Monday, April 28th, 2014

Dunstan Bruce, and why is History so up for Anarcho-punk?

by Lucy Robinson


There seems to be a lot of anarcho-punk knocking around historians. There have been a number of academic conferences and events around the politics and aesthetics of anarcho-punk, increasing numbers of academic publications, online resources, documentaries, homages, and the contemporary legacies of anarcho-punk seem to be woven through today’s Occupy and UnCut activism.  These historical connections are often but not always embodied in the collectively organised band  Crass. This year’s documents released by the National Archives included revelations of the government response to a hoax by Crass who faked and recorded a phone conversation between Thatcher and Reagan about strategy in the Falklands War.  The hoax was momentarily thought to be the work of Argentine security services.  In a context where there was little formal opposition to the Falklands War the hoax raises interesting questions for historians who are concerned with the limits of subcultural, countercultural or wider popular cultural production as a form of resistance.  When the State responded to a countercultural prank as if it was part of their cold war security forces’ stalemate manoeuvres, then academic arguments about the extent to which culture is or isn’t related to ‘real politics’ don’t seem as abstract anymore.  The way that anarcho-punk helps us slip through the cracks of the argument about whether subcultures are or aren’t really political seems to have some real purchase at the moment.

I’m not going to do a full on secondary literature survey here, but I thought I would just note some of the key texts that have been published over the last five or so years.  Just glancing at the places where academic work on anarcho-punk gets published spoke to me of the ways in which we could use it to engage mutually with politics and cultural production: Journal for the Study of Radicalism, Socialist History, and Music & Politics, for example. Ian Glasper’s The Day the Music Died, used oral history testimony to weave together a chronology of the networks and spaces that map the diversity of anarcho-punk as a lived identity. Richard Cross’s work on Crass suggested to me what it was about anarcho-punk that has helped historians to use it to slip between models of political activism and cultural production more easily than other case studies. ‘Anarcho-punk’,  he wrote, ‘lacked the strategic concerns, or the ideological and historical baggage of the formal anarchist movement, but it ignited the interest of tens of thousands of young punks with an anarchism visceral, passionate and angry, and through its insistence that punk rock itself might yet be refashioned into a revolutionary weapon’.(p2)  Mapping networks, and valuing emotional connections as political experiences, aren’t just a methodological imposition on anarcho-punk; they were woven all the way through it.  Although my own Phd research had been informed by George Mckay’s work, Cross wrote the first academic article on anarcho-punk that I included on the Thatcher’s Britain reading list, and his website The Hippies Now Wear Black is an invaluable resource.  As the academic and wider analytical community around anarcho-punk has grown so have the digital connections between documents, posts and articles, so Cross’s article is now reposted on the Kill Your Pet Puppy blog, including critical engagement that has helped students position themselves in wider conversation about what is at stake when we write these types of histories.  It has also allowed them to think about how it is that set piece narratives develop in historical and memory work – in identifying Crass as a starting point and key case study for the history of anarcho-punk, what other stories are flattened out? And what new set piece narratives are being consolidated?  Worley’s work decentred Crass by using Discharge whilst positioning anarcho-punk  as part of a wider historical analysis of how the cold war nuclear threat played out at both a global and local level.  Pete Dale has pushed the focus beyond the retrospective, to begin the next stage of work on the legacies and events triggered by anarcho-punk.  Dale helps us to start working out why there is so much anarcho-punk knocking around. Dale shows us why we all seem to think that ‘anyone can do it’ and why we are now investing in anarcho-punk.

