D:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better: The unlikely pop song that became a defining British political anthem (2024)

Glastonbury Festival

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D:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better: The unlikely pop song that became a defining British political anthem (1)

By Nicholas Barber27th June 2024

In 1997, a feelgood house track soundtracked Tony Blair's election campaign. Now 27 years on, it's back in the headlines. With D:Ream set to play Glastonbury 2024, the band discuss its impact.

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Even Rishi Sunak's mostloyal supporters wouldagree that 22 May 2024 wasn't his bestday. Standing outside his official London residence, 10Downing Street, the British prime minister announcedthat he was calling a general election, so voters wouldhave to choose between his Conservative Party (also calledthe Tory Party) andthe opposing Labour Party. Unfortunately, Sunak made this announcement while beingdrenchedby the bucketing rain, so he wasn't looking too confident. Todampen his spirits further, the speech was accompaniedbyD:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better, a song that hadbeen usedby the Labour party when they swept to victory in the 1997 General Election under their charismatic leader, Tony Blair.

D:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better: The unlikely pop song that became a defining British political anthem (2)

D: Ream in 1994, when Things Can Only Get Better went to the top of the charts – three years before it became truly historic (Credit: Alamy)

Sunak wouldn't have wanted voters to remember that result.And, in fact, on this occasion Labour had nothing to do with the song being played, nor did it signify that the party was sure to triumph.But an anti-Tory activist, Steve Bray, was standing at the end of Downing Street, blasting out Things Can Only Get Better on a portable PA system. "I heard the rumour on the day that he was going to call an election," Bray tells the BBC with some relish, "and I thought, what could be the most appropriate tune to troll him? I wasn't actually endorsing Labour, I was telling the Tories that their time was up – and things can only get better. What I liked about it was, with all those microphone feeds, it went all over the world."

Thanks to this expertly timedpiece of mischief, Things Can Only Get Better has become a memorable part of not one but two British general elections now – just in time for D:Ream to play it at the Glastonbury Festival tomorrow. But its astonishing 30-year history features plenty of other claims to fame.D:Ream's keyboardplayer at their early shows was Brian Cox, a physics professor who presents science programmes on British television andradio, so the makers of A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019) hadan animatedSir Brian playing the song at the endof the film. Even more bizarrely, The Crown hadadreamsequence in which Tony Blair is crownedking, andthe "new national anthem" is sung by a cathedral choir. "It just gets weirder andweirder," Peter Cunnah,D:Ream's singer, tells the BBC. "When I heardit [during the election announcement], I put my headin my hands andsaid, 'Oh my God, not again...'"

The origins of that famous phrase

The song was conceivedback in 1990. Cunnah hadmovedfrom Northern Irelandto London as the guitarist of an indie band, Tie The Boy, andwhen they broke up he began makingdance music while holdingdown a "really boring office job". One of his colleagues was Ragna Gift, the sister of the Fine Young Cannibals' singer, RolandGift. "Oneday there was a bit of office argy-bargy going on," says Cunnah. "I was crestfallen, andRagna said, 'Never mind, Pete, things can only get better'. As a writer, your radar's always going, andthe melody came straight into my head. I went into the toilet with my Sony Walkman andrecordedit."

Stream Glastonbury 2024

For the first time, the BBC is livestreaming Glastonbury performances to a global audience, with Dua Lip and Coldplay's 2024 Pyramid Stage setsavailable to view on bbc.com, offering fans around the world a front-row seat to headline acts like never before.

Like so many of the song fragments that Cunnah put on tape aroundthat time, this one gathereddust until he started collaborating withD:Ream's other key member, Al Mackenzie. Late in 1991, they neededa chorus for a house track, andCunnah beltedout the phrase that wouldchange his life – much to his partner's amazement. "I thought he'djust come up with it, so I was very impressed," says Mackenzie. That night, he playedthe track in a club in London's Leicester Square where he wasDJing. "The place just exploded," says Cunnah. "The reaction was instant."

D:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better: The unlikely pop song that became a defining British political anthem (3)

Tony Blair on the 1997 campaign trail, which saw D: Ream play at Labour meetings and rallies (Credit: Alamy)

The song's breakthrough to the mainstreamwasn't quite so immediate. Having built it into an irresistible gospel-disco anthem with an explosive choral refrain,D:ReamreleasedThings Can Only Get Better as a single in January 1993, but it stalledat 23 in the UK charts. Later that year, though, the group touredas the opening act for Take That, Britain's biggest boy band, andattracted"an audience of young girls who startedsending teddy bears to our office", says Cunnah. When the song was reissued, it toppedthe British singles chart for four weeks in 1994.

There I was jumping around on stage again, doing one song instead of a whole set, in front of people who were clapping out of time – Peter Cunnah

After years of success on the club scene,D:Reamwere householdnames at last, the irony being that Mackenzie had already left the group over musicaldifferences, andCunnah was beginning to feel that, as he was reaching his late twenties, he was getting too oldto be a pop star. Littledidhe know that Tony Blair was in the process of rebranding the Labour Party as the shiny andinclusive New Labour. Part of the process was cutting back on the use of a traditional socialistdirge, The RedFlag, at party conferences. But what could replace it?

