When pub-rock singer Joe Strummer of the 101ers first met with former London SS guitarist Mick Jones in 1976 to brainstorm material for a new band eventually named the Clash, Strummer was shown one of his songs, “I’m So Bored With You.” He wasn’t having it: “‘Ere, let’s rewrite this now!” The rather wimpy romantic tune became “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.,” an anti-imperialist rocker. Manager Bernie Rhodes encouraged this direction, even providing Strummer with leftist texts to study.
Punk was designed to be oppositional. It would combine commentary on the events of the days with stripped-down, aggressive rock ‘n’ roll. The roots: MC5’s entire career; Iggy and the Stooges using a Time magazine phrase for a Vietnam war strategy as a basis for “Search And Destroy”; the New York Dolls penning a paean to a war-time romance called “Vietnamese Baby.” The Ramones wrote about the Holocaust as if it were a ’60s dance song (“Blitzkrieg Bop”). The Sex Pistols certainly set their anti-society stall with debut single “Anarchy In The U.K.,” followed by anti-monarchist rant “God Save The Queen.”
Punk social media pages these days are filled with right-wing trolls claiming the music and culture was never about politics. Or with insistences that noted racist authoritarian Donald Trump is “the most punk president ever.” On pages devoted to bands such as the Clash or Dead Kennedys. As Strummer put it in “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”: “If Adolf Hitler flew in today/They’d send a limousine anyway.”
Today, Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, ending the shoddy chapter in our history that has been the last four years. Perhaps a soundtrack of history’s 10 greatest political punk bands can serve as a reminder: Anything less is pathetic, patronizing nonsense.
THE RIOT OF THEIR OWN: London’s No. 2 punk band after the Sex Pistols set their stall at that early rehearsal, with that retrofit of “I’m So Bored With You” into “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.” Soon, Strummer/Jones were writing about police violence against minorities on “White Riot.” Second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope went geo-political, the band posing before a world map of international battlezones on the inner sleeve. And though most of their U.S. radio hits (“Train In Vain,” “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”) were Jones-penned, “I’m So Bored With You”-style love songs, the majority of their catalog was Strummer gazing upon the planet through left-wing-colored lenses.
THE RIOT OF THEIR OWN: The original political punk band began as a typical American garage outfit of the day, playing Rolling Stones songs at Detroit teen rec centers. Then came the influence of drugs, free jazz and local radical beat poet John Sinclair. Suddenly, the MC5 were long-haired, gun-toting revolutionaries with big amplifiers, singing about how the Motor City was burning, espousing a manifesto of “dope, rock ‘n’ roll and fucking in the streets.” But their most political act was the opening of debut live album Kick Out The Jams, with J.C. Crawford raising the rabble: “The time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or whether you are gonna be the solution! You must choose, brothers! You must choose…”
PROOF: Second album Back In The USA, with tracks such as “The American Ruse” snarling at the general domestic malaise or “The Human Being Lawnmower” likening war to a huge shredder, with its “Chop! Chop! Chop!” refrain.
THE RIOT OF THEIR OWN: This Vancouver outfit bridged 1977 punk and the coming hardcore scene, merging the Clash’s agitprop nature with the rowdy recklessness of the Damned. All involved, from tireless mainstay Joey Shithead down, had a teenage hard-rock background to boot, possibly amplifying their innate aggression. But early onstage antics like burning a copy of the Canadian constitution onstage and writing songs with such titles as “Smash The State” and “World War 3” tipped off record buyers early on that this wasn’t the Bee Gees. Shithead’s convictions remained strong enough for him to win a seat on the Burnaby city council under his birth name of Joe Keithley in 2018, as the Green Party candidate.
PROOF: Epic 1979 single “World War 3,” bursting with all the Cold War anxiety of the age: “We’re on our way to a nuclear (pronounced “new clear” by Shithead) day!”
THE RIOT OF THEIR OWN: Early American punk rock wasn’t as specifically political as the English strain. Aside from individual tracks such as the Weirdos’ “We Got The Neutron Bomb” or the Clash-derivative Dils, most U.S. bands leaned toward an anti-social nihilism. Then came San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys. Singer Jello Biafra had the same horror-movie sense of humor as Alice Cooper. But he applied it to the issues of the day, rather than the macabre. So now the monsters in songs such as “California Über Alles” were California Gov. Jerry Brown or President Ronald Reagan. This made DKs the right band for the times.
