates the public address system to lift the spirits of their fellow inmates, just for a few brief moments. Cunningly planned escapes such as those in Shawshank and old favourite Escape From Alcatraz are almost enough to make you want to get banged up, just for the challenge.
Johnny Cash tapped into the spirit of prisoner rebellion marvellously with his live concerts for inmates, notably at San Quentin and Folsom. The start of the great Cash biopic Walk The Line starring Joaquin Phoenix is brilliantly done, with the opening beats of Cocaine Blues building steadily against bleak images of Folsom Prison, and the audience’s impatient crescendo of clapping and boot stomping as Cash prepares to go on stage.
Cash’s performance of San Quentin, recorded live inside that prison in 1969, just comes out on top for me though due to the sheer explosion of raucous delight from the inmates as the song works through the sentiments Cash had guessed they might hold for the place. He got it spot on, with the most spine-tingling reactions accompanying the lines “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you” and “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell”.
The Sex Pistols on the Today show (1976)
Hosted by Manchester-born presenter Bill Grundy, the Today show was a topical news and current affairs programme, probably similar to The One Show in its incisive, cutting edge journalistic style. The Sex Pistols were booked to appear on the show after a late cancellation by Queen. The Pistols were already gaining a reputation as rebellious troublemakers, so Grundy decided to mock this reputation by condescendingly inviting them to be controversial.
Pulling up Johnny Rotten after he muttered the word “shit” (swearing was still almost unheard of on British television), Grundy asked him to repeat this more clearly, before moving on to proposition Siouxsie Sioux who was accompanying the band. After Grundy – in a half ‘Alan Partridge’ and half ‘your dad flirting with a waitress’ style – suggested that they should meet after the show, Steve Jones called him a “dirty sod”. Grundy pressed Jones for a more outrageous comment, so Jones obliged by calling him a “dirty bastard” and a “dirty fucker”, and then as the credits were about to roll, followed up with “what a fucking rotter”.
It might not seem like much now, but it caused a huge fuss at the time and the show was scrapped soon after, seriously derailing Grundy’s television career. It was childish and not in any way clever, but still a joy to watch after more than three decades.
Catholic Boys (1985)
Haven’t seen this overlooked classic since I was a Catholic boy myself. Luckily I never had to go to a hardcore religious school like St. Basil’s, which in this film (directed by Michael Dinner – I’ve checked, this is right) is ruled over ruthlessly by the brothers who teach there, led by headmaster Brother Thadeus (Donald Sutherland). Wherever there are strict rules, and authority figures applying them with relish, there have to be rebels taking great pleasure in flouting them.
The film is based around a group of teenagers trying to cope with life in St. Basil’s, with regulation new kid (Dunn) played by Andrew McCarthy (who starred in many of the Brat Pack films of the eighties, such as Class, St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink) having regular run-ins with the brothers.
The stand-out moment comes when Dunn is given a backhander across the face by the sadistic Brother Constance in front of the whole school assembly. As Dunn banjos the religious nut-case with a sweet uppercut, the hall erupts with a euphoric roar. If you try to find this film, which I think I will, bear in mind it was also released under the name ‘Heaven Help Us’ – maybe in an attempt to market the film beyond the clergy.
Bobby Sands Street, Tehran (1981)
The 27 year-old Irish republican activist Bobby Sands was elected as an MP to the UK Parliament in 1981, while on hunger strike in protest at being denied ‘political prisoner’ status while held at the Long Kesh (Maze) prison, just outside Belfast. Sands died after 66 days of the hunger strike. When news of his death reached a group of teenagers in Iran, a country still glowing with rebellious zeal following the overthrow of the western-backed Shah in the 1979 revolution, they decided they wanted to do something to honour the man they had admired, and now mourned, from afar.
Following an initial plan to tear down the Union Jack on the British Embassy building and replace it with an Irish flag – which they dropped because they couldn’t get hold of one, and attempts at a home made version ended up looking too much like the flag of Iran – they decided to take it upon themselves to rename the street upon which the embassy stood, in Sands’ name. One night they replaced the old street sign with their new one, and stuck up a few dozen more similar signs along the length of the road. While attempts were made to remove the signs, new ones quickly appeared, and it wasn’t long before the Iranian authorities – sympathetic to the cause – made the change official.
