Intelectual Punks

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Intelectual Punks*

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Punk rockers have long loathed scholarly analysis of their subculture. There are many good reasons for this loathing, not the least of which is the massive amount of craptastic analysis, scholarly and otherwise, of punk over the years. More and more scholarship, however, continues to appear about the subculture—though not necessarily about the music itself. One of the chief problems is that punk itself has an inward-looking discourse about itself (and a belief that outsiders, those who weren’t or aren’t there couldn’t understand), much as the parameters of scholarly inquiry can be exclusionary to those not already trained in how to read them. Thus we often find two forms of discourse with a large space between them, filled by mistrust of scholars by punks, as well as by a range of demands upon scholarship that have little to do with appeasing the often unappeasable punks. Still, many punk rockers, or former punk rockers, have made successful careers in academia, and they want to write about it. As someone who has been writing about punk rock for more than half my life, but also as someone who is becoming a professional academic historian (or historically minded interdisciplinary scholar, if that distinction matters), I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with both the auto-archival mode of punk writing about itself as well as by the semi-distant scholarly mode of writing about punk. That is my own problem, not anyone else’s, but the gulf between the two forms of writing, and therefore knowledge production, is real. It perhaps cannot be overcome, nor should anyone lose sleep over it. Still, I would say to scholars that it might be you have more to learn from punk rockers than the other way around. Indeed, the rejection of scholarly analysis itself is a finding. Try to understand it! On the other hand, not everything written about punk rock by someone with a PhD is bullshit.

One of many folks’ pet peeves within punk today (and among punks within the academy) is the repetitiveness of punk historiography, which too frequently continues to focus on the same old stories, same geographies, same characters. Certainly there are always new angles on old stories, but there are also many new avenues of inquiry to take. The massively increased access to punk archives afforded by reissues, blogs, online archives, YouTube, traditional historical repositories and archives collecting punk ephemera, and even marketplaces like eBay and Discogs, calls out for rethinking what constitutes punk’s foundations evidentially, temporally, and spatially.

There are innumerable subjects within the broad umbrella of punk that could/should be investigated. To catalog the subjects for study would be impossible, but I believe far more needs to be written about the following (focusing on the 1970s and 1980s): the relationship between punk and neoliberalization; punk and the Cold War; punk in the Third World; punk and deindustrialization; pseudo-punk or punk cash-in music and movies, particularly outside the North Atlantic; the general transformation of rock music coincident with punk; punk/queer intersections; blackness and punk; pre- and proto-punk music; punk fanzines, flyers, badges, and other ephemera; punk and the Left; the contemporaneity of punk and hip-hop; punk and violence (eg, someone needs to write about the effects on Los Angeles’s punk scene of the Hillside Strangler murders); punk’s declension narrative (ie, why it’s wrong); punk sounds (in terms of playing, recording, production, reproduction); punk in pornography; the circulation networks (DIY and otherwise) of punk music and ideas; punk archives and archiving; cover songs; and the how and why of the memory, history, and citation of punk within punk. There are surely many others. The internet’s archival resources and connections can facilitate much of this research, which would have been far more difficult earlier. (I have, I suppose, been doing some of this work on Shit-Fi for several years now, and some of these have already been subjects of others’ analyses.)

A recent issue of the interdisciplinary academic journal Social Text bears the title “Punk and Its Afterlives.” There is some good stuff in the journal, which has also published articles on punk previously. One of the orienting principles of the issue is to reject both the linear-diffusion story of punk (it began in London/New York and then spread elsewhere, but the origins were its most true/authentic moments) as well as a compensatory effort to put the margins in the center (punk in some place distant from London/New York deserves to be central to the story).

I agree that this is useful principle. (And I apologize for veering toward academic-speak now.) Yet I also worry about the implicit antifoundationalism here. Rather than a rejection, more useful would be a historicization. It is important to explain how punk emerged across spaces and times, how and why the uneven geographic development of capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s affected its conditions of possibility—and how punk tells us something about those in return. Although I don’t believe the empirical evidence supports the claim that punk began in London/New York and then spread geographically outward from those places, if it did not, why not? In what ways are typical categories like urban and rural, or metropole and periphery, rendered less analytically salient in an examination of punk? Why was it that the “first” punk bands in many so-called Third World locales sang in English and tried to sound like British bands? To understand this phenomenon, as well as the ones that do not fit, requires not just a rejection of diffusion stories but close attention to race and class dynamics across neo-imperial geographies and also within places.

