Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Neil Eriksen

Popular Culture and Revolutionary Theory: Understanding Punk Rock


First Published: Theoretical Review No. 18, September-October 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The socialist left in the United States has developed an extremely limited response to popular culture. Without a general theoretical framework, the dominant view on the left has seen popular culture as primarily a means of manipulation for capitalist ideologues to control the great mass of working people. But while we must acknowledge the fact of manipulation in popular culture, to stop there leaves us unarmed in the process of cultural and ideological class struggle. Such an approach tends to ignore the complexities of popular culture, concentrating on it as mere commodities to be consumed, and not as an aspect of the production and reproduction of daily life.

The notion that reduces popular culture to simply a means of manipulation tends to assume that people work in order to enjoy life through culture and entertainment. But the materialist conception that Marx outlined indicates that under capitalism people must relax and find pleasure in their leisure time in order to prepare their bodies and minds for work. Thus, the possibilities and limitations of cultural entertainment and leisure activity, and their function under capitalism, ultimately “are determined by relations of production.”[1]

This article is an attempt to situate the cultural process, and specifically its expression in rock and roll music, within the realm of the relations of production and reproduction of daily life. As such, it is an attempt to deepen the theoretical discussion of ideology and culture begun in Theoretical Review No. 10 by Paul Costello and Suzanne Rivers in their discussions of movies and cultural criticism.

We will begin by attempting to articulate the complex relationship that exists between culture and ideology. Such a discussion first necessitates generally defining ideology and its function in society. We will then discuss certain tendencies within the general realm of popular culture that have been categorized as youth culture. Within this broad and contradictory category we will explore the development of youth subcultures. This will lay the basis for analyzing the recent developments in popular music that have been categorized as punk rock.

In the process of this discussion we will discuss the form and role of class struggle in ideology, and attempt to define revolutionary cultural practice. We will finally outline the ways in which we feel that elements of punk rock fulfill a revolutionary cultural function.

Ideology and Culture

Although culture clearly has a specific relationship to ideology, Louis Althusser has argued that art and culture are not simply a part of the ideological instance of society. For Althusser, lasting cultural expression “makes us see ... the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes.”[2] It is for this reason that we must understand how ideology functions in general, and pervades all human activity, if we are to begin to understand the complex mediation between culture and ideology.

Ideology is the human perception of the ’lived experience’ of human existence itself. This spontaneously perceived ’lived experience’ has a peculiar relationship to the ’real world’. Ideology is simultaneously an allusion to, and an illusion of concrete reality. It is not the real conditions of existence, the ’real world’, that people represent and explain to themselves and others through ideology. What is represented in ideology is their relationship to the experience of their conditions of existence. Put another way, “ideology saturates everyday discourse in the form of common sense . . . .”[3]

The material function of ideology is to reproduce the relationships between people and to their means of producing and reproducing daily life. Today, in class society the dominant ideology tends to develop a broadly defined ideological formation that serves in the last instance to reinforce the existing economic organization of society–to reproduce the existing relations of production as relations of capitalist exploitation. As such, capitalist ideology serves to impose a ’general direction’ on social existence which defines the limits within which people consent to the organization of daily life under capitalism.

Nonetheless, class struggle takes place within the level of ideology. The process of contention between the various classes contains many different elements and trends within their specific ideologies as classes. The ideological class struggle is the process of the strengthening and weakening of different elements within the dominant and various subordinate ideologies. There can be times of seemingly unshakeable dominance by one class, periods of ideological and social calm; as well as periods of uneven disorder, and times of revolutionary upsurge. Each period reflects the strength and weakness of the classes contending for dominance in class society.

Gramsci’s Conception of Hegemony

The process of the strengthening and weakening of different class forces and ideological elements can be understood as a series of compromises and concessions that the dominant class makes with subordinate classes in order to maintain its political and economic power. We must recognize that the capitalist class remains in power in a generally stable conjuncture more by the consent of the masses than through open political and physical repression. Gramsci called the phenomenon by which the dominant class rules the subordinate classes, the exercising of hegemony. He considered hegemony to be the spontaneous acceptance of the moral and cultural values, as well as the general world outlook and its influence on various practical activities, of the ruling class by the majority of the people of the subordinate classes.

The ideology of the capitalist class is expressed through its intellectuals and the institutions that developed in the capitalists’ struggle to rise to and maintain their dominance, including political parties, churches, schools and the press. These ideological apparatuses are dominated by the structure characterized as the “nation state,” an ideological-political-military fusion of political power. The dominant ideology has the effect of shaping the general consciousness of all women and men living in a given capitalist social formation or “nation state.” It “acts as an agent of social unification, as ’cement’ or a cohesive force which binds together a bloc of diverse classes and strata.”[4]

The hegemony of the ruling class cannot simply be reduced to ideological domination–to securing the consent of the working classes by the imposition of capitalist ideas and values through the process of indoctrination. “On the contrary, a ruling class is more authentically hegemonic the more it leaves to the subordinate classes the possibility of organizing themselves into autonomous forces.”[5] As such these subordinate classes actively consent to the hegemony of the ruling class because it appears that there is no alternative that would permit the full development and fulfillment of themselves as autonomous elements of society.

Nonetheless, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony also contains the possibility of crises of ruling class hegemony. Such crises are the product of the class struggle, which can impact upon the hegemony of the dominant ideology so as to tend toward its dissolution. The working classes can elaborate a new world outlook to challenge the hegemony of the ruling class. The new world outlook can become hegemonic if it succeeds in “welding together” a bloc of diverse classes and class strata, forged by the cohesive force of working class ideology.

The process of the dissolution of ruling class hegemony is a complex unity of ascending and descending forces, which is primarily the result of the contention between the world outlooks of the two major classes. There are times when the old order of things breaks down, and there are preceeding and ensuing, and at times even simultaneous processes of consolidation and reinforcement of the status quo. Working class gains in the area of unemployment insurance in the 1930s, for example, which validated unemployed workers’ right to eat and live, came at the expense of limiting working class struggle to proceed within the realm of reforms– validating the capitalist system and reinforcing the status quo of exploitation. Thus, we should not see the class struggle within ideology as a linear process of additive gains (or losses); but rather as a “war of position/war of movement” (Gramsci) in which the two major classes struggle to exert influence and win allies, moving forward in one area and being pushed back in other areas.

It is for this reason that serious economic crises in advanced capitalist countries do not lead automatically to serious political crises. “The working class will only be able to advance in an economic crisis if it has previously made substantial progress in breaking the hegemony of the ruling class and in building up its own hegemony.”[6] It is with this in mind that we can start to understand the complex relationship between ideology and culture. For, hegemony exists within the realm of culture, and the cultural process affects other social relations in the struggle for hegemony.

The Complex Relationship Between Ideology and Culture

As we pointed out earlier, a cultural process has a highly complex relationship to the ideology from which it springs, and to which it alludes. Though culture undeniably rests on an ideological foundation, it cannot be reduced to a simple expression of ideology.

The cultural expression of a group or class is the peculiar and distinctive ’way of life’ of that group or class, “the meanings, values and ideas embodied in institutions, in social relations, in systems of beliefs, in mores and customs, in the uses of objects and material life.”[7] Culture is an important way that the social relations of a class are structured and shaped. But culture is also the manner in which those structures are experienced, understood and interpreted.

Althusser has discussed the potential for provoking modifications in these experiences and interpretations in the process of “great” or lasting cultural expression.

A painter, a writer or a musician proposes new ways of perceiving, of seeing, of hearing, of feeling, etc. ... We can put forward the hypothesis that a great work of art is one which, at the same time that it acts in ideology, separates itself from it by constituting a functioning critique of the ideology which it elaborates, by making an allusion to manners of perceiving, or feeling, or hearing, etc., which, freeing themselves from the latent myths of the existing ideology, transcend it. . . . Art acts in every manner upon the immediate relation with the world, producing a new relation with the world rather than producing knowledge as science does. Therefore, it has a distinct function; although formally, the scheme of the rupture with ideology and the relative independence of the work which results is the same in the case of the ideology-science relation as in the ideology-art relation...[8]

Thus we can say that cultural expression is a relatively autonomous practice of society that has its own internal development, as well as specific relations to the ideological, political and economic levels. As such, cultural expression becomes a material force in the development of society as a whole.

Women and men are formed, and form themselves through culture, social practice and history. Existing cultural patterns represent a sort of “historical reservoir,” a given set of possibilities and limits, which can be taken up, accepted, rejected, transformed or developed. This is the process through which culture is reproduced, transmitted and transcended. In class societies this reproduction, transmission and transcendence take place within the limits imposed, first of all, by class structures and class struggle.

Classes and Cultural Hegemony

Because the most fundamental groups in society are social classes, the primary cultural configurations are class cultures. Though class cultures are fundamental elements of society; like class ideologies, they are most often mediated by each other and external factors. And, just as the different groups and classes are unequally ranked in relation to each other in class society, so too are class cultures unequally ranked, standing “in opposition to one another, in relations of domination and subordination, along the scale of ’cultural power’.”[9] Thus we can see how the concept of hegemony can be helpful for our understanding of the realm of cultures as well as ideology and politics. Struggles against the dominant culture can seek to modify and resist it, and in some cases even attempt to overthrow its hegemony.

However, subordinate cultures are not always in open conflict with the dominant culture. For long periods subordinate cultures can co-exist with it, negotiating spaces and gaps that develop within it, or making in-roads into the dominant culture. But even when there is a generally stable relationship between dominant and subordinate cultures, struggle still exists. It is just more subtle, and in less open conflict, often resulting in the illusion that the dominant culture has successfully and permanently absorbed subordinate cultures into a homogeneous “national culture.”

Subordinate classes, which find that their culture is penetrated and dominated by the culture of the ruling class, can still find ways of expressing and realizing, in their own specific cultures, perceptions of their position and experiences as a subordinate class. For this reason, though the dominant culture of a complex society represents itself as the culture, it is never a homogeneous structure. It is “layered” and contradictory, reflecting different interests within the dominant class (e.g., monopoly versus competitive capital), and containing different holdovers from the past (e.g., puritanical religious notions in a primarily secular culture); as well as emergent elements of the present and the future, and the elements of other class ideologies it has been forced to absorb in the process of cultural class struggle.

Subcultures and Counter-Cultures

Similar to the complexity of the dominant culture in relation to other class cultures, each class culture is highly complex, containing within it various relatively autonomous “regions” and sub-cultures or countercultures. There are the obvious racial, ethnic and regional variations within a class culture. But there also exist specific cultural relations for youth and the elderly, and particularly for women, who are generally assigned a subordinate role in cultural life dominated primarily by men. These variations relate to the fact that the subordinate groups within the class find meaning and expression in different relations, ideas and objects (or different meanings in the same relations and objects) from the broader class culture.

The concrete distinctiveness of certain sections of the population is a product of specific historically developed subordinate roles assigned and enforced by the dominant ideology and politics. Thus, racial minorities, women and youth are ’structured’ into subordinate roles that place strict limits on their development and means of expression. And though a class culture is composed of broad elements and roles that attempt to embrace the majority of the class, as a class, regardless of sex, race or age, certain differences in cultural expression can lead to the generation of a subculture or a counter-culture.

Relative to class cultures, sub-cultures are sub-sets–smaller, more localized and specific structures within one or the other of the larger cultural realms. Sub-cultures can only exist as a distinct part of a broader class culture, which can be characterized as the “parent culture” (theoretically embracing much more than the divergence between parents and children). What is meant by this is that a sub-culture differs from the “parent culture” in its central concerns and activities, while it also shares certain common elements with the culture from which it derives.

Generally speaking, the tendency is for cohesive subcultures to develop within the subordinate classes, while counter-cultures develop within the dominant culture. Subcultural expressions are one way that oppressed individuals find to cope with the pressures of their subordinate existence, and in negotiating their collective existence. Sub-cultures can be characterized as focusing around certain activities, values and uses of material goods and spaces, which differentiate them in certain significant ways from the broader parent culture.

Four specific modes of expression have been identified as primary elements of sub-cultural style: dress, music, ritual and language (including specific slang, dialect, vocabulary and assigned meanings).[10] Of these four, music can provide a key focal point because it concentrates ideological expression as well as physical and emotional involvement in a fusion that embraces entertainment as well as communication. And though analysis cannot be limited to these areas alone, the high visibility and the increasing fetishization of the specifics of distinctive clothing, talking and playing music; of specific hang-outs, exploits, sports activities and even modes of transportation (low-rider cars in the Southwest, British Mods’ scooters), all tend to clearly identify the differences between sub-cultures and parent class cultures.

