While bands like Bad Religion and NOFX echoed the Dead Kennedys’ anti-Moral Majority messages, others embodied the practices and postures of right-wing religion.
The story of punk’s relationship with religion has much in common with developments that unfolded inside the ‘60s counter-culture. In both instances a paradox exists, for as much as both youth rebellions set themselves—at least rhetorically—in staunch opposition to any and all authorities, both also harbored constituencies that ended up drifting into the welcoming arms of religious organizations.
“Question authority” may well have been a much-repeated tenet of ‘60s youth, but by the close of the decade many young seekers, frustrated by secular options, had joined up with religious groups from mainstream churches to obscure cults (or “new religious movements”). Even The Beatles, spokesmen for myriad secular crusades, began withdrawing into quests for personal salvation. In his novel on the decline and fall of the counter-culture, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (New York: Vintage, 1971), “gonzo” humorist Hunter S. Thompson claims that “One of the crucial moments of the Sixties came on the day when the Beatles cast their lot with the Maharishi” (p.179).
Explaining why “the wave finally broke and rolled back” (p.68), he speaks of “the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or—at least some force—is tending the Light at the end of the tunnel” (p.179). The author elucidates, adding, “First ‘gurus’. Then, when that didn’t work, back to Jesus” (p.179). In the process, the previously dominant Merry Pranksters-style political satire and “head” humor of the “Acid” culture became increasingly accompanied by the more serious tones of contemplative religious observation.
The first half of the ‘70s saw this trend persist as more and more hippies disembarked from the sinking ship of the counter-culture, instead seeking new answers to perennial problems by jettisoning social concerns for spiritual seclusion. Many joined an Evangelical movement long set in opposition to—and outside of—the workings of the secular-humanist society. Others went further, disconnecting completely to reside within the confines of cult-like enclaves far from the madding crowds of the modern world and its “sinful” ways. Driven by the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and by a moral code at odds with secular norms, these fundamentalists (of various denominations) were alienated not only from mainstream society but from most mainstream churches, too.
When punk emerged on both sides of the Atlantic in 1976, it set itself in opposition to the music of the hippy era, but also to its prevailing attitudes and mores. For many young punks, hippies were the new establishment and their so-called “spiritual” lifestyles now looked like conformity. “Never trust a hippy” and “Hate and War” (as opposed to “love and peace”) became sarcastic adages for the new subculture. Joe Strummer, co-writer of The Clash’s song “Hate and War”, has spoken of his own transition from hippy to punk in 1976 as requiring a “Stalinist purge” of his past and past associates (Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. Dir. Julien Temple. Vertigo Films, 2007).
Other ex-hippies, such as the founding members of the Crass anarchist collective, were also drawn to the new punk aesthetic, employing sardonic attitudes and raw rhetoric in their anti-establishment sentiments. For Crass, religion was not an alternative option but an insidious arm of the exploitative system. Buddha, Jesus, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are all adjoined as enemies of anarchist liberation in their song “Sucks”, and religious believers are dismissed as “part of the machine”—of “the con”—in “So What”. The band’s infamous logo even ironically alludes to the Christian cross, “the mast of oppression” referred to in the song “Reality Asylum”. Such scorn for religion was ubiquitous amongst early British punks, who largely dismissed its organizations and symbolism as just other means of political subjugation.
In the US, early punk contributed artistic opposition to the hippy legacy, particularly to its progressive rock components. The Ramones’ sly minimalism was an implicit rebuke to what was perceived as the self-indulgence and self-seriousness of prog rock, while the band’s “dumb” poetry about “sniffing glue” and “beating on brats” established New York’s CBGB punk as antithetical to, and satirical of, post-hippy “high” art pretensions. Unlike the “deep” spiritual seekers of prior youth rebellion, Richard Hell declared that he belonged to the “blank generation”.
As East Coast punk hardened itself against the soft sensibilities of hippy predecessors, the emergence of West Coast punk ushered in an even harder form tagged “hardcore”. Unlike prior punk, which had thrived primarily within the cultural cityscapes of New York and London, California hardcore was largely a suburban phenomenon, bred from within the heartland of fundamentalist Christianity. Black Flag, from Hermosa Beach, even lived and rehearsed in a run-down Baptist church building!
