Music

Rebelling Against the Rebellion: British Punk's Second Coming

Album cover: Exploited's Punks Not Dead (1981) (colorized)

Louder, faster, angrier, and harder than punk ever sounded, second-wave punk in 1979 Britain kept the core instrumental ingredients but used and produced them in ways that boiled off any subtleties or sophistication.

British hardcore, whether under the guise of oi!, anarcho-punk, or UK 82, was a statement of internal rebellion -- a very loud, fast, and furious one about the state of punk by 1979. Much had changed in the preceding three years, with punk's more malleable agents encouraged to employ a more palatable new wave identity or an experimental post-punk one. In the process, the classic Ramones / Pistols / Clash sounds become all but obsolete as new developments saw punk redeployed in more traditionally rock-pop or avant-garde directions. However, all were not ready or prepared for primary punk to be put out to pasture just yet. Diehards responded by rebelling against the new rebellion, doubling down on those traits they considered most essential(ist) and valuable from punk's initial insurgency.

This sophomore wave had little time for the new wave that become the new mainstream rock, regarding it as "a traitorous betrayal of the music's idealistic values" (Cateforis, p.27). "Back to basics" became the rallying cry, as hardcore re-focused punk back on the kind of street-level issues addressed on the debut Clash album. Parents, police, and punk itself were real and immediate concerns for punk kids, so they became song topics of choice. The lyrical treatment of them, though, was so basic that the Ramones, et al, seemed articulate and subtle by comparison. Short and snappy statements about various beliefs and (sub)cultural injustices became the new rhetoric, each delivered in the form of slogans and/or battle cries.

Louder, faster, angrier, and harder than punk had every sounded, this second wave kept the core instrumental ingredients—vocals, guitar, bass, and drums—but used and produced them in ways that boiled off any subtleties or sophistication. Both bass and guitars were put through distortion fuzz boxes, creating a fat wall of noise that had as much in common with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM) bands as with prior punk ones. Some critics, like Al Spicer (p. 160), bemoan this gravitation towards the primitive; he talks of the "strange beauty of punk" being eradicated by the bludgeoning approaches of hardcore.

What remained was a punk skeleton, devoid of any adornments or additions that might elicit charges of artistry. Proud amateurs, hardcore musicians left nothing to unlearn, nothing to excise. Anticipating those that would—and have—found hardcore to be repetitious to the point of redundancy, Nicholas Rombes (p. 101) counters with a rhetorical question: "But what if sameness is the point?" Just as punk had offered a rebuttal to prog rock's indulgences, so hardcore gestured likewise in relation to new wave and post-punk at the close of the '70s. What emerged was a revised doctrine of punk, one filtered through rose-colored memories about what punk had once been and perceptions about what it had become.

Anarcho-punk

Crass at the Cleatormoor Civic Hall, UK, 3 May 1984. Photo by Trunt. Left to right: Pete Wright (bass), Steve Ignorant (vocals), N.A. Palmer (guitar). (Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

UK's counterparts to US hardcore manifested in three main groups: anarcho-punk, oi!, and UK 82 street punk. Fomenting the first faction were Crass, a band that refused to allow the primitive punk sound to die and, more importantly, refused to allow the politics of anarchy to be trivialized as just a buzzword used in a Sex Pistols song.

Whereas US bands like the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag showed reverence to their predecessors in carrying forth the baton of punk, Crass and others looked cynically at those forerunners as traitors to the cause, as self-indulgent post-punkers or sell-outs to industry new wave. Few escaped their Stalinist-like purge.

Even the Clash, just two years earlier the primary inspiration for most political punk bands, by 1979 were put on trial in songs like Crass's "White Punks on Hope". By then the Clash were bedding down with classic rock producers like Sandy Pearlman (for Give 'Em Enough Rope [1978]) or writing self-aggrandizing paint-by-numbers rebel anthems (like "Clash City Rockers" [1978]) that pandered to their adoring punk base. Crass charged the band with going for the "cash" and dismissed them as "trash". Disillusioned by what punk had become, Crass sought to reinvigorate the genre by destroying what it had become.

Political idealism has always been a central component of punk, but while many have talked the talk, few have attempted to walk the walk like Crass. Living by the anarchist credo that there is "no authority but your self" sounds noble in theory but is rather more challenging in practice. Living communally in a house in the Essex countryside, the lifestyles of the Crass collective evoked memories of the hippy '60s, where seekers often gathered in communes before moving onto their New Religious Movement of choice in the '70s.

