By Stuart Schrader
Editors’ Note: Stuart Schrader’s review essay “Rank-and-File Antiracism: Historicizing Punk and Rock against Racism,” which appears in the Radical History Review Issue 138 “Fascism and Anti-fascism Since 1945” is currently open access (until January 2021) and available to read on the Duke University Press website.
The songs discussed are available as a playlist as well as embedded in the post below.
To accompany my review essay “Rank-and-File Antiracism: Historicizing Punk and Rock Against Racism,” I have compiled a short playlist of some of my favorite anti-fascist punk tunes from the late 1970s/early 1980s. It is not meant to be exhaustive or definitive, only illustrative. Six of the seven bands are from the United Kingdom (one from Scotland and one from Wales), the seventh from the Netherlands.
A key argument of my essay is that punk, and subcultural production more broadly, was a field of political struggle that emerged as a new arena of political contention due to macrostructural transformations in capitalism and workers’ movements. Within punk, there were ongoing fights over the political directions that the music would take from its first moments through the early 1980s. But punk and related subcultures more broadly signaled the exhaustion of other forms of political mobilization at the point of production and through trade unionism. The music gave inchoate expression to broader political and economic forces that otherwise may have been channeled into left-wing political movements. All of the songs I have included diagnosed this conjuncture, even as they also attempted to direct the politics of punk toward anti-racism. Some did so overtly, some less explicitly.
Although the outwardly anti-capitalist content of these songs varies, each was released and circulated independently through semi-autonomous networks. A romantic vision of the politics of do-it-yourself and underground musical production can be misleading, but one of my arguments is that the form and the content of punk need to be analyzed together to make sense of the music’s relationship to macrostructural transformations. Too often, prior analyses have failed to do so, but newer accounts available in the books I have reviewed in this essay help shift our focus.
The Cigarettes “They’re Back Again, Here They Come” (1979)
This is the perfect anti-fascist anthem. It’s crafted to represent the threat. It begins politely, with some barely suppressed giggles because it’s all a joke innit. But as with Trump, Bolsonaro, and Hitler himself, the joke always turns serious. The menace seems to come out of nowhere, and the urgency increases as the mask falls. The pounding drums and the plaintive riff make an announcement: stop them now—or else.
The Cigarettes’s three-song 45 came out June 1, 1979, less than a month after Margaret Thatcher’s election to prime minister. Thatcher’s triumph laundered Far Right ideas into sentimental claptrap, with a barely contained snarl beneath the surface. This was the National Front’s own pose, as The Cigarettes highlighted. Fascists could not quite pull it off smoothly, however. Thatcher’s program was clear, but one effect of her win was to deflate the National Front’s attempts at hiding their own violent tendencies through mainstream electoralism. In the streets, simultaneously, militant anti-racism defeated the Front’s willy-nilly campaign of violence. Racist street attacks did not cease entirely, but by 1979, the Front could no longer pretend its electoral efforts and the violence were unrelated. Militant anti-racist action proved their linkage.
The Cigarettes analyzed this dynamic perfectly. They don’t look like brawlers. They’re moddish, looking a bit like students who failed out for skipping class. But they know their history. They’ve seen it all before. Forty years ago was the height of the fascist career. Today, history is what’s happening. This isn’t a game. The fash better pay attention, they say: I’m not a violent person, but I’ll make an exception for you.
The Pigs “National Front” (1979)
Less sophisticated than The Cigarettes, The Pigs (from Bristol) still produced a primo slice of ’77 punk that put the cards on the table. The National Front are fascists. And their ideas of racial supremacy are stupid. It was necessary for a bunch of white kids to address their white friends and tell them so.
I’m not sure how agit-prop could get any better. The message is clear, memorable, and fun. The song embodies the do-it-yourself aesthetic, with a recording that oozes immediacy and informal urgency. No time for polish.
Some people have misunderstood what the Summer of Hate was about. This record was recorded in August, at its peak. Any claim that the Summer of Hate’s anger was misdirected simply cannot withstand the evidence. The Pigs are the proof. Punk opposed fascism.
Rondos “Which Side Will You Be On” (1980)
For some punk fans, the easiest way to describe Rondos is as “the Dutch Crass.” But that seemingly innocent description actually hides how much the two bands diverged. Think sectarian Left, but add safety pins, razor blades, and combat boots. Let’s start with Crass, the far more well-known band.
The Crass song “Bloody Revolutions” summed up their anarchist approach to socialist anti-racist politics: they disapproved. For Crass, opposing National Front candidates in elections and fighting National Front hooligans in the street led equally to authoritarianism. In another song, “White Punks on Hope,” they labeled Rock Against Racism “white liberal shit.” (They had been early supporters of RAR but quickly soured on it, as they focused on the Trotskyist organization to which some organizers belonged rather than on its practical goals.) Crass felt that opposing violent racists through militant self-defense would violate racists’ right to free speech. They equated Left and Right, aiming to remain above the fray—quite literally, like when neo-nazis attacked their fans at their gigs and they fecklessly stood by and watched, particularly at Conway Hall in September 1979.
