White Punks on Bordiga.

Organise #35 contains an article on anarchism and pop culture, which gives a potted (uncritical) history of punk, the article actually addressing a letter from a reader who chose to discuss an article in an earlier edition of Organise that discussed anarchism and music but didn’t mention punk. Punk is also a subject close to the hearts of those involved in Class War, and their paper regularly reviews new punk records and has close links to the punk community however their letters page has recently seen some disagreement on the subject, particularly with anarchist punk flagwavers Chumbawamba and their new set-up of major label status and major expensive gig costs. The relationship between punk and class struggle (particularly anarchism) is in need of some critical assessment. The regular arguments that occur when a right-on band sign to a ‘major label (e.g. Blaggers and EMI) do not suffice as critical engagement, what is needed is an answer to the following questions:

Is there a tradition of protest music that has culminated in punk rock?

Can this protest music protest against the music industry and music as a spectacular commodity?

What are the different ideas emerging from music today, and how can we assess them in the class struggle?

This writer also has a vested interest in the interplay with punk and the class struggle, as I was involved in the early punk scene (as a spectator) and was introduced to class struggle anarchism through an attitude that was developed through punk. The dangers of wallowing in nostalgia are apparent and there are various things I have considered before tackling this essay: that the music industry is now a much tighter unit allowing diversity under strict control, that it is easy to look back with romantic feelings and fail to be critical of punk or oneself, and that it is equally easy to be cynical from an elevated position of having somehow ‘moved on’.

 

Form vs Content

There is no doubt that protest music existed before punk arrived, and that it is said these other forms of protest music still flourish often it is important to note, outside of the music industry. Chumbawamba, acting out their role as intelligent anarchist punks, were keen to mention the tradition of folk music and rebel songs. Though whether they could consider themselves to be able to attach themselves to this tradition when their popularity was due to them being primarily a punk band is a point of contention. What we need to be clear about is that protest music in the form of folk music protested through its lyrical content (though its adapting of a form that was simple and catchy is obviously a point to be considered).

The content in punk songs is a different matter, and opinion is very much divided here - hopefully some of the arguments presented here will give us some clues to these problems. The crux of the argument is thus: can we consider the contents (the lyrics) of punk songs to be the medium whereby we offer our protests and propaganda. Put simply, do people listen to (and react to) the words in punk songs?

The answer isn’t a simple yes or no, but we need to have an indication of if this propaganda system actually works on the majority of the people involved in the punk milieu, and the consequences if it doesn’t. It is clear that anarchist organisations like the ACF and Class War credit the potential listeners of punk records with the desire to listen to educating lyrical content, indicated by the fact that when punk records are reviewed they are primarily discussed in terms of song titles and lyrics. However, I would guess that the readership of Organise would hold it a priority to analyse lyrical content of records they bought or borrowed, whereas the larger punk milieu (and potentially interested people on the fringe) would buy the records (e.g. Rage Against the Machine, and Senser LPs reviewed in Organise #35) and give their lyrics little attention. This larger milieu would also buy all the punk novelties, like Rage Against the Machine tee-shirts which aren’t reviewed in Organise! If this were not the case then the tradition started by Crass of packaging each release with a number of contact organisations would still be continued and the anarchist organisations such as the ACF would be swelling in numbers. It must also be noted that the ACF (via Organise) do not tie themselves to punk as the sole method of cultural propaganda and so must be credited with holding some critical engagement with punk (though this hasn’t been aired yet). The issue of Organise in discussion contains articles on poetry and advertising which, to me, should be considered in parallel to the article on punk as the connections are obviously important (Poetry is a verbal form of propaganda - punk is supposed to be - advertising is the product of a consumer society - the record industry, which loves punk, is a part of this system). Magazines do exist that believe punk and politics are inseparable - e.g. Profane Existence with its motto ‘making punk a threat again’. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of punk 'content’ is worth considering.

It was the form of punk music that attracted me to the punk milieu, and in all respects it was the record industry and the media that gave punk music its initial far reaching circumference of influence. It could be argued that form actually represented content and eventually replaced content: this is convenient for the record companies as form sells records because it creates a new genre.

