Not Just White Noise Supremacy: The Diversity of the Underground Punk Network in late 1970s-early 1990s America

Recently, a book called White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, edited by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay, was released. Race has been at the forefront of debates on punk, probably before, and definitely since, Lester Bangs wrote his article “White Noise Supremacists” in the Village Voice in 1979. Reactions to White Riot reveals the diversity of opinion on race and politics in punk milieux, especially this review of the book in Maximum Rocknroll, White Riot: Another Failure.”

Discussions on punk and race instantly brings to mind not only the Clash song “White Riot,” but also the Minor Threat song “Guilty of Being White.” The song was written by Ian MacKaye, who was frustrated by being mistreated, because of the color of his skin, by black youths in the community he grew up in. Highly contentious, debate and different interpretations continue to surround the song. As the book White Riot and the reactions to it show, this contention extends to the issue of race and punk as a whole.

The thing about punk is, as D. Boon said: “punk is whatever we made it to be.” From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, punk was a melange of not only different races, but also voices, messages, outlooks and ideas. Music scenes sprung up across the United States (and parts of Canada), forming an underground network where people could raise voices differing to the status quo of the mainstream.

In the following, I try to touch on the diversity that existed in the underground punk network in the United States. It is by no means comprehensive, but should provide a taste of what was happening, and how the varying elements of that diversity mixed together.

Well, except for Diversity being an old wooden ship from the Civil War era

The underground punk network was incredibly diverse. Each individual milieu in the network was unique, and comprised of participants with different beliefs and values. Often, these outlooks were at odds with mainstream beliefs or at the very least unnoticed or unaccepted. This ranged from not buying into the consumer culture that was embraced during the Reagan era to being a member of a marginalized group with society. Members’ beliefs spread across the entire spectrum; there were notable participants that were staunch Republicans, like Johnny Ramone, and many involved in various scenes were right wing and even fascist.

What each milieu in the network did was expose people to social and political views that were not well-known, For example, in the lyrics of songs and in pages of fanzines, matters such as gay rights, environmentalism, pacifism and anarchy were addressed.

Examining issues of the fanzine Factsheet Five from the early 1990s, dedicated to listing and reviewing other fanzines, the variance of voices within the publication community becomes apparent. The Madison Insurgent, for instance, was a fanzine dedicated to covering current events such as AIDS, the protest group Act-Up, and Women’s associations (FF#42, pg., 36). Traction, from Milwaukee, “[broke] boundaries in its choice of subjects in underground culture,” and focused primarily on music (FF#42, pg., 64). While the purpose of fanzines was to initiate exposure and discussion on a range of topics, this sometimes bordered on hatred, as with Smith’s Report, which called into question the existence of the Holocaust (FF#43, p 42), to sexual exploitation with the Nambla Bullietin, which tried to dissuade their audience from the idea that adult sexual relationships with minors was unacceptable  (FF#42, pg, 38).

The network acted to bring the likeminded together, and forge community bonds that enabled support for the individuals involved. Generally, a case can be made for many in the underground being Caucasian, but there were notable exceptions. Most significantly was the Washington D.C. band, the Bad Brains. An all African-American band that played their first show in 1979, the group transcended racial hurdles. As member Darryl Jenifer later reflected:

Here we were, Black homeboys checking out Rock & Roll and vice versa. It’s all just music now, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be, all about open-mindedness. There was a lot of separatism back in the day. By people checking each other’s cultures out, barriers and stereotypes are broken down. And that’s what we need.

While there were walls crumbling, however, there was conflict occurring. In the music community, where different attitudes mixed together with regularity, clashes often transpired. While at first the Bad Brains were bridging racial gaps with their inclusion and proficiency in the underground milieux, their interpretation of Rastafarianism caused a divergence from many other scene members. While on their first America-wide tour in April of 1982, they played and stayed with two bands in Austin Texas, Big Boys and MDC (Millions of Dead Cops). Members of the Bad Brains believed, at the time, that homosexuality was incongruent with the teachings of their religion. Members of the Big Boys were gay and this led to disagreement between the local musicians and the Bad Brains. Although the details of which are contended by both sides, the disagreement led to lines being drawn within the wider underground community.