Similarly, though distinctly, there is the tendency within the dominant culture towards the generation of alternative counter-cultures, rather than cohesive sub-cultures. The difference here is that while working class sub-cultures tend to develop “clearly articulated, collective structures–often ’near-’ or ’quasi’-gangs” (i.e., Mods and Rockers); it has been observed that “middle-class counter-cultures are diffuse, less group-centered, more individualized. The latter precipitate, typically, not tight sub-cultures but a diffuse counter-culture milieu.”[11]

The primary reason that counter-cultural alternative institutions can develop within, and even in conscious ideological and political opposition to, the dominant culture is that that culture affords the space and opportunity (economically and ideologically) for sections of it to drop out of circulation and to explore alternatives. Such exploration can take the form of new patterns of living and family life, as well as experimenting with careers that fuse leisure and work experiences (the retreat to the country commune, the artisan production of arts and crafts, etc.). The working class is generally afforded no such options. Their life is persistently and consistently structured by the “dominating alternative rhythms” (Clarke) of weekend relaxation and the back-to-work, “Stormy Monday” blues.

The distinction between sub-cultures and countercultures is important for an analysis of punk rock because, while punk rock in England developed as part of a working class sub-culture, it has always functioned in the U.S. as a counter-culture. But the specific position of youth within the subordinate and dominant classes tends to generate specifically similar responses to the predominant rhythmic patterns of daily life such that a concept of youth culture is a useful analytical tool. This is the case primarily because even though there are distinctly different responses, there are definite similarities (at times more so than at other times) between both youth sub-cultural and counter-cultural experiences.

Some Aspects of Youth Culture

There have been numerous theories and interpretations of youth culture in general. Liberals and conservatives have tended to generate their own meanings and responses; and Marxists have disagreed not only on definitions, but also on the validity of the concept itself. One of the most successful contributions to a Marxist understanding of youth culture was made by Martin Jacques, a prominent British communist cultural critic, in 1973 in his article “Trends in Youth Culture.” Jacques outlined his premise for utilizing the concept of youth culture as follows:

The correctness of the insistence on the distinctness of each new generation seems ... to lie in the fact that each generation matures in a new set of political, economic, social and ideological conditions. They thus share in some degree or other various common experiences and therefore expectations and values which are different from those of other generations. The degree to which this is true . . . depends on the extent and manner in which these new circumstances are different from the ones experienced by the older generations.[12]

But Jacques is careful not to liquidate the concrete differences between the experiences of the youth of various social classes. In much the same way that we discussed subcultures in general above, he explains that,

Firstly, within each class or fraction of the class, the youth element possesses particular and distinctive characteristics in relation to the class as a whole and, secondly, youth in general shares certain similar overall characteristics. . . . But it must be said that youth culture is not a monolithic whole, rather it is more appropriate in many ways to speak of youth cultures.[13]

Jacques argues that the disparity that has distinguished the experiences of the post-war generations (those born during or after 1945) from previous generations has been most dramatic in three areas: (1) the ideological arena, (2) the numerical and material position of youth, and (3) its social composition. This disparity reflects the fundamental differences between the long wave of capitalist contraction and crisis which characterized the period between the world wars, and the long wave of capitalist expansion following the second world war.

Ideologically, the post-war generations have never confronted the major problems that dominated the lives of the previous generations, namely massive unemployment and fascism in power in major industrial countries. Because youth have come to accept a state of relatively full employment and rising living standards as normal, they have judged capitalist society by quite different standards than those most likely utilized by people who lived through the 1930s.

Second, the post-war “baby-booms” produced large increases in the population between the ages of 15 and 25 by 1970, which are only now beginning to decline. This combined with the growth in the educational sphere, including the emphasis on extending the years spent in education, the increased income and spending capacity of working youth, and the declining role of the family, have all served to increase the ideological, economic and political autonomy and influence of youth as expressed in such phenomenon as popular music, clothing and sexual behavior.

Concerning the social composition of youth, the growing importance of various strata, of technical, scientific, intellectual and service related labor within the realm of wage-labor, especially in food production, entertainment and health care, as well as the financial and distribution sectors of the economy, has had a marked effect on working class youth. This can be seen in the increasingly diverse areas and types of employment, with very different traditions, work situations, degrees of organization and educational requirements. Further, the length of time spent in education, including high school, community colleges and technical schools, as well as universities, has meant that more youth not only receive more education, but also remain outside of the full-time labor market for longer periods of time, quite often not by choice.

Thus, the composition of working class youth is now much more diverse than ever before, and numerically certain new sections are becoming quite important. Also, since most students enter the ranks of the wage-labor force, the social distance between student youth and working class youth, and between sub-cultural and counter-cultural responses, can at times become considerably narrowed.

Though these facts should not be exaggerated in considering the existence of a youth culture, especially given the potential for extreme divergence of the experience of a young factory worker in Oakland and a secretary on Wall Street, and the wide divergence of national minority cultures, the tendencies do exist and the implications are important. “In particular, there is a growing cross-fertilization of ideas and modes of behavior between the different strata of youth.”[14]

The general oppression of working youth can be summarized into four major categories. (1) Increased economic exploitation: Most often youth receive much lower wages for doing the same amount of work as their elders. (2) A narrowly defined, and even stifling educational process: While education has helped raise the general level of knowledge and culture, through its very organization and character it has tended to limit the cultural and intellectual development of youth. This is especially the case with the process of “tracking” and through the process of generally defining students as passive receivers of information. (3) The contradictory character of the family: The family not only can sustain and provide support for youth, but is also one of the most important areas for conditioning and socializing children and youth into the acceptance of the established values of society. This process can often involve the older generation teaching old and regressive values, such as racism and sexism, and negative practices such as alcoholism and child abuse. (4) Finally, the greater significance of the cultural industry, due to the growth in leisure activity/expenditure of youth, has had two fundamental characteristics: the tendency to turn anything marketable into a commodity, which treats youth more and more as only a market of consumers; and the further tendency to turn the individual into a passive “receiver.”

The rebellion of youth against these various aspects of their existence takes on different forms depending on the class character of those responding. Music has tended to become a powerful vehicle for this rebellion because it can provide an expression for the focal concerns of youth, in words as well as sounds. But given the hegemony of capitalist ideology, the rebellion tends toward individualism and subjectivism, particularly in a counter-cultural framework, such as prevailed in the U.S. in the 1960s. This can develop further into a more consciously political response of Utopian anarchism that rejects all authority and organization. Nonetheless, “the degree to which cultural tendencies are progressive cannot be judged solely in terms of their content (e.g., how revolutionary are the words of a song?), but must also take into account their form, that is, the extent to which they imply an emphasis on participation, on the active involvement of the individual/audience in new ways and at different levels.”[15] Thus we can see a need to develop a well articulated theory of what in fact constitutes revolutionary cultural practice.

Revolutionary Cultural Practice

To define revolutionary cultural practice we need to return to certain elements of our discussion of ideological class struggle, as well as to develop certain new elements specific to cultural practice itself.

If we accept Althusser’s definition of cultural production as an act within ideology that can separate itself from that ideology through a critique of certain myths inherent in that ideology, we can see that transcending the immediate relations is possible through cultural expression. New relations can be produced in culture. The question of whether or not such new relations are revolutionary can only be judged in their relation to, and impact on the broader realm of ideological class struggle.

Does the portrayal and possible transcendence of existing relations serve to reinforce the hegemony of the dominant class ideologically and politically, or does it serve tendencies toward the dissolution of that hegemony? A song, or poster, or work of art can be said to be revolutionary if it serves to help break down the hegemony of the ruling class. Further, a single cultural object can contain both tendencies. Our analysis must decipher which tendency is dominant, not only when it is created, but also when it is appreciated by an audience and/or coopted by capital.

Fundamental to this understanding of class struggle in culture and ideology is a conception of revolution painfully absent in the theories and strategies of the majority of revolutionary groups in the USA today. Most revolutionaries have a vision of revolution that involves the dramatic physical assault by the working class against the capitalist state, in much the same way that the Russian working class rose to power in 1917.

However, such an approach was successful for the Russians because of the concentration of state power in a narrowly defined power base. The autocratic regime had been overthrown by the mobilization of the vast majority of the popular masses against the Czar. Bourgeois rule after February, 1917, was tentative, and based on the support or neutrality of the working class and its primary ally, the peasantry. When this support was withdrawn, the state was highly vulnerable and susceptible to a frontal assault.

In advanced capitalist countries, capitalist hegemony and power is centered in a vast state apparatus that includes the courts, education and “democratic” institutions, as well as the military and police, that all combine with the other ideological apparatuses to reproduce capitalist ideological and political hegemony on a broad and pervasive scale. Thus a frontal assault on an advanced capitalist state by itself, without other forms of struggle is no longer a viable strategy. It is for this reason that Gramsci saw the need to develop the conception of the “war of position/war of movement” against capitalist hegemony.

It is precisely this struggle for working class hegemony and its necessary class alliances that points out the validity of a conception that sees revolutionary cultural practice in whatever elements that serve to break down capitalist hegemony. The need for a process of developing working class hegemony can not be envisioned in isolation from the broad struggle against the hegemony of the ruling class, which also maintains alliances and unites other classes and class strata. Further, such a developmental process requires a large and effective revolutionary party actively practicing the science of Marxism-Leninism in the service of the working class.

Our understanding here is based on the fact that a revolutionary situation is not simply an opposition of the working class to the capitalists. A revolutionary situation is rather a complex accumulation of many social contradictions acting simultaneously with the fundamental class contradiction. This is the Leninist conception of revolution, and Althusser has provided us with a theoretical summation of this process.

If this [class] contradiction is to become ’active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ’circumstances’ and ’currents’ so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its ’direct opponents’), they ’fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime which its ruling classes are unable to defend.[16] [Althusser’s italics]

Thus, any elements that serve to challenge the authority and legitimacy of the status quo can serve a revolutionary function.

This is not to say that they will do so consciously, or that they will support the revolutionary process itself. It is to simply acknowledge the objective effect that such elements can have in challenging the hegemony of the ruling class. It is the role of communists to provide direction for such challenges, and to struggle to develop an alternative to capitalist hegemony in the ideology of the working class. And we must be quite clear on the fundamental distinction between revolutionary communist practice and revolutionary anti-capitalist practice, both of which are vital to successful socialist revolution.

Once communists understand the class struggle that is unfolding we can undertake conscious ideological campaigns to influence audiences, as well as certain musicians. Energy must be concentrated on reaching the audience because the masses are much more stable than a few isolated individual musicians, and it is the masses who will create their own artists and musicians, both by organically producing them and by supporting those who reflect their ideals. Then the cultural workers can be involved in the process of learning the needs and desires of the working masses, and acting for their fulfillment, i.e., developing working class hegemony in the cultural sphere.

The cultural process must, therefore, be understood as highly contradictory, and potentially highly volatile. It is no accident that the dominant culture is overwhelmingly filled with elements that serve to avoid and obscure the concrete class contradictions, as well as any contradictions or history that serve to call into question the existing relations of existence. The dominant culture under capitalism constantly strives to convince people that the way things are is part of a “natural” progression, and that most contradictions are the same age old questions that have maintained the same “essence” over the years, even if such myths fly in the face of concrete and historical reality.

One of the more all pervasive myths today is that of consumerism, a myth that actually has quite recent origins in opposition to the traditionally frugal work ethic.


Publicity is the culture of the consumer society. It propagates through images that society’s belief in itself. –John Berger, Ways of Seeing

I know I’m artificial But don’t put the blame on me. I was reared with appliances In a consumer society. –Poly Styrene, “Art-I-Ficial”

Under advanced capitalism the dominant tendency is for people to seek out relaxation and respite from the pressures and demands of work in the consumption of commodities. This is due tcr the ideological pressures to conform to the needs of capital in meeting one’s needs for physical and emotional pleasure. Not only does the advertising/media industry penetrate our consciousness to distinguish between products, but advertising also functions to validate the relations of commodity consumption themselves. As John Berger, a British Marxist novelist and critic, puts it so well in Ways of Seeing,

The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life. Not with the way of life of society, but with his own within it. It suggests that if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better. It offers him an improved alternative to what he is.[17]

The basic needs for relaxation can be met through various means, including escape into fantasy, isolated individual consumption of objects and food or drugs, active participation in sports, passive entertainment by most movies, television, music concerts and drama; or on another level, intellectual expansion and critical interaction. Materially, the need to regenerate ones ability to work, through the process of relaxation, is mystified and channeled by the ideological mechanisms of the media and advertising into the avenue of consumerism. Further,

Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. . . [18]

Thus we can see that within the realm of consumer society the dominant tendency is toward manipulation, on both conscious and subliminal levels. But there is also a subordinate tendency of the consumer to have a degree of control over what is manufactured. This degree of control exists in the fact that individuals can choose what they will buy (a record or a blank tape, or a book, for instance), and even if they will make a purchase at all (listening to, or taping a friend’s record, or using the library). Under capitalism the process of any choice is predicated on the amount of surplus income available to purchase cultural commodities, which is directly connected to the standard of living of the masses, and to the rate of inflation.

And though we must not overemphasize the ability of a consumer to make an unmediated choice, this process does involve elements of an active role that the masses have in shaping the mass cultural media, whereby they become “responsible for a social demand for a new kind of artistic activity.”[19] This active role is one reason that the product boycott can be an effective weapon of struggle.

