"A Boot Right in the Face" b/w "Goalgetter" (Slyngel 008)
I have been working through an argument for some time about the relationship between the punk explosion and the tripartite eclipse of workers’ movements, general implosion of the organized Left, and concurrent, coincident, and consequent emergence of neoliberalization in the latter part of the 1970s. In broad strokes, the argument is that the punk movement, and the even more widespread new pop musics (metal, wave, goth, industrial, reggae/ska revival, etc.), resulted from the exhaustion and bankruptcy of older forms of political protest and a search for new forms of political and cultural expression. All of this is also true of the birth of hip-hop in the United States, but I’ll leave that permutation aside, pending further research.
The key point, which is difficult to demonstrate, is that even those participants in these new forms of subcultural and more mainstream expression who had no aspirations or connections to Left politics perforce found themselves within the diminished political horizons that both drove and expressed neoliberalization. They thus took their activity into these emergent cultural realms whether they wanted to or not. It is much easier to demonstrate that more clearly workerist and soi distant socialist efforts in the pop-music domain expressed this epochal shift. So I’ll stick to these. The obvious examples are those forms of punk that exhibited a socialist-realist aesthetic and expressed left-wing political positions, and these are some of my absolute favorite bands. For instance: the Newtown Neurotics, the Astronauts, etc. Their lyrics captured a certain gritty, hopeless moment of decomposing working-class life in the form of narrative street poetry.
Even those bands that in various ways disavowed left-wing political stances, or tried to fence-sit (perhaps the most politically significant position to take under the emergent conditions of neoliberalization), oftentimes adopted this aesthetic. On the whole, “Oi!” is the proof. In some ways, what became “Oi!” was an actually organic expression of this shift in working-class politics in the UK (and then elsewhere) that was simultaneously and retrospectively renarrated and rebranded by Garry Bushell and others as a revolt against the Left. Bushell was a more or less self-described socialist who had good, if confused, intentions. His attempt to redefine working-class cultural expression that was already a tacit rejection of some forms of Left politics as an explicit rejection led to many of its more reactionary forms. The wolves of the extreme Right were already lying in wait. Bushell was painfully blind to this possibility or chose not to realize how easily a disorganized working-class formation that disavowed organizing efforts by the Left could be easily coopted and reorganized by the Right. If nothing else, extreme right-wing attempts at punk rock proved that the socialist-realist aesthetic, once dissociated from expressly Left formations—which it had necessarily become with the rise of punk, my argument goes—was politically indeterminate and volatile. Punk rock as it continues to exist today sits in the shadow of this volatility.
What I am calling the socialist-realist aesthetic, of course, was not confined to a handful of punk bands. Rather, it became in effect widely dispersed throughout mass culture, even as it disavowed its connections to working-class production. Fredric Jameson identified the phenomenon quite early in his famous 1979 article “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” which spawned a million “cultural studies” analyses that often mistook symptom for cause. One of my favorite lines in there, which is applicable to so many pieces of art, architecture, fashion, film, etc., is: “The only authentic cultural production today has seemed to be that which can draw on the collective experience of marginal pockets of the social life of the world system.” In this instance, Jameson believed that a range of marginal modes of social and cultural life emitted or exuded the feeling of authenticity because they were recalcitrant in the face of penetration by the market. Yet he also noted that many such forms of cultural production were becoming divorced from the collective practices that had given rise to them. The thing that was occurring was that those subcultural pockets were becoming the main fodder for mass cultural production, particularly in film. Authenticity sold well! What had conferred authenticity was vitiated in this process. Whether the same could be said of punk is debatable. I would argue the answer is no, because punk created new forms of community. It was a proactive rejoinder to the absence or destruction of earlier forms of community. But perhaps I’m just a hopeless romantic about punk. Yet it is still the case that punk’s conditions of possibility were, I argue, the increasingly desultory experience of working-class movements in the period, including their misdirection by venal, compromised union and party leaders, as well as their outright repressions by state forces. In itself, that meant the destruction of communities.
