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The Day the Country Died: A Review

By  Jake Slovis
H-Net: Humanities and Social Science Reviews
January 2017

Punk and Politics

In The Day the Country Died: A History of Anarcho Punk, 1980-1984, Ian Glasper tracks the formation and growth of the anarcho punk scene in the United Kingdom. According to Glasper, the time span the book covers is significant because it marks the period in which anarcho punk evolved from “an outlandish fashion statement” to a political subculture “yearning for internal and external peace and freedom” (p. 8). This loose description helps Glasper to separate the “anarchy and peace” punks from the “anarchy and chaos” punks documented in his Burning Britain: The History of U.K. Punk, 1980-1984 (2014). Glasper is likewise deliberate to define anarcho punk in abstract terms, as the movement prioritized ethics over the “rigid musical doctrines” that came to define other brands of punk (p. 9).

One of the successes of The Day the Country Died is that Glasper cites influential figures in the anarcho punk scene without elevating these figures above the movement itself. This helps to highlight the inclusionary politics of anarcho punk, which actively worked to disassemble “divisions between audience and band” (p. 50). It is therefore with some reluctance that Glasper credits the band Crass as one of the “leaders” of the anarcho punk movement. However, there is no denying Crass’s influence, as they were one of the first to combat the commercialism exhibited by punk acts in the late 1970s. According to drummer Penny Rimbaud, “‘commercial punk was a complete sham, part of the rock‘n’roll circus, operating in the same way as someone like Marc Bolan [from T. Rex]—which is not to denigrate it as such ... after all, music is an industry; it produces product and people enjoy product.’” For Crass, the attachment of music to “product” cheapened the anti-establishment ethos that they believed punk could embody. Crass therefore saw the need to pursue activism in more explicit and tangible terms. Glasper writes, “they [Crass] weren’t interested in sensationalist unworkable notions of anarchy and chaos, they wanted a gradual revolution from within” (p. 11). In this way, Crass differed from iconic bands like the Sex Pistols, who only “hinted” at rebellion. Instead, Crass favored direct action, which gave “shape and purpose” to the anarcho punk movement.

Glasper also cites Flux of Pink Indians as one of the more influential anarcho punk acts. Like Crass, Flux of Pink Indians avoided characterizing themselves as “leaders” within the anarcho punk community. However, unlike Crass, Flux of Pink Indians cultivated their political priorities as they developed, originally forming with “ambitions no loftier than making a bloody racket for the sheer hell of it” (p. 32). It was through touring and observing the rise of Thatcherism that Flux of Pink Indians turned toward activism. By the end of their tenure, the band not only took on an anticapitalist agenda but also embraced vegetarianism as part of their ethical code. Glasper writes that their “Neu Smell” EP (Extended Play) was “probably responsible for more punk rockers turning vegetarian than any other” (p. 32).

Outside of Crass and Flux of Pink Indians, members of Conflict, Subhumans, and Lack of Knowledge contribute lengthy oral testimonies to The Day the Country Died. The result is a documentary style narrative that privileges experience over any other form of evidence. This choice is both a success and failure. While relying on testimony underscores the collectivist ideals of anarcho punk, the length of the testimonies are overbearing at times. Furthermore, it absolves Glasper of being the primary storyteller, as the testimonies are surrounded by little analysis and it is often unclear as to how they fit into a larger framework. 

Structurally, the book is divided into chapters based on the regional affiliation of the bands discussed. This allows Glasper to show that while anarcho punk was widespread in the United Kingdom, it relied on local engagement in order to develop. Throughout The Day the Country Died, performers often cite experiences with other local activists, exposing an intimacy within the scene. According to Lack of Knowledge vocalist, Daniel Drummond, “‘being a part of it [anarcho punk] was more important than just watching bands’” (p. 50). Many other bands echo Drummond’s sentiments, demonstrating a serious interest in communalism and group participation. This is not to say that anarcho punk’s political priorities were limited to communalism. Bands like Conflict fully tested anarcho punk’s “no rules” mantra, as they “militantly” defended animal rights. Others advocated for sexual equality and many worked to challenge Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. This challenge is perhaps best characterized by the band Thatcher on Acid, who formed “chiefly as a name” and were primarily motivated by ideals of “freedom and co-operation” under fears of nuclear war (p. 221).

However, like many bands motivated by the movement of the early 1980s, Thatcher on Acid felt disillusioned by the scene as it began to change by the late 1980s and early 1990s. Guitarist Ben Corrigan says, “‘we felt that, even though there were an awful lot of bands and people involved within it, the scene itself was fragmented, permeated with a kind of inverted snobbery and was actually largely fake’” (p. 223). Corrigan also expresses concern that the scene seemed less about direct action and more about occupying an anti-this, anti-that position without clear purpose. Glasper does not fully clarify whether this change came as a result of the rapid growth of anarcho punk without a unified vision or as a result of the commercial success of anarcho acts like Chumbawamba. What is clear is that as anarcho punk became more prevalent, the effectiveness and intimacy of the movement was compromised.

Glasper concludes by dubbing anarcho punk “the most real and challenging incarnation of punk rock ever seen or heard.” That anarcho punk was something to be “seen” as well as “heard” does much to underscore that the movement was more than a sound; it was an experience and feeling. It is for this reason that nostalgia is often frowned upon, as so much of the movement was contingent on “doing.” Glasper also emphasizes that while the feelings that motivated anarcho punks were “stimulated” by the time, the spirit of the movement “remains an indomitable constant as long as there is injustice in the world” (p. 456). This “spirit” is perhaps best clarified by Scott Paton, guitarist of AOA: “‘We decided to vent our anger through music, and take a more direct approach with our protest, and for the most part it had the desired effect: an all out attack on what we wanted to change. And now here we are again; the relentless cycle of life and death continues unabated. There will always be something to be angry about ... and always a corresponding need for change’” (p. 455). While anarcho punk has faded, AOA’s message functions as a rally cry for future activists. It is founded on the hope that there is always an opportunity for change and suggests that anarcho punk’s ethical foundation will continue to endure within the social justice movements of tomorrow.

