Is this the MPLA
Or is this the UDA?
Or is this the IRA?
I thought it was the UK
—The Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the UK”
For a few harsh and heady years between 1976 and 1978, punk rock and terrorism co-existed in the British media as objects of scandal, outrage, and hatred. Hysterical headlines in the News of the World and The Sun were aimed one week at the Sex Pistols: “Must We Fling This Filth at Our Pop Kids?” and next week at the Provisional IRA: “THOSE BASTARDS”. The simultaneous presence of punk and terrorism in the British media was serendipitous. The two phenomena resonated together on a weird wavelength.
“God Save the Queen”, the Pistols’ massively publicized insult to the monarchy, complete with desecrating images of the queen and kidnapper lettering, could hardly have been improved upon by the educational wing of the Provisional IRA. Press photographs of terrorists in black, slit-eyed hoods, meanwhile, recalled the bondage masks of punk iconography, while the punks’ flair for witty and outrageous self-promotion may have influenced Provisional IRA publicity stunts like the “Terrorist of the Month” calendars, featuring hooded gunmen in camouflage gear posing in pastoral Irish settings. Both groups affronted the establishment by flaunting their accursed and charismatic presence in public: punks with mohawks drinking cans of beer on the London streets; Provos carrying ArmaLites at funerals and demonstrations.
Both punks and terrorists used the media to transmit image-messages of social breakdown and chaos, but although the Sex Pistols sang about wanting to destroy passersby, real violence and destruction were never significant elements in the punk vision. Punk was often described as nihilistic, but nihilism is, by definition, non-creative, while the punk era was one of the most vividly creative periods in rock and roll history. Terrorism is true nihilism: destruction is its only expressive act.
Punk was a creative revolt. It attacked the conventions of music, fashion and manners and the narrow channels of opportunity within the music industry and the media, partly by criticism, but also by creating new aesthetic and social standards and opening up new channels of expression. Punk was not violent or destructive in its modus operandi; rather, it used the image of violence to boost the intensity of its attack.
Pictures of Sid Vicious with blood running down his chest, vampiric-looking punk girls, their cheeks and noses crudely pierced with safety pins, and songs like the Pistols’ “Bodies” and the Stranglers’ “Ugly” did symbolic violence to a ‘70s lifestyle dedicated to cheesy glamour and a rock and roll culture dominated by Elton John and the Bee Gees. Northern Irish terrorism, on the other hand, communicated through symbolic acts of real destruction and violence, which were then transformed into images and texts by the media.
The first British punks and the Northern Irish youth who joined terrorist organizations like the IRA and the UDA were affected by similar conditions: chronic unemployment, clashes with the law, a sense of disempowerment, frustration with the present, and hopelessness about the future. The Northern Irish paramilitary groups were not youth subcultures, but disaffected teenagers and young men and women in their early twenties formed the majority of the Provisional IRA and UDA foot soldiers. Socio-economic conditions were similarly depressed in ‘70s England and Northern Ireland, and it is interesting to consider why one set of conditions produced punk rockers and the other produced terrorists.
“White Riot” seemed to announce a level of frustration and anger among English youth that might have had revolutionary potential, and the steady recruitment of working-class skinhead youth into right-wing hate-groups like the National Front (which helped to re-direct potentially revolutionary youth anger against minorities) showed that British youth were capable of organized, politically motivated, violence. Some of the missing ingredients in English society were a history of colonial oppression, an invading military presence, and the long Irish traditions of religious sectarianism, guerrilla warfare and armed revolt against the British.
British youth had its own traditions. Since the 1950s, they had channeled their frustration and anger into fashion, music and sport sects: teddy boys, mods, rockers, hippies, skinheads, punks, and soccer hooligans. These sects would engage in periodic violent clashes, but sectarian youth violence, when it erupted in Britain in the battles of mods and rockers or soccer fans, was largely symbolic: it never posed a significant threat to public order. British youth cultures like the mods and the punks, although symbolically opposed to the adult establishment, also helped youth to sublimate its potential for violence into attitude, style and art.
