Friday, 30 August 2013

Politics of the punk scene

The other weekend was the annual Rebellion Punk Festival in Blackpool which features a lot of world famous punk bands. I've been going for about 7 years now, the last few years of which I've been getting in for free by helping set up the punk art stall. On the first day of the festival, the Thursday there was only one band I was really excited about seeing and that was Leftöver Crack. I've seen this band twice before at Rebellion Festival. The singer Stza Crack (as he is known solo) said something that really got me thinking. He said that a lot of bands, even at that festival talk about unity but they don't mean it and that there is no place in the punk scene for homophobia, racism or sexism. Something that I had noticed over the years in the general punk scene is they have tended to reject homophobia, racism and sexism more and more over the years, yet here Stza was claiming that at least at that festival some of the bands playing promote or at least do not reject those ideas. Over the weekend I saw the proof that he was telling the truth. I heard about some "macho-man style" sexism on the very first day, saw someone wearing a Skrewdriver (famous for forming the Rock Against Communist group in the 80s which promoted far-right views) t-shirt on the second day and I even saw someone with a false "Viking" helmet which had a sticker on the front with the union jack and the words "march or die" and on the back had a sticker saying "anti-racist is a code word for anti-white". Previous years at the festival I have witnessed people wearing fascist shirts with slogans like "White Power" and record stalls selling CDs from neo-Nazi punk bands. I did not realise there was still this vast wide range of political opinion within the punk scene.

To understand why punk attracts people from so many different political backgrounds let's start with asking what is punk? Well everyone seems to have their own definition of what punk is. To me punk is just a music genre (or a group of music genres) with sub-genres which happens to attract a subculture defined by clothes and hair fashion as well as an attraction to certain political ideologies. To others punk is a way of life, to look like a punk, listen to little but punk, to have punk tattoos and to have most of your friends as well as social life also into the punk way of life. To some it's a political movement where bands express their political views through music and literature given out at punk gigs. Some of those people say to be a punk band you don't even have to play punk music. The truth of the matter is no-one has a right or wrong idea about what punk is. Punk is whatever it means to you.

Politics has been at the heart of punk since it's very conception. From the very early days there's always been pretty much every form of politics within punk - capitalism, conservatism, liberalism, communism, anarchism, fascism, apolitical, etc. If you can name a political ideology there's probably punks somewhere singing and talking about it. There's also been a lot of punks who don't bother with politics and prefer their lyrics to be comical or romantic. The Lancashire town I grew up in, Poulton-le-Fylde, was home to one of the most famous political bands of all-time, Skrewdriver. Skrewdriver were more famous for their politics than their music, despite the original line-up not being political at all. Their singer Ian Stuart Donaldson who remained the only founding member of the band throughout it's existence became a leading spokesperson for the National Front and the National Front's North West organiser. He later went on to form Rock Against Communism, a network of bands promoting fascist and neo-Nazi ideals. I think it's fair to say that Ian Stuart and the later Skrewdriver line-ups have been perhaps the most famous and influential far-right punk band. Ian Stuart was killed in a car crash in 1993 and MDC (who support far-left politics) wrote the song "Nazis Shouldn't Drive" about him. Along with Skrewdriver there was a whole host of far-right punk bands in the 1980s, but that side of punk seems to have died down, along with the wider far-right political movement which gets a revival every time there's a recession.

However, there has always been a strong anti-fascist and anti-racist trend within punk. During the 80s, partly as a reaction to rise of neo-Nazi Oi! & skinhead punk bands the SHARP movement was formed. This stood for Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. At it's height, far more punks and bands were associated to SHARP than far-right punk movements. Throughout the 80s punk and two-tone ska had many crossovers which helped the punk movement be more accepting of non-whites as many prominent ska bands (such as The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter) had black members.

Around the same time as the far-right punk bands were forming, another massively influential branch of political punk was also forming, anarcho-punk. Possibly the most famous and earliest anarcho-punk band was Crass who inspired a sub-genre of punk and a culture behind it which is still flourishing today. Here you had a punk movement that was involved in animal rights, environmental direct actions, squatting, DIY ethics, protests and promoting anarchism. Now there is two ways to look at anarcho-punk. The first is as an actual sub-genre of punk with a specific sound different to and more aggressive than classical punk, along with an accompanying subculture. Anarcho-punks (sometimes called crusty punks) often have dreadlocks or unwashed hair, wear denim jackets, covered in sewed on patches, black tattoos and facial piercings. The other way to look at anarcho-punk is purely as a political movement, and this is how most people involved in anarcho-punk see it. To those involved in the anarcho-punk scene, all you have to do to also be involved in anarcho-punk is to follow anarchist politics. This was most obvious when Chumbawumba were performing at anarcho-punk shows and being heavily involved in the scene, despite not playing any typical genre of punk, and who later became famous for the world famous pop single Tubthumping (aka I Get Knocked Down) and playing their later career as a folk band.

Of course a punk band doesn't have to be political at all, and many of my favourite punk bands have never been political. However, I think a band is missing a huge opportunity to influence the world for the better if their lyrics aren't political. With so many things wrong in the world I struggle to see how non-political topics could ever be more important. A lot of punk bands have influenced me and changed me for the better forever. If it wasn't for Goldfinger (particularly their singer John Feldman) I wouldn't have become aware of all the animal cruelty and exploitation in the world and turned vegan at the age of 17. Anti-Flag taught me to oppose imperialistic wars and war criminal heads of state. NOFX taught me to be critical of the state. Leftöver Crack, Star Fucking Hipsters and The Filaments taught me that the police protect the state, corporations and the rich rather than the people and are violent towards anyone who goes against the rich. Ghost Mice taught me about anarchist lifestyles such as skipping (aka dumpster diving). ONSIND taught me that you can be male and involved in the feminist movement. The Autonomads taught me that shoplifting from major supermarkets only harms the pockets of the ultra-rich supermarket bosses. Defiance, Ohio taught me that bicycles are an environmentally friendly way to travel, cars are not (yes, even Toyota Prius cars are not good for the environment). Citizen Fish taught me that televisions are stopping people from thinking, and making them dumber and more apathetic. If it wasn't for punk bands talking about these issues I would either still be ignorant to them, or would have discovered them as a later point in my life. I still think there's a long way to go, and some of the methods of spreading good political messages and ridding the world of bad political messages need massive improvement. However, the world is politically a better place with punk in it.

Here's my favourite song about politics in the punk scene, Up The Punks by Ghost Mice:

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