This issue will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

Punk’s Do-It-Yourself ethic was transformative. It would be hard to align Punk with any specific political persuasion as affiliations with the sound run as far and wide as the political spectrum itself. Therefore, one must evaluate Punk broadly, locating its revolutionary dimension in the Do-It-Yourself ethos. As a result, Punk inspired political engagement, musical creativity, and  a myriad of sub-genres, whilst maintaining an ethos that transcended stylistic and musical boundaries. Examples also show how punk as a revolutionist culture also kick-started an internationalist musical culture that quickly began to create links of political solidarity across boundaries. Early signs of Punk’s ability to look past its own stylistic and musical affiliations, demonstrating its revolutionary capabilities as an ethic, are show in the 1980s with the soul-tinged punk music of Vic Godard and the Subway Sect, as well as the Clash’s musically expansive, and politically minded 3-vinyl ‘Sandinista!’. These illustrate aptly the way in which Punk was revolutionary beyond genres and borders; as well as showing defiance within the proximity of the inherently capitalistic music industry. 

We often, rightly, associate punk with a Do-It-Yourself ethos that still exists today. Cassettes, 7-inch singles and fanzines were independently created and produced as modes of expression among thousands of young people; bored, creative and keen to express an anger born out of the cultural come down of the 1960s. What has not been explored, however, is the way in which such an ethos developed into an ingrained understanding among the punk generation, that you could (and indeed, you can!) Do-It-Yourself. In Britain, Northern Soul was filling the ears and dance floors of England; New Wave was confusingly and creatively turning pop music on its head and Jazz was slowly being re-popularized. These musical factors all slammed into one another, providing a pretty good soundtrack for the political turmoil of the late 1970s. The result of this was a heartfelt reproduction of newfound influences, inspired by a message that if you really loved a sound, a look, or an approach, you could reproduce it in a way you saw fit. This process is illustrated in the way in which, according to Helen King, when handed ‘a bunch of northern soul 45s… [Vic] Godard immediately felt a kinship with the tone and tenor of the dancehall Motown-inflected soul music’ and so, got writing ‘in this vein.’ If artists such as Godard were inspired by messages such as legendary fanzine Sniffin’ Glue’s claim ‘This is a chord, this is another, this is a third, now form a band’ – then the mass mobilisation (if you will…) of Punk had infinite possibilities when the floodgates of musical inspiration opened up. Another incredible example of this is in the Clash’s 1980 release Sandinista! Around this time, Mick Jones said in an interview with NPR – ‘whichever station you’re with, you gotta play more rap music, because we never hear any of it in England, and we want to’ which shows the way in which the band were looking beyond their guitar music basis, inspired by whole other genres. Bands such as the Clash were often lampooned for signing to a major label (CBS in 1977), however, I argue that this shouldn’t strip them of their revolutionary zeal – they reduced their royalties on Sandinista! so it could be sold for less, and made it a triple album to point fun at a record label that didn’t want them to release a double album. This shows signs of revolutionary resistance in the confines of a capitalistic music industry. Coinciding with their musical development, was the development of the Clash’s political focus, sharpening into a Leftist Internationalist band – and they weren’t alone.

In the very same year, a Punk explosion was happening in South Africa. Bands began to spring up across the nation, inspired by the revolutionary capabilities of Punk music, and the developing internationalist ethos of Punk. By sneaking live tapes and 7inches across borders, music was able to travel and be heard in ways previously not done so. An important component of this is the way in which, generally speaking, a lot of Punk was able to represent a sense of solidarity against all regimes. Therefore, identifying as a Punk, one would broadly commit to an anti-establishment ethic that was more or less based on freedom and anarchy. A number of moments coincided to show the way in which it grew as an internationalist scene. Bands like Clash associated themselves with the Leftist Internationalism of movements, and a strong anti-US message heard in songs such as ‘The Call Up’. Bands in South Africa were self-professedly inspired by the music of groups such as the Clash, and would then go on to form bands such as National Wake and Wild Youth who had a strong anti-apartheid message, consistently at loggerheads with the apartheid regime. Although their music was deeply about the South African experience of the apartheid, they still demonstrated their own internationalism through playing fundraisers for other movements of people living under oppressive governments, notably a fundraiser for the Solidarity Movement in Poland. It was around this time that Punk was becoming explosive in Poland too as, according to Aneta Panek, ‘[p]osters, t-shirts and artzines soon abounded… Polish punk was born as an act of rebellion against the oppression of the Communist regime’. This shows the way in which Punk spread with acts of international solidarity, that no doubt is emblematic of a revolutionist culture. 

In conclusion, Punks Do-It-Yourself was its most revolutionary dimension, inspiring a generation to truly express themselves. From this developed more political aspects, and a sense of internationalism. From groups performing three-chord two-minute one-line anarchist anthems in 1976, to the inclusion of modes of Avant-guard expression with a true blend of genres in the expression of international solidarity. Punk changed, but was ever rooted in an ethos you can Do-It-Yourself.

By Arthur Arnold