I Don't Wanna Be A Mercenary
Punk Rock Versus the Mercenary Movement in the 1970s
I recently published an article about the connection between the killer in Charleston, SC, who murdered nine Black people in the Emanuel AME church, and the broader extremist and not-so-extremist conservative ecosystem. I argue that the white regime in Rhodesia, particularly in the 1970s when it was imperiled by guerrilla warfare, was a focal point of activism and mobilization on the right in the United States. After the end of white minority rule and the birth of Zimbabwe, Rhodesia became a powerful symbol of defeat for the right, which led to the type of thinking (if we can call it that) in the killer's head in 2015.
An important point about Rhodesia in the 1970s, as I write, is that many US gun nuts, disaffected veterans, macho racists, and wannabe tough guys traveled there to participate, as mercenaries, in the guerrilla/counter-guerrilla war. Opposition to the mercenary movement, as well as to Rhodesia more broadly, galvanized the left at the time. The violence in Rhodesia and other lands where the Portuguese empire was collapsing combined with the eagerness of some white Americans (and others) to join in made for a perfect topic of punk rock songs. This short article is about three.
Before I get to those songs, I want to make one important point about right-wing movement building that I was not able to make in the Jacobin piece. It is true that the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the end of white rule in Rhodesia were momentous victories that would have been impossible without left internationalism. Certainly these causes were “Communist” before they were mainstream, and now, being mainstream, their roots in left organizing and politics are suppressed. Yet it is also important to note how the widespread defeats of the left across the globe in the latter decades of the Cold War changed the tectonics of political possibility.
As part of the campaign to end Apartheid, activists turned to cultural expression. The trend began in the 1970s or even earlier, of course, but it was fully realized in the 1980s, precisely at the moment when more institutional and clearly political avenues of struggle were becoming foreclosed. As such, the domain of culture, which had always been a site of political contestation, became a primary one. It was not simply that activists turned to music, it was that music was one of the only areas of struggle that seemed readily available as the institutional left was on its heels. Other organizing methods were exhausted, and state repression had taken its toll. The rise of punk rock, with all of its contradictions and political confusions, evidenced the turn away from prior forms of working-class organization toward other modalities of struggle—including by some older formations of Left organizing, like the Socialist Workers Party in the United Kingdom, which backed new organizations like Rock Against Racism or the Anti-Nazi League. (A similar point could be made about hip-hop, born at the same moment.) Not for nothing, Rhodesia banned Punk Rock magazine and Bob Marley albums.
So what’s the point? The right also took advantage of this new terrain of struggle, to the point of stealing the left’s own ideas and vocabularies. Whereas left-wing bands like the Desperate Bicycles pioneered the independent production and distribution of “do it yourself” music, within a few years, neo-Nazis were doing the same thing. Further, even though Rock Against Racism was an attempt to build solidarity and organize young people across racial lines, it was also explicitly an attempt to beat back the rising tide of conservatism in the United Kingdom, both Thatcher’s and the street-level racist hooliganism of the National Front and other organizations. So what did these miserable racists do? They adopted the moniker “Rock Against Communism” for their music, something that made it seem respectable during the Reagan-Thatcher years, whereas appeals on behalf of the white race had declining purchase.
Let's turn now to the music itself, the political expression via cultural means that links punk rock with broader structural transformations of the 1970s. Punk rockers spoke out on the issue of mercenaries in Africa, even as more traditional forms of political organizing to prevent their efforts (plus the actual guerrilla warfare) were not always successful. This solidarity should be considered a highlight of long-distance, cross-border antiracist commitment and activism. I have three examples, but first an interesting tidbit or two.
In "Anarchy in the UK," Johnny Rotten sang a line about the MPLA, the Angolan revolutionary group. Famously (at least in my house), Greil Marcus dismissed this lyric, condescendingly quipping that there’s no way those letters meant anything at all to the bile-filled Rotten. The point of this argument was to discredit any actual connections to existing left formations within the punk explosion so that Marcus could make a cockamamie mystical argument about punk’s relationship to transhistorical rebellious urges. At the same time, even more interesting is that Sex Pistols singles originally had pressings in South Africa and Rhodesia, today among the most difficult-to-find vinyl rarities of the era perhaps because of censorship. (There’s also a rumored Nigerian pressing, but I don’t believe it’s real.)
