Category: Art of Punk

The Decline of Western Civilization

The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming - Mark Vallen. Offset lithograph poster. 11x17. 1980. Commissioned by Penelope Spheeris to announce her documentary film.

"The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming" - Mark Vallen. Offset lithograph poster. 11x17. 1980. Commissioned by Penelope Spheeris to announce her documentary film.

The Decline of Western Civilization came and went and hardly anyone noticed.

I do not mean the slow-motion apocalypse we have all been sleepwalking through for the last couple of decades, I am speaking of the documentary film director Penelope Spheeris unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in 1981.

Never released on DVD, her film about the late 1970s Los Angeles punk movement nevertheless achieved cult status. Having played a small role in the film’s production continues to bring me satisfaction.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is holding a special screening of Spheeris’ documentary on Friday, April 18, 2014.

Spheeris and her crew filmed live performances of the Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear, Germs, and X from 1979 to 1980. The filming took place in venues in and around Hollywood. Punk had literally been banned by most L.A. clubs and music venues for its excesses. L.A. punk was only two years old when Spheeris began filming, but in that time it had become the bête noire of U.S. culture.

I had become an active participant in the original L.A. punk rock movement from its beginning in 1977, attending just about every punk concert held in the city. During that time my sketchbooks were filled with pen and pencil drawings of punk band members, venues, and fans. Portraits of Darby Crash and Lorna Doom of the Germs, Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters, Tomata du Plenty of The Screamers and many others became my subjects.

From 1979 to 1980 I ended up working at Slash magazine as a designer and paste-up artist. I created two cover drawings for the punk tabloid that have since become iconic. It was during this period that I met Penelope Spheeris, since she was working closely with Slash regarding her upcoming film, The Decline of Western Civilization. I wanted to work on the film because I saw it as a way of promulgating and enlarging the punk movement.  I attended some of the riotous concerts she filmed (Catholic Discipline, Fear, Germs, X), and based on my artistic skills and  deep enthusiasm for punk, she hired me to assist in some of the film’s post production tasks.

Screen shot from the closing credits of The Decline of Western Civilization. The final scene offered concert footage of the band Fear, with front man Lee Ving singing, "Let's Have a War."

Screen shot from the closing credits of The Decline of Western Civilization. The final scene offered concert footage of the band Fear, with front man Lee Ving singing, "Let's Have a War."

One such undertaking was creating the subtitles and credits used in the film. Spheeris was concerned that audiences would not be able to make sense of the subversive song lyrics that were shouted and screamed by various performers, so she wanted the song lyrics subtitled during select music performances.

Given that Spheeris was working on a shoestring budget, and there was next to no digital technology being employed in print, filmmaking, and the arts at the time, Letraset press type was used to create the subtitles and closing credits. It was a grueling process, each individual letter seen onscreen was aligned and rubbed down by hand onto paper by yours truly. That text was then filmed by another assistant and ultimately matched to the negative of the concert footage.

"The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming" - Full color offset lithograph movie poster. 27x39.5 inches. Working under the direction of Spheeris, I did the paste-up and layout for the full-color movie poster to her specifications.

"The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming" - Full color offset lithograph movie poster. 27x39.5 inches. Working under the direction of Spheeris, I did the paste-up for the full-color movie poster to her specifications.

I also created graphics used to promote The Decline of Western Civilization. Working under the direction of Spheeris, I did the paste-up for the full-color movie poster to her specifications.

Stills of singers and punks that appeared in the film surrounded a large still of Darby Crash, taken from the movie’s unsettling sequence with the Germs (see frame 10:02).

When it came time to premiere the film, I worked with Spheeris on producing a number of street flyers and posters announcing the event - here I had relative free reign as a designer, provided I used stills from the movie. One such effort was the 11×17 enigmatic placard, The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming, a teaser for the movie that graced telephone poles and walls all across Los Angeles.  The power of these graphics is elevated because Crash committed suicide before the film was released.

The film had its debut in 1980 at a midnight showing at a Hollywood Boulevard theater. Hundreds of leather clad, Mohawk wearing punks turned out, enough to terrify local businesses and put the L.A.P.D. on high alert; it seemed that hundreds of riot control police were on the scene. As I stood across the street from the movie house, some punks began to randomly throw bottles, one crashed against a wall a few inches from my head. As I barreled into the street yelling expletives and seeking a settling of scores, the police moved in with their clubs swinging - yeah, opening night was a real riot. In the aftermath, Police Chief Daryl Gates (1926-2010) sent Spheeris a letter “requesting” that she never show the film again in Los Angeles.

Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is screening The Decline of Western Civilization, and that ain’t no April Fools joke.

Hibakusha - Inferno

August 6th, 2013 marks the 68th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.

Activists continue to protest against nuclear weaponry, and nations continue to build and possess them. I have written about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a number of occasions, and I have created artworks that express my opposition to nuclear weapons. I will continue to do so.

But this post is not about the big picture so much as it is a personal remembrance. Of all the punk music I listened to from late 1970s to the end of the 1980s, one of the songs that left a lasting impression upon me was, Hibakusha. Recorded by a young German band that went by the name of Inferno, the harsh discordant song warned of impending nuclear conflagration. The song came from the group’s second album, which was released in 1986 and also titled Hibakusha, the Japanese word for atom bomb survivor.

Album cover art for the "Hibakusha" album by German punk band, Inferno. 1986. Copyright © Rise & Fall Productions.

Cover art for the "Hibakusha" album by German punk band, Inferno. © Rise & Fall Productions.

The album cover artwork pictured the youthful black-clad punks on a hillside outside of the Bavarian City of Augsburg, from whence they hailed; the cover art however was a manipulated photograph that showed an atomic fireball and mushroom cloud engulfing the city. I somehow lost the album’s German/English lyric sheet included with the record, and my German is not good enough to translate the guttural shouts, shrieks, and screams found in the song, but hey - the medium is the message.

I am haunted by the song to this day. The cacophonous noise included the growl, “Hi-baku-sha… alle!” (Hibakusha… all!), bellowed like a modern day curse. The song finishes with the singer alternately whispering and screeching the word Hibakusha until the aural assault concludes. It was not an aberration that a German punk band would record such a declamatory song - it was a provocation that lived up to the punk ideal of “noise not music.” Of course, the band was not alone in reacting to the possibility of nuclear war; German society as a whole was in an uproar.

