Punk: ‘Don’t be told want you want, Don’t be told what you need!’

Posted: February 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

Punk – prostitute, queer, beginner, worthless person, youth, petty criminal, inspired by punk rock, a style or movement characterised by the adoption of aggressively unconventional and often bizarre or shocking clothing, hairstyles, etc., and the defiance of social norms.

During the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, the Illawarra region of New South Wales felt the impact of major economic restructuring, mass sackings and unemployment. Thousands were forced from their jobs and many youth faced ‘no future’. As unemployment and poverty in the city of Wollongong grew, so did a new youth culture – punk. Punk exploded into popular consciousness with the Sex Pistols, their 1977 hit single ‘God Save the Queen’ and their album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’. The Pistol’s ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour of England with The Clash made both bands infamous, as city after city banned their gigs and conservative politicians and media commentators denounced them. The Pistols and The Clash were strongly influenced by revolutionary politics and their anti-authoritarian, anarchic spit in the face of the establishment struck a powerful chord among marginalised youth, not just in Britain, but also in far-away Wollongong.

Today, it’s hard to appreciate how incendiary punk was at this time of intensifying economic, political and social crisis. For both supporters and opponents it was like throwing a match into a tinderbox. ‘God Save the Queen’ was banned by the BBC and the U.K. Independent Broadcasting Authority. It’s widely believed the song was considered so inflammatory that the BBC and the British Phonographic Institute refused to allow it to reach number one.  None-the-less, it was officially number two on the charts during the week that marked 25 years since the Queen’s coronation. Described by the contemporary BBC as “a clarion call for dispossessed youth . . . its energy and sense of dissatisfaction sum up perfectly what it felt like to be young and alienated in 1977.”

With my parents and younger brother, I spent six months in England during 1977. Returning to the old country, after three years in Australia, ‘a sense of dissatisfaction’ is a serious understatement of how I felt. Rather than finding an idealised past that never really existed, the U.K. was instead miserable and depressed. Thatcherism and the National Front were on the rise. The intimidating presence of ‘boot boys’ and ‘boot girls’ personified the violent reality of widespread poverty, crisis and decline. There was little escape from the sense of foreboding, that something even more brutal was coming. ‘No future.’

 The idea that young people had ‘no future’ became increasingly common, and back in Australia in 1978, at the age of sixteen, I thought ‘fuck this shit’, fled Wollongong High school, and went on the dole. I was miserable, frustrated and angry. Punk offered me a way of breaking out of what I experienced as the suffocating living death of mainstream society and of connecting with other people who were rebellious. I was pissed off about my own situation, being a high school drop-out, poor, and unemployed, and I was enraged about the state of society. I wanted to revolt, rise up with other people who were sick of the way things were, and change the world. Punk felt powerful, dangerous, and to many of those in power it was considered a serious threat to the status quo.

The Ramones were the first overseas punk band I saw perform live, when they came to Wollongong in 1980. Playing 30 songs in 55 minutes of non-stop, high-energy, fun filled rock, they had those packed into Wollongong Leagues Club frantically pogoing up and down on the spot until exhausted. The Clash was my favourite band, because they combined punk music with serious political messages, while campaigning against war, racism, and Nazis. They toured Australia in 1982 and I used most of my fortnightly dole money on tickets for my then girlfriend Chris and myself. Much of my remaining cash covered our train fares to Sydney to see the band play at the Capitol Theatre. Attending the concert was our Valentine’s Day treat and we loved it. The whole gig was amazing and at the half-way mark an Indigenous activist gave a rousing speech.

As a young punk I was excited about the politicisation of music and youth culture, while being concerned about the contradictions of punk; the degeneration of bands like the Sex Pistols, the scene’s commercialisation, and whether punk would be reduced to a spectacle. A review of the first Clash gig in Sydney described the experience of a local punk friend of mine while he queued to get inside – “On the other side of Campbell Street, the cops are climbing out of their cars. As they emerge, a few sneers and jeers celebrate their arrival. Crossing the road, the cops move into the crowd and single out a few punks. Wrestling them back to the cars, they slam them into the bonnets, restraining them before loading them into the paddy wagons. In their second floor dressing room, oblivious to the scenes outside, the Clash are preparing to take to the stage. As the first of the paddy wagons pulls out, the kids in the back claw at the grill, screaming “Riot! Riot!” Nobody leaves the queue. The driver deliberately slams his brakes hard, sending bodies careering across the back of the van. And then he changes gears and drives off. The rest of the cops pull out as quickly as they’d arrived. As a tactical show of strength, the exercise has been successful.”

Of the other main punk bands around at this time, I especially enjoyed the Dead Kennedys and Crass, who attempted to push the militant politics of punk to their limits. I missed out on seeing the Dead Kennedy’s when they toured in 1983 as I was broke and couldn’t manage to sneak into their gig. But, from the same year, I still have my copy of Crass’s most infamous single ‘How Does It Feel To Be The Mother of 1,000 Dead?’,  described by a Daily Mirror columnist as “the most revolting and unnecessary record I have ever heard” and “a vicious and obscene attack on Margaret Thatcher’s motives for engaging in the Falklands war.” The band sold tens of thousands of the record, produced on their own independent label, making it the number one indie song in the UK. Soon questions about the band were being raised in the British Parliament and a Government MP attempted to prosecute them under the U.K.’s Obscene Publications Act.

