In Sex Pistols’ movie, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, Malcolm McLaren gives an insight into the punk politics of the 70s, telling Helen Wellington-Lloyd that she should “never trust a hippie – look for the current event”, before admitting that Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee provided the perfect political and populist subject for Sex Pistols’ anarchic rock’n’roll to “exploit to the hilt”.
Entertaining though it is, no one’s saying that the film’s colourful version of events is what really went down in 1977. Yet, the late Pistols manager got one thing right: punk has never shied away from duking it out with mainstream politics. After all, if we recall punk’s original manifesto, wasn’t one of the main principles meant to be the adoption of an anti-establishment stance and a rejection of the political idealism of the day?
Certainly, a strong political content is a common thread that weaves itself through the history of punk since the genre emerged as a musical force on both sides of the Atlantic during the mid-to-late 70s. Starting as they meant to go on, Sex Pistols immediately put the wind up the authorities by swearing on prime-time TV on the Today show, and they effectively became Public Enemy No.1 after the police shut down their infamous River Thames jubilee boat cruise in June 1977.
The Pistols’ legendary singles ‘Anarchy In The UK’ and ‘God Save The Queen’ remain the clearest manifesto of punk politics on record, drawing the blueprint for virtually every political punk song of value, while The Clash’s self-titled 1977 debut contained Summer Of Hate-era classics ‘Career Opportunities’, ‘London’s Burning’ and their smart punky reggae cover of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police & Thieves’, dealing with issues such as unemployment, civil unrest and police oppression – all topics which have since become political punk footballs.
Punk also aligned itself with socio-political movements early on, with The Clash, The Ruts, Tom Robinson Band, Sham 69 and Stiff Little Fingers playing gigs in support of Rock Against Racism in the UK in 1978-79. Indeed, even as punk began to fragment into differing factions, those informed by punk’s ethics often retained a political focus, with The Slits, The Raincoats and Gang Of Four tackling questions of consumerism and gender politics, and the growing political awareness of The Jam’s leader, Paul Weller, leading him to pen classic songs such as ‘Mr Clean’, ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’ and ‘Eton Rifles’, in which he addressed political issues including right-wing-related violence and the British class system.
Changing political regimes in both the US and UK in the 80s also impacted on punk. Californian punk trailblazers Dead Kennedys’ first two singles, ‘California Über Alles’ and ‘Holiday In Cambodia’, attacked political targets at home (Californian governor Jerry Brown) and abroad (Cambodian dictator Pol Pot), but, during the 80s, the band led the charge against America’s new conservative Republican president, Ronald Reagan, releasing brilliantly satirical albums such as Plastic Surgery Disasters and Frankenchrist, and organising a series of Rock Against Reagan concerts.
How does it feel?
The era’s domestically repressive regime also helped spawn a newer breed of harder, faster “hardcore” punk acts such as California’s Black Flag, blistering Washington DC punk-reggae fusionists Bad Brains and the same city’s Minor Threat, who advocated a “straight edge” mentality, abstaining from drink, drugs and eating meat – a philosophy akin to the UK punk collective Crass, whose anarcho-punk philosophy also put the emphasis on animal rights, feminism and ecological issues, while openly rejecting the methods of the mainstream music industry.
The punk politics of Crass and the UK’s other leading anarcho-punk outfits, such as Poison Girls and Conflict, also stood in vehement opposition to the British Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher, as did other pacifist-inclined UK punks such as Discharge and Charged GBH, who played a faster, more aggressive brand of punk (often now referred to as “UK82”) influenced by metal pioneers Motörhead.
During the 80s, punk politics also led the charge in response to the UK’s brief but devastating war with Argentina over the Falklands Islands. Though coming from very different ends of the spectrum, new wave star Elvis Costello’s yearning ‘Shipbuilding’ (performed by Robert Wyatt) and Crass’ seething anthem ‘How Does It Feel (To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead)?’ were among the most resonant responses to the conflict. Later in the decade, punk-era luminaries such as Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and Tom Robinson also threw their weight behind a collective called Red Wedge, designed to foster support for the Labour Party against the Margaret Thatcher-led Conservatives in the UK’s 1987 election.
In the US, President George HW Bush failed to inspire the same level of rage as Ronald Reagan, though, in January 1991, punk played a major part during a memorable Gulf War protest concert staged in front of the White House while he was in residence. Organised by Washington DC activist collective Positive Force and headlined by ex-Minor Threat mainstay Ian MacKaye’s second legendary punk outfit, Fugazi, the event attacked both America’s burgeoning homelessness problem and North America’s involvement in Iraq.
Formidable agents of change
During the 90s’ alt.rock revolution, US bands such as Green Day, Rancid and The Offspring inadvertently dragged punk politics back into the mainstream. However, after the horrific events of 9/11, President George W Bush came to represent everything that was wrong with US politics, and the country’s punks protested en masse in the early years of the 21st Century.
Recalling Dead Kennedys’ Rock Against Reagan shows, punk outfit NOFX organised a series of Rock Against Bush concerts and compilations which drew widespread support from the contemporary punk community. A little later, in 2004, punk politics again hit the headlines when Green Day’s outspoken American Idiot album (written partially in response to the band’s view that the media was brainwashing the US public) arrived in a sleeve with artwork inspired by Chinese Communist propaganda, yet went on to sell six million copies in the States and reignited the band’s popularity with a younger generation.
The digital age has made grass-roots punk activism easier to organise, and punk as a potent political force continues to rear its head. In 2012, Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot became household names after three of their members were sent to prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” following their arrest during a guerrilla gig at Moscow’s Cathedral Of Christ The Saviour. Elsewhere, Icelandic punk turned politician Jon Gnarr formed the Best Party in the wake of the country’s financial meltdown, in 2008, and, after he was elected mayor of Reykjavik, his party of ex-punks successfully ran the country for four years, employing ideals based upon Crass’ anarcho-punk philosophy.
In the US, too, the country’s most politically-aware alt.rockers remain vigilant in the age of fake news and alternative facts. To this end, punk-influenced grunge stars Pearl Jam recently donated 90 per cent of the profits from their Seattle stadium shows to helping the city’s homeless, while acts such as Pittsburgh punks Anti-Flag and incendiary rap-punk crossover supergroup Prophets Of Rage continue to speak eloquently against injustice in the era of Donald Trump.
None of it will take us back to 1977 for a second time, but the best of our politically-motivated punk bands have it in them to be formidable agents of change.
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