TEENAGE KICKS: PUNK AND POLITICS

by Mike Vinti

Recently I came across the 2012 film ‘Good Vibrations’. A stirring tale, based on real events, about a man, Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer), who opens a record shop on the most bombed half mile in Europe — Great Victoria Street, Belfast. Terri’s mission is to use music to bring people together as sectarianism tears the city in two.  It is through this shop that Terri first encounters punk. For Terri, punk changes everything, and the community of rowdy teenagers that make up Belfast’s scene come to symbolise hope, both for him and the city.

For Terri, punk changes everything, and the community of rowdy teenagers that make up Belfast’s scene come to symbolise hope, both for him and the city.

The rest of the film sees Terri battle with everyone from the IRA to record label execs to share Belfast’s burgeoning punk scene with the world.  He faces substantial challenges but ultimately succeeds and, with a little help from The Undertones and their break out hit ‘Teenage Kicks’, even gets Radio god John Peel onside. Terri is undoubtedly the star of the film and a man to be reckoned with, but the driving force throughout is the music.

The portrait of Terri and Belfast’s punk scene in ‘Good Vibrations’ has got me thinking a lot about punk and the power it had to unite people in a society based on division. There’s been a lot of borrowed nostalgia floating around, just ask my housemates. Yet despite every generation’s tendency to romanticise the past, punk truly was a remarkable genre and movement.

Like many genres of music, punk had, and still has, a strong subculture associated with it. However its influence stretched far beyond the bands and die-hard fans of the late 70s. The ethos of punk was pretty simple: it was music made by angry, often under-talented and politically frustrated kids.

Like many genres of music, punk had, and still has, a strong subculture associated with it.

It was the idea that music belonged to the people and should reflect their struggle. From this ethos sprang a social and musical revolution, one in which the disillusioned youth found a way to voice their grievances outside of a political system seemingly built on denying them that right.

(© theapparelaficionado)

There are many parallels between the late 70s and today. Financial crisis, the bloody Tories and their budget cuts, pointless wars and the terrorism associated with them, hell even disco has come back. So where’s ‘our punk’? Who’s the successor to Joe Strummer’s crown, or G G. Allin’s anti-establishment insanity?

The shared sense of frustration that birthed punk exists today, even more so than in the 70s. As a society we’re more aware of the problems in the world than ever and yet seemingly less able to solve them. Our political system appears to many as just as archaic and out of touch as it did back then; much of our musical culture is as vacuous and self-congratulating as the Prog-Rock that punk began as a reaction against (see Ed Sheeran/ Sam Smith/ George Ezra et al).

So where’s ‘our punk’? Who’s the successor to Joe Strummer’s crown, or G G. Allin’s anti-establishment insanity?

I’ve written before about how the charts have been stripped of any politics, thanks to the right-wing media and record labels alike, yet it seems like something may be starting to change.

Paloma Faith, Brit Award winner, triple platinum selling artist and living cross between Adele and Vivienne Westwood, is taking Owen Jones on tour with her. That’s Guardian columnist, social justice activist and not-musician, Owen Jones, just to clarify. Jones will be taking the stage at several of Faith’s shows to give political speeches, specifically against UKIP, and the need for a cohesive, positive movement for an alternative to austerity.

(© Guardian)

This may seem like an odd pairing, and it definitely is. Paloma Faith, while more outspoken than most pop-stars about her politics, does not make overtly political music, but the idea of a political speaker supporting a musical act is nothing new.  You guessed it, it comes from punk.  Faith’s decision to invite Jones on tour with her is a small but potentially game changing move, one that even most punk bands wouldn’t consider viable these days and if it pays off it could help launch a new era of politically engaged music.

Faith is not alone in dragging politics back into the mainstream’s musical consciousness. Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp a Butterfly is a hugely ambitious, funk filled commentary on life in modern America. Told through an intricate web of songs, interludes and a mutli-part metaphorical poem, Kendrick manages to take the social commentary that made Good Kid. Maad City so vital and step it up a notch. Oh, and he also broke Spotify’s streaming records.

(Kendrick Lamar © missinfo)

The accessibility of digital production software such as Fruity Loops and Ableton has empowered a generation of bedroom producers who are increasingly turning to the DIY ethics punk held so dear. The post-ringtone phenomena that swept the blogosphere last year was centred on turning the commercial and synthetic  into works of art that commented on everything from the rise of ‘guerilla advertising’ (A.G Cook and SOPHIE’s Hey QT) to the urban working class experience (see Hannah Diamond). FKA Twigs is busy smashing the pop world’s ideas about sexuality, and I’ve said it before but goddamn, Run The Jewels 2 is everything you could want from ‘political popular-music’.

At end of ‘Good Vibrations’ a quote from Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, appears on screen. It reads: ‘When punk rock ruled over Ulster, nobody ever had more excitement and fun. Between the bombings and shootings, the religious hatred and the settling of old scores, punk gave everybody a chance to LIVE for one glorious burning moment.’

FKA Twigs is busy smashing the pop world’s ideas about sexuality, and I’ve said it before but goddamn, Run The Jewels 2 is everything you could want from ‘political popular-music’.

Politics is slowly but surely creeping back into our pop music and Owen Jones rallying the iPhone waggling youth is just the beginning. The legacy of punk can help us create the future. Punk broke down boundaries between people, it allowed anyone to create music and that music let them live.

If it happened once, it can happen again.

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