Politics and Punk Rock
“This song is not anti-American; it’s anti-war,” explained Billie Joe Armstrong, frontman of American pop-punk band Green Day, to the thousands of teenagers crowding the stage in London (“List of Anti-War Songs”).
As he performed the band’s song, “Holiday”, Armstrong admonished war and popular culture in a fashion similar to that of The Sex Pistols, who had preached anarchy in Britain nearly thirty years previously. Despite the lapse in time, similarities between the bands are evident—modern alternative and punk bands borrow many aspects of their styles from British and American pre-punk and classic punk bands. While American bands began developing the punk music style as early as the late 1960s, it was the late 70s’ punk explosion in Britain that pushed the American movement in a more political direction. The infusion of politics into American punk rock revolutionized the genre, leaving a lasting impression that can be seen in many rock music genres of today. Influenced by punk pioneers such as the Velvet Underground and the Sex Pistols, bands have become increasingly active in politics, from releasing music compilations that support political causes to running for government office. Around the world, the 1960s brought an era of music loosely defined by peace, love, and the hippy movement.
While British rock artists like the Beatles took over mainstream pop music charts, American artists of all music genres worked desperately to reproduce the British rock and roll feel. As a result of rock and roll’s mass conformity, punk was born, in fervent opposition to the popular culture of the time (O’Hara 24). Filled with droning guitars, untrained vocals, and plenty of white noise, punk was fresh and rebellious, breaking all the rules of music that the band members had never bothered to learn. The first hints of what would later become known as “punk rock” came to American ears in 1964 through the visions of a Welsh viola player and a New York City songwriter with an ardor for experimentation. It was pure chance that Lou Reed met Welsh-born John Cale; the two were contracted to record a song that Reed had penned for Pickwick Records.
Cale, who had come to America to study classical composition, soon realized that both he and Reed enjoyed rock and roll music, rhythm and blues, and experimenting with sounds. After acquiring Reed’s high school friend Sterling Morrison to play guitar and Moe Tucker as a drummer, Reed took his place as vocalist, with Cale on keyboards and the viola. The newly formed band called themselves The Velvet Underground, after a novel on masochism of the same name (Scott-Warren). The Velvets were unique in many ways, one of the most prominent of which was the subject matter of their songs. Reed’s lyrics tackled taboo subjects such as sexual deviancy, paranoia, and drug addiction, which gave rock and roll a literary, adult voice.
Musically, The Velvet Underground explored both rock and R&B foundations, in addition to their droning, artful improvisations. The Velvets are considered one of the most influential bands in history, despite their lack of mainstream success. According to Brian Eno, co-founder of Roxy Music, “although the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many albums, everyone who bought one went on to form a band”. Among the punk bands that cited The Velvets as an influence are The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, The Talking Heads, and The Sex Pistols (“The Velvet Underground Biography”). Around the same time that The Velvet Underground was recording their first songs together in New York, another pre-punk band called The Motor City 5 was forming in Lincoln Park, Michigan. Guitarists Wayne Cramer and Fred Smith had been high school friends, and when their individual bands broke up, the two banded together to form an entirely new group, the MC5 (“MC5”).
Not long after their formation, they recruited Rob Derminger, later called Rob Tyner, as a vocalist (“MC5”). Under manager John Sinclair, the MC5 became one of the first politically active bands, something that would later become characteristic of punk. Sinclair and the other band members became a part of the White Panther Party, a group that supported the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s (Spicer 12). A number of political stunts that the MC5 pulled got them into legal trouble. One example of such was the band’s performance at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
Although multiple other bands were to appear at the concert, the MC5 were the only ones to show up, playing for 8 hours straight and causing mass chaos. The MC5 were also infamous for their obscene song lyrics, some of which caused Detroit department store Hudson’s to refuse stocking the band’s albums. Not to be easily quieted, the band responded with a full page printed in Fifth Estate that read “Fuck Hudson’s” with an MC5 logo at the bottom. As a result, the band was dropped from their record label (“MC5”). The Motor City 5’s avid political involvement and rebellious attitude was a precursor to that of later waves of punk. However, the true sound of punk rock was not fully developed until nearly a decade after the MC5 played together for the first time.
