Punk nostalgia is back. This age is ripe for it, as there’s a whole host of reasons for people to be frustrated and angry, particularly for the young among us, as opportunities diminish. There’s something very punk, after all, about tearing down a goading monument to those who wished you in shackles.
There’s something very ’76 about now, and it makes a lot of sense for people to draw from a moment where people were moved by art, music and fashion to stand up for themselves. In 2017 I’ve often kept London Calling in my earphones, blasting out Clampdown for inspiration, for strength.
But there’s also something in punk that embodies the mass appeal of manifest right-wing hate, which is once again loose, having bubbled for years. There’s something “punk” about donning a swastika, for shock or for awe.
Nostalgia observed through blinders can be a dangerous thing. Young(er) punks like me came to the culture at its nadir, and knew it as a scene that welcomed anyone and everyone so long as you shared its passion, its strip-it-down catharsis, and its tolerance. Its British origin story is dominated by the memory of the Pistols and the Clash – between anarchy and socialism – between the expression of ‘70s working class feeling and those who tried to channel that anger into a revolutionary riot.
Something’s missing here. The memory of this spirit of ’76 is incomplete. Punk is (and was) polarisation writ loud, a centrifugal splattering of all things, an explosion of possibilities and frustrations. It was the creation of a new voice, but it was also in its founding moments a REACTION against the tame, the overblown, and the delusionary. Sometimes wonderful things can be produced, when the centre fails to hold. You talk to the old punks now, and their recollections lack the political romance us third-gen Clash disciples ascribe to that moment.
There always was in punk a leftist appeal, and the movement quickly developed an activist wing, exemplified by the famous Rock Against Racism carnivals of ’78. Yet so much more washed through the maelstrom of punk. No punk would have been even slightly surprised when John Lydon backed Trump and Brexit.
Many of the old guard insist that punk was not a political event. I’ve seen this often in response to accusations from Johnny-come-lately historian types that punk “didn’t do enough” to oppose racism and the rising fascist tide of the late ‘70s.
Were they supposed to?
As it turned out, due to the movement’s initial actions and the turmoil of the late-70s, punk rockers had to deal with the Nazis within, whether they wanted to or not.
So declared Strummer in the 1977 reggae-inspired track “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”, which railed at both the punk and pop reggae scenes for ignoring the racial inequality and bubbling white supremacy in the streets of late-70s London. Its iconoclasm is a sign that Strummer felt isolated in his views within the scene, rather than an embodiment of punk ethics. Indeed, the Clash’s political articulation was inspired as much by the activist reggae – the roots, rock, rebel – of Marley, Cliff, Tosh and Marvin than elsewhere. More than anything, Strummer was moved by black activism in West London embodied in the scorched streets of the ’76 summer and the Notting Hill carnivaliants’ response to police abuse that year. In (White Man), he took aim at his punk contemporaries –
– and particularly targeted The Jam, who famously worked to tear down the established order by encouraging their fans to vote Conservative (a call Paul Weller later regretted).
Upon whose shoulders falls the responsibility to take on the fascists?
It’s another weird quirk of history to remember that Thatcher cast herself as the “change” candidate in late-70s Britain- when the lights were going out, in millions of homes and thousands of flats, guarded by the growing garbage monuments of discontent.
Then as now, the Tory presses spammed the notion that the turmoil was caused by Jack Jones and the corrupt trade unionists, and an overblown public sector protected by Jim Callaghan’s faltering government (ignore Callaghan’s significant and pioneering privatisation, that’s just Fake News). Thatcher would return order, trim the fat, get Britain working again (three million would soon be unemployed). It was a lucrative line of attack for the Tories, to paint Labour as luddites, clinging on to an overgrown, stagnant way of life, whilst suggesting that turning the clock back to Victorian England was somehow a path to progress (wonder if they’ll try that trick again). To Weller’s comparative moddish-punk mind, the Tory claim sat neatly to what punk meant to many – back to basics, to chord and melody, away from the inaccessible self-indulgence of prog’s excesses. The stars aligned.
The Conservatives of course baulked at punk’s brashness. It was too unstable an element, made of too many unreliable parts, to conform to any confined ideology, let alone the sensitive prudishness of old-school Toryism. The Pistols had already taken good care of that before punk really took off.
The Pistols were delirious gunmen, shooting wildly into a crowd at anything they could take down a notch. What politics you might gauge from this manufactured nihilism depends entirely on when you freeze the frame.
But there was plenty political about the Pistols, and the Ramones and the Dolls and this strip it down approach. Punk is challenging at its very core. It insists on denying anybody authority on knowledge. It hates lecturers, soapboxers and pedants – punk’s orators are instead conduits of feeling and frustration. It’s dimed out, all in. Like reggae, punk is a small axe. Ready to cut you down.
But first up, it was about marketing shock factor. Malcolm Maclaren, Bernie Rhodes and proto-punk’s executive vice-presidents saw fame and fortune in tearing it up in a blitzkrieg of taboo. Sid Vicious and Siouxie Sioux painted themselves in swastikas – and they were not alone. At this point, Mick Jones and Tony James had formed a proto-punk band, managed by Bernie Rhodes. Their Jewish manager sat the kids round the table, and opened an envelope full of red armbands, white circles and clockwise gammadian crosses. The band were to be called the “London SS”, declared Rhodes.
