Did POTUS Carter suppress punk? (DO NOT MAKE ME LAUGH). How political was early punk? Did punk influence or be influenced by politics requires investigating the mid-1970s. I wrote this because a Facebook pal asked me some questions about punk and politics for her college paper. It is obvious to me what people think NOW often is at odds what many of us were thinking THEN.
I suppose if I posted this when I wrote it, I might have been invited to speak at recent events dealing with punk and politics. Oh well. Better now than never.
What was the state of the music industry and politics during Carter? But it even means going back further, a decade earlier to the 60s. In 1964, the United States used the excuse, later proven to be a lie, that there was incident in the Gulf of Tonkin Bay in Vietnam. It justified are sending over troops in an all-out military action.
Almost immediately, people began protesting the Vietnam war. Many agreed with Mohammed Ali, who famously said: “The draft is about white people sending black people to fight yellow people to protect the country they stole from the red people.”
Political unrest on college campuses were an everyday occurrence. The music reflected that. John Fogerty singing with Creedence Clearwater, “Fortunate Son,” about not being born with silver spoon in his mouth. Therefore he would be eligible for the draft. Whereas the rich boys like Trump could get out of it because of questionable medical excuses like “bone spurs in the foot.” Country Joe and The Fish and their wonderful, “I’m fixin’ to die rag” is the perfect evergreen antiwar anthem. The Beatles “Revolution.” I can go on and on about popular culture as expressed in rock ‘n roll music was definitely political in the 60s.
Literally minutes after editing this, being the political junkie I am, while listening to MSNBC, had to check out WashingtonPost.com for maybe the fifth time today. PBS just released Ken Burns’ new doc on the Vietnam War. Long article with vids about 60’s protest music. In context with the news and politics at that time. (Gotta love the timing!) You won’t find that level of awareness of politics and punk, even today. Punk doesn’t inspire political songs like during the Vietnam hippie era.
Read this to verify what I wrote and more: “You’ve heard these songs. But never the way you hear them in ‘The Vietnam War.’”
That’s true ONLY if you either didn’t live through the 60’s or never opened a paper, magazine or listened to music on the radio, which is how music was delivered then.
The 60’s were not only about the antiwar movement, but civil rights, with the Voting Rights Act that was gutted recently, sadly. We had women’s rights, gay rights and just basic human rights. Plus the beginning of awareness of environmental issues. Marches and protests focused on these issues.
President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Act/Agency to gain more liberal voters, which he needed for victory. From the mid-60s to the early 70s, America was definitely going through a lot of social, political and cultural unrest. The music reflected all that. It was rather dynamic, varied and exciting.
However, by the mid-70s, the turmoil of Nixon resigning, music was rather bland with one exception: glitter glam. Bowie, Elton John and T Rex and all that dressing up and putting on a lot makeup. I wasn’t into that at all! I didn’t want to look glam. I didn’t relate to Bowie’s songs. I hate Major Tom. (However, Bowie was a HUGE influence in punk! As were Queen). No guitar solos like Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull and his flute, a woodwind instrument. Long solos. Stadium rock. It didn’t say much. It wasn’t relatable to everyone.
Then along came a group of artists in New York. Poets like Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell of Television and Patti Smith. Guys singing teenage songs, the Dictators and Ramones. Blondie with their vast knowledge of pop culture, La Dolce Vita, Fellini and West Side Story “shark in jet’s clothing.”
Music coming out rough-and-tumble New York, which was rather tacky and disreputable. Artists and musicians were greatly influenced by the Warhol scene. Plus the Velvet Underground, legendary New York Dolls, plus Iggy, who came from Detroit but well known and admired in that New York scene and other underground rock culture.
That was the beginning of early punk. It spread with the Ramones going to England in July 76 and inspiring the Clash, Sex Pistols and more. That famous time Johnny Ramone told the Clash to go ahead and play because Ramones can’t play either.
Note that the two most overtly political bands came from England, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Malcolm McLaren worked briefly with the New York Dolls and aware of the Ramones. He went back home and formed the Sex Pistols.