While many still appreciated the Bad Brains’ music, for instance Joey Keithley, the band members and other network participants had irrevocable philosophical differences. Keithley, an atheist, believed that the very notion of Christianity, which Rastafarianism is a variant of, cannot be reconciled with punk, and so the idea of a Christian punk band was “an oxymoron.”

Different lifestyles were very much in the forefront of the underground network. Another groundbreaking band from D.C. and contemporaries of the Bad Brains was Minor Threat. Minor Threat’s front man Ian MacKaye was the originator of what was called “Straight-edge.” Mackaye had been disillusioned with his age cohort’s excessive lifestyle choices; in drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and having promiscuous sex. Going straight-edge, then, was to make different choices than what was usually associated with the usual glamour of the music lifestyle. Mackaye’s outlook can be expressed in the Minor Threat song, “Straight Edge:”

I’m a person just like you/ But I’ve got better things do to/ Than sit around and fuck my head/ Hang out with the living dead/ Snort white shit up my nose/ Pass out at the shows/ I don’t even think about speed/ That’s something I just don’t need/ I’ve got the straight edge

As well as the song “Out of Step (with the world):”

(I) Don’t Smoke/ Don’t drink/ Don’t fuck/ At least I can fucking think

As pointed out by sociologist Deena Weinstein, the ideas comprising straight-edge served to inspire and impact members of the network. Most popular in the early 1980s while Minor Threat was together, a straight-edge community formed, the membership of which recognized each other by the X they drew on their hands. MacKaye himself attested that he was very much advocating for thinking for oneself by raising the notions of straight-edge. The mass consumer culture of the 1980s was inhibiting creativity, and rather than going out and purchasing products promoted by the mainstream, Mackaye was asserting that people should “try and find a little more entertainment from [their] own resources.” Therefore, Minor Threat only played all-ages shows, did not sell merchandise, and kept the price of entry to a reasonable level. They removed themselves almost completely from the consumer culture associated with the music industry and the tendency for artists’ work becoming commodified.

Further to this, straight-edge was a reaction to not only mass culture’s restrictions on individuality, but also the outlook advocated in the mass media. With regards to sex, “On television kids see people every night going off with different people. And these characters never have any of the real-life problems that occur, like pregnancy, VD, et cetera. It’s always clean. It is a myth. It’s wrong. And a lot of people get caught up in the fantasy.”  In other words, the straight edge outlook was a backlash against commercial culture, and thereby a way for the young to remove themselves from its glittery and superficial attitude. Mackaye did not want people to simply mimic him; he wanted them to think for themselves.

Other songwriters support this assertion of it being up to the individual to decipher meaning in the music for themselves. Whether the listeners conclusion is the same as the musicians is not what is important. For example, the front man of the English band Radiohead, Thom Yorke, asserted that “I think that’s the nature of good art, it should be interpreted and misinterpreted.”

Of course, it was up to each individual to decide to what extent to embody these new values once introduced to them, if at all. That is to say that there were varying degrees of extremism within the underground network. First, people could simply go to a venue to enjoy the music being played. While it may have been difficult to ignore other participants’ political leanings, there is no reason why someone could not go to the show and then leave once the performance was over. Others, on the other hand, may have been looking to become exposed to new political ideas or connect with others that shared a like-mindedness on a range of issues. Even if someone had the intention of simply watching the performance, it is likely they would have at least noticed the unconventional styles and viewpoints of others at the show.