How can content be dissolved into form? Well, punk, to me and many people, expressed anger, boredom, restlessness and a sickness of society and conformity - the clever trick is that the music is also characterised by its angry, restless, and non-conformist ‘form’. Lyrical content was either blasted out of existence by screaming rants, crashing drums, and thrashing guitars or twisted to poetic extremes as a protest against the stale lyrics of 1970’s love ballads and disco trash tunes (e.g. Buzzcocks and their cynical anti-love songs, or Joy Division and their gloomy soul dredging excursions). But punk was mainly angry, and anger characterised its form - this tradition continues to date, and for the record companies it is often the case of the angrier the better. The harsher the subject that forms the kernel of the lyrics (fascism, smack, prisons, state control, environmental rape) the more angry the lyrics, the more angry the accompanying form, the more the record becomes a 'punk’ record, the more it sells to the punk market, the happier the record company.

The truth that you hold in the above statement may depend upon your cynicism, but (on the side of punk music) it is important to note the subtle differences in the music industry. When punk emerged it was a new sub-culture and the record companies were less wise to the dangers of a full frontal all-out promotional push. Gigs were cheap and free and people were encouraged to travel around and start their own bands (the DIY aspect is critically assessed later). People were introduced to new ways of living - hitching or organising vans to gigs, shoplifting instead of buying, refusing to buy instead of buying, squatting instead of renting, producing a fanzine instead of reading NME, cooperating instead of competing. The music industry promoted this (as it meant the rise of punk which was primarily a musical, and so record selling, culture) for a short while, and eventually allowed an opening for groups like Crass to emerge and shape the next stage of punk... its ‘proper’ politicisation.

But we need to ask whether Crass and the new generation were critical enough of the music business and if they were aware of where they came from musically. The attitude of the music industry changed after Crass had arrived on the scene and although the punk music being produced by the major labels didn’t change, the facets of the punk culture beyond the music were played down to the extent of the current period where Chumbawamba regularly charge 7 for the pleasure of seeing them perform (at their gig in Sheffield some comrades ran an anarchist bookstall and attracted no interest while the band tee-shirts were selling like hot cakes). Thus the punk community was physically shattered and removed of its broad critical nucleus.

Some of us may still hold out that content in punk songs is an important aspect to the listener, in that case then there maybe is something missing between an active punk record buying (and tee-shirt wearing) public and a burgeoning class struggle movement, and it is up to us to bridge that gap. It would be interesting to see the commercial aftermath of the images of the frontline of a future riot being flashed across the TV screens and tabloids - youths with balaclavas and Rage Against the Machine tee-shirts hurling molotovs and spraying Blaggers ITA on burning buildings.

 

Crass and their followers

In terms of anarchism, and the anarchist tradition, the individuals that formed the bandIcollective Crass knew where they were coming from. They envisaged punk as a useful vehicle for propaganda (taking the already established music form and adding visual and soundbytes), the propaganda being the broadening of an understanding and appreciation of anarchism. Crass carried on the punk tradition of anger and honed the lyrics down to sharp comments and questions on everyday life and the class struggle - at first assuming that listeners to punk music paid attention to the lyrics. Crass also made new ground in pulling together the elements that were being fostered - thus we saw the rise of cheap benefit gigs with no private organisers, the building of anarchist centres and prisoner support. They also began to consider the packaging of their records, using fold out sheets of montage, statements, essays and essential contact listings.

Many bands joined Crass and their crusade - some from the anarchist scene, others from the music scene and Crass’s commitment to DIY (via the setting up of their own record label and the release of the 3 Bullshit Detector records), and others converted politically from Crass records (being both converted to a belief in anarchism and a belief in punk rock as an effective propaganda system for this anarchism). The niche that Crass had moved into and put to good use was now being overshadowed by the music industry, and a strong independent punk scene existed alongside a strong major label punk scene. The music industry (i.e. the major labels) could manufacture a band to anticipate a new sub-genre of punk as easily as they could buy off established bands in the independent sector. The laughable rise of ‘positive punk’ and its flowering into the laughable ‘gothic punk’ is just one example. The independent labels often existed under the illusion of being in contention with the big labels, however if we step back and take a critical look we can see this was not the case.