Reacting to the deployment of Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles in Warsaw Pact countries, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the West German Parliament approved the deployment of U.S. Pershing II nuclear missiles in Germany on November 22, 1983; the U.S. military began delivering the missiles the next day.

By late 1986 some 108 Pershing II missiles were deployed around Germany at various launching sites - all were aimed at targets in the Soviet Union. Once launched the missiles would reach their targets within 10 minutes. Each missile was equipped with the maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV) system, which allowed the missiles to make course corrections while in flight. Each Pershing II was armed with a single 880 pound W85 thermonuclear nuclear warhead that had an explosive capacity equal to the atomic bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. The heat from a W85 blast would cause fatal burns to people 2.1 miles from the explosion, and lethal doses of radiation would kill 90% of those within 1.1 miles of the blast.

Because of the Pershing II’s pin-point accuracy and close proximity to Moscow, the Soviets viewed the missiles as part of a “first strike” decapitation strategy being employed by President Reagan, who at the time was railing against the Soviet “Evil Empire.” The U.S. and Soviet governments were on the verge of atomic warfare. The Pershing II missiles were only deployed in West Germany, so it should come as no surprise that many Germans were diametrically opposed to their homeland becoming a new Hiroshima.

In Germany massive demonstrations against atomic weaponry began in 1981, when religious activists involved in the German Protestant Church Congress in Hamburg helped to organize a protest against nuclear war; over 300,000 people filled the streets of Hamburg in response to the call. When U.S. President Reagan visited Bonn on June 10, 1982, he was met by over 400,000 protestors in opposition to the atomic arms race. On October 22, 1983, to protest NATO “upgrading” nuclear missiles in Europe, around 1.3 million Germans formed a “human chain” by joining hands from the city of Stuttgart to the city of Ulm.  Also in 1983 over four million Germans signed the “Krefeld Appeal” petition that called for the withdrawal of U.S. atomic weapons from Germany and Europe.

But that was yesterday… where is the present day anti-war movement? The U.S. possesses an estimated 7,650 nuclear warheads and the Obama administration’s 2013 “Nuclear Employment Strategy” still relies upon atomic weaponry to “maintain strategic stability.” Russia, the U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel possess nuclear warheads. Some Western nations suspect that Iran is attempting to join their nuclear bomb club.

Today people are memorializing the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I can still hear Inferno singing, “Hi-baku-sha… alle!”

Iron Lady: Rust In Peace

Mark Twain once wrote of a memorial service, “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying that I approved of it.” The following comments regarding Margaret Thatcher having ascended to the choir invisible are written with that same attitude, a spirit no doubt shared by millions in the U.K. and around the world.

When I heard the news on April 8, 2013 that the “Iron Lady” had passed away at the age of 87, it was like receiving word of a long-time nemesis having given up the ghost. Numerous memories of Thatcher came to mind, none of them pleasant, as I waited for the deluge of corporate media sophistry that would conceal the real legacy of Maggie Thatcher.

This “anti-obituary” will be told through some of the graphics and songs opposing Thatcher that were produced in England during her reign, which is a very wide field indeed. There was The English Beat’s Stand Down Margaret; Robert Wyatt’s version of Shipbuilding (written for him by Elvis Costello); Costello’s own Tramp The Dirt Down; Morrissey’s Margaret On The Guillotine; UB40’s Madam Medusa; the Au Pairs’ Armagh (about the torture of Britain’s Irish political prisoners); The Exploited’s Let’s Start A War Said Maggie One Day; Anti-Pasti’s No Maggie Thatcher and No Government, and many other songs too numerous to mention.

"Margarine the Leaderine" - Gee Vaucher. Collage. 1979. Cover art of Maggie Thatcher for volume two of International Anthem, Vaucher's self-published "nihilist newspaper for the living".

"Margarine the Leaderine" - Gee Vaucher. Collage. 1979. Cover art portrait of Thatcher for Vol. 2 of International Anthem, Vaucher's self-published "nihilist newspaper for the living". The artworks Vaucher created for Crass became an indelible part of the band's legacy.

This piece of writing will primarily focus on two influential punk bands that gave Thatcher and friends a collective headache, Chumbawamba and Crass, but first a few things about Maggie you will likely not hear about in corporate news coverage of her passing.

I remember Thatcher as the Education Secretary for Edward Heath’s Conservative government (1970-1974). She imposed spending cuts on the state education system, eliminating free milk for schoolchildren, an act that earned her the everlasting title of “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”.

Things only got worse when she became Prime Minister on May 4, 1977.

Prime Minister Thatcher introduced austerity to the U.K., implementing savage cuts to social spending and making race-to-the-bottom neo-liberal casino capitalism the new norm.

Working class England was ravaged by her monetarist economic policies as manufacturing and industrial jobs disappeared - a legacy that continues with the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Thatcher took Britain to war over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands… a filthy imperialist escapade that earned her the contempt of Latin America. She mobilized the state to defeat striking British coal miners, and totally decimated the mining communities of northern England’s coal belt. At the House of Commons she attacked the miners by referring to them as “the enemy within”, saying; “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty”.

Thatcher refused to negotiate with Irish Republican prisoners in Britain’s notorious Long Kesh “H-Block” prison camp; interned for committing paramilitary acts in the cause of an independent Ireland, the inmates were waging a hunger strike in 1981 in order to gain political prisoner status. One of the protesters, Bobby Sands, was elected as a member of the British Parliament during the strike. Ultimately, Thatcher let Sands and nine other Irish Republican prisoners starve to death rather than talk to them. IRA recruitment went through the roof, and upwards of 150,000 people attended the funeral of Sands in Belfast, Ireland.

 "You're Already Dead" - Gee Vaucher. Cover art portrait of Thatcher for the 1983 Crass single "You're Already Dead".

"You're Already Dead" - Gee Vaucher. Cover art portrait of Thatcher for the 1983 Crass single "You're Already Dead".

Thatcher supported the apartheid regime of South Africa and in 1987 stated “The ANC is a typical terrorist organization. Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land”.

She struck a solid alliance with Ronald Reagan, agreeing with him that hundreds of U.S. nuclear missiles should be deployed across Europe in order to pressure the Soviet Union. She allowed Reagan to base 160 nuclear cruise missiles in the U.K., 96 at the Greenham Common U.S. Air Force base, and 64 at the RAF station in Molesworth.