“We hadn’t thought at all about the Nazi implications. It just seemed a very anarchic, stylish thing to do.”
Stylish indeed. Fascism was the contemporary look of innovative, chameleonic trend-catalyser and punk inspiration David Bowie, then posing as the Thin White Duke. His Duchy was cocaine-driven ramblings, “theatrical” Nazi salutes and Hitler-loving commentaries. The Duke claimed he was “clowning”, holding up a mirror to English society. There was plenty of fascism in ’76 to reflect back upon him, after all.
Nowadays, we know Bowie was not a well man during this phase. Regardless, Nazi chique was IN, and infectiously marketed. Like teenage shoplifters, punks quickly tried to see just how much they could get away with. In the North, a band called “The Moors Murderers” came together. It is said that Chrissie Hynde briefly played guitar for them. They tried to release a song called “Free Hindley” but, thankfully, punk had found its limits on the opposing side of serial killer apologism. They were ostracised, and soon disbanded.
Soon after the Pistols triggered the Big Bang of British Punk, sub-cultures began to solidify underneath the hollow shells of the Pistols’ anarchic edgelordic imagery. The Clash took the lead as Britain’s foremost socialist rockers, whilst bands such as The Slits and X-Ray Specs carved out a forthright women’s voice in punk, joined by Crass (who usually mixed genders on vocals), especially on their 1981 LP Penis Envy (banned by HMV, and confiscated from shops by Greater Manchester Police).
Crass became pioneers of the burgeoning anarcho-punk set, drawing from, of all things, hippie counter-culture (the traitors) to make their brand of anarchy into something more than just a chaotic veneer. Anarcho-punk then fired itself back across the Atlantic, especially finding voice in the Dead Kennedys (note the name), who mixed up Southparkian college-boy shock humour with sophisticated leftist critiques and infectious hardcore energy, resulting in classic tracks like “Holiday in Cambodia” and “Let’s Lynch the Landlord.”
There is something essentially egalitarian about punk, and it rapidly drew in left-wing spirit with every breath. “When I saw the Pistols I suddenly realised I wasn’t alone in the fact that I couldn’t play…I felt inferior, but when I saw the Pistols I thought it was great, because it just suddenly struck me that it didn’t have to matter.” Punk is participatory, punk is democratic. Punk is a leveller.
Lefty punk was in full swing, but it was not alone, and was severely tangled up in punk’s other fan clubs. Although Weller quickly binned his braindead Thatcherism, and Jones and Rhodes threw out their swastikas, right-wing punk was, and still is, a massive thing. Longstanding punk rockers Misfits make no secret of their conservativism, though their efforts to organise online through conservativepunk.com (in response to Fat Mike’s 2004 punkvoter.com and Rock Against Bush) was about as successful as Moggmentum – may it never zombify.
Nazi-sympathisers quickly latched on to punk’s anger and energy and correctly saw it as a useful conduit of hate. Fascist punk was born quickly and grew quickly, its path to the off-limits nuked by punk’s pioneers. Lefty punks were guilty too – Strummer’s early celebration of black activism in London, in which he called for an extension of its spirit across Britain, was very unfortunately given the name “White Riot” (Joe would get better). Punk’s roots in whiteness were solidified by such statements, as well as those such as Elvis Costello and Jello Biafra who liberally used the n-word (I don’t fucking care how ironic you are, keep that word off your tongues). White punks still do it – nothing is off-limits, remember.
Fascism was in vogue in politics as well as in style. Enoch Powell’s shadow cast itself across the nation, and NF boots were marching in earnest. Thatcher would later herself tap into this manifestation, driven above all by the pursuit of votes. This rise was reflected in the fears and angers of leftish punk voices – Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces record was obsessed, fascinated and terrified by fascism.
Punk went centrifugal. It’s a movement that resists organisation, and embraces forceful contradiction. As the winter grew discontented, gigs increasingly saw violence overwhelmingly instigated by stormtrooper wannabes. Crass – blinded by flower power – decried the violence “on both sides” against evidence to the contrary, and with it sold much of their punk ethic down river.
The fighting at Crass gigs was happening in dive bars and music halls across the nation. The NF targeted the punk movement early on. The white working classes were finding their voice, and the fascists wished them to speak in time with the march of their boots. The way in, they decided, was Oi! – the punk of punk – a rebellion to the art school anarchists of the first wave. Oi! and its pioneers were less interested in statements, whether out of ideology or image, and more in talking about the things that went on in their daily lives. They were Saturday’s Kids, and in some ways, a punk by fans for fans.