Consider this, Crass were primarily a punk band when it came to the business of releasing records. Even though they used records to get the message across, they used records because they were established as a band, a punk band, and so could influence a pre-existing sub-culture called punk that was maybe open to the persuasions of anarchism. This sub-culture also bought records from other punk bands that were tied to other (major) labels (such as the dreaded EMI) and so the independents and the majors needed each other to help a sub-culture grow. The majors certainly needed the independents, not least of all to sign their bands or get new ideas for their own ‘manufactured’ bands and so prevent punk from going too stale as a commodity. The independents also needed the majors because major labels could produce and package and promote fine punk (form) records which would then induce (via NME, John Peel, or whatever) more record buyers to punk, of which a few of these will be interested in the form of punk to such an extent that they will buy the less polished independent records. By opening up such an audience to punk, it is assumed that a smaller fraction of these newly created disciples would become interested in punk (content) and so, via bands like Crass, become devoted to the anarchist cause. So, in theory, independent producers, musicians and propagandisers such as Crass depended on major labels (to some extent) for a musical credibility and also (to a lesser extent since it is a fraction of the above) for anarchist propaganda credibility.

A contradictory situation was eventually highlighted when the ‘trend’ in anarchism became an awareness of the horrors of multinational companies, and an all out war was declared on companies such as Unilever. This partly arose from a shifting perspective to animal rights, spurred on by the fact that most companies indulged in it. Suddenly people became aware of the fact that the corporations that gave us our daily existence and in the process inflicted terrible harms on the animal population, also had plenty of money invested in the record industry (the extreme view taken was that records were physically made from animal produce!). The result was more of a frantic cleansing process than of a critical look back at the history of punk.

Bands initially didn’t change the music industry but called into question the ‘politics’ of some of the bands signed to identified major labels, making the naive assumption that to be punk meant some kind of deal to be politicised in favour of anarchism. Conflict were the most hilarious, simultaneously holding down the title of raw and raucous anarchist punk heroes while crusading against EMI - particularly memorable was their hostile battle with major label 'cult’ punk band New Model Army who had switched to EMI at the first chance. EMI guaranteed New Model Army chart success and New Model Army didn’t break the punk tradition of appearing on Top of the Pops without being as angry, daring and dangerous as possible - their singer sported an official New Model Army ‘Only stupid bastards use heroin’ tee-shirt, only to be bettered by the official Conflict ‘Only stupid bastards use EMI’ tee-shirt. EMI are still the ultimate sore point to the politicised punk movement, and the ‘selling out’ of recent punk, anti-fascist heroes Blaggers ITA is still a fervent topic of discussion.

Crass, and other bands, knew that the critical questioning needed to go much further, and different bands went further and further with their analysis. The question of whether or not to sell out was soon transcended by the questioning of how come the circumstances existed to sell out. Chumbawamba took the effective questioning of the major label (in record format) to its limit, with their LP ‘Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records’. Though it is significant that they now operate as a major band and use pictures of fascist violence and homophobia to sell their records. Chumbawamba have always had a firm belief in the myth that people pay fullest attention to lyrics, justifying their hypocritical position of using records to protest against the record industry (though ‘Pictures...' was also a protest against the charity industry and its links to the music industry) and their hypocritical position of being part of the major labels now.

Chumbawamba also performed a coup de grace with their paintbombing of the Clash. In fact many people put the Clash at the forefront of the political mess that punk has developed. Original punk was seen as emerging from the art schools and was politicised by the pomp and scandal of a watered down and de-politicised Situationism. The Clash were credited with being as the angry working class youth band who had a passion in their lyrics and a fire in their bellies that lifted them from a pub rock status. Of course they made it big and were crucified by their mistakes - the next wave of anarcho-punks were keen to point out the irony of ‘I’m so Bored with the USA’ when most of the band were pushing themselves into new punk niches in the USA market. When the Clash returned to tour the UK they decided on some ‘impromptu’ busking sessions to get back to their 'roots’, to do it for the kids etc etc. When they busked in Leeds they were sprayed with paint by Chumbawamba as part of some statement regarding their involvement with the music industry and the fact that they had betrayed punk and were in it for the money. While Chumbawamba saw this back to our roots busking as a cynical marketing ploy from a band with a flagging credibility, the actual action of the paint bombing turned out to enhance the punk credibility of Chumbawamba, gaining coverage in NME etc. But hey, these things happen!

