Beyond the Dole Queue: The Politics of Punk
October 24, 1977
A couple of months ago I went to a festival in London organized by Music for Socialism. Music for Socialism is a group of musicians and writers who came together “to explore the connections between socialist politics and their personal involvement with music,” and the point of the festival was to make such exploration public. An elaborate program of concerts and workshops was arranged; there were performances in every style of folk and rock and avant-garde and speakers from every style of Marxist and libertarian and sexual politics. We were all set for a weekend of sophisticated debate: What is the relationship of revolutionary form and revolutionary content? What is the correct political position of the artist? How should we handle the forces of the music business, the contradictions of popular consciousness?
I still can’t answer any of these questions and the meeting didn’t turn out like that at all. Discussion was crude, repetitive, and dominated by one subject: the politics of punk. The recurrent question was a simple one — is punk “the most reactionary fascist trend in popular culture today?” — and the recurrent answer was simple, too: Yes. The punks were denounced by Cornelius Cardew, haut-bourgeois avant-garde composer turned Maoist member of Peoples Liberation Music, and PLM had no doubts at all. Hesitant objections were curtly dismissed. The Clash? No need even to listen to their songs — just look at the LP: issued by CBS, an international monopoly capitalist concern, and featuring on the front sleeve a Union Jack, symbol of imperialism, and on the back a photo of policemen charging, propaganda for the state forces.
Confronted by such sublime certainties, I retreated to my record player, but this has not been the only political response to punk nor even the crudest one. Other political groups have been indulging in an opposite opportunism. The Young Communist League issues scrawled punk newsletters in which the obligatory Sex Pistols quotes are interspersed with their own aphorisms — “Reading the Morning Star forms an essential part of my daily life” — and the Socialist Workers Party uses Rock Against Racism (originally formed in response to Eric Clapton’s burgling) to issue its own punk paper, Temporary Hoarding, in which Johnny Rotten emerges, after some neat flicks of interviewing technique, as a vanguard of working-class struggle.
So far the punks themselves have remained uninterested in these struggles for their political souls. Gene October, writer of the Chelsea single, “Right To Work,” an SWP recruiting slogan, comments on the song this way: “The right to work fucks the unions, I say: ‘Your father works on this dock/You work on this dock/If you don’t sign with fucking union/You don’t get the job.’ ” But, on the other hand, the punks have been equally unimpressed by the National Front. In the words of Sniffin’ Glue, the original and authentic punk paper: “The Evenin’ News says the Front are manipulatin’ the new wave. I don’t need to say what bollocks that is. Some cruds say, the NF in power would shake people out of their apathy. Well, cruds, how would you express this newfound anger? It ain’t only the blacks who’ll be shut up. So a big Fuckoff to NF, Lablibcon, Commies, Socialists fuckin’ Workers, the head in the sand brigade, the lot.”
Such cheery and old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll know-nothingism may be bad news for membership secretaries but, luckily for us, the politics of punk is not a matter of individual intention and allegiance. What is at issue is an ideology, and what this sectarian activity really reveals is that punk has reopened all those ’60s questions about rock ’n’ revolution — questions that haven’t been resolved by the slick styles of ’70s professionalism but merely shelved. Maybe this time we’ll be able to come to some conclusions about the radical possibilities of popular culture.
We must start with the contradiction: Punk is neither a direct, spontaneous expression of youth experience (as the SWP would like to think) nor the simple result of media manipulation (as PLM argues). It is the result of the interplay of both processes and it is that interplay that we have to understand. Punk musicians, like any others, make their music with reference not just to their own individual or class experiences, but also to existing ideas about the meaning and purpose and potential of rock. Punk is, in its turn, seized on by the music business and given commercial meanings and interpretations which filter back to the musicians.
Now, after two years or so of hectic activity, three strands are apparent in British punk ideology. At its core is a musical argument: Punk is, formally, rock ’n’ roll — it is technically simple, constructed around a plain hard beat, the source of uncomplicated and immediate pleasure. This is the argument that links British and American punk and gives the Ramones, for example, their transatlantic significance.
