Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Introducing Smalltown Punks Against Rural Poverty

By David Roddy

The light side of Vicious.
The children of British firefighters could expect to receive little loot on Christmas Day, 1977. The preceding month, the Fire Brigades Union, which represented around 30,000 workers, declared a national strike after the government ignored a requested pay raise. In working class West Yorkshire, the infamous Sex Pistols gave the children of striking firefighters—as well as the laid-off workers and one-parent families—a free benefit show, along with loads of free merchandise surrounding the release of their first album, “Nevermind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.” How the spitting, swearing, drug adled Sex Pistols translated “Anarchy in the UK” into a free show for the children of a striking union may not be immediately obvious.

The Clash, a contemporary of the Pistols, provided a clearer articulation of the politics of punk. Frontman Joe Strummer, who previously called himself “Woody” after the great American folk singer, snarled lyrics relating to racism, unemployment, and poverty at crowds of pogoing kids. His ideas influenced an entire generation of activists as racial politics in punk era Britain turned ugly.

In 1976, Eric Clapton, the kind of Rock and Roll superstar punk despised, said in support of a Conservative politician:
Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded…black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans... This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome.
Way to go, Eric. David Bowie continued this line of thought, stating in a 1976 “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism.” The stupid ramblings of British rock stars was compounded by the rapid growth of the National Front, a fascistic right-wing political party which fed off of the xenophobia of 1970’s Britain, which culminated to several highly publicized assaults on immigrants by white citizens. In 1977, at the height of punk rock’s popularity, a group of trade union leaders, along with members of the Labour Party and Socialist Worker’s Party, launched the Anti-Nazi League, which sought to counter the emergent racism in British politics. In 1978, the League hosted two shows titled “Rock Against Racism,” which featured The Clash as well as other popular punk and reggae musicians of the scene.

The spring following the Pistols performance, 100,000 people crowded East London to watch the first Rock Against Racism concert. It was, according to folk punk singer Billy Bragg, “The moment when my generation took sides.” Dorian Lynskey, music critic for The Guardian newspaper in London, said the concert “defines punk politics.”

Why the vast majority of punk bands adopted a decidedly left perspective is a mystery. Perhaps the simple and learnable nature of the music draws similarly populist politics. Regardless, for the past thirty years, punk bands have taken the initiative to support a variety of lefty causes. Most recently, Massachusetts based punk band the Dropkick Murphys released a pro-union single titled “Take ‘Em Down” in advance of their “Going Out in Style” album. The band also sold “Take ‘Em Down” t-shirts to benefit the Wisconsin Workers’ Rights Emergency Response Fund, set up by the Wisconsin AFSCME public union in the midst of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights for public employees.

There is a nascent punk scene in California’s Mother Lode, which denotes a series of foothill counties between the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada. At 8 PM, January 3, five local punk bands will play a benefit show for the Amador Tuolumne Community Action Agency. ATCAA is a remnant of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and provides programs from homeless and transitional shelters to Head Start preschools. Unemployment in the region is in double digits, and support for these programs is more important than ever. Minimum recommended donation is six dollars. You should come.

Poster art by Blind Pig singer Rachel Pitzer

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Links to band pages:
Blind Pig
The Zapatistas
Sedated CA
Bloody Knuckles

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