Thatcher supported General Pinochet, who staged a fascist coup d’état on September 11, 1973 that drowned Chile in blood. Pinochet’s military dictatorship (1973-1990) murdered tens of thousands of Chileans, still more were kidnapped, tortured, and forced into exile. As late as 1999, even after his 1998 arrest on charges of torture and murder, Thatcher thanked Pinochet for “bringing democracy to Chile“. There is more of course, but it is outside the scope of this blog to list each and every one of Thatcher’s misdeeds.

Of all the music produced during the Thatcher years, the most caustic and vitriolic attacks against Maggie came from punk rock; in fact it is hard to imagine the genre at all without the Iron Lady. From the Sex Pistols to the Clash, from Discharge to Conflict, punk bands may not have mentioned her by name, but they laid waste to Thatcherism and the ruling class it served. As the perfect icon of reactionary state power, Maggie gave punk something to flail and wail against.

Outside of England, Chumbawamba and Crass were hardly known (save for small circles of miscreants like myself), a fact that remains unaltered by time; both were extremely influential in their own way, making tremendous impact on punk and dissident culture in the U.K. Crass formed in 1977 after the group’s founder, Steve Ignorant, saw a performance of the Clash. Chumbawamba formed some years later in 1982, in large part influenced by the artistic/political stance of Crass.

In those early years the two groups spearheaded the politicized subsect of punk that came to be called “peace-punk” or “anarcho-punk” for spotlighting anti-war, anti-authoritarian, and anti-capitalist themes. Crass came to my attention in 1979 when they sent a review copy of their first 45 single, Reality Asylum/Shaved Women, to L.A.’s Slash magazine, where I worked at the time. The challenging slab of vinyl was unlike anything us Angelenos had ever heard before, and so Slash published a full article about the band in its last issue… which was most likely the first major article written about the group in a U.S. publication.

Crass released a string of albums and singles from 1978 to 1984 before they disbanded. It was difficult listening on the whole, even some of my punk friends in the early 80s would not listen to them, but I always found the group more than intriguing. To me, one of their most inspired recordings was their third album, Penis Envy (1981), an indictment of male dominance, conformity, and war, all delivered with the band’s typical melodic chaos.

Another recommended recording would be their single, Nagasaki Nightmare (1981). Few works in the annals of music history have attempted to deal with truly horrifying real world events, but this particular recording succeeded like few others. It is their most remarkable effort. It should be remembered that despite all of their outrageousness, their brutal sound, and their total lack of radio airplay - Crass nevertheless consistently reached the top of the Indie Charts.

"XXX!" - Gee Vaucher. Designed as back cover art XX

"Welcome Home" - Gee Vaucher. 1982. Artwork designed as a foldout poster for the single "How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead?"

In 1982 Crass responded to the “Falkland Islands” war with a scorching aural attack titled, How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead?

The song was a slap in the face to Thatcher and the British ruling class over their war against Argentina on the issue of Falkland/Malvinas Islands sovereignty.

The Guerra de las Malvinas, began in April of 1982 when Argentina sent its military to secure the Islands, which Argentinians call the Malvinas and have always claimed as their territory (they continue to do so).

The British government under Thatcher deployed Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to make the Argentinians surrender the islands to the British Empire, having “claimed” the islands in 1833. The Malvinas are some 300 miles from the coast of Argentina, while they are around 8,000 miles from the U.K.

The uneven war lasted 73 days, ending June 14, 1982 with Argentina surrendering the territory to the U.K. The conflict took the lives of 649 Argentine soldiers, 3 Falkland Islanders, and 255 British troops… just shy of the 1,000 alluded to in the Crass song title. How Does It Feel was recorded in London in August of 1982, the single came shrouded in a black paper sleeve printed with a thousand tiny white graveyard crosses representing the war dead. The single included a folding black and white poster artwork of a horribly wounded U.K. bomber pilot, his face mutilated from combat. Under a banner reading “Welcome Home”, the vet hugged his gleeful blonde wife on the airfield tarmac. The song itself was frenetic, filled with atonal guitar noise and anguished shouted lyrics;

“How does it feel to be the mother of a thousand death? Young boys rest now, cold graves in cold earth. How does it feel to be the mother of a thousand death? Sunken eyes, lost now; empty sockets in futile death.”

Conservative MP Timothy Eggar defended Thatcher and the war, telling the press that the Crass single was “a vicious, scurrilous attack on the Prime Minister and the government”. Eggar condemned the record for being “obscene”, and Crass responded by saying the true obscenity was the war. The Tory party made an effort to prosecute Crass under the U.K.’s “Obscene Publications Act”, but the attempt failed once the Attorney-General ruled the single did not breach the law.

"Gotcha!" - Gee Vaucher. Designed as back cover art for the single release, xxx.

"Gotcha!" - Gee Vaucher. Designed as the back cover art for the 1983 single release "Sheep Farming In The Falklands".

As a follow-up, Crass released the single, Sheep Farming in the Falklands, in April of 1983. The single’s flipside was titled Gotcha! The cover art featured the otherwise black and white Crass logo, this time done up in the colors of the Union Jack.

The flipside jacket was a photograph of a World War I veteran whose face had been mutilated by bomb splinters - the word GOTHCHA! floating above his face in capital letters.

The image sans text, came from the classic anti-war book, Krieg dem Krieg (”War against War”) by the German artist Ernst Friedrich (1894-1967). Friedrich first published his book in 1924. A diatribe against those who start wars, his book combined appalling photos of war wounded soldiers with devastating text. Needless to say Friedrich ran afoul of the Nazis and fled Germany in 1933. I have prepared an essay on Friedrich, which you can expect in the near future.

The song, Sheep Farming, begins with a short snippet of an actual news broadcast recounting the attempted government prosecution of Crass over the aforementioned How Does It Feel. The song then launches into feverish pandemonium - screeched and squealed - first sneeringly condemning the imperial war (”Friggin in the riggin another imperialist farce, another page of British history to wipe the national arse!”), and then, dripping with bitter sarcasm, offering a jingoistic narrative as told through the voice of an imaginary war supporter (”Onward Thatcher’s soldiers, it’s your job to fight…”). Laced with expletives, the song ends with all musical structure falling apart, like a great battlement blasted to bits by artillery fire. The final words of the composition, aimed directly at Thatcher, likely comprise the most insulting language ever committed to vinyl.

"Birds Put the Turd in Custard" - Gee Vaucher. xxx xxxxxx xxxx

"Birds Put the Turd in Custard" - Gee Vaucher. 1983. Artwork designed as a foldout poster and lyric sheet for the single "Sheep Farming In The Falklands/Gotcha!"

