Did Reagan and Thatcher Really Keep Punk Alive?

reagan_punk_flyerIn the opening scene of the the 2006 documentary, American Hardcore, which was adapted from Steven Blush’s 1999 tome, middle-aged, bald Vic Bondie from Chicago based hardcore punk band, Articles of Faith says something to the effect of, “Reagan was saying it’s morning in America.  It’s fucking MIDNIGHT, MAN!”  This was his way of saying that, in November 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected President of these here United States, EVERYTHING changed!

It was like Germany 1933 all over again.  Only THIS TIME, there would be REAL opposition to the Nazis in the form of a bunch of 15 – 18 year old kids with crew cuts, combat boots, black denim and cutoff band t-shirts idiotically slamming into one another while a band of middling talent provided the loud, fast, aggressive soundtrack.  Sure a few casualties were rounded up in the form of split heads and severed ears – Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L. admits to slicing kids’ ears off with the spur of his engineer boot – but this was the sound of the YOUTH, a true left-wing opposition to the rising tide of Reaganite fascism.

This of course paralleled the opposition to the equally fascist government of Margaret Thatcher in England, where much more fashion conscious, mohawk wearing punks like the Exploited didn’t waste a moment to call Margaret Thatcher a “cunt.”

By the mid-80s, metal bands like Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth heard the rallying cry of the punks and joined along.  Now the anti-oppressive, anti-fascist message would have better distortion, longer songs and more guitar solos!

By the end of the 80s, the U.S. elected a moderate, slightly less fascist President in George Bush, and, in 1992, fascism was finally crushed – at least, until 2000 – when MTV rocked the vote and President Clinton was elected.  The remaining hardcore punk bands, those that hadn’t broken up, were forced to scratch their heads about what they could possibly sing about.  They had the duel challenge that their righteous, anti-fascist message was now being sold to MILLIONS of people thanks to commie, rap rockers Rage Against the Machine and the fact that, well, Clinton wasn’t a Republican.

So, THANK GOD, that, in 2000, George W. Bush was elected and the bands could get righteous again.

I got the inspiration for this piece when I read Gavin McInnes’ article about how comedians hate Donald Trump and, without him, they’d have a dearth of things to mock, as if the dysfunction of their own lives isn’t good enough.  This same line of reasoning has been parroted about punk rock and, especially its louder, faster offshoot hardcore punk; the 70s might have had some problems, but with the election of Ronald Reagan, now they REALLY had something to complain about, or as the Dead Kennedys sang, “We’ve got a bigger problem now.”

That’s of course if you think music, and punk rock especially, is something more than just a form of entertainment, a loud, fun, raucous way to “get the lead out.”  And unfortunately, for a bunch of free-loading, smelly Anarcho/crust punks, this is the case.

Although there were precursors to punk, bands such as the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the MC5, the New York Dolls and the Modern Lovers, the general rule of thumb is that the first modern sounding punk rock album was the self titled debut from the Ramones, released in April of 1976.  Johnny Ramone was a Republican who felt that his often copied, down-strumming, “da-da-da” approach was meant to mimic the shooting of an AK-47.  A hippie he was not.

With the exception of maybe the MC5, who largely disavowed their pro-Maoist views, left-wing style revolution was never the first thing on the minds of any of these bands.  Punk, in general, was predicated upon bands who made their stake at being fuck-ups with catchy songs.

By 1977, the major labels gambled on these lovable miscreants and officially called their music “punk rock.”  These new rock groups had funny, sometimes indecent names like the Sex Pistols, the Dead Boys, the Dictators, the Saints, the Clash, the Damned, the Ruts, the Boomtown Rats, the Buzzcocks, the Heartbreakers (not the Tom Petty band!!!), the Vibrators, the Stranglers, the Adverts, the Rezillos, X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Slits and Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

They wrote fuck-up songs for fuck-up kids about fuck-up topics, or, as Johnny Ramone said, “we just want to write about sick topics.”  Punks sang about serial killers, Nazis, rapists, horror movies, beating people up, boredom, juvenile delinquency and, well, being a fuck-up, while bashing out wonderfully juvenile, short and catchy songs that hearkened back to 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, albeit with much louder distortion and snottier vocals.  They also wore funny clothes, making “anti-fashion” statements with torn t-shirts, spiky hair, safety pins, smeared makeup, leather jackets and even swastikas.  Many disguised their attempts at obnoxiousness as “artistic statements.”  Some on the mainstream saw them as a threat; many more saw them as just the new thing the kids are into.

Occasionally a band like the Clash would sing about being on the dole, working in a factory or rioting against “the man.”  Occasionally a group of so-called Anarchists such as Crass would try to make you feel bad for everything you enjoy.  Leather jacket?  That’s made out of an animal!  And soon a movement based upon their principles emerged, saying that punk could no longer be about having fun being a fuck-up. NOW punk had to have a message!

Meanwhile, in the United States, by 1979, major labels like Sire (actually Sire was a much smaller label, but it was bought by Warner Bros., bumping it up to major status) had grown tired of their fuck-up bands.  The Ramones, the Dead Boys and Richard Hell and Voidoids weren’t selling millions of their fuck-up records to millions of fuck-up kids like they had hoped.  Instead, the majority of Americans prefered Animals by Pink Floyd, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

So, the fuck-up bands either had to break up or change their approach for commercial appeal, giving us the closest to punk crossover hits with the Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen duet “Because the Night”, catchy as hell pop songs by Blondie and “Whip It” by Devo.  Meanwhile, the underground was bubbling with activity and new labels such as Slash and Dangerhouse emerged with new fuck-up bands with names like the Weirdos, the Germs, X, the Bags, the Deadbeats, the Controllers and the Dils.