Embarrassed British Embassy officials soon had the building’s doorway blocked up, and a new entrance knocked through around the corner, so they could avoid having Sands’ name on their address. The street is still officially called “Bobby Sands Street”.
Office Space (1999)
This is one my all-time favourite films, because it basically deals with ordinary people working in ordinary jobs who decide they’re not going to be shoved around any more by The Man. Office Space is directed by Mike Judge (also responsible for Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill), and is a must for anyone who gets up in the morning dreaming of not having to get up in the morning.
The workplace in this film is a computer software company, and the plot revolves around a small group of workmates who are at various stages of disillusionment with their work, and lives. Led by the main character Peter, who engages in a wonderfully inspiring bout of overtly disinterested idleness before deciding to be a bit more active in his resistance to his bosses, the mates eventually set about robbing the place – a project which rouses them all into the kind of creativity that their dull jobs could never have achieved.
Can’t think of any particular scene that might make you punch the air in delight – just a steady, satisfying feeling of seeing people take their stand and do something they’ll be proud of when their meaningless job and the pittance they get for it are long gone. Stephen Root is marvellous as the mumbling, put-upon colleague Milton Waddams, and also look out for Jennifer Aniston, who may not be someone you’d associate with particularly good films, but who went on to star in another quality indie-flick with a similar feel – The Good Girl in 2002 .
Manchester United v Arsenal (1995)
The Man in this case was I suppose the PLC, or the suits – whoever it was that wanted Manchester United to be consumed passively rather than supported actively. The issue of standing up in all-seater football grounds was already a thorny one for fans, and the atmosphere inside Old Trafford had often dropped to embarrassing levels due to the type of support the club were now courting. So when, in a big game against Arsenal, Cantona-less United were getting a decent backing from the stands (they still call ‘em stands), a tannoy announcement was made threatening standing fans with ejection, United’s more traditonal support sent a reminder that they were still around.
As the whole Scoreboard End rose in anger to this threatened imposition, you could sense a surge of confidence that no one could touch us while everyone stood together. Any stewards that tried to pick people off were soon left in no doubt by those around that this wasn’t going to happen today. I’d like to say this was kept up at every game, but we know that it wasn’t. At the time, there was still hope that Fergie would take up the cause with the suits and make it clear how important a raucous crowd was to the team, but experience since tells us that was never going to happen. The fans were on their own.
A few weeks later, IMUSA was formed, and a few years after that, Murdoch was stopped. There were ten years between the Old Trafford tannoy being used to tell us that our vocal support wasn’t needed, and the same tannoy being used to pipe recorded crowd noise into an empty Old Trafford for the benefit of the Glazers. Many of those who defiantly stood and sang in 1995 were now stood outside in 2005, still fighting for their club. This was the rebellious underbelly of Mancunian football culture who had learned that if they wanted to beat The Man, they had to do it themselves. A few weeks later, FC United was formed…
Black Power salute, Mexico City (1968)
In the 1960s, the United States remained a deeply segregated country, with the black population still fighting for civil rights equality with white Americans. When African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos won respective Gold and Bronze medals in the Olympic 200m final at the Mexico 1968 Games, they realised this was their never-to-be-repeated moment in the spotlight when they could draw attention to the racial discrimination that their country’s international image didn’t show. So when they received their medals at the podium, they each raised a black-gloved clenched fist – which back home was widely recognised as a symbol of the Black Power movement.
They knew they would get into trouble for this overtly political act, but they knew the cause was more important. They also knew that if they had stood and respectfully sang the US national anthem, it would have allowed their country to be perceived falsely as a good example of racial equality. The singing of a national anthem was not considered by IOC President Avery Brundage to be a political act. He had also decided the same thing about the Nazi salute in 1936. This act however, was going too far and was against the Olympic spirit, so the two athletes were sent home in official disgrace.
Back in the United States, Smith and Carlos were pilloried in the media and their families received death threats. Peter Norman, the Australian athlete who supported the protest from his silver medal podium by wearing a OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Rights) badge, received similar treatment at home. Though all three are now widely respected for their actions, they had to risk a lot to take the stand they did. It’d be nice to think there are athletes around now who would do the same thing.
- This article featured in issue four of A Fine Lung, a long, long time ago. To buy back issues visit our online stall here.