The single’s inserted mini-poster and lyric sheet bears an artwork of Thatcher, wide-eyed and smiling, holding what appears to be an enormous phallus sculpted from excrement. Circling the repulsive portrait are the words, “Birds put the turd in custard but who put the shit in no. 10?”

The title of Gotcha! referred to the May 4, 1982 edition of The Sun, which originally offered the revolting headline of “Gotcha” when reporting on the sinking of the Argentine Navy cruiser, the ARA General Belgrano, by a British Royal Navy submarine, the HMS Conqueror. The Conqueror struck the Belgrano outside of the war zone with two torpedoes, killing 323 crew members. The infamous Sun account gloated that “Our lads”, “had the Argies on their knees” after “torpedoes from our super nuclear sub Conqueror” had blasted the cruiser.

Gotcha! had the same song structure as Sheep Farming, alternating between earnest denunciation and sardonic pro-war narrative. Crass took the war propaganda of The Sun and inverted it, exposing the national chauvinism, racism, and warmongering of the state and its sycophantic media with the song’s opening chorus;

“Gotcha! - you Argie bastard, Gotcha! - you fucking Spik, Gotcha! - you Latin bender, Gotcha! - you Dago prick… We gotcha, gotcha, gotcha - gotcha, gotcha, gotcha - we gotcha, gotcha, gotcha - Our boys have got it right!”

Sounding like the heat of battle from the opening to final chords, the relentlessly unpleasant song creates the impression of a soldier, indeed, an entire nation, gone mad with war lust: “This is Thatcher’s Britain built on national pride, built on national heritage, and the bodies of those who died to wave the flag on the Falklands, to protect us from the Irish hordes, to support the rich in their difficult task of protecting themselves from the poor”. Listening to the song, one can imagine the eyes of war enthusiasts bulging as their spittle flies into your face while shouting: “Yes, this is Thatcher’s Britain, so let’s increase the strength of the police. Let’s expand the military, let’s all arm for peace. Let’s suppress all opposition, let’s keep the people down. Let’s resurrect past histories for the glory of the crown.”

Chumbawamba achieved “commercial success” with their 1997 “dance hit” Tubthumping, but it is a lesser work that gives little indication of the full depth and breadth of what the band was capable of.

In 1982 I first heard Chumbawamba on a double record compilation put together by Crass and released on their Crass Records label that same year. Titled, Bullshit Detector Vol 2. (after a lyric from the Clash’s song, Garageland), the compilation consisted of 38 tracks from the same number of British punk bands. Chumbawamba’s cut Three Years Later was easily forgotten, a grating ditty with the repetitive lyrics, “You can’t do nothing if you haven’t got money”. Still, there was something to the lurching mechanical-like beat and jangly guitar noise… a portent of things to come. I still posses my copy of Bullshit Detector for its anti-Monarchist cover design and illustration, a consummate example of punk aesthetics.

"Dig This" - Clifford Harper. Linoleum cut. Cover art for the 1985 benefit album, "Dig This: A Tribute to the Great Strike".

"Dig This" - Clifford Harper. Linoleum cut. Cover art for the 1985 benefit album, "Dig This: A Tribute to the Great Strike".

I really took notice of Chumbawamba in 1985 when they contributed two songs, The Police Have Been Wonderful and Fitzwilliam, to Dig This: A Tribute to the Great Strike. Dedicated to the Miners Strike of 1984-1985, the album was a fund-raiser for the striking miners and all money raised from the sale of the record went to the “Miners Solidarity Fund”. The LP featured cuts by Poison Girls, Mekons, The Ex, Omega Tribe, Leningrad Sandwich, Men They Couldn’t Hang, Akimbo, and Steve Lake.

Chumbawamba’s contributions to Dig This were a far cry from their earlier hard-core punk sound. The Police Have Been Wonderful had a mild techno sound achieved in the studio through repetitive looping tape. Over the hypnotic soundtrack the group sampled news broadcasts of Thatcher lauding the police for the way they handled the strike, “Most of us who have watched the scenes on television have only the highest praise for the police” - an outrageous statement in itself since the entire country was watching TV news reports of brutal police actions taken in crushing the miner’s strike.

Fitzwilliam was a hauntingly beautiful ballad about the people of the mining town of Fitzwilliam braving violence from police and scabs, and enduring government and media lies throughout the duration of the strike. In the middle of the song (lyrics here) a poetic juxtaposition is made between the working women of the mining town and Prime Minister Thatcher: “Woman and woman in opposing extremes, between man-made heaven and popular dreams, between twisted detachment and learning to breathe - one locks the prison, one sets herself free”.

The Mineworkers strike lasted a year but was eventually defeated by repressive legislation and Thatcher’s use of raw police violence and brutality. After the strike collapsed, Thatcher closed 25 coal mines in 1985, and 97 more would be closed by 1992. In a report published in the Guardian after Thatcher’s death, one miner, a veteran of the 1984 strike, put it this way: “It was class war. The people above didn’t want us to win. The people with money didn’t want us to win. If we had won, they wouldn’t be able to get away with what they are doing now, cutting benefits for disabled people and things like that. The unions would have stopped them. But we lost.”

"Never Mind The Ballots" - Artist unknown. Graphic from the inside cover art of Chumbawamba's 1987 album, "Never Mind The Ballots Here's The Rest Of Your Life".

"Never Mind The Ballots" - Artist unknown. Graphic from the inside cover art of Chumbawamba's 1987 album, "Never Mind The Ballots Here's The Rest Of Your Life".

By the time of their debut 1986 album, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, Chumbawamba had already moved beyond hard-core punk to embrace pop, folk, a cappella, and “world music” forms - though they were certainly capable of launching a raucous sound barrage at a moments notice (listen to the cut Invasion as proof - lyrics here). Despite the lack of stereotypical punk dissonance and cacophony, Starving Children embodied the anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist punk moral code; it was a concept album that offered a scornfully derisive view of corporate control of culture.

Other high-points in Chumbawamba’s recording career include their second album, Never Mind the Ballots… Here’s The Rest of Your Life. Recorded in 1987, this brilliant concept album exposed the con-game of elections under capitalism: “Said the Party to the adman, ‘We’ll conjure up a gimmick - the way to lead an ass is with a carrot and a stick. Dig down for minorities, promise them concessions, ride in one their backs, and then teach them all a lesson”. (It was the album young people in the U.S. should have listened to prior to the 2008 presidential elections.) Also high on the list would be the group’s third album, English Rebel Songs: 1381-1984. This extraordinary recording presented traditional protest songs from throughout England’s history; from the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, to songs of the Diggers (1649), and Chartists (1840s).