Crass have been hugely influential. Many a young punk had their minds first blown, then expanded, by Crass. It is impossible to downplay their significance. But in the light of 2020, with white England still attempting to leave the European Union, fascists in the halls of power in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, and Trump still in the White House, it is impossible not to approach Crass today with a jaundiced eye, or ear. Their pro–free speech stance sounds far more like the Far Right today, or the liberals who give the extremist Right cover. And their anti-statist and ultimately individualist lifestyle politics feel far more consonant with Thatcherism than contradictory to it. Try not to gag when you listen to the Crass lyric “We’re all just n*****s to the rulers of this land.”
Rondos first formed early in 1978 in Rotterdam. Their earliest experiments lacked the sonic discipline and minimalism that came to mark their sound, but they quickly ended up on the radar of Crass, who invited them to play London in 1979—at the ill-fated Conway Hall concert.
Rondos came to London eager to reach a new audience and compare experiences with Crass, another collective that combined music with agit-prop art and publishing. They dutifully left any hammer-and-sickle banners at home in Rotterdam, at the request of Crass, lest they incite the punters. It didn’t matter. British Movement bruisers wrecked the gig anyway. Crass stood mostly idle. At the time, Penny Rimbaud blamed the aggro on the full moon. I kid you not. Later, in their 2006 group biography, by George Berger, The Story of Crass, they ended up blaming Rondos.
Members of Rondos were alarmed by what happened at Conway Hall. They recounted to me a few years ago how, to this day, they still could not quite grasp how Crass felt that fighting back against neo-nazis would mean debasing themselves. (And, it should be mentioned, Rondos did hold a zealous pro–free speech stance in their own fanzine.) In response to this event, Rondos wrote the dyspeptic but urgent song “Which Side Will You Be On,” invoking a classic socialist slogan. It expressed their shock and disillusionment at what they witnessed. They had traveled all the way to London, and it fell to them to participate in the fight to protect a Crass gig. There was only one place such a neutral stance could lead in their view: further emboldening the fascist hooligans. That was the real authoritarian threat. Once the dust cleared at Conway Hall, and after a polite debate about the political choices each band was making, Crass decided to break their ties with Rondos. Crass released “Bloody Revolutions,” whose lyrics traffic in familiar right-wing tropes about socialist politics leading inevitably to mass killing. In response to this anti-communist screed, Rondos put Mao on the front cover of their record “Fight Back!” If fighting fascists at punk gigs means we’re in favor of the Cultural Revolution, mass starvation, and re-education camps, then we might as well lean in. I still crack up every time I look at the record. I wonder if Crass, seemingly so dour, ever got the joke.
“Peace Dilemma,” incidentally, is another Rondos song that lampoons the stringent pacifism of Crass, even lobbing their famous line “Fight War Not Wars” back at them. “Pacifism needs fighting for,” Rondos declare in this minimalist barrage.
Although I spent some years under the sway of Crass, like nearly all punks of my cohort, it was early on in my years as a punk that I was disabused of the notion that offering the privilege of unimpeded expression to neo-nazis would somehow cause them to reciprocate with—well, I’m not sure what such single-minded goons could reciprocate with. A kid in my high school who hung out with avowed neo-nazis got in trouble once for spewing bigotry. I defended his right to say whatever he wanted. Long story short, a few months later he still beat me up. My prior defense was meaningless. This script is familiar. Somehow Rondos saw it clearly. Crass didn’t. Which side will I be on? Not with anyone too aloof to get their hands dirty. That’s the real “white liberal shit.”
The Astronauts / Restricted Hours “Getting Things Done” (1979)
There must be two kinds of punks in the world. Those who listen to The Astronauts and—poseurs. Mark Astronaut, the songwriter and lyricist behind the band, is one of a kind. His dry, sardonic observations of life in London are unparalleled. You get the feeling listening to The Astronauts that you’re entering a more intense version of a familiar reality. The songs sensitize you to the everyday.
“Getting Things Done” was first released under the band’s first name, Restricted Hours, which has resurfaced a few times for live performances over the past few decades. (For years, The Astronauts have been composed of a rotating claque of young jobbers.) The record was a split 7″ with The Syndicate, released on the local Rock Against Racism imprint in Stevenage, a town just to the north of London.
Although carnivalesque in sound, the lyrics of “Getting Things Done” veer in the direction of a socialist-realist aesthetic, about which I’ve written elsewhere, found also in bands like The Jam or Newtown Neurotics (on most days, my favorite band). It’s an approach void of adornment, pretense, or guile.
The song discusses those mature, knowing types that we’ve all encountered, including within punk rock, often with a belly glued to the bar. They admit that injustice exists, but they have enough of a clear-eyed understanding of how it all works to know that drastic change is impossible. Protest is wasted breath. Two pints of condescension and a packet of gripes, please.
Among their earliest tracks, “Getting Things Done” is as earnest as The Astronauts get, which is belied by the handclaps and organ motif. The tune lets on a bit more about their own position than the wry narration of most of their tracks usually does. It’s clear where they stand. The song generally addresses the rank-and-file political tumult of the 1970s and seems to reference the Anti-Nazi League carnivals of 1978 and 1979 directly. To the cynic who usually dismisses political protest, ongoing organizing efforts are a fool’s errand. But when called out for extreme cynicism, the cynic defends himself. He says, “You know that Anti-nazi rally, man, I was there.” But Mark Astronaut archly points out the problem with this defense: “when the music stopped that’s when you ceased to care.”