A New York based band called The Ramones was arguably the first to create the 1970s version of American punk rock (Cogan 256). With original members Johnny, Joey, Tommy, and Dee Dee, “[The Ramones] were regarded as the Godfathers of Punk”(“The Ramones”). The four high school friends formed the band in 1974, naming themselves after Paul McCartney’s brief pseudonym, Paul Ramon (“The Ramones Biography”). With Dee Dee’s deadpan lyrics and the simple, fast, solo-free wall of guitar chords characterized The Ramones’ songs, they created a blueprint for future punk and hardcore bands to follow (“The Ramones Biography”). Although The Ramones influenced countless American punk bands, they are more widely recognized as the spark that ignited the punk flame in Britain (“A Retrospective of The Ramones’ Career”).
The group became immensely popular among British punks, including Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols, who repeatedly cited The Ramones as his favorite band (“The Ramones Biography”). Without the initial introduction of The Ramones to London, the politically charged punk bands of Britain may never have formed, leaving Americans without a political influence. Unlike many early American punk bands, British punks used music primarily as a political force, spreading anarchist, anti-government, and anti-popular culture messages into the world. Bands such as The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Clash were among the most well known British punk bands, all of which had a significant impact upon the musical style and politics of later American bands. The Sex Pistols were the epitome of 1970s British punk, complete with sneering vocals, intense, exhilarating lyrics, and a strong opposition to mainstream rock and roll. The Pistols challenged everything about their country, claiming in their song “God Save the Queen” that the modern world had “no future”.
They were formed under the management of Sex Boutique owner Malcolm McLaren, who simply wanted to create a band that would challenge everything about society. Challenge everything, The Pistols did. Their reckless, raw performances inspired the formation of nearly every other influential British punk band in the 70s, from The Clash and The Buzzcocks to Souxie and the Banshees. Songs such as “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the U.K.
” became notorious enough to be banned from airplay in England, yet The Sex Pistols remained the single most well-known punk band of the time (“The Sex Pistols Biography”). The original punk scene peaked in the late 1970s, mutating and dissipating into the deeply underground hardcore scene of the 1980s. Hardcore punk bands combined the musical styles of American bands like The Ramones with fierce politics, British-style. This second wave of punk rock, boasting bands such as The Dead Kennedys, changed punks into rebellious thinkers (O’Hara 71). The Kennedys, in particular, tended to play all-ages shows to include young people in politics, in addition to writing songs such as “California Uber Alles” and “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”, which were attacks on the Californian governor and an anti-skinhead anthem, respectively (“Jello Biafra”).
The Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra even went so far in his political involvement as to run for mayor of San Francisco in 1979, backed with the slogan “There’s Always Room for Jello” (“Jello Biafra”). Although he lost the campaign, Biafra showed that punk rock music had changed forever—suddenly, punk was not only about loud, do-it-yourself music and rebellion, but also about spreading political messages to those who would otherwise not care. During the late 1980s and early 90s, hardcore punk bands began to diversify in their political views and the causes they supported, creating sub-genres within punk. One such sub-genre, Anarcho-punk, supported the ideals of anarchy, believing that, instead of meaning “no laws”, anarchism would remove the necessity for them (“Anarcho-Punk”). Essentially, Anarcho-punks, such as late-90s punk outfit Against Me!, felt that people should be able to hold responsibility over themselves, and that law enforcement should not be necessary (O’Hara 83).
Because of such strong anarchist beliefs, many Anarcho-punks refused patriotism, believing that it encouraged oppression and exploitation by the government (O’Hara 79). Aside from anarchist politics, many punk and hardcore bands held ties to environmental or animal rights issues. Ecological punk philosophy was similar to that of deep ecology, placing humans in an ecological niche, as opposed to being dominant over other life forms (O’Hara 125). The poor treatment of animals was viewed as a form of oppression, something that most punks fought strongly against (O’Hara 134). By looking at this oppression, many punks chose to practice vegetarianism, likening the eating of meat to the barbaric killing of men at war (O’Hara 137). Punk and hardcore bands, such as Chicago-based Rise Against, have supported and become active members of organizations such as PETA, Greenpeace, and Animal Liberation Front, along with many others (O’Hara 129).