All this work, and particularly my students’ growing engagement with it, has made me wonder what work anarcho-punk has been doing for us as historians – it seems to be helping us get at something that we couldn’t quite get at before. It seems to be getting us beyond some of the traps that we’d got ourselves into when talking, writing and researching about punk.   Despite, or perhaps because, of the ever increasing amount of academic and popular history work being done on punk, we seem to be stuck with the standard hang-ups and largely reiterating a consolidated top down narrative. So, lots of the discussions have been around whether or not punk was ‘authentic’, or ‘art school slumming it’, whether it was ‘genuinely political’ or just a stylistic affinity. And despite the work of some brilliant female participant observer academics like Helen Reddington, you would be forgiven that there were really only about four or five women involved with punk and they spent most of their time wearing fetish wear and fishnet tights. The explicit nature of anarcho-punk’s engagement, with practical acts of solidarity, and theoretical as well as everyday engagement with the politics of sexuality, reproduction, industrial relations and cold war militarism does seem to help us out of the set piece positions beyond statements of style. The question for me is whether we will just turn it into yet another series of set piece narratives in the process.  Sometimes the contradictions of teaching about punk in a university are, well, crass. We’ve trashed punk by artificially attaching rigid theoretical and political approaches to it, rehashing nostalgia led tales of authenticity and refashioning it into some form of traditional icon led history topped off with a new set of Dead White European Men. Now we’ve broken punk, bring on the anarchos and we’ll have a go at them.

These contradictions run all through my teaching about anarcho-punk, but so do the creative possibilities.;  I’ve been using anarcho-punk as a way of teaching the history of cultural politics, with a focus on the importance of form and aesthetics since I started as a Lecturer at Sussex in 2007.  In the masters course The Falklands War, we used it to think about the ways in which resistance to the war squeezed through the cracks of what Stuart Hall described as the ‘Authoritarian Populism’ of Thatcherism.  One student on the first year this course ran, John Simpson, picked up on this theme and ran with it, literally to Dial House.  Reading his term paper on anarcho-punk as a form of historical narrative was one of those teaching moments we dream of –  he taught me the pedagogical possibilities of anarcho-punk and what can happen when students really do DIY.

Here is how John remembers what he got out of the research process and how it relates to his career as a journalist since graduating

“The anarcho-punk reaction to the Falklands War was an opportunity to explore the effect of fringe countercultures on broader society and to capture a period of history as reflected in its art. Music is a valuable primary source for historians, particularly in the form of protest songs, but presents challenges in that it is defined by the audience it reaches and the reception it gets. Punk music was the ultimate in provocative anti-establishment art, and its response to the Falklands was effective. Nowhere was it more evident than in the band Crass, whose song How Does it Feel to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead faced calls in Parliament for a prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act for its attack on Thatcher’s motives for fighting the war. The process of writing such a recent history was much like journalism – interviewing musicians, sourcing sales figures and using blogs and other online sources. Though the relevance of such a movement as small as anarcho-punk will be questioned, I think it stands proves and reproves itself as an important reflection of its time – the literal disharmony represents the fury of a disenfranchised youth in Thatcher’s Britain and the music captures universal outrage at the futility of many of the deaths of soldiers sent to the Falklands. Writing the paper also gave me the opportunity to repeatedly listen to Shipbuilding by Robert Wyatt, which although it isn’t anarcho-punk is probably the best protest song of all time.” John Simpson

Anarcho-punk also figures in my newest course Post-Punk Britain which is co-taught with Chris Warne and is in many ways developing into a sister project to Observing the 80s. It is a third year Special Subject course in which we use anarcho-punk to engage with ideas of space and of the implications of DIY sources for historians. Recent growth in the use of digitisation and social networking as forms of counter history and history from the margins have helped us access zines and writing that up to now might have been almost impossible for undergraduates to locate.  The Special Subject is the course that most of our students choose to develop into their independent dissertation and despite the growth of academic work in the area locating primary sources can still be a problem.   Kill Your Pet Puppy provides many of the sources used in that section of the course, as does Brighton based Schnews  as well as some of the ephemera from Observing the 80s that was donated by Dunstan Bruce from Chumbawamba.  I’m looking forward to adding Tom Vague’s digitised zines and writing from 1979 onwards to our reading on psychogeography next year and Matt Grimes’ forthcoming chapter on how we should relate the zine to the digital.  As Matt Worley pointed out alongside the zines, the production of anarcho-punk records as propaganda, meant that they come with loads of useful texts, graphic design and images to be used as primary evidence. Alongside these sources the anarcho-memory boom also helps students engage with the ways in which memoir and memory have helped to structure the history of anarcho-punk.  Memoirs by both Penny Rimbaud and Steve Ignorant from Crass, and Boff Whalley from Chumbawamba are on the reading list.

