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Basslines and Protest Signs

Basslines and Protest Signs Part 23: Anarchy in the USA?

Crass (photo by: Trunt)

Since the beginnings of punk rock as a genuine musical genre—after the pre-punk band such as The Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, etc, and certainly since the formation of the Sex Pistols in England and the clothes Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood dressed them up in—the anarchy symbol has been closely associated with the scene.

It quickly became a statement of rebellion, but also one of fitting in within the clique. Which, when you really start to dive into it, is ironic. Anarchy means absolute freedom of the individual, yet those early punks were wearing the symbol on their unofficial uniforms (plaid pants, safety pins…you know the deal). 

sidenote: I attended a show by Detroit hardcore band Negative Approach a few years ago and saw a guy wearing a Barbara Streisand shirt. It’s still the most “punk” thing I’ve ever seen.

Anarchy sounds good on a very superficial level, and that “A” symbol sure looks cool, but are the dictionary definitions: a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority” or an “absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal” really something we’d want? 

Poison Girls (photo by: GrahamBurnett)

Look at anarchists though 2019 eyes and they seem an awful lot like libertarians (albeit in scruffier clothes). The concept of rugged individualism, of complete freedom from a government that should just get out of the way? These are right wing ideals, rather than the naive wishes of an extreme left. Because we know now that the populations of the USA, UK, and just about everywhere else are not all playing on an even field. Government is necessary. Laws are necessary. Safety nets are necessary. Public schools, roads, libraries, fire and police services, all necessary.

Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s in the UK, an anarcho-punk scene developed that really pushed these ideas forward. Crass and Poison Girls are generally considered to be the first anarcho-punk bands.

These bands were different from what we had seen before. For example, when Poison Girls formed in 1976 singer Vi Subversa was a middle aged mother of two, not some idealistic but politically immature kid. Back then, the Poison Girls were writing songs about gender roles and sexuality, at a time when those subjects were not as in the open as they are today. 

They wore CND (Ban the Bomb) pins, played numerous benefits with Crass, and were once attacked by members of the racist National Front because of their song “Bully Boys”. All that put them on the good side but doesn’t necessarily suggest true anarchy. Penny Rimbaud of Crass has said that the Poison Girls’ politics were private, while Crass’ were social. That explains away any ambiguity.

Take the lyrics to “Old Tart’s Song”:

“If I had my time again

I’d like to come back as a man

If I had my time again

A cock and not a hen

I don’t want to be like my mother

Hang behind, fall behind

Wait on all the others

If I had my time again.”

The lyrics tackle the issues of uneven gender roles but the sentiment doesn’t seem to be “do what you want to do anyway, girls.” One can only imagine that the “I’d like to come back as a man” line is sarcasm. 

The lyrics to “The Price of Grain and the Price of Blood” are a little more forthcoming:

“We all talk a lot about wanting to be free

Sitting in the last lap of luxury

While some are dying for a handful of rice

Who controls the market who fixes the price.”

Crass would play in front of a banner which read “There is no authority but yourself”, which makes for a great slogan but isn’t workable in the real world. But, again, we can let it slide because they were working towards animal rights, environmentalism, anti-fascism, and feminism. 

They were also all about direct action, and some of their hoaxes resulted in real-world impact. They pieced together a bunch of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan conversations into a tape that appeared to feature the two world leaders discussing the Falklands War and the Soviet Union. By all accounts, the tape was clumsily put together but it was enough to convince the authorities that the KGB had produced the piece of “propaganda.”

Meanwhile, on the song “Do They Owe Us a Living?”, they sang:

“The living that is owed to me I’m never going to get,

They’ve buggered this old world up, up to their necks in debt.

They’d give you a lobotomy for something you ain’t done,

They’ll make you an epitome of everything that’s wrong.”

On the one-track Yes Sir, I Will album, one section of the massive song reads:

“We’ve had problems from self-appointed Gods from Bishops to MPs.

They’ve tried to ban our records saying that we’re a threat to decent society.

Fuck them. I hope we are.

What kind of depraved idiot thinks they can silence others by denying them their voice?

For fucks sake, who are these lobotomists?”

Subhumans (photo by: Arielle Cunnea)

You see, that’s the thing with anarcho-punk. Most left-wing, progressive liberal punks in 2019 will be able to relate and agree with 95% of what those guys were about. But, also, most of what they seemed to be about were left-wing causes, not pure anarchy. Because we all want freedom from oppression. But without laws, the downtrodden will only remain so.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that Chumbawamba came from the anarcho-punk scene before scoring a huge hit with “Tubthumping” in 1998, and pretty much killing their punk cred forever. There are more — check out Thatcher on Acid, Anthrax (not the American thrash band), Subhumans, and Conflict

As for their politics, make up your own mind.

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