Negative Trend "Mercenaries"
Negative Trend was one of the most interesting and notable bands of the San Francisco punk scene of the late 1970s, itself a fascinating scene. Negative Trend should be considered one of the key progenitors of hardcore punk. The band still provokes a great deal of argument, as I discovered while digging around on the internet about them. The band had several line-up changes, and members went on to play in a bunch of other bands. Most famously, bassist Will Shatter went on to play in Flipper before dying of an overdose in 1987.
"Mercenaries" is a powerful tune. It’s strident, angry, and pushes all boundaries of politeness, particularly in its apparent adoption of the perspective of the mercenary at the outset. It’s worth noting that there is only one comment on a YouTube video of the song. It's so ridiculously racist, it might as well have been posted by the South Carolina shooter or his buddies. The music remains relevant. The struggle continues.
The band was left-wing, though perhaps that wasn't always clear. Additionally, the members may not have always agreed with each other—or even been sober enough to sort it all out. But at least on the single, and especially on the track "Mercenaries," the politics shine through--at least if you know anything about the history of the late Cold War.
A sample of the lyrics:
You can see some incredible Super 8 footage of the band playing live (and some pretty hilarious/mildly offensive interview segments) on YouTube: part 1 and part 2. This line-up includes the first singer, Rozz, who did not play on the single. It seems like some of the controversy the band provokes to this day is over who really owns the songs. There is a CD release from 1998 of songs recorded in 1978 attributed to Negative Trend, with Rozz singing. Some claim this recording is not Negative Trend at all but was just Rozz playing solo. Whatever the story, this music is incredible. It's very early hardcore, and it deserves wide release.
Several other tracks from a late line-up of the band, with Rik L. Rik (originally from Los Angeles) singing, are also out there, including a different version of "Mercenaries" that appeared on the "Tooth and Nail" compilation LP. This is probably the best-known version of the track because that LP is relatively easy to find, unlike the original single (though the Subterranean Records 12" version of it received a large pressing).
Though I've never heard it, a 1985 version of "Mercenaries" with Will Shatter singing recently surfaced. The band was called Any Three Initials, and they recorded an LP that was not released originally except as a now-very-rare test pressing.
The recent reissue of the Negative Trend single on Superior Viaduct is of very high quality. The singer on those classic tracks was Mikal Waters. There is also a collection of Negative Trend material entitled "1978-1979" floating around online. It includes tracks from the "Miners' Benefit" CD, which is tough to find now. If there were any question as to the band's politics—or the politics of the broader SF punk scene in the late 1970s—the miners' benefit 2-day extravaganza should be the answer. I've written extensively about the politics of that event here. The video that resulted from the gig, called "Louder, Faster, Shorter," does not include Negative Trend, but I assume somewhere in a vault in SF footage exists. Let's hope it gets out into the public domain before it falls victim to gentrification, or the A bomb.
As a final note on how important Negative Trend was to the punk, and then hardcore, scene worldwide, note that Cheetah Chrome Motherfuckers from Italy, one of the inventors of hardcore in that country, covered "Mercenaries," as documented on the "Last White Christmas vol. II" compilation. That song must have resonated in Italy because mercenaries were a hot topic around the globe in the period and a focus of left-wing activism.
Ducky Boys "(I) (Wanna) (Be) (A) Mercenary"
Extremely obscure and much more difficult to take seriously is a band from Brooklyn (not far from where I live) called Ducky Boys. Their 1982 single was called “Mercenary” and the song is “(I) (Wanna) (Be) (A) Mercenary.” Years ago I wrote about the band and interviewed a member. I won't rehash what I wrote then. To me, it seemed clear that all of this was a joke, an ironic pose. Maybe it was serious in the guise of joking. It’s hard to tell. Anyway, again, thanks to YouTube, we get the claim that members of the Ducky Boys went to El Salvador to fight as mercenaries against the FMLN. Oi vey. When the uploader refers to the A-Team in the comment, though, this joke becomes clear. Still, it's good to remember that the changing horizons of political possibility of course did not translate necessarily into punk rock being left-wing, even if organizations like Rock Against Racism (and many others) attempted to make something like that happen. Instead, music perforce became a preeminent site of political struggle. In other times and places, political forces that may have contended in other fields now had to work out their politics on the terrain of and through the vehicle of popular culture. The Ducky Boys were not that popular, to their own chagrin, but if they were inspired by the A-Team (my favorite television show as a little kid), it becomes clear how suffused with unacknowledged political claims mass culture actually is.
