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The Relationship of Punk Music to Anarchist Politics: Preliminary Thoughts

The relationship between punk fashion and anarchism poses some difficulty. It is a second-order symbol which requires interpretation upon interpretation. It is contextually specific. In other circumstances, the fashion of punk could quite easily represent the politics of what Marx would call the "lumpen-proletariat" (ie., fascism), or indeed - particularly in the gothic-punk style, the disenfranchised aristocracy.

Music, or to be particular, the combination of music with lyrics, requires no second order interpretation. The message presented is as clear as language itself. There are however specific aspects to punk music which lends to a particular brand of anarchism. Musical styles, influencing bodily movement, carry their own emotive content. John Lennon and Bob Dylan, for example, carried anarchistic messages in their music but the style was clearly one of passive resistance. Punk in comparison, is anything but passive.

But the mid-1970s, the political message of the previous era had largely come to a conclusion. The constant danger to those remaining true to a subcultural ethic is that the political challenges to a social system will be glossed over in favour of the affectations. In the hippie music style, this became a matter of fact. No longer an alternative, art-rock bands played in massive stadiums in an extraordinary diplay of rampantcommercialisation. Bands like Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis had become the mainstay, utterly devoid of content that carried messages of rebellion.

The formation of punk reacted against both the style and content of the mainstream popular music industry business. With the New York Dolls (1975) as a precursor, a deliberated move was made in playing in small pubs and clubs rather than open air stadium concerts. Manager Malcom McLaren was enthused buy the number of younger people attending Dolls' shows, but realised that their glam rock "Marxist-chic" (they played with a hammer and sickle backdop) was insufficiently different to radically alter the music industry.

McLaren's solution was an abrasive new style of music with genesis in the Sex Pistols. Much like the already existing Ramones and Iggy Pop, the music had an aggressive tempo. Further, the new punk rock phenomenon and subculture outflanked any media attempts to demonise them, by concurring with the claims. This was a remarkable application of Situationist political strategy.

The Sex Pistols' first show was in November 1975, with a tour in of England in 1976 and the premier punk festival at the 100 Club in 1976,
along with Siouxsie & The Banshees. Siouxsie, in fish-nets and bondage gear and the swastika armband, howled "the Lord's prayer". Shortly
afterwards, the Sex Pistols signed to EMI and released "Anarchy in the UK". Anyone who had not heard of this Pistols by this stage however, did
so on December 1st, when, on Thames TV's "Today" show they were interviewed live by Bill Grundy, who provoked the band and encouraged them
to "say something outrageous". Steve Jones happy obliged with a tirade of expletives shocking the early evening audience and ensuring national front page coverage the following day.

At this point punk was an nihilistic stylistic reaction against mainstream culture and indeed, the ragged remains of the hippie counter-culture. Siouxie's swastika had nothing to do with Nazism. It was worn to create a shock reaction (as if her outfit and singing wouldn't!). "Anarchy in the UK" had very little to do with anarchism (it had a great deal to do with drunken, destructive nihilism).

But a political agenda was waiting in the wings. The following year The Sex Pistols released "God Save the Queen", probably the famous anti-Royal song that has ever existed in Britian. The Pistols broke up at the end of 1978, with singer John Lydon expressing disgust at how their subcultural politics had become a commodity "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" he snarled. Later he went on to form Public Image Limited, who included a fair number of politically-orientated songs, in particular "Rise". Lydon also performed with the most explicitly political techno band, Leftfield with "Open Up", in recognition of the LA riots ("Burn Hollywood, burn/Take down tinsel town/Burn now to the ground").

But an even bigger political gauntlet was thrown down by The Clash, who in 1977 - punk's most important year - became standard bearers of the new subculture with an explicitly communist political message. The Clash consisted of Joe Strummer, a Turk of Scottish background, Mick Jones, a Welsh labourer whose parents where Russian-Jewish refugees, and Paul Simonon of Belgian immigrants. They met in an unemployment line, lived ion a squat and participated in the Brixton poverty riots of 1977 - the experience documented in their first hit single "White Riot".

The Clash also proved themselves more capable than any other punk band of taking in other musical influences. Strummer was particularly keen to see the incorporation of reggae and covered the classic "Police and Thieves", which became a more than appropriate theme in the British police repression during 1978. Later, with their tour of the United States, The Clash became heavily influenced by Latin American radicalism and added Latino styles to their music, most notably on the LPs "Sandinista!" (a triple LP, to which they forgo royalities for the first 200,000 copies so it could be sold at the cost of a single LP), the double LP "London Calling" and "Combat Rock".

Displaying an equal concern with the political was the United State's most succesful punk band, The Dead Kennedy's. Continuing their rather
gut-wrenching taste in titles, their first album "Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables" expressed their outrage at the assasination of SF gay
councillor Harvery Milk and Mayor Moscone by former councillor White. Quite clearly, the Dead Kennedy's preferred the "fresh fruit" of Milk over the "rotting vegetables" of White.

The Kennedy's gained increasing political notoriety throught their hit singles "Holiday in Cambodia" and "California Uber Alles". The latter
song, about a left-appearing, but right-practising Governor Jerry Brown achived the band an appearence on the BAM music awards. Screened live, the Kennedy's first wore white shirts with a giant 'S' emblazoned. When asked to perform (as a "new wave" band), they donned ties (converting the S's to '$' signs) and rather than play "California Uber Alles" they displayed their contempt for the music industry with "My Payola", the chorus which runs:

"Is my cock big enough?/Is my brain small enough?/For you to make me a star?/Give me a toot!/And I'll sell you my soul/Pull my strings and I'll go far!"

Performed in front of a live audience (who sang along enthusiatically) and screened to an estimated fourteen million people, the Dead Kennedy's were never invited to BAM again.

Jello Biafra, the band's lead, also engaged at one stage in formal politics, running for Mayor of San Franciso (coming fourth in a field of
ten). There is currently a strong possibility that he will receive endorsement by the US Greens as their Presidental candidate.

As is clearly evident, punk music and anarchist (or in the case of the Clash, communist) politics were inseperable, and performed with a
revolutionary tempo. The major bands; The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Dead Kennedy's where quite explicit in their politics. Further, the host
of secondary bands also concur with this political relationship: Gang of Four, with an emphasis on dead-pan alienation and hatred of trivial
commodification; Crass, anarcho-purists who lived on a rural commune; and Black Flag, with a particularly American interest in mental health.

To be sure, their were punk bands and bands with punk origins who do not express such explicit political interests. The Exploited were louts, pure and simple (but compentant performers). The Buzzcocks played lovesongs at breakneck speed (and were lyrically humourrous rather than soppy). Siouxsie and the Banshess and The Cure became maintstays in the Gothic subculture, which apart from an attachment to radical Enlightenment liberalism, is fairly much devoid of political activism.

Nonetheless, a defining characteristic of the punk subculture is its attachment to far-left politics and nowhere is this more explicit than in the lyrical content of its bands. As a musical style this is supplemented with an activist orientation. The significance of all this to maintstream political culture is moot: subcultures are notoriously politically ineffectual in a direct and obvious sense. However if there is some truth to the claim that poets are the unacknowleged legislators of the world, then the poetry of punk rock remains to this day a motivating influence to many.

This was originally written as notes to assist a student writing on the comparisons between tendancies in the French revolution towards anarchy and with the punk version of anarchy.

Lev Lafayette, 1999

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