Few bands have been quite so successful outside of the mainstream as the anarcho-punk group Crass. During their career, the group received virtually no radio airplay, yet they have attained a dedicated following that lives on even today.
Crass formed in 1977, after lead singer Steve Ignorant saw The Clash play live, and immediately decided to form a group. When he found most of his friends had either been married or had taken on other commitments, he decided to visit his old friend Penny Rimbaud.
Steve states: “Just in passing, he said ‘well, what are you up to now?’ I went ‘oh, I’m going to start a punk band.’ He went ‘I’ve got a drum kit. I’ll play drums for you.”
From there, the two recruited the talents of Gee Vaucher, N. A Palmer, and Pete Wright, as well as Phil Free, Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre. This was to become the most well known incarnation of the group.
Asked how the band promoted themselves despite radio play, Steve argues: “It was purely word of mouth, because in those days there was no Internet or mobile phones. Literally we’d do a gig and we’d print our own little flyers, and then we’d just say to people ‘look, is there anywhere where we can do a gig in your area?’ Most of it was done through landline telephone and through the post.”
Though British punk never really accomplished social and political upheaval, it did achieve many wonderful things that are worthy of being celebrated. One such achievement was its ability to bring together unfamiliar cultures by an incorporation of foreign styles, such as ska and reggae. But how did reggae and punk happen to become intertwined, and what effect did this have on both genres and their fans?
In 1948, Britain suffered a labour shortage due to the losses sustained in World War II. This led to an appeal for workers from the Commonwealth and the British Empire, with ads appearing overseas to actively promote migration to the “mother country”. In the same year the Windrush, an ex-cruise ship, landed at Tilbury near London, carrying the first group of Afro-Caribbean migrants. They were promised work and a new way of life, but instead were subject to prejudice and racism from the indigenous British.
What followed over the subsequent decades were a series of race riots, with Afro-Caribbean individuals protesting their poor treatment by the white establishment.
But whilst this was happening, a cultural exchange was also occurring elsewhere between Jamaican migrants and the white working classes. This was in part due to Trojan Records, a record label founded in 1968 that specialized in rocksteady, reggae and dub. This label helped to develop the Trojan skinhead subculture that revolved around ska, rocksteady, reggae and soul.
Don Letts is a British filmmaker, musician, and DJ, who would later introduce many followers of punk to reggae and ska.
He comments: “People forget that there was a movement before the punky reggae thing, which was the skinhead movement. We’re talking about the fashion version, not the fascist version. They’d grown up on early reggae, particularly the records released on Trojan records.”
This cultural exchange between the skinheads and Jamaican migrants was the result of an interaction between working class white and black youths living in areas like Brixton, Notting Hill and Tottenham. This would lay the groundwork that would allow punk and reggae to intersect in the following decade.
In the 1970s, SEX, a shop owned by Malcolm Mclaren and Vivienne Westwood helped launch the punk subculture. It did this with the help of another store on the King’s Road, Acme Attractions, which was being managed by Don Letts.
Acme Attractions was responsible for introducing many punks to reggae music. In addition, it was also a hangout for punks who were already knowledgeable about the genre, individuals like Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer from The Clash, and John Lydon from the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd.
Through his connections in the scene, Don Lett was offered a job DJing at a new punk club called The Roxy. On January 1st 1977, The Roxy club in London opened its doors. In his role as DJ, Don Letts would once again be instrumental in introducing reggae music to a white British audience. As there were no punk records released at the time of its opening, he would instead play proto-punk, dub, and reggae for the audience to dance to in-between the band’s sets.
“What’s funny is that the punks used to say to me ‘look don’t worry about all that [proto-punk] stuff Don, just keep playing the reggae’, which is quite funny, you know. A lot of good things came out of that cultural exchange.’
Not all of the punks that visited The Roxy had grown up in areas where they had been exposed to black culture. Don Letts’ sets were in some cases the very first experience that the white audience had of listening to dub and reggae music.
In addition to his residency at The Roxy, Don would also pass around mix tapes that he had made to his friends to educate them. These friends included the Americans Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and Lenny Kaye, a member of the Patti Smith Group.
Asked what made reggae so appealing to the punks, he argues: ‘That’s easy. It was very anti-establishment, and the songs had a musical reportage quality, so there singing about things that they could relate to – you know, songs like The Mighty Diamond’s ‘I Need a Roof Over My Head’, because housing was a big problem in the seventies.
“Chant Down Babylon’ is also in the same spirit as ‘White Riot’ and ‘Anarchy in The UK’. They used to be soundbite type lyrics that reggae had that kind of appealed to kids back then. It was anti-establishment and they loved the bass lines.