This complex relationship between consumer and commodity mediates the link in popular culture between the artist, musician or actor, and the values and feelings of the masses, toward themselves, the artist, the cultural object and toward society as a whole. The dialectical interaction that takes place is such that the cultural product is not only shaped and enjoyed by the masses, but also shapes and influences them in diverse ways. For this reason any analysis of the cultural process must address the response of the audience.

Audience Response and Shock Effects

Because the aim of cultural and media products is to fulfill sensorial and emotional enjoyment, the response of the viewer or listener becomes crucial. The most prevalent avenue for a respite from, and in preparation for work is the realm of “leisure effects.” Leisure effects generate a passive “receiver” response, where the individual seeks to be entertained rather than to be actively involved. A song or movie can serve to generate leisure effects by creating an avenue for escape into apathy and fantasy. But a song or movie can also have another effect; it can serve to orient the viewer/ listener to a “critical response ... in the sense that he or she will be provoked into thinking and questioning by it.”[20] One way that such critical orientation can be affected is through the shock effect of jolting the audience out of the more passive habitual response.

Walter Benjamin, the German Marxist literary critic who first developed an understanding of shock effects in culture, reflected on the fulfillment of a more general human need through the process of shock effects. “Man’s need to expose himself to shock effects is his adjustment to the dangers threatening him.”[21] And to a large extent the shock effect has been absorbed into the evening news. The daily shock of the brutality of modern society–from the chemical destruction of the Love Canal to police violence in Miami, has become for the most part an accepted part of our everyday lives. For this reason, to be productive in a progressive sense the shock effect must contain a cognitive aspect; it “should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind” (Benjamin), as well as possess the “tactile” effect of a jolt out of the contemplative evasion of social pressures.

This process of shock effects is crucial for our understanding of the phenomenon of punk rock; for, the unity of this cultural phenomenon has been described as issuing from its “external relation to pre-existing popular music, and in the shock tactics with which its exponents went about their work.”[22] But before we present a fuller analysis of punk rock, it is necessary for us to briefly outline the “pre-existing popular music” to which punk became such a dramatic external reaction.

Rock and Roll Music and the New Wave

Since popular music is a relatively autonomous element within the complex totality of society, a direct and unmediated connection between the state of the economy and developments in music cannot be mechanically imposed on our analysis. However, whenever possible we must take into account the effects of an expanding or contracting economy, and the economy of the music industry itself, on the cultural expression of a given period, as well as the effects of other broad social factors such as war and repression. Concrete examples of this include anti-war lyrics in the music of a wide range of mainstream rock and roll bands during the Vietnam war, and the angry response of British punk rockers to the prospect of dead-end jobs and welfare lines, given the current economic situation in England.

Because of its relative autonomy as a cultural phenomenon, rock and roll music has its own internal rhythm of development which leads to periods of vitality and creativity, as well as periods of redundant repetition and stagnation. This rhythm of development is more or less independent of other societal and cultural developments depending on a complex interaction of all the elements involved.

The original fusion of popular rhythm and blues, country music and rockabilly–all musical expressions that sprang from the culture of working people–has become a wide-ranging musical realm that embraces on the one hand a soft and mellow, folk music sound, and on the other a driving energetic sound that is at times harsh and abrasive. On the one hand rock and roll includes a plethora of lyrical pablum, and on the other intelligent social critique. The pioneering musical work of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley at times is all but lost in the maze-like intricacies of musical production that rely quite often on a strict division of labor between technically proficient studio session artists backing media created stars with questionable musical talents.

Various factors combined such that the 1960s can generally be characterized as a creative period for rock and roll. Basically a wide range of new elements were being incorporated into the established parameters of popular music. Between 1964 and 1967 rock and roll continued to occupy the center of youth culture, and helped to generate an unusual homogeneity between both student youth and working class youth, with many of the young musicians coming from working class backgrounds.

The music displayed a remarkable capacity for musical and artistic growth by exploring such diverse musical forms as blues, soul, folk, jazz and even classical music. Simultaneously a tendency developed where some lyricists moved beyond the traditional obsessive preoccupation of popular music with “love” and its achievement and demise.

Bob Dylan was a key influence in exploring a wider range of lyrical content, and his songs condemning the war and hypocrisy in general, and even aspects of capitalist exploitation, helped the music begin to “articulate the evolving mood of youth not only through rhythm, intensity of sound, melody and instrumentation, but also through words.”[23] The ideological developments of this period eventually generated an overall move toward the “counterculture” that called for the building of a Utopian alternative society through dropping out and “doing your own thing,” which was eventually reflected in the songs and lifestyles of many youth and musicians, and in part led to the cultural complacency of the early 1970s.

If the 1960s can be seen as a period of creativity for rock and roll music, the early 1970s was generally a period of regression and decline. It was a period when many artists reached star status and found that their distinctive style could economically serve them well with repetitions of worn out copies of previous innovations. The music also reflected the fact that most student activists of the 1960s had entered the realm of gainful employment and were feeling far less rebellious. The brutality of the Kent and Jackson State massacres most assuredly added to the mood of apathy and passive acceptance of the status quo. But there was also the reality of certain successful struggles to liberalize sexual and drug taboos, if not actual laws, which led quite often to self-indulgence rather than a realization that there were broader political issues involved.

It was not until 1976 that a new period in rock and roll–a new wave of innovation–could be seen solidly emerging. Younger British and American musicians, bored with the pat styles of previous successes and locked out of the star dominated recording industry, explored new, and often exciting techniques, while reinvestigating the origins of rock and roll music.

At the same time that rock and roll was in decline in the early 1970s, the particularities of Jamaican culture, religion and politics were generating a new and vital expression of Jamaican “lower class” popular music–reggae.[24] Many young white musicians of Britain, exposed to reggae by West Indian immigrants, began to experiment with a new direction for musical expression. Reggae music became an influence on popular rock and roll after Jimmy Cliff starred in “The Harder They Come,” and such influence became wide-spread after Eric Clapton covered (performed) Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” New wave musicians have especially relied on reggae rhythms and beat (with varying degrees of success). Further, some musicians like the punk rockers and Elvis Costello, not only incorporated elements of reggae rhythms, but also accepted reggae’s emphasis on social criticism as a lyrical style; content conspicuously absent from most recent rock and roll.

The social ferment generated by declining economic opportunities in Britain found expression in the new wave of social protest in rock and roll music. But where previous protests against the system tended toward pacifism and “peace and love,” the lack of opportunities or alternatives to the prevailing economic conditions gave rise to a much angrier cry of protest, more aggressive and even at times more violent. Specifically, the most important musical developments in England developed as a working class sub-cultural response to the conditions of existence of sections of the working and unemployed youth centered around the musical expression of punk rock.

In the USA, parallel musical developments sprang more from the earlier indigenous innovations of the Velvet Underground, the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, and Frank Zappa, than an imported element like reggae. But while musicians as diverse as the Ramones, Patti Smith, the Talking Heads, Blondie and DEVO were developing in a US new wave, and gained increasing national exposure in 1977, it was developments in British music that stimulated a real surge in musical and media activity.

The crucial difference between the new British and American rock and roll centers around the fact that at the core of the British new wave was the militant working class sub-cultural phenomenon of punk rock. This is especially important in the subject matter taken up, and also in the politics and targets of critique. Specifically, punk rock expression validated, and in fact forcibly injected, an extremely broad realm of social issues and questions as “acceptable” content in popular music: political questions about dead-end jobs, identity and militarism. The American new wave was not centered around punk rock; and US punk itself grew more out of the dominant culture as a counterculture without real working class affinities.

But though British punk was a dynamic stimulus for British new wave, it was more the aggression and energy that tended to revitalize and challenge other musicians to explore new areas, rather than punk politics. The new wave of rock and roll encompasses an extremely diverse range of musical styles and approaches and political attitudes. As a category it most accurately describes the new field of young musicians open to experimentation and different musical forms such as reggae and other West Indian sounds (steel drums), as opposed to the more “conservative” established rock and roll stars.

New wave as a shift toward younger musicians, however, does not avoid the old contradictions of rock and roll and popular culture in general. There is still a tendency toward male dominated bands, with notable exceptions like Blondie, the Pretenders and the Patti Smith Group; there is virtually no cross-over of acceptance of US Black and Latin musicians; and many of the performers put aside their more rebellious attitudes toward the system once they are assured of a major recording contract. Sex, love and sexism have not disappeared as dominant themes; they have just tended to take slightly different, and quite often more aggressive forms. (The most notable US exception to this is the Talking Heads.)

But though the new wave has reproduced many traditional contradictions, some important radical and progressive elements have emerged that deserve closer attention from the left. Of special importance are certain tendencies to critique the dominant ideologies of British royalty, religion, militarism and fascism, and even aspects of the popular music industry itself. These tendencies are especially clear in punk rock, and in the broad cultural-political unity that has been achieved in Rock Against Racism, which will be discussed below.

However, the progressive aspects of new wave cannot be reduced to a part of the British punk scene. This is especially true in light of the emerging dynamism of strong and assertive women in rock and roll, and the increasing acceptance of new wave groups that challenge the listener to think and question existing social relations.[25] But the special circumstances in Britain of a highly charged political and economic environment have generated a musical phenomenon with elements of broad political significance. This is especially true because the economic and political crises are coupled with the British sub-cultural tradition of aggressive activism on the part of affinity groups of young people in defense of their musical preferences. This aggressive defense can be seen in the common attitude among British punks which was vividly expressed in music by Tom Robinson, a gay activist in Rock Against Racism, when he declared, “We ain’t gonna take it; NO MORE!”[26]

Punk Rock As A Cultural Phenomenon

Punk rock got its name from John Sinclair, who coined the phrase in describing the aggressive militance and White Panther politics of the MC5. But for years there was no broad musical phenomenon to accompany the name. In the United States the Ramones, with their high energy, punk parodies of love, drugs and mental “health” institutions, were the main purveyors of punk energy for several years, until their stance was paralleled by such British groups as the Clash and the Sex Pistols.

In Britain punk rock owes as much to the rhythm and social protest of reggae, as it does to the aggressive energy of the MC5 and the Ramones. And it was British punk that began to generate the most media attention. The outrageous antics of the Sex Pistols, and their flagrant disrespect for, and bitter critique of the venerable Queen and her Royal institutions and gala Jubilee, were a media goldmine. The publicity transformed “punk rock” into a household word, and generated intense interest in this new “political” rock and roll.

Musically, punk is solidly a part of the new wave movement to return to rock and roll basics. High energy rock and roll, played fast, loud and hard, punk rock also emphasizes brevity, in contrast to the extended free-form solos and jams of the established rock musicians who have attempted to engender rock as “art for art’s sake,” with convoluted excursions into “rock and roll fantasy” (The Kinks).

The Rock revival of the 1960s, and its “revolutionary” spirit of the youth culture as an expression of collective pride, fun, self-confidence and good humor, tapped an entirely different mood than punk, which has tended to be an expression of boredom, doubt, anger, and even self-disgust.

Today’s teenage frustration is caused, not by fuddy-duddy parents, not by easily shocked adults, but by an intractable economic situation, by a society in which everyone talks a lot about the plight of the youth but no one does anything. This isn’t an ideology, it is a mood.[27]

And this mood has been expressed in both progressive and regressive ways.

Punk rock shares many elements with new wave in general, the most telling is its highly contradictory character and extreme levels of uneven development. Unfortunately, the punk rockers of the USA, again more of a counter-cultural than a working class sub-cultural phenomenon, have tended to reflect many of the regressive elements of the US dominant culture, including mindlessness and aggressive sexism. Because of the broad range of attitudes toward politics, life and women, as we mentioned before, the primary element that unifies all punk rock, regardless of its subject matter and the intent of the musicians, is the use of shock tactics.

Thus, an important aspect of deciphering the significance of punk rock as a whole, and particularly the significance of progressive punks like the Clash, X-Ray Spexs, Sham 69 and Stiff Little Fingers, is to recognize that they tend to generate “a heightened presence of mind” (Benjamin) to accompany their shock tactics. Progressive punks tend to orient the listener toward progressive social goals, or offer clear critiques of regressive elements of society. The clearest example of such an orientation is the developments around Rock Against Racism (discussed below).

Interestingly enough, a debate has existed within a group of rock and roll critics over more than the value and content of punk as a musical form. Debate has also centered on the actual existence of punk as a continuing cultural movement capable of influencing popular music in general. According to some critics the punk movement was dead in late 1977, “fractured along the lines of its own internal contradictions” (Laing). But what is most important at this time, years after a cohesive “movement” has faded, is that the demise of punk marked the beginning, rather than the end of a phase of ideological struggle within popular music itself.

The contradictory character of this beginning is nowhere more evident than in the United States. Here new wave, which was born in the English working class sub-culture has developed as an element of a counter-culture, which, by definition, is lacking strong working class roots. As such new wave in the United States takes on many of the features of the counter-cultural experience as it presently exists, de-politicized, individualistic, heavily influenced by sexism and racist values.

