Punk, Politics, and the 1980s
Rock music historians and critics generally agree that punk was a reaction to the gaudiness of 1970s stadium rock and the creation of rock royalty like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
By Ron Jacobs / The Rag Blog / January 7, 2013
My introduction to punk rock shows was less than auspicious. I did see the Clash on their first U.S. tour in 1977, yet the venue for that show was a rock festival in Monterey that attempted to bring together punk, reggae, and psychedelic music. The endeavor failed financially but did afford those who attended with the opportunity to hear plenty of great music: Country Joe and the Fish, Peter Tosh, The Clash, just to name a few.
It’s not that the festival was a bad idea. It was just ahead of its time.
Anyhow, back to that first genuine punk show experience. The Stranglers were playing at a UC Berkeley housing coop down the street from where I lived. I think The Mutants opened. During the opening set I somehow ended up in the mosh pit and got hit pretty hard. I moved away and my spot was taken over by a couple friends who had transitioned from hippie to punk a few months earlier. They beat the shit out of some guy they knew from previous mosh pits who hated hippies.
That was the consciousness back then. Hippies were supposed to hate punks and punks were supposed to hate hippies. Even though we got harassed by the same cops for different reasons (punks didn’t smoke much weed), we were supposed to hate each other.
For those of us who lived on the street — sharing seedy hotel rooms and couches, squatting in buildings, and just living in general — we couldn’t afford the same media-induced feud the suburban members of either subculture could.
Fortunately, that quarrel went the way of most media-induced music feuds; Beatles vs. the Stones, soul vs. rock, mod vs. rocker, etc. The result, at least in the Bay Area, was an understanding that the music was bigger than any particular person or subculture.
Punk could not have existed without what came before it in rock and roll. Likewise, anything that came later would be influenced by the attitude and the musical qualities that punk brought to the dance floor. This understanding came about in no small part because of two bands in particular. Those bands were the Patti Smith Group and The Clash.
Patti Smith was already a punk demigod by 1980 — and this in a culture that destroyed gods and goddesses. Her legend was greater than her music and her charisma outdid them both. Politically, she stood with the anarchism of the Yippies. Artistically, she wrote verses that brought to mind the Song of Solomon, Howl, The Mask of Anarchy and more.
All of that was matched to a three-chord progression, a voice that borrowed from Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Robert Plant, and a swagger that put Mick Jagger to shame. In addition, she just plain emanated an attitude that said fuck you — an essential part of rock and crucial to the format known as punk.
I have to share a couple experiences involving Patti Smith. I was a college freshman in 1973 in New York City. Somehow — not because I was that hip — I ended up at a poetry reading in St. Mark’s Church. Patti Smith was one of the poets. She took the stage with a guitarist and a drummer in between a couple other poets and proceeded to blow my mind with a rendition of her song Piss Factory.
Once I saw that, I can honestly say my definition of rock expanded beyond the boundaries that had already been stretched innumerable times. I wanted a recording and I wanted to see and hear her more. Unfortunately, I would have to wait until 1975 when she released her first album on Arista. Titled Horses, it changed the meaning of rock.
Like Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, or the Beatles’ Revolver (to name a mere three of rock’s boundary-expanding recordings), after one listened to Horses, everything else would be compared to that experience.
I saw her at Georgetown University’s McDonough Arena a few months later. She writhed onstage in a worn t-shirt and kept the crowd on its feet for the entire show. I don’t know if it was punk, but it was definitely rock and roll. (The Patti Smith Group would be one of those bands that, despite being originally labeled as punk, would transcend that label and, like The Clash, ultimately become a great rock band.)
Then there is The Clash. Their music was always overtly political. Their version of “Police on Our Backs” was the theme song for those of us who hung out on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and drank beer in People’s Park. Their working class anger against the system that intentionally ignored youth without money and used the police to keep them on the run hit a chord with anyone the police harassed. Plus, just like Patti Smith, they knew how to create good rock and roll. I wrote in a piece published a year or two ago about the album London Calling:
A few days before Christmas, while the sounds of Pink Floyd’s The Wall reverberated in our apartment on Berkeley’s Dwight Way from the building next door a friend walked in the door with a double album from the Clash titled London Calling. This album was not only the best punk album of the year. It was the best album, period. From the first cut called “London Calling” to the final cut “Train In Vain,” this work had everything a rock album could hope to contain. Rebellion, reggae, and straight-out rock and roll. Armageddon, the street, and the essence of love. When our friends who didn’t really like punk took a listen to this album, it changed their minds.
In other words, The Clash kicked ass. They celebrated revolution and did what they could to foment one of their own. Their concerts were an anarchic celebration of the passion and power rock and roll can create.
Anyhow, back to San Francisco. The band that set the tone for all San Francisco punkers was the Dead Kennedys. In a town filled with great music and plenty of places to enjoy it in, DK shows were among the best. Raucous, political and crowded.
Their first single was called California Uber Alles. A satirical poke at the bullshit liberalism of then Governor Jerry Brown and his sophistry, the song laid bare the viciousness that lay behind the smiley face of California’s pseudo-hip establishment. In the remake of the song a year later, the title was changed to “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now.” This version revised the lyrics to fit the new political mood in the United States after Ronald Reagan’s election to the White House.
The transition from gentle smiley-face fascism to the great communicator channeling Josef Goebbel’s lessons in propaganda meant the shit was about to hit the fan, especially for those not with the program. The Dead Kennedys were definitely a necessary part of the soundtrack.