"Here's The Rest Of Your Life" - Artist unknown. Graphic from Chumbawamba's "Never Mind The Ballots" album.

"Here's The Rest Of Your Life" - Artist unknown. Graphic from Chumbawamba's "Never Mind The Ballots" album.

After 30 years of writing, recording, performing, and agitating, Chumbawamba called it quits in July of 2012, but ever forward thinking - they had planned something special for the future.

“In anticipation of the great day” they wrote and recorded a seven track EP in 2005 titled In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher (you can see them performing one of the songs, So Long, So Long, in this 2009 concert).

Over the years the band encouraged fans to pre-order the EP for £5 (around $7.60 U.S.), giving their word that the recording would be released on the day of Thatcher’s death. Years after they recorded the EP, Thatcher died on April 8, 2013. The band mailed out the Memoriam CD that same day. Chumbawamba posted a statement that read:

“She’s not been gone more than a few hours, and already the national media have cranked into gear and begun the blandly respectful eulogies – at their most critical they seem to be only able to say: ‘She polarized opinion … what’s certain is how much of an impact she made on Britain … etc etc.’ Twitter set off at a pace with a thousand ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ messages only to be followed by a slew of bleeding heart liberals bemoaning the fact that people were daring to celebrate someone’s death.

Pah! Let’s make it clear: This is a cause to celebrate, to party, to stamp the dirt down. Tomorrow we can carry on shouting and writing and working and singing and striking against the successive governments that have so clearly followed Thatcher’s Slash & Burn policies, none more so than the present lot. But for now, we can have a drink and a dance and propose a toast to the demise of someone who blighted so many people’s lives for so long. If we must show a little reverence and decorum at this time, then so be it. Our deepest sympathies go out to the families of all Margaret Thatcher’s victims.”

The wealthy and the powerful of this world mourn Thatcher’s death. Prior to her April 18, 2013 funeral, Prime Minister David Cameron told BBC Radio 4, “We are all Thatcherites now“. Offering a timid rebuke to the remark, Cameron’s Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Party co-conspirator Nick Clegg squeaked, “I certainly wouldn’t call myself a Thatcherite. I am a liberal. She wasn’t a liberal.” Ah yes… a liberal. In an official statement, President Obama said “The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the class divide, street parties celebrating Thatcher’s death took place throughout England. The largest occurred in London’s Trafalgar Square, where upwards of 3,000 people drank Champagne and sang “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead” from the classic Judy Garland The Wizard of Oz movie. The song became a sensation with anti-Thatcherites, who succeeded in making the song the number one hit on U.K. iTunes “top ten” category. Hundreds turned their backs on Thatcher’s funeral procession as it made its way to St. Paul’s Cathedral, while in the former coal mining village of Goldthorpe, South Yorkshire (its coal mine closed in 1994 due to Thatcher’s policies), residents gathered in the village square to burn Maggie in effigy.

The following is pertinent, so please bear with me. Just prior to Maggie’s death I viewed the classic American film-noir, Ruthless. Starring Zachary Scott, the 1948 flick told the story of a predatory capitalist’s rise to power, and how he mercilessly crushed all those in the way of his acquiring endless profits… going so far as to abandon the woman who loved him, Martha Burnside (played by Diana Lynn).

Scott’s character of Horace Vendig met his match in the equally venal oligarch, Buck Mansfield (played by the incomparable Sydney Greenstreet). Without giving away the end, a character who witnessed Vendig’s downfall, said of him: “He wasn’t a man… he was a way of life”. Likewise, consider this essay regarding Thatcher, not as an attack on an individual, but as a critique of “a way of life”.

Thatcherism is alive and well, but so is the resistance.

Hollywood Blvd. - Punk Rules

"Hollywood Blvd - Punk Rules" - Mark Vallen 1980 © Pen & ink on paper. 9 1/2" x 11"

"Hollywood Blvd - Punk Rules" - Mark Vallen 1980 © Pen & ink on paper. 9 1/2" x 11"

This is but one of the drawings I made depicting the world-renowned Hollywood Boulevard in the summer of 1980. My pen & ink urban landscape described the celebrated street as I had observed it in the 80s, before it was transformed by waves of gentrification that began in the mid-1990s. My artwork portrayed an elderly resident waiting for a bus along with a young green-haired punk. Note my inclusion of the legendary Hollywood “Walk of Fame” gold stars on the sidewalk. The tourists never knew what hit them.

View a larger image of Hollywood Blvd. - Punk Rules

Santa Monica Review

Pat Bag - Vallen. Linoleum block print. 1979. ©

Pat Bag - Vallen. Linoleum block print. 1979/2010. ©

The Santa Monica Review is one of the premier literary arts journals in the United States. Published twice a year since 1988 by Santa Monica College in the seaside city of Santa Monica, California, the journal prints works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as occasional morsels of poetry.

Writings published by the journal typically highlight the fine efforts of Southern California and Pacific Rim writers. An avid reader and a proponent of literacy, I have long supported the Santa Monica Review, and as a result I have over the years contributed several of my artworks to be printed as journal covers (Fall 1999, Spring 2005, and Spring 2007).

The Santa Monica Review is flourishing, and its Spring 2012 edition has just been issued.

I am delighted to announce that the cover art for the Spring edition is another of my contributions, this time a portrait I created in 1979 of one of L.A.’s most notorious punk rockers.

Cover art for the Spring 2012 edition of the Santa Monica Review. Artwork by Mark Vallen ©

Spring 2012 edition of the Santa Monica Review. Artwork by Mark Vallen ©

Don’t let that scare you off though, the Spring issue is filled with human drama, tragedy, absurdity, and wit as provided by seventeen of the most talented writers this side of the Rocky Mountains.

You can purchase your copy directly from the Santa Monica Review website.

As for my cover art… it is my linoleum block portrait of Pat Bag, the sinister-looking bass player for The Bags (one of the original late 1970s punk rock bands in Los Angeles), that I wrote about on this web log back in March, 2011.

In all probability my print is the single solitary linoleum cut portrait of a punk rocker to have been created as punk was actually unfolding in the late 70s. My original hand-pulled linoleum cut prints were pulled in a limited edition of 12 hand-signed and numbered prints - you can purchase my print here.

Gidget Goes to Hell at MOCA

"Sue Tissue" - Mark Vallen. Pencil on paper. 1979. © Published as a Slash magazine cover, '79.