Even English political punk rock, when introduced in this country, has difficulty making the appropriate connections with its new found American audience, because of their different ideological and cultural perceptions. Some groups are sensitive to the dilution of the political significance of their lyrics which results from this trans-Atlantic voyage. On his first album Elvis Costello included a song against the fascist revival in England, aimed at Oswald Mosley (“Mr. Oswald”), its acknowledged leader in the 1930s. On his North American tour, however, Costello found the political impact of his song diminished by the audience’s unfamiliarity with English politics. He thereupon rewrote the song especially for the tour with new political lyrics, this time about the Kennedy assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald.

In some ways punk was transcended and its musicians absorbed, however tentatively, into the broad spectrum of popular rock and roll. The ultimate example of this is the widespread popular acceptance of the Clash, once called “the punk’s punks.” But since punk continues to exist, admittedly in a scattered rather than a concentrated form, it opened many doors and still generates a pressure on popular music to maintain less rigidly defined boundaries, open to new musicians who have something to say.

But our analysis of punk rock must address more than what the musicians have to say. To successfully analyze a cultural phenomenon in such a way as to productively intervene as communists in the class struggle in popular culture, we must address four major elements in a cultural exchange. These elements are the musician or cultural worker, the song or work itself, the audience, and the role of the capitalist cultural and media industries. In each concrete situation, at any particular moment in time, there will be uneven development of various aspects of each of these elements. Each must be understood separately and in their dialectical interconnection.

The elements of a cultural exchange within popular culture exist as a complex totality with various internal contradictions. At any given time, specific internal contradictions will be dominant, and in each instance the interaction of the dominant aspects of the four elements will combine with the secondary aspects to generate a cultural object of varying degrees of importance to the individuals involved, and to society as a whole. A clear example of the wide divergence of historical development, just within the category of the artist, can be seen in Bob Dylan’s political/ philosophical role in culture and society during the Vietnam war, and his current religious/cultural significance today.

With these thoughts in mind we can begin to deepen our understanding of punk rock through a discussion of punk rock musicians.

Punk Rock Musicians

I don’t want to know about what the rich are doing, I don’t want to go where the rich are going. “Garageland”–Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash

The intention of a musician, artist, or film producer is an important aspect of the process of cultural production, though by itself such intent does not determine the full character of a cultural product, as we shall soon see.

Some people have more dedication to, and/or access to the necessary materials, instruments and time for creative production, and express their inner visions and feelings in ways that can find acceptance by others. This means that the creative intent of an individual can take on more significance than an individual response to one’s environment and life, and become a social expression as well. But though a certain commonality of our lived environment can be expressed for the social whole through an individual, this is not to say that a collective expression is not possible or not necessary. The individual expression is simply the most common under modern capitalism, where the dominant ideology, and most relations of production reinforce and perpetuate individualism.

In responding to the environment and the history of their cultural expression, individuals can accept or reject their experiences. The most frequent response embodies a complex interaction of both acceptance and rejection, with one degree or another of transformation of historical expression. Within this framework the intent of a musician, author or artist can be both progressive and/or backward, and still give expression to broader social attitudes and desires.

Further, the critical tools of satire and parody are means of expressing social criticism that can be both effective and highly contradictory. These forms of expression create a complex link between the intent of the artist and the response of the audience in the process of the creation and perception of a cultural object. We will address this complex link more when we discuss the response of punk audiences. But first we will address the expressed intent of punk musicians.

Punks have become (in)famous for their open hostility to the musical status quo:

That hostility took three major forms: a challenge to the ’capital-intensive’ production of music within the orbit of the multi-nationals, a rejection of the ideology of ’artistic excellence’ which was influential among established musicians, and the aggressive injection of new subject-matter into popular song, much of which (including politics) had previously been taboo.[28]

The established musicians were technically proficient in the use of their instruments and the sophisticated recording equipment increasingly popular with producers looking for a “polished” sound. Thus they were offered the vast majority of recording contracts. In the attempt to justify their own drift away from the raw energy and youthful exuberance of early rock and roll, toward the polished and “sophisticated” styles of rock and roll as “high art” so highly prized by most record companies, many rock stars produced ghastly hybrids of pretentious lyrics, that were often willfully obscure, combined with worn out repetitive sounds. Such attempts to justify ensconement as guitar virtuosos and operatic geniuses was more of an expression of elitism and condescension toward the “faceless crowd,” than it was an attempt to gain recognition for their acknowledged abilities. (The ultimate parody of this elitism is Joe Jackson’s claim that his fans can never hope to touch or see him; they can “only hope to hear me on your Radio.” 10CC has addressed the “high art” debate in “Art for Art’s sake,” where they expose the ultimate concern of most established musicians as “money, for God’s sake!”)

With most record labels trying to make their profits by pushing the established, well-known artists, the slump in the record industry signaled less money available to take a chance on new and un-proven talent. Thus, it became impossible for new groups to get a chance to record songs through normal channels and be heard by more than their local fans. This meant quite simply that these new groups could not make a living making music. Out of the frustration that these circumstances created came the ideology of the “garage bands.” Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 explained it this way:

. . . What punk did was give a lot of little groups all over the country the start Tiny little groups just getting up on the stage playing . . . singing about the environments about them. ’Cos they didn’t have to copy anymore. Like previously all bands played old Beatles tunes and that. Now they just got up and did it.[29]

Another aspect of the attitudes of punk musicians in stark contrast to the star system was/is an openness for interaction between musicians and the audience. When asked by Melody Maker in March of this year why Stiff Little Fingers, an Irish band from Ulster, still considered themselves a punk band, Jake Burns replied,

We are still true to the initial values; we still believe in it as an extension of the audience. We will, hopefully, always be willing to play gigs to those kids and then afterwards hang out ... to see whoever wants to come backstage. We’ve always talked to the kids because... knowing what sort of people are filling those seats is more important [than knowing how many people attended].[30]

Further, the punk’s attitude that anyone can play music for entertainment has been born out, as the best and most dedicated of the punks have shown that they can learn to play well in the process of trying, and most often succeeding, to entertain an audience.

Control over the means of production is one of the key issues that punks have addressed, not only in their songs, but also in contract negotiations. Most of the militant progressive punks have songs denouncing their treatment by the multinational record companies. The importance of the early struggles of the Sex Pistols and the Clash in attempting to maintain control over their music and contracts is reflected in the fact that other bands can now take a firmer stand with the corporations. The Gang of Four, an avowedly socialist British band, recently negotiated a contract with Warner Brother for the release of their album Entertainment! that gave the band nearly complete control over their music, advertising and the album cover, all areas where most musicians find they must capitulate to monopoly manipulation. Further, the Clash reportedly demanded that the price of their double album London Calling (CBS) be kept low enough so their fans could afford to buy it.

Many new wave and punk musicians go further in their critique of corporate manipulation, pin-pointing the role of the media, and radio explicitly, in shaping people’s consciousness. The most articulate critique is Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio,” where he explains how the radio industry presents itself as the “voice of reason,” advising us what to do and acting to “anesthetize the way that you feel.” Costello worries about “the times ahead,” and denounces those who sit around “overwhelmed by indifference,” unable to look beyond their radios and tape recorders.

As we mentioned before, many British punk musicians are consciously aware of the extreme contradictions existing in modern society, and have built their musical expression around the angry protest of a segment of the youth population. The Clash sing about career opportunities that “never knock,” and recognize that “All the power is in the hands/of people rich enough to buy it.” In 1977 the only solution for the Clash seemed to be a “White Riot,” where white people who had had enough of economic difficulties, were challenged to take the lead from Black people who weren’t afraid to “throw a brick.”

Needless to say, anarchistic themes abound in punk rock, as do nihilistic themes, particularly in the US. The Deadboys (US punks) ironically sang about how much “fun” it is to be down and out and know “you’re gonna die young.” And of course there is always Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ “Blank Generation.” But anarchism and nihilism were not the only reactions to existing reality taken up by punks. The English group Chelsea has a popular single where they sing “We’ve got a right to work,” which was one of the British Socialist Workers Party’s (SWP) agitational slogans.

Directly connected to the protest against dead-end jobs and unemployment is an anti-military stance that threads through much of punk rock, and even some new wave in general. This is so because a commonly advised “alternative” to unemployment is military service. In “Oliver’s Army” Elvis Costello ironically proposes the deployment of the British colonial army around the world: on the “murder mile” in Ireland, to Palestine and to Johannesburg, as a solution to those who are “out of luck or out of work.” And the Clash make it clear that joining the army or the RAF (Royal Air Force) are career opportunities that they can do without.

On their first album the Clash also denounced “Hate and War.” They further develop progressive themes on London Calling. In “Working for the Clampdown” those who are angry at the cruelty of Margaret Thatcher’s racist clampdown on “undesirables” are encouraged to turn that anger into power. In “Spanish Bombs” the Clash draw explicit parallels between the struggles in Ireland and in the Basque territory and the Spanish Civil War. But not only is “Spanish Bombs” a reflection on the brutalities of civil war, it also keeps alive the aspirations of those who fought and died in the trenches with the remembrance that “The hillsides ring with ’Free the people’.”

The Irish band Stiff Little Fingers expresses an angry impatience with the brutality of the British occupation of their native land on Inflammable Material. Like so many youthful musicians, playing in a rock band is an attempt to escape the stagnation of life in Ireland where so many young people end up living and working next door to their parents in a resigned acceptance of the constant state of civil war. On Inflammable Material (Rough Trade) they graphically reflected the Irish situation in harsh and abrasive guitar work and raspy, shouted vocal delivery, interestingly combined at times with Beach Boys harmonies and the beat and rhythm of reggae. Presenting an anarchistic pacifism in “Wasted Life,” on “Alternative Ulster” the band calls for an “anti-security force.” SLF’s dominant message is to “stop the killing,” especially clearly presented in their mournful cover of Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was.” Finally, it would be hard to find a clearer indictment of the false promises of army recruiters than “Tin Soldier,” on SLF’s second album. Nobody’s Heroes (Chrysalis) develops the theme of challenging listeners to look for strength in themselves, blacks and whites, and not to expect rock stars to solve social problems.

One of the most biting anti-military songs to come out of the British new wave is the Gang of Four’s “Armalite Rifle.” This song draws a clear connection between the presence of British troops in Ireland and the pervasive anti-Irish ideology of the British ruling class. The armalite rifle functions “like Irish jokes on the BBC,” to maintain and reproduce the oppression of Ireland. A more in depth discussion of the Gang of Four is developed below.

Sexism and Violence in Punk

Take me and strap me to the electric chair. But you’ll never kill me I’ll always be there. The Deadboys–“Son of Sam”

In spite of the punks who develop progressive themes, expression of sexism, racism and mindless violence are common themes for a number of punk bands, particularly in the US. Robert Christgau of the Village Voice explains that much of punk rock flirts with sexism by exploring rock and roll’s traditional subject matter. Christgau concludes that punk rock in general is “certainly no better place for women than any other rock scene, and in some crucial instances [is] worse.”[31] But he goes on to explain that this very fact is what makes certain groups so important. “In England, the Sex Pistols and the Clash direct their underclass rage, so often deflected toward women in rock and roll, right where it belongs, at the rich and powerful . . . ”[32]

An emphasis on aggressive arrogance calculated to shock is often the medium that punks utilize for expressing satire and parody. But it is this very lyrical content of punk rock that is the most controversial and contradictory. Social comment is often mixed with sexism, and even racism, sometimes in the same song, and even by groups that purport to have a progressive outlook. The contradictory character of popular ideology is nowhere more graphically displayed than in punk rock lyrics.

In the US sexism and racism have always been a part of the counter-culture which is dominated by white men. Since punk in the US is a counter-cultural phenomenon, and since violence and aggression are emphasized in punk, the tendency is for the sexism and racism to take on a more disturbing character. Songs like the Cortina’s “Fascist Dictator” (I don’t want love in any case, All I want to do is smash your face), and the Nun’s “Decadent Jew”[33] are only two of the most explicit examples of the regressive and reactionary tendencies in punk; but they most assuredly have their counterparts in other areas of popular culture, including country music. British working class culture is not without racism and sexism, and the British punk sub-culture exhibits its share of negative aspects. But in Britain important countervailing tendencies exist in Rock Against Racism and Rock Against Sexism to combat the negative developments that go unchecked in the US counter-culture.

Thus we cannot ignore the reactionary aspects of punk, but must recognize that they reflect attitudes that exist in society as a whole, ideas that once exposed can be struggled with. The key to assessing sexism, violence and racism in punk rock is to analyze to what degree such attitudes are dominant, and to what degree they reflect the general mood of the masses.

The positive elements of popular ideology should not be overlooked simply because the negative elements are so disturbing. It is through the processes of analysis and struggle, and our intervention by means of ideological practice, that the positive elements can be reinforced and the negative elements isolated and overcome. It is only a realistic assessment of existing ideology that will permit productive struggle to break down existing capitalist hegemony and to create an ideological hegemony that will serve all working people.

Finally, “The Clash and the Pistols have established social realism as an essential part of punk ideology, but this does not make their music the ’direct expression of the contemporary working class’.”[34] Contradictory mediations exist between society in general and the ideology of the audience and the musicians, mediations that shape the final lyrical content of punk songs.