The editors of the issue of Social Text quote Golnar Nikpour’s masterful review of White Riot. She makes the point that the volume White Riot tries to escape a comparative mode, which has bedeviled so many of the participants in punk’s memorialization. The book, for her, still falls short: “If the purpose of the study is not to compile and compare ‘experiences,’ however, but rather to provide a geographically contextualized, historically attentive study of how punk scenes are implicated in, produced by, and absorbed into racialized structures of power—and of course they are—White Riot misses the mark.” Social Text’s issue tries to avoid this pitfall, and actually succeeds.

But there is something more to be said about comparison. Yes, we can recognize that old punks ranting (comparatively) about how the present is not as good as the past is uninteresting. We can also recognize that the anxious comparison of British to, say, French punk by British punks for the purpose of insulting French punk as inadequate is also uninteresting. But we should think about how comparison itself has been a mode of punk’s production and reproduction. The reason a comparison of experiences of punk in New York and Oslo, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, or Peoria does not work is simply that those experiences were linked and coproduced. Linked, they were, by the uneven fabric of a capitalist world-system, whose many facets punks opposed and refracted in varying but not random ways. But they were also linked by the acts of comparison that is the unfolding of punk’s dialectic. The bricolage that is said to have defined the punk aesthetic also defined the collisions, reformulations, mistranslations, and imitations of the world-scale punk mosaic across and through the capitalist (and, indeed, state-socialist, as if that distinction mattered much by then) world-system. Innovation, like the development of hardcore punk, occurred through comparison. It was something historical actors did, not simply something analysts now do retrospectively. To take comparison as an object of analysis, not simply a method, would open fresh lines of inquiry into punk's historical past and present.

I started to work on this mixtape after reading Social Text’s issue on punk. I thought it might be a useful counterpoint and complement to the mixtape the journal produced. Last weekend I participated in a series of panels organized by Patrick Deer and Sukhdev Sandhu on the theme of “punk and the city.” These panels were part of the American Comparative Literature Association annual meeting. It was my first time talking about punk in a strictly academic context. It was a bit weird for me, as someone who has written and thought about punk for so long but for different purposes, yet it was rewarding. Deer is one of the co-editors of the issue of Social Text and Sandhu is a friend and the organizer of the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture, where I previously talked about the Rondos, in a semi-academic but mostly just nerdy fashion.

At last weekend’s panel, petulantly, like a proper punk rocker, I rejected the framing of “punk and the city” at the outset and presented some of my thoughts that you may have already read here on the relationship between the punk explosion and the rise of neoliberalization/changes in the capital-labor relationship in the 1970s. Anyway, I emerged from the experience having met some great people and having heard some really interesting and provocative ideas about punk rock. So, in return, out of gratitude, I send my love (and Molotov cocktail too), with this mixtape of mostly crude and obscure tunes. It includes some of my favorite songs to get you dancing the pogo and doing the strangle (and, uh, some other songs), but I think these bands/songs are also worth considering as we continue to rethink/reevaluate punk’s complex and fascinating history. Once you academic types have listened to these songs, I have 77,777 more for you to check out before you write your next peer-reviewed article.

About the songs:

Among the first punk records released in Belgium, certainly the first sung in Flemish, definitely the first released independently, Basta’s single is a riff-laden, saxophone-laced landmark. The song “Abortus Vrij, de Vrouw Beslist” is about abortion rights, and the record’s sleeve includes information on women’s health clinics across Belgium. The song title invokes a slogan used in protests at the time, still deployed or reworked today by socialist-feminist activists. This record poses difficulties for the typical narrative of punk’s emergence: corporate collaboration followed by resolute anti-corporate independence. It’s not simply the other way around, Basta was not even on that track.

To rethink the typical New York-London, rise-fall narrative, it is useful to think with the Desperate Bicycles, the most important “do it yourself” band, who created the clarion template for autodidact punk music. They aligned musical form with record production and political content. In effect, they called the bluff of the Sex Pistols.