"Sue Tissue" - Mark Vallen. Pencil on paper. 1979. © Published as a Slash magazine cover, '79.

Strange Notes and Nervous Breakdowns is a screening of punk films at the Geffen Contemporary MOCA of Los Angeles; part of the museum’s Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 exhibition.

The film program explores the late 70s L.A. punk scene through films and videos like Gidget Goes to Hell, featuring the Suburban Lawns.

Director, producer, and cinematographer Jonathan Demme shot the short film of the Suburban Lawns performing their offbeat number Gidget Goes to Hell for a 1980 broadcast of Saturday Night Live.

Demme went on to direct films such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Philadelphia (1993), while the Suburban Lawns - like most of L.A.’s great punk bands - slipped into America’s memory hole.

I saw the Suburban Lawns perform numerous times and finally met them in 1979 while working at Slash magazine. They dropped into Slash’s shabby West Hollywood office for an interview with editor Claude Bessy, where it was decided that I would create a portrait of the band’s lead singer Sue Tissue for an upcoming issue of Slash. Bessy played sommelier and brought out a god-awful bottle of cheap white wine to celebrate, passing out little white paper cups for everyone to drink from. When it came time to raise our cups in a toast, I noticed there was a generously proportioned dead moth floating in my wine. This rather summed up the period.

Strange Notes and Nervous Breakdowns also includes a screening of Never Mind the Sex Pistols, Here’s the Bullocks, a documentary that chronicles L.A.’s punk movement with live performance footage of the Avengers, Screamers, Weirdos, Dead Boys, and Talking Heads playing at late 70s venues like the Masque, Starwood, and the Whisky. The free film screenings take place on Thursday, January 12, at 7 p.m. If wine is offered, take my advice and do not drink from the little white paper cups.

Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 runs until February 13, 2012.

U.X.A. - Come Back To Haunt You

"Come Back To Haunt You" - Mark Vallen. 1980. Cover art for the last issue of Slash magazine, summer of 1980.

"Come Back To Haunt You" - Mark Vallen (c). Cover art for the last issue of Slash magazine, summer of 1980.

Slash magazine was the premiere publication of the Los Angeles punk movement. First published on May Day of 1977, the monthly periodical assaulted conformity until its final edition in the Summer of 1980.

Come Back To Haunt You, the drawing I created as the cover art for that very last issue, now appears as the graphic avatar for the 2011 .mp3 re-release of a long out-of-print classic punk album - Illusions Of Grandeur.

Posh Boy Music, the same independent label that released the album in 1980, has reissued the landmark recording and made it available on iTunes and Amazon.

Robbie Fields, the founder of Posh Boy Music, renamed the release “U.X.A. - Come Back To Haunt You” after the title of my Slash artwork. Fields explains the move:

“Why the new look for a classic album? Posh Boy entrusted the U.X.A. legacy to an Italian record company who decided in their wisdom to release vinyl and compact disc versions which favored the 1980 pre-release version of the album and copied from a vinyl record rather than from master tape or digital source master. Meanwhile, lead singer DeDe Troit has distanced herself from this past chapter of her life, in particular the song ‘Death From Above‘.

By removing her photographic portrait from the front cover, we are furthering this process of creating ‘distance’. At the same time we have the wonderful opportunity of giving new life to an iconic illustration from 1980, ‘Come Back to Haunt You‘, the celebrated Mark Vallen’s interpretation of the words of Chief Seattle, which originally graced the cover of the final issue of Slash magazine and inspired multiple generations to sport Mohawk haircuts.”

"U.X.A. Come Back To Haunt You - Mark Vallen. 2011. Cover art for the re-release of the classic 1980 punk album by the United Experiments of America.

"U.X.A. Come Back To Haunt You" - Vallen (c). Cover art for the 2011 re-release of the classic 1980 punk album by United Experiments of America.

In the vanguard of early West Coast punk, U.X.A. was ubiquitous in San Francisco and Los Angeles during the late 1970s. The full-throated atonal wailing, dark poetic lyrics, and anti-fashion panache of lead singer DeDe Troit, made her a lighting rod for the underground scene.

The band itself, whose name stood for “United Experiments of America”, churned out pure rough and tumble punk, hard, fast, abrasive, yet strangely melodic.

To underscore the historic significance of U.X.A, a photo of DeDe Troit taken by photographer Bruce Conner was included in the Geffen/MOCA exhibit, Under the Big Black Sun: Art in California 1974-1981.

At the time I considered U.X.A.’s 1980 album to be one of the preeminent punk recordings of the period, an opinion I have yet to change. All these years later their songs remain stuck in my head like splinters of shrapnel. “Tragedies” is a dadaesque contemplation of the human condition; “The festival of the oppressed, celebrates and never rests, quiver like a man-made heart, looking for the reason why. He was from New York City, post war experiment, he was a killer, he was a television set - oh oh tragedies tragedies - oh oh tragedies tragedies”. DeDe Troit’s caterwauling is bolstered by soaring guitar, a baseline reminiscent of a heart attack, and drumming evocative of bones being broken. The dirge-like “Death from Above” excoriates religious dogma, and the song’s back-up vocals sound like the ethereal moaning of ghosts, until Troit’s repeated and increasingly frantic shouts of “No Savior! Death from Above!” cause the wraiths to flee.

I could go on but I think you get the idea, this was not lighthearted music by any stretch of the imagination. One could say this collection of miscreant noise is frozen in time, like some prehistoric insect caught in amber. But while U.X.A. and other punk bands from the period revealed something despairing about life in the late 20th century, the cries generally went unheeded. No doubt that had as much to do with punk’s fatalistic limitations as it did punk having run afoul of Ronald Reagan’s “new morning” in America. All the same, I recall the photo of a leering DeDe Troit clutching a parody newspaper with a headline that read, “World Governments Resign As Banks Fail“. The image, taken in front of San Francisco’s City Hall by photographer Ruby Ray in 1978, brought to light punk’s prophetic side. I was always certain the music was ahead of its time; it is not hard to take measure of the world and conclude that many have caught up with punk’s angry aesthetics, making the re-release of U.X.A’s work strikingly appropriate.

