Hosted by American media personality Phil Donahue, the imaginatively titled Donahue was a pioneering version of those tragic daytime TV audience participation chat shows. You know the kind – they have subjects like I Was Impregnated By A Gang Of Aliens Then I Became A Meth Addict And Now I Have A Human-Cockroach Hybrid Baby. But Donahue made a sudden shift in 1986, when it decided what it really needed to engage its core viewing demographic of the unemployed was an NYC district hardcore punk special.
Only a decade too late to examine the exciting new phenomenon known as punk rock, Donahue used a typically sensationalist and clichéd angle to anchor its subtextual agenda: who are these punk kids, what do they want, and aren’t they all just a bunch of spoiled brat dumbass teens?
Donahue quickly sets out it stall with its lead guest, an ex-NYC girls’ school attendee who’s introduced as simply ‘Natalie’. She is cast in the guise of a good-girl-gone-bad after she threw her lot in with these filthy punks. Specifically, Murphy’s Law frontman Jimmy Gestapo. Essentially, it’s The Breakfast Club in reverse.
Phil Donahue plays it Colombo style by acting dumb and pretending not to know what the whole deal is with these goddamn punks. Expanding on this well-worn patronising theme, he attempts to point out the inherent contradictions within the Punk Rock Scene Belief System™ by alleging racism in the lyrics to Agnostic Front’s controversial track Public Assistance. The lyrics weren’t actually written by Agnostic Front themselves, but by Carnivore/Type O Negative frontman, the late Pete Steele, who later wrote Type O’s Der Untermensch in a similar “provocative” vein. Still, when quizzed by Phil, Agnostic Front guitarist Vinnie Stigma says the band take full credit for the song. Whether or not Phil was really interested in sticking up for the “minorities” referenced in the song – or just trying to rile the audience up for better TV – is still up for debate, though Stigma’s dismissal that “it’s not racism, it’s reality” doesn’t exactly shower him in glory.
Elsewhere, audience members and guests try to make clear that they don’t all follow the same rules and ideas. Chris Notaro of hardcore punk/thrash crossover band the Crumbsuckers is probably one of the most insightful and erudite here, along with Ray ‘Ray of Today’ Cappo. The erstwhile Youth Of Today frontman pops up at 34:30 to explain how independent punk rock DIY ethics operate – which Donohue belittles as being entrepreneurial. Ray was co-founder of the influential Revelation Records and later established Krishnacore via his band Shelter before also setting up Equal Vision Records. He then took straight edge to its logical conclusion by become a Hare Krishna devotee and taking the name Raghunath. He now teaches yoga online (we recommend his free online 30-day yoga course for beginners with some bonus DIY punk ethic-inspired homilies). Does that meet with your high morals, Phil?
Things rapidly deteriorate towards the closing credits with Donahue attempting to tell the punks that they are simply reacting to nagging out-of-touch parents. An audience member nails the show’s patronising agenda by stating that Donahue is determined to portray the punk scene as just a bunch of dumb uninformed teens — especially by excluding Vinnie Stigma, because he’s 30.
But the last word goes to a philosophical punk: “None of us were born this way,” he says. “Society made us this way by telling us we were nothing, by telling us we were scum.”
Donahue was eventually cancelled by its TV network a decade later, in 1996. Agnostic Front and Murphy’s Law are still working and touring to this day.
Watch the recording below.