A long overdue book focusing on the early years of one of punk rock’s most notorious and greatest loved bands, The Dead Kennedys.

In his prequel, author Alex Ogg reminds us that The Dead Kennedys have never been written about at length (see John Robb’s tribute here). The Ramones, Clash and Pistols have over 100 titles between them, and yet DK are arguably one of the bands that typifies punk at its best. They stuck two fingers up to the music industry and then lunged in to attack it. And who doesn’t recognise that logo?

If you don’t know the Dead Kennedys then:

  • a) seriously?
  • b) you need to book yourself into the punk reprogramming camp (does the opposite of the one in Aceh they sent Indonesian punks to) and immerse yourself particularly in their early works.

For those already inducted, read on…

“Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, The Early Years” does what it says on the tin. It starts by placing the key players and the band that would become Dead Kennedys in the context of the development of punk at a local San Francisco level and globally. It then charts their rapid progress in spite of, or possibly because of, a “cultural hand grenade of a name” from garage practices and their early performances, DIY released first 7 inch and onto their debut LP – all of which happened from their own reckoning by “pure dumb luck” – perhaps playing down the hard work and ingenuity which was partly responsible. As Louis Pasteur said “Fortune favours the prepared mind”.

Chapter titles are taken from DK songs, which is always a winner in my view, causing a wry grin. The pages are littered with band collages, Winston Smith’s art, gig flyers and Ruby Ray’s photos capturing the band in their infancy – which keeps the reader’s attention and makes this all the more difficult to put down. Photos of different covers and record middles from across the globe demonstrate how far their message spread across a world eager for acerbic high octane punk rock.  There are also excerpts from the “Hard Rock” comic about DK punctuating the story of pivotal events in the band’s early stages – in itself a humorous contradiction. I’ll be returning to this volume for a cursory browse at the pictures every now and then.

Alex Ogg manages to overcome the difficult job of providing a narrative that includes conflicting versions of events from former band mates who are at loggerheads, allowing the details and trivia to froth around so the reader can decide their own version of “the truth” from whatever bubbles to the surface.  He brings the story alive using interviews not only with band members, but with other contemporary witnesses including gig-goers. The writing manages to go some way to capturing the excitement, buzz, artistic freedom, true rebellion of punk rock in the early days when it really was a shock to the establishment rather than a music genre co-opted into corporate rock.  I came away from reading this book marveling once again at the musicianship, lyrical satire and sarcasm, theatrics, imaginative pranks and art that made Dead Kennedys stand out all those years ago – and still stand out now. Which led to me having a DK-athon over the last week!

Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, The Early Years is packed full of interesting facts and gossip:  I found out what that line about Serpents Eggs in California Uber Alles was really about rather than having a general gist it was “something bad”; the pizza delivery job Jello had back in Boulder being the inspiration for songs like Terminal Preppie and Holiday in Cambodia, and the true identity of Norm, the producer credited for Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.  Want to know about production processes and techniques they employed to capture and embellish upon their live sound to create  great records (and the obligatory conflict in the studio within the band and between the band and engineer)?  That’s in here as well.  Want to know who really wrote a particular song?  You’ll have to make your own mind up as each stakes their claim.

A chapter based largely on a stowaway-cum-roadie’s reminiscences provides an insight into the first UK tour Dead Kennedys undertook, bringing such cultural imports as stage diving and an amusing anecdote where the band misread the crowd’s sense of humour, thinking they had themselves misread the irony in the band’s lyrics.

The end notes detailing sources and full quotes provide a deeper level of trivia that some nerds…errmm, I mean “fact fans”, will absolutely love.  In the days before the internet this volume would have been a punk pub quiz host’s bible!   I have to admit I skipped much of the “Yakety Yak” chapter, comprised as it is of quotes about DK from some predictable punk/HC luminaries, a few journalists and the less predictable Pete Townshend (Who?), Elijah Wood and Massive Attack. Probably even something in there to impress Bruce “Punks can’t play their instruments” Dickinson.

Russ “Dr. Punk” Bestley, responsible for the image laden design of this book, submits a 3-page profile/homage to Winston Smith, whose artwork helped amplify the sound and lyrics of DK to create notoriety on a scale the Pistols could only have dreamt of.  Dada, situationism, Jamie Reid and Gee Vaucher all get a mention, of course.

The tale closes,as the title would suggest, after Fresh Fruit was released and drummer Ted left in December 1980.  Alex Ogg has left unpicking the rest of the DK story for “some other poor bastard” but I think he has proven he is the man for the job (go on, you know you want to, Alex!).  Whereas some band/artist biographies get bogged down in so much technical detail that you forget the generality of what you have read and lose track of what went on (I am thinking in particular of People Funny Boy by David Katz) our author has mastered the art of distillation which is just what you need to plot a path through a contentious story such as that of the Dead Kennedys.  Finishing the book, I was left reflecting that the Moral Majority and PMRC couldn’t destroy the band but they have done a pretty good job on each other since via the court system.  That’s another story in itself.

~ Get your copy from turnaround-uk.com, activedistribution.org and pmpress.org - See more at: http://louderthanwar.com/fresh-fruit-for-rotting-vegetables-the-early-years-by-alex-ogg-book-review/#sthash.25ip858k.dpuf

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Ian Glasper's Author Page



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