In Britain itself, the origins of punk rock ’n’ roll can be found in pub-rock, which provided the aesthetic, the setting, the self-confidence, and the musicians from whom punk eventually emerged. Transitional groups like the 101ers or the London SS are now enshrined in punk myth, but the pub/punk continuity is most clearly symbolized by Stiff Records, owned and staffed by old pub-rockers, and a source of ideas and opportunities for new punk-rockers. Stiff’s pioneering new wave band was the Damned, and an old-fashioned group they are too, dedicated, like their label, to making money and having a good time.
The politics of punk rock ’n’ roll, from the Ramones to the Damned, derive from a vague teenage consciousness and are confined to the lethal needling of the adult establishment — such stylistic outrage is expressed by names like the Damned’s Rat Scabies, and records like the Adverts’ “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.” But all that’s going on here is teenage rock ’n’ roll — new musicians, new audiences, but the same old motives and excitement and musical conventions. The resulting records are fresh, energetic, invigorating, and at the moment I’d rather listen to a good punk rock ’n’ roll band like the Jam or the Boomtown Rats than to either the old or new work of their original models, the Who and the Stones. But I’m still listening for the old reason — to feel good.
The second strand in the ideology of punk is a critique of the music business which develops directly from the rock ’n’ roll conventions: the reason why teenage music must be remade is because all the original rock ’n’ rollers have become boring old farts, imprisoned by the routines of showbiz, by the distant calculations of profit-making, by delusions of rock as art and bourgeois commodity. From this perspective the return to rock ’n’ roll roots is, in itself, a radical rejection of record company habits and punk’s musical simplicity is a political statement. The ideology of the garage band is an attack on the star system. Punk attitudes toward the music business are derived, ironically enough, from 1960s counterculture. The most articulate exponents of the punk critique are, in fact, old hippies like Caroline Coon, Melody Maker’s punk spokeswoman, and the fortunes of, say, the Sex Pistols are guided behind the scenes by an older generation of rock radicals. The resulting suspicions of big capitalist concerns, of musical bureaucrats, of radio programmers, are familiar to anyone who can remember how down hippie bands like the Dead or the Airplane once were on the business. So are the ever-hopeful declarations of independence, the constant denunciations of sellout, the unfulfilled promises of “a new way of doing things.”
What’s really new is the integration of these countercultural arguments into the teenage consciousness of rock ’n’ roll — record companies are denounced for precisely the practices they developed the last time this battle was fought. Rock and showbiz are now the same thing — for these young punks rock institutions like Rolling Stone or Clive Davis or FM radio or Bill Graham are obviously and profoundly irrelevant. Screw the revolution! The point is made by a succession of earnestly angry (and engrossing) punk groups — my current favorites are the Boys. It is captured in the title of Generation X’s reply to Pete Townshend, “Your Generation.”
My own response to these punks is a mixture of grudging admiration and affectionate skepticism: So, okay, how are you gonna protect your rock ’n’ roll integrity? How are you going to stop your records, your successes, your messages from becoming just more commodities in a well-oiled market? And what is surprising and exhilarating and heartening is that the punks, some of them, have an answer. It comes most powerfully and most ambiguously from the Sex Pistols, but it comes most clearly from the Clash, always the pushiest new wavers. Their new single, “Complete Control,” is an attack on their own record company, CBS, and when at the end Joe Strummer screams “We’re gonna take control — and that means you!”, the you refers to the audience. How this alliance is effected remains unclear, but at least Strummer seems to understand that the old peace-and-love bullshit won’t work, and this is a step in the direction of realism.
The third strand of British punk ideology is a class-based consciousness that music-biz corruption is not just an abstract effect of the market but is of a piece with other forms of class domination and exploitation: the tax exiles are not just aesthetically irrelevant — with their Hollywood hideouts, their accumulations of wealth, they’ve also become the enemy.