Amidst the arguments about who invented punk nests a sub-argument, which perhaps is or should be the real argument, about race and the invention of punk. Since the early 2000s, punk cognoscenti have known about Death from Detroit, the subject of a recent documentary film. That Death, a trio of brothers (in both senses), invented punk in sound and spirit by roughing up the already rough Detroit rock sound should be no surprise. As a well-known theory of racial formation in the United States has it, Black people are the country’s miner’s canary. So it went for rock music too. Here is Pure Hell, from Philadelphia, another pioneering all-Black punk act. They recorded this track in Feburary 1978. Their sound represents a fusion of rocker bombast, glam performance, and had-it-up-to-here punk sneering. The photo of them taken in London that graces the cover of the Social Text punk issue shows members made up in white-face. It’s complicated, as they say.

La Banda Trapera Del Río, from the industrial outskirts of Barcelona, took, like so many early punk bands, musical proficiency from a quickly receding era and married it with the desolation, self-destructiveness, and abjection that was the only appropriate response to the implosion of Fordism, particularly in its most authoritarian forms, like Franco’s dictatorship. To sing in Catalan in 1978 may have seemed a point of cultural pride and independence; to sing about the rottenness of it all in Catalan was a scathing indictment of both Spanish national unity and Catalan nationalism. Sorry about the tape drop-out.

Legend has it that Rotterdam’s Rondos was the first punk band to break up because they became popular. Rondos has been compared to London’s Crass but also accused even by Crass of being Maoist thugs rather than peace-loving anarchists like their London peers. In the view of Rondos members, the short career of their Red Rock Collective represented the meeting of theory and praxis, whereas Crass were lofty idealists who disdained the often unpleasant street-level work revolution would require. Ultimately, between their austere sound, commitment to independence, and supplementation of their music with magazines, comics, graffiti, films, and other forms of cultural production, Rondos set the tone for the extremely militant left-wing Dutch punk scene through the first half of the 1980s.

If, according to the accounts of Birmingham Cultural Studies, British youth subcultures emerged from the contradictions of race and class formation in the post-imperial era, Alien Kulture put deep, visceral insights on the moment to music. With one Welsh member and three Pakistani members, Alien Kulture confronted both the racism of Thatcher’s ascendancy and their families’ encouragement of conservative behavior. Affiliated with Rock Against Racism and always eager to erase any divide between band and audience, Alien Kulture represent some of the highest political possibilities of punk rock.

In addition to Rock Against Racism, which had chapters far beyond England, where it was born, organizations and concerts like Rock Against Sexism (Sweden), Rock Against Religion (Netherlands), Rock Against Prisons (Canada) and Rock Against Reagan (USA) soon formed. Sweden had one of the largest punk scenes in the world, and it also had a strong feminist component in the early days. The politics of the Swedish punk scene, in addition to some of the sounds, connected it strongly to the so-called “Progg” scene that preceded it, which was far more politically radical and engaged than US hippie-dom. Rock Against Sexism (actually “Rock Mot Sexism") was one example. Fega Påhopp, whose 45 came out from the main label of the Progg movement, was on the outer rings of Rock Mot Sexism, and sonically on the outer rings of Saturn. Bands like this explode notions of internal conformism within punk.

The Injections, from San Diego, had big dreams. But a bunch of Navy enlistees playing songs about Eldridge Cleaver, prison abolition, Communism, and drug abuse, whose 45 was funded by a massive supply of LSD courtesy of a guy named Starhead, playing lo-fi reggae-punk—they never really had a chance.

Latin America’s first punk bands emerged in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, soon to be followed by Ecuador, Colombia, Uruguay, and elsewhere. Pinochet’s Chile may have been one of the least likely spots for a punk band—or maybe that made it most likely that a band would appear there under the moniker Pinochet Boys (in the sarcastic tradition, though probably without knowledge, of Reagan Youth and others). Under the dictatorship, giving your band that name and calling a snotty punk tune “Musica del General” was no small risk. They recorded only two tracks in 1984, which were recently issued on vinyl after languishing unknown to most of the punk world for over 25 years.

National Wake was the only mixed-race punk band in South Africa in the late 1970s/early 1980s to release a record. Due to Apartheid, they encountered difficulties playing gigs, and their 1981 LP was censored. It was released in the United Kingdom with the intended tracklisting, but it did not garner much attention. Their mix of straight-forward punk, ska, reggae, and some indigenous rhythms should have attracted a wide audience. Today, thanks to a CD reissue in South Africa, coverage of the band in the documentary Punk in Africa, and a recent CD/2xLP that compiles unreleased tracks and some of the LP’s tracks, National Wake may finally get the acclaim the band deserves. But if the lesson of the song “International News” holds true—that the international media were complicit in Apartheid by reporting favorably on South Africa—we have reason to be pessimistic.