I shot McLaren in Southern California when the Ramones first toured, August 1976 from the South Bay to Bay Area. Then February 1977, when Ramones and Blondie played the Whisky. AND February 1978, for our own Masque Benefit. McLaren was more visible than any other manager or whatever he was than other rock managers. He also installed Rory Johnston, a fellow Brit, who lived and worked in Hollywood and reported back to Malcolm.
McLaren was political. He was a Jew growing up in Britain immediately following WW2. An artist and a cutting edge provocateur. Listen carefully to “Never Mind the Bollocks.” I love it because it’s so subversive, so transgressive. Songs about corporate control, regarding record companies as the enemy. Abortion. Holocaust. Calling England’s monarchy “a fascist regime.” Talk about pushing buttons! But that was punk. The other very overtly political band was the Clash.
I read several books about the Clash. No matter the source, repeated focus on Joe Strummer and Bernie Rhodes and their discussions about politics. Joe’s background as a child traveling with his diplomatic father. Joe Strummer, more than anyone in punk, knew politics and history. It provided the foundation for his songs.
I thought the Ramones were brilliantly political and funny. “Havana Affair.” “Today your love, tomorrow the world.” The song directly references Nazis: “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor. Yes I am. I’m a Nazi schatze. Y’know I fight for fatherland” is about relationships, not nationalism, not war mongering. Never with admiration, always with snark. That line is a modification of what Hitler and the Nazis said. Vital to remember that Dee Dee grew up in postwar Germany, with a German mother and American father.
Some influences of politics in punk, but not driving music like politics had in the 60s. There weren’t social and political movements in the 70s like the 60s. Part of that was these social protests didn’t seem to work. Quite often people blame boomers for “selling out” and making the world so terrible. But it wasn’t the hippies. It was the people like Nixon who were in control, the primarily the GOP, always with tacit collaboration with the Democrats, all who used the Hoover’s FBI and police to repress these activists.
Also the hippies had this love “thing.” Easy to sing about, but hard to express in real life. That didn’t work for all of us. “Easy to be Hard” from Hair says it all.
“Especially people who care about strangers.
Who care about evil and social injustice.
Do you only care about being proud?
How about I need a friend, I need a friend.
How can people be so heartless?
How can they ignore their friends?”
Not everybody into the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and later Jefferson Starship musical type of escapism.
We needed and responded to a more energetic energy, more inspired by the garage bands of the 1950’s and 60’s. Listen to some of the music coming from Rhino’s boxed sets from the 50’s when rock ‘n roll was very rebellious. Eddie Cochran and so many other early rockers. No room to delve into that here.
A whole lot of teenage rebellion and teenage angst was scary to the public in the 50’s. Juvenile Delinquents and all that. Hippie protest music was alarming for content, but not for its anger. 60’s protest music called for change, but not in your face like punk. We were confrontational. 60’s music devolved into meaningless stadium rock or arising from LA’s Troubadour with Linda Ronstadt, Eagles, etc.
Several early punk bands, especially the Ramones, were inspired by glitter/glam, which had very little, if anything to do with politics. Bowie especially. Queen. New York Dolls. How much punk was influenced by then current or recent political status is not very well documented. Minimal social political activity going on anywhere. Most of the people I met, hung out with, and/or photographed in that early punk were not vocal about politics. Not to the same degree as in the 60’s.
How many early punks read the daily paper, glanced at the front page, Newsweek, Time magazine: those kind of things were probably really minimal as compared to the 60’s. The Los Angeles Free Press (Freep) in the 60’s was a major voice. Barely registered in the 70’s. Punks were about personal expression. Anger. Wild energy. Just wanted to have fun for the most part. If people cared then, or now, to delve more deeply into the lyrics and comments in some interviews, politics played a role in punk. Just not on the surface, like the 60’s.
I immediately think about the Screamers, the Bags, X, Germs and Weirdos in Los Angeles. They happen to be the earliest and most successful and beloved bands. Their appeal was not purely political. We were more focused on the music, dancing to it, who they were and their part in this early scene, how they looked, in terms of being creative (vs being typical teeny bopper cute or Jimmy Page sexy. Not saying punks weren’t all that, but many were not).