PROOF: “Kill The Poor” from debut album Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, envisioning a wipe-out of the underclasses with a neutron bomb: “The sun beams down on a brand-new day/No more welfare tax to pay/Unsightly slums gone up in flashing light.”
THE RIOT OF THEIR OWN: The Sex Pistols sang of “Anarchy In The U.K.” Crass practiced it, coming out of leftist commune Dial House. They intersected older hippie refugees such as drummer Penny Rimbaud with younger punks, including singer Steve Ignorant. The racket they raised set blunt texts about anything from feminism to religion to war to a very rudimentary rock, which resembled an inept version of long-running anarcho-psych unit Hawkwind. Their lifestyle, independent record distribution, ongoing critique of punk and youth culture and stark collage graphic style ignited an entire punk subgenre.
PROOF: Anti-Thatcher/anti-war single “How Does It Feel (To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead)?,” climaxing with Ignorant’s hoarse shout “1-2-3-4/You can stop your fucking war!”
Stiff Little Fingers
THE RIOT OF THEIR OWN: The Clash posed for photos in Ireland’s war-torn Belfast. Stiff Little Fingers lived there. Hence, singer Jake Burns opted for adapting the band’s real-life experiences to the insurrectionist theater Strummer so often employed: “Is this the kind of place you wanna live?” began his litany of questions on “Alternative Ulster.” “Is this where you wanna be?/Is this the only life we’re gonna have?”
PROOF: The entirety of their debut album, Inflammable Material.
Gang Of Four
THE RIOT OF THEIR OWN: With clanging anti-guitars, a hardened retrofit of James Brown rhythms, dub reggae dynamics and an ongoing leftist dialectic informed by their studies at Leeds University, Gang Of Four were most often dubbed “Marxist funk.” Rock critic Greil Marcus may have hit the nail more solidly on the head when he referred to them as “the thinking man’s Clash” in the liner notes to the 1990 retrospective A Brief History Of The Twentieth Century. Certainly, there was something more cerebral to their ultra-physical dance grooves such as “I Found That Essence Rare” and “To Hell With Poverty.”
PROOF: Debut LP Entertainment!, their hardest-driving and most punk music.
Nation Of Ulysses
THE RIOT OF THEIR OWN: “Our last band, Nation Of Ulysses, was a political party,” Ian Svenonius said, then fronting garage gospel outfit the Make-Up, in a 1999 interview. Going by the raucous joyous racket these D.C. agitprop rockers whipped-up? The singer must have meant the other kind of party. Their riot of noisy garage rock, R&B, fashion and the same Situationism that fueled the Sex Pistols ended up inspiring everyone from Bikini Kill and Rocket From The Crypt to At The Drive-In, the Locust and the Hives. Your politics could now look sharp, have a nice beat and be easy to dance to.
THE RIOT OF THEIR OWN: Dancing was damned near impossible to ’90s Sweden’s prog-core kings. Their dizzying landmark third LP alone—1998’s The Shape Of Punk To Come—encompassed free jazz, electronica and ambient, nearly cut-and-pasted seemingly randomly into the band’s proto-screamo assault. The level of passion they injected into every note meant life in Refused was continually fraught. They broke up touring behind Shape, though they reactivated seemingly for good in 2012. Singer Dennis Lyxzén brought that same leftist worldview to soul-garage-ists the (International) Noise Conspiracy in the interim.
PROOF: The Shape Of Punk To Come
THE RIOT OF THEIR OWN: These Pittsburgh natives have long served as the missing link between the Clash and Warped Tour. In many ways, their level of dissent might be stronger and more activist than Strummer and co.’s. Consider their veganism and support of animal rights and their founding of The Underground Action Alliance and Military Free Zone. Or their support of organizations such as PETA, Democracy Now!, Amnesty International and Greenpeace. Or posting on their website a list of Republican politicians who have accepted donations from the NRA and other gun advocacy groups, complete with source material, and an accompanying list of mass shootings. Anti-Flag act on their principles more than anyone this side of Crass.