by Chris Jarvis
There are a few bands whose influence flutters through generations, transcends time and knows no geographical borders. Joy Division, Metallica, Kraftwerk, David Bowie. In the punk scene, the influence of The Clash is far greater than even their seminal contemporaries such as The Damned, Ramones and Sex Pistols. In fact, save perhaps for later acts Operation Ivy, Minor Threat and Refused, the level of impact they have had on music goes unrivalled. Talking to Dasko of Serbian punk rock band Red Union for our series Music That Matters, it is evident that The Clash’s rebel rousing of the late 70s has made its way into the hearts of this Novi Sad band.
Importantly though, the influence of Joe Strummer and co. isn’t solely in the form of The Clash’s music, and while Red Union’s sound owes more to US Punk bands than it does to the early British scene, it is the politics of the London Callers that is the real influence on the band. “We are Strummerists” declares Dasko when I ask him to describe to me his political outlook, a response which ranks Joe Strummer alongside Marx and Trotsky as a political ideologue worthy enough of having an ‘ism’ named after them. “We got out our politics, when it comes to music, from The Clash. It’s socialism, Joe Strummer style! Freedom, progressive thought, fight[ing] against injustice and discrimination. Anti-fascism and remembrance of struggles passed…” Put simply though and outside of the framework Dasko gives of “Strummerism”, there is a much simpler political definition that he ascribes to himself and to his bandmates: “We are life-long lefties. Militant antifascists by all means necessary.”
Putting aside The Clash again, there are other clear and key influences on the politics of Dasko and the rest of the band – “Newtown Neurotics, Chumbawamba, Stiff Little Fingers. We like it when message and music mix with equal attention and care, not just slogans shouted over shit noise.”
This subtlety that Dasko professes to want in his political music is something critics frequently claim is missing from the punk scene. Most often, naysayers of punk music argue that there is limited lyrical variety, a lack of quality in musical production and no talent to vocals. Such criticisms couldn’t be levelled at the door of Red Union, whose lyrics are arguably more subtle than many other punk bands and whose production is, if anything, squeaky clean. “We are not as directly political as one might imagine. We try not to shout slogans but rather to create some poetic or at least storytelling style. Trying to fit our political message in a nice story which we tell using music. Of course, sometimes, there’s a time and a place for a direct political agitation! We don’t hesitate…”
Unsurprisingly, given the above responses and the nuance within them, Dasko is reserved when discussing the role that music can have in bringing about progressive political change. There are no absolutes, there is not a yes or no answer. “Music alone can’t change anything. People singing those songs can. But, not just by singing. Culture of rebellion is important. It’s a vehicle to carry the spirit and the message down the line. To reach people. It’s very important but we must not let it become self-serving.” Developing this idea further, Dasko is clear in his explanation of the way in which music can be used as a tool of politicisation: “One nice, useful tool in the colourful shed of tools. Use it a lot and often. But use it with other tools!”
And it is there that we leave our conversation, with the acknowledgement that, music, art and culture have a real and clear role to play in any political movement, but they should not be seen as a necessary or sufficient criteria for bringing about political change. As political music is undergoing a revival, both in the underground and in the mainstream, it is this message that is crucial and should not be forgotten.