I always said that one day we’d be standing next to someone and the next day, they were on stage. Naturally we flocked to the shows and promoted our friends. We did the same for the more known or new punk bands from New York, England and San Francisco.
The success or the notoriety or the following of those bands wasn’t political per se. Punk is political because we talked about individual rights. Social issues. Personal issues and politics is personal on some levels. It starts there. Carefully look at the lyrics of bands like the X, Bags, the Screamers, Germs, Weirdos. It’s very obvious with the Clash and is done tongue-in-cheek with the Ramones.
There are political references and topics. That’s one of the reasons I loved [still do!] punk. Politics wasn’t the prevailing thought amongst those punks. Punk was so very creative and energetic and fun! That was the main appeal for me. I saw and heard it. I knew from the start, I had to document it for posterity. For times like this. And to share the fun.
We were doing things rather than sitting around talking about world politics. That could be said from other cities as well. Certainly we used punk as a platform to express political ideas which were more personal than they were popular. Americans in the 70’s weren’t into politics like in the 60s. We were in a standstill. Music and Politics. B-O-R-I-N-G and B-L-A-N-D.
The idea the government was aware of the early punk movement is a stretch. We were very underground. Few people were paying attention to us. I know this as a published photographer reading all kinds of news, all kinds of rock ‘n roll magazines and as a lifelong news junkie, I read news ALL the time. Very hard for me to get my photos published because nobody wanted to know about it except now and then a few rock ‘n’ roll magazines.
Something very significant happened that definitely was a huge obstacle for punk. If you’ve seen the documentary about the Ramones, “End of the Century,” makes it very clear by their manager Danny Fields — it is the most remarkable statement in the whole documentary in my opinion — when Danny says they were going to have a record store display for “Sheena is a Punk Rocker.” Then the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones swore on British TV. The British press made a big deal out of it.
The American press scared off the record companies. The promotion for the Ramones was killed. What is interesting about promotions of popular entertainment, absolutely to this very day about movies, TV, music and books, you get one chance out of the gates. That’s it. They’re going to send out a press release about your new product once. ONCE.
That’s the great part about social media. We can decide what, when, where and how often to promote our work or ourselves. But we didn’t have social media years ago. We didn’t have the Internet. No cell phones, no pagers, few had answer machines, let alone phones. We were at the whims of the powers-that-be and their very closed minds. Sire Records, after signing the Ramones, became part of Warner Brothers.
Record company personnel decided that punk was noncommercial. They could not promote REAL punk. They made lame press releases and promos. They didn’t understand nor envision how marketable punk could be! They’d ask me WHY I loved the Ramones. I gladly told. But really? They did not get the Ramones or Clash or other punk bands?
Wassup watering down punk by calling it “new wave”? That is political!! Censorship. Diluting so the masses will take to it.
Newsflash: the masses wanted and needed our music, clothes, etc THEN. Sure, everything and everyone needed a bit of fine tuning. The Go-Go’s benefitted with some polish. Fits their lyrics and look, and their personalities and interests.
X suffered. They needed a hard edge sound to amplify their hard edged, hard living lyrics. Billy’s guitar parts too often delivered by too hippie dippie Ray Manzarek. I adored Ray. But he was NOT X. Billy’s silent guitar for some songs are badly missed!!
Honestly, why would anyone tamper with Billy Zoom’s brilliant guitar contributions to X? “Los Angeles” would have done better with ALL his guitar licks up front, clearer and louder. I thought the vocals muddy too.
That again is the record company ‘improving’ bands for mass consumption.
We had no power. Record companies and magazines had the power. They had the money. They had the public’s eyes.
Power plays are always political. We were a threat to their stability. They lost their way. They were making money and wanted to keep control. Our DIY was not appreciated by the status quo.
X sang it best: “The Unheard Music.” My add: “The Unseen Photos.” I love seeing photos from early punk as much as any fan. We were locked out. We created a very influential cultural revolution. We gave “DIY” to popular culture. We had to DIY. We had NO choice.