Crass and Flux of Pink Indians went way beyond Chumbawamba in their degree of analysis and began to question the existence of punk as a subversive form and the plausibility of using entertainment as propaganda. Had the culture industry set-up punk to such an extent that it was just another brand in the entertainment supermarket with nothing more to offer than the ‘defiant pose’. Both Crass and Flux entered into a no-win situation when they knew they had to question their own relevance and existence (i.e. the effectiveness of propaganda and the tradition of punk music). That they chose to bow out with an album of recorded music to emphasize their arguments was poetic in a sad sense : Crass’s ‘Yes Sir, I Will’ and particularly Flux’s ‘The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks’ are intense pieces of music and propaganda, and it is no coincidence that many punks find these albums ‘difficult’. One cannot argue that bands like Crass, Flux, D & V, Dirt, Conflict, etc did a great deal to UK anarchism. The movement received a shot in the arm from these genuine bands, and the formation of a punk influenced hardcore ALF proves that some people do take lyrical content seriously enough to act upon it. The questions that I have raised, and I do not doubt that Crass themselves raised the same questions can be considered as follows (see diagram):

Thus, by increasing the numbers interested in anarchism, via punk music, you are increasing the numbers interested in punk as a spectacular commodity at a GREATER RATE. It is only the minority that will question the major labels, the rest will support them because it provides pristinely packaged and produced punk music. If this minority influenced politically by punk are influenced to the propagandising potential of punk then the cycle is thus continued. This is the false illusion that punk must exist under.

 

Why Music

Crass ended their musical career with a couple of albums of poetry and love songs and a half tongue in cheek compilation album (which included the looped byte saying "we only did it for a laugh"), having finally resigned themselves to the internal contradictions of anarcho-punk. Many bands still hold out hope that there will be some day in the future when no punk band will sell out and cross to the dreaded majors, and so continue making music and/or protests regardless.

I have argued that you can't use a form of music held dear to the music industry to protest about the status quo, especially when your protestations about the status quo include the music industry. This applies to all music, the fact that punk gave protest its most obvious form (loud, harsh, and angry) is just the ironic cream on the cake.

The next question is whether a form of music can exist outside the music industry and so fulfil (if it wishes to) a successful role in protesting. Is there still a radical tradition of folk music or has it been destroyed by the record industry? Could it have existed in spite of punk, or has the record industry been so total in its search for profit and its role as cultural dominator that it has obliterated anything it cannot recuperate? (cue the Levellers)

It would seem wise that music existing outside the music industry should also be against it, how would such a music show itself? Reading these notes it may appear that I despise all music and ban it from entering my head... this is certainly not the case. I buy records regularly and constantly listen to the pirate radio stations playing new music or incorporating new mixes. In a similar way to an awareness that you cant beat consumer capitalism by buying green (or buying symbolically anti-capitalist), I have this awareness that protest and music are not a solution. Music is a form of entertainment, and entertainment is the slipperiest commodity. However, if we reconsider our ideas we can use music as part of the class struggle.

First of all we have to be clear that it is difficult to prioritise changes in the move towards communism. In a moneyless society of freely associating producers the people must make it part of their lives to determine their own needs. Beyond food, warmth and shelter we enter into the idea of luxuries and culture would seem to fall into this process. Music is a big part of popular culture and it would be safe to say that music and entertainment would have a key role in a communist society. This is one reason why we can consider an analysis of the music industry, the other reason is even more important... music as it exists today is part of the wider net of popular culture that plays a major part in our social conditioning, that is in the prevention of communism.

Let us get ‘back to basics’ and consider the plight of the musician. To what extent we can eliminate specialisms in a communist society is debatable, what we need is free access and cooperation for anyone who wishes to learn a certain skill. Not everyone will want to learn every skill (nobody would be able to learn every skill, but this is not an excuse for specialisms) but in a free society it could be assumed that the diversity of interests of individuals and the commitment to mutual aid would assume a healthy and active community. Creating music is one such skill that could be chosen to be followed, but it must be clear that a musician in this context would have an interest in experimenting and developing in their field of work, and sharing the results and methods with whoever is interested. In this situation if you feel you would be interested in a certain form of music, but this form was not readily available, then the emphasis would be to develop it yourself.