Crass collectivism and idealism never translated into religious practice as it had within US hardcore, though. In fact, religion was one of the band's primary targets of political disdain, cast through a Marxian lens as "the opiate of the masses". Buddha, Jesus, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are all adjoined as enemies of liberation in their song "Sucks" (1979), and religious believers are scorned as accomplices to an institutional "con" in "So What" (1979). The band's renowned logo even ironically alludes to the Christian cross, the "mast of oppression" referred to in their song "Asylum" (1979). Unlike in the US, where its more a-political punks were always vulnerable to the escapist lures of religion, British anarcho-punk, with its rationalist perspectives on all aspects of socio-political life, ran counter to such a trajectory.

Political priorities also distanced anarcho-punk from American hardcore. While the latter invited aggression, the former preached peace; while the latter harbored misogynistic impulses, the former raged against sexism. Besides the often abstract musings of The Slits and X-Ray Spex, few punk bands before Crass had seriously engaged issues of gender and sexuality. But Crass dug deep, engaging feminist idea(l)s in Eve Libertine's "Shaved Women" (1979) and throughout the album Penis Envy (1981).

They even exposed the socialization processes of institutional sexism by submitting a parody song to the teen magazine, Loving, in 1981. "Our Wedding" needed only to parrot traditional wedding vows to reveal the female obedience and subservience ingrained and expected within that peculiar institution. The purpose of such prank humor was to show how readily we engage in sexism without even recognizing it; this premise was further confirmed when the "offending" song was both accepted and published by the duped magazine.

Crass never made much money, nor did they aim to, and their songs were not played on the BBC. Nevertheless, their influence spread throughout '80s punk, inspiring bands like the Poison Girls, Flux of Pink Indians, Chumbawamba, and the Newtown Neurotics to make progressive politics more than just a component of their operations. Crasstafarians, moreover, can still be seen to this day—often recognizable by the band's crest adorning their shirts and jackets—at anti-globalization, pro-environment, and human and animal rights rallies around the world.

oi!

Less inclined towards left-wing political ideas was another branch of second wave punk that emerged at the close of the '70s: oi! Like anarcho-punk, oi! identified (with) the concerns of neglected working and under-class citizens, but its means of address were markedly different. Whereas Crass adapted Marxism to slogan-style political propaganda, bands like Sham 69 and the Angelic Upstarts conveyed their concerns in more narrative and anecdotal forms. The Clash were a touchstone rather than a target of wrath for oi! bands, their 1977 eponymous debut album offering templates of how to capture the lives of bored and frustrated inner-city youth through simple street stories.

Tell Us the Truth (1978), Sham 69's debut album, begins with a dramatization of a parent nagging her son, establishing a generational conflict theme that runs through the record. This motif, in which kids are shown to be victims of control by adults, is also applied to police, politicians, and prison authorities as comparable, if more sinister, authoritarian oppressors. Framed through a street-level lyrical lens, front-man Jimmy Pursey identifies with the angry working-class youths, casting them, as John Lennon once did, as damaged and doomed "heroes", more acted upon than acting.

Unlike in Lennon's fatalistic "Working Class Hero" (1970), though, oi! rhetoric was about fighting back as a unified, if dispossessed, youth community. "Borstal Breakout" (1978), "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1978), and "If the Kids Are United" (1978) are three of Sham 69's earliest and most celebrated anthems, each a sing-along rallying cry for the band's rabid "Sham Army". These songs appeal to "common" pride, identity, survival, and resistance in ways not dissimilar to US hardcore's anthems.

Oi!, like hardcore and anarcho-punk, also positioned itself as a second wave punk movement with a paradoxical relationship to its predecessors. Punk's "anyone can do it" DIY spirit is evident in the elemental sounds and production of oi! records, though they are so basic and bare-boned as to suggest an implicit commentary upon what punk had become by 1979. From its initial trailblazers, Cock Sparrer, Sham 69, and the Angelic Upstarts, to 80's successors, Blitz, Infa-Riot, and The Oppressed, oi! rarely departed from its tried, tested, and true elemental formula of three-chord romps within a three-minute time limit.