Way before politicians were aware of or heard or saw punk, the media –entertainment companies (which means managers and others related to music) and press – turned their backs at us. Or threw us a few crumbs when they needed something to fill their magazine. Or looked us at strangely. Didn’t accept us.
Gabba gabba hey, we accept you. But record companies did not.
They sure thought I was strange! I will never forget famous photographer Julian Wasser eyeing me. Cameras around our necks, we both stood next to the Whisky stage as fans started to flow in. He asked how long it took for me to put on my makeup. I painted my face like a Matisse. I had FUN dressing up. Makeup, jewelry I mostly made myself, with a bloody hand hanging or upside down cross or guitar, my magenta and black curly Jewfro, and vintage or handmade dresses, cool pins my pals handmade, or I, or the rare record release pin from a punk band. I LOVED it.
I told him I had no idea how long it took. And smiled. I never spent much time on how I looked. I was fast. I didn’t spend hours going to thrift and discount stores. Didn’t hang with my pals trying on clothes and creating looks, while listening to music. My pals did that. I was too busy with my photos!
Julian expressed what many in the industry, press or entertainment, thought of us. Never mind my great photos of great bands and interesting personalities and fashions. I was a walking piece of art and untouchable. How strange from Julian, who famously photographed the great artist, Marcel Duchamp with nude Eve Babitz, playing chess, didn’t realize I was a walking Matisse gone punk. That my friends were forecasting couture runways decades later. He didn’t realize we were early performance artists.
(FYI: I had no idea Julian’s legacy. He was just an older man who covered punk only when it brought him money. He didn’t relate to it other than taking a few photos and leaving. He was all about the money. He was a trip! I have great respect for his work ethic. I could not do that! Photograph for money.
His Duchamp photos are a wonderful. Check them out if you are into art and artists. I always read about and saw the main photo, having no idea HE took them. I’m sure I’m more excited about those photos at Pasadena Art Museum more than he. And so it goes.)
I saw it all, when it came to punk. That is why I photographed all I documented.
Who needs politicians to shut us down? We barely got outta the gate.
We didn’t have government or press attention like rappers and hip-hop or every other genre starting in 1980’s Reagan. Read about Gore’s “Parents Music Resource Center,” starting during Reagan’s reign, 1985. I don’t see ANY punk songs listed on Gore’s PRMC list, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parents_Music_Resource_Center.
MTV brought music to everyone which otherwise was underground or had limited audiences. Not many whites would have heard early 1980s black music if not for MTV.
Mass communication scaled up culture FAST and in a BIG way starting in early 1980s. I went to a party and saw some of the very first rock videos about to be broadcast via cable. Which was all radical and new in 1980.
Punk missed that. Why is it the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” is more known than say, “Career Opportunities”? Or “Janie Jones” or “Clampdown” (two of my all time fave songs ever)? Or “I’m So Bored with the USA” (never more timely). Nope, it’s “Rock the Casbah.”
Why? MTV. I can picture that video right now, in front of a pumpjack (I thought an oil derrick, wrong). I can also envision other scenes. Real life. My photos. But for that song, it’s the video. The Clash were a rare punk group on MTV. But they had a BIG company behind them, Columbia/CBS/Epic. The song didn’t have the same energy nor message to progressives as say, “Tommy Gun.” Casbah became a favored song by US armed forces and conservatives. Not exactly Joe Strummer’s intention, you know?
Due to MTV, music now became more accessible, but NOT punk. X was on MTV once in awhile, at 2 AM. More could see X once on MTV than everyone in 1970s — if you caught their vid.
The Press early on decided we were violent sick weirdo social outcasts with NOTHING to say and NOTHING to see. The record companies and press HATED us before that Sex Pistols incident.
I DEALT with the media. So did many of my pals. They wrote, they worked in media and record companies, press agents, bookers, managers or in music – they repeatedly spoke to record company personnel and press to take punk more seriously. It breaks my heart to hear from others, now accomplished in music or something else, say the same.