Wollongong’s punk scene began in the later part of the 1970s. It grew out of other local alternative anti-establishment subcultures, as well as the influence of the U.K. and U.S. punk scenes. Wollongong punks borrowed aspects of overseas punk’s music, dress, behaviour and attitudes and added to them with their own styles. Our punk inspired bands incorporated local social influences and addressed local issues, mixing with various alternative subcultures more so than in many other places. In Sydney, punks, mods and skinheads tended to stay apart and would often fight each other. Here in Wollongong there weren’t that many of us; so we tended to stick together for protection and solidarity.

At first, punks mostly hung out at the Wollongong Hotel or the Oxford pub – the Pox, as we called it, was the underage pub, where kids could go and get drunk without being hassled about their age. It was also a place where drugs were easily accessible, it had an outlaw culture, and at times they’d be alternative bands performing. Then we began attending ACME music co-op’s monthly gigs, at the Ironworkers’ Club on Crown Street. These were organised by a collective of local alternative musicians, for local bands who had nowhere else to play, and for people who weren’t into the usual pub bands. The same venue was used for ‘Revolution Rock’ gigs and later by the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW) for benefit concerts featuring punk, skinhead, and new wave bands. It was here that local bands like Visitor, Sunday Painters, Nik Nok Nar, Young Home Buyers, the Rezistors and the Alternators got their early gigs and where local punks could hang out together with little fear of being beaten up. The university was another locus of youthful rebellion and Thursday night gigs at the Uni Bar were a popular haunt for punks and new wave music fans.

For most punks the idea of D.I.Y., having your own style, rebelling against and rejecting established conventions and behaviours was the key to being punk. It was a culture for poor people who couldn’t afford to buy a lot of stuff and for those who rejected the glossy mass produced crap that was usually on offer. Most local punks were unemployed or low paid workers and collectively they created their own culture as an assertion of social realism against superficiality. They formed bands, organised gigs, put out records, designed posters, and made their own clothes. Punk was a critique of the dominant culture and consumerism, an expose and subversion of the music industry, and a rejection of commercialism and elitism. You didn’t have to play or sing well, have flash clothes, or expensive equipment, and punk tended to break down the separation of band and audience.

punk 3

Thanks to the cultural empowerment set off by punk the audience one week could form bands and be playing the next week. Punk’s message was – you can try anything – and what you do, what you create, doesn’t have to be done well, or be perfect, just give it a go. This was the message that inspired me to have a go at playing an instrument, to help form the Alternators (the idea with this band being that the members would alternate and we would also alternate what we did in the band), to help write lyrics for songs (such as C.A.P.I.T.A.L.) and deliver some political spoken word to the band’s free form accompaniment. We also helped to organise political benefit gigs with bands like Mutant Death from Sydney, who released a single called Priority One: Pigs Bum, criticising the Federal Governments employment policies. The song used cut-up excerpts from a fiery on-air exchange between Prime Minister Bob Hawke and myself recorded during a special nationwide radio talk-back on youth issues.

At this time, Wollongong was a very masculine society, still steeped in traditionalist blue collar values. As part of the punk revolution, and reflecting the growth and power of contemporary radical feminism, punk challenged traditional women’s roles in popular music. Punk women flouted musical and social conventions, often by being tough, aggressive, disobedient, rude, and by making themselves look ‘slutty’ or ‘ugly’ and confrontational. The first record my girlfriend Chris and I bought together, which we considered our relationship’s theme song, was the anthemic call for liberation written by female punk icon Poly Styrene and performed by her and the X-Ray Spex.

Wollongong has a long history of militant class struggle, which has created a strong sense of community and spawned a high level of social activism focused on the problems of the working poor and the unemployed. So, it’s no surprise that Wollongong’s punk scene was often overtly political and anti-capitalist. Here the individual and collective manifestations of punk were intertwined from the start. As joblessness grew and political struggles around unemployment swept the city, punk’s focus on ‘do it yourself’ rebellion, individual autonomy, and rejection of capitalist consumption, increasingly mixed with more traditional class struggle.

Unemployed people, many of whom were young punks, established their own union, the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW). Some of us had previously been involved in punk graffiti group YAPO (Young and Pissed Off) and for many years one of my YAPO contributions remained sprayed on the walls outside the Wollongong Social Security office – ‘Make BHP Pay!’