Punk musicians, like any others, make their music with reference not just to their own individual or class experiences, but also to existing ideas about the meaning and purpose and potential of Rock. Punk is in its turn, seized on by the music business and given commercial meanings and interpretations which filter back to the musicians.[35]

Thus, the role of the culture and media industries becomes a crucial area for analysis.

The Capitalist Culture Industry

They said we’d be artistically free, When we signed that bit of paper. They meant, let’s make a lotta monnee An’ worry about it later.–The Clash “Complete Control”

In analyzing popular culture the role of the capitalist culture and media industries is quite significant, but also quite contradictory. The culture industry can take what our minds conceive and turn ideas into advertising slogans, works of imagination into hit songs. “This is its overwhelming power, yet it is also its most vulnerable spot: it thrives on a stuff which it cannot manufacture by itself. It depends on the very substance it must fear most, and must suppress what it feeds on: the creative productivity of people.”[36]

The means and relations of musical and artistic production under capitalism have taken on a specific character that lends itself to control by, and profit for capitalists. The industries that have developed around records, concerts, films, television, radio and other cultural forms, all have their specific characteristics, but tend to reproduce similar types of relations, specifically in the separation of the cultural worker from the audience, and in the production of commodities to be consumed by isolated individuals. In discussing this process in the music industry, specifically in relation to the transformation of rock music in the 1960s from a “folk music” which was “listened to and made by the same group of people,” into an expansive commercialized commodity industry, Jon Landau of the Rolling Stone explains how rock and roll

came from the life experiences of the artists and their interaction with an audience that was roughly the same age. As that spontaneity and creativity have become more stylized and analyzed and structured, it has become easier for businessmen and behind-the-scenes manipulators to structure their approach to merchandising music. The process of creating stars has become a routine and a formula as dry as an equation.[37]

With the perpetuation of the star-cult phenomenon capital attempts to maintain control over the entire process of cultural production, from the production of records and movies in the studio, in total isolation from an audience, to the separation of the performer from the audience before, during and after a concert, spirited away by the “Goon Squad” (Costello) provided by the manager and record company to create and maintain a particular mystical image of the star.

But at the same time that the cultural industry manipulates its producers and consumers, it is also subject to contradictions from both directions. While the culture industry is vulnerable to the changing mood of the masses, which it works so hard and effectively to control through advertising, it is also vulnerable to changes in the standard of living of the masses. When inflation generates the need to choose between eating and seeing a movie, generally (but not always) the food industry gets the money before the entertainment industry. But even further, to make “new” culture the culture industry depends on people capable of innovation–in other words, potential “troublemakers.”

It is inherent in the process of creation that there is no way to predict its results. Consequently, intellectuals are, from the point of view of any power structure bent on its own perpetuation, a security risk. It takes consummate skill to ’handle’ them and to neutralize their subversive influence. All sorts of techniques, from the crudest to the most sophisticated, have been developed to this end: physical threat, blacklisting, moral and economic pressure on the one hand, overexposure, star-cult, cooptation into the power elite on the other, are the extremes of a whole gamut of manipulation.[38]

But these are short term practical approaches to a problem which in principle cannot be finally resolved. For on the level of production, even more so than in consumption, the cultural industry has to deal with partners who are potential enemies. In their attempts to proliferate an all pervasive popular culture, the industry simultaneously proliferates its own contradictions.

Thus, when we analyze the industry element of popular culture we cannot concentrate exclusively on the supposed, and often quite real conspiracies of manipulation, but must develop an understanding of areas where the industry is vulnerable to the progressive struggle to alter the status quo.

It is thus important to see that the punk ideology of the garage band was more than just an attack on the star system. It became a mechanism whereby the bands recorded themselves, without expensive equipment, and even distributed the recordings outside the established outlets. The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” moved to the top of the record charts in England even though the major record retail chains refused to handle it.

One important aspect of this development is that new independent recording companies grew up in competition with the huge multinationals. By now, though, most of the independents have either folded, been absorbed by the large conglomerates, or become conglomerates themselves. The main exception is Rough Trade records. Rough Trade is a cooperatively run independent that maintains an open policy toward musicians and recording, and released the debut albums of the all women band, the Raincoats, and Stiff Little Fingers. Rough Trade also has a progressive operating policy, where all staff receive the same wages, and successful struggles have been waged against sexist record covers.[39]

Interestingly enough, the earliest innovators in rock and roll had problems with major recording companies similar to those of the punks. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and the Drifters all started on small independent labels. Of course the multinationals got into the act once the new music had proven itself marketable and profitable.

The special relations of cultural production under capitalism generate the production of specific cultural products in particular ways. But the relationship between the cultural worker and specific capitalists cannot totally dominate our analysis. The cultural object created takes on its own significance, outside of the intent of its creator, the manipulation of capital or the response of a given audience at a given time, potentially taking on a lasting historical significance.

The Cultural Product

The cultural object or product itself can take many forms, both materially as a concrete object, or transitorily as an experience, including songs, paintings, films, books, posters, cartoons and dramatic or musical performances. Such a product “must be appreciated as a unique and specific embodiment of a determinant ideology or ideological element, reflecting their contradictions and ambiguities. But a cultural product is not simply a reflection of the ideology it embodies. It serves to develop that ideology, to constitute it in a new way, and reflects back upon and shapes the ideology in terms of both form and content.”[40] A good example of this is the effect that the songs of Bob Dylan had on the attitudes of masses of young people and other musicians in the early 1960s, helping infuse a “new” socio-political content into the form of rock and roll music, and actually helping to transform the musical vehicle for social protest.

And while it is true that the cultural form of a song, novel or painting cannot be totally isolated from the content of the ideas and feelings embodied in that form; the two are not mechanically linked in a monolithic unity. For the purposes of analysis it is crucial to be able to discuss the two distinct elements in their relations of relative autonomy to each other. Form, no less than content, is a product of historical development linked to ideology and ultimately to the mode of production. Today the popular song is a form of expression for such widely diverse content as protesting nuclear power and promoting reactionary foreign policy toward oil exporting countries.

Thus, our previous discussions of the musical form of punk rock are not detours into “bourgeois formalism.” By recognizing the specific form of a song like Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was” as specifically an expression of Jamaican reggae (with all that this means for its form–base line, rhythm, vocal style, lyrical content, etc.) we can begin to understand how and why such a song can be taken up and transformed by Stiff Little Fingers into an object expressing similar emotions of sorrow in a quite different national and political context (Northern Ireland). An abrasive and cacophonous guitar lead to what was originally a lilting reggae song seems incongruous unless we recognize that the urban pace and regular machine gun and rifle fire of civil war torn Belfast, create a reality that can only be expressed for those adhering to “social realism” as harsh and disconcerting musical sounds.

The electric guitar, and amplified instruments generally, have been explained as a conscious response to the intensity of urban life and modern technology. For example, the Chicago Blues style developed by Muddy Waters, Little Walter and many others, took the old Mississippi Delta Blues and transformed it. Delta Blues are not “real” blues in opposition to Chicago Blues; neither is more valid or “better” than the other. Chicago Blues simply reflects the changing values and life experiences of a new generation of musicians entertaining people who work in factories rather than cotton fields.

A serious concern in the analysis of the popular song is, again, the role of the capitalists and the less creative artists trying to cash in on the innovations of others. There is a strong tendency within rock and roll toward the cooptation of every innovation in attempts to transform or incorporate them into “pop” music, the watered down “easy listening” sound, at times hardly more invigorating than Muzak. This happened to Rockabilly in the ’50s, to “progressive” rock in the ’60s and has happened with the same regularity to punk, with Linda Ronstadt’s new album (Ronstadt has always been a leader in covering rock and roll classics), the Cretones, the Knack, and even Alvin and Chipmunk Punk.

Quite unlike their counterparts in the ’50s and ’60’s, the punks recognized this tendency as a possibility from the very beginning. Tom Robinson, on “Too Good to be True,” sang “I hope in hell I’m able to tell/whatever’s happened to me,” and the Clash speak volumes on this process of cooptation in many of their songs. This recognition by the punks is demonstrated more than in just the lyrics to some songs, but in the music itself. This is especially clear on the Clash’s new album, London Calling, where the band has maintained and deepened their cultural integrity by going back to the roots of rock. The Clash have done this by incorporating into their own developing sound, musical ideas from the different forms of youth music (rhythm and blues, ska, rockabilly, reggae) from before they were coopted into “pop.”

Because mention of the Clash usually finds people anticipating “angry lyrics and the most blistering musical pace in memory,”[41] their new album is quite significant. “Their militancy assimilated into style, their anger into care and caution, the Clash have sought redemption in diversification . . . ,”[42] But this is not to say that the energy and political stand of the Clash are lost on London Calling. It is to say that these elements have been combined into a powerful cultural-political statement that should be carefully considered by the US left.

As a realistic picture of the attitudes of a large segment of British working class youth, parts of this album are an important historical document. “Lost in the Supermarket” provides a description of the loneliness and dissatisfaction that accompany modern consumerism that is equally applicable to the US. The Clash’s militancy is here exchanged for an autobiographical sketch that one reviewer has likened to a lullaby. Other reflections on the current state of affairs, however, are not so calmly articulated. The title track paints an apocalyptic picture of impending famine, war and nuclear meltdown.

A much less weighty, though important topic is addressed in “Lover’s Rock,” which considers birth control pills and sexual responsibility. Though somewhat lost in the lyrical presentation (which Joe Strummer has said is based on “The Tao of Love and Sex”), a clear implication is that unwanted pregnancies are not simply the responsibility of the woman, but concern the men, “so free with your seed,” who should take some responsibility in love relationships.

Songs such as the remake of “Stagger-Lee” (“Wrong ’Em Boyo”) with its refrain to avoid cheating the “trying man,”[43] “The Card Cheat” where “There’s a solitary man cryin’ ’hold me’/It’s only because he’s lonely,” and “I’m not Down” all reflect feelings and values not uncommon to a vast audience of young working people. And it is the innovative musical presentation of such popular and perceptive reflections that draws big corporations to distribute music that is generally quite openly anti-corporate in content.

This is not to say that the contradictions of the Clash can be ignored, but it is to say that their weaknesses must be situated in a much more broadly defined understanding of their importance as progressive musicians actively shaping our cultural lives, entertaining a very broad popular audience, and in some ways helping to break down the existing ideological hegemony of the ruling class in rock and roll.

Thus we must go beyond the recognition that much of punk rock was mediocre, and some indeed incompetent, including the definite tendencies toward monotony due to the lack of “rhythmic subtlety and memorable melodies” (Dancis) in many bands’ music. Any musical expression based on young inexperienced artists trying to create something new rather than just copy others must face these problems. This is not to excuse monotony, but to put it in perspective. The key to assessing the punk product is not where it starts, but how that start has led to a process where monotonous music gave way to interesting music and eventually to “good” rock and roll.

Preserving the heritage of blues, folk and rock and roll music, as well as innovating and creating new songs and sounds, are important cultural tasks. But the crucial element in it for us as communists is the element of a “heightened consciousness.” Eric Clapton has utilized the musical achievements of black musicians, and in fact built his successful career on covers of old Blues classics like “Crossroads,” “Spoonful” and “I’m So Glad”; but he has still developed a reactionary position on Black immigrants in Britain (see the section on Rock Against Racism; to Clapton’s credit he was one of the few 1960s rock and roll musicians who- covered blues classics and actually credited the original musicians like Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon and Skip James. Other musicians like Boz Scaggs simply “stole” songs on legal technicalities, building successful careers while leaving the original bluesmen in obscurity and most often in poverty.)

The style and form of punk rock songs can be analyzed as part of an historical process of the development of popular music. Specific formal elements of which, like short songs with repeated choruses, vocal/instrumental call-and-response, chording and playing techniques, as well as certain themes, can be traced back to Black southern blues and traditional folk music. In guarding against the tendencies of traditional cultural criticism to regard formal aspects of music separate from knowledge of the musician, the corporations and the audience, and isolated from historical and class developments, we must not overreact and negate the cultural significance of formal concerns.

Because rock and roll does have a history that shapes the music and audiences today, most often in unconscious ways, the attitudes and response of the audience is an important factor in any analysis of popular culture.

The Punk Audience

The distinctions between US and British punk rock are based solidly on differences in the audience. In the US the counter-cultural character of punk is evident in the primary emphasis on style of dress and posturing. “Middle class” youth can copy the style of the British punks and are afforded the economic and ideological space to make it a whole lifestyle, similar to the way the hippies dropped out, turned on and tuned in. It is primarily those who do not have to work for a living who can afford the outrageous blue, green and orange punk hair styles and gold safety pins. The working class generally cannot choose to go to work with orange hair. In England punk is much more complex, especially given the history of other sub-cultures such as the Mods, Rockers and Skinheads. British punks find in their sub-cultural expressions of music and attitudes, as well as styles, more of an organic indication of their experiences as under- or unemployed youth. In the US, punk has few organic working class roots, and it thus functions as a broad counter-cultural milieu that does not indict the system for lack of jobs, but tends toward nihilism and mindlessness.

