Too Punk for Rock and Roll

Recently, a minor-selling but extremely important rock and roll relic was unearthed. “Demo 83,” a 1983 recording by the German punk band Rosa Beton, was reissued. “Demo 83” is part of the series “GDR Undergroundtapes 1980-1990” by the German label tapetopia.

These are  reissues of punk rock records made in East Germany under communism. Hearing the music now, in an America where an out-of-control deep state harasses, intimidates and sets up dissidents, and where academia and the government encourage racism, and where the popular culture is empty and uninspired, I wondered where all the defiant, freedom-loving, and anti-war punk bands are now.

Then it hit me: abrasive, anti-war, and over-the-top Donald Trump is probably our last punk rocker. 

Leftist bands like Rage Against the Machine, which echo the liberal company line, charge huge ticket prices for their concerts, and don’t make a peep when the American Stasi raids the president’s home, have become, in the words of journalist Salena Zito, “the musical equivalent of the swamp.”

It’s true. When I was in college in the 1980s bands like the Replacements, the Dead Kennedys, and the Clash revolted against racism, economic inequality, war, and the intrusive arm of the state. Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra was particularly angry and articulate about being spied on by government agents. Biafra was arrested, and in 1987 faced off against the people who wanted to shut him down—most notably, Tipper Gore.

The punks at the time who were really up against it were the ones in Germany. In Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Tim Mohr explores how the postwar German Stasi harassed, monitored and beat punk rockers. Between 1981 and 1985 one of the most popular bands behind the Iron Curtain was Wutanfall (“Tantrum”), a Leipzig six-piece who, Mohr writes, “represented a loose but dedicated opposition to the state.” 

The leader of Wutanfall was a frontman calling himself Chaos. Chaos was interrogated every week by the Stasi, whose harassment and beatings became so severe that Chaos ultimately gave up. “I’m not doing anything!” he once told his parents, who advised him to abandon music. “I just play music and spike my hair up with shaving cream, OK? I just want to have my own brand of fun, that’s all. That’s no reason for them to beat me half to death!”

In the end, it was too much and Wutanfall collapsed. “It had always been so fun,” Mohr eulogizes, “the little gang of punks against the idiot overlords. All the difficulties had just brought them closer together. But now he felt overwhelmed. Beaten down. The Stasi’s strategy of degradation had worked.”

The best punk rock of the 1970s and 1980s was about questioning liberalism as much as any socialist vision of “social justice.” In a piece in the Washington Examiner, Daniel Wattenberg, who had been part of the New York punk scene in the 1970s, describes it well:

New York punks were unapologetic about their comfortable suburban origins, playful and irreverent in tone, and pretty affirmative about modern American life. Indeed, in many ways, New York punk represented a first skirmish within American popular culture with the then-gathering forces of political correctness.

He goes on:

A small but very influential segment of the punk community . . . explicitly rejected at one time or another just about every one of the reverse pieties then associated with the Left: anti-commercialism, anti-Americanism, reverse racism, you name it. This was coupled with an assault on the stale residue of the sixties counterculture, the whole sleepy, slit-eyed, vegetative, sexually, intellectually, and emotionally subdued, value-neutral, tie-dyed, and forever-fried cannabis cult that worked its way through suburban basements and college dorm rooms in the seventies.

This was true of the scene when I was a college student in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. My friends and I were punk fans, and a lot of it had to do with the ability of the bands to question not only Reagan’s America, but Manhattan and Hollywood’s as well. My favorite band, the Replacements, ridiculed androgyny and blasted corporate MTV as fake and boring. The Dead Kennedys, sneered at rich clueless liberals in “Hop with the Jet Set”: 

We’ll save the whales
We’ll watch them feed,
Buzz around them in boats
‘Til they won’t breed
Just here for the ride
Then we hop with the jet set tonight 

Johnny Ramone of the Ramones once said: “People drift towards liberalism at a young age, and I always hope they change when they see how the world really is.” Ian Curtis, the singer of the seminal band Joy Division, voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Tony Hadle, the lead singer for Spandau Ballet, also supported Margaret Thatcher and has remained true to what he calls his politics of “one nation conservatism.”

David Bowie and other rock stars befriended the writer William S. Burroughs, who was called “the godfather of punk” and whose politics were all over the place. Burroughs would be high on the cancel list today.

In 2016, Washington Post music critic Chris Richards argued that musicians should self-censor in deference to prevailing political orthodoxies. Richards describes a band who wanted to cover a song originally played by black artists. They decided not to, a move praised by Richards: “A band of white indie rockers performing the songs of a black R & B singer? No way. It would be seen as cultural appropriation.” Richards writes that “as badly as I wanted to hear their covers they were right” to not attempt the song.

It’s hard to imagine anything more antithetical to the spirit of rock and roll, especially punk rock. I am under no delusion that if a brilliant punk band were around today they would refrain from mocking President Trump for MAGA, his mansions, his kids, and his ties. Those would all be fair game. Yet I also know that such a band would find themselves pausing at the site of the recent Stasi raid on Ma-a-Lago—to say nothing of their likely sympathy for Trump’s hatred of foreign wars. The raid would get them wondering. And they would probably conclude that it was too reminiscent of Jello Biafra getting hauled into court on obscenity charges in the 1980s.

Today’s punks, if there are any, might even recall the words of the great Dead Kennedys song “Where do Ya Draw the Line?”:

Ever notice hard line radicals
Can go on start trips too
Where no one’s pure and right
Except themselves?
“I’m cleansed of the system”
(‘Cept when my amp needs electric power)
Or “The Party Line says no.
Feminists can’t wear fishnets.”
You want to help stop war?
Well, we reject your application
You crack too many jokes
And you eat meat
What better way to turn people off
Than to twist ideas for change
Into one more church
That forgets we’re all human beings.

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