It is from this perspective that punk can be heard as the music of the “dole queue kids.” The coincidence of the rise of punk with the highest and most persistent rate of youth unemployment Britain has ever known has been dramatized by music journalists (even the “Punk! Shock! Horror!” of the popular press includes unemployment as one of the horrors) and for a dedicated social group like the Clash the connection is axiomatic. Their angriest songs — “Career Opportunities,” “White Riot,” “London’s Burning” — are explicit about the connection of teenage/rock ’n’ roll/dole queue consciousness.
But though Clash records are politically admirable, their simple identification of punk and the dole queue is, in the end, misleading. Punk class consciousness is one aspect of a complex and contradictory ideology; the Clash and the Pistols are professional musicians, not dole queue kids, and they lost whatever folk authenticity they had the moment they decided, for whatever reasons, to sign recording contracts and to make music for a mass audience. To tell the truth, I don’t really believe that most punk musicians ever were dole queue kids — they come from the ambitious, art-school, individualist stratum that has always provided Britain with its rock stars. (In the post today I got the debut single of Arista’s first punk signing, the Secret, whose publicity even boasts of the presence of the slumming son of a Tory M.P.) The Clash and the Pistols have established social realism as an essential part of punk ideology but this does not make their music the “direct expression of the contemporary working class.” The punk attitude to the dole is really that of Johnny Rotten: “Music’s a relief from all that. It’s not about going and being miserable because you’re on the dole. I know it’s tough on the dole but it’s not that bad. When I was on it, I was getting paid for doing nothing. I thought it was fucking great. Fuck up the system the best way.…”
Paradoxical as it may seem, it is precisely because punk rock is not the folk expression of some countercultural group that I am hopeful. The politics of punk don’t rest on the social backgrounds of individual performers but on the power of their music as popular culture; hippie history is not about to repeat itself, this time as farce. Punk is a moment not of radical rock but of teenage pop and it is in this context that the significance of the dole queue becomes clear. If rock ’n’ roll has always been the music of teenage frustration, desires in the past have been thwarted by conventions rather than by resources. Rock, as youth culture and as bohemianism, has been affluent music and even Britain’s most obviously proletarian pop — Slade, late Mott the Hoople — was an expression of collective pride, fun, self-confidence, good humor.
Punk is tapping a different mood altogether — self-disgust, boredom, doubt, anger. Today’s teenage frustration is caused not by fuddy-duddy parents, not by easily shocked adults, but by an intractable economic situation, by a society in which everyone talks a lot about the plight of youth but no one does anything. This isn’t an ideology, it is a mood, but it’s the mood that the punk rockers draw on for their power and shape with their art. It’s a mood, too, that’s full of contradiction — hence all the political sects buzzing about it — and punk musicians, willy-nilly, have to interpret it for themselves. So far honors are about even: an old-fashioned misogynist group like the Damned is answered by the gay and aggressive Tom Robinson Band; orthodox careerists like the Jam are answered with the wild and woolly Sham 69. If for nothing else, all the punks can be proud of their contemptuous assault on the racism the National Front is trying to pass, with increasing hysteria, down the dole queues.
The point of all this is, I think, that cultural politics are about situation and not intention; rock takes its meaning from its conditions of production and consumption, not from the artistic souls of its creators. This point was obscured in the 1960s by the embourgeoisement of rock ’n’ roll. For the last decade, politics has been equated with poetry although, in fact, the only politically significant rock group, the Czech band, Plastic People, is important precisely because its music does not arise from the artistic conditions of Western capitalism. The truth is that rock ’n’ roll’s political potential comes from its collective form, not from its individual expression, and this is my final point. One of the themes that was due for discussion at that Music for Socialism Festival was an old one: To make revolutionary music, must we revolutionize musical language? Is avant-garde the only radical art?
The punk answer is yes, but not in the formalistic, self-indulgent sense that revolutionary artists usually mean. Punk is an avant-garde language from both sides, audience as well as artists — if you don’t believe me, listen to the free-form noise of the Live at the Roxy LP. Of course, British punk fans were prepared for this by disco and reggae experimentation — but that is another story.