Oi! was pretty masculine, and it went hand in hand with football factionalism and the resurgent skinhead movements – gigs were often a violent crossroads between punks, skins and rival firms. That’s when the NF got involved in a big way. The fascists had already started infiltrating football firms, and next stop were the skins and the punks. Oi! was their target, but for the large part failed miserably in their attempts to recruit any bands, with the latter exception of Blackpool flops Skrewdriver, who reformed in the ‘80s under the banner of White Power. Instead, they formed their own groups (household names like The Dentists and The Ventz) with the express wish to draw punks and skins into their circle of hell.
This didn’t go too well, either, so they instead tried to recruit existing fan groups. Sham 69, for a short time Britain’s biggest punk band, were top of their list. The Hersham Boys, bursting out of the deprived part of Surrey that nobody ever talks about, were distilled male youth, rage and joy wrapped in a southern snarl. Frontman Jimmy Pursey commanded great loyalty amongst his fans, and in turn he valued them dearly. They were huge among football kids, especially Hammers fans, and Sham gigs soon found themselves swamped by Nazis, seig heiling in the cauldron of noise.
This was different to Siouxie’s swastika.
The art-punk’s Nazi imagery created the initial association between punk and fascism, and the idea that the scene could be fertile terrain for NF recruitment. Now the Nazis had succeeded in wrapping Sham in far-right rhetoric, never espoused by the band or their music. Pursey himself was soon tarred with the fascist brush. He was loathe to condemn his fans, many adoring, for any dabbling in fascism. Not all Sham fans went this way, and he was to an extent sympathetic with those who found false solace in hate.
Pursey’s initial inaction led him to be seen by some as a poster boy of Nazi punk. In an interview, Joy Division (whose name originates from Nazism) defended the band’s etymology by pointing the finger at Pursey – “Everyone calls us Nazis…but compared to Jimmy Pursey, who is an out-and-out racist…Nobody can remember the beginning of Sham 69 and the things he said then.” (PS I can’t find any quotes that support this. @ me if you have some).
Others, such as Gareth Holder of the Shapes, hated him for failing to protect his fans from the fascists. “That idiot Pursey had his head so far up his own arse it wasn’t true. He just didn’t want to deal with it. He’d be singing “If the Kids are United” and the whole fucking place would be a war zone while he was doing it.”
This tactic was not shared by some of the Oi! Bands. The Cockney Rejects took matters into their own hands, by beating the shit out of the Nazis who threatened them. “We weren’t going to have it,” remembered Stinky Turner. “We just went down and absolutely slaughtered them. We declared to them that if they ever set foot where we were again, we’d decimate them.” Pursey, like Crass, wasn’t into violence. But things were getting serious at Sham gigs. Nazis were rushing the stage.
Jimmy had a choice to make, as did the whole punk movement. Where did it stand? Decision time came when Red Saunders approached him to be the face of Rock Against Racism. RAR was formed after Eric Clapton, who made millions out of covering Bob Marley, declared that Enoch Powell “was right.” RARs founders could see the infiltration of far-right ideas into pop music, they could see the Thin White Duke, Sid’s gammadia, and Costello’s n-bombs, and they saw the connection between these incidents and the trouble at Sham gigs.
Saunders knew exactly what he was doing. There was no point headlining with The Clash, that wouldn’t surprise anyone. Saunders had to get to the core of the power of the anger, the essence of punk’s loud expression of strip-it-down radicalism.
It had to be Sham, it had to be Pursey. If we could get Sham to take the stage and denounce racism, it could mortally wound the NF’s entrance into the punk scene.
Pursey agreed. He took the stage at Victoria Park with the Reggae band Steel Pulse, at the end of the festival, which was preceded by a massive march through London, protesting the threat of the far-right. For this, Sham got death threats, and Pursey lost his nerve. He pulled out of the RAR sequel at Brockwell – that was, until some kid approached him on the tube and told him he’d got no balls. This one finally landed. The next day, Pursey stood up to be counted.
RAR was a big success. It was so far removed from the overblown Bono-infected live aid shite. This was a rally with direct action at its heart – a mission to root out racism from Rock & Roll, an art form rooted in African-American expression, and take on the far right in London and elsewhere. RAR went on tour to the provincial towns. From then on, the NF were never able to grasp hold of punk, retreating into the scene’s darkest corners. It held a foothold among the skins, but was barely able to transmit its voice through song.
RAR could not, however, undermine the association between punk and fascism. Perhaps punk will always house fascists, doomed by its initial “artistic choices”, or its amplification of white working-class anger, too often misinterpreted as, or reduced to, fascistic. Perhaps because punk exists essentially in tension, dancing on the volcano of human emotion and expression.
For my part, escaping to (often terrible, often class) punk gigs as a kid, I felt I was going somewhere where no-one could ever hurt me, where the well of human hatred ran shallow and dry. A place that valued thinking for yourself. For me, punk remains a place of catharsis and a source of strength to hold firm against the 2017-vintage fascists. But in this place, as within any temple of inclusion, there is a line to be drawn quickly and decisively against the creeping hatred of our age. As Jimmy Pursey discovered, there’s no time to equivocate, and no valour in it either.
Better to deal with those who wish you dead the way the Cockney Rejects did,
or Red Saunders.
Or, as Jello Biafra put it years ago,