Indeed, 1984 brought the Democratic Party to San Francisco for their quadrennial convention. This was the year that Jesse Jackson made a serious run at the nomination, running on a fairly radical platform. His campaign was knocked off its pace when Zionists in the party leaked evidence that Jackson had once called New York “Hymietown.” The Zionists were afraid of Jackson’s Palestinian-friendly statements and wanted him out of the running. The ticket ended up being composed of the washed-up liberal Walter Mondale and the first female on a national ticket, Geraldine Ferraro.
This convention also saw the first use of “free speech zones” created for public protest. That’s where the Dead Kennedys came in. On the third or fourth day of the convention, a number of anti-authoritarian groups staged a series of sit-ins and street blockades to protest the complicity between banks, the war industry, the Democratic Party, and the ongoing low-intensity conflicts taking place in Central America, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world.
The San Francisco police and other law enforcement agencies, who had been hoping for some action all week long, let loose and busted a few hundred people. While the cops finished up their operation, the Dead Kennedys played a set in the free speech zone. Someone notified them about the arrests and they rallied the crowd to march to the city jail after the show.
Before that, however, a small number of Nazi skinheads jumped on the stage and tried to attack the band. Without missing a beat, Jello Biafra and the band jumped into their song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” Soon, the members of the mosh pit were onstage and dealing with the Nazi skinheads, who left rather quickly.
The best punk was political punk. Whether the lyrics themselves were political or the musicians involved made clear their political positions via statements they made or by rallies they played at. Some musicians actually formed organizations to promote certain agendas. Perhaps the best known of these was Rock Against Racism (RAR).
Originating in Britain as a reaction to the growth in racist Oi bands and other such elements in the punk scene, and various racist attacks and statements by some public figures attacking immigrants, this movement eventually came to the United States, which has its own well-documented problems with racism. In the U.S., RAR teamed up with the Yippies in some parts of the country (mostly urban) to put on shows and organize rallies. Mark Huddle describes it like this in the March 10, 2009, issue of Verbicide:
In the U.S., Rock Against Racism was always a decidedly local affair — a true grassroots “movement.” There were dozens of benefits across the country but no national organization. Anyone who hated the violence and mindless hatred evinced by too many young kids floating around the margins of punk could organize a show; shows which almost always became sites for political networking and community building. From Anti-Racist Action in Minneapolis to the Ska Against Racism tours in the ‘90s, the punk scene became a laboratory for those who understood that every once in a while you have to police your space.
By this time, the Yippies had moved far away from their hippie roots (although a number of them still liked to smoke weed and eat acid) and were well into showcasing politically charged punk bands and working with punk street kids. The first indication of this shift could be seen in the Smoke-Ins on July 4th in DC in the late 1970s and in the comparable Pot Parades in Manhattan.
Their newspaper, Yipster Times (later Overthrow), featured a manifesto for freedom and free speech written by Patti Smith and titled “you can’t say fuck in radio free America.” This was published after a New York FM radio station refused to air a concert of hers precisely because she wanted to say “fuck.”
Rock music historians and critics generally agree that punk was a reaction to the gaudiness of 1970s stadium rock and the creation of rock royalty like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. In San Francisco, it was also understood to be a reaction to the longhair drug culture represented by the Grateful Dead. This didn’t mean that punkers didn’t do drugs, but that their consumption was not a requirement.
Other musical reasons for punk would most certainly be the 1970s popularity of bands like Journey, Kansas, and Foreigner that played a particular inconsequential type of rock that strayed into schlock all too often. Then there was disco; an extension of the music known as funk (which had its own roots and street credibility), disco quickly became the equivalent to the 1960s music known as bubblegum.
In other words, it was easy to ignore but still catchy with about as much substance as the inside of a ping pong ball. From its roots in the urban black ghetto, disco became the symbol of the rich cocaine-fueled subculture symbolized best by Manhattan’s Studio 54. The BeeGees were the masters of this beat in its worst incarnations. Vapidity defined.
I like to see punk as a phenomenon as old as rock and roll and kind of like street basketball. Instead of the extravagant overpriced stages of the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd, punks brought their instruments to whatever dive they could get into. There were no soaring scales up and down the fretboard like Jimmy Page and no special orders for green M&Ms in the dressing room.
Like the garage bands of yore, punk rockers were without frills. Even the music was stripped down; sometimes it wasn’t even music except in a John Cage sort of way. Just like low-income street kids could afford to shoot hoops even though they had no cash, so could street kids start up a punk band. Plus, it kept them out of trouble.
I was never a punk rocker. My subcultural roots went back to the days when hippies became yippies and freaks. In other words, I was too political and angry to be a hippie, but liked their styles and their music. Yet, as soon as I heard the first few bars of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK,” I knew the times were a changin’.
My eardrums were battered by many a punk band in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I had lots of fun and rarely stood still at those shows. Punkers were some of the most energetic organizers I knew when we fought against gentrification and racism in the Bay Area. They were also, along with various older street people, the fiercest fighters against the police when the shit did hit the fan. Plus, punk beat the hell out of the fucking Bee Gees.
A version of this article appeared in Red Wedge Magazine.
[Rag Blog contributor Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. He recently released a collection of essays and musings titled Tripping Through the American Night. His latest novel, The Co-Conspirator’s Tale, is published by Fomite. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. Ron Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more articles by Ron Jacobs on The Rag Blog.]