“People like Strummer, and Simonon were already listening to black music, particularly reggae, which had been set up by the whole skinhead thing. The people I turned on to listening to reggae were people who didn’t live next door to black people, and in the mid-seventies that was a lot of people.’
This cultural exchange between black and white music became more obvious as the decade drew on, with punk bands like The Slits, and The Clash incorporating reggae elements into their sound. This is evident on tracks such as ‘Instant Hit’ and ‘Guns of Brixton’ respectively.
All of this interest in Jamaican music was reciprocated in 1977, when popular reggae artist Bob Marley released the track ‘Punky Reggae Party’. This track celebrated musicians like The Clash, The Jam, and Dr Feelgood, who were involved with the punk movement.
In 1976 Bob Marley had been shot prior to performing at ‘Smile Jamaica’, a concert organized by the Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley. This incident led him to temporarily relocate to London, in order to recover from his injuries. Whilst there, he met a young Don Letts, who had become involved with the punk scene.
Asked how Bob Marley became aware of punk, Don recounts: ‘He was living in London at the time…and he had heard all the negative press. The tabloid press was portraying punk rather negatively; that’s what he picked up on initially. What happened was I went round there to collect some money off him. I had like bondage trousers on, and he started to [make fun of me]. I said ‘look, you’ve got it wrong. These guys are my mates. They’re like-minded rebels.’ He basically told me to [go away], but I held my ground, which was a big deal for me then because I was young.
“Anyway he’s in London and over the coming months he gets somewhat more familiar with the whole punk scene, primarily through a lot of journalists…who were interviewing him at the time. They’d be telling him what was going on with the punk scene. He picked up on it, a little bit later than some of us obviously – then again he was from Jamaica – and was moved to write that song ‘Punky Reggae Party’, in which he actually name checks several punk bands including The Clash.”
The scope of the reggae and punk crossover is truly astounding, and hard to encapsulate in so few words. Even today music is constantly being informed by Jamaican sounds, whether it be hip-hop, rock, or punk.
Reflecting on the legacy of this crossover, Don states: “It feels to me that it’s still evolving. I don’t think that it did peak, because it is an ongoing part of so much. It’s all over the place. The idea of pushing the bass to the front, that’s from reggae. That’s not gone anywhere. That’s still a major driving force.
‘The whole DJing, MCing, rap they call it now, that also started in Jamaica. That isn’t going anywhere. The space in dub, and the idea of using a mixing desk as an instrument, is still a major part in electronica and dub music, and dance music too. The 12” remix came out of Jamaica. I don’t see any of these things as having peaked. What they do is they keep evolving and morphing into other things.’
Punk music in the UK was arguably a response to the poor conditions of living during James Callaghan’s time as Labour Prime Minister. Though it wasn’t until Thatcher came to power that punk really hit its political stride. One specific example of this is when punk came out in support of the miners during the 1984-85 strikes.
In the late 1970s, under Callaghan, both unemployment and inflation were rising, whilst public spending was being cut. These conditions caused the first wave of the punk explosion to occur, with bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash forming as a response to the dismal realities of 1970’s British life. This initial movement that began under Callaghan’s reign in Downing Street would provide a perfect base for other musicians to build upon in later years under Thatcher.
After Thatcher came to power there were a series of strikes within the country, with growing unrest levelled at her increasingly controversial policies. From the start of her time in Downing Street, it was clear to everyone that she didn’t intend to befriend those living within working class communities.
Strike and benefit
The unrest within the country at this time was expressed perfectly by the music produced by the next wave of punk musicians. Artists such as Crass, Billy Bragg, The Neurotics, and The Specials all wrote about conditions within Britain at this time, pointing the finger at Thatcher for her role in the country’s misfortunes.
In 1984, fresh from the Falklands conflict, Thatcher began to plot one of her most controversial acts yet as Prime Minister – the closure of coal pits up and down the country. This action threatened to cast thousands of mineworkers into unemployment.
As a response to this, the National Union for Miners ordered a national strike. Miners from a number of pits decided to heed the call of the union and strike, forming picket lines to protest the impending closures. In many cases this led to the participants being unable to claim their benefit, or receiving a reduced amount from the Department for Health or Social Security (DHSS).
When record storeowner and promoter Simon Phillips heard about what was happening, he decided to host a series of benefits for the miners. These shows were intended to raise money to supplement the workers and their families, as well as raise awareness for what was happening in these working communities.
These gigs would attract bands such as The Pogues, The Neurotics, and Crass, in addition to the popular singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.
