Like many others, I got my first ear punch of punk music in a dingy basement bar in the Skid Row of my town. (It was at The Dungeon in Oshawa, Ont. — RIP.) A dirty, snarling, three-piece band showering eyebrow-melting screeches over a sea of sweaty, moshing bodies was the energetic release I never knew I needed. For many, the power of the vibe allows for a glossing over of the inferior sound and relatively shitty lyrics. The Devotchkas are still a guilty pleasure.
But as I have grown, so have my tastes. Only a handful of punk artists have made the cut into adulthood because they stood the test of time; they had a valuable message to deliver. I still like music delivered in a highly corrosive package, but nowadays it’s more interesting to dissect words and follow the flames to their ignition points.
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The roots of the DC punk music scene
One such ignition point is Washington DC, circa 1970, which has been iconic for birthing acts like Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Fugazi, The Faith and The Nation of Ulysses, to name a few. Many bands from the “harDCore” scene represented rebellion and radical dissent of the social and political status quo. “It’s basically a new nation underground for the dispossessed youth colony. It’s all about smashing the old edifice,” vocalist Ian Svenonius of Ulysses said in an interview with the now defunct Mumblage in 1993, explaining their band’s intent.
All sounds bombastically romantic, right? Well what most (including myself) have failed to consider is the fact that this dominant narrative, which acknowledges the why — creative, angry teen punks shaking a fist at injustice — completely overlooks the where and how.
One infamous site is Washington’s Wilson Center. Before it housed renowned hardcore shows, the building was a sanctuary and organization headquarters for Latin-American immigrants, political exiles and activists. You know, survivors of actual fascism.
Where punks saw a basement where they could make noise in a safe space — in close proximity to (yet sheltered from) real and true danger in the surrounding community — Latin immigrants saw a space for organizing and rebuilding their community. They founded mutual assistance programs, employment centres and free clinics. They organized rallies and protests, counterculture community newspapers and formed art spaces for workshops, theatre and music. While punks shouted anti-government anthems, proclaiming freedom, liberty and revolution, members of the Latin community were actually working towards all these values, channeling their anger into productive work.
The irony of self-imposed marginalization in the face of actual marginalization should be scathingly embarrassing for some of these acts in retrospect. The Latin community at the Wilson Center were putting their blood, sweat, tears and money where white punk rockers’ mouths were.
This space encroachment is not unique to Washington. Waves of punk scenes developed in minority spaces like community centers, theatre, cafes and galleries, in primarily Black, brown and migrant communities. Scenes across Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York would play in Filipino and Chinese restaurants, Japanese-American cafés, Native-American centres, and Central American social clubs. All of these urban community spaces were commandeered by predominantly white youth from more affluent areas.
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The early punk scene in Canada
The scene in Canada was a bit different. For many beloved punk bands — The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Cramps — Toronto provided important venues, like the basement of the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication at 15 Duncan Street (Crash’n’Burn.) But sociologist Alan O’Connor notes, in his article “Local Scenes and Dangerous Crossroads: Punk and Theories of Cultural Hybridity”, one of the biggest choke holds on the Canadian punk scene was the lack of rundown areas that could provide venues for punk shows or low-cost housing for punks.
Back in 1977, Shades Magazine’s Andy Payne wrote a piece about Hamilton band Teenage Head. He said a big drawback to following them, “was avoiding their Hamilton disciples, who entertained themselves between sets by messing up Toronto gays. Unfortunately, some guy wearing an eyepatch and a black leather jacket decided I was queer and punched me in the face.” Following bands like this meant you could be indirectly supporting homophobia and other problematic social values.
However in Vancouver, with bands like D.O.A. and The Subhumans, there was a much more dynamic scene. Joey Keithley of D.O.A. said, “The original gigs in Vancouver weren’t in bars, they were all at halls. People would rent community centres, so that opened up a much wider swath of people, which made it much less like a bar scene and much more like a community scene.”
A lack of inclusivity and cultural convergence may be a crucial difference between the punk scenes that grew up in bars in major cities versus those that developed in rural community centres. The creative collaborations that came out of spaces of cultural collision gave birth to some pretty amazing music, with many bands delivering messages of unity and resistance.
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Punk has come a long way
While the punk scene was glorified for its supposed celebration of diversity, I remember my first confrontation with toxic bro punk energy in the early 2000s at an AFI/Dillinger Escape Plan show. I was punched in the face (like directly in the face, not a stray elbow) for sliding into the forcefield of math metal dudes in front of the stage, and was molested while crowd-surfing. It was par for the course really, but it felt a bit targeted. I still love DEP, but I hate anyone who likes them.
I struggled to find female-led punk bands I liked. What I came to realize was that the lack of female visibility stemmed from systemic issues. Women on the road faced obstacles like sexual harassment, violence, rape (and victim smearing) and had to contend with exhaustingly annoying objectification from promoters, venue staff and, if blessed with some attention, the media. Many beloved female punk artists were relegated to the pages of dude-y guitar magazines. Brody Dale’s titties on the cover of Blunt magazine still makes me twitch. Women have had to go to war to claim their space in the punk scene, and it makes me love them even harder.
DC’s Bad Brains melded punk with reggae, including elements of funk, hip hop, heavy metal and soul. Their hybrid structure challenged racial stereotypes, as well as the idea that punk was white music. They inspired the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, Fugazi, Beastie Boys, The Roots and The Smashing Pumpkins. Acts like this aligned anti-capitalist white angst with the strife of the diaspora. Despite all this, Bad Brains was ruined for me forever when I realized they had some incendiary anti-gay lyrics.
Black Flag, who played the Wilson Center in 1984, championed anti-authority and non-conformism, exploring themes of poverty and social isolation even further once Henry Rollins joined the band as lead singer in ‘81. Their song “White Minority”, is a satire of white nationalists and the violent white supremacists who attended punk concerts, like our aforementioned eye-patched friend. The song is often frequently mistaken for a racist rant, although the fact that it was sung by Ron Reynes, who is Puerto Rican, with drummer Julio Roberto Valverde Valencia (AKA Robo), a Colombian-American, should have made the irony obvious. Guitarist Greg Ginn said of the anthem, “It doesn’t preach, but it makes people think.”
In Canada, Propagandhi formed in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba in 1986. They are known for their lengthy song explanations and speeches during live performances, using their platform to inspire critical thinking. Their second album, Less Talk, More Rock, (ironically named because of the lengthy speeches between songs,) caused controversy because of the band’s pro-feminism and LGBTQ+ stance which chaffed the sexist, homophobic Canadian West Coast punks. They pair their lyrical and vocal stances against human rights violations, sexism, racism, nationalism, homophobia, imperialism, capitalism and organized religion with hands-on activism, championing left wing and anarchist causes.
Punk music captures the spirit of rebellion. It can add gasoline to the fire in the bellies of the dispossessed. But to be truly anthemic (and relevant,) it needs to be the voice of the collective, spanning across cultures, races, genders, etc. While white punk music glamorized destruction, communities like the Latin community at Wilson Center were planting grassroots in the ashes, channeling anger into productive rebuilding.
The collision of these two forces — destruction and creation — is true revolution.
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