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.

CBGB (2013)

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Complete and utter shit.  I had already read the reviews and seen the trailer so I wasn’t surprised that this movie was going to suck.  I just watched it to see how bad it stunk and I was not  disappointed.  It did not even come close to rising above the absolute wretchedness which I had expected.  What’s sad is that CHEETAH CHROME WAS INVOLVED!!!  It’s mind boggling to me that a former participant on the CBGB scene could be involved in such a piss poor travesty and allow himself to be portrayed as a complete buffoon.  Chrome is a smart dude!  He’s well spoken and reads a lot and certainly must have been aware of how the actor portrayed him as a completely moronic thug.

But let me start from the beginning.  I wasn’t there.  I didn’t witness the first ever Ramones performance where each member played a different song, angrily stormed offstage and came back to play “Blitzkrieg Bop”; one of those legendary performances where the people in attendance had no idea that they were witnessing history being made.  But I’ve read Please Kill Me along with a ton of other literature on this topic and I’ve seen plenty of live footage from the era and, for chrissakes, I listen to all of these bands!!!

CBGB the movie is total VH1-style, biopic nonsense.  A few key scenes were underlined and recreated as stylistically bankrupt as possible (unless you consider crude comic book panel transitions a “style”).  But what do you expect from a film made by the same guy who directed Houseguest? A clever, post-modern docu-drama in the style of 24 Hour Party People?!!!!!

Like I said, I read Please Kill Me so I knew exactly what scenes they were recreating; the aforementioned inauspicious inaugural Ramones performance, Stiv Bators from the Dead Boys receiving oral sex onstage, Legs McNeil, John Holmstrom and Mary Harron interviewing Lou Reed for the first issue of Punk and Johnny Blitz’s stabbing among others.

And there you have it; the key stories behind the CBGB club excepting early performances from a bunch of other bands that were left out for practical reasons (I understand there might not have been room for Devo, the Cramps, the Misfits or the Damned but where the hell are Johnny Thunders and Heartbreakers or the Dictators in all of this?)… but the execution is a complete and utter joke.  The only one that actually, kind of works is the Talking Heads one.  They actually do look like the early Talking Heads but that only lasts for a couple minutes.  The Ramones in the movie are completely laughable.  Joey, who most considered typically cool, sounds like Woody Allen!!!  He sounds like a neurotic, New York Jew and not like a too-cool-for-school rock ‘n’ roll guy.  Apparently Linda Ramone, wife to deceased Ramones guitarist Johnny Ramone, approved one Ramones song to be in the movie but… instead, for some reason, they use a Joey Ramone solo recording.

The rest of the performances stink; actors that kinda sorta resemble Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, the Dead Boys (pre-Jeff Magnum who, for some reason, never appears in the movie(?!)), Television (with a pudgie Richard Hell(?!)) and the Police (who inexplicably “save” the club at the end (?!)) poorly mime to studio recordings of some of the greatest songs ever written.  The movie is also full of blatant, easily avoidable mistakes; there were stickers all over the wall for bands who hadn’t even played there yet, Patti Smith performs “Because the Night” two years before it even came out and basically the Dead Boys’ entire story arc is a complete insult to the group, which I’ll save for the next paragraph.

I’m surprised Cheetah Chrome says anything positive about the movie since the Dead Boys are treated like Hilly Kristal’s big mistake.  The movie only shows the Dead Boys’ public persona as a group of Midwest, white trash thugs where, in actuality, they were smart, charming and polite people!  The actor who plays Stiv looks like Parry Farrel and does a bunch of stupid, overly-exaggerated “punk” poses and the Cheetah character keeps making nimrod, little kid, “nyeah, nyeah” faces while looking completely incapable of holding a guitar.  If you watch any Dead Boys TV performances, it’s obvious they’re tight musicians who have quite a bit of charisma onstage.  None of this is shown in the movie.

They do show the onstage blowjob and Cheetah Chrome shows Young, Loud and Snotty producer Genya Raven his pubes.  This is important stuff, ya know.  And they do show people shooting dope in the CBGB bathroom and guys giving each other head, which did happen, I guess.  And they do show some dramatic scenes between Hilly (Allen Rickman) and his daughter Lisa (Ashley Greene) and how Hilly can’t handle money and was involved with some shady bikers and some other vaguely historical shit or something.  But who cares?  There is so much awesome early footage available of every single one of these performers on youtube that the only reason to watch this is to see how much of it they get wrong.  Oh and the guy who played Iggy Pop is too tall.