If we consider how musicians justify their roles today we can see many answers - most of them unsatisfactory - some are interested in making money for themselves and the music industry, some feel they can propagandise with words of songs, others believe they are satisfying a need (albeit manufactured) and so exist as entertainers putting themselves on the stage, while others are just convinced they are a special case of ‘artistic talent’ and so must be heard. Some musicians exist to encourage others to play music - and promote the DIY ethic - and this is perhaps the only praiseworthy motive, however such efforts can struggle under the same illusions as the protest bands. Other musicians exist to further ideas in particular musical forms (from Sonic Youth's experiments in modified guitars, Glen Branca's symphonic massing of the same instrument, Einsturzende Neubaten's use of industrial montage, Nurse with Wound's collages of sound founds, etc). Much of this is done without the illusion that it can shatter the music industry and so liberate entertainment, and so for this reason alone it can be worth considering as valid work. Punk dug its own grave by both believing it could challenge the record industry by creating a music called punk, and then by effectively reaching the limits of the punk form and refusing to acknowledge this. That we can consider the musical work of innovators and experimenters as valid while they don’t challenge the music industry is based on the assumption that music in a communist society would not be just as entertainment but also as empowerment and personal adventure - the assault on the music industry is a separate issue that has equal importance, and this is considered later.

 

Music as an Ideological Mirror

Before we do that it is necessary to draw attention to a problematical situation facing anarchist I communist revolutionaries, a problem that seems to have developed discussion only in the anti-civilization milieu. Simply put, the problem of escaping from modern society is initially two fold in its complicity. For many of our class not active in fighting back in the class struggle then modern society is nothing more than a prison either keeping you in misery by crushing your spirit or convincing you otherwise. Choosing to struggle cannot immediately relate to shaking off the totality of this society, though in effect this is what the class struggle will finally reveal. Until then it is inevitable that certain systems will be left unquestioned and so our vision is obscured through the powerful ideological apparatus of the society we are trying to leave behind.. Recent debates around technology serve to illustrate the poverty of our arguments when you consider the development of the division of totally pro or totally anti technology.

There are two worthwhile considerations if we try to adopt this more critical approach to our arguments about music. The first is the variety of styles of music that exist, and from this we have to make some decisions on taste. The diversity in musical forms is the result of the appliance of technology available to musicians and the relentless powering on of the music commodity industry. Many new styles appear fleetingly as the work of a select few individuals before the term ‘movement’ can be attached, often the movement is suddenly born complete with bands and records. It is not just the mainstream styles that the music industry plays with (e.g. the obsession with altering the gender I sexuality balances in a band), but often the styles that seem worthy of attention (the ambient scene in dance music which thrives on the somewhat ironic message of relax, the anti-musician tendency in punk I guitar bands and the likes of Shimmy Disc in the USA). There is no doubt that people are doing exciting things with music, and that the variety and diversity of modern music is something that can be continued in the modern society, even though this variety and diversity of music is something either promoted or manufactured by the record industry (even though the odd dog will appear like positive punk and new romantic in the 80’s!).

The second consideration brought about by the mediating factor of the totality of capitalism is the categories of entertainer and audience. Earlier I presented an argument that music would be about experimenting, developing, and sharing within its field. Would this mean that if someone enjoyed listening to music then they would be obliged to experiment and make their own music. Obviously not, such a tendency could quite simply be considered as that infectious leftist ideology called 'productionism’. But we need to understand the relentless drive that this society places on us to be ‘the audience’ A critique of the performer / audience relationship is not attempted here, it is something we hope to come back to. Much work has been done in this area following on from earlier Situationist excursions, this culminated in the 1990 Art Strike which we will address in the next volume. Looking for clues in the field of music is very difficult, while we have the cult of Karioke raging through our pubs and clubs, we also have a huge DIY tendency active in the new dance movements. What is clear is that music is often tied to certain good experiences in a miserable life (e.g. the freedom and rebellion of youth) and so people are willing to be stirred into fond memories by a performer dredged up from the dead or mimicking a past history of music cultures.

