Henry Rollins once said, “Questioning anything and everything, to me, is punk rock”. The early decades of punk truly questioned and challenged the traditions of , as they strove to be everything the mainstream wasn’t. Truly birthed in the mid-70s by acts such as The Ramones, The Clash, and The Sex Pistols, controversy was punk’s greatest weapon. Politically charged lyrics doubled with violently fast guitar riffs and drum patterns were a break from the mainstay. Classic rock bands such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd ruled the rock airwaves with their complex and lengthy ballads; everything punk strove to be. The deaths of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix were still fresh in the minds of rock fans, as copycat acts struggled to recreate what they did and punk pioneers actively tried to break away from this norm in the music world. Punk music grew out of individuals with a distinct voice that saw music as a perfect platform to spread their ideologies, mainly through their lyrics. Many punk rock pioneers could barely be called ‘musicians’ as they had little to no instrumental talent, very different from the mainstream acts of Zeppelin and Hendrix. It is no secret that punk rock has flourished mainly during the terms of Republican presidents. The more a president’s administration stresses traditional ideologies, the more punk culture has taken an anti-establishment approach. Donald Trump’s controversial presidential campaign seems to give anti-establishment, politically charged punk rock a great chance to re-emerge into the underground and create a significant cultural impact like it did in the Reagan and Bush eras.
Around the mid 1970’s, the classic punk rock sound began to truly be established, mainly coming out of London and New York City. The Ramones found their rise in the scene of New York City and were a major influence on the punk movement spreading in America with their self-titled debut album. Deemed today as a classic, the sound was very distinct at the time, creating the American punk rock sound. It was everything the stadium rock royalty acts of the 1970s weren’t, replacing the progressive ballads and intricate guitar solos with intensely distorted and simple rhythms. Across the pond, the Sex Pistols took root in London with their controversial messages and performances. They adopted the sound the Ramones had set in place but with a lyrical focus on taking a stance against the political and social systems of 1970’s England. For example, The Pistols’ song “God Save The Queen” is highly critical of the treatment of the working class in England at the time. Other singles such as “Anarchy in the UK” became anthems for the punk movement and fully established the anarchist undertone that punk bands have flourished on for decades. Front-man Johnny Rotten often sported Nazi Regalia at live shows in his early years; not as a declaration to Nazism but as a way to shock and awe (Revolting). Amid the rise of the Pistols, the English band The Clash took a more grassroots approach with voicing their political opinions. They were the headliners for the 1978 ‘Rock Against Racism’ concert at London’s Victoria Park, which took a stance against the racist and fascist ideologies of the emerging National Front political party in England at the time (Greene).
The 1980s gave way to a punk transformation. The hardcore scene became extremely diverse, as many bands with differing political and social opinions sought out to express themselves. This is when punk became the medium for the overlooked subcultures in America and their ideological movements. The simplicity of the genre allowed many non-musicians to form bands, replacing talent with raw emotion and intensity. Underground scenes across America adopted different sub-genres of punk rock and made them their own. Hardcore sub-cultures ranged from straight-edge to Nazi-punks, each subculture similar in the fact that they used punk as a means to express their differing ideologies at the time. The hardcore scene grew out of West Coast California and became a medium for many young Americans who felt displaced from mainstream America and wanted to voice their opinions. Hardcore punk acts adopted the aggressive musical stylings of the Ramones and the rebellious political lyrical undertones of the Sex Pistols and The Clash. The Dead Kennedys out of San Francisco were deeply ingrained in the grassroots political movement of the early 1980s, as their frontman, Jello Biafra, even ran for mayor of San Francisco. The band also headlined the “Rock Against Reagan” protest at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, playing blocks away from the location where JFK had been assassinated. They actively sought out to create controversy in both their performances and their music, with their first single “California Uber Alles” likening the then California governor to Hitler. Their heavy political involvement influenced many hardcore bands of the day to take a similar approach. The hardcore band Black Flag also flourished in the Reagan Era, releasing the song “White Minority” in response to the election of Ronald Reagan. The anthem sarcastically highlights how racist undercurrents lead to the election of Reagan and his very conservative political platform. Bands such as Iron Reagan and Reagan Youth fashioned their whole image around bashing Reagan as acts like DOA (“Fucked Up Ronnie”) and Suicidal Tendencies (“I Shot the Devil”) actively depicted Reagan as the worst thing to happen to America. Reagan, however, was arguably the best thing to happen to punk rock, as it gave punk an enemy and a platform to rail against. Punk rock was fashioning itself as the genre of the youth through controversy and opposition, and was a major influence for many mainstream artists of the 1980s to voice their political opinions and disagreement. Bands of this era took huge and incremental stances on progressive social issues such as gay rights, racial equality, and anti-capitalism. Austin’s own MDC (Millions of Dead Cops) were one of the more progressive acts, taking many stances against problematic social issues in their LP Millions of Dead Cops, in which they criticized homophobia in America with their song “America So Straight”, as well as American hero John Wayne with “John Wayne Was a Nazi” amid his death. It was all about spreading controversy. Punk rock, however, remained very underground in the 1980s and it wasn’t until the 90s that punk truly grabbed national attention among consumers.