In the music video for their song “Ready to Fall”, Rise Against depicts the ways in which various environmental issues affect wildlife, and sheds a light on animal cruelty (“Political Punk Bands”). Not only are the members of the band avid members of PETA, but the majority of them also consider themselves straight-edge, meaning they refrain from drinking, smoking, and recreational drug usage (“Political Punk Bands”). Coined by Washington D.C. based hardcore band Minor Threat’s song of the same name, the term “straight-edge” has become common amongst punks (Cogan 192).
Ian MacKaye, Minor Threat’s frontman, is considered one of the most influential straight-edgers in history, having introduced an entire generation of teens and young adults to the sub-culture (Cogan 192). Although many straight-edgers became notorious in the 80s for violent acts such as spilling drinks at shows, breaking animals out of farms, or, as in the case of Boston based band DYS, confronting and lecturing audience members about their behavior, other straight-edge bands were more passive, spreading their messages solely through music (Cogan 93). Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, straight-edge bands became more widespread, urging teenagers throughout America to, in the words of With Honor “stand up and be something more”(“What Is Straight-Edge?”). Another subculture that became prominent in punk was the Queercore movement, an assemblage of homosexual bands that rallied for gay rights (“Queercore”). Homosexuals were generally well accepted into the punk community, due to the anti-conformist behavior of both punks and homosexuals (O’Hara 115).
The music of Queercore was distinguished by themes that explored prejudice and sexual preference (“Queercore”). Many of the bands, such as The Butchies, sought to increase awareness of queer social issues through humor (Raha 186). Others, like Tribe 8, brought awareness of the punk dyke and lesbian communities through more serious, contemplative lyrics (Raha 186). Together, Queercore punk bands formed a unique haven for homosexual punks, while also exposing queer politics in a light that any punk, or person, could understand and support. Although punk was known for its inclusive nature and open-mindedness, sexism was fairly prominent in the scene until the late 1980s, when the Riot Grrrl movement came into action. Full of powerful, feminist bands seeking to prove that women could be as powerful as men, Riot Grrrl produced some of the most widely remembered punk artists, all of whom were female.
The most prominent of bands in this movement was Bikini Kill, which allegedly created the Riot Grrrl subculture (Raha 204). Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna was involved in many feminist movements, and became notorious for her abrasive, radically feminist lyrics (Raha 204). Following the Riot Grrrls’ leads, females became more prominent figures in punk, spreading their own political ideas. As hardcore and punk bands began incorporating political messages into their music, they also began supporting political causes. In 1982, anarchist bands such as MDC and Bad Brains played the Rock Against Reagan tour (O’Hara 112).
About 20 years later, Fat Mike, the frontman of hardcore band NoFX, launched his own version of the tour, called Rock Against Bush (O’Hara 112). Fat Mike’s tour was sponsored by PunkVoter.com, a website dedicated to convincing young people to vote, specifically against Bush (O’Hara 112). It ended with two compilation CDs, featuring bands such as Alkaline Trio, Flogging Molly, Green Day, and Rise Against (Cogan 22). Similarly, politically active band Anti-Flag released an album called For Blood and Empire in 2006, a vicious attack on the Bush administration (“The Punk Rock Politics of Anti-Flag”). In the song “Turncoat”, the band accuses Bush of being a “turncoat, killer, liar” and “thief”, calling him out on the many problems he caused America (“The Punk Rock Politics of Anti-Flag”).
Various punk and hardcore bands began releasing albums in a similar fashion, preaching anti-government practices over the falsehood of media. Over the course of forty years, an entire musical culture developed out of what had once been a mere experiment for Lou Reed and John Cale. Green Day, with politically charged lyrics reminiscent of their British punk forefathers, preached anti-war anthems to a group of pre-teens and teenagers in a way that masterfully captured the essence of punk while remaining a part of pop culture. Growing out of an urge for non-conformity, punk rock has evidently morphed into an intense, formidable political force with enough power to influence hundreds of thousands of young people to vote, raise awareness for causes, and support various organizations. From the eccentric sounds of The Velvet Underground, to the loud anarchy of The Sex Pistols, to the universally exposed anthems of Green Day, politics have forever changed punk rock music. Without the early integration of political thought into American punk in the early 1980s, rock music would have nowhere near the amount of influence or respect it has in the political world today.