by Chris Jarvis
For anyone of my generation who group up in the Midlands with a taste for alternative music, Johnny Doom is something of an icon. Tuning into Kerrang Radio (when it was still broadcast on FM), it was the dulcet tones of this Brummie legend that would really excite, much more so than even the anarchic Tim Shaw or the esoteric Nick Margerisson. Unsurprisingly, he has won accolades for his wry radio conversations, being named Brummie of the Year in 2008.
But Johnny has a long history within music outside of his radio work. Becoming active initially in the late 1980s in the influential Crust Punk band Doom, Johnny went on to form the less acclaimed, but equally important Police Bastard, who fuse a raw and brutal aggression with thrash metal riffs and hardcore compositions. Encapsulated within that sound is an anti-authoritarian politics which is evident even from the band’s name. Because of this, we decided to talk to Johnny Doom about his politics and the role it plays in his music as part of our series Music That Matters.
As ever, I begin by asking about the political outlook of the band and Johnny in particular. Naturally, as with so many of the people I have interviewed for this series, there is a clear reluctance to be pinned down to a particular ideology or point of view: “We are quite a diverse bunch of individual people from various backgrounds, yet [we] all have a collective history within the punk scene. We stand against what we see as social injustice, but also are constantly learning and collecting new information, so we try not to pin ourselves down to specific ideologies. We talk about all sorts of things in our songs. Some are straight forward or political, some are just us musing about the world and human nature.”
Given the nuanced response to this question, does this translate in to political activism, or is the production of music itself the primary form of political work the band do?: “Most of us have jobs, some of us have families and we obviously do what we can to help in many situations. We primarily use the band to express ourselves, meet others, socialise, [and] spread ideas. We find that our activism a lot of the time is merely playing benefit gigs for various causes. Last year, we raised money for hunt saboteurs, homeless charities, cancer charities etc. Certain members of the band are more politically active than others, but we let people do what they feel they need to.”
Many of the ideas espoused by anarchist punk have remained at the core of Police Bastard.
In light of this and that the political activity of the band seems confined to the music they produce and the causes they choose to raise in their lyrics and their fundraisers, we move on to the role that music has played in the outlook of the band. Being a part of the punk scene, it is hard to avoid its politics, and Johnny is frank in his views that it is music that brought radical ideas to the people who now play music as Police Bastard: “As a band, we were primarily influenced by early anarchist punk bands such as Crass, Conflict, Discharge etc. These bands opened our eyes to many new ways of looking at the world and that has been really important to who we are as people. Many of the ideas espoused by anarchist punk have remained at the core of Police Bastard. The idea that as individuals or a group you can utilise energy, art and music for a greater good. To spread a positive message and forge a bond with others to create a better future for our planet and the people on it.”
Asking the question in inverse, I then ask how Johnny sees the role of politics in the music that he produces and whether he believes that music itself can be a tool for bringing about political change or whether instead it is simply about creating a sense of political community and inevitably ends up preaching to the converted: “I personally can’t seem to write non-political lyrics. Everything I seem to write for the band has some bearing on the world around us and how it affects people and the planet etc. There’s very little preaching or remedies, but the lyrics are more emotional responses to what upsets us. We often spread a message that is hopeful and hopeless at the same time.
“Music, song, art, words, poetry will always help to spread ideas, both good and bad. I think the impact of music in spreading messages and changing minds has been overshadowed by that of technology lately. Music was an important vehicle (and still can be), but there’s no denying that real politics often transcended musical entertainment. More people seem to be thinking politically now, but removed from any specific music scene. Once the gig is over, the problems remain. Music often only a brief escape whether political or not.”
That seems to be the key message, the idea that music’s role is in spreading ideas, bringing greater awareness of issues and beliefs to fans and listeners. It has a role to play in being a catalyst for change, but a song or a band cannot in and of itself change the world. “Even bands like Crass had to have some sort of political movement to promote or travel alongside. Music rarely causes the revolution, but is more so a soundtrack to it. The problem with music is that is often entrenched in what I’d call the realities of being in a band or the music industry. It could be argued that there is very little that is radical or political about travelling around the country in a van, stopping at service stations, sitting in venues for hours, setting up instruments, drinking, partying and playing music, to then take it all down and go somewhere else. We are wandering minstrels a lot of the time. Nothing more or less.”
To wrap up, we touch briefly on the music scene today and the musicians and bands that are effectively mixing music and politics. Eclectically, Johnny name drops bands and genres from a variety of scenes: “I see music as more of an escape for most people, away from the depressing realities of live. But because I work so closely within the music industry, I do see more and more younger bands and artists engaging with politics and social reality. I like hip-hop and grime in that respect. Within rock, I see bands like Enter Shikari or The King Blues bringing some great lyrics and ideas. In the punk scene, there are too many to mention, but bands like Doom, Subhumans and Conflict are still out there spreading some positive messages.”
Johnny finishes with a poetic message of positivity – “There will always be voices of hope coming out of the darkness.” Police Bastard and their thudding radicalism are just that.