Robbie Fields was a fellow denizen in the late 1970s L.A. punk scene. While we knew of one another and crossed paths at the innumerable punk concerts then taking place in and around L.A., we were not to form a bond until decades later. Born in Santa Monica, California in 1952 but raised in London, England, Fields found himself back in L.A. just as punk took off. He became a doorman at the city’s first punk club, the notorious Masque, an illegal nightclub located in a dank Hollywood basement that was run by Brendan Mullen (1949-2009); in fact it was Mullen who nicknamed Fields, “Posh Boy”. Before long Fields founded Posh Boy Records in 1978, an independent label that handled music from bands like the Adolescents, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, F-Word, Negative Trend, The Nuns, Social Distortion, and dozens of others. As luck would have it, Fields and I began to correspond by e-mail in early 2004. This year he suggested that my Slash magazine drawing be used as the graphic avatar for his U.X.A. re-release, an offer I jumped at solely out of my keenness for the band.

In its 3 years of existence, Slash magazine introduced Americans to U.K. bands like the Damned, Clash, Sex Pistols, Crass, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and scores of California bands, U.X.A. among them. Slash editor Claude Bessy also had a great enthusiasm for reggae music, and Slash was possibly the first West Coast publication to write about Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Steel Pulse, and other reggae greats. Conveying the antipathy Slash had for the corporate music industry, Bessy wrote in the debut issue, “May the punks set this rat-infested industry on fire. It sure could use a little brightness!”

A bit of that fiery brightness is captured on U.X.A. - Come Back to Haunt You.

Peace Press Graphics 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change

I am pleased to announce that a number of my early graphic works have been included in the museum exhibition, Peace Press Graphics 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change, organized by the University Art Museum at California State University Long Beach (CSULB). The exhibit is part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945 - 1980, the largest collaborative art project in Southern California history. I have six artworks in the exhibition, and four additional graphic works in the exhibit catalog, but in this article I am going to highlight a Peace Press published work of mine  not included in the show. In weeks to come I will upload more of my Peace Press images and bring their histories to light in a detailed essay.

Peace Press Graphics is an important showing of over 100 historic posters and flyers published by Peace Press, a now defunct Los Angeles collective that ran a professional print shop serving the local and national needs of radical and progressive political groups and organizations. The published works on display, culled from the archives of Peace Press as well as from the collection of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG), address a wide range of topics - civil liberties and human rights, worker’s issues, feminism, environmental concerns, anti-nuclear and anti-war protests, and much more.

A number of posters in the show epitomize the psychedelic aesthetics of the late 1960s, works from the likes of Robert Crumb and Skip Williamson, exemplars of the 60s hippie counter-culture. Other posters embody the political militancy of the day, like Chicano artist Rupert Garcia’s Save Our Sister, a poster commissioned in 1972 by the Los Angeles Committee to Free Angela Davis. Taken as a whole the assortment of works on display form an accurate visual record of dissident cultural and political forces working within the U.S. from 1967 to 1987.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I created a number of drawings and flyers as a direct result of my involvement in the early punk rock movement of Los Angeles. In true punk spirit my flyers were meant to provoke, and I generally produced and distributed them anonymously. One such example is the flyer I designed for the L.A. chapter of Rock Against Racism (RAR) in 1980, a rare leaflet that was published by Peace Press.

Rock Against Racism. Punk concert flyer designed by Mark Vallen in 1980 for a Los Angeles Rock Against Racism concert featuring punk bands D.O.A., Silencers, and the Gears.

Concert flyer designed by Mark Vallen in 1980 for a Los Angeles Rock Against Racism concert featuring punk bands D.O.A., Silencers, and the Gears.

My Rock Against Racism flyer announced a free concert in L.A.’s MacArthur Park, held October 27, 1980 at the band shell area of the commons. The leaflet touted the appearance of the rough and tumble Canadian punk band, D.O.A., who were quite big at the time and remain one of my favorite punk bands. In the context of the museum exhibit the significance of this particular flyer is twofold. While Peace Press printed a number of posters and flyers for the likes of Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, and others associated with the counter-culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, my RAR flyer is most likely the only punk graphic ever to be printed by Peace Press; the flyer also gives evidence of the progressive political side to L.A. punk. I invite readers to download and print a free copy of the historic flyer (.pdf format).

My flyer was created before computers were used to generate graphic art. Utilizing the dread inducing “ransom note” visual language, the text, replete with intentional misspellings, was mostly produced by cutting letters out of magazines and newspapers with a razor blade, then gluing them down to a sheet of paper. The rest of the copy was created using the now archaic “transfer type” once so prevalent in the advertising industry of the day. News photographs were interspersed with the irregular lettering to construct an incendiary narrative. The photo at the bottom edge of the flyer shows American Nazis wearing crash helmets, waving a U.S. flag, and carrying a banner that brazenly praises Hitler; the timely photo being ripped from a then current newspaper report on a neo-Nazi rally in a U.S. city. Soaring above the scene, two RAR fighter jets unleash bombs and automatic cannon fire upon the gaggle of jackbooted fascists.

Founded in London, England in 1976, the launching of Rock Against Racism was concurrent to the emergence of punk rock in Britain, a movement that would explode upon the world scene in 1977 with the outrages of the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and the Clash. In the mid to late 70s social conditions deteriorated in the U.K., giving rise to openly fascist political organizations like the National Front; during this period neo-Nazi skinhead gangs unleashed hundreds of violent attacks against South Asian and Black immigrants across England.

As the National Front and neo-Nazi skinheads sowed mayhem throughout England, famed guitarist Eric Clapton added fuel to the fire at a U.K. performance in Birmingham held on Aug. 5, 1976. Clapton launched a harangue from the stage on the dangers of the U.K. becoming a “black colony.” He ranted in part; “This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. We are a white country. I don’t want f*****g wogs living next to me with their standards (….) Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!” Needless to say the celebrated guitarist lost a substantial amount of his fan base over his racist diatribe. A month before Clapton’s concert a Sikh teenager named Gurdip Singh Chaggar had been murdered by a mob of white racists, the chairman of the National Front, John Kingsley Read, responded to the killing during a National Front meeting with the words, “One down, a million to go.”

Immediately after Clapton’s repugnant concert shenanigans, photographer Red Saunders and designer Roger Huddle wrote a seething criticism that was published in the New Musical Express, an article I recall reading when it was first published. The irate Saunders and Huddle berated Clapton, “Half of your music is black. You’re a good musician, but where would you be without the blues and R’n'B?” They went on to proclaim, “We want to organize a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in music. We urge support for Rock Against Racism.” Soon after the letter’s publication in August 1976, Rock Against Racism (RAR) was founded in the U.K. as an actual political/cultural organization that staged concert events. Tellingly, it was not rock’s superstars and corporate mainstream acts that collaborated with RAR, but rather the rebellious and lesser known ska, reggae, and punk groups that had nothing to lose.