The look of punk carried a static charge of rage; the sound of the Sex Pistols channeled, communicated and aroused anger, but that was it. When you perform songs about starting a riot, you are less likely to start a real riot. The English punks showed a fascination with the troubles and with terrorism that was largely absent from Northern Irish punk music, perhaps precisely because of the absence of real political violence in English society and the consequent exoticism of the violence of Northern Irish society.
Punk was never as powerful a musical movement in Northern Ireland as it was in England and, with the notable exception, early in their career, of Stiff Little Fingers, Irish punk bands tended to have little or nothing to say about the troubles. For Northern Irish music fans, the experience of real anarchy may have diminished their enthusiasm for the ideal of anarchy that bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash tried to represent.
When the Clash posed for a famous series of publicity shots in a Belfast ghetto in their multi-zippered jackets, drainpipe jeans, DM’s, and hard-man stares, English punks might have bought the idea that the Clash were all about taking it to the streets, but any Belfast kid knew they were posers. Walk around the Ardoyne looking like that, especially with an English accent, and you’d get your head in your hands. It wasn’t that the Clash were exploiting the troubles; they were, of course, but no-one in Northern Ireland would have given a toss about that. It was just that the Clash’s rock-and-roll-urban-guerrilla image of revolution didn’t mean much on the Belfast streets. In Northern Ireland in the late ‘70s, every day was chaos, but it didn’t have a hip, edgy, check-out-my-mohawk, “I wanna be anarchy”, type feel. It was the daily paranoia of wondering if the bicycle chained to the next lamppost was going to blow your legs off. Real anarchy was kind of a drag.
Stiff Little Fingers looked more like a London punk band than most other Northern Irish bands, with the exception of the Outcasts. Their first two singles, “Suspect Device” and “Alternative Ulster”, seemed to be the kind of relevant, real-deal political statements that one would expect from Northern Irish punks, until it became clear that Stiff Little Fingers were a media manipulation masterminded by an English journalist.
Gordon Ogilvie was in Belfast covering the troubles for the Daily Express, when he saw Stiff Little Fingers playing covers in a bar and recognized an opportunity. Ogilvie suggested to singer Jake Burns that the band should write some punk-style songs about the troubles. Ogilvie put up the money for SLF to release the resulting song, “Suspect Device”, as a single, and helped the band cash in on the press interest and public sympathy they generated, particularly in England, as pissed-off Northern Irish punks venting their frustration in music. The scam was soon uncovered and SLF were discredited, but the bad taste they left in Northern Irish music circles made it almost an unspoken code that:
a. cashing in on the troubles was taboo for Northern Irish bands
b. any musical reference to the troubles by a Northern Irish band was a cash in.
The Undertones were the most successful Northern Irish punk band. Unlike Stiff Little Fingers, who were suburban, middle-class Belfast boys, the Undertones were from Northern Ireland’s most impoverished and volatile Catholic ghetto, the Bogside. Nevertheless, the Undertones’ breakthrough single was called “Teenage Kicks” and their second album was entitled More Songs About Chocolate and Girls. The Undertones were apparently much less politically savvy than English counterparts like the Clash and the Pistols, but their silence on issues that they were so impeccably qualified to sing about was itself highly expressive, and their harsh background gave a Warholish irony to their radiantly poppy, no-comment, songs.
The Undertones expressed an attitude to the troubles that became common in Northern Ireland after people realized that terrorism was a fact of everyday life and would not go away. Just as on newly bombed store-fronts “Business As Usual” signs would immediately appear, Northern Irish people on both sides of the sectarian lines defended their right to live a normal life under abnormal conditions by keeping the troubles in their place and not letting them dominate conversation or become an obsession.
The Undertones were making a statement that Northern Irish youth thoroughly understood by singing about girls and chocolate instead of bombs and sectarianism. Their music was not apolitical, it just elevated the small world of youthful loves and hates over the big world equivalents. Silently, but resolutely, the Undertones gave the finger to the IRA, the UDA, the Army, the police, the TV news, the troubles.
