It’s all too easy to think of punk rockers as neatly categorized—with vile white supremacist bands in one tiny corner, populating their own gross websites and selling their shit to like-minded cretins outside the view of the rest of us. Then there’s everybody else—the woke punks making the sort of awesome music that we all want to hear. The Anti-Flags, Rise Againsts, and Bad Religions, making it clear where they stand. Alternatively, there are the punk bands who steer clear of political lyrics, though we still want to believe that they’re on the side of good because, y’know, they play Warped Tour with the Anti-Flags, etc, etc.
But life is rarely that simple. And the political history of punk rock is anything but neat and tidy. If we go back to the beginning, when punk rock first emerged from the prototype set by the MC5, New York Dolls, Stooges, and Velvet Underground (among others), we have to remember that the music was born out of a frustration with what was going on. To some, that meant the overblown arena rock of Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, and Yes.
But politically, the early punks were set up as a 180 to the hippies. Peace and love, chanting during barefoot marches, muddy fields, acoustic jams—this was not what punk was about. And the concept of loving everybody? Completely alien. There is a reason that the anarchy “A” symbol became such an iconic part of punk culture. If libertarianism had been a thing in 1970s England, there may well have been a bunch of UK punks jumping onboard.
Those early punks were so desperate to distance themselves from hippie culture that, as we mentioned in a previous column, some of them would wear swastikas to shock. And that was really fucking stupid.
“It was an anti–mums and dads thing,” Siouxsie Sioux said in an interview on Listverse. “We hated older people always harping on about Hitler, ‘We showed him’ and that smug pride. It was a way of watching someone like that go completely red-faced.”
With the benefit of hindsight, one would hope that Sioux would have learned that the previous generation had every right to be proud, smug even, to have defeated Hitler. Wearing swastikas as a shock tactic made no sense, but it was consistent with the early punk vibe. Particularly in the UK.
So yeah, while it’s great to celebrate the “Rock Against Racism” element of early Brit punk, it’s not quite as neat and tidy as we would like. Particularly when looking at it through today’s goggles. And those untidy elements were not confined to that side of the Atlantic.
As we mentioned in “Basslines and Protest Signs Part 14: Rock Against Republicans”, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone might have been coming from the left side of the aisle—penning the anti-Reagan anthem ‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”—but guitarist Johnny was famously conservative.
Johnny Ramone, an intense Republican, once famously remarked that punk has to be right wing, otherwise it’s just hippies with leather jackets. He was wrong, as his own bandmates would prove, but that’s what he believed. The Ramones are an interesting petri dish too; Johnny and Joey—politics aside—didn’t like each other. Johnny’s widow Linda was Joey’s girlfriend first, taken by Johnny. (There’s an urban legend that the Ramones song “The KKK Took My Baby Away” is about that very event but band members have denied this.)
Later-era bassist CJ Ramone recently told this writer that Joey didn’t show up to rehearsals towards the end of the band’s existence. But despite all of this, they kept it together. It all makes a mockery of the “da bruddas” imagery. By the end, these were professional musicians who didn’t like each other, barely speaking to one another, but getting on stage and working together.
Johnny Ramone was far from alone. Michale Graves, Glenn Danzig’s replacement in the Misfits, was a columnist with the now defunct Conservative Punks website. While Fat Mike and friends were rocking against Bush, Graves was publicly calling W a competent president. But anybody who has spent time with Graves can tell you that he’s a likeable soul—not racist, not homophobic, but a believer in small government and a strong military.
The face of conservatism isn’t always the face of evil. Sometimes it’s just a face you disagree with, strongly, but can talk to and debate with (sans fury). However, you can’t speak to everyone.
More disappointing than most is the fact that former Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker is an outspoken conservative. A glance at her social media profiles reveal that she has some disturbing views, often extreme. That’s particularly strange, because we’re talking about somebody who was closely associated with gender-bending characters such as Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, and trans stars like Jackie Curtis. Now, Tucker is posting memes about the dangers of the trans community using bathrooms aligned with their identities.
Similarly, Exene Cervenka of LA punks X has made some scary statements online, calling the Santa Barbara school shooting a hoax and professing admiration for Trump. She’s an anti-globalist, though recently she’s made efforts to dial it back a bit. But she’s not the only one. John Lydon/Rotten of the Sex Pistols/Public Image has made pro-Trump statements, disappointing everyone. And metal band Avenged Sevenfold have aligned themselves with the right. They’ve stated that anti-American statements from the likes of NOFX have irritated them and prompted them to sell patriotic shirts at these festivals (on Warped tours).
How much notice you pay is up to you. Everyone has the freedom to draw their own lines, but it’s worth remembering that not all right wing punks sport skinheads. Sometimes they’re in bands with left wing people. The whole thing is messy, but it’s good to have the knowledge.