Punk WAS MARKETABLE. None so blind as those who won’t see. Punk didn’t speak to them. It wasn’t their kind of fun. They would not listen to us!
They were not interested because THEY perceived punk was dangerous. We were doing ourselves. The music was a lot louder, the hair and the makeup was crazy. It brought young kids, artists, adults together to create radically new music, graphics, clothes, makeup, hair, flyers, fanzines and more.
More lyrics were political or in your face when Hotel California and Rumors were endlessly heard. “Where you can check in but you can’t leave,” the poetic abstract, country like Linda Ronstadt or Fleetwood Mac delivered in soothing voices and music. Stevie Nicks’ song, Rhiannon, is about a woman who thinks she’s possessed. Yes, mythology and the occult were safer topics than whatever the Ramones or X were singing. Fine to be swirling around with your shawls like witchy Stevie. But you cannot have your hair crazy color spiky and safety pins in your face.
NOW our punk is EVERYWHERE. I wish I could look them all in the eyes and scream: “I TOLD YOU SO.” But most now would say they were always behind it. Losers love to claim victory.
Consider this infamous pronouncement from my dearly missed great writer and friend, Claude “Kickboy” Bessy:
“I have excellent news for the world. There is no such thing as new wave. It does not exist. It’s a figment of a lame cunt’s imagination. There was never any such thing as new wave. It was the polite thing to say when you were trying to explain you were not into the boring old rock ‘n’ roll, but you didn’t dare to say punk because you were afraid to get kicked out of the fucking party and they wouldn’t give you coke anymore.”
From “Decline of Western Civilization.” You can see me photographing and swooning to X. My hair is black, bordered by magenta (photographed as red), my camera in front of my face, in front of John Doe, while chaos swirls around me. My photos from that shoot are revered iconic classics.
We didn’t have the coke and parties and whatnot those record industry insiders liked. Actually, we threw amazing parties! My photos and our fond memories prove that. I always say I’ll never go to parties better than our DIY shindigs! Woot!! Who needed pricey, short lasting coke when speed, back then, was cheap and amazing! But you had to have a certain state of mind. Just as I found industry backstage or promo events unbelievably boring, they would have found punk parties boring or scary.
The industry clamped down or mostly ignored punk far more than anything any politician would bother to do. Reality check: Jonesy swearing wasn’t even that big of a deal. The press had its moment and moved on.
So why did American record companies and magazines in America turn a blind eye to punk? Was it political interference by the president? Carter had a MAJOR issues to deal with. Long gas lines. American hostages in Iran. Our president told citizens to put on their sweaters and turn down their thermostats. People were outraged. That’s what I remember about the mid-70’s. I was and remain a huge Carter fan. I don’t recall ever reading anything about Carter — if he even knew what was going on in punk rock.
So why did punk have such a hard time in the 70s? The answer is really very simple. It has to do with being new and different. DIY.
We were true artists. We were doing it ourselves. We put our own records. We started our own magazines. We made our own clothes. We designed our own hair and makeup styles. We produced and promoted our own shows. We created our own promo, our own flyers, our own word-of-mouth.
WE created punk. Not the record companies. Not the press. We managed to do so on minimal money. But that lack of recognition, money and support also doomed us.
Punk was rarely on the radio. Blondie, Patti, Talking Heads got some play. NY bands. Not LA bands. Only “Rodney on the ROQ” and a few college underground stations. Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” was huge. But it was more disco than punk. So it didn’t encourage others to seek out other punk music. We weren’t getting tours because they cost money. Bands need record companies for the tours and to record songs and albums. To get into magazines.
I realized this sad fact early on: pay to play. Bands in magazines usually were signed. Record companies paid for ads. Ads kept the magazines going. So of course patronage was paid to signed bands. Looking through Creem and other magazines, you’d see a review of a release from Warner Bros. And in an ad, sometimes on the same page, from Warner Bros. True for any big label.