The 1990s and H.W. Bush era gave way to the Gulf War, giving punk another entity to voice its displeasure over. One of the most political punk bands of the 1990s, covered a very wide range of issues throughout their discography. Coming out of D.C., they played many protest shows outside the White House in opposition to anything and everything, including Operation Desert Storm, homelessness, and sexual assault on college campuses. Punk band Bad Religion truly came into their own in the early 1990s with albums such as “Against the Grain” in 1990 and their highest charting album “Stranger Than Fiction”. Both albums highlight issues with modern consumerist culture, traditional religion, and social responsibility. The difference with these albums and the hardcore acts of the 1980s was their ability to generate radio airplay. The less aggressive, more alternative styling allowed for a palatable punk rock for the masses, while still utilizing the political angst the political originators leaned on. Around the same time, The Offspring achieved superstardom with their 1993 release “Smash” and Green Day’s “Dookie” had propelled them to #2 on the billboards. Pop punk was born, dumping political engagement for more radio-friendly topics such as the teenage angst of the suburbanite. The election of Democratic President Bill Clinton proved another hit to political punk, as the more left-leaning Clinton appeased much of the left-leaning ideologies punk acts advocated for. Arguably one of the most influential political acts of all time, Rage Against the Machine, came to fruition around this time however, leaning on the political engagement of early punk acts while borrowing musical stylings from rap and metal.
The George W. Bush Era was instrumental in the punk revival of the 2000’s, as Bush proved an easy target for many punk bands at the time. Green Day’s “American Idiot” is easily the most famous punk album of all time and riddled with criticisms of Bush and his poli. Punk compilation albums and protest tours such as “Rock Against Bush” were born, highlighting songs that opposed Bush and his policies. Acts such as Against Me and Rise Against found commercial success in the 2000s, while advocating LGBT rights and environmental and animal rights.
This punk revival didn’t stick around however, as the election of Barack Obama and the rise of hip hop music has consequently caused a downfall in not only political punk but punk rock as a whole. Just because punk music is adjacent from the mainstream culture today, does not necessarily mean that the mainstream culture is not without an anti-establishment voice. Many rappers and hip-hop artists have expressed oppositions toward the political system and socio-economic factors. Rappers such as Killer Mike, Kendrick Lamar and even YG with his banger “FDT” have taken stances against ‘the man’ and the ‘system’ through their music, highlighting racial inequalities and police brutality. Music has given rappers a platform to voice their social and political ideas, much like how punk gave many differing sub-cultures a home to do the same.
The difference, however between today’s well-known anti-establishment artists and the punk originators is the fact that most rappers advocating change and opposition do not mold their image around this belief. Punk bands molded their image from their beliefs and used music exclusively as a medium to voice these beliefs. The most famous punk rock bands today lean more towards the emo spectrum of punk rather than the political side. Punk is out of the mainstream and without a conservative entity to rival and oppose.
That is until the election of Donald Trump. His traditional values and corporate image give punk a platform to rival. Some could validly argue, however, that PC culture and SJW’s own the most control over the mainstream voice, and that conservatives and alt-right members are therefore part of the counter-culture. This would deem them and Trump as the ‘punks’ of this generation and era. His campaign was built upon controversy, as was much of punk’s image. In my opinion, Trump usually would be the perfect president for political punk rock to flourish, however, with the rise of PC culture in the mainstream and the critical success of hip hop, an already highly political genre, punk rock does not seem to stand too much of a chance. With time, musical tastes will alter, but punk never strove to be popular in its lineage.