The ’80s saw British punks standing up to the growing facist threat by creating the Rock Against Racism movement. However that fight clearly wasn’t exclusive to the UK. There were plenty of punk rockers here in the United States ready to stand up and be counted when faced with a right wing. Which had been legitimized, popularized even, by a former actor.
Ronald Reagan was the sort of conservative that moderate Democrats could get behind, leading to the term “Reagan Democrats”. Likeable, “Hollywood”, personable — to this day there are left-leaners who claim that Reagan is the only Republican they ever liked. And to be fair, looking at what we have now, many would love to have him back.
“The guy might have had a leading man’s smile but he was a snake and the punks knew it.”
But you can always leave it to the punks to peel back the layers and reveal the rotten center. Reagan might have been blessed with a shit-ton of charisma, but let’s not forget that he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and, later, the Martin Luther King Holiday). He was critical of the gay “lifestyle” and stayed silent about the AIDS epidemic. He increased military spending while cutting taxes for the rich. Reagan and his wife also led the failed and frankly dangerous “war on drugs”. The guy might have had a leading man’s smile but he was a snake and the punks knew it.
The Ramones were not generally considered to be a political band. They steered well clear as a rule, maybe because the members came from different sides of the aisle (Johnny Ramone was famously conservative while Joey Ramone was very much on the other side). But even they felt the need to pen a tune when Reagan visited a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany where SS soldiers were buried. Written by Joey, Dee Dee Ramone, and Plasmatics/Crown of Thorns man Jean Beauvoir, “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)”, from the 1986 Animal Boy album, remains a Ramones classic.
“When you gonna turn yourself in? Yeah
You’re a politician
Don’t become one of Hitler’s children
Bonzo goes to Bitburg then goes out for a cup of tea
As I watched it on TV somehow it really bothered me
Drank in all the bars in town for an extended foreign policy
Pick up the pieces.”
– Ramones, “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)”
One band formed in 1980 in New York went so far as to lampoon the man’s name. Reagan Youth took the name of the president and parodied the Hitler Youth, an organization in Germany during World War II. Staunchly socialist, possibly at times anarchists, Reagan Youth often used Nazi and KKK imagery on their sleeves in order to mock the enemy, while writing songs with names like “New Aryans”. They took on the racists without fear. As recently as this year, when performing in the traditionally conservative stronghold of Orange County, a couple of Nazi punks showed up at the Reagan Youth show and got their asses handed to them by the other attendees. Some things never change.
The Dead Kennedys referenced Reagan in plenty of songs—including “Moral Majority” and “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” (a rewrite of the classic “California Uber Alles”)—which made sense: The DKs are a political punk band that saw its creative peak in the ’80s when Reagan was leading this country. Of course they objected.
“I am Emperor Ronald Regan
Born again with fascist cravings
Still, you make me president
Human rights will soon go ‘way
I am now your Shah today
Now I command all of you
Now your gonna pray in school
I’ll make sure they’re christian too.”
– Dead Kennedys, “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now”
Rock Against Reagan became an informal punk movement with bands. The Dead Kennedys and Reagan Youth as well as The Crucifucks and DRI performed on bills. A line was drawn in the sand.
Fast-forward to 2004 and George W. Bush was up for re-election against Senator John Kerry. Punks such as Fat Mike of NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords felt that four years of the man was enough. So he mobilized troops under the familiar-sounding name Rock Against Bush.
Inspired by Rock Against Reagan, Fat Mike took it all a step further by putting out Rock Against Bush compilation albums and embarking on tours, while working in conjunction with the PunkVoter website.
The first Rock Against Bush album was released in April 2004 and featured some of the biggest names in punk voicing their objections in the form of appropriate songs. Sum 41 weighed in with “Moron”, then there was Alkaline Trio’s “Warbrain”, Descendents’ “Sad State of Affairs”, Pennywise’s “God Save the USA”, and “That’s Progress” by ex-Dead Kennedys man Jello Biafra with DOA.
Ultimately, it didn’t work. Bush won that second election and served another four years. And now, in hindsight, the hope we were offered during the Obama years seems like a tease as Trump works to undo all of his good work. But there was a reason Fat Mike worked with PunkVoter (which is still active, by the way).
What The Dead Kennedys, Reagan Youth, NOFX, Bad Religion, and countless other bands have been trying to do is raise awareness. To wipe out apathy and that dreadful mindset of “It doesn’t matter who you vote for anyway.” It matters. And when grassroots movements like this really takes hold, it can work. It really can. But you have to vote. Whatever you do in 2020, please vote.