But, just being a fuck-up with really great songs wasn’t good enough.  The Dead Kennedys formed in 1978 in San Francisco and their singer, agent provocateur Jello Biafra had a real message to sell to the kids.  Punk rock wasn’t about fun!  We have to change the world, man!  We have to take the world back from its evil obsession with capitalism.

The irony is that the first Dead Kennedys album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, released in 1980, primarily attacked limousine liberals like Jane Fonda (“Kill the Poor”), rich black people who claim they have a connection with ghetto black people (“Holiday in Cambodia”), shady landlords (“Let’s Lynch the Landlord”) and ultra-liberal San Francisco governor Jerry Brown (“California Uber Alles”).

With the exception of maybe “Chemical Warfare” and “When You Get Drafted”, one could make an argument that Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables was just politically ambiguous satire with no leftist agenda.  Hell the track “Holiday in Cambodia” has the line “bragging that you know how the niggers feel cold/and the slums got so much soul” before bashing Pol Pot, the Communist dictator of Cambodia.  The track “I Kill Children” is just supposed to be shock punk with no message and “Your Emotions” is just Jello telling some broad, “your emotions make you a monster.”

The point?

By 1980, with the death of major label interest in “punk rock” and the rise of “new wave” and “power pop” or the so called skinny tie bands, a younger, angrier, MUCH more antisocial wave of punks hit the scene.  Anorexic, heroin addicted, twenty-something art school types, who spiked their hair up and wore torn blazers with safety pins, were replaced by line-backer sized, beer guzzling, suburban surf jocks, who shaved their heads and wore black jeans with chains for belts and engineer boots.  Safe pogoing (jumping up and down to the beat) was replaced by vicious slam dancing (or the mosh pit, if you will), and hardcore punk was born.

Does any of that sound like the beginnings of a leftist political movement?  None of the music on any of the records by Black Flag, Minor Threat, Circle Jerks, the Misfits, Fear or Bad Brains had a single mention of Ronald Reagan.  Personal turmoil, angst, self-hatred, hatred for society and, in the case of the Misfits, horror movies, were typical themes.

Were there leftist bands?  Sure.  Following the election of Reagan, the Dead Kennedys sang several songs about “cowboy Ronnie forking out his tongue at human rights”, D.O.A. sang “Fucked Up Ronnie”, D.R.I. did “Reaganomics” and Suicidal Tendencies even sang “I Shot the Devil”  about shooting the man, a rather tasteful statement considering the recent attempt on his life (to be fair, the song also talks about shooting Anwar Sadat and John Lennon).  Other bands, with names like Reagan Youth, Corrosion of Conformity, Millions of Dead Cops, the Dicks and the Crucifucks, sang more generic leftist lyrics, typically bashing war, politicians, cops, Christians, teachers, jocks and heavy metal bands; basically anyone that didn’t adhere to their narrow minded view of life.

As a side note, I talked with Paul Bakija of Reagan Youth at a gig they did in Cleveland, and you best believe he collected a princely sum for selling their song “Degenerated” to a Hollywood studio to use in the 1994 comedy film Airheads, starring Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler as members of a goofy punk metal kinda band called the Loan Rangers.

But, it was mainly Tim Yohannan, an ex-Yippie, who was essentially the Saul Alinsky of the punk scene, that tried to fashion hardcore punk into some sort of left wing opposition movement.  His magazine, the ultra popular, Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll deliberately bashed any bands who didn’t adhere to a strident leftist way of life and, as the 80s progressed, punk rules got more stringent;  being “true” and not being a “sellout” or a “poser” became more difficult with each passing generation, to the point where you have bands today who have the strictest of attitudes of what constitutes “punk.”  Punk isn’t about music, man!  It’s a way of life!  I actually got yelled at by some punks for listening to Bad Brains because, in the 80s, they referred to openly gay bands like the Big Boys and the Dicks as “bloodclot faggots.”  “You just think it’s about if you like the music and don’t care at all what they stand for?”  I’m not kidding.

By 1986, there was both a political and musical backlash; political in the form of New York Hardcore bands like Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags and Murphy’s Law, who blatantly supported Ronald Reagan and musical as hardcore bands moved away from their core sound and tried other approaches.  Black Flag became sludgier and helped invent grunge, the Meat Puppets became a sort of country punk hybrid, Husker Du turned into a melodic rock band, the Replacements became the Tom Petty of the underground. Early bands like Misfits, Minor Threat and Negative Approach broke up so that their singers could form more expansive, experimental bands.

How much of this had anything to do with Ronald Reagan?  I’d say none of it, but I’d be lying, because, in Reagan America, that awful, fascist place where people were oppressed, these bands had the freedom, the wherewithal, the extra capital from lower taxes and the chutzpah to launch their own labels, their own scene and their own little world apart from the major label and corporate/liberal media.  To be fair, labels like SST and Alternative Tentacles were started in 1978 and 1979 respectively, but, at very least, Reagan didn’t prevent these labels from functioning.  They were examples of capitalism at its finest.

The irony is that, in 1986, the Dead Kennedys’ career wasn’t killed by Ronald Reagan and his “oppressive”, right wing regime, but by Tipper Gore, wife of Al “An Inconvenient Truth” Gore, a Democrat, who felt that the insert for their 1985 Frankenchrist LP, the H.R. Giger painting, Landscape XX, a supposed metaphor for corporate America’s alleged fucking of its workers, was obscene.  In other words, it was the leftist liberal Democrat who killed the art.

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