Whereas New York punk had stressed artistic rebellion, the California scene that flourished at the close of the ‘70s was more politically driven and socially self-conscious. Establishing and encapsulating this identity were the Dead Kennedys from San Francisco. Their sound, although often as aesthetically self-aware as the CBGB bands, was secondary to their lyrical scorn, cynicism, and satirical edge, which had more in common with British provocateurs like the Sex Pistols and Crass. The Dead Kennedys spoke of an American youth culture under siege from the new political forces of Reaganism and the Moral Majority. And for lyricist Jello Biafra, ex-hippies like then-California Governor Jerry Brown were the new “zen fascist” dictators, accompanied by their own “suede-denim secret police” (“California Uber Alles”).
As hardcore expanded in the early ‘80s, it became apparent that not all of its proponents shared the kind of liberal-left sentiments espoused by the Dead Kennedys. While some regional artists like Bad Religion and NOFX echoed the Dead Kennedys in articulating anti-Moral Majority messages, others actually started to embody the very practices and postures of right-wing religion. Of course, punk had never been a party political phenomenon, and some bands, like Murphy’s Law and Effigies, had even spoken up in support of President Reagan, particularly of his anti-government intervention positions.
However, more sinister acts of intolerance soon crept into the scene, as aggression and macho attitudes heralded hardcore “codes” that often assigned “soft” elements like women, homosexuals, pop-punk, and new wave to the sidelines or beyond. Certainly there had always been über-masculine components to the rages of the Dead Kennedys and others, but that aggression had invariably been tempered by a wicked wit and open-minded intellect. This new hardcore was more intolerant, less humorous, and increasingly dogmatic. It was as if Jerry Falwell was infiltrating the very subculture. And inadvertently, he was!
The kind of punk fundamentalism that still exists to this day can arguably be traced back to one song: “Straight Edge” by Minor Threat. Released in 1981, singer-songwriter Ian MacKaye here managed to articulate—in less than 50 seconds!—the moral foundations of what would become a world-wide movement. In condemning the drink and drugs excesses that he felt had disabled youth dissent and activism from the hippies up to the punks, MacKaye provided a manifesto for a new breed of rebels to live by. Being “straight”, the song declared, will give you an “edge”.
Straight Edge: Hardcore Punk, Clean Living Youth, and Social Change
(Rutgers University Press; US: Jun 2006)
Hardcore kids soon responded by combining MacKaye’s somewhat puritanical proclamations with the spartan style and aggressive hostility already at the core of the subculture. Straight edgers were just saying no, not only to drugs and alcohol, but sometimes to casual sex and even to meat and leather. Ross Haenfler notes that “sXe [straight edge] was a product of the times and culture that it both resisted and grew out of” (Straight Edge: Clean-Living Youth, Hardcore Punk, and Social Change. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006. p.10). As the new Christian right emerged from the shadows in the early ‘80s, so hardcore, particularly that emanating from fundamentalist pockets amidst the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles, sometimes morphed with religion as Christian straight edge groups were joined by Catholic, Jewish, and even Krishna ones.
In some respects, the battle over the soul of hardcore punk has been (and is) essentially a battle between two distinct forces: authoritarianism and freedom. Jello Biafra, a satirist watchdog of the fundamentalist forces of America, to this day continues to fight the fight for the latter and against the former. In a 2004 post on his Alternative Tentacles website, Biafra recalls the “outbreak of fundamentalism” that seeped into hardcore. He even implicates punk fanzine writers like those with Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, who, he claimed, were playing “cop” and turning punk into a “bitter, fundamentalist, isolated church”. Regarding such conduct, he adds, “If that was the attitude I’d found when I first got into punk, I would have gotten right back out again.”
Questioning authority was the driving principle of the Dead Kennedys, and, within the burgeoning California punk scene, the band were early in equating developments in right-wing religion with those taking place in the national political sphere. The Dead Kennedys released their debut single in 1979; that was also the year that Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, and the year that Ronald Reagan emerged as the frontrunner for the Republican Party presidential nomination. Historian Michael Sean Winters calls it the year Jerry Falwell “baptized the American right” (God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right. New York: Harper Collins. p.11).