The broad sub-cultural expression in Britain of thousands of white “lower class,” primarily male youth, includes not only music but also expressions in their clothing, language and outlook toward society. Many punks put on a calculated “dumb” look, reflecting the common attitude that no acceptable foreseeable future exists for them. The punks have tended to celebrate ”in mock-heroic terms the death of the community and the collapse of traditional forms of meaning.”[44] A key issue here is addressed by Poly Styrene in “Identity,” where she asks:

Did you do it for fame? Did you do it in a fit? Did you do it before You read about it?[45]

Again, in the US, punks tend to adopt styles and poses when they are fashionable, and not out of a conscious reaction to perceptions that there exists “no future.”

In acting out parodies of alienation and emptiness, punks have worn torn clothing, safety pins and rubber and plastic attire, some going to the extreme of bondage gear or acting like robots. This is even reflected in a rejection of smooth and flowing popular dances, since the punks prefer to pogo up and down, the robot and the pose (held at times for several minutes, as if to be photographed). Poly Styrene again: “I’m a poseur and I don’t care. I like to make people stare.” Rejecting so much of the society that rejects them, many punks celebrate and cultivate the image of “degenerates.”

Because the punk subcultural construction of shocking images is the site of a generally unconscious class struggle– displaced from the areas of work and politics into the area of leisure–any “victories” are temporary and symbolic. Thus the concentration on bizarre sexuality by some punks in songs, clothing, language and even names (Sex Pistols, the Slits), works to expose the “mutual dependence of the concepts of normality and abnormality in sexual matters,” expressing “hostility toward the obsession with the subject matter shared by puritans and pornographers.”[46]

But mocking sexual taboos cannot lead to their elimination unless there is a “heightened consciousness.” Without a progressive orientation, such taboos can be reinforced, and the audience, musicians and society as a whole will not be transformed in the process. This raises the issue of satire and the need to analyze both the motivation of the artist, satirical or otherwise, as well as the perception of the audience, who may perceive satire where it does not exist, or may take up satirical social comment as a real expression of intent or advocacy.

The appeal of punk in the US counter-culture is the angry nihilism of so many bands, indicating extremely limited possibilities for progressive politics; whereas in Britain the significance of the nihilists is over-shadowed by the influence of the progressive punks that function within a cohesive social and political community.

To the degree that the progressive punks have had an impact in the US, and the Clash and the Gang of Four have developed followings, the audience is being made conscious of society’s contradictions. In other words, through their “critical realism” the progressive punks have made US audiences more politically aware. Further, just as politics has been brought to punk audiences, progressive punks have gone to political audiences. This is most clearly seen in Britain in Rock Against Racism, but is also evident in the punks that played for the Stearns County Miners benefit some years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in the punks who play for anti-nuclear rallies. The most important interaction between punk bands, political militants and a mass audience is Rock Against Racism.

Rock Against Racism

The cultural-political fusion found in Rock Against Racism (RAR) has important implications for the US left. Though it is a contradictory phenomenon, and its politics seem to be dominated by the British Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), it is a broad cultural front including many political attitudes and mobilizing thousands of people.

In an attempt to counter and check the rise of the ideology and policies of the National Front, a British neo-Nazi revival with an emphasis on the deportation of immigrants, the SWP initiated steps to fuse their political theory with punk rock, which they view as progressive, working class music. Rock Against Racism was initially organized in response to racist comments by Eric Clapton, who said of the leading anti-immigrationist, “Enoch Powell is the man for me; there are too many foreigners in our country.” Similar comments emanated from Rod Stewart. Thus the punk rejection of stars coincided with the open racism of some of the established musicians whom the punks were in the process of rejecting for other reasons.

In conjunction with the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism has sponsored several successful “Carnivals” where as many as 30,000 to 100,000 people have rallied against racism and fascism. The organizers of the Carnivals have included members of the British Communist Party, the Labour Party and independent trade unionists, as well as the SWP. A wide range of white musicians have played for RAR carnivals and benefits, including Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Graham Parker, the Tom Robinson Band, Sham 69, the Clash, and Pete Townsend of the Who, among others. Further, though RAR audiences are primarily young white men, some Blacks do attend because reggae bands like Steel Pulse are actively involved. Steel Pulse even wrote a song entitled “Rock Against Racism,” as well as the powerfully defiant ”Ku Klux Klan.”[47]

Rock Against Racism has a broad basis of unity, which emphasizes the fact that the “Nazis are No Fun,” and would take away the music and entertainment the audiences enjoy. Thus, the emphasis of the musicians is more in support of human rights and in stopping the fascists than in recognizing the nature of capitalism and posing any socialist alternative. Many in the audience attend to listen to good music, rather than out of any political commitment; but in the process such listeners are exposed to a great deal of progressive politics.

An important aspect of RAR’s involvement is their attempts to struggle with the bands and the audiences, especially in the pages of RAR’s newspaper, Temporary Hoarding. In interviews the musicians are often drawn out on political questions, with the interviewer struggling with them on questions of sexism and lack of commitment to more than a vague support of “freedom of speech.”

The struggle with audience prejudice is exemplified by Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, a band that developed out of the Skinhead subculture, a tradition to which many followers of the National Front were attracted. When Sham 69 found that followers of the National Front were attracted to some of its concerts, Pursey openly struggled with the audiences over their racist chants between songs, and threatened to halt the music and leave if the chants were not stopped.

In an early issue of Temporary Hoarding, a frequent RAR musician discussed an important issue that concerns more than just punk rockers, and in fact has affected most musicians. “The worst thing for musicians is the isolation from what’s going on around you. That’s one of the functions of management, they make sure you don’t speak to other artists or people. It’s in their interests to do so. It’s killed a lot of artists but it’s not inevitable . . . not if there’s something like RAR.”[48]

The success in the United Kingdom of RAR has meant that interest around the world has developed into the formation of RAR groups in eight other nations: Belgium, Canada, France, Holland, Norway, Sweden, the USA and West Germany. Though the international links are reported to be very sporadic, limited RAR activity also is reported in Japan, Greece, Yugoslavia, Poland and South Africa. US RAR concerts in 1979 included New York, Chicago and California; and there are two US RAR papers, the Yippies’ Overthrow in New York and Mary Malice’s San Francisco t’Ital Wave Times.[49]

But RAR’s US presence is not widely felt nationally. Further, the main problem in the US is that RAR appears to be totally isolated from the left, and is the product of the vestiges of the counter-cultural movement such as the Yippies, rather than as in Britain where RAR is organic to a mass revolutionary cultural movement.

Inspite of British RAR’s progressive approach and wide success, it too is not without contradictions. Some groups appear to have performed at RAR concerts primarily for the sake of exposure. And the blatant sexism of the Fabulous Poodles, even in the face of repeated calls from the audience to cease, drew angry protest letters to Temporary Hoarding. In fact, the prevalence of sexism in punk and new wave has led to the formation of Rock Against Sexism, which has begun to receive strong support from some all male bands such as the Gang of Four.

A disappointing aspect of RAR that has nothing to do with the organization itself, is the demise of some excellent bands that originally supported it, notably the Tom Robinson Band and X-Ray Spex. Tom Robinson, a militant gay activist whose band showed equal abilities with high energy rock and roll and pub-style ballads released their debut album in the US entitled Power in the Darkness (Capitol) which painted a picture of a society caught in the grip of civil war and reactionary attacks on progressives. But this first album also contained a number of songs of hope and the celebration of collective power, such as “Right On Sister” and “Glad to be Gay.” The second TRB album, also released in the US on Capitol records, was equally as innovative musically, and included songs about police brutality (“Blue Murder”) and law and order. Robinson was a forceful supporter of RAR and the break-up of his band was a real loss in the field of progressive rock and roll.

X-Ray Spex’s only album, Germfree Adolescence (EMI), was much more of a fusion of the personal with the political than most of punk. Poly Styrene’s lyrics penetrate the mystique of the consumer ethic and attack eugenics and fascism, as well as articulate the youthful search for identity in a changing world. The high energy of X-Ray Spex, combined with Poly Styrene’s challenging lyrics made an exciting contribution to popular music which deserves wider attention.

Though this overview of Rock Against Racism is far from exhaustive, and exhibits large gaps in information, it does give a sense of the type of political-cultural fusion that is taking place in Britain at this time. Such an understanding can be further enhanced by developing different insights into the specifics of individual bands, as we have attempted to do briefly with the Clash, and which we discuss in the following section on the Gang of Four.

The Gang of Four

The Gang of Four are one of several British bands, including the Mekons, Red Crayola and Scritti Politi, most often characterized as “art rock,” who have attempted to introduce the theories of art into rock and roll music. Working within the framework of a Marxist aesthetic influenced by structuralism, such groups attack “reactionary structures” in rock and roll, and have even explored a search for a methodology of rock criticism. The Gang of Four feel that straight entertainment is invalid and have even questioned whether rock and roll music is so structured as to be reactionary per se. But such questioning has not led Jon King, Andy Gill, David Allen and Hugo Burnham to reject rock and roll altogether, as their own contributions have shown: “It’s not a group’s function just to be entertaining. A group should entertain and try to change things. You can’t change the actual status quo, the power structures, but you can change the way people think.”[50] This does not mean simply shouting revolutionary slogans, because the band does not think that such activity changes the way people think. Rather they attempt to challenge people through music that disrupts conventional attitudes and ways of seeing.

On stage the Gang of Four reportedly work to present an image in contrast to the glamour so often exhibited by rock stars, and the band works to develop an egalitarian approach to making music. “We reject the classic notion that an artist is a gifted individual, different than–and separated from–society.”[51]

Though their roots are in rhythm and blues, the utilization of Hendrix-like feedback, military rhythms with opposing beats in bass and drums, as well as disco and jazz-rock rhythms, dissonance and at times abrasive guitars all combine in a musical style that can best be described as minimalist, where “less is more” and a minimum of notes and beats are utilized. “The Gang of Four’s music works through a subtle kind of dislocation. Two rhythms will conflict, or there will be a deliberately off-key guitar break in the middle of a song, or one or more instruments will stop playing for a few seconds, something like an ’anti-solo’.”[52]

Lyrically the songs of the Gang of Four are generally complex and focus on reference points outside the traditional sphere of music, such as the torture of Irish political prisoners in the H-block and the Bikini Island H-bomb tests. But their socialist politics are not put forward, as such, in their songs; rather the lyrics are utilized to structure the approach and content in such a way as to challenge people to think and act on elements of capitalist society that are so often taken for granted.

In “Not Great Men” the message is explicitly that “great men” are not the motor force of history. Equally explicit is the relationship between these “great men” and the masses– “The poor still weak / the rich still rule.” But left unanswered is the question that if “great men” do not make history, then who does? It is the function of this song to pose a question that cannot be answered within the realm of popular ideology; it serves to challenge the audience to seek the answer elsewhere. Entertainment is not an effective medium for providing answers to pressing economic and political questions, especially when the viewer or listener is trying to relax after and before work; but it is an effective arena for raising questions that can only be answered by searching out an answer elsewhere.

Many of the songs on the Gang of Four’s newly released album, Entertainment! (Warner Bros.) demystify love and relationships in general, as well as the role of television and the evening news, and the military. Perhaps one of the most powerful challenges to the accepted role of popular music is “Love Like Anthrax.” With Kafkaesque references to waking up in desperation and feeling “Like a beetle on its back,” the song combines a somewhat heavy handed revulsion toward love and how individuals at times abuse their health, with a simultaneously spoken lyrical line that occasionally overlaps the first and more dominant lyrics. This technique, developed and utilized by Brecht in some of his plays, and the lyrics themselves, provide an interesting commentary on the prevalence of “love” as a common theme in popular music.

A song that is not on Entertainment! but which has received attention in the musical press because of its feminist content is “It’s Her factory.” A take-off from a daily newspaper headline that read “Unsung Heroines of Britain,” the song builds on that line as follows: “Unsung Heroines of Britain / convenient fiction / Housewife heroines, addicts to the homes / It’s a factory, it’s a duty.”[53] Commenting on the song in an interview with the New York Rocker, Hugo Burnham said: “It talks about the situation where the woman is at home and has certain functions and does things, and it’s all accepted as the natural state of affairs. Our idea is to say ’Is this natural? Are there other options?’ We want to create debate.”[54]

Perhaps as important as the lyrical content of their songs is the Four’s conceptual approach to music and entertainment, and the effect it has had on others. They view their music as a process that challenges the audience to question and think, and have influenced other musicians that tour with them to do the same. Groups such as Scritti Politi have dedicated their collective efforts to a “rigorous dissection of the whole process of valid music production,” where “music is seen as one of a range of activities, rather than being an unquestioned absolute” for the band.[55] Some of the more experimental bands use film projection or seemingly random sound patterns to distance the audience from the music, a concept that some would call Brechtian since the distancing effects create a space in which the presentation can become a critical comment on itself.

But what is most important in the music of the Gang of Four, and those groups who share their approach, is that for the first time since Brecht’s plays received wide attention in the 1920s, we are seeing a conscious intervention by socialists to fuse advanced Marxist theory with widely popular culture.