‘A weird position’
Billy Bragg is the artist that is perhaps most commonly associated with these gigs. Having built a career as a political singer songwriter, he saw the gigs as a way of testing how much music could change the world.
He states: ‘The miners strike put me in a weird position, where…I could really test this idea of what can music do in politics. I could actually go out, having listened to political music, and…music that had tried to change the world, and I now had an opportunity to try and do that.’
In 1984 Bragg placed an advert in the NME, stating his interest in playing at a benefit for the miners. Simon Phillips saw this and booked Bragg to appear at an upcoming show, the third gig yet to be hosted for the miners.
Other groups had more personal reasons for getting involved with the benefit gigs. The rise in VAT under Thatcher’s Conservative government meant that the Neurotics’ debut album ‘Beggars Can Be Choosers’ was delayed, as they had to find more money in order to pay for the increased printing costs. This act caused the struggling musicians to take an immediate disliking to Thatcher.
‘Audience needs to change the world’
Steve Drewitt, lead singer and the songwriter for The Neurotics, states: ‘From the word go, we had become anti-Thatcher, but as the dust settled over that change in political equilibrium, we started to realize what that meant to people and we started to become more political.’
‘We got really involved with doing benefits to support the miners and the miner’s wives, and helped raise money so that they could stay out on strike. That was our way of doing something meaningful in fighting against Thatcherism.’
The responses to these gigs were favourable, with many people openly expressing their support for the miners’ cause. This enthusiasm was a testament to the depth of feeling in the country at the time. Musicians, such as Billy Bragg, even went so far as to forfeit some of their pay for the event. This was done in order to improve the efficiency of the fundraising for the Bedwas miners’ food fund.
Despite the overwhelming support for the movement however, today Bragg reflects soberly on the events. He suggests the event was not about raising money, but instead about raising awareness for the cause. Arguably, the benefit gigs achieved this. They were responsible for introducing a generation of young music fans to an alternative perspective of what was happening in the country.
Following this event, Bragg would later be inspired to form Red Wedge. This was a political movement that sought to oust Thatcher in the 1987 general election in favour of the Labour candidate Neil Kinnock. Red Wedge would utilize very similar techniques in order to spread their message. This included recruiting musicians to tour the country, in an effort to raise support.
Commenting on these events, Bragg now states: ‘The miner’s strike was a huge education for me. It allowed me to see the limits of what you can do with music. Perhaps beforehand I thought that music could change the world; but after the miner’s strike and Red Wedge, I came to realize that what music could do is offer you a different perspective of the world. It’s not only the reality but it’s the responsibility of the audience to change the world, not the singer-songwriter.’
Punk music has never really had an easy time, but never has that statement been truer than in South Africa during apartheid. Not only were records by alternative artists not played, they were destroyed and legislated.
Up until the early 1980s there had been only one mainstream band that had dared to be multi-racial, the music group Juluka. In fact, prior to this, it had been illegal for musicians of different ethnic backgrounds to perform together in a public place under the Separate Amenities Act of 1953. This didn’t deter the punks however.
In Johannesburg, something was beginning to happen. In the 1970s, a number of promising musicians, from a variety of different backgrounds, started to form punk bands.
Bands such as National Wake, Kalahari Surfers, and Corporal Punishment were born out of this punk scene. They wrote unashamedly about issues that were facing South Africa during apartheid.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, The Specials were a rare group that successfully combined a political message with mainstream appeal. Their style, which combined the infectious rhythms of Jamaican ska with the social commentary of punk, continues to be an influence of many musicians, including contemporary artists such as Lily Allen and Tricky.
Horace Panter (A.K.A Sir Horace Gentleman) was their bassist at the height of the group’s popularity, present as The Specials took the world by storm with acclaimed singles like ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘A Message To You Rudy’. Talking to him about the origins of the band’s more political side, he states: “When I was 10 I was in The Searchers fan club because I liked the way Tony Jackson wielded a semi-acoustic bass guitar. Politics was probably the furthest thing from my mind. But growing up in the 1960s you were aware that music gave you a voice, you know, going back to Bob Dylan and all those kind of Woodstock artists like Country Joe and The Fish – the Vietnam war and the protest stuff.
“Then when punk came along it encapsulated the whole thing. It was more nihilistic in a way than anarchistic – we’re bored and therefore we can get away with being stupid, which I didn’t think was that cool. But The Clash had the right sort of idea; they took a very positive stance. We had all these influences, so I think then I changed from wanting to be a pop star – for want of a better word – into something that had meaning, that had depth.”