Conservative punks…

Someone on the NorCal Punklist posted a link to this article with the intent, I think, of surprising folks there. Color me totally unsurprised.

That anyone would be astounded that there are political conservatives within the world of punk actually is quite a bit more surprising to me. Punk rock wasn’t a creation of hippie-dippy new age liberals. In the early days of punk a band like The Clash actually stood out quite a bit. That people associated their leftist political viewpoint with the punk genre as a whole is more a factor of their vast popularity, which cast a long shadow, than of so-called liberalism or leftist politics being at the core of punk rock.

Punk rock was and is reactionary. I’ve got no idea why a kid starts a punk band or becomes a punk fan today, but when I was a kid it was a reaction to, well, progressive music. And I mean progressive in the pure sense of the word…


NOUN: A person with liberal political opinions: liberal, liberalist.
ADJECTIVE: 1. Ahead of current trends or customs: advanced, forward, precocious. 2. Not narrow or conservative in thought, expression, or conduct: broad, broad-minded, liberal, open-minded, tolerant. 3. Favoring civil liberties and social progress: liberal, liberalistic.

Punk in the mid 1970’s was a reaction to all these things. Let’s take adjective definition number one as an example and apply it just to music for a moment. Progressive rock in the 1970’s was all about moving the state of the art of popular music forward in daring, advanced new ways. Bands like ELP, Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and King Crimson carried the banner for progressive rock, and they were among the most popular rock bands of the day. They sold millions of records (Pink Floyd’s masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon, held the record for longest number of weeks on the BillBoard Top 100 LP’s chart), put on lavish tours to sold out crowds in huge arenas and even managed to get respect and praise from fans of classical music and modern jazz. These bands traded on pushing the limits of what pop music could or should be, and they were all virtuoso musicians who continually worked at expanding their musical abilities. This shit was so popular that it had a massive influence on even very simple rock bands like KISS, Cheap Trick, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, each of whose forays into progressive rock territory produced massive hit records for them (the only KISS record that I find in any way impressive is, sad to say, their most pretentious, Destroyer, which is set up like a concept album, the stock and trade of progressive rock, and was produced by Bob Ezrin who would go on to produce the most successfull progressive rock LP of all time, Pink Floyd’s The Wall). Even Led Zeppelin, who’d made plodding, overgrown eight bar blues their stock and trade, went prog on their last three albums, Physical Graffiti, Presence (which sounds like a cast-off Yes record) and In Through The Out Door. ELO took Beatles-borrowed simple pop tunes and arranged them with bloated progressive rock touches like a full string section and packaged them in one concept album after another.

Prog rock was big in the 1970’s. Punk rock was the reaction. Prog rock was certainly “ahead of current trends or customs” and quite “advanced, forward” and “precocious.” Punk rock was none of these things. It was a headlong rush into an idealized version of the past. Where a band like Genesis was trying to redefine the pop song, or ELP was trying to expand the consciousness of rock fans to include Verdi and other classical composers, The Ramones, the definitive punk rock band, were trying to resurrect the simplicity of 60’s bands like The Kinks, the girl groups and the Beach Boys. If it has more than three chords and runs longer than 2.5 minutes it’s not a punk song according to my wife, it’s a rock opera. And rock operas were what many prog bands thought they were composing.

Punk rock is definitely “narrow” and “conservative in thought, expression or conduct,” at least when it comes to the music. Punks love to think of themselves as open-minded and willing to try new things, but in my more than 25 years around the stuff I’ve never found this to be true. When it comes to music what is accepted as “punk” within the punk music scene is very narrowly defined, and gets more narrow every few years. Older punk fans are the worst offenders. They reject new bands off hand with barely so much as a sideways glance. And I’ll admit that I’m as guilty of this as any other punk rock fan. No one can ever successfully argue to me that Blink 182, for instance, are a punk band. I just won’t stand for it. Why? Mainly because I hate their music. Now, does that sound “broad-minded” or “tolerant?”

Jon Savage argued in his book about British punk rock, England’s Dreaming, that the punk subculture in the UK grew directly out of the same pot of soil that the Margaret Thatcher Conservative political revolution sprang from – disaffected, white, middle class suburban Brits. I’ve tried many times to punch holes in Savage’s thesis here and never had any success. It’s popular for punk fans to talk about their music and culture coming from “the streets” of the big city, and often American punks will point to the fact that the US punk scene sprung out of CBGB’s in New York City as proof of this. What these folks are conveniently ignoring are little details, like the fact that the Ramones came from Long Island, a middle class white suburb of New York. People often wonder why John Lydon is so openly disdainful of his fellow founders of the UK punk scene. He spells that out clearly in his autobiography – Lydon actually grew up poor in the middle of London. His family was so poor that they lived together in a one room storefront, where sanitation was so bad John contracted spinal meningitis. Here was a poor kid, from an Irish family (and being Irish in London in the 1960’s and 1970’s was no fun at all) surrounded by middle class, suburban art school drop-outs like Joe Strummer, Paul Simonen, Malcom McLaren and suburban rich kids like Billy Idol, Siouxsie Sioux and the rest of the Bromley Contingent. No wonder he was pissed off all the time.

The fact is, there’s a pretty good book that could be written about why punk rock and social/political conservatism actually go hand in hand, but this isn’t the time or the place to write that book. But I do want to get across one more point. If punk rock fans are so shocked when they hear of people within their ranks being Republicans (or supporters of the Conservative Party in the UK) how do these folks explain the skinhead phenomenon? While not all skins are bigoted, narrow-minded thugs, those that are make a big noise right in the middle of the punk rock world all the time. These folks are the ultimate conservative reactionaries. They’re the modern day manifestation of Hitler’s Brown-Shirts – fascist thugs who believe that might makes right, and that which is different needs to be destroyed. And no one ever accuses them of not being punk. It’s something to think about.

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