Discussion of the major progressive punk and new wave bands is important at this time for several reasons. Many of the progressive bands have recently released albums in the US, and have received considerable attention in the music press, with the Clash receiving a rave review of London Calling, and the Gang of Four’s Entertainment! an only slightly less enthusiastic review, both in the Rolling Stone (which has generally avoided much coverage of the punk scene, and tended to ignore most of the political developments in British rock and roll, with the notable exception of the writing of Greil Marcus). As we have pointed out, the progressive new wave bands actively inject political themes into their work in subtle and complex ways. Finally, these bands are developing a vital and dynamic approach to the music they play, and are influential both in Britain and the US.

And it is such influence that indicates how important communist intervention in the cultural class struggle is. Each of these bands has helped break down the hegemony of certain ideas that have surrounded and penetrated popular music for years; ideas that not only held back progressive political expressions, but also held back much meaningful creativity in the realm of popular music. It is for this reason that the response of the US left must be carefully analyzed. The left can potentially intervene in the cultural class struggle to help change the world for the benefit of the working classes only if it develops an understanding of the role and potential of scientific cultural criticism.

The Old Marxism and the New Music

There have been three general responses within the organized US left to the development of punk rock: (1) rejection or apathy, (2) uncritical acceptance, and (3) tentative steps toward an understanding of a new cultural phenomenon.

The first type of response generally fails to recognize the broad cultural-political impact of punk rock and its importance for the left and its practice with the masses. This response fails to see the possibilities for advances in popular culture in the dissolution of capitalist hegemony and in building working class hegemony. Much of the left tends to view popular culture as a monolithic block of capitalist conspiracy and manipulation, ignoring the complexities and possibilities we have discussed above. The fact that punk rock validated political themes in popular music once again, opened the field for the left. First, Rock Against Racism was able to sponsor Carnivals with the Anti-Nazi League drawing thousands of people and many popular bands to rally against racism and fascism. Now, openly socialist bands like the Gang of Four are taken seriously by mainstream rock critics and record companies, and thereby are able to reach a broad audience with progressive entertainment.

The failure to recognize the political significance of punk rock can. take many forms. Of course one response can be to try to quietly ignore punk and hope that it goes away. Unfortunately, this is the response of many who do not have the theoretical-political tools or the confidence with which to develop their own analyses. It is for this reason that the mechanical analyses of certain widely read US Marxists take on such negative significance. In the absence of a viable dialectical critique, many people are easily influenced by the simplistic analyses that some so glibly present.

A prominent analysis, common on the left, is the instrumentalist approach which reduces popular culture to its function of providing cultural commodities for entertainment. This approach relies almost exclusively on the idea that popular culture is simply an instrument in the hands of the capitalists who manipulate the performers and the audience at will.

In 1977, Tim Patterson, formerly of the Guardian and now with Rectification, took little time to investigate the developments in new wave music before he quickly dismissed punk rock as “a social disease,” a “part of the manipulation business” and possibly “the crudest cultural hoax in decades.”[56] For Patterson popular culture in the form of punk rock becomes something to be disdained for its lack of solutions, and for the very fact that it does reflect the frustration and anger of youth. This is no surprise, for Patterson adheres to Irwin Silber’s mechanical materialist approach to popular culture, which reduces all cultural criticism to demarcating “our culture” from “their culture.”[57] For mechanistic materialism this reflection of the reality of youthful anger and frustration is simply a mirror of the “decadence and decay” of advanced capitalism.

Though the notion of decadence receives wide-spread use, especially on the left, it cannot be relied upon as a scientific concept in Marxist cultural criticism. The idea of decadence tends to be used as an easy condemnation of regressive elements (or often of misunderstood elements), and effectively blocks the production of scientific Marxist concepts for concrete analysis. This is primarily because of the long tradition within most religions and moral codes that has branded as decadent anything perceived to indicate the perversity and corruption associated with the decay and disintegration of “moral” society. Traditionally, vulgar Marxists have tended to utilize the term to denounce any cultural work that did not hold forth the easy platitudes that all will be well following a socialist revolution.

In our analyses we must clearly distinguish between consciously backward cultural expressions that revel in their backward ideas, and cultural expressions that portray contradictions and negative aspects of reality as honest social criticisms. For it is the latter that attempts to provide a critical portrayal of concrete reality that can enable audiences to understand social relations and develop a critical sensitivity of what can and should be changed. Realism as a cultural expression doesn’t necessarily have to be “socialist”; it can also be “critical.”[58] The distinction here is in the fact that critical realism offers a critique of the existing relations of society, often by mirroring specific aspects ironically, or as satire and parody; while socialist realism attempts to add to such a critique directions toward progressive solutions to that which is being critiqued. Quite often critical realism is denounced as decadent because it offers no solutions. It is our unfortunate legacy that vulgar Marxists unilaterally condemned such literary works as those by Kafka, Joyce, O’Neill and Sartre, to name only a few, which have now been recognized as important works of critical realism.

Applying what we discussed concerning cultural practice, critical realism can serve to help break down the ideological hegemony of the dominant culture, which can provide “gaps” potentially filled by the ideological struggle of the masses themselves, facilitated by perceptive revolutionaries. Thus, a transformation is possible in the consciousness of individuals or on a broader societal level when a strong communist party is involved. We must recognize the very real revolutionary potential of music and art that expresses dissatisfaction with existing reality, knowing that it is our task as communists to provide the strategy for a viable socialist alternative.

Inherent in the stance that rejects “critical realism” is an elitism that fails to grasp the needs and values of working and unemployed people. Patterson went so far as to flatly declare that “simply as music, punk rock is downright boring.” His personal value judgment is put forward as an objective truth, and he effectively denies the social nature of our perceptions of the world. The smugness that insulates such leftists, that reassures them that their blue-grass and folk songs, with gatherings of a few hundred people, are where the masses should really be, is an aspect of the fact that the left has found itself isolated from the masses and has had to sustain itself. But this ghettoization of left culture does not justify dogmatic and mechanical cultural criticism. It is a reality that we must try to overcome.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying traditional folk music and bluegrass, or even in preferring them to rock and roll. The error lies not in one’s personal preference, but rather in one’s attitude toward, and analysis of the masses and their various cultural expressions as they exist, and not as we would like them to be. For it is the masses who make history and not a handful of dedicated revolutionaries.

For instrumentalists the capitalists are in “Complete Control,” and it is only for the masses to absorb the cultural commodities foisted off on them. The struggle of popular artists to maintain a degree of control over the process of production is seen as a smokescreen to the real intent of the capitalists, merely a diversion from the conspiracy behind all media presentations. In this scenario there is no role for the masses in creating and shaping the cultural product; they must simply consume. Further, in this scenario there appears to be no place for the class struggle in popular culture; it is simply decadence that must be transcended.

Similar to Patterson’s approach to punk rock is the instrumentalism of the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC), which takes the form of a crude “workerism.” Jim Griffin wrote in the May, 1978, Organizer that “in spite of its elements of identification with the experience of many working class youth, Punk advocates absolutely no confidence in the working class to change society.”[59] In this approach instrumentalism is carried to the point where the only valid expression of culture is simply as a tool for working class revolution and nothing more. Such an approach fails to grasp the fact that in advanced capitalist countries revolution is not simply the working class confronting the capitalists and the state, but is rather a series of alliances encompassing a vast array of class and social forces. In this way the PWOC and other “workerists” tend to liquidate the very question of alliances and how culture and ideology can influence potential allies of the working class.

Without the concepts of hegemony and “war of position,” such revolutionaries are hamstrung when it comes to understanding the struggle to build the political and ideological hegemony of the working class capable of sustaining a socialist revolution. Since the revolutionary process is much broader than the working class, anything that tends to radicalize other sections of society is potentially revolutionary. The fact that things don’t have to be specifically socialist to contribute to this process signifies the importance of critical realism.

Because of their conception of revolution, the PWOC tends to be blinded to the very real progressive aspects that exist in specific cultural expressions of critical realism. Griffin goes so far as to quote out of context in order to distort an important point made by Joe Strummer of the Clash reflecting on various previous claims of rock and roll’s revolutionary potential. Strummer said that “Punk isn’t gonna change anything.” That’s it for Griffin, who uses the quote to indict the Clash for nihilism. No matter that Strummer goes on to say: “Rock doesn’t change anything. But after saying that–and I’m just saying that because I want you to know that I haven’t any illusions, right?–I still want to try to change things.”[60]

Taking quotations out of context hardly advances Marxist cultural criticism. But it does help Griffin come to the conclusion that taking away the safety-valve release for “anger and frustration through drugs, sex and purely ritual attacks on ’the system’,” would surely find working class youth organizing to wage political struggle “against the system that denies them a future.” Again, the masses are simply being duped by the capitalists into accepting their oppression by trying to enjoy themselves. In this scenario, all that communists have to do is expose the conspiracy at work here, that is, get the masses to abstain from drugs, sex and rock and roll, and they will rally to make revolution. The contradictory character of the punk message of rebellion and its concrete effect on the audience is lost on these leftists who search for a simple explanation for a complex issue.

Interestingly enough, the response of both Patterson and Griffin has marked similarities to the response of the revisionists of the Soviet Union. Consider the following quote from the Young Communist League of the USSR: “The music and lyrics of punk rock provoke among the young fits of aimless rage, vandalism and the urge to destroy everything they get in their hands. No matter how carefully they try to clean it up, it will remain the most reactionary offspring of the bourgeois mass culture.”[61] Such a quote would have been right at home in the articles of Patterson and Griffin, who similarly fail to address the fact that the rage and violent urges are provoked elsewhere and find expression and release in the music and dancing. All such Marxists fail to see that potential exists to channel such expressions in a progressive direction.

The Ultra-Left and Punk Rock

London Calling to the faraway towns Now that war is declared–and battle come down. The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in. Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin. A nuclear error, but I have no fear. –the Clash

If left is right Then right is wrong. You’d better decide which side you’re on. –Tom Robinson

A common response of the ultra-left toward punk rock has been an uncritical glorification of punks’ rebellion, anger, energy and aggression. Here the failure is to place punk rock, as well as the current status of revolutionaries, in the proper perspective given the present relative calm of broad sections of the working masses. Again, this approach is based on a faulty conception of revolution. In this sphere the youthful rebellion of the punks dovetails nicely with the voluntaristic notions of a working class on the verge of revolutionary upsurge. Ideas of apocalypse now and taking up the gun, ideas found in much of punk, parallel Avakian’s megalomaniacal plans to stimulate revolution in the next few years through the Revolutionary Communist Party’s (RCP) miniscule exemplary/provocative, “vanguard” acts calculated to shock and jolt the masses into revolutionary action.

Mat Callaghan of Prairie Fire, a hard rock band close to the RCP, makes their approach quite clear. “The people are like a powder keg and we’re the spark.”[62] Explaining why Prairie Fire switched from a folk group to a rock group, Callaghan comments:

Well, the first time we heard live punk songs we heard lyrics like: ’I want to kill the president’, spilling enormous hatred on the whole American system. Another song went: ’I hate the rich, I don’t want to go die in Cambodia, I want to fight class war’. . . . American youth . . . who account for more than half of the population, were listening and living to this kind of music, resisting in a way, through these cultural forms…. We use [hard rock] to capture the basic feelings–what Lenin called ’the joy of the festival of the oppressed’.[63]

The reference here is to the Dils, a highly provocative and anarchist West Coast punk band, and the assumption seems to be that since some youth are listening to the punks, then all American youth, “more than half the population,” are open to fighting class war. Again the subjective desires of leftists are substituted for the concrete reality of the vast majority of American youth, who are not openly accepting punk, and especially not the political punk of the Dils and Prairie Fire.[64]

This myopia, as well as a failure to situate punk as a broad and contradictory phenomenon, is also seen in the pages of a September, 1979 issue of the Revolutionary Worker (RCP), where a full two page spread is devoted to reviews of Clash concerts in Detroit and Chicago and a thoughtful interview with Joe Strummer in Detroit. The rave reviews fail to reflect the contradictory nature of punk and the Clash, and string together accolades to the more militant and aggressive lyrical presentations. Says R. Gare, an autoworker in his review of the Detroit concert,

The power, the anger, the dreams for liberation of millions of English youth–and of millions in this country–exploding with fury and conviction on the stage. That’s what makes the Clash so great and so special.

. . . What I saw in the band . . . was a concentration of all the pain and outrage this system has lodged in my gut. Seeing this group transformed these feelings into pride and determination .... I know the armed insurrection will be a lot better, but for now seeing the Clash is pretty damned good.[65]

Needless to say, when one is preparing for revolutionary action in the near future, the apocalyptic stance of “London’s Burning,” “English Civil War,” or the “Guns of Brixton” becomes a graphic affirmation of dogmatic notions of the inevitable collapse of capitalism in the next few years.