Very much in the spirit of DIY, Minor Threat and Ian Mackaye’s later band Fugazi saw the way the band acted on ever level stay outside the realm of mass consumer culture. Mackaye moved into Dischord house, the home of band members and safe haven for musicians travelling from elsewhere in the network and in need of respite. (Eddie Vedder stayed there with Mackaye upon learning of Cobain’s death).  This was also the base of operations for Dischord Records, the independent label formed by Mackaye and still in operation today. Much like shows had a price cap, so did records released by the label.

As had happened with the Rasta inspired beliefs of the Bad Brains, underground milieux became battlegrounds for differing ideas. Although Ian Mackaye did not intend for people to follow his ideas on straight-edge behavior as gospel, many did embrace the philosophy whole-heartedly and looked down on those that still lived the lifestyle of musical excess. In another example, many women were vital to the network’s development, participating by organizing and promoting shows, writing and publishing fanzines, and playing in bands. With regards to performing, there was still the perception that the groups were dominated by men, and when a band had a female member or was comprised of all women, this was usually stressed before any mention of the acts actual musicianship. Furthermore, the dancing at shows was at times violent, and fighting could break out as well.

Both inspired by the underground milieu’s ability to give voice to music and messages on the margins, and also in contention of its sometime overt masculinity, women banded together to form the Riot Grrrl milieu, which combined feminist thought with music and community action.

(Later, the Riot Grrrl movement suffered through a mainstream affixation that caused a lighter, or diet version of their expressions to be exhibited in popular culture. The marketing, stylized imagery, attitude, and musical presentation of the Spice Girls is a good example of this.)

One only has to open up a fanzine from any milieu to see the range of opinions within it. Readers would write to the fanzines to express their ideas, and these letters would be included in fanzines such as Maximum Rocknroll, which had a publication range that spanned the entire network. Although produced in Berkeley, writers and readers could communicate with each other from across the country. As shown in the section above, this was essential for the network to be able to function without the support of mainstream institutions.

In a letter titled “Optimistic, Sort of” in issue 10, December 1983, Jon Sanborne from the Long Island hardcore punk band Satan’s Cheerleaders (the name borrowed from the 1977 horror film starring John Carradine) wrote into Maximum Rocknroll, asserting:

I’ve read a lot of statements in MMR by people who feel it’s too late for any hopes of a revolution. That’s quite true; the bureaucracies of the world are too entrenched in happy consumerism to be upset by a bunch of disgruntled youth. That’s just reality. However, many people are realizing, and a lot more have to, is that there is an ideal that can function in killer reality: that of establishing a strong, alternative underground in America. Ok, it’s here already in the form of hardcore. But that is now; what should be shot for is an underground that will (to sound like a true traditionalist) be able to be passed from one generation to another, so that no matter what the changing state of music and attitudes, there will always be that alternative. The basic state of society makes its members accept certain concepts as reality, before they have developed the power to choose if they even want to accept those concepts. And those people spend their whole lives building on the confined structure of those concepts. You end up with this whole mass, controlled culture that you must accept and eat, because it too is built on the same concepts. When you confront people with the idea that these concepts are in fact not the only reality they can get scared. It does, after all, call for a total restructuring of their lives. But some people, on the other hand, spend their whole lives looking for an alternative. It must always be kept there, strong and readily available to those who want it. Otherwise, the internal logic of the bureaucracies may become too strong as to shut off those routes permanently. Instead of each generation having to start from scratch, it should be kept a vibrant [sic] living thing. I think hardcore has hit upon a very important concept, and it’s just that: the hardcore of music.

We are now part of the hardcore of punk, that encompasses art and thinking, as well as music. That intensity, that commitment to putting across honest thoughts and creative expression that are not wrapped up in the value system of the mass culture – that’s hardcore.