Creem was very gritty, fun, still grassroots although perceived as mainstream by many. Creem was not a Rolling Stone corporate thing. Creem covered all kinds of music. Punk appealed to them because many of the writers and others involved WERE punks. Their homeboys were Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Creem LOVED covering punk. Well, East Coast/Brit punk. West Coast was a bit harder to place or get respect. Runaways got better coverage than X. They published at least two of my Screamers photos. I’ve been told MY photos in Creem (and other photographers as well as mine in other internationally published magazines) helped the Screamers become the first unsigned band to play the Roxy, July 1979.
(MY photos helped them get that gig. I still had to BEG to get a photo pass. That’s another reason the scene blew up. Not a lot of solidarity. But that’s for another time.)
Even with Creem, I would have gotten far more photos published if I photographed signed bands. I turned those gigs down, for the most part, because that meant I’d miss a punk show. I was into punk, not merely an entertainment photographer. Even if that meant I left a lot of money on the table. So be it.
There was a hell of a lot of anger. We were pissed off at what was going on. Personally and politically. I was angry. You bet. Still.
But we were not taking to the streets. We were not posing any danger to the established order. Our barely existing and often short-lived little record companies and fanzines were not any threat to Rolling Stone, LA Times, A & M, Warner Bros, Elektra, Polydor or RCA and all the labels. The optics, then and now, say the opposite. Look at the facts, not the spin by those in power. We did not have the power the entertainment companies and media held then (and still do).
So the idea that President Carter with actively involved in anything to suppress punk defies all logic. Why in the world Carter offer tax breaks to record companies to suppress this small music movement? That is really crazy. Now I’ve been wrong in my life. I’m willing to admit that I’m wrong now.
But only after some clear-cut evidence. Hearing these wild accusations, with no substantiation, from people like Geza X and Jello Biafra (on youtube), just makes me wanna puke. Or laugh. Dead Kennedys song “California Uber Alles” has a great hook. I always jumped up and danced to it. But it made me sick because Governor Brown was, and remains, a better governor then Reagan.
If you are going to attack a politician, why didn’t Jello go after Reagan? He ruined our public schools, from kindergarten to colleges. He closed mental institutions, forcing the mentally disturbed onto our streets. There’s plenty to sing about REAL dangers from Governor Reagan. Brown didn’t do a damned thing to us like that!!
Jello might have prevented some from electing and canonizing St Ronnie. Who knows. Wait, few heard us. Unheard Music. We didn’t have a whole lot influence.
Geza X is a legend in his own mind. He’s done some things the studio. He gets written up in guitar magazines. But is not a household name. He is not a major music person like Rick Rubin or whoever is the latest hottest producer today.
A little story about Geza X and the Screamers might give some insight into his veracity or truthiness. Legend has it the Screamers never recorded. One day I found negatives of the Screamers recording. I took photos of them and several friends of the Screamers (and myself). We were at Geza X’s. Looks like a garage studio or rec room.
I created evidence that Geza X recorded them. Nobody knows where the recordings reside. What does that say about Geza X’s memory, his inability to find what is probably the most wanted recordings out of all the punk history, certainly in LA, the Screamers. So why should anybody listen Geza X when he can’t even figure out what he did with those tapes?
I can tell you what’s going on with my photos. What is missing and where they went. I took many more photos than hours of recordings that he created back then. Between Jello and Geza X, legends in their own mind, who have no substantiation other than saying Fripp (a British musician with no punk nor American political involvement) said that Carter was behind suppressing punk music — time to move on folks, nothing to see here.
Still not convinced? Start digging. Be sure whomever you interview is reliable and didn’t get drunk back in the day. Drunk memories are not reliable. That’s why my staying sober and taking photos has more validity than many who claim I am wrong or worse. But again, if you can find serious substantial validation of this claim, I wanna know! Rock on!
Politics affects all of us, whether or not we pay any attention. Whether we vote or pay our taxes. Politics is behind everything in our lives. Punks were acutely aware and vocal. But never in a big, meaningful way like 60’s hippie music. We simply didn’t have the numbers, media attention nor respect from record companies. Just voices in the wilderness. We never shut up and now, punk influences current culture in ways most don’t realize. Had to be there. Or study your history. Politics. History. Punk. Rock on!!