On April 30, 1978, Rock Against Racism staged its Carnival Against The Nazis, a gigantic music festival presented in London’s Victoria Park. The performers included the Clash (click here to see some amazing footage of the band at the RAR concert), X-Ray Spex, the Tom Robinson Band (the world’s first openly Gay rock band), Steel Pulse, and Aswad . The groups played before an enthusiastic multiracial crowd of some 100,000 people. The program for the event proclaimed; “We want rebel music, street music. Music that breaks down people’s fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is - Rock against racism.” Soon after the Carnival Against The Nazis, RAR chapters began to proliferate.

To my knowledge, the Los Angeles chapter of Rock Against Racism did not operate for very long, but the group’s efforts undoubtedly contributed to the city’s history, as well as to the cultural and political activism carried out in the U.S. during the ultra-conservative Reagan years. I am pleased to take credit for this once anonymous flyer, an artifact from a bygone rebel social movement, and happy to reveal that it was published by Peace Press. With a bit of luck, it will help inspire future troublemaking. One can only hope.

Peace Press Graphics 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change, runs from September 10 to December 11, 2011 at the University Art Museum, California State University Long Beach. Visit the museum website to learn more about the exhibition.

Nagasaki Nightmare

“They’re always there high in the skies
Pretty as a picture in the generals’ eyes
They’ve done it once, and they’ll do it again
They’ll shower us all in their deadly rain.”
- Nagasaki Nightmare. Crass.

August 6, 2011 marks the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. On August 6, 1945, the U.S. detonated an Atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima at 8:15 in the morning. Three days later a second bomb was exploded over the city of Nagasaki at 11:02 in the morning. The Americans called their bombs “Little Boy” (Hiroshima) and “Fat Man” (Nagasaki); the Japanese simply called them Pikadon, meaning “Flash-boom.”

A young mother with her baby engulfed in atomic fire. Detail from the Hiroshima Panels by Iri and Toshi Maruki

A young mother with her baby engulfed in atomic fire. Detail from the Hiroshima Panels by Iri and Toshi Maruki.

In the early 1990’s I put together on online gallery of art created by Hibakusha (Japanese for “Atom Bomb Survivor”).

The artworks that comprise the gallery were placed in my hands by Japanese peace activists in 1984 through the good graces of now deceased Quaker peace activist Barbara Reynolds. The two illustrations to this article can also be found in the gallery; the artworks are by Iri and Toshi Maruki, who created the Hiroshima panels, a massive mural project with the atomic bombings of Japan as their subject.

After looking at the hibakusha paintings, artworks created by those who survived the first, and hopefully last atomic holocaust, there is little else that can be said about this most unhappy anniversary. It is shameful that governments still posses, or seek to posses, such weapons of mass murder and terror; it is doubly appalling that the people of Japan must now suffer through the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown disaster. Even as the tragic events continue to unfold in Japan, President Obama presses ahead with his irresponsible plans to construct additional nuclear power plants in the United States. He has set aside $36 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of new nuclear power-plants in the U.S., and has also allocated $185 billion to “maintain and modernize” the U.S. atomic stockpile.

In 1979, Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), organized a series of “No Nukes” concerts in New York. Their concert at Manhattan’s Battery Park City landfill drew over 200,000 people. Musicians Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Gil Scott-Heron, Tom Petty, and many other notables were involved. No Nukes, a film that documented the concert series, was released in 1980. On August 7, 2011, MUSE will hold a benefit reunion concert of sorts, starring many of the veteran musicians from the ‘79 concerts, but also including new performers like Rage Against the Machine, Tom Morello, and Jason Mraz. The concert, to be held at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California, will also be shown in a live video broadcast.

"A deranged young woman wandering aimlessly in the atomic wasteland." Detail from the Hiroshima Panels by Iri and Toshi Maruki.

"A deranged young woman wandering aimlessly in the atomic wasteland." Detail from the panels by Iri and Toshi Maruki.

Despite the undeniable contributions made by the aforementioned entertainers, it is the U.K. anarchist punk band Crass that set the standard - at least for this writer - for having created the most profound of all anti-atomic bomb songs, Nagasaki Nightmare.

The song was released just a year after the No Nukes concerts, but the piece of music was worlds apart in terms of aesthetics and attitude. In fact to this day most listeners will probably regard Crass’ opus as nothing more than irritating noise, however, as an avant-garde arrangement I regard it as perfect in every respect.

Having been a participant in the early L.A. punk movement, I still contend that punk from the late 1970s and early 1980s was on equal par to the best protest music of the 1960s, or any other period for that matter, and Crass’ doleful ode to the horrors of nuclear war and the bloodlust of national leaders is a perfect example of the punk aesthetic.

Crass released Nagasaki Nightmare as their second 45 single in August of 1980, and despite receiving absolutely no radio airplay, the record quickly reached the number one spot on the U.K. indie singles chart. The record was entirely self-produced and distributed by the band, and packaged in a marvelous wraparound sleeve with artwork by Gee Vaucher. The single also included a small silk-screen cloth patch printed with the Japanese kanji for “anti-war”, it is a patch I proudly wore pinned to my leather jacket for many years - I still have it in my possession.

Nagasaki Nightmare begins with the gentle sound of a traditional Japanese shakuhachi flute made of bamboo. The composition ends with the sound of a Japanese Buddhist Temple Gong being gently rung over and over; in the context of the overall piece of music it is the saddest sound imaginable, a bidding of farewell to tens of thousands who perished in atomic fire. What takes place between the opening and closing of the arrangement almost defies description; layers of spoken word and frenzied, panic-stricken vocals - a melodic high range female voice spouting poetic lyrics juxtaposed against a raspy male voice barking the refrain “Nagasaki Nightmare”; a relentless primitive base guitar line reminiscent of the patter of falling rain - only here I speak of radioactive black rain.

Midpoint in the song everything falls apart, the vocals become incoherent babbling; the utterances of a deranged young woman wandering aimlessly in the atomic wasteland, the frenetic guitar riffs and crashing drums evoking the flash of a nuclear explosion. Somehow the band managed to capture all of the terror of atomic warfare, as much as anyone could in a piece of music. To my knowledge no one has done this before or since - no one has even tried.

You can hear Nagasaki Nightmare on YouTube, where the lyrics can also be read. The song is also presented on the group’s “Best Before” compilation album, obtainable on iTunes.