By the way, almost no copies of this record originally circulated, explaining its rarity. But unplayed copies are available online for a hefty price.
National Wake "Mercenaries"
Finally, most importantly, is National Wake, the mixed-race punk band from South Africa from the late 1970s/early 1980s. They faced difficulties due to segregation laws, police espionage, and censorship. The South African pressing of their 1981 LP excludes the track “Mercenaries,” which deals with the issue in a sharp, visceral way. The British pressing of the LP includes the track on the vinyl, but it’s not listed on the sleeve or center labels, and the lyrics are not printed on the insert. The recent reissue of the band’s music by Light In the Attic Records includes the track and the lyrics. You can sample 30 seconds of the tune on that site or on iTunes etc; I'm not uploading it because you REALLY should just buy the record or the earlier South African CD pressing (or at least download it from our corporate overlords).
I wrote a bit about National Wake here. I said that their mix of straight-forward punk, ska, reggae, and some indigenous rhythms should have attracted a wide audience. Hopefully nowadays they are receiving the attention they deserve.
Here are some of the lyrics to "Mercenaries":
Sitting in the jungle guarding camp at night
You feel fleas in your socks, mosquitos want to bite
You think you maybe were at fault to leave you modern home
For a game of adventure in the terror zone
You were never in a disco nor a follower of fads
Not a social misfit but you never want to dance
And the folks on civvy street were really not to blame
Home is just so boring...needed action
Home is just so boring...needed action, in a foreign land
I find it so interesting that National Wake connects the urge become a mercenary and go overseas to fight for a deplorable cause with the urge to escape boredom. Of course, to escape boredom was one of the primary explanations punk rockers of the 1970s offered for creating the music they created, the scenes they created. Among the mercenaries were plenty of "true believers" in the linked causes of anticommunism and white supremacy, but they also were explicit that they were adventure-seekers. Many of them veterans of the US war in Vietnam, life at home in the drab 1970s was unsatisfying. Fighting for a cause in an unfamiliar land was a way to find meaning in life.
When National Wake describes the mercenaries this way, it suggests to me a couple things. First, it seems to confirm what I discussed above about how the possibilities of political expression shifted in this period. Traditional rank-and-file worker organizing was becoming exhausted for a variety of reasons, including trade unions' own complicity in their disempowerment. Meanwhile, the wildcat upsurges of the era, as I've argued, both paralleled and interacted with the punk explosion. There is certainly an element of adventurism in those type of job actions. Moreover, the revolt against boredom also was a revolt against a particular sociopolitical and economic settlement, which we call Fordism. This revolt began in the 1960s, first peaking in 1968, and continued throughout the 1970s. Punk was the apex of it. The Fordist settlement is no more, though many ultraleftists, including a younger version of myself, continue to back a revolt against boredom that is out of joint with the present, as they don the rhetoric of past movements. Today, boredom is not the problem. Neoliberalism has internalized that revolt to give us, if anything, too much distraction from boredom. We are today saturated with intense and varied experiences. Ugh.
Second, the idea that boredom motivated the mercenaries and many punks alike indicates that people's political positions are largely contingent, even if the possibilities for them are structurally conditioned. What that means is that, even today, many young people who do take right-wing or extremist positions can be won over to much more palatable political stances, including left-wing ones, through organizing. There is no preordination that makes a white kid become a shooter in a Black church. It is difficult to imagine how to reach a person who would do something like that and intervene, but this type of work is also necessary. Cultural expression could be one of the best ways to start the process, making it imperative still today that we produce politically engaging music.