When politics harnesses pop

"Bill Clinton hadusedFleetwoodMac's Don't Stop at rallies in 1992 and1993, so New Labour might have stolen the idea [of using a pop song] from him," saysDr Stuart McAnulla, an associate professor in Politics at Leeds University. "What happens in American politics often comes over to the UK in some form." The choice of Things Can Only Get Better was a shrewd one, he says. "It's upbeat, it's catchy, it got to number one for a few weeks, but not for so long that people were sick of it. Andin itself, it's not a political song. It hadthe sense of the possibility of renewal, but there was nothing in it that the Tories couldlatch onto andsay, 'Look, they're going to put your taxes up!'"

Nowadays, pop songs are heard regularly at political events. Theresa May, then the Tory prime minister, took the stage to Abba's Dancing Queen at a Conservative Party conference in 2018, which some read as a self-deprecating reference to the stiff dance moves she showed African children on a trade mission two months earlier. But back in the mid-1990s, Cunnah was wary of being linked to Labour. His new manager, Jazz Summers, "was a very persuasive man", he says, and soon he agreed to perform the song at the party's meetings and rallies. "It was the weirdest thing for me. We came from the house music scene, andthere I was, almost retired, jumping aroundon stage again,doing one song insteadof a whole set, in front of people who were clapping out of time, because they hadno sense of rhythm. I've often thought that if you want to elect a government, you shouldmake them have adance-off."

D:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better: The unlikely pop song that became a defining British political anthem (4)

Theresa May's entry to Abba's Dancing Queen at the 2018 Tory conference was another memorable use of pop on the political podium (Credit: Getty Images)

D:Ream's uplifting, quasi-religious hit provedto be a perfect match for the optimism of Labour's supporters as the election approached. "The Conservatives hadbeen in power for 18 years," says McAnulla, "andafter they won in 1992, people thought the Labour Party was finished. It was only in the lead-up to the 1997 election that they thought that maybe it couldbedifferent – andthe song spoke to that mood."

The exultant chorus felt even more appropriate after Labour securedits landslide victory. When John O'Farrell, an author andscriptwriter, wrote a comic memoir about campaigning for the party while it was in opposition for 18 years, it was clear what the title shouldbe.

If people want to use it as an anthem, that's up to them. I'm happy for them to interpret it and use it in any way they want – Al McKenzie

"I toyedwith all sorts of working titles such as HardLabour or Labour of Love," says O'Farrell. "But Things Can Only Get Better became the obvious choice, not just because of the association with the Labour landslide at the endof my story, but also because it felt like a funny comment on being a Labour activistduring thedarkdays of [Conservative prime ministers] Thatcher andMajor." The memoir was a number-one bestseller in 1998. "But itdidmean that every bloody book event Ididafterwards startedwith someone in the front row asking, 'So,did things get better?'"The answer to that question isdebatable. When O'Farrell wrote a sequel, he calledit Things Can Only Get Worse?.

The song's afterlife

Cunnah's euphoria wore off, too. The band split up shortly after the 1997 election, while the Labour government's popularity inevitably waned, andafter the UK invaded Iraq along with the US, he foundhimself being accusedof having "bloodon [his] hands"; the band. However, according to McAnulla, Labour's use of the song "investedit with a greater status anda wider meaning than it wouldhave otherwise had". Cunnah and Mackenzie reformed the group in 2008 and over the years, the public startedto see it less as a party-political rallying cry andmore as an all-purposedeclaration of hope anddefiance. It was adoptedas a football chant by fans of the resurgent SunderlandAFC in 2013; andin 2021 it was sung by Sea of Change, an Irish women's choir of cancer survivors andsupporters. "People have foundso many ironic uses for it," admits Cunnah, "but there have been so many unironic uses as well. I've hadfriends who were going through chemo andstuff andtoldme that they foundsolace in the song."

That being the case, you can understandCunnah'sdismay when Bray chose it for hisDowning Street prank in May, thereby turning it into a political slogan once again. "We're on our fifth studio album. We're trying to get out of the quagmire [of politics], but just when we think we're getting to escape velocity, this keepsdragging us back in." Still, there are no hardfeelings – or not many hardfeelings, anyway. Bray's stunt propelledthe song to number two on the UK's iTunes chart, andwhen he mentionedon social media that the rain haddamagedhis amplifier,D:Reamsent him £250 towards the cost of a replacement.

D:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better: The unlikely pop song that became a defining British political anthem (5)

Now better known as a leading scientist, Brian Cox played keyboards for the band for a while (Credit: Getty Images)

As for Cunnah andMackenzie, they have playedThings Can Only Get Better in concert ever since they reformedthe group in 2008. At this year's Glastonbury they will be performing it "on steroids", says Mackenzie, with a brass section andspecial guests.

Cunnah confesses that he is only just coming to terms with the way the song has been "hijacked", and that he wouldn't approve of Labour's using it today – not that they've asked. Mackenzie is more philosophical. "We just try and keep away from all that stuff," he says, "but if people want to use it as an anthem, that's up to them. I'm happy for them to interpret it and use it in any way they want. I'd just like people to have a dance to it."

The Glastonbury Festival runs until Sunday 30 June. The BBC is livestreaming Glastonbury Dua Lipa and Coldplay's 2024 Pyramid Stage sets to a global audience – they will beavailable to view on bbc.com.

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D:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better: The unlikely pop song that became a defining British political anthem (2024)
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