British punk and post-punk bands, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to say enough about Northern Irish terrorism and the troubles. The troubles provided British punks with close-but-not-too-close, real-world evidence of the social injustice, urban malaise, violence and social breakdown that were punk’s central themes. From the Sex Pistols (“Anarchy in the UK”) to Gang of Four (“Armalite Rifle”), Sham 69 (“Ulster”), U2 (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”), and the Police (“Invisible Sun”), punk and the troubles went together like safety pins and razor blades.
Nightly BBC news footage of tattered Catholic youth in Crombie raincoats and bomber jackets, too-short Wranglers and Doc Marten boots, hurling bricks and bottles at British soldiers was like a perpetual Sex Pistols video; or was it the other way round? The nightly litany of assassinations, bombs, internment without trial, dying hunger strikers and dirty protests (interned prisoners protesting by covering their naked bodies and cells with excrement) followed by Top of the Pops with the Sex Pistols banned from performing “God Save the Queen”, sometimes made it seem as if punk rock was the authentic sound track of a happening-now revolution.
Of the English punk and new wave songs that referenced Northern Ireland, Gang of Four’s “Armalite Rifle” has the best guitar riff, and the most coherent political perspective, as one would expect from Andy Gill. The song’s wary, sarcastic viewpoint (“The Irish joke’s on the BBC”) perfectly captures a politically savvy British punk’s mixed feelings about Northern Ireland. Gang of Four did not to try to identify themselves with the troubles or use them as a soapbox; instead, they distanced themselves from both terrorism and the British establishment by noting the affinity between the two. The song notes that “police and UDA” use the ArmaLite rifle “every day”, a correlation that suggests both the hidden violence of the state, and the essentially oppressive and reactionary nature of terrorist violence.
The state and terrorism do not represent the opposed forces of oppression and liberation. Rather, they are separate manifestations of the power-is-violence equation. The song’s final message is pacifist: the effect of the ArmaLite rifle, no matter whose hands it is in, is destructive; it will “do you damage”. The song refuses to justify terrorist violence in terms of the social injustice that may have provoked it. Violence and the industrial profiteering on violence, both of which the ArmaLite rifle represents, conflict with the anarchic supremacy of individual liberty. The fact that the ArmaLite will do you damage puts anyone who uses it on the side opposite individual freedom.
The Sex Pistols tried to align themselves with terrorism’s radical chic on “Anarchy in the UK”. In the first verse, Johnny Rotten speaks as the spirit of anarchy, and embodies the terrorist impulse in the line, “I want to destroy passersby”. The last verse presents terrorism as the material form of anarchy in the UK and suggests that the very title “United Kingdom” is a falsely unified, nationalistic mask imposed on a state that is disintegrating into warring factions like the IRA and UDA.
The middle verse seals the ambiguous relation of punk to terrorism: “Many ways to get what you want / I use the best I use the rest / I use the NME, I use anarchy”. The verse offers no judgment on the “many ways” to achieve anarchy, but presents the media (NME or New Musical Express) as punk’s weapon of choice. The media is owned by the powers that be (en-em-y) but may also be used by oppositional voices like the Sex Pistols and the IRA.
It is the mass media in the middle verse which bridges and connects punk anarchy in the first verse to terrorism in the third verse. The irony is that since punk and terrorism are similarly dependent on the media to deliver their messages, both are ultimately parasitical rather than truly oppositional forms. Both depend on the media (and the establishment which owns it) for their very existence.
Only one Brit-punk song simultaneously embodied and abolished the total violence of terrorism: Johnny Moped’s “Incendiary Device”, the first single from Cycledelic (long-deleted, but check out the 1995 compilation Basically). Cycledelic‘s primitive, joyous aggression and fashion-less refusal of any marketable image was in some ways more subversive than Never Mind the Bollocks and The Clash.
