Pick of the pops: ‘Domino Theory’

‘Domino Theory’
To the Finland Station
(Melodia, 1981)

If we’re going to plunge back into the early 1980s with Jeremy Corbyn, we should at least choose the right soundtrack to accompany our journey. So here’s To the Finland Station, a north London band operating out of Islington, with what I’m fairly sure was their only single, ‘Domino Theory’ from 1981.

The name of the band – you won’t need me to tell you – comes from Edmund Wilson’s 1940 book about revolutionary politics, while the co-operative that released the song was named Melodia, in tribute to the state-owned record label of the Soviet Union.

This might give the impression that we’re in politically committed territory here. And indeed we are, with a trenchant denunciation of America’s involvement in Central America. El Salvador was the cause célèbre on the left at the time, but a couple of years later it would have been Nicaragua. The lyrics would surely have been equally valid:

The junta and the westernised elite
is bound together with US forces,
giving us the same old excuses –
the domino theory.

I’m aware that it doesn’t look too catchy, but really it is: you’ll all be singing it. The music is a guitar scratching out a basic chord sequence, accompanied by a bass, a drum machine and ‘fantastic backing vocals which recall women yodelling in the Appalachians’, to quote the only online review I can find. Together with the B-sides, ‘Betrayal’ and ‘Pivotal Couples’, the song was written by Julian MacQueen, who also sang, while the remainder of the group comprised Steve Penfold and Clare Macauley.

I saw To the Finland Station at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead at the time, and remember them having a whole fistful of decent songs along these lines. They didn’t put on much of a show, and my memory is that they stood to one side of the stage, which may have been a statement about the commodification of art in a bourgeois society, or may have been because the headliners were bastards and wouldn’t take down their drum kit.

Their entire repertoire was political – even at a time when political pop was fashionable, they stood out as being a bit fixated – but underneath the slogans they were also, I feel, essentially an English pop band. And this song is, I think, hypnotically endearing. It sounds of its time and yet unlike anything anyone else was doing.

And, since it is of its time, a time when there still seemed to be something to play for in politics, there’s an optimism about it that’s rather heartening:

I see final victory;
Imperialism will be defeated.

When the candidates for the Labour leadership were asked on a radio hustings what song they’d play at their victory party, Jeremy Corbyn went with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. It was a silly suggestion. This would have been such a better choice.

3 thoughts on “Pick of the pops: ‘Domino Theory’

  1. Thanks for bringing my song back to the public’s attention.

    The rule book had been torn up and it was a great time to be in a band. So for TTFS, the drummer became the bass player and we used an early drum machine to keep the beat while freeform vocals just seemed to fit. I’ve always held a good tune in high estem, so that stayed; for the lyrics, seeing a documentary on the El Salvador situation as it was then spurred me on. That and that the domino theory, a favourite justification of US foreign policy in the Vietnam era, was being rolled out yet again. I’ve always liked the track, and the recording, which is simple yet taut. The band returned to the central American theme in later recordings but they lacked the bite of Domino Theory.


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