Another historian, Daniel K. Williams, recounts the behind-the-scenes activities that took place during the Republican Convention in July 1980. He recalls that despite Reagan being the supposed man of the hour, it was Falwell who grabbed the spotlight through his machinations backstage, ensuring that the party platform include his policy positions: a constitutional amendment to restore prayer in schools, a prohibition of abortion, and a denunciation of the Equal Rights Amendment (God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. New York: Oxford University Press. p.1).
It soon became apparent that while the nation may have been inclining towards more liberal positions on the “wedge” issues of American culture, the Reagan/Falwell coalition was intent on returning and remolding society in ways more akin to the ‘50s. Hardcore punks were quick to act in the face of what appeared to be a new religion-based tyranny, at least three bands (the Circle Jerks, Youth Brigade, and Dead Kennedys) releasing less-than-flattering songs entitled “Moral Majority” during Reagan’s first term. Each characterizes the organization as censorious, controlling, and imposing.
The Circle Jerks rage against “Someone telling me how to listen and how to read”, while the Dead Kennedys call Falwell et al “con men” and “fascists toting bibles”. Long before exposés of financial fleecing brought down many of the televangelists, Biafra sarcastically addressed them in this song, spitting, “You buy the president and swimming pools” and “Jesus don’t save ‘til we’re lining your pockets”.
This and other Dead Kennedys songs of the period united the American hardcore scene in opposition to the theocratic politics of the Reagan era, such that the New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman, on the occasion of the death of the president in 2004, spoke of him as “responsible for some of the best punk rock ever recorded” (http://inmyroom.org/?m=200406&paged=2). And much of it came from the Dead Kennedys, particularly those songs included on the 1981 In God We Trust, Inc. e.p.
Set to the kind of raw minimalism popularized by DC bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains, Biafra here strips his often dense lyrical satire down to pithy slogans and shock ‘n’ mock one-liners. “Religious Vomit” is stark and snide, again unmasking the financial manipulations behind parishioners’ “donations”. “They’ll set you free / Free for a fee” are Biafra’s ironic pay-off lines. In “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” the band return to the scenes of their debut single, “California Uber Alles”, but now the hippy-dictator Jerry Brown has been replaced with “Emperor Ronald Reagan / Born again with fascist cravings”.
The cover to the In God We Trust, Inc. e.p. also introduced many to hardcore art, an integral component of the genre. Here, Biafra’s lyrical sentiments and comic style are given correlative visual form in a design displaying a gold Christ figure on a cross of dollar bills. This “Cross of Money” image was created by designer Winston Smith, who, like Biafra, had grown disenchanted with the apathy and compliance of ‘70s youth culture. His art mirrored the band’s music, reacting as it did against the escapism and complexity of much counter-culture art, instead forefronting simplicity, shock, and critical humor as essential primary colors. Smith became the Dead Kennedys’ in-house artist, his striking collages projecting anti-autocratic satire of comparable provocation and venom to that produced by the band.
As much as Smith’s “Cross of Money” image, with its indictment of religious hypocrisy, caused a stir (it was banned from public display in shop windows in the UK), it was H.R. Giger’s “Work 219: Landscape XX”, otherwise know as “Penis Landscape”, which created a greater controversy when it was included as a free poster with the Dead Kennedys’ 1985 album, Frankenchrist. Inconveniently arriving just as the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) were seeking out scapegoats for their moral crusade against “porn” rock, Giger’s piece led to the band and its record company being prosecuted for “distribution of harmful materials to minors”.
Although a hung jury led to the ultimate dismissal of the case, the proceedings set off a downward spiral, the band never able to financially recover from the saga. Moreover, the censorious atmosphere thereby created resulted in many record stores refusing to even stock the album. The moral climate fostered by the Reagan/Falwell partnership was clearly taking a toll on dissident youth culture as the culture wars grew increasingly heated.
The legacy of hardcore punk shows the continuation of two divergent paths on two separate tracks, each paradoxically bypassing yet intersecting with each other. On one path are critical humorists in the tradition of the Dead Kennedys, NOFX, Bad Religion, and Crass; their successors remain antagonistic to religious institutions and mindsets. The other path, following the straight edge route, maintains the critical and questioning functions of punk, but often seeks answers and inspiration in the arms of religious value systems. Each path ultimately leads to the battlefields of the culture wars where, as opposing forces, these punk combatants fight it out for the very soul of the same subculture.