 

Outside and Against?

The social conditioning carried out by the culture industry is all too apparent, and the huge role played by music within this area makes an obviously fertile ground for battle. We do not consider that music should be given up and the battle against the music industry be fought full tilt from the outside, however we recognise that making any form of music strengthens the very industry we are trying to destroy. In this argument it is possible to see the futility in the protesting punk movement, and we would warn against ‘genuine’ propagandists getting involved as they will fall prey to the ‘Chumbawamba factor’. However, we need to consider a balance between the joys of making our music and experimenting in our fields, and the amount we strengthen the music industry. What we also demand is unmuddled thinking! Such a balance could be achieved by an obvious commitment to working ‘outside’ of the mainstream music industry (i.e. an independent network), the promotion of an awareness of how we (as musicians in an independent network) fuel the fires of the mainstream music industry and, most importantly, a well organised and highly tactical assault on the music (and culture) industry in directly non-musical (and non-recuperable) methods. The independent networks would then serve a dual purpose - firstly to bring together those with an interest in a certain form of music and encourage the empowerment of individuals and the development of that form (i.e. a musical purpose), and secondly to organise, discuss and report back on actions against the music industry as part of the general class struggle (i.e. an activist purpose). When Conflict took time out to stop preaching the evils of EMI they screamed out in a song (on the album ‘Ungovernable Force’) for punks to give up the game if all they were interested in was playing tight(er) and fast(er). I would argue that Conflict had the wrong end of the stick, and that 1990’s Britain had such a powerful music industry that the only point in playing a music called ‘punk’ would be to take its musical elements to the limits - one of which would be playing incredibly fast and keeping tight (of note here is that fast and tight bands such as Panterra and Sepultra get shoved into the metal movement by the official punks).

Thus the critique applied to protest and music (particularly punk) can be left behind by the DIY movement. Yes, DIY encourages the music business to grow by either using DIY music and musicians to enforce the general swell of musicians, or by using new forms as its own avant garde (i.e. to scout out new terrain of cultural capital). But DIY is a direct appeal for people to get involved in either creating their own entertainment or creating their own experimentation. Where it exists in its truest form it breaks down the barriers of artist I audience and specialisms. Protest music uses music as a vehicle to smash capitalism through a perceived short cut of severing the arteries of multinationals and so negates itself in entirety. DIY is a direct appeal to music ‘outside’ of capitalism but sees the movement ‘against’ capitalism as more than its sum parts.

 

Well It's a One for the Money...

What is positive about DIY attitudes is the social attitudes it creates. Beyond breaking down the barriers between artists I audience it also encourages networking, mutual aid, critical thinking, cooperation, etc. It is here where it coincides with what was radical about the original punk movement.. i.e. the practice of refusing and questioning everything. Of course, cultural capital will grab onto what is symbolic about something and stretch these icons as far as possible. This is what it did with punk - turning it into capital from style and merchandising. That it also encourages the more threatening elements to capital's existence (i.e. new social relationships) is a gamble it has to take. Though we don’t want to pose this as some kind of cultural crisis theory we think there is a valid point of discussion here. The emergence of new movements in eastern Europe and their connection with the punk movement (and their eventual nihilistic ghettoisation) is a practical starting point.

On the home front the DIY techno movement and social re-defining of the raving community represents the latest manifestation of a possible revolutionary current. The new punk craze that we are being bombarded with (the new wave of the new wave) is nothing but a husk. On the outside it is images, poses, phrases, expressions, clothing, postures etc, on the inside it is nothing. It is about marketability. I also suspect it is about a reaction to the techno movement and its slippery position within the official music industry. Capital needs to be created and the kids need to be kept diverted. What is perhaps funniest about the whole new punk circus are the original punk bands dragging their members out of their dayjobs and day centres to take to the stage and rake in a bit of nostalgia cash... even the original marxist mentors the Gang of Four have reappeared.

I will leave this essay where it can best be continued. How can we develop our strategies against the music industry as part of our attack on capitalism. This would include attacking the artist I audience divide and attacking the strategies that music as commodity can be used for. This is where we can begin our next enquiry.


From Communist Headache: 1st Series - Notes For Working And Living Volume 3, page 7. Autumn 1995.

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