Fatal Microbes “Violence Grows” (1979)
Fronted by fourteen-year-old Honey Bane, Fatal Microbes fell somewhere between the brainy anarchist punk realm of Crass and the more brawny streetwise side of punk. The band’s male guitarist and female drummer were the children of Vi Subversa, the leader of Poison Girls, the band closest to Crass in the early days. Fatal Microbes released only two records, and one had the unlikely distinction of being the first punk record to feature the parent’s band (Poison Girls) on one side and the children’s band (Fatal Microbes) on the other. “Violence Grows” appeared on both Fatal Microbes releases. Honey Bane went on to modest fame as a new wave star, after a stint in juvenile lock-up, under the guidance of Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey. The tabloid attention she earned, considering how young she was, is decidedly creepy in retrospect. Her single on Crass Records, which came soon after the Fatal Microbes releases and was really just Honey Bane fronting Crass, is one of the label’s most incandescent records.
But Fatal Microbes sounded like no other band. A mixture of pop, avant-garde, and astringent anarcho sounds—a combination that today would be best categorized as UK DIY—their sound managed to combine two of the dominant strains of the UK punk aesthetic, urgency and boredom.
The achievement of “Violence Grows” was to link the multiple forms of violence characterizing everyday life in late ‘70s Britain, from the Clockwork Orange–style bovver of street hooligans to the growing nationalism of the state’s rightward turn, combined with the increasing exploitation and impoverishment of a flagging economy. The song’s observations have a childlike plaintiveness, asking how it could be possible that adults would simply ignore the brutality all around them, averting their eyes. In this sense, the band’s youthfulness and emphasis on generational gaps highlight something profound for me: kids play “peek-a-boo” because they lack object permanence; adults, in contrast, have ideology.
Twisted Nerve “Neutral Zone” (1980)
“The National Front have got it wrong / That’s why we wrote this fucking song.”
Edinburgh was not a Front hotbed, but that didn’t keep Twisted Nerve from taking a stand. The song appears on one of those ineffably improbable DIY records that marked the halcyon period when it made perfect sense to release a 7″ compilation called “Mint Sauce for the Masses.” Twisted Nerve eventually went in a more gothic direction, but “Neutral Zone” is a pounding punk cracker, recorded in October 1980.
Like The Pigs, Twisted Nerve admit that they are not likely to be the target of a new nazi extermination campaign. But as so many anti-fascist protests have implored people to realize, Twisted Nerve recognized that protections would be thin once a new extreme right government emerged. We’re witnessing this today in the United States. Citizens are rounded up by ICE and detained, given no opportunity to prove their citizenship. Legal immigrants are finding their options diminished and freedoms curtailed. Protected status evaporates at the judiciary’s whim. Denaturalization is on the table. Birthright citizenship will be excised from the Constitution if they get their way. Belonging has always been provisional, purchasable. Law won’t be enough to protect anyone. We’ll have to protect ourselves.
The Oppressed “Work Together” (1983)
Together or alone, The Oppressed weren’t going to win any beauty contests, nor poetry contests, nor songwriting contests. Simple, straight-ahead tunes for working-class yobs: brickwall Oi! is all they aspired to. But a funny thing happened along the way. By the 1990s, The Oppressed, from Cardiff, revealed themselves to have been on a narrowly circumscribed mission, even narrower than the already basic aesthetic parameters of classic Oi!. (And by “they,” I’m really talking about Roddy Moreno, the consistent member throughout the band’s existence.) This narrow mission was to support anti-racist skinheads. Or, put another way, to defeat fascist skinheads. That’s it.
When The Oppressed started to give such full-throated and explicit support to SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), AFA (Anti-Fascist Action), RASH (Red and Anarchist Skinheads), and other groups, it threw a new light on some of their earlier material. Although there was never a dodgy lyric to be found on the old tracks, some of their street poetry registers differently when you realize how committed the band was to anti-racist politics. It also indicates what Oi! music could have been: a force for uniting a multi-racial working-class movement against capital. Take “Work Together,” a song title that urges unity and renders Oi! music as a mode of unification, an instrument for building solidarity in the moment of decomposition of the industrial working class. We may no longer work together on the shop floor, but we’ll work together on the dance floor. And in the streets.
Listening to the lyrics today I am astonished at their radicalism. The Oppressed want to abolish the SPG, the police division responsible for killing Blair Peach during an anti-fascist protest. They want to abolish interracial violence. “Dreaming of how life could be / If society was free.” Abolition now. Do it ourselves. Musically and politically.
Stuart Schrader published his first punk fanzine, titled Disturbing the Peace, in 1994. He published his first scholarly monograph, titled Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, twenty-five years later, in 2019.
 The best scholarly book on punk, No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976–1984 by Matthew Worley, begins with this episode; another article, which Worley co-authored with Kirsty Lohman and published in the journal Britain and the World, focuses on it even more deeply.