Here it is important to address the apocalyptic visions produced by some radicalized musicians, especially in the past few years in Britain. Cultural workers generally do not maintain a direct relationship to the concrete reality existing for most working people. Though they may attempt to function as critical realists, the mediated vision of artists and musicians is generated within the milieu of their complex relations to cultural expression, as well as society as a whole. Thus, since most radicalized musicians are not directly linked to political reality, they can produce emotionally powerful statements that are conjuncturally inaccurate or exaggerated. Tom Robinson and the Clash were/are musicians struggling to be political without concrete links to politics and the masses. This lays the basis for such musicians to generate inaccurate assessments of reality which can be seized upon and glorified by the ultra-left as graphic portrayals of the revolutionary zeal of the masses.

The Broader Socialist Left

But though the majority of the US left can generally be categorized in the two previous categories of apathy or thoughtless rejection and uncritical acceptance, tentative steps have been taken by some socialists in the USA to promote an understanding of punk as a cultural phenomenon with positive and negative elements. The Guardian has taken steps forward since the time that Patterson’s articles on punk were its only expressed opinions. The thoughtful review of the Clash’s new album by Brian Hennessey in the March 26 issue shows a careful concern of what is developing. Unfortunately though, the bulk of the historical and theoretical work on punk rock is outside the Leninist party-building left. Bruce Dancis has written several important reviews for In These Times; and his “Safety Pins and Class Struggle: Punk Rock and the Left” in Socialist Review over two years ago, laid an important basis for going beyond the hack denunciations of Patterson and PWOC. The Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) has also published an article by Elaine Zeskind entitled “Punk Rock: Music in Search of a Movement.”[66]

Both Dancis’ Socialist Review article and Zeskind’s contribution for STO attempt to provide a theoretical framework for analyzing punk rock. However, neither develops a well defined political approach that can lead to conscious communist intervention with audiences and musicians, as has been attempted in Britain by the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party with varying degrees of success. It is the very fact that in the USA no anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist group has even attempted a scientific dialectical analysis of ideology and popular culture that once again underlines the need to develop the conceptual and methodological tools to analyze existing society in order to change it.

Our Tasks in Popular Culture

Just as the communist movement cannot fail to develop strategy and tactics for its political practice and its intervention in economic struggles, it cannot neglect its tasks in the field of ideology and popular culture. Of course such tasks can only be commensurate with our own strength in any particular period. Nonetheless, we can begin to project some long term goals in the field of music:
(1) The unionization of all productive workers within the music industry, including performers and song-writers.
(2) The development of close links between music workers and revolutionary organizations.
(3) An increasing access to and control over the means of ideological production by the working class and its allies.
(4) The increasing utilization of available technology and technique by revolutionary organizations, with the aim in particular, of making record production and distribution available to revolutionary artists.
(5) The encouragement of lyrical and musical expression in order to free music from the narrow limits of bourgeois notions of what is acceptable and popular.
(6) The establishment and encouragement of performance contexts and artist-audience relationships which challenge the commodity form of entertainment and the distinction between producer and consumer.[67]

Obviously, in the present period, such goals are generally either not on the agenda, or can only be taken up in an extremely limited way. Nevertheless we can begin to lay the groundwork for them in a number of ways. First, communists have to begin to take an active, critical interest in popular culture, its possibilities and limitations. At the same time, where popular culture has taken a political-organizational form, as with Rock Against Racism and Musicians United for Safe Energy (No Nukes!), we should seek appropriate forms of participating in it. Finally, in our ideological practice, we must learn how to utilize and build on the progressive aspects of popular culture, while combating those elements which function to reinforce ruling class hegemony. This means, to the extent possible, that we seek to maximize the effectiveness of elements which have the potential of disrupting that hegemony, which present people with a different, more advanced, manner of seeing the world and themselves. The exact hows and wheres of this process should be taken up as a serious question for discussion and resolution.


In conclusion we can summarize how certain elements of punk rock serve a broad revolutionary function. In relation to the dominant ideology that attempts to deny the existence of class struggle or any alternative view to its own, the ideology of punk rock consciously expresses a critical realism of existing social relations. As such, punk rock has forced popular music to acknowledge that all is not peace, beauty and love (or love lost) for the popular masses. Though much of the critical realism expresses cynicism and nihilism, it does serve to question existing relations in such a way that listeners are forced to think about what is being said that is different from mainstream popular music. Because simply posing questions can serve to generate both progressive and regressive thoughts, the “heightened consciousness” projected by progressive punks is especially important. In orienting listeners toward progressive ideas, especially embodied in Rock Against Racism and Rock Against Sexism, elements of punk serve a restructuring function within the realm of popular culture. The popular ideology is restructured to incorporate elements of the rebellion, demand for jobs, anti-racism and anti-sexism. No matter how tentative such restructuring is, validating such concerns makes them a part of the history of popular culture which can be drawn upon at some later date by other rebellious and progressive musicians.

Communists must recognize that such restructuring serves the long term interests of working people. But at the same time such restructuring must be viewed as temporary in the absence of an active working class led by a communist party with a scientific strategy capable of building working class hegemony upon the positive aspects of such a restructuring. Recognizing the potential for utilizing existing cultural elements to the advantage of the working classes in the day to day class struggle within ideology is the first step toward building the hegemony of the working class in the struggle for socialism.

The process of winning the working masses to the knowledge that life, work and culture can be more meaningful and fulfilling, as well as safer and more stable, with the socialist reorganization of society, is long and difficult. But as a part of the daily life of the masses, the struggle for working class hegemony within popular culture can be as exciting and rewarding as it is difficult and dangerous.


[1] Simon Frith, “Rock and Popular Culture,” Socialist Revolution, No. 31, Jan.-Feb., 1977, p. 110.

[2] Louis Althusser, “A Letter on Art,” Lenin and Philosophy, 1976, Monthly Review, p. 222.

[3] Dick Hebdige, Subcultures: The Meaning of Style, Methuen, London, 1979, p. 12.

[4] Roger Simon, “Gramsci’s Concept of Hegemony,” Marxism Today, March, 1977, p. 82.

[5] Simon, 1977, p. 82.

[6] Simon, 1977, p. 86.

[7] John Clarke, et al., “Subcultures, Cultures and Class,” Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, editors, Hutchinson of London, 1976, p. 10. This book was originally a 1975 issue of Working Papers in Cultural Studies.

[8] Louis Althusser, Polemica sobra Marxism y Humanismo, Siglo XXI. 1968, p. 194.

[9] Clarke, 1976, p. 11.

[10] See Phil Cohen, “Sub-Cultural Conflict and Working Class Community,” 1972, Working Papers in Cultural Studies, No. 2, cited in Clarke, et al., p. 54.

[11] Clarke, 1976, p. 60.

[12] Martin Jacques, “Trends in Youth Culture: Some Aspects,” Marxism Today, September, 1973, p. 268.

[13] Martin Jacques, “Trends in Youth Culture: Reply to the Discussion,” Marxism Today, April, 1975, p. 114.

[14] Jacques, 1973, p. 270.

[15] Jacques, 1973, p. 270.

[16] Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” For Marx, Vintage, 1969, p. 99.

[17] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin, p. 142.

[18] Berger, 1972, p. 149.

[19] Dave Laing, “Interpreting Punk Rock,” Marxism Today, April, 1978, p. 126.

[20] Laing, 1978, p. 126.

[21] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, 1968, Harcourt Brace and World, note 19, p. 252.

[22] Laing, 1978, p. 123.

[23] Jacques, Sept. 1973, p. 272.

[24] See especially, Reggae Bloodlines, by S. Davis and P. Simon (Anchor, 1977), and “Reggae, Rastas and Rudies,” by Dick Hebdige in Resistance Through Rituals, and “Reggae and Rastafarianism” by Hebdige in Subcultures.

[25] See “Girls and Subcultures,” by Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber in Resistance Through Rituals, for an important though brief discussion of why women seem to be ”invisible” in youth subcultures. This article concentrates on male punks primarily because the available literature indicates that the majority of punk rockers are male, and sufficient information is lacking to incorporate the situation of female punks. Though women are a part of the subculture, and Poly Styrene and the Slits are important musically, little is written about women and punk, which is a real problem in the overall analysis of punk rock.

[26] Tom Robinson and Danny Kustow, “Ain’t Gonna Take It,” Power in the Darkness, 1977, Capitol Records, 11778.

[27] Simon Frith, “Beyond the Dole Queue: The Politics of Punk,” Village Voice, October 24, 1977, p. 79.

[28] Laing, 1978, p. 124.

[29] Temporary Hoarding No. 6, Summer, 1978, n.p. “Interview with Jimmy Pursey and Misty.”

[30] Harry Doherty, “Heroes for Credibility,” Melody Maker, March 29, 1980, p. 16.

[31] Robert Christgau, “A Cult Explodes–and a Movement is Born,” Village Voice, October 24, 1977, p. 72.

[32] Christgau, 1977, p. 72.

[33] See Bruce Dancis, “Safety Pins and Class Struggle: Punk Rock and the Left,” Socialist Review, No. 39, May-June, 1978, pp. 76 and 77.

[34] Frith, Oct. 24, 1977, p. 79.

[35] Frith, Oct. 24, 1977, p. 78.

[36] Hans Enzensberger, The Consciousness Industry: On literature, Politics and the Media, 1974, Seabury Press, p. 5.

[37] Jon Landau, It’s Too Late to Stop Now: A Rock and Roll Journal, Straight Arrow, 1972, p. 40.

[38] Enzensberger, 1974, p. 14.

[39] Bruce Dancis, “Artistic Control and Records Too,” In These Times, June 4-17, 1980, p. 20.

[40] Paul Costello, “Ideology, Ideological Practice and Cultural Criticism,” Theoretical Review, No. 10, May-June, 1979, p. 19.

[41] Bruce Dancis, “The Left Wing of New Wave Rock Grows,” In These Times, Feb. 27, 1980, p. 21.

[42] James Truman, “Message Received–The Clash: ’London Calling’,” Melody Maker, Dec. 15, 1979, p. 25.

[43] “As the central image of black music [some have pointed to] the story of Stagger Lee, the gambler who shook off the chains of religion and racism and cautious survival, and in his freedom shot a man and became a myth–admired, feared, fated.” Frith, “Rock and Popular Culture,” SR No. 31, p. 108.

[44] Hebdige, 1979, p. 79.

[45] X-Ray Spex, “Identity,” Germfree Adolescence, EMI, 1978.

[46] Laing, 1978, p. 126.

[47] Steel Pulse, Handsworth Revolution, Mango MLPS9502, 1978, Island Music.

[48] Misty, Temporary Hoarding, No. 6, ”Pursey/Misty Interview.”

[49] Rock Against Racism/T-Ital Wave Times, P.O. Box 11491, San Francisco, CA 94103; and Rock Against Racism International, Box M, 27 Clerkenwell Close, London EC1, U.K.

[50] “Dialectics Meets Disco,” Melody Maker, May 26, 1979, p. 18.

[51] Jeffrey Peisch, “Gang of Four,” New York Rocker, Oct. 1979, p. 9.

[52] “Dialectics Meets Disco,” p. 18.

[53] Peisch, 1979, p. 9.

[54] Peisch, 1979, p. 10.

[55] Hannah Charlton, “The deconstruction of the beat,” Melody Maker, Feb. 23, 1980, p. 13; see also Chris Brazier, “The Gang that tries to talk straight,” Melody Maker, Nov. 3, 1979, p. 24.

[56] Tim Patterson,“Punk Rock’ Reflects Cultural Decay,” Guardian, New York, October 19, 1977, p. 19. See also “Punk Rock: Glorification of Nihilism” by Patterson in the December 21, 1977, Guardian.

[57] See the debate in Cineaste, Vol IX, No. 4, Fall, 1979, “Marxist Film Criticism: A Symposium,” including “What’s in a Marxist Film Review?” by Irwin Silber, and Silber’s reply to critics in Vol. X, No. 1, Winter 1979-80.

[58] See “Of Socialist Realism” and ”Symposium on the Question of Decadence” in Radical Perspectives in the Arts, ed. by Lee Baxendall, 1972, Penguin, London; and Gaylord LeRoy, “Marxism and Modern Literature,” 1967, American Institute for Marxist Studies, Occasional Papers, No. 5.

[59] Jim Griffin, “Punk Rock: Revolt, Revolting or Resignation?” The Organizer, May, 1978, p. 15.

[60] Stated in 1976, quoted in “Making It Without Making It,” Howard Rodman, Seven Days, March 30, 1979, p. 31.

[61] Quoted in Rolling Stone, October 20, 1977, p. 49; see footnote in Dancis, 1978, p. 60.

[62] “Rock ’n Revolt: Interview with Prairie Fire,” In Struggle!, February 12, 1980, p. 11.

[63] In Struggle!, Feb. 12, 1980, p. 11.

[64] For more on the Dils see “Interview: The Dils,” Urgent Tasks, No. 5, Summer, 1979, pp. 38-41.

[65] R. Gare, “Meet the Clash,” Revolutionary Worker, September 28, 1979, p. 6.

[66] Elaine Zeskind, “Punk Rock: Music in Search of a Movement,” Urgent Tasks, No. 5, Summer, 1979, pp. 1-5.

[67] Gary Herman and Ian Hoate, “The Struggle for Song,” Media, Politics and Culture: A Socialist View, Carl Gardner, ed., Macmillan, 1979.