YAPO

As a founding member of WOW, I was keen to see the Union take radical action and confront those in power. Happily I wasn’t alone. Soon after being established, WOW members broke into and squatted a house in Market Street directly opposite the Department of Social Security. Along with about twenty other WOW members I made this my home. With community support, the house became the Union’s offices for the next six years.

punk 2

For many years, WOW had a high and fairly positive public profile, despite often being seen as a ‘bunch of punks’. As a union of the unemployed, WOW embraced a wide variety of ‘outlaw’ cultures and Union members included petty criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes and the mentally ill, contributing to our notoriety. The ideology and practice of many of WOW’s most active members was a combination of contemporary street level punk, communist and anarchist culture and philosophy. While campaigning against unemployment and for job creation, WOW’s militant struggles and D.I.Y. projects gave people a sense they were contributing to creating a better society outside the realm of wage-labour. Reflecting punk’s rejection of capitalist exploitation and alienation, some WOW members’ were uninterested in traditional work, seeking other ways to make our labour socially useful, aiming to take control of our own lives and give them alternative purposes and meanings.

punk 4      WOW members with the Union’s Log of Claims outside Federal Parliament in 1983.

To a large extent, punk culture in WOW was a way of separating ourselves from the rest of society, of showing our difference, while at the same time having something, apart from poverty and unemployment, in common with each other. It was a way of demonstrating our rejection of society in a very visual way. Regardless of what we were doing, even if we were just walking down the street, people could see we were anti-establishment. Punk was both a response to, and a dramatisation of, increasing crisis, unemployment and poverty. Punks dressed confrontationally, presenting themselves as anarchic proletarian ‘degenerates’ and outcasts, spectacles of aggression, frustration and anxiety, at war with capitalist culture.

My own punk style, at various times, included wearing an army jacket with red insignia and communist badges, a padlocked chain around my neck, dyed scarlet hair, a razor blade necklace, torn up, blood splattered, local and overseas punk band T-shirts, ripped and dirty stove pipe jeans rolled up to expose cherry red doc marten boots, and large safety pins as earrings, pushed through my ears while I was high on pain killers. Other members of WOW sported similar get-ups, studded leather jackets, ripped and patched op-shop clothing, studded belts and bracelets, pieces of clothing held together with safety pins, suit jackets, flannelette shirts, a range of boots, patches, badges, hair colours, spiked, shaved haircuts and sculpted mohawks. Many, displayed various forms of self-harm, slashed arms, bruises and signs of neglect.

punk 1

WOW’s punk culture was the clearest manifestation of some of its member’s rejection of the traditional role of workers, to do waged work, as they attempted to sabotage themselves as commodities. Many WOW members defined themselves against the conservative sections of the union movement and developed an oppositional culture and alternative value systems. There were debates and discussions within WOW about the impact of punk and the effect it was having on our relationship with the general community. Concern was expressed, within the Union, that punk was an obstacle to developing ‘working class unity and co-operation’, recognising that punk and work refusal were a rejection of labour movement traditions based on ideas of the ‘dignity of labour’. But those in WOW who attempted to curb its punk image found themselves in a minority.

Being involved in punk and being involved in WOW was thrilling. You just had to be around the punk scene and the Union’s members to feel the excitement and energy. Both punk and WOW helped young people feel like they could do all the things they wanted to do, that anything was possible. They both changed the way we felt about ourselves and the world around us. We didn’t have to wait around for things to happen, or just be passive victims, we could fight back, sweep the past aside, and create our own way of life. In response to the prediction of ‘No future’, we constructed our own futures, while hoping that time was on our side. It felt as if we had the power to create radical social change – we just had to use it.

Thirty seven years ago, in 1979, I bought a compilation album of punk and ‘new wave’ songs, which included the Mekons’ song ‘Where Were You?’ On New Year’s Eve 2015/2016, some of my younger punk friends released a CD which includes a wonderful cover version of the same song. As if this wasn’t glorious enough, they also released a video for the song which features the dancing son of some other younger punk friends. The future is now and punks not dead!

Nick Southall

Sources

Callaghan, M., & Southall, N., 1985, WOW Dance, Redback Graphix, Wollongong.

Callaghan, M., & Pusell, S., 1984, Raise the Dole Dance, Redback Graphix, Wollongong.

Clash gig review, 1982, Rock Australia Magazine, Sydney.

Dilemas, 2015, Where were you?, YNTPM Records, https://dilemmasdilemmas.bandcamp.com/releases

Hebdige, D., 2003, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Routledge, London.

Pusell, S., 1983, WOW members with the Union’s Log of Claims, Wollongong.

Pusell, S, & Donarski, C., 1984, What Shall I Wear Tonight?, Wollongong.

Savage, J., 1991, England’s Dreaming; Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, Faber and Faber, London.

 

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Comments
  1. This is not curse of capitalism but one of the many fall outs of capitalism. The enormous stress in human life will fetch a path to give a vent to it. Unfortunately they go waste; yet it leaves its impression in history, which must be rightly analysed to comment how capitalist society is being run by the rulers.

  2. […] Punk: ‘Don’t be told want you want, Don’t be told what you need!’ […]

  3. Victoria Felix says:

    I miss The Alternators (I’m Steve Ellis’s youngest sibling, btw)….

    • revoltsnow says:

      Hi Victoria, yeah the Alternators were very cool. I caught up with Craig Donarski just yesterday and we did some reminiscing. Hope all’s going well with you and the family.

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