by Chris Jarvis
Manchester hardcore punks Revenge of the Psychotronic Man are no stranger to politics. Their music is released through TNSrecords, home of the likes of Faintest Idea, Autonomads, and Rising Strike, all known for their uncompromising and explicitly political works. Revenge of the Psychotronic Man bassist and vocalist Andy Davies helps to co-run the label, and he took the time to talk to The Norwich Radical about how he sees his politics, its relationship to the music he produces and the relationship between this and the wider world, as part of our series Music That Matters.
Andy describes his political outlook from the outset with a complex backstory: “I guess I consider myself to be a socialist. I was bought up in a family where every single person has always and will always vote Labour. I remember when I could first vote it was around the time of the Iraq war. I was also part of the first academic year that paid for Uni. I didn’t really want to vote for Tony Blair, but this was a period where the internet wasn’t as widely available and it was perhaps more difficult to become politically aware than it is now. So I doubt I could have described why I didn’t vote at the time in a very sophisticated way. I just thought that “all politicians were the same” and nothing would change anyway.
“I started to work in education in my early 20s (and became better read myself) and realised that maybe that wasn’t a stance I truly believed in. For all its faults, at least the voting system gives some sort of voice and doing nothing certainly won’t change anything either. The amount of people I know who don’t vote, yet also don’t involve themselves in any sort of alternative system or protest movement is quite depressing.
“I also realised as I started my teaching career that in reality “they weren’t all just the same”. Labour, even under New Labour do put more money into health, education and benefits. That is undeniable. So whilst they have many faults, from my position in the state education system, I’d prefer that the lesser of two evils was elected, despite not being able to support the Labour party on many policies. It definitely does more good for a larger number of people in the long run if Labour get into power, than it does having a Tory government. I think we are seeing that very clearly at the moment. I actually live in a very safe Labour area so don’t actually need to vote tactically, so recently I have been voting Green as I agree with so many of their policies.”
It’s really important to publicise the issues and explain them to others where possible.
What’s fascinating about this response is that punk rock has a reputation of political purism, of an all or nothing approach to ideology and political perspective – right from when John Lydon first spat into his microphone and declared himself an anarchist through to today. Andy offers a more nuanced approach, recognising the fundamental flaws in the existing system, but pragmatically suggesting that there can be solutions, however small, within the political mainstream.
That being the case, it is unsurprising that Andy’s political involvement doesn’t end the moment he hangs up his bass – “I was on strike a couple of weeks ago. I teach in a 6th Form College and it was specifically a strike for 6th Form staff as that part of the education sector is under massive pressure at the moment. I’ve been on strike a few times in recent years and I imagine there will be more in the near future due to the Government’s Academy plans. I always attend the rallies when on strike rather than sitting at home. It’s really important to publicise the issues and explain them to others where possible.”
Although Andy already spoke about the role his upbringing and his life path have had in the shaping of his politics, there remains the question as to whether the very thing that he participates in – political music – was an influencing factor on the political outlook that he holds: “I think studying art did more to get me interested in politics in the first place, but music developed that further. Picking up fanzines and leaflets at gigs certainly raised my awareness of many subject matters. I guess mixing with people interested in traditional left-wing pursuits such as the arts leads towards interesting discussions.
“The act of making creative projects such as being in an independent band or doing a DIY label is in many ways a political statement in itself, regardless of lyrical content, as you are choosing to work mostly on a non-profit basis, as part of collectives and without necessarily aiming for financial or commercial success. As cheesy as it sounds, you are trying to operate outside of the established system. So I think being involved in this music scene is bound to influence your wider worldview. And on the flip side, things like X Factor promote a mentality of competitiveness, of taking short cuts to get to ‘the top’, of watering down any sort of thought provoking content to appeal to a mass audience and ultimately to make profit. It’s quite an interesting reflection of society really.”
The act of making creative projects such as being in an independent band or doing a DIY label is in many ways a political statement in itself
The elements of doubt described here are reflected when Andy discusses the role he sees Revenge of the Psychotronic Man’s music in shaping politics, there is self-awareness and a realism, far from the stereotype of the idealism of counterculture: “As a band we are incredibly aware that we can’t change the world through one minute songs where you can’t really decipher the lyrics. We do have a fair bit of political commentary, but we also have lots of lighter hearted lyrical content too.
“Whilst I believe music can be a fantastic tool for raising political awareness and driving change, I also think that people should enjoy it and it should provide escapism. It needs to be fun too. We tend to write about things we are discussing at the time, or reading about, or documentaries/films we have watched. We often include links or quotes to those things in our lyrics sheets. Quite a few people have told me that they have gone on to read a particular book etc because of that, that’s lovely to hear.
“Before the last election my Facebook newsfeed looked like some sort of left-wing utopia. That genuinely doesn’t reflect the whole of society does it? So while a punk band can play an interesting role in evoking discussion, I think we have to move outside of ‘our bubble’ and make sure we don’t just preach to the converted.”
Having spoken to so many different musicians now as part of this series, I have been struck by how the sentiment above has been expressed by most of them. As a long-term fan of political music, and as a participant in the punk scene in particular, I have always been simultaneously inspired by the music and the people involved in the scene, but forever terrified that we would be constantly talking to each other, and never to the people whose minds we needed to change. The fact that so many of these musicians have acknowledged this problem is comforting. The central question that remains unanswered from there is how do we get to the point where we really are shaping those people who we want to shape?
For Andy, this is a process of personal connections: “Music is a way of presenting alternative viewpoints and it is a platform for discussion. It’s not going to change much on its own, but it can certainly play a big part in promoting change and presenting alternatives. It’s very important that the music scene doesn’t become too insular and it’s also important to remember that we are lucky to be in a position where we are educated to an extent on many issues. Not everyone is lucky enough to have that.
Music is a way of presenting alternative viewpoints and it is a platform for discussion.
“In my opinion we need to use our ‘scene’ as a way of encouraging people to change/challenge their existing viewpoints rather than just condemning those who we don’t agree with. It’s everyone’s responsibility to challenge ignorance and present alternatives, but we need to start by having conversations, rather than fights and Facebook rants.”
Perhaps then, that is the start of the solution – to begin by having those initial conversations, to begin to use the unity and empowerment we have gathered from our scenes to speak out and to challenge and to convert others directly. Whether that’s the answer or not, it’s clear that it is the thoughtful and provocative musicians like Andy Davies and his colleagues at Revenge of the Psychotronic Man that have a major role to play in the debate.