While the Pistols and the Clash were always just rock stars in anti-rock star drag, the four members of Johnny Moped appeared terminally oafish, unglamorous, and stylistically deprived. Shirtless on the album cover, under a sleeveless biker jacket with a Motörhead button on his lapel, Johnny and his seedy cohorts, Slimy Toad and the Berk brothers were emphatically not King’s Road fashion victims or would-be situationists.
“Incendiary Device” was the intended A-side of their first single (it became the B-Side when they realized radio stations would never play it), two minutes and ten seconds of hilarious, testosterone-soaked fury. “Walking down the road I’m an incendiary device”, Johnny yells over Slimy Toad’s guitar. The next line, “Looking for a lady blow her up with gelignite” relegates the band to a lower hell of political incorrectness, but they don’t stop there. “Stick it in her lughole watch it blow her head apart / Stick it in her lughole stick it in her other part / Stick it in her lughole watch it blow her head apart / Stick it in her lughole stick it in her, stick it in her”.
This infantile, misogynistic rant apparently bears no relation to Northern Irish politics, until it is understood that in 1970s Britain, the words “incendiary device” evoked “Irish terrorism” as surely as the words “weaponized anthrax” evoke Al Qaeda in America today. The absurd, random violence that the song celebrates is terrorism universalized. “Incendiary Device” pushed terrorism’s conscienceless violence to its own absurd conclusion in a glorious blaze of delirious negation.
U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is the most opportunistic musical appropriation of the troubles. Dublin, U2’s hometown, is in the southern Republic of Ireland, a country as separate from Northern Ireland, as America is separate from Canada. Dubliners have not experienced armed conflict or a British military presence since the 1920s, and Bloody Sunday was as imaginary an event for U2 as the Boston Tea Party.
It is not necessary to experience events to write meaningfully about them, but the purpose of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was not to comment on Bloody Sunday, but to link U2 in the public mind to Bloody Sunday, by a deceptive “Irish” connection that makes the song appear as a passionate insider’s response. The lines, “but I won’t heed the battle’s call / It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall”, suggest that U2 personally confronted the choice that faced so many Northern Irish youth: whether or not to join a paramilitary organization and fight.
The hand-wringing emotionalism of the stadium-anthem chorus, “How long, how long must we sing this song”, suggests that Bono and the boys resolved this imaginary crisis of conscience by becoming rock and roll spokespersons, and thus heroes who (apparently) triumphed over the persecution they sing about, while rejecting the call to violence, to become against-all-odds rock stars and musical messengers of peace. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a brilliantly self-serving piece of PR, cynically tailored for American audiences, who love a good underdog story, and would generally not recognize that although U2 were indeed Irish, they had about as much personal connection with the Northern Irish troubles as the Jackson Five.
In Northern Ireland, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a series of underground Provo songs like “The Men Behind the Wire” were independently released on vinyl. These records were sold in the Northern Irish Catholic communities, and were also popular in the jukeboxes of those Irish bars in America where money was raised to buy materials that would be used by terrorists to randomly kill and maim innocent people.
In their underground production and distribution and their grass-roots messages, these records seemed to mirror the rebel spirit and do-it-yourself methods of punk. In their strident, clichéd, folky arrangements, the maudlin sentimentality of their commitment to “the cause”, and their one dimensional hero-worship of IRA martyrs, however, the songs were a world away from punk rock. The difference was aesthetic, but aesthetic distance may be one of the more effective mechanisms that restrain our potential for violence.
The creative gap between the political rebel music of Northern Ireland and punk rebel music showed the extent to which punk was an aesthetic rebellion: a revolt of style and attitude, whose only connection to “real politics” was its creative vandalization of political signs. The punks couldn’t help picking up and handling the Kryptonite like image of terrorism, but they always had the good sense to wear the protective gloves of irony and ambiguity while handling it.
Despite its dogged commitment to violent revolution, Northern Irish terrorism has never, in over 30 years, achieved any of its political goals. Punk rock, on the other hand, in the three years of its existence as a radical aesthetic movement, produced positive, lasting changes, if only in the surfaces, attitudes and styles of the world we live in.