The story was both the same and different in other countries. Punk and then hardcore punk, one of my other cherished and frequently repeated arguments goes, emerged more or less simultaneously around the globe as a response to and an expression of shared conditions and transformations within the capitalist world-system. In the abstract, again, this argument is easy to make. In its specificities, it becomes more difficult. Because I know a little bit about punk in Sweden (see here, here, here, here, and there), but Sweden’s politics in the period were fairly different from Britain’s or the USA’s, it becomes a challenge for me to see if I can make a similar argument for that country. Luckily for me, along came this incredible record that seems to confirm both of these interrelated arguments. This band played punk music by default, not explicitly attempting to emulate any of the class of '76, and the music realized the promise of certain strains of left politics while rejecting their extant form.
These two songs by Fiendens Musik sound A LOT like Newtown Neurotics, Devils Hole Gang, Blyth Power, and other British socialist-realist punk bands. In fact, “A Boot Right in the Face” predates the Neurotics' “Mindless Violence” but concerns the same subject and shows that the street-level conditions of wanton violence, typically compelled by extremist Right politics, were a feature of young people’s lives in Lund as much as Harlow at the time.
When I’m not ruminating about why punk happened, I’m on the permanent, semi-deranged search for those grails of unheard but amazing punk (etc.) from the golden era. This record is one such grail. Although I had known the name Fiendens Musilk, I had never actually heard them. I guess I assumed I had—that they were on a compilation and the music was unremarkable enough not to stick in my head. But I was wrong. They’re not on any compilations I own. So I was shocked to realize that I had not heard them and that the music is awesome. It’s powerful, passionate, riffy punk with a full sound, including a saxophone. That may not whet most punks’ appetites, but for me it’s a revelation.
Fiendens Musik did not really consider themselves punks. But they put out several singles and a couple of LPs, which are now all on my wantlist, during the punk explosion in Sweden. All of their released songs were sung in Swedish, but the two tracks on this single are in English, which makes the comparison to the British bands much easier to make. “A Boot Right in the Face” is a different version of the A-side song on their first 45, “En Spark Rätt I Skallen.” The song on the B side of that single is an Iggy Pop cover, but here it is a footie anthem for the terrace dwellers, called "Goalgetter."
Like a few of the early Swedish punk/DIY bands, Fiendens Musik had a foot in the final moments of the Swedish Progg Movement, a largely left-wing extension of the hippie era that produced a great deal of explicitly political music and was tied to various organized and less-than-organized strains of the Left. In fact, their name, which means something like “The Music of the Enemy,” was a reference, or a satirical riposte, to a Maoist publication that denounced rock music as capitalist (sheesh!). In that way, they leaned toward the rejection of the organized Left that I have been discussing, even as they built on the foundation of do-it-yourself that the Progg movement incubated and punks adopted and furthered. Their records all appeared on the Bellatrix label, which released some hippie records, along with a couple other punky records, including one by Usch and one by Problem.
Fiendens Musik recorded these two songs on this single for release in England, but that never came to pass. (I would love to know what label, if any, they were planning to work with!) Thankfully, Slyngel Rekords has resurrected them. In the past few years, Slyngel has done yeoman’s work in unearthing lost Swedish punk tunes. Some of their releases—all singles—contain unreleased tracks by known bands like Glo or Docent Död, whereas others introduce otherwise totally forgotten bands from the late 70s and early 80s, like Sabotage, for fans of the film We Are the Best. Slyngel has put out ten releases so far. Pressed in limited numbers, they’re all somewhat pricey and tough to obtain outside Sweden, but all of the tracks are available online. I wish they included more information about the bands and the recordings, but I guess the label folks assume all who are buying these obscure records already know what they’re getting.
Of all the Slyngel releases, I would recommend this one by Fiendens Musik as the most essential. The music is instantly memorable and the lyrics are poignant. Unlike much of the painful-on-the-ears music Shit-Fi reps, I can imagine this record appealing to anyone with even a passing interest in punk rock.Thanks to Tony for translation assistance and to Federico for sending me this record.