One of our students, Jake Flynn’s dissertation  has a particular affinity with this post, so I thought I’d ask him to add his reflections to it.  His subject area is: There is no better time than the present to be a social historian; using anarcho punk as a means to construct a collective,

“My dissertation is mainly going to revolve around the relationship between the individual and the collective, and the way that the collective is constructed by both members of the subculture and by the historian. My justification for the use of anarcho punk as a means to unpack this relationship is that they were a subculture that refused to associate itself with the ‘system’ and resisted being incorporated into the mainstream, both musically and ideologically. Through the use of memoir/autobiography, biography and academic work that has been carried out, I am going to look at not only how anarcho punk established itself as a subculture, but how historians are able to use subcultures as a source of study in order to construct and reconstruct social history. This will all fall into my overarching argument that there is no better time to be a social historian than the present, due to the resources, methodologies and technologies that are now available  to social historians.” Jake Flynn

With these strands of memory, narratives, participant observation, and representation in different types of evidence in mind I couldn’t resist ‘invitingfilm-maker Dunstan Bruce and ex-member of Chumbawamba to be part of the Thatcher’s Britain course.  We pick up on anarcho-punk in our workshop seminar on different forms of resistance, and in the discussion of the Falklands War. Chumbawamba’s song on Clause 28 and the Alton Bill introduces the lecture on family values and feminism.

Dunstan takes over one lecture every year, shows sections of film projects that he is working on and we go through the history of Chumbawamba in a Q&A format. Although we always pick up on the miners’ strike, narratives around ‘selling out’ by signing to a major record label, the surprising experience of having a hit single, and challenging John Prescott at the Brit awards during the dockworkers strike, the format is always pretty loose.  As a film maker and by virtue of ‘having been there’  the discussion slips between life history practice, (analysis of him and his memories as a type of historical evidence), and cultural commentary (analysis by him from the cultural practitioners point of view). I am delighted therefore that Dunstan has written something for this blog, reminding us that there is more at stake than an academic fresh new market, and reflecting on what he gets out of my ‘invitation’ to take part in Thatcher’s Britain.

“Ever since the inception of Chumbawamba in 1982 we always strove to champion the underdog, looking for stories that slipped through the cracks of history that would counterpoint the accepted version of events. Stories that illustrate the challenge, the struggle, the sacrifice and the small victories won against the odds that show that revolt, rebellion and revolution even, are constantly fermenting, and that there was and still is a culture of resistance.

I’m no academic but when Dr Robinson asked me to come and be part of her Thatcher’s Britain course at the University of Sussex, and talk about my own experience of the 80s I jumped at the chance. Here was an opportunity to give my own eye-witness account of the anarcho-punk world I grew up in and then specifically through my experience of the miner’s strike of 84/85 how my own political horizons widened massively and how that impacted on the methods Chumbawamba used to try and influence, firstly, the underground and then later, the mainstream.

It’s not just a one-way process though as the format of the class gives Dr Robinson the opportunity to input ideas and critique my responses which means that each year there is a new revelation or a new idea put forth, or a new interpretation of a collective decision that the band made. It feels like that the impact of what the band did changes in influence each year as we explore different ideas. And of course, each year I remember a different anecdote that illustrates some long forgotten idea which stimulates new thought on how politics and pop can combine effectively or how individual ethics may be compromised for the greater good.

It’s always interesting for me and always challenging; I think the dialogue between eye witnesses and a new generation of interested students is an essential and vital part of us reclaiming history from the accepted norm and helps to give a voice to those whose accounts are largely subsumed in the conventional narrative of accepted history.” – Dunstan Bruce.

UPDATE: Since publishing this blogpost Dunstan has embarked on a new and exciting music project. Whilst I’m not claiming the two facts are relating, Observing the 80s is officially an Interrobang? fan

  1. Monday, April 28th, 2014