Despite its common musical identifiers, second wave British punk was neither unified nor uniform. For the anarcho-punk bands of that time a progressive street punk subculture required a progressive street politics, something the largely a-political oi! was unenthusiastic about embracing or implementing. One such band, Chumbawamba, famously tricked oi! supporter, scribe, and guru Garry Bushell into recording their song, "I'm Thick", which they had submitted to his label under the assumed name of Skin Disease. The producers at the session, member of Cockney Rejects, sat perplexed as this band of oi! mockers merely repeated the title words over and over (64 times!) for the song's duration. Bushell was (presumably) so blind to the parody, though, that he ended up including the song on the "Back on the Streets" (1982) oi! compilation EP.

uk82

Another arm of British street punk that grew out of the demise of the first wave is sometimes referred to as "UK hardcore" or "UK 82". Sonically, UK 82 was recognizably punk, stressing raw fundamentals as oi! had done, but it had distinctive features such as the D-beat developed by Discharge, in which a faster pulse of bass and snare drums held down the rhythm. Guitars took on a fatter quality played through distortion rather than overdrive pedals. The result was a punk-metal fusion sound that some oi! bands had also drifted towards. This primal wash of instrumental pounding became the most pronounced feature of the UK Subs, the Exploited, GBH, Discharge, Chron Gen, Anti-Pasti, and the Anti-Nowhere league, bands that had been as influenced by NWOBHM bands like Motörhead and Iron Maiden as by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.

Unlike oi!, UK 82 continued the socio-political commentary tradition developed by the anarcho-punk bands. Articulated with simplicity and urgency, these bands captured the macro political concerns of the Thatcher/Reagan years, expressing outrage over youth unemployment, nuclear threats, and the ever-present police harassment. Little was said by them that had not been said before or better, but that was their point: to preserve (the mythology of) primary punk, not change it. Descriptors like "elementary" and "repetitious" became badges of honor to these bands, as shown in a song like "Stranglehold" (1979) by the UK Subs, whose lyrics rarely strayed far from that chorus keyword. Frills, subtlety, and innovation were for the art school punks, nos post-punks. All were excised by UK 82's second wave resurrection, resulting in what Spicer unkindly calls "interchangeable, instantly forgettable ramalama 'punk' rock noise" (p.36).

Best embodying this sound and attitude were Edinburgh's the Exploited, who both looked and played their part as the primary purveyors of UK 82. Their succinct song titles, such as "Army Life" (1981), "Fuck a Mod" (1981), "Cop Cars" (1981), "Dead Cities" (1981), and "Maggie" (1985), tell you all you need to know about the band and sub-genre, as does their debut album title, Punk's Not Dead (1981). Crass had written a song entitled "Punk is Dead" (1978) a few years earlier, bemoaning the sell-outs and corporate strip-mining of punk's first wave, but the Exploited refused to bite the hand that fed, or to accept the growing consensus about the demise of punk at the close of the '70s.

Their never-say-die attitude prevails to this day, and many of the veterans of oi! and UK 82 are still playing shows wherever they can get their feet in a venue's door. US audiences, often late to hear the UK's take on hardcore, have been particularly welcoming to these aging street warriors. Their homeland, however, has not always been so accommodating, its institutions offering little time or space to what they consider as sad old punks still sporting their boots, braces, or wilting mohawks.

Nevertheless, the annual Rebellion Festival in Blackpool (formerly Holidays in the Sun, formerly Wasted) keeps the nostalgia circuit alive in the UK, and loyal fans of multiple generations still come from all over the world to experience the resurrection of old (and recent) second wave punk. Ian Glaspell is typical of these promise keepers of "real punk" (p.6). For him, "punk rock is an attitude and as long as someone, somewhere, carries that attitude in their heart and soul, punk rock will never die." Those generational successors continuing to carry and pass on the primary punk baton—just like that every-punk band playing tonight at a house party or local dive in your town—would no doubt second such a sentiment.

Works Cited

Cateforis, Theo. Are We Not New Wave? Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s, University of Michigan Press. 2005

Glaspell, Ian. Burning Britain: The History of UK Punk 1980-1984, PM Press. 2014

Rombes, Nicholas. A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982, Continuum. 2009

Spicer, Al. A Rough Guide to Punk, Rough Guides. 2006

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