The Reversible Cords or Re-Cords from Austin was one of several female-fronted or all-women punk bands from Texas that bore a resemblance to the DIY movement that had occurred in the UK. They mixed blank irony with total improvisation, including using instruments that were seemingly the only things laying around on the day of recording. (See also Meatjoy, the Foams, etc.) More complicated than simple nihilism, hilarious songs like “Legalize Crime” reward multiple listens. “Throw all the Democrats in the lake. Let’s all eat Republican steak.”

Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, most Eastern Bloc countries had punk scenes. Many produced records, with Yugoslavia and Poland setting the standard. In Poland, the state released punk records on its own official record label. It was better to exercise some control over youthful dissidence went the thinking. East Germany apotheosized this approach when its secret police provided impossible-to-obtain Western punk records to informants; true punks knew to be suspicious of their fellows who possessed such verboten materials. Poland’s KSU, from a sparsely populated rural area, became punks in total isolation. It’s said they thought they were the only punks in the country. Radio broadcasts from overseas as well as a Greek expatriate community in their area provided information on the effervescent new music. (The effects of Cold War broadcasting across the Iron Curtain have yet to be studied in depth; it is clear they rendered the Curtain porous.) Despite the rough recording, KSU’s aggression and energy are clear here, and other Polish bands took a couple years to match this intensity. It must be noted that this mixtape has included mostly well-recorded bands, but that is not be an accurate representation of punk history generally. Moreover, close attention to fidelity, production techniques and values, and other technical aspects of punk remains absent from most academic analysis.

Karaganda, Kazakhstan, 1986: 12 Podvigov Nurkena, a gang of angry 16-year-olds, record snotty punk rock. Twenty-seven years later, neither unidirectional diffusionist accounts nor poststructuralist antifoundationalism can quite explain it.

So stick sophistication up your ass. Composed of relatively well-off kids in Manila, Third World Chaos, released their LP in 1984, which had been preceded by a 45 (as simply Chaos). The Philippines would go on to have a large punk scene in the 1980s, second in size among Asian countries’ scenes only to Japan. This LP reproduced all the clichés, or should I say characteristics, of British punk rock, to brilliant effect. Originals are impossible to locate nowadays, but it recently received the unofficial reissue treatment. Copies of this high-quality bootleg are easy to find. Four tracks from the LP also appeared on a bootleg single from France over a decade ago.

Canada’s Subhumans grabbed international headlines when a former member went to prison on charges of conspiracy to rob an armored car and possession of a stolen weapon. Bassist Gerry Useless was one of the so-called Vancouver Five, a group of militants (with punk rockers among them) linked to a series of bombings and industrial vandalism, including of a hydroelectric substation and the offices of the manufacturer of cruise-missile guidance systems. The utterly classic “Death to the Sickoids” from the Subhumans’ first single seems to portend these militant actions—except that the song fantasizes about vengeance whereas the ‘Five never intended to harm anyone.

With links to anarcho-punk and the more esoteric UK DIY practitioners around Street Level studio and Fuck Off Records, originally from Stevenage, north of London, the Astronauts at once never fit within punk’s contours and also realized punk’s promise more than any other band. Their sound at times recalls the West London proto-punk/weirdo scene associated with the Deviants, Hawkwind, and Pink Fairies (Hawkwind’s Nik Turner plays sax on their first LP), but it was also a sound that was constantly evolving and remains difficult to pin down. A true street poet and troubadour, band leader Mark Astronaut is responsible for some of the most unexpectedly brilliant lyrics of the era. He also has supposedly never paid to ride public transport in his forty-plus years in London. Their first release, under the name Restricted Hours, was a split single on Stevenage’s own Rock Against Racism imprint. It has recently been compiled on LP along with their first two singles as the Astronauts, and the same label, Hackney’s La Vida Es Un Mus, has reissued their hard-to-find first LP, the source of this song.

* The title refers to the splendidly spelled first EP by Spain's HHH, or Harina de Huesos Humanos. The attached photo is of an article about Hackney's God Told Me To Do It, who famously squatted the Libyan embassy in the 1980s after the UK severed relations with the country.