But, if you want to see for yourself, here it is on youtube.  Save yourself a trip to the theater or DVD rental and watch it here while you can:

Dust

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Dust
Hard Attack

I’m assuming most of the intrigue for searching out Dust comes from Marc “Marky Ramone” Bell being in it years before he drummed for Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys, Richard Hell and the Voidoids and, of course, THE RAMONES!!!  The other two guys in Dust were guitarist/singer Richard Wise and bassist Kenny Aaronson, who also played a mean pedal steal guitar.  Wise later joined co-producer Kenny Kerner to produce Kiss and Aaronson became a session musician for a whole lot of people that I’m not going to mention.  Dust made two albums and that was it.

Dust – Kama Sutra – 1971

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If you found the double LP reissue set containing the self titled Dust LP and their second album Hard Attack packaged together and on the plastic there was a sticker that read “the roots of American metal”, that is a lie, my friend!  Do not think for a second that the group Dust is an undiscovered, underground gem in the same vein as Pentagram and have a bunch of heavy, Sabbath doom riffs and horrific themes because you’ll be disappointed beyond belief.  Sure the cover looks scary but it’s a facade.

However, if you’re a fan of early, bluesy hard rock that is obviously influenced by Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad, then you’ve got yourself a nice pair o’ records to play!  The first Dust album contains seven original numbers that alternate between good-time groovy, kind of funky hard rock, acoustic pedal steal country blues, epic-length “Dazed and Confuses” blues rock trudgery and high speed – nay, damn near hardcore speed – boogie rock.

The album immediately blows apart the “American metal” myth with opening track “Stone Woman”, which rides along on an upbeat funky groove, complete with slide guitar.  One thing you may ask yourself when you hear this fun opening tune is, “how is that the same guy who drummmed in the Ramones?”  His snare dominated patterns and non 4/4 rockin’ make it clear that the music of the Ramones was way below his skill level.  Side two opener, “From a Dry Camel” is the aforementioned heavy, blues rock trudgery.  It’s similar to “Dazed and Confused” except the lyrics are really weird and it later picks up into a galloping beat.

So yeah, I don’t need to describe every song.  The lyrics are about typical rock subject matter; love, lust, roamin’ ladies and sucking water from a dry camels hump.  The guitars are beautifully loud and have various tones and Wise sings in the same high pitch 70s style as Mark Farner.  I mean, what’s there to say; this is proletarian hard rock to bang your head and/or fist to, so get to it man!

Hard Attack – Kama Sutra – 1972

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Kind of looks like a Molly Hatchet album, doesn’t it?

Not only is the title for this album a stupid pun, it’s a complete lie!  Just like the sticker that says, “The Roots of American Metal”, this album is not only not metal, it’s not even hard rock!  The album begins with acoustic guitars and though the song “Pull Away/So Many Times” picks up the energy into an acoustic/electric gallop, it’s still not hard rock.  Furthermore the album proceeds to get lighter as we go along so that, by the time we’re on the third song, “Thusly Spoken”, we’re hearing an acoustic guitar/keyboard/piano/strings ballad!  “Hard Attack” my arse!

But, hey, here we go!  The fourth song, “Learning to Die” is a hella energetic hard rock song, who’s opening melody sounds like the Twilight Zone theme before proceeding into the main riff then a lighter, scarier part.  Then the eerie part goes away and we’re back into energetic rock ‘n’ roll zone!  Is this supposed to be social commentary?  “Every man learns to die/he has to leave his jewels behind”?  I dunno, whatever.  This song kind of reminds of Blue Oyster Cult with all them minor notes.

I already mentioned the group’s playing ability; guitarist Richard Wise and bassist Kenny Aaronson are perfectly fine on their instruments whether they’re playing electric/distorted or acoustic and, of course, Marc “Ramone” Bell is playing way more technically advanced stuff than he would in the Ramones.

What is with these existential lyrics, “somewhere somebody lives/somewhere somebody dies/but it was only time/somewhere somebody laughs/somewhere somebody cries/but it was only time”… what?  Good thing the song it comes from (“All in All”) has some neat start/stop boogie rockin’ with plenty of drum rolls and ultimately good time cheer and then, A COWBELL!!!  Did Marc Bell play a cowbell on the previous release?  Not that I recall… anyway…

Arrghh, now we’re back into acoustic zone with “I Been Thinkin’.”  In case you’re wonderin’ (ha!), I am reviewing the album in real time as the songs come.  I have listened to it a couple times before but I kind of enjoy this play by play approach.  Oh, hey… another hard rock song that starts off with some killer snare attack, some slides on the neck, then soloing, then three chord riff, then more soloing and it appears by the song’s set up, that “Ivory” will be an instrumental.  Some of these solos sound Toni Iommi-ish in parts.

Then one more acoustic, countryish ballad and one more, mean hard rocker with some honestly killer, angry riffs and more neato fills.  That’s the album for you.