As with the analogy of the cave in Plato’s Republic, Sanborne likens those immersed in mass culture to staring at shadows on the wall their entire lives. There was the perception by participants such as Sanborne, then, that involvement in the underground alternative milieu gave one the ability to see past the shadows on the wall and process information as an individual.  Mackaye also stressed the individuality that the network made permissible, but at the same time, there were those in the milieux that were willing to latch on to another’s philosophy once it was introduced. Most likely, some did this simply to fit in; for others however, it matched up with principles they connected with, or already had. Just as milieux participants were reacting against the music of mass culture, they were also acting against the ideas it represented.

Indeed, if you were going to categorize the political mindset of the network with a sweeping generalization, it would be that it was considerably anti-establishment. The underground network consisted of local communities that banded together under a common trait, such as music or political leanings. Often, these traits overlapped. For example, anarchy was the driving force behind the fanzine Daily Impulse, from San Diego. The bi-monthly and anti-authoritarian publication often carried anti-war and anti-government slogans, such as Randolph Bourne’s “war is the health of the state.” The fanzine contained protests against censorship, corporate power and unethical business practices, for instance the perceived misuse of the Beatles song “Revolution” by Nike in a 1987 advertisement campaign.

These protests as well as efforts against political targets were usually done by using stylized images. For example, one picture shows a punk being impaled by the hammer and the sickle, with the accompanying slogan: “Don’t be fooled! Leninism = Red Fascism!” Furthermore, another page consisted of a picture of a fence with spotlights upon it, with the slogan “No Boarders! Let them come across!” Articles ranged from giving instructions on how to be a “Do it Yourself Punk” to the history and ideas behind anarchism. The information provided on being a punk was not simply what style to follow or what songs to listen to, but was rather a list of guidelines on how to become more open-minded and act according to your individual beliefs.

The Daily Impulse actively supported its audience’s community. The fanzine and bands hosted “hardcore picnics” where music, artists, politics, and community came together. These gatherings often faced police backlashes, and common themes were threats and arrests.” This tension with authority placed the community within a framework of dissent, where simply by gathering they faced repression. Debate over whether this police reaction was justified was debatable, but from the side of the anarchist community was perceived as authoritarianism by those with power.

The police were also a heavy presence at shows; one example detailed being the arrest of Social Distortion front man Mike Ness after a performance at the Adams Avenue Theatre on 27 October 1984. Ness had apparently thrown a bottle at a security guard and hence his detainment by the authorities. Details were also given, however, on how “some of the hardcore folk wound up in jail for simply hanging out at the event.” Obviously, the police would have a different opinion on why the arrests were made. Regardless, the perception in the underground community was that the police abused their authority and were at odds with milieu participants (Daily Impulse, Vol. 1, No. 1. April-May, 1985, pg, 1-2. , Daily Impulse, Vol. 1, No. 2, June-July, 1985, pg, 1-2).

Due to the diversity of the network, it did not bond together into one united voice. It was comprised of many individuals creating agency for themselves, and gave them the ability to express themselves in ways not permissible by mainstream institutions. Not everyone got along, however, and issues violence and gender discrimination were often at the forefront of participation in the network, especially in the hardcore and oi milieux. This abrasive contention did not go unnoticed, but instead led to the issues having to be dealt with, or at the very least cause contention as the Bad Brains homophobia did. Whereas in the mainstream such problems were dismissed or glossed over, that could not be done in a smaller, more insular environment.

Thanks to Factsheet Five, Daily Impulse, and Maximum Rocknroll for the great pictures!
Explore posts in the same categories: noise from the underground, Punk and Politics, voices from the underground

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3 Comments on “Not Just White Noise Supremacy: The Diversity of the Underground Punk Network in late 1970s-early 1990s America”

  1. “Black Music, White People / White Music, Black People”

    By Mark Reynolds 20 February 2012

  2. […] Readings: Dave Grohl: ’80s Hardcore Not Just White Noise Supremacy: The Diversity of the Underground Punk Network in late 1970s-early 1… […]

  3. […] Readings: Dave Grohl: ’80s Hardcore Not Just White Noise Supremacy